Sunday, November 29, 2009

Our Savior's Lutheran Church

Today we worshiped at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 2147 Ridge Road Ext., Ambridge, PA 15003, 724.266.1169, www.lutheransonline.com/christoursaviors, Rev. Jill E. McGregor


Bob’s thoughts:

I think this is probably the closest church to our house; most churches we visit are a half hour or more away, so this was a nice change. I thought they could benefit from signage, but it is a small church and easy to find your way around.

They have a most welcoming social area. The kitchen is at one end of the hall with no barrier, like someone’s welcoming home.

There is a great shade of blue in the stained glass, the same as some other Lutheran Churches I’ve been in. Above the chancel is a round stained glass window powerfully portraying Christ in prayer at Gethsemane, great paraments depicting Advent, and a good central cross. The wood veneer/paneling, ceiling, and beams add a lot of character.

I liked the simple arrows (↑↓) in the bulletin to indicate stand/sit. We were greeted warmly, and a member suggested we sit with him so he could offer guidance through the service. We were able to partake of Communion, and that was my first taste of wine in many years.

To me the Lutheran Church seems to get lost in ritual. I always have trouble finding my place in the Psalter/hymnal. I don’t doubt the heart for Christ, but the mechanics to get there seem overly complicated to me.

The sermon dealt with the necessary human side of Christ, our alienation in sin, and how many excuses we can have. We are bound to Christ with the need to be bound also to each other.

I feel the pastor has a seldom-seen passion for Christ that I’d like to see given free rein.



Jan’s thoughts:

Following an intriguing conversation with Pastor Jill at the community Thanksgiving Eve worship service, we felt called to worship today at one of the churches she serves. (This parish comprises this church and nearby Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church.) We’ve been past this little church numerous times and have always been curious to see the inside.

Most of the parking is on a one-way side street, which we didn’t realize upon arriving. The building itself is small but unique, especially the downstairs fellowship hall area where the kitchen is at one end of the open hall with no walls separating the hall and kitchen. I’ve never seen this arrangement in a church before. It felt inviting and family-like.

The congregation is friendly: most who did not greet us before the service did so during worship or afterward. One gentleman was nearby when we arrived and overhead us tell Jill that we had attended worship at only one Lutheran church before, so he volunteered that we could sit with him and he’d help us if we got lost or confused. (We did pretty well and he was gracious when we needed his guidance.)

During the Children’s Sermon Jill talked about waiting, and how, prior to each of the children being born, their moms waited in love for them in spite of never having seen them. The truth of this struck me on several levels. First, as a mother who waited those long months and loved the children I carried even though I had not met them; second, as a Christian woman who is waiting to see her Savior face to face, and third, as a mother who has not seen her son for more than three years who confidently expects to see his face immediately after seeing that of her Savior.

For the last two months, through my daughter’s church, I participated in Beth Moore’s Bible study, “Breaking Free.” It centers on making liberty in Christ a reality, and obviously freedom was a central concept. Not just freedom, but authentic freedom IN CHRIST, which is why the statement in the sermon that most caught my attention was, “We are not free unless we are bound to a human Jesus.” The sermon was much deeper than that one statement, but it struck such a nerve for me that I made a note of it and have continued to ponder it. And I definitely believe it – there is no freedom without Christ, without submitting to His authority and following where He leads.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving Eve Worship

On Thanksgiving Eve we worshiped at the Baden-Conway-Economy Ministerium Community Thanksgiving Service hosted by Our Lady of Peace Catholic Parish, Conway.


Bob’s thoughts:

We normally don’t blog when we attend a community service, but there was something special about the Thanksgiving Ecumenical worship service held at Our Lady of Peace. One of the things that made I special was a dream I had the night before.

Years ago we attended another community Thanksgiving service and found that though the Jewish people were free to talk about their faith, we could not mention Jesus. I guess this experience was heavy on my mind. In my dream, when this imposition was again announced, I stood up in the middle of the congregation until I was allowed to speak. My short speech stated only that my overwhelming thanks was for Jesus and that if I couldn’t acknowledge Him alive then nor could my son be alive. In my dream I then turned and left and most others followed suit. I am happy to say no such statement was made at Wednesday’s service.

I never would have given it a conscious thought, but in my dream the wall was blue, and at Our Lady of Peace, the rear wall of the Chancel was four shades of blue. Thus the memory of the dream flooded back as soon as I walked into the church for the first time and saw the wall.

