Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bethlehem United Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Bethlehem United Presbyterian Church, Shippingport, PA, Rev. Robert W. Kennedy, Pastor.

Bob’s thoughts:

We sometimes refer to a country church as small in size or number. Including us today brought the total worshiping together to seven humans.

This is a church that is small enough that it wouldn’t benefit from additional signage.

The triple-hung windows have a band of color at the edge. A large wooden cross hangs on the rear wall of the Chancel, and the wooden pews were much more comfortable than they looked.

A couple of things here I thought were special: When the offering was dedicated, the minister stepped down from the Chancel and faced the cross; the pastor spoke with the congregation and discussed by name some members who weren’t present.

This church is all but in the shadow of the cooling towers of the power plant; they are literally surrounded by this massive power generating station at Shippingport. What came to me while I prayed for this church and pastor was that the real “Power” was in this little church and that Christ is calling this church to a prayer ministry for those who work for the power company. I believe they should let the employees know they are doing this and solicit prayer requests. They may not experience great growth in members, but great growth in the Kingdom.

I sometimes hesitate to share what comes to me in prayer but was encouraged by the pastor’s sermon to share, to see, and to speak up now. The pastor also shared how God sometimes has to throw a brick at us to get our attention, and I have often said it sometimes takes a third brick before I get the message. I look forward to hearing exciting news from this church.

Jan’s thoughts:

This facility is older and well kept, much like a treasured family heirloom. The pastor pointed out two wooden beams in the basement ceiling, both of which were salvaged following a fire that demolished the original building.

As we entered literally everyone with whom we worshiped today introduced themselves and greeted us. The atmosphere is casual and friendly, and this church seems to personify the term “church family.”

The arched windows were textured and were outlined with a light pink row of glass.

The only signage was an indication which restroom was which.

During the service, the pastor’s wife was preparing to read the Scripture readings and asked the pastor if he wanted one story or another, and he replied, “Both.” I deeply appreciated this because, it is sad to say, but so often an attempt is made to limit Scripture reading. The pastor followed his instructions with the comment that it is good to read Scripture. I couldn’t agree more.

The sermon was untitled and based on Psalm 91 and (mostly) Luke 16:1-13 about the rich man and Lazarus. The points he made were:

Once life is over you cannot salvage things – share them now.
Once life is over you cannot seize opportunities – seek God now.
Once life is over you cannot save others – speak up now.

“Now is the time” seems like the message. Amen.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

First Presbyterian Church of Bakerstown

Today we worshiped at First Presbyterian Church of Bakerstown, PO Box 127, 58 Heckert Road, Bakerstown, PA 15007, 724.443.1555,, Rev. Dan Muttart, Senior Pastor.

Bob’s thoughts:

We were looking forward to returning to Bakerstown for the contemporary service. Unfortunately our extensive tour of Route 8 looking for the church made us late enough to miss the beginning of the service. While we missed the praise worship music, what we did hear later was enjoyable.

A highlight for me was the group for the Children’s Message being projected on the large screen for all to see.

The sermon was from the 11th chapter of John about Christ raising Lazarus. I am always interested in the nuances of Scripture translation and thought how very fitting that Christ’s call to “trust” could also be to “believe.” We are called to trust God’s endgame…difficult, but a great plan.

The sermon was followed by a powerful testimony from a parishioner on being faithful through the illness of a daughter.

I found a notice in the newspaper of a Christian Education presentation on “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.” With the losses in our family I thought it might be of benefit. The presentation was by a doctor from the seminary who seemed quite comfortable in his delivery but the message was intellectualized.

Locating the seminar did amplify the one problem I experienced at this church, the complete lack of signage. It is a confusing campus for a visitor.

Jan’s thoughts:

We saw an announcement in the paper that Bakerstown was beginning a 3-part adult education series called “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.” Reading this reminded us that we had wanted to attend the contemporary worship service there, so we opted to combine the two. Unfortunately, due to a story much too long to tell here, we arrived during the last half of the last praise song.

We were instantly given a bulletin but I needed to find the ladies room. Seeing no signs in the immediate area I simply asked for directions.

The Order of Worship for the traditional service is contained on the inside two pages of the folded 11 x 14 sheet and the (brief) Order of worship for the contemporary service is on ½ of one side of an insert. The only other insert is a helpful, informative outline of Adult Christian Education offerings through March.

The Children’s Moment was in process as we entered the Sanctuary, and it was being shown on the screen in the front. I was very glad as that was the only way we would see anything from the very back of this beautiful but deep Sanctuary.

The sermon was powerful. The title was “Where Is Jesus When I Hurt?” and the text was John 11:17-44 about Lazarus’ death and return to life.

