50 Churches in 2014 — Now Complete

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 5.08.23 PM   Final Sunday #50 – Celebration Circle – an inclusive, multi-faith community with a creative approach to spirituality. San Antonio Garden Center, 3310 N. New Braunfels Ave

(NOTE: Services in 2015 will be held at Say Si, 1518 S. Alamo

Why this church?

Two reasons for choosing this church: 1) It was recommended by a librarian at the library I frequent, 2) Why not choose a church that has the word “celebration” in it for the final church of the 50 I visited in 2014?

This is truly a celebration, as I had doubts that I could find 50 different churches to visit around San Antonio. As it turns out, I still have a few that I didn’t get to, such as:

  • An Orthodox Jewish service
  • A Zorastrian church – could only find one in Dallas (too far)
  • A Sikh service – ran out of time
  • Church of God
  • Jainism – heard about this one at the Hindu Temple; apparently this group believes so strongly that one should not kill another living thing that they often cover their mouths so they don’t breath in any organisms. Gotta check that out some day.
  • Taoist Church
  • And, one of those churches that uses rattlesnakes in their services; I understand those are only found in Kentucky; I wasn’t in that state this year
  • Church on stilts – this one is in Austin and held some intrigue, but I never made it over

I think I pretty well covered everything else.

Arrival

Well, you didn’t think I would arrive early are on time for the last one did you? Absolutely not! I decided to get in a session of morning yoga before heading out and I misjudged how long it would take me. I zipped down Hwy 281 like a bat out of hell and fortunately there weren’t many cars or traffic officers on the road.

I walked into a room at the Garden Center and a woman immediately handed me a piece of cardboard with a bulletin on top and a gold piece of paper. I thought perhaps it was a nametag, but I resisted the urge to let everyone know who I was. Good thing! This last service at the Garden Center was called the “Burning Bowl” service. I’d need that piece of paper a bit later.

Everyone stood as a few musicians sang at the angle of the room.

Instead of a drum set, I saw bongo drums and other instruments that I was too far away to see. Not many open chairs remained, so I thought I’d have to sit on the stage behind the sea of chairs but suddenly spotted an open spot. We then stood while a woman said a prayer. I noted in the prayer that she prayed for our “two-legged,” “three-legged,” and “four-legged” friends. I thought that was a bit odd until I noted later in the service that a dog was present. In fact it was a “service dog” in training. Don’t know why that sign on the side of the dog almost sent me into a fit of laughter. Shouldn’t every church have a “service dog?” You betchya!

Service in Progress

After the prayer, we sat down on cushioned chairs as the band played on. I noted a lot of children, as well as people ranging from their 20s to 60s. I saw one man sporting a ponytail, women in long dresses, a smattering of jeans and boots, as well as experienced a strong whiff of incense. With this group, it appears most everything goes as far as attire.

When the song ended, a woman came to the music stand to read a poem called “The Choice” by Danna Faulds. After that came a section of the service most would consider the Communion, but this group calls this portion of the service, “Food for Thought.” Before breaking the homemade bread and passing it to each person in rows of chairs, the person leading this portion mentioned that we should all focus on the oneness of being and that we are all connected. I must say, as far as Communion goes, this was the best bread served bar none. It wasn’t just bread but raisin cinnamon bread freshly baked. YUM!

After the “Food for Thought” came the Children’s Circle. All the kids came up, save the one two-year old who came up and quickly darted for a plastic yellow pitcher of water sitting on a low window sill. He was determined to get to that water. He grabbed the top and pulled it off before his father could reach him. The dad took him back to the group for the blessing of children where we jointly stated: “We love you. We see you. We recognize the light in you.” And then, small tot wonder darted away again toward the water. Finally, his father picked him up and carted him to he back of the room with the toddler yelling, “No. No. No. No.” Gotta love two year olds — so mentally and physically focused.

