Sunday, June 26, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: Wallace Church of God

(Part three in an ongoing series.)

Today's visit took us to the outskirts of Wallace, where an unassuming building set off from the road might go unnoticed, if not for the big sign out front letting you know that you're passing one of our local churches.

The Wallace Church of God is led by a husband-wife team of Bob and Lisa Sharp, both of whom came over to greet us before the service began. Three or four other folks were kind enough to do the same. That counts for a lot. Anyone familiar with Catholic culture knows that you can slip in and out of a Catholic service and never have anyone talk to you. It's not that Catholics are standoffish; it's just that the Mass is the entire point of being there, and fellowship is secondary. 

There was even a little alcove as you entered the building where you could make yourself some coffee. Friendly and casual are clearly two points of emphasis at this church.

I'd say there were around 30 people in attendance today, a mix of young and old. The sanctuary space itself was open, bright, and welcoming, with plenty of windows to let in the natural light. A wooden cross was centered against a panel of bricks to set off the staging area. 

I've been to enough non-liturgical worship services to be familiar with the video screens that display the words of the songs for everyone to follow along with. They're the hymnals of the electronic age. But they're new enough to my daughter that once she figured out their purpose, she turned to me and said, "It's like holy karaoke!" That comment made my day.

The service began with a half-dozen or so worship songs, led by a cantor at the pulpit and an organist and pianist whose instruments flanked the staging area. Afterward, Pastor Bob, looking relaxed in a polo shirt and jeans -- which I mention only because I'm so accustomed to high-church vestments -- led the congregation in prayer before moving to the pulpit. His sermon centered on a passage from the Second Book of Kings, in which Elisha prays for protection against the Syrians, and Elisha's servant is granted a vision of the spiritual protection on the surrounding mountain, filled with horses and chariots of fire. Elisha then prays that his enemies be struck blind, and God obliges. 

The point Pastor Bob made about the passage is that while we see the world through our physical eyes, we often fail to see it through our spiritual eyes. Lacking the proper perspective, he said, makes it more difficult to place our faith and trust in God -- and as a result, we do our own thing rather than conform our wills to that of the Father. 

I don't disagree, inasmuch as many of us these days accept our material reality because we can see it but doubt our spiritual existence because it's invisible to our physical beings. Embracing one but ignoring the other leaves us incomplete and empty, as we end up filling our spiritual needs with an inferior material substitute of some kind. The God-shaped hole in our hearts that Pascal once spoke of yearns to be filled. Better to fill it with something uplifting and spirit-affirming. On that the pastor and I agree, even if we think of the spiritual realm in different ways. 

Out of curiosity, I grabbed a pamphlet on my way out that outlines the Church of God's beliefs. Not surprisingly, justification, sanctification, and reliance on "the verbal inspiration of the Bible" are mentioned early and often. But along with other expected things like the embrace of the nuclear family, personal modesty and temperance, the sanctity of life, and good citizenship, I noted an emphasis on being good stewards of the earth, practicing charity, checking social injustices, and treating people equally and with dignity and respect. There's not a whole lot I disagree with in those principles, save for the emphasis on national allegiance. But I know where the idea of obedience to civil authority comes from in the New Testament (primarily Romans 13, if you're interested), so I won't knock them for that. It's a legitimate stance for a devout Christian to take.

Overall, today's visit was a pleasant experience. Pastor Bob was a good preacher who mixed some light anecdotal humor into his sermon. He was serious about his message while not taking himself too seriously. For someone like me who has a tendency to be too earnest about things, that was a nice surprise. 

No one came up for his altar call at the end, which made me feel kind of bad for him, but maybe he's used to that. Maybe his church members feel comfortable where they are in their spiritual lives. If so, then perhaps that's testament to Pastor Bob's skills as a shepherd to his flock. I certainly wish him and his congregation well. 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Tantruming of America

I know that no one is required to show up for every argument, but the rank ignorance of American civics and the deranged shrieking hysteria surrounding the recent Supreme Court ruling merits at least a passing comment. 

Let's get a couple of things straight: The court did not ban abortion, and it's not on a personal vendetta to destroy women. The court simply returned the right to regulate abortion to the states, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do in a federal republic. The Tenth Amendment exists for a reason. 

Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a bastion of women's rights and judicial liberalism if ever there was one, said that Roe went too far. Instead of addressing the most extreme state limits on abortion rights that existed at the time, the court overstepped its bounds and essentially wiped every state abortion law off the books in one fell swoop, inventing an implied national right to abortion in the Constitution as it did so. 

The problem is, the argument behind Roe was constitutionally weak, and therefore always susceptible to being overturned. Ginsburg, who argued that "measured motions" work better than "doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped," knew this to be true. States were already in the process of liberalizing their abortion laws when Roe was decided in 1973, but Ginsburg said that the ruling "invited no dialogue with legislators" and instead "seemed entirely to remove the ball from the legislators' court," while in Europe the abortion question was rightly being decided by legislators elected by the people and by public referendums, not by unelected judges. 

And that's how we ended up where we are today: An activist court used a flimsy legal argument to decide national abortion law by judicial fiat. This is always what happens when judges think they're legislators in robes, making law from the bench rather than simply interpreting and ruling on the laws already on the books.

Judges need to leave the legislating to the legislators. Abortion-rights activists have had half a century to push their lawmakers to draft legislation, either on a state or national level, which would have ended this debate that comes up in every election cycle. They also could have worked on a constitutional amendment. Instead, they relied on an instance of judicial overreach and now act shocked when one of their own judicial heroes warned them this day might come.

But let's also be candid here and admit that the reaction to the overturning of Roe speaks volumes about the degree to which raw emotion and uninformed opinion drive so much of our society today. If people think the answer to the overturning of a bad ruling is to kill Supreme Court justices, for example, then it's little wonder the same group of people also tend to argue so passionately for gun control: Because they lack the ability to control their own emotional impulses, they don't trust themselves not to go on a murderous rampage, so they assume everyone else would be the same. It's classic projection. And what we're seeing in reaction to the ruling is far more a call for actual insurrection than anything that happened at the 1/6 Capitol demonstration.

And let's be frank here. Look at the reactions in this compilation video, as in any many other videos floating around online. (This one is so raw, in fact, that YouTube has age-restricted it; you have to click through to YT to watch it.) If you're this lacking in impulse control, then it's no wonder you want abortion on demand. There is a correlation.

So forgive me if I lack sympathy when your position is "agree with me or I'll destroy you." Or, if you're a Supreme Court justice, "If you don't let me kill my baby, I'll kill you." Stop acting like a petulant child. I refuse to engage with you if you're incapable of acting like more than a 3-year-old who was told she can't have cookies for dinner. Grow up.

All you do is alienate people when you act like this. See, wanting the choice to abort is one thing, as is keeping abortion "safe, legal, and rare." But shouting your abortion like it's something to be proud of, akin to some kind of holy sacrament, only tells me how unhinged your mindset has become. It makes it really hard to warm up to you when you either want me dead or you cram your politics down my throat and demand my constant active vocal praise for every single thing you do and say. 

It also says a lot about how little these people value human life, given that they are, after all, engaging in screaming meltdowns over the fact that they think they no longer have the right to kill unborn humans. (Of course, they're not human until they're wanted, conveniently. Just as saying you're the opposite sex magically makes you the opposite sex now, saying you want the baby means that it magically ceases to be a "clump of cells" or a "product of conception.")

And let's not ignore that a lot of these people clamoring for what is essentially abortion on demand are also the ones who praise exposing little kids to sexualized drag-queen performances and actually get outraged when schoolteachers can no longer push sex-ed and gender ideology on Kindergartners

They always push too far and become their own worst enemies, alienating people who might otherwise find common ground with them. Just like this entire month, when we're practically ordered to bow down to the rainbow mafia and show our unwavering fealty to one of the seven deadly sins, pride. What started out as a sincere push for equal rights has metastasized into "praise me, you bigot," with the power of every major institution of power behind it. If you ever wondered what primitive Christian zealotry looked like, with its inquisitions, its attacks on science and logic, and its rigid puritanical intolerance, you're seeing it now, just with different dogmas being pushed and different holy symbols being foisted on you.   

Let's not also forget that if your state bans abortion as a result of the reversal of Roe, you can still drive to another state to terminate your pregnancy. And you can always petition your own state's legislators to change the laws. Do something instead of complaining, if you don't like the way things are.