Scripture just never ceases to amaze me. Since July,I’ve been reading and meditating on the book of John, and I’ve read this passage recently but I never took it personally until I heard it today. As the pastor read the Scripture, when Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth!” it suddenly felt personal. It was as if Jesus was calling me personally forth from a life that at times feels more dead than alive. (This is not the way I’ve thought of any part of my life, so it was a surprise to me. But perspectives change sometimes, especially when God steps in.) And it makes me think that Jesus wants to say this to each of us, as I suspect we all have areas in our lives where we feel more dead than alive.

The sermon points spoke to trust: 1 – trust in God’s endgame (great term for His ultimate goal); 2 – trust in Christ’s presence; 3 – trust that Jesus restores.

Then a gentleman from the congregation spoke at length about the birth of his daughter. My guess is that the congregation was well aware of the history and the current situation; however we were unacquainted with the details so I’m sure did not grasp the full import of some of what he shared. Nevertheless, it was a compelling story with a happy ending that was based on the parents’ trust in God and a reminder to “Look how God has answered your prayers.” I don’t believe I’ve witnessed a standing ovation for a sermon before, but I did today.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Westminster United Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Westminster United Presbyterian Church, 330 E. Main Street, Evans City, PA 16033, 724.538.8188,, Rev. John C. Park, Pastor.

Bob’s thoughts:

Today we were led to Westminster UP, about 20 miles from the church we planned to visit today. We found very limited parking, but were early enough to get a spot.

We entered from the rear of the building, which brought us to the front of the Sanctuary. I don’t know if there is any signage coming in the front doors, but the rest rooms were marked.

There is a lot of stained glass but it doesn’t seem to fit with the Sanctuary. I enjoyed the shadow pattern from the ceiling light fixtures, and found the organ pipe layout most unusual.

The Call to Worship was a responsive reading from the Shorter Catechism, a good reminder. A portion of the service near the end was headed “Responding to God’s Word” which included prayers and the offering.

The sermon was the conclusion of a series on the “12” Commandments. The pastor developed that although we are called as far back as Leviticus to love our neighbor, Christ’s call was different as He calls us to love our neighbor as He has loved us. An interesting question, in my opinion, was whether unbelievers would say that we love one another.

The lack of signage seemed to support my theory of inward focus, as I found little mention of mission or outreach.

I was really enjoying a Starbuck’s decaf (for all of you who know my cardiologist). I had a shot of black cherry flavor and wanted that last gulp as the service was starting. I was not prepared for the couple spoonfuls of grounds in the bottom of the cup. Made it hard to focus on worship.

Jan’s thoughts:

Since the church is situated in a residential area, parking is at a premium. Upon entering I saw a (helpful) sign indicating restrooms, but that was the only signage I observed.

After entering only a few steps we were warmly greeted by the pastor, who also gave us bulletins and directions to the Sanctuary. We had little time before the service, so we headed for the Sanctuary. As it happened, we entered at the front of the Sanctuary and I felt conspicuous as we made our way all the way to the back. However several people gave us friendly smiles and greetings as we walked past. Even after we were seated the woman at the other end of the pew where we sat greeted us and instructed us as to which hymnal was required for the first hymn. I make note of this because it often doesn’t happen even at very friendly churches.

The organ, though very well played, I thought, was loud enough that I was glad we sat all the way in the back.

The Sanctuary was light yellow with very light wood pews and lots of matching wood in the Chancel area. The organ pipes were arranged imaginatively, but this precluded displaying a cross, so the only cross in the front was a brass one on the Communion table. The windows were very large with dark colors and intricate, older-style pictures in stained glass.

The service and music were traditional, although there was evidence of at least an occasional blended service.

During worship the congregation joined in the Apostle’s Creed. I know there are denominations that exclude the words “He descended into Hell” when reciting the Apostle’s Creed, but this was the first time I experienced this in a Presbyterian church.

The sermon was the last in the pastor’s summer series. It was based on John 13:31-35 and was entitled, “The New Commandment.” This “new” commandment, of course, is that those following Jesus “love one another.” He pointed out that this commandment can also be found in Leviticus, so it’s not entirely new. And of course some have asked, “Who is ‘one another’?” He acknowledged that it is a difficult command to apply, especially when the person we are commanded to love has caused us pain, but we need to ask God to help us love that person and we must pray for that person as the first step to loving them. Loving others proves our discipleship. Even those who persecuted members of the early church had to admit that “They do love each other.” And he ended with the question: Do people say that about us? A good question for each of us to ask ourselves, I think.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mt. Carmel Presbyterian Church

Today we worshiped at Mt. Carmel Presbyterian Church, 2720 Brodhead Road, Aliquippa, PA 15001, 724.378.3821,, Rev. Mike Anastas, Pastor.