We were then enlightened by the announcements, specifically about the change of Celebration Circle venue for all of 2015. A woman then came up for one more song and was comfortable photo 1-28enough with the group to stop the song mid-stream when she realized it wasn’t being played at the right tempo. While she sang, a community sign-up sheet was passed around so people could volunteer for all the tasks that need to be done on the following Sundays and during the week. After that, I took the time to look at the bulletin. These guys like to be connected. You can sign up for the email alerts by texting a code to someone, comment on their Facebook page, visit on Pinterest, Google+ or their MeetUp group, see what’s going on through their website or even scan this QR code with a Smart phone to sign up for the e-newsletter.

The Message

Rudi Harst, the leader of Celebration Circle started with a story about a monk who decided to leave India because he couldn’t do anything right. His guru or religious leader asked him to do one thing before he left. He was given a basket and told to go to the river to get the religious leader some water. Four times, the monk returned with an empty basket because the water had drained out on his way back. Dejected, the monk apologized, but the guru or religious leader said, “Great. The basket is now cleaned. Please sit on your cushion.”

That story led to Rudi’s point that we must be open to receive God’s blessings. From the beginning, Rudi talked about the upcoming Burning Bowl section of the service that included a meditation followed by us writing down what we needed to release in 2015.Rudi was quite honest, saying that today he would be writing down the same thing he wrote down last year, and probably the year before that and the year before that. Laughter of recognition reverberated around the room. He then stated that the baggage we carry is a gift, not garbage, and we need to be with our “basket” just the way it is. We have a chance in every moment to leave our resistance to change behind. So, we should write what we burn in the bowl in the form of dropping the resistance to being who we really are.

Thenphoto 2-27, while we wrote, a man played a Didgeridoo from the front of the room. I do believe this was the first time I’ve ever heard the haunting sounds of a didgeridoo and it was awesome! Following that, the band came up to play “Into the Fire,” as we began lining up to hold the pieces of paper over a candle and dropping the burning notes into the large bowl.

I absolutely loved this song and couldn’t take my eyes off of the young woman who sang the song in a jazz like fashion. She had a voice unlike one I’ve ever heard. I’m frustrated that I couldn’t make my camera phone work at that point. I’ve never seen anyone sing barefooted before who was so comfortable in her own skin and music that it just filled every inch of her up. She used her hands to express the deep feeling she felt in singing the song. Truly amazing.

Then we joined hands in a circle around the room, sang their parting song (which I did not know) and were dismissed.

Post Thoughts

I’d come back in a heartbeat just to hear that voice again. I wish I could fill my soul with a passion for something the way this woman has a passion for song. I’d say that this group encapsulates some of the Buddhist teachings. They also meet at the Quaker Friend’s Meeting House on Wednesday for meditation, but you’ll also see a lot of Church of Religious Science leanings with a good portion of Universal Unitarian thrown in. Celebration Circle is definitely in a class of its own and I’m so happy I had the chance to see what it was all about.

What’s Next in 2015?

Everyone has been asking me this question. Half way through this journey, I thought I might try to read all the major religious texts. I even started on several. I read the Qur’an. I’m halfway through “A Course in Miracles.” (I know that’s not necessarily a religious text, but is one everyone should read and study.) I also read a children’s book based on the Hindu religion. Yet, in the end I decided this wasn’t something I could blog about.

I also considered doing a year of Sunday School visits. I was so impressed by the Sunday School session I attended at University Presbyterian in San Antonio, that I wondered if other churches put on the same comprehensive studies as they did. However, I decided that with all the travel I planned for 2015 that might be problem, as well.

Here’s what I have decided to do.

As I think about the past year, I’d like to continue with a few more blog posts that wrap up the SteepleStretch insights around subjects of particular interests to churches, like offerings, sermons, greetings, and such. I also have one funny blog post that I’d like to write immediately that I wish existed for churches – sort of a Fandango for church services.

In 2015, I will have two focuses and will be blogging about those, but not posting until the end of the year. My personal focus will be on what I call “Transform in 12 Months.” You’ll hear more about that likely at the end of 2015 and I’m truly amazed at how God puts you at the right place at the right time. Today’s service was a celebration of the 2014 SteepleStretch journey and laid out what I need to do in 2015.

The last focus will be on reading as many books from the “1001 Books You Need to Read Before You Die” list. My kids have the most wonderful conversations about all the books they’ve read during their time in the International Baccalaureate program and in college. I don’t think any of the three kids ever agree on any one book, so it’s interesting conversation to listen to. Unfortunately, I can’t join the conversation, because I’ve not read the books. This year, I’ll try.

