National Preach-In on Global Warming Feb. 11 -13

I know of one service focused on global warming during Interfaith Light & Power’s National Preach-In this week-end:

UNC Asheville Asst. Professor of Environmental Studies David Gilette

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, David Gillette will give a program at the WNC Baha’i Center on “A Baha’i Perspective on the Environment,” which will highlight some of the issues in the recent letter from the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly regarding the Preach In.

Do any of you know of any other churches or clergy participating in this event?

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Gold-Red Woman: Mother Grove Temple’s Celebration of Brigid of Ireland

Community Imbolc Ritual

Feb. 5, 2011

What does it mean to “worship the Goddess”?

My dictionary defines “worship” as “reverent love and allegiance”, “a set of ceremonies, prayers or other religious forms by which this love is expressed” and “ardent humble devotion”.

All right then, what is the Goddess?  My favorite definition of the Goddess comes from Starhawk:

For me, now, the Goddess is the name we put on the great processes of birth, growth, death and regeneration that underly the living world.  The Goddess is the presence of consciousness in all living beings.  The Goddess is the great creative force that spun the universe out of coiled strings of probability and set the stars spinning and dancing in spirals that our intertwining DNA echoes as it coils, uncoils and evolves.  The names and faces we give the Goddess, the particular aspects she takes, arise originally from the qualities of different places, different climates and eco-systems and economies.

In the Celtic world and for ages before, the Divine was experienced as feminine, the Goddess, and She was called Brigid.

Last Saturday, as they do each year in the first days of February, Asheville’s Mother Grove Temple held a community Imbolc celebration in honor of Brigid of Ireland.

Imbolc (pronounce em ulk) is a Celtic word.  When Celtic culture flourished in the temperate climates of Europe on the days that fell mid-way between winter Solstice and spring Equinox people celebrated the promise of warmer summer season to come.  Today Imbolc has survived as Brigid’s Day, Candlemas and Ground Hog’s Day (it’s six more weeks till spring Equinox whether the ground hog sees his shadow or not!)

I love this holiday.  I mean it.  I really, really love this holiday.  Winter is hard for me and the last two winters here in western NC I have felt particularly challenged to remain hopeful, peaceful and present – which is, of course, excellently fertile ground for spiritual practice.  Celebrating Imbolc renews my hope each year.

I also love Brigid.  For one thing she’s Celtic—and my ancestry is Celtic.  For another she’s the Goddess of Smithcraft – and I’m a Smith.  She’s also the Celtic Goddess of Poetry and Healing.  Other symbols of Brigid’s domain include but certainly are not limited to honey, bees, wells, serpents, child-birth, cows, milk, lambs and beer.  (With ump-teen micro-breweries, Asheville is definitely a town devoted to Brigid!)  She’s called the Gold-Red Woman and the green rolling hills of the Celtic European landscape are Brigid’s mantel, protecting and nurturing all creatures who dwell within it.

Byron Ballard, founding Priestess of Mother Grove Temple, and Jill Yarnall, also a dedicated priestess, led the service along with Teresa, who I’m told took her dedication only last year.  These women with the help of a number of others created a truly sweet and powerful Imbolc