Bob’s thoughts:

We found a nice, paved, well-marked parking area but were a little confused as to which of the five entrances we should use. We found the Sanctuary by trial and error and nearby restrooms had signs on the doors. They were the only signs I saw on a rather confusing campus.

The Sanctuary was pleasant with some particularly interesting stained glass. The rear windows of the Chancel were conventional-looking stained glass, the side were modern colored rectangles, and the high windows were splatter glass. I never would have thought they would work so well together and of course the sun beaming through enhanced the effect.

The pews are in four arc-shaped sections with wide aisles. The physical feature I enjoyed most was the cross on the Chancel wall. The rear wall is muted sandstone and the large narrow cross is painted to match. My first thought is that I would lose that focus point, but from my vantage point the cross aligned perfectly with one of the lit candles and was an extension of it.

It was a cool day and the area was comfortable; I was told the Sanctuary is air conditioned.

We were greeted very warmly, some of the current history of the church was offered, and we were introduced to others by name. We were asked to visit the visitor’s desk and were given name tags, and many of the people we met were wearing theirs.

There were many things that pleased me, like the cross, and offering taken in response to the Word, but also a real blessing – the servers spoke when offering the elements of Communion.

The sermon was in regard to God’s name and a good explanation of what it means to take His name in vain. The congregation was attentive and seemed to get the message. The pastor made a very smooth recovery when chimes rang inadvertently during the sermon.

I agree, in our pursuit to be God-like we judge God and His creation…a position we don’t want to be in.

Jan’s thoughts:

In my mind Aliquippa was not the greatest area, so I was surprised to arrive at a pretty, well-kept church on the corner of a busy intersection. The paved parking lot was well marked (always helpful for visitors). Once out of the truck, however, we had to choose between door #1, door #2, and door #3, with indication of which one led to what area. And to top it off, people were entering through each door! So we chose one and began our exploration from there.

Part of the reason we explored was to locate a rest room. Literally the only signs I saw were a small one on the door to the secretary’s office and on each of the doors to the rest rooms. Hopefully the Session is in the process of identifying necessary signage and locations because from all indications this church is much more outwardly-focused than the lack of signage would indicate.

We were quickly identified as visitors and some very friendly people introduced themselves and told us about the pastor (who has been there about a year) and the remodeling of the Sanctuary which was one of many positive consequences of the church’s three-year pastoral search.

We were briefly greeted by the pastor, but the elders with whom we were speaking were taking good care of us so the pastor went to attend to his duties while we enjoyed the friendly conversation. We were asked to wear a name tag, which turned out to be part of this church’s system of keeping attendance. It appears that each member has a nametag which they’re to pick up as they enter and drop into a basket as they exit the Sanctuary. Handwriting a nametag for visitors allows that person to also greet the visitor, which worked well in our instance at least.

We sat in the very back and several other folks greeted us as they walked past to their seats. The padded pews were comfortable and widely spaced, as were the aisles. The pew ends were plain, dark wood and perfectly matched the woodwork on the ceiling. The stained glass on the rear wall of the Chancel was bold and intricate, the glass in the windows on the sides were a plain pattern of the same three colors in each window, and up high on the back wall were decorative windows. Each set was different, but they worked well together.

The rear wall of the Chancel was all stone, with a large matching stone cross. It was a gorgeous way to fulfill the need in a very different way.

The music for this blended service was mostly contemporary, which most (but not all) the congregation seemed to enjoy, and the words were projected onto the blank walls on each side of the stone wall, eliminating the need for a screen. The praise team consisted of a drummer, a keyboardist, and three female vocalists, one of whom accompanied on an acoustic guitar. They sounded great together but could have used the support of a male voice.

Toward the beginning of the service the pastor walked halfway down each aisle as he spoke…some pastors do that but I don’t see much of it and it was refreshing.

Communion was celebrated by intinction, and was efficiently executed. Attendance seemed high for a holiday weekend, and we were told there had been many baptisms this year.

The sermon was titled “What’s In a Name?” and was based on Exodus 20:7. All the prayers, the welcome, all were pointing toward the Third Commandment as the topic for the day. He preached with passion about how often this Commandment is broken and how misuse of God’s name is more than an insult, it makes a god of the person doing so.

Toward the end he told a story about being in a crowd and hearing a man seated nearby loudly misusing God’s name, and his 7-year-old daughter stood up and shouted, “Don’t take my God’s name in vain!” Her command stunned everyone within earshot, and this pastor bravely admitted his own shame in his lack of action even as his pride in his daughter’s courage was obvious. It was a memorable story made more so by his heartfelt telling and his valiant admission, and I admired his courage.