My son Alex said that if I compelted 50 books per year, that it would take me 20 years to finish all 1001 books – that may be longer than I have. So, I’ll just focus on one per week and see where that takes me. I may post these blogs as I finish each book.

A SteepleStretch Retrospect

This has been the most insightful journey I’ve ever traversed. I now feel completely at ease to walk into any church, in any city, any where in the country and feel completely at home worshipping God. I better understand different cultures and appreciate them. I now understand the practices of those who worship differently than I do and can embrace their choice to do so. That’s what it is all about folks.

I’m honored by all the comments you’ve made on the blogs throughout the year; many of those comments enlightened my visits even further. Thank you for sharing this journey with me. I hope you have come away with insights that will bless you on your own journey of worship and oneness.

Center for Spiritual Living (Church of Religious Science) – San Antonio

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#44 Sunday – Center for Spiritual Living, 3740 Colony Drive, Suite LL 100, San Antonio, TX

Why this Church?

Although I’d planned to hit two services this weekend and had those all lined out, that wasn’t whatt the Universe had planned. I wound up going to Austin and crewing for a bike race; Sunday became the only weekend day I had available to attend church. I awoke early and started my day by reading from A Course in Miracles. Landed on the section about atonement. Wasn’t quite sure the exact definition of the word “atonement,” so I looked that up. The best way to remember the definition is to break the word down to “at one ment.” I’m not sure why the text spoke to me in the way it did, but I found myself longing for a Mile Hi Church service in Lakewood, CO. Wanting to connect at a deeper level today, I decided to forego my plans for the church I had planned and seek out a Church of Religious Science service. I knew going in that it would not compare in any way to the 10,000+ member services that exist in Colorado at Mile Hi Church, but for some reason I needed what I knew I’d hear there.

Arrival

This church meets in an office building along IH-10 in San Antonio, so I knew going in that it would be a small, intimate service. I parked right outside the glass door entrance to the building — no need for special visitor parking signs here.

When I walked through the doors, I met Daniel. He asked if it was my first time at the church and what brought me there today. I explained that I’d attend Mile Hi in Denver and was familiar with the teachings of Church of Religious Science. He then gave me a packet of information and showed me where the Ladies room was located. It seemed important that everyone let me know where the restrooms were; didn’t need them, but I learned  where they are located!

I walked into the make-shift sanctuary and found a single aisle that led to the front with an audience section of  cushioned chairs on either side of that main aisle. As I sat down, Miles turned around and asked if I was new to the church. He said he was a practitioner at the church. When he learned I used to go to Mile Hi, he said I should meet Millie in the row above his, because she, too, had been a member in Colorado. I made a mental note to chat at the end of the service.

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Service Begins

A guest guitarist and pianist duo played the first song to set the stage for the service. Then Millie Forsberg came to the podium to give the invocation and meditation. To this day, I love the invocation in the Church of Religious Science. I can’t repeat it word for word, but it basically says that the church welcomes all faiths, ages, religions and cultures. In fact, I think the Church of Religious Science is the most inclusive church around, but it doesn’t overtly promote that; everybody just knows it.

When Millie began the meditation, I felt like I’d been transported back to Mile Hi; I could feel the pace and cadence in Millie’s voice that I’d often heard in Reverend Cynthia’s voice at Mile Hi.  That same feeling of peacefulness washed over me and I began to feel right at home. Then Millie gave the inspirational reading — first from “This Life is Joy” — a book by Senior Minister at Mile Hi Dr. Roger Teel. Odd, I was being hit with Mile Hi references all morning long and it somehow filled the void that had been felt earlier in the morning.

Then we stood for the Declaration of Principle with the words appearing on the overhead screen. After that, we had a Song of Affirmation. I’m not sure who this duo was but that one song absolutely depicted the intricate weave of oneness, unity or whatever you call it.