And I know this comes as a surprise to a lot of people, but the primary purpose of sexual activity is reproduction. You are engaging in an act that carries the potential to create new life, because that's precisely what it's designed to do. If you don't want the responsibility of becoming a parent, it's exceedingly easy to avoid that result. You either abstain or you use contraception, which is cheap and easily available. It's not the government's fault if you get pregnant, or its responsibility to clean up your mess. Take responsibility for the consequences of your own actions. 

Look, I don't care if you want to terminate your pregnancy. That's on you. And at a minimum, I agree that there need to be allowances for pregnancies arising from nonconsensual sexual activity, and for cases of severe fetal abnormalities and a significant heath risk to the mother. But those abortions account for a small fraction of the whole. Most are performed as a method of birth control, which is unnecessary and irresponsible. But if you don't like what's happened with Roe, stop blaming a court for doing its job in throwing out a bad ruling. Stop screaming about it on social media. And get your legislators to do something about it. 

Sorry to say, you might even have to get a male legislator involved. But since men can get pregnant and no one can define what a woman is, that shouldn't be a problem, right?

And also, if you argued in favor of mask and vaccine mandates at any point over the past two years, then you have abandoned any moral right to now go around proclaiming "my body, my choice." Sorry, you can't have it both ways. 

Can we please stop acting like emotionally stunted children for a change? 

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: United Church of Christ, Congregational, Wallace

(Part two in an ongoing series.)

If you're driving past the unassuming-looking brick building across the street from the Wallace Post Office, you wouldn't know it's a church -- unless you happened to notice the skinny steeple peeking out from between two tall evergreens on the west side. 

"Come as you are," proclaims the sign outside the United Church of Christ, Congregational. And Rev. Alice Ling appears to take it upon herself to make sure that slogan means something, preaching a message of inclusiveness that strives to meet people where they are. 

The UCC has had a presence in Wallace since 1898, but the current building was erected in 1957 -- and it looks quaintly like a product of its time inside, with its abundance of bare blonde wood and its dramatically vaulted ceiling. Behind the altar is a massive stained-glass window depicting a nature scene filled with trees, rocks, water, and mountains, not unlike the lovely everyday view around Wallace itself. Rays beam out from behind a mountain in the background, suggesting, no doubt, both the light of the sun and that of the Son.

The inside, in fact, reminds me a lot of the Catholic church I grew up in, back in Michigan. It came from the same era, having been built in 1959. The only giveaways that my daughter and I weren't sitting in a Catholic church were the lack of a crucifix and kneelers -- and the fact that there's a female minister. Rev. Ling was there to greet us as we walked in, and we took our place among the 10 or so congregants who came out to worship today. Rev. Ling said a busy day brings out maybe 20 people. It's a sleepy little church community, as are many around here these days.

The view from in front of the altar.
During the service itself, Rev. Ling led us in a few songs and responsorial prayers, but the central focus, as in most Protestant gatherings, was on the sermon. Those accustomed to a formal church service would welcome the altar, the pews, Rev. Ling's vestments, the communal recitation of the Lord's Prayer, and so on. But if, like me, you were raised Catholic, the absence of communion would be notable. The service was far more formal than, say, a typical evangelical gathering, but looser and more personable than the average Catholic Mass. Semi-liturgical is an adequate description of how the UCC appears to roll, I think. 

Once known as the denomination Barack Obama belonged to, the UCC has a decidedly leftward theological tilt. A quick glance at the UCC's official website leaves you with no doubt about which side of the culture wars the denomination falls on. There is much talk of social justice and the need to do something about firearms violence. There is advocacy for reparations. A UCC leader speaks out in support of abortion rights. A call for “justice for trans and nonbinary people” stands front and center on the news page.

Rev. Ling herself, however, didn't strike me as somebody you'd think of as a strident activist, but rather as someone who gently advocates for those on the outside looking in. Some of her advocacy is so subtle you probably wouldn't notice, as in the way she sidesteps using masculine pronouns for the Supreme Being. Some of it is more overt, as in her sermon today that riffed on the passage in Galatians in which Paul tells us that "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." She related a couple of anecdotes to illustrate the work to be done in living out the challenge of this verse, both in relation to some gay folks who had once notably seated themselves as close to the church door as possible, fearful of retribution and poised to make a quick exist if necessary, and to a man who told Rev. Ling, at a funeral she was conducting, that he didn't "believe" in female ministers.