I must say, I’ve never had a problem finding a cross in a Catholic church, and the prominent crucifix against the blue framed by wood carved sides was very powerful. Like most churches we visit, we never know what the norm is and what might be just for that service, but I was pleased that the offering was in response to the Word and that it was given to benefit the Uncommon Grounds in Aliquippa. We also had very enjoyable, meaningful conversations before and after the service.

I especially enjoyed (no surprise to anyone who knows me) the Children’s Choir. They sang very well, sounded great, and were well-directed. I was impressed that they sang with their mouths open, they appeared poised while singing, and that they watched the director. They were a joy to experience. The combined adult choir was excellent also, but my heart was won by the children. They also joined hands during the Lord’s Prayer.

During the message the pastor talked of visiting someone in the hospital suffering with an incurable illness but who prayed with nothing but gratitude. I smiled when he spoke of his prayer ending and the patient picking up immediately where he left off. I was reminded of an occasion where I called my wife to join me to lay hands and pray for a dear elderly friend and how, when we finished our prayer, our friend held on to our hands and prayed the most eloquent, heartfelt prayer for us.

His words also brought to mind a woman to whom we tried to minister who was so overwhelmed by disease that she was constantly in excruciating pain. She would pray for every member of the church and for anyone else she heard of who needed prayer. I will always remember her crying because the pain was so intense, then quickly apologizing and going back to prayer.

Never think there is nothing you can do; never miss the joy, the chance for heartfelt prayer.


Jan’s thoughts:

This is different! Usually, when we write our blog entries, I type mine as Bob handwrites his. When mine says what I want it to say, only then do I type Bob’s. Consequently, it feels quite odd to know what he is saying prior to composing my part. So I’m going to be adventurous here…

I knew nothing of Bob’s dream until after we left, so I simply appreciated the Sanctuary for how it looked, which was dramatic. The four shades of blue with a huge crucifix surrounded by what looked like sun rays made a vivid presentation.

Prior to the service we had a powerful conversation with a Lutheran pastor, and we both felt called to attend her church on Sunday. This should be interesting – I’ve never gone to a Lutheran church before.

Our Lady of Grace Church is the home church of a neighbor family, and while mom and dad sang in the choir and older brother conducted the children’s choir in which a younger sister took part, we sat with younger brother and sister. It was great to visit with the kids some as well as help put mom and dad’s minds at ease.

After the service we enjoyed the hospitality extended in the form of home baked cookies and other refreshments.

I appreciated the opportunity to worship at a time when I was feeling especially grateful to God for His bountiful blessings, so I was very thankful to go to church.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Aliquippa Christian Assembly

Today we worshiped at Aliquippa Christian Assembly, 166 West Shaffer Road, Aliquippa, PA 15001, 724.775.9101, www.aliquippachristianassembly.org, John J. Bannon, Pastor.


Bob’s thoughts:

We followed someone in from the parking lot and were amazed by the lack of signage, but we were quickly greeted and welcomed. We were given welcome bags and directions to the Sanctuary and restrooms.

With a minimal look around we entered the Sanctuary for the prayer time from 9:30 till 10. It is a very comfortable Sanctuary with a large cross inlaid in the wall. A number of people came by to welcome us. I was impressed that an usher came forward twice to remove an aisle chair to make room for a wheelchair.

There is wide spacing between the rows of chairs, allowing the ushers to walk through for the offering, which was taken early. I wonder if Communion is served the same way.

I came to realize that as a visitor I would appreciate having at least an approximate order of worship. It is nice to know when the offering will be taken, etc. so I can be prepared. There is a visual paging system for the nursery, and I believe this is the first church I’ve ever been in that has no piano or organ in evidence. The service started with less than 50, but by the second song there were 100+.

I found it odd during the announcement on Christmas dinner that it would be free for members but guests would be charged.

I was disappointed that the Scripture readings weren’t projected on the screens; I guess we’ve gotten used to seeing a lot more than the words of the songs up there.

There is an overlap of praise and prayer comments (“Amen, pastor!”) that makes a lot of the service hard for me to understand and follow. Seemed like a lot of small conversations going on also, and the pastor’s voice trailed off at the end of each sentence, which didn’t help. There were a couple of poor “jokes” that were retold several times. Before we left there were at least 7 Scripture readings in the sermon, which I think was about our bondage in the trials we face. It seemed a very informal sermon, like a personal conversation with some of the congregation. Although a welcoming congregation, I sense visitors would feel like outsiders because of the style of the service.