Today’s Message

Reverend Beth Jewett gave today’s message on “Navigating Transformation.” It’s a series focus on 28 Days of Transformation that is studying the process of transformation. I loved the fictional letter that the reverend started with — a letter from a college student to her parents. A version of this letter can be found online and it’s worth a read for the smile and giggles. As Rev. Jewett talked about how to navigate transformation, she also related the story of Steve Nash, who went from being completely entrenched in everything Phoenix as he played several years for the Phoenix Suns. He thought of himself as a Phoenix Sun, but when he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks, he had great difficulty with the transformation in becoming and thinking of himself as a Maverick. She said that our own spiritual transformations is often much like that. Then the reverend shared ways to make that transformation less difficult and pulled quotes from the New Testament and the word’s of Paul who shared that we must take on the mind of Christ.

After the message came the offering. I also love this part of the Church of Religious Science services. We hold our tithe in our hands and affirm our own abundance and our sharing that good with all who pass this way. Then a man passed the wooden bowl to the 30-35 people in attendance. Following that, we jointly stated our gratitude for the offering.

Finally, we had the benediction and closing music where we all held hands and sang together.

Post Service Thoughts

I’d purposefully put off going to this church, because I felt that I would be disappointed in the contrast from a 10,000 member church that books the world’s top speakers and musicians to a small church getting a new consciousness foothold into the community. In the end, I’m glad I waited, because today seemed like the day I was just supposed to be there. I certainly felt that “oneness” I longed to feel this morning.

What’s Next?

I’m reluctant to share what’s next, because I make plans and they keep getting changed. So, I’ll just say that wherever I end up next week will be the right place, as it always seems to be. And so it is!

 

Unity Church of San Antonio

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Sunday #33 – Unity Church of San Antonio – 1723 Lawndale, San Antonio

Why this Church?

Shortly before moving to Colorado, my mother and father attended the Unity Church of Beaumont, which I believe is now called the Unity Church of Southeast Texas. This church had a dramatic impact on their lives as I saw my father go from being quite negative to one of the most positive people I knew. So, I wanted people to know a bit more about Unity Churches and what their services are like.

Unfortunately, people will typically go to a church website before visiting a church. When looking up a Unity church, you probably won’t be impressed – at least I wasn’t. I usually get a sense of the whole denomination by Google searching every church across the U.S. through their websites. My research took me to well over 600 websites this past week and sadly, most Unity sites were horrendous in viewer engagement. They all fell basically into three categories:

  1. Websites with the look and feel of the 90s – old and outdated with little useful information.
  2. Websites that were probably sold by one company or given as a template from the Unity headquarters – because they were all alike.
  3. A rare few (mostly from Washington state oddly enough) were well done and provided a progressive feel with engaging content.

Definitely something for the Unity churches to work on, because most people initially judge a company or organization from its website. Employing old technology for communication is like using a horse and buggy to pick up the elderly for church services.

Arrival

photo 2-20   Today, I arrived so early that I had to wait outside the church doors with other early birds. Apparently another meditation service or class was going on before the 11:00 service. Once allowed in, I walked into a room of cushioned chairs located on each side of the main aisle. Two guitarists, a keyboardist and a drummer played on the small stage at front.

A cacophony of sound continued to rise as people came in and greeted one another. I knew from the start that these people were a true and vibrant community. In fact, I’d say that this group rivaled the Congregation Agudas Achim for the happiness award. These people were HAPPY!

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Service Starts

We were asked to stand as the words to a song hit the large overhead screen. Churchgoers immediately began clapping to the music. I guess being happy makes you a bit clappy, because they continued clapping during most of the songs. Kids of all ages added to the sweet sounds as light chatter filled the room.

After that, we were asked to sit. (YAY!) The “Celebration Host” named Pamela walked to the podium that stood at the right of the stage and she led us all in stating the  Vision of the Church from the words on the screen. After that, she introduced Reverend Linda Martella-Whitsett.

Now let me just say that from my initial research, here’s one area where the Unity Church excels – the ordination of women. I found no reference to numbers that the Unity Church ordains more women than other religions, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that of the 600+ websites I perused, most had women as pastors.

After the introduction, Reverend Linda welcomed guests, then opened a book about the history of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore – the founders of the Unity movement. I didn’t know much about these two spiritual leaders before attending, however, I learned today that Myrtle healed her tuberculosis by applying many of the principles she had learned.