The irony is that people who oppose women in ministry usually take their cue from Paul himself. Likewise, if gay folks feel uncomfortable in church, you can mostly point to Paul. I could go on at length about my personal distaste for Paul, whose caustic language and long self-proclaimed lists of people who will get locked out of heaven are things I always found at odds with the comparative open-heartedness that Christ himself preached. After all, quoting Paul's inclusive-sounding "neither Jew nor Gentile" passage means you have to reconcile it with his blunt condemnations of homosexuality and his assertion that it was disgraceful for women to speak in church. And yet the paradox of Paul is that we can't just ignore or dismiss him, because if not for his ministry to the Gentiles, it's very likely that no one today would remember an itinerant preacher who spoke of the imminent Kingdom of God two millennia ago. This, to me, has always been the double-edged sword of Christianity -- separating Jesus from Paul to make the teachings of Christ relevant to us today.

And I think that's what churches that lean into an emphasis on "inclusion" attempt to do. The Quakers I sat with for a couple of years did that. Likewise for the Episcopal church, at least in America. They try to move people away from focusing on the hidebound rigidity of dogmatic rules and regulations to open their hearts to charity and compassion toward "the least of these." But I think the bigger challenge for all churches, both liberal and conservative ones, is to resist the temptation to become an echo chamber for contemporary political tribalism. How do you authentically follow in Christ's footsteps without sounding indistinguishable from wokeism on one hand, or Trumpism on the other? If your church becomes a mere reflection of everyday politics, I don't see how people will feel compelled to get up early on Sundays and head out to worship. It seems the church would have to set itself apart from the culture in some way to remain relevant. After all, for mainline Protestant churches that try to be all things to all people and reflect shifting cultural mores, attendance is in freefall

There's a fine line to be walked, and I think Rev. Ling -- at least based on my spending one Sunday morning with her -- tries her best to do so. But Rev. Ling is retiring soon, and that will leave the tiny congregation with a choice to make about the future. UCC membership has declined from more than 2 million at its peak to less than 825,000 today, following general trends in American church membership, and such steep drops are felt more acutely in small towns like Wallace, where the local Methodist church building is leased out to a nondenominational prayer group and the Episcopal church is now a museum. Far more people in Wallace visit the UCC's social hall when it serves as the local voting center than attend services in the actual church sanctuary. So it could well be that the UCC building will suffer a similar fate to its church neighbors when Rev. Ling steps down.     

This side of the church, probably better known to most locals,
is where Wallace residents enter to vote.
In a pretty conservative part of the country, a UCC church may face even more of a struggle to hang on than if it were located in a more progressive community. I can only hope for the congregation that those rays of light on the stained-glass window serve as a symbol of hope for their future.  

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, Wallace

(Part one in an ongoing series.)

"Dad, do you think we could go to church one of these Sundays? I kinda miss doing that with you."

That was my daughter speaking to me about a week ago. When we first moved to Idaho, I was still trying to find my place within the Catholic church I was raised in. The whole family went with me to Mass on Sundays for a while, and since then my kiddo has gone with me irregularly to various Catholic and Orthodox churches in North Idaho and the Spokane area.  

I've pretty much moved on from any attachment I once had to traditional forms of Christianity, other than to see them as a metaphorical expression of how to connect with the divine. You may recall that my previous entry had to do with how I'm OK with the idea that truth is a pathless land. That hasn't changed. But on the rare occasion I do get an itch to go to Mass, I usually attend St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, about 50 miles from our front door out in Post Falls. That church is part of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which still offers the pre-Vatican II-style Latin Mass. The modern vernacular Mass I was raised in isn't really my thing. That's a long story for another time, and one that I've touched on previously in this blog. But since I don't want to take out a loan to fill up my gas tank for a 100-mile round trip to Post Falls, I thought it would be a fun thing for the kid and me to visit some churches not far from home, right here in the Silver Valley, where we live. 

The Silver Valley, so named because of its rich silver deposits that once made it one of the leading mining centers in the world, is a narrow stretch of land that cuts across the northern part of Idaho. There are roughly 10 small towns here, depending on where you draw the valley's boundaries, and among those towns there are probably around a couple of dozen churches. 

The first church I attended after we moved here, and one of only a handful that I've visited, is St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Wallace. So that's where I decided we'd start our tour.