I don’t know the history, seems like this may be a church made up by the pastor. During the message the pastor commented that the congregation wasn’t praying enough for him as he was having problems. I felt a real lack of pastoral sense, no humility in preaching. I thought perhaps this is a pastor with little theological training.


Jan’s thoughts:

Today we felt led to this non-denominational church, and I’m still not sure why. I went seeking an answer and hoping for a word from God, but left this place with more questions than when I arrived.

When it comes to worship style, I’ve experienced plenty of traditional, a lot of contemporary, and some that borders on Pentecostal. This church falls into the last category. I have to think God is pleased with all true worship, and far be it from me to say whether any worship is true. That is God’s job.

The building is obviously quite new, with decorative gray blocks accented by matching orange ones, with the pattern continuing inside. Both the narthex and Sanctuary were sparsely decorated, giving the area a somewhat cool feel. The “Chancel,” however, was very warmly decorated but was used much more as a stage. There was a cross (in the orange blocks against the background of gray blocks and lit from the floor), a pair of matching wingback chairs, four decorative trees strung with white lights, and a modern looking pulpit. The chairs were comfortable and arranged to provide plenty of legroom.

Upon our arrival we were greeted warmly by many people and each given a gift bag containing a welcome brochure, a daily Bible reading calendar, a copy of the Shepherd’s Guide, a tract, and a CD (or DVD) of a recent service, as well as a mug and a pen. All in all a very generous visitor’s gift.

Numerous people spoke to us, introducing themselves, shaking hands, and pointing out the Sanctuary and the restrooms. There was no printed bulletin. When we entered the Sanctuary 5 or 6 people were walking all around praying aloud for various members and a range of concerns as well as for the service.

Up to this point there was nothing really wrong and several that seemed very right. Then the preacher began to speak, and things went south in a hurry.

I know, really, nothing about this “pastor,” I did not meet him and I had not heard of him before today. The website comes very close to crediting him with founding this church. I found nothing about his education or any other credentials.

However, I can state my opinion about his style and approach, which I found to be arrogant, cynical, narcissistic, sarcastic, and self-pitying. We left during the sermon and I have no desire whatever to have anything further to do with this organization.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

New Sewickley Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at New Sewickley Presbyterian Church, 101 Big Knob Road, Rochester, PA 15074, 724.846.5734, www.nspchurch.org, Rev. Daniel Callahan, Pastor.


Bob’s thoughts:

This church could really benefit from some signage starting with the road into the very adequate parking area. (We passed by the entrance before we saw the church.)

The ceiling is a low arch covered in knotty pine and there is a beam through the arches to resemble being set on edge, to very good effect. Didn’t remember to get a close look at the windows; they appeared to be etched clear glass, almost like an etched design one could then “paint by numbers” to look like stained glass. There is a good central cross, and the offering was taken in response to the Word.

We had a few minutes before the service and found some good bulletin boards in the hallway, including an excellent one on veterans of the church. We met the pastor in the hall and he mentioned he was rather new to this congregation. I was impressed that during the children’s’ message he was able to call the children by name. There was an easy interaction with them as well as their parents.

This was a very welcoming church; many people introduced themselves and welcomed us. The family in front of us (with beautiful children) asked us to stay for Sunday School. From what I saw and heard, the church has a strong orientation to mission.

I found last week’s bulletin in the pew and was sorry we weren’t there for the sermon “Tithing or Tipping” – a subject dear to my heart.

I was impressed with the congregation – they spoke out loud and clear. This is something we don’t see often. It makes me look forward to a visit to the contemporary service.

Today’s sermon, “Giving Thanks” was built around giving God thanks in all circumstances. A good message that might have gone a little more into the hard times to thank God, but I understand with a recent war death in the congregation it may be too raw of a situation. We were given 30 seconds to think of the blessings in our lives, which no one could condense to 30 seconds.

The pastor told a story of a man who was putting his house up for sale and gave the real estate agent the particulars. When she called back to confirm how she planned to list the house and started to read off the list, he interrupted and told her never mind as this is the house he always wanted.

A few years ago we were living in a house that God had given us at the South Hills Country Club. The house was built in the mid-1920s, and very little maintenance/updating had occurred. So one day I made a list of what the house would need to bring it up to modern standards. On a separate sheet I wrote a pipe-dream wish list of what we would look for in a house if we could afford to look, let alone buy.

It was almost a year after we moved to Economy (at His leading) that I came across this wish list. This house He led us to fulfilled everything on that list and much more. Many were items we had forgotten. We have experienced the worst times and the best times. Thanks be unto God that He’s always closer for the bad times.