My parents used these same manifestation principles years ago. My thoughts immediately went back to proof points from their lives that illustrate how these principles work.

Shortly after my father, a rice and soybean farmer, fell from atop a rice dryer, narrowly escaping a sure death, my mother began prompting him to retire. They had enjoyed their trips to Colorado to see me and my family, so decided they’d buy a second house in Golden, Colorado. Yet, they quickly learned they wouldn’t have nearly enough money to own two homes. So, they decided to return to Texas and sell the farm. The farm consisted of a house built in 1969, a large shop that dwarfed that house, a barn and scads of combines, tractors and trucks surrounded by 90 acres of farm land. Added to that was about 1500 to 2000 more acres of farm land my father either owned or leased.

When they told me they were headed back to sell the farm, I’m not sure what I thought or said at the time, but it was probably something akin to: Yeah, right! Like that will ever happen. Good luck finding that buyer!

Instead, my father began applying those principle he had learned in the Unity Church. He picked up the phone and called a farming acquaintance and said, “Hey, Tommy. I think you should come buy my place. I’m moving to Colorado.” Tommy talked to him a few minutes, came over to see it, agreed to a price and bought it lock, stock and barrel, without doing an inspection and with no Realtor negotiating on either end. AMAZING! Then he called a physician who was investing in farmland and offered his other acreage. The doctor,  in turn, bought that land from my dad. In no time at all, they were headed to Colorado.

Honoring the Youth: the Uni-teens

After the minister talked about the Fillmores, a man came to the podium to introduce a young lady who called for more youth volunteers and then to recognize those kids moving to the next grade level.

Then it was time for another song that we stood for and everyone again clapped to the music.  At the end of that song, we all greeted one another, then sat down for announcements. It was then that I noticed the seat back pockets in the chairs in front of me. As typical, they were filled with church literature, but then I noticed a small pocket filled with Kleenex.

photo 4-13   Oh no, they were ALL filled with Kleenex. I silently hoped this wasn’t a precursor to how the service might go. I hate to cry in public!

Then Rev. Linda shared that the Unity people offer affirmative prayers versus beseeching prayers, so then instructed us to fill out cards in front of us and write our prayer in the affirmative, then pass it to the aisle. The prayers would be picked up and prayed over for the next 30 days. As we passed these cards to the aisle, the band played some beautiful music. In fact, all of their music was serene and beautiful.

Rev. Linda’s Message

Rev. Linda talked about the two major contributions of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore:

  • The guiding principle that “There is only One.” She explained that all of life is thought and that everything begins with thought.
  • The Gift of Healing – Rev. Linda explained that we all need to get in touch with the misconceptions that we hold about ourselves and recognize the reality and truth underneath those misconceptions. Then she used some examples from her own life that touched everyone deeply.

After the message, Rev. Linda led us all in a quiet meditation while the band played softly.

Following the meditation, the Celebration Host returned to the podium and shared a touching story of a tattooed man on prison work release. She had complimented him on his heart and soul, but he couldn’t accept that compliment.

In the end, she told him something we all need to hear: “The problem is not that other people say horrible things to you; the problem is that you choose to believe those things.” No truer words have ever been spoken.

We then held our tithes in our hands and offered them up as a blessing, then dropped them into the baskets passed around the congregation.

Finally, we stood to close the service and joined hands to sing “Let there be peace on earth.” This is the same song, and the way we closed every service at Mile Hi Church in Lakewood, CO, so I immediately felt at home. Great way to end a service!

Post Service Thoughts

This service brought back many memories of my mom and dad. Instead of tears, I breathed in their presence and just enjoyed hearing more about what they learned many years ago. I liked this service and the people. I think if I lived closer to this church, it’s definitely one I’d consider, so if you are ever in the area, check this one out.

What’s Next?

I’ll be in Fort Stockton next weekend to see a high school friend get married. Not sure where I’ll be on Sunday. Perhaps I’ll be back in San Antonio. Still have many more churches to visit. Just realized that I’d forgotten about the Seventh Day Adventists, but they worship on Saturday, so that won’t be happening next week. It will just have to be a surprise!