As chance would have it, St. Al's was today celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ordination of its assigned priest, Fr. Jerome Montez. Fr. Jerome takes care of all three Catholic churches in the Valley, as well as attending to two Catholic faith communities outside the valley, in St. Maries and Harrison to the south of us. He's a busy guy, to say the least. But he also seems of good cheer, as during the celebratory luncheon following Mass he was walking around and greeting folks by name and chatting with them as if he'd long been familiar with their lives. That's the way it goes in a small town. 

St. Al's, dating to 1894, is a Wallace landmark. Sitting on a small lot near the east end of town in an otherwise residential area, save for a tiny playground across the street, the old brick structure has been well preserved, marked by its arched stained-glass windows and a bell tower that hovers above all the houses around it.  

I've seen old historical photos of St. Al's, and from the looks of it, the church hasn't changed much over the years. The only major alteration I can see inside from days long past is that the old communion rail is gone. But that's typical of almost every post-Vatican II church. Otherwise, a visitor from the church's early years could walk in and find himself in quite familiar surroundings.

St. Al's in 1935, from the Barnard-Stockbridge Photograph Collection.
St. Al's in 2022.
My daughter and I sat on the Mary side of the church, as has long been my custom. For non-Catholics, that just means that there's usually a Mary statue to the left as you're looking at the altar, and a Joseph statue to the right. My connection to Mary, and through her the Sacred Feminine, was the only thing that kept me in the Catholic fold for many a year. It still feels somewhat comforting to be in her presence while the Mass is going on, like having a compassionate mother looking protectively over you.

From our vantage point there was also an image of the Divine Mercy and an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help prominently placed. It's interesting to me that the Catholic church has taken such a shine to what originated as an Orthodox Marian icon, but it's nice to see, inasmuch as it suggests a spiritual camaraderie of sorts between the Eastern and Western churches. The Eastern Catholic churches excel at uniting the ways of East and West, which is something I've always admired about them, and given my past explorations into Orthodoxy, the presence of icons always lends a warm feeling of familiarity.

The first reading today happened to be one of my old favorites, from Proverbs, in which Sophia, the Wisdom of God, proclaims that she was God's companion from the time of the creation of the earth, "rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind." Aside from certain mystics over the years, the church doesn't recognize Sophia as a separate being, an immanent aspect of the divine, but rather as a poetic personification of God's wisdom alone. The church and I have different points of view on that -- suffice it to say I take the mystics' side -- but it was nice to hear a familiar reading that's always resonated with me.

A few more shots of this lovely old church, taken immediately after Mass:

My daughter wanted to go up to the organ/choir loft you can see in that last picture, but the stairs were chained off. The only music during Mass came from a pianist on the main floor, so I have to assume the loft is no longer used.

She had lots of questions for me as the Mass unfolded. She hasn't been to a modern Mass since back before the lockdowns, after which we stopped attending church regularly. I was helping her figure out what to say, and I explained the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, how each piece of communion bread isn't a discrete body part of Jesus, like his appendix or his big toe, but the entire body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. ("Isn't that cannibalism?" came the question that many Catholics have had to contend with. Then, "Can vegans take communion?" The respective short answers are no and yes. But it's theologically complicated.) She also wondered why the Holy Spirit is a bird, and how it had time to fly down from heaven and consecrate the bread and wine at every church in the world. I tell you, kids think of things that grown-up minds would never contemplate. And we've raised our daughter to be skeptical and question what she's told, so she's only doing exactly what I would expect a kid raised that way to do.

I'm glad that I've taken such a lifelong interest in religion and spirituality so that I can answer most of her questions. I've more or less become her religious-studies teacher as a result. When I was a kid her age, no one was willing to answer the similar questions I had. I was told to be quiet, have faith, and listen to the priest -- which did a curious mind like mine no good, leaving me with so many questions and doubts that I eventually walked away from the faith. 

Still, going to a Catholic Mass is always kind of like going home again. It's familiar and in some ways comforting. I'm glad we started out our Silver Valley church adventure at St. Al's. But I have to admit that my daughter and I preferred the luncheon afterward to the Mass itself. 

Arriving in the social hall after Mass. Time for food!
She was eyeballing Fr. Jerome's anniversary cake the whole time we were eating lunch and kept wondering where Father was so he could cut the cake and take the first slice. 

Once he stepped up, she was one of the first in line. 

Finally satiated with lunch and dessert, we found our way home, happy that we decided to embark on this fun, and potentially enlightening, new journey together.

Come on back for our next stop, which will probably be a week from today.