Jan’s thoughts:

This church is about a 20 minute drive and nearly a straight shot from home, but approaching from the direction we were we would have driven past it had we not stopped at a stop sign and happened to see the marquee. There is, however, plenty of parking on an asphalt lot and a level entryway.

Finding a table set up in the narthex bearing gifts for SERRV (much like Ten Thousand Villages), I was immediately distracted…not that it takes much to distract me. After being greeted by many of the people in the narthex, we wandered down an innocent-looking hallway where we found restrooms, offices, and several bulletin boards. Church bulletin boards are often a good indication of the heart of a church. There was one with information for and photos of youth events, one with plenty of mission info and notes of thanks, and one honoring members of the military both past and present. The pastor indicated that the church had recently lost a member Marine in active duty and his service was yesterday. There was no way he could have known that we had experienced a similar loss just over 3 years ago.

The Sanctuary was not fancy, but very nice. No stained glass that I noticed, but a lovely wooden cross in the Chancel which matched the striking wooden ceiling. All the walls were painted white. The carpet looked well-used, but clean.

The bulletin is plain but easy to read and follow. And I knew we were approaching Thanksgiving because we sang “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”

Many folks greeted us warmly during the passing of the peace as well as after the service. This was an open, welcoming church; surprising only because they have a second service. As we’ve said before, most churches with two (or more) services tend to be less responsive to visitors as the members usually assume that anyone they don’t recognize attends the “other” service. We do plan to attend the contemporary service sometime.

The pastor mentioned he was fairly new there, but he seemed to share a good rapport with the congregation. Prior to reading the Scriptures, he gave terrific instructions, giving the page numbers and chapter and verse twice, and plenty of time to locate the Scripture so we could follow along.

Unfortunately, following the Prayer of Confession the bulletin listed a “moment of silent confession.” The bulletin did not lie: the moment lasted about two seconds, not long enough to confess hardly anything. (Possibly I just had more to confess than he did.)

In the message, titled “Giving Thanks,” he gave instructions on living a life of gratitude:
1. Learn to rejoice always – give thanks in the bad as well as good;
2. Learn to pray without ceasing – prayer and giving thanks go hand-in-hand; and
3. Give thanks in all circumstances – it releases God’s power in our lives.

Obviously the first part of each point is Scriptural, but I’m not too sure about the “releasing God’s power in our lives” thing. It sounds too much like the “name it and claim it” stuff that’s being preached, and I have sincere issues with that. Other than that, I appreciated the sermon.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fountain Park Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Fountain Park Presbyterian Church, 8533 Peters Road, Cranberry Twp., PA 16066, 724.779.2003, www.fountainpc.com, R. Mark Plumb, Pastor.


Bob’s thoughts:

We needed to worship at a church in our area where we knew our daughter and her family, visiting for the weekend, would feel welcome. It was an easy choice to go to Fountain Park, as we have always received a warm welcome there.

This is a smaller church that makes very good use of their space. I appreciate the heavy wooden cross set off to one side at the front of the Sanctuary. Today it was accented with seasonal decorations that wonderfully highlight the cross.

There are dual screens and one in back, so no matter how much you look around you can see to sing along. As always, I was pleased to see the offering taken in response to the Word. I was surprised when we prayed using the “new Lord’s Prayer;” don’t know why it was changed.

I sensed from some things said during the prayer time that the church was recovering from a schism, but the financial information in the bulletin didn’t indicate that. It is odd to see an income spike in July/August almost equal to the Easter spike.

I had the huge blessing of holding my newest granddaughter during the service. She was born the morning they took me to the Emergency Room, and I had only just met her earlier. She started to drown out the sermon and I ended up walking with her. Jan and I both had a sense that this was God’s way of letting our children hear this message. With three little ones, they seldom get to sit through a service.

The service was rather sparsely attended and mostly inanimate, but incredibly warm and welcoming.

I think the sermon was part of a series dissecting the Lord’s Prayer, a favorite sermon topic of mine.


Jan’s thoughts:

We chose Fountain Park today because we knew it was family-friendly for our three visiting grandchildren (4, 2, and 3 months of age). As always, it was good to see Mark and Lin Plumb, and after the service we had a chance to catch up.

We had no sooner sat down and heard the last half of the children’s message than I felt the urging of the Holy Spirit to take Luke (4) and Leah (2) to the nursery. The longer I sat there the louder they became and the more insistent was God’s urging that I be the one to take them. So I took them out and stayed with them. (We had fun playing in the nursery!) Consequently I did not participate in the worship service, and instead worshiped God through my obedience. It was only later that I learned God’s reason for His urging.

