September 02, 2003
The joy we share as we tarry there

So as promised, here's my report on the Lutheran church I visited, which goes by the slightly kinky name of the Lutheran Church of the Master. It's part of the ELCA, the largest a most liberal of the American Lutheran organizations. I went there because I was impressed with some things I saw on the website, so even though it's not the closest Lutheran church to me, I decided to try it first.

The church is fairly small, with practically no grounds; it's on Santa Monica Boulevard, a big thoroughfare that doubles as State Route 2, so everything's been built up around it. The building is in classic church style, with a vaulted ceiling and small stained-glass windows, but is otherwise quite simple and unadorned. There were a few dozen people there when I visited. There weren't as many old people as at St. Bede's, but the average age did seem older than me. And Allen Brill was right about the ethnic diversity, or lack thereof -- everyone I looked at was white.

What the website didn't tell me was that the church does not presently have a minister. The one featured on the site retired in July, so a visiting pastor led the service. The church council is looking for a new one, but naturally, they want to choose carefully, so apparently they don't really expect to get one installed until the New Year.

That was discouraging, but even so, I really liked the service. I may well have gone to a Lutheran service sometime in my childhood, but I don't remember, so it was basically new to me. Somewhat to my surprise, I thnk what I liked best was the music, and how it was used. Church music has to walk a fine line; it must be simple enough that a whole congregation can sing along, but it shouldn't slip into childishness, which unfortunately a lot of church songs do. The hymns we sang were pretty easy for me to follow, and in English, but they had some interesting medieval intervals sprinkled around.

But what struck me most was how there was no clear boundary between the spoken and sung parts of the liturgy. At Christian Assembly there's a big block of music followed by a big block of speaking; other services seem to be mostly speech interrupted by a few hymns. But here, parts of the liturgy that would have been spoken in the Episcopal service, like call-and-response prayers, were sung, in a sort of Gregorian chant style. I thought it was really cool, kind of a throwback to a premodern era before music was quarantined from ordinary life and reserved for trained professionals.

The only trouble with it was that, as a newcomer, I found it really hard to follow! In contrast to the Episcopal churches I've been where the liturgy and the sheet music were all printed in sequence, here I had to juggle the liturgy and two different hymn books. After a while, I gave up on doing it perfectly.

Another thing that surprised me was the liturgy's joyous mood. Christian Assembly is kind of aggressively happy, to the point where some people seem like they must be on something, and I figured a mainline church would seem dour by comparision. And certainly this was more restrained. But it was hard to miss the upbeat feel of this service; after a short ritual confession that we'd failed to be as good and giving as we could be, there followed a long celebration of forgiveness and hope.

The shared worship seemed to be the main point, because the sermon itself was pretty short. (This was true at St. Bede's too.) I actually didn't like it that much; despite the brevity, it was rather disorganized and overstuffed with cultural references. But it did have an interesting theme, and one great line. The pastor contrasted seeing the surface reality with seeing the underlying truth; at one point, he warned against being "so busy picking the blackberries you don't notice the bush is on fire with the glory of God."

After the service I didn't even have time to look lost before being accosted by friendly people. In a church that size, a new face hardly goes unnoticed, though once again somebody was sure he'd seen me there before. (Is the Holy Spirit messing with me here?) I joined them for coffee and donuts in a tiny courtyard out back, where a councilman filled me in on the situation with the pastor. He said they'd even been open to having a gay minister, but he was a little concerned about how the older members would feel about it. The most likely prospect right now is married and straight, however, so it didn't look like it would be an issue. I'd noticed the church was openly gay-friendly; one of the Bible readers at the service certainly seemed gay to me. (It was a little odd hearing Deuteronomy read so ... swishily.) But I suppose whatever a church's official position, this issue always creates some friction.

Everyone was very warm and friendly, and I left feeling good about the whole thing. I could do worse than to go there, but it seems like it would be hard to make a decision before the permanent minister arrives. A good minister is one of the things I'm looking for in a church. One thing that I realized when I was thinking of leaving CA, is that while I rarely though anything negative about its pastor, I rarely think of him at all. It would be nice to have a pastor who makes more of an impression.

I also don't really know where the church is theologically. I mean, obviously since they're gay-friendly they're pretty liberal, but that can mean different things. I don't want a church that just conforms to the culture around it; I want one that will challenge me, and challenge itself. It's a little hard to tell that after just one visit, though. I guess church shopping is more about ruling things out, than ruling them in.

Posted by Camassia at September 02, 2003 07:04 PM | TrackBack

Some Episcopal churches do that kind of call-and-response chanting; I grew up singing a few standard Psalms or prayers (Jubilate Deo and Benedictus Es, Domine come to mind - I still always find myself singing the Jubilate Deo in my head whenever I have occasion to read it).

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on September 2, 2003 09:24 PM

That's the one thing I miss from my Lutheran days, the music. Unitarians try (and a lot of my favorite hymns are actually in the UU hymnal, though what they did to the lyrics of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" doesn't bear speaking of), but it's not the same.

(What's scary is that I haven't been to a Lutheran service in ten years, and I still remember most of the first two settings of the liturgy in the green book.)


Posted by: Castiron on September 3, 2003 07:04 AM

Does my heart good to hear your reaction to the liturgy. It's one of the first things I loved about the Lutheran church. You're right about the hymnal juggling though. Some Lutherans print the whole thing out. Some others use those neat little inserts with the week's propers printed on them. That makes it easier too.

Posted by: Allen Brill on September 4, 2003 03:32 PM
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