Mystery Worshipper: Paltrything
Church: Hope Lutheran
Location: Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 March 2006, 8:30am
From the outside the building is just plain dumpy: a white clapboard house-like structure surrounded by pavement. A plethora of signs advertise the name of the congregation, times of service, time of Sunday school, phone number, and those trite one-liners like "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." Not an inspiring first impression. The interior, though, is better clear and uncluttered, plain but versatile (so described on their website, although the webmaster needs to run spell check on his text), with clear windows that let in plenty of sunshine.
In the midst of the preponderance of signs, a small turn of phrase stands out: Hope Lutheran meets here. One gets a sense that the people of this parish might understand themselves as a community of the faithful, not caretakers of a building. My hope rises slightly. The website tells me that the church was organised in 1967, but aside from an historical tidbit or two there's not much else to go on. There are three services every Sunday: a plain and simple early service (which I attended today), contemporary worship at 9.30, and a traditional service at 11.00.
Nanaimo, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, was originally a coal mining town, but lumbering is its economic mainstay nowadays. The church is located in a typical 1960s subdivision - blah! There's an ugly mall across the street, ugly businesses along the road, and an ugly elementary school next door. A gentleman walking his dog told me that the best thing about the neighbourhood is the view a breathtaking vista of Departure Bay and the coastal mountains across the water. He opined that the city planners may have been so stunned by the view that they did everything they could to foul it.
The pastor, the Revd Curtis Aguirre, was the sole presiding minister.
What was the name of the service?Reflective Worship – billed as "a quiet time without music, and with plenty of opportunity for silent reflection."
How full was the building?
There were ten people counting myself and the pastor.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived right at 8.30 to find an empty narthex. Doors to the worship space were closed. I let myself in and discovered nine people seated in a semicircle, quietly meditating. The pastor smiled and said hello. I returned the greeting and then commented that it was a bit intimidating to enter such a hushed gathering. There were murmurs of understanding and some smiles. Note to self: arrive early next time (see below).
Was your pew comfortable?
We sat in a circle on individual chairs for the 40 minute worship service, except when we stood for the peace and the sharing of the eucharist. At service's end we each put our chair back into rows for the next service. I liked the versatility that individual chairs made possible.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
During the few moments in which I sat with the congregation before worship officially began, I had a sense that these people had been trained to observe silence. They were comfortable being still together, but not so wed to silence that things felt rigid.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
After a period of silence, a Nepalese bowl bell was gently struck, and the pastor began: "O Lord, you love us and call us by name." A rich and elegant call to worship.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
On each seat was a blue soft-cover With One Voice, a supplement to the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship. We also each received a bulletin with scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, but it became apparent that it was intended for one of the later services.
What musical instruments were played?
Apart from the bowl bell, there were no other instruments. It was a genuinely meditative experience.
Did anything distract you?
Tthe service was so still at times that I was startled when someone dropped his book on the floor. In another period of extended silence I was distracted by the murmur of the 9.30 crowd getting coffee ready in a room somewhere behind me. Also, I couldn't take my eyes off the gaudy artificial candles on the altar, the aged purple altar frontal and pulpit antependium, and a rather amateurish banner showing a loaf of bread and a bleeding chalice and the words "Broken and shed for you."
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Gentle and contemplative.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The sermon was intelligent, thoughtful and well constructed. The pastor read from a manuscript even though we were such a small group, but he wasn't rigid – he spoke to us and with us, not at us. He had put effort into the sermon and was careful about his words and his delivery.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was about prayer. It was about intentionally coming into the presence of God through a 20 minute daily practice of stilling the heart and mind. It was ancient Christian mysticism mixed with contemporary tidbits about things like the pull of consumerism and the slowing rotation of the earth. I felt like I was invited to remember that first truth about life in the spirit: God is the still, small voice at the centre of all things. Good sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The bell, the stillness, the feel and sound of human bodies breathing in unison. It was like drinking from a deep, clear stream.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was discombobulating to discover that I was late when I thought I was arriving on time. While the pastor was gracious when I entered, it was awkward coming into that small group as a stranger. Some people laughed good naturedly at my comment about being a bit intimidated, but there was one older gentleman with such a scowl on his face as I seated myself that I wasn't sure he would even want to share the peace with me.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A gentleman named David introduced himself and asked me my name and where I came from – hospitably, not intrusively. He told me that had I come a few minutes earlier I would have been greeted with a handshake and someone would have given me a laminated card explaining the shape of the liturgy and its meditative flavour. He then fetched me a cup of coffee and apologised for there being no cookies (as there usually are). We chatted about the church, the local economy, and silvaculture (of all things) long after the 9.30 crowd were singing their opening hymn. At length, David gave me a brochure about the church and sent me on my way with quiet good wishes.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Hot and ready. No cookies, though. I really wanted a cookie because I didn't have time for breakfast. Next time.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The bell, the silence, the prayer were gifts in my busy world. The preaching was thoughtful. I could worship here quite easily.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It did. It felt like the depth of the contemplative Christian tradition had been revived and was being celebrated here in this small town on the edge of Canada's rugged west coast.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The feel of the bell reverberating through my chest and the silence, oh the silence.