The sermon notes page in the bulletin indicated the message was on the topic of surrender (ironic, huh?). Our daughter, who possesses a B.A. in Christian Thought from Grove City College, explained to me later that this sermon was exactly what she and her husband needed to hear. (With three children under 4, they hardly ever get to worship together, but this day they heard the same sermon while sitting side by side.) They were encouraged in their belief that God has them living where He wants them to be living right now, that He has everything perfectly under control, and what he wants them to learn is to be content in His provision.

Also printed on the sermon notes page was The Serenity Prayer – in its entirety. I was unaware there was more to it, so in case you’d like to read it, here it is:

The Serenity Prayer
By Reinhold Niebuhr (also a surprise to me!)

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time,
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that You will make all things right
if I surrender to Your will
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen

I pray that my life would be that totally surrendered to Him.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Valley Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Valley Presbyterian Church, 237 Main Street, Imperial, PA 15126, 724.695.0300, www.valleychurchweb.com, Rev. Jeri-Lynne Bouterse, Pastor.


Bob’s thoughts:

Today we went back to Valley Church – always a delightful church to visit. I enjoyed the aesthetics of the Sanctuary. There is a smaller stained glass window in the front of the Sanctuary that matches the larger side windows. The front window is framed well so that the frame amplifies it. The space is pleasant and well-utilized.

From the bulletin boards and other displays of information, the church seems very mission-oriented.

It is also a friendly, welcoming church. The bulletin includes a welcome/sign-in reminder slip which also incorporates prayer requests. The Deacons collect these early in the service.

I was disappointed that the offering was taken before the Word, but pleased with the powerful effect of three crosses mounted together on the back wall of the Chancel.

The message was presented by a missionary who serves in the South Pacific with Campus Crusade. The message showed ways that our faith is never in vain; personal stories of chance contacts becoming Christian leaders provided a reminder that we never know how God will grow the seed we sow.


Jan’s thoughts:

It has been more than a year since our last visit to this church served by our pastor/friend Jeri-Lynne, and today seemed like a good time to make a return visit.

Although we had visited for worship once and once to speak with the Stephen Ministers about grief, I seemed to see the church through different eyes this time. I noticed the plentiful parking, the walk area with benches for sitting and talking or just taking in the sunshine. Inside the signage was very good, and the people were as friendly as I remembered, which is to say they were very friendly.

Jeri-Lynne was not expecting us, so was surprised when she turned a corner and ran into us. Since there was a guest preacher this morning, she had more time than usual so she invited us into her study and we spent about half an hour or so just catching up. (Obviously we were very, very early this morning!) We could hear the praise band rehearsing in the Sanctuary and were very pleased to be there for the contemporary music.

We entered the Sanctuary at the front and found a seat in the very last row where we were able to look around. Only then did I realize how very well designed and decorated the Sanctuary was. The Chancel is asymmetrical, with a fairly small stained-glass window bordered by a large frame, and both the glass and the frame matched the rest of the windows. To the left on the rear Chancel wall were three crosses. On the opposite side was a banner, along with an empty space perfect for use as a projection screen.

While we waited for the service to begin several people greeted us, including two who sat nearby and one who came from across the Sanctuary. Others did so during the passing of the peace during worship.

The bulletin was busy – like the church, apparently – containing a wealth of information about the goings-on at Valley. It was well laid-out, and everything not worship-related could be put aside for later, which I appreciated.

This was Presbyterian Women’s Thank Offering Sunday, and the speakers were husband and wife (and son) missionaries Rev. Don and Melanie Roths and John Lane. The Roths family currently serves with Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of the South Pacific on the island of Fiji. I admit I never really thought of Fiji as a mission field, but it is a very fertile one according to the brief video shown.

In his sermon Don Roths began by talking about his former college roommate who went into and then left the ministry. When Don was called to mission work on Fiji he was introduced to “the most influential Christian leader on the island.” As the story unfolded we learned that this influential Christian leader had come to Christ years before as a direct result of the work of Don’s former college roommate. Don surmised that this former roommate probably never knew the results of the seeds he planted, but declared that “faithfulness in ministry is never in vain.”

More and more I’m convinced that we will not know the true fruits of our labors on Earth until we meet Christ face to face, and I will remind myself of this story whenever I need hope that the seeds I plant are not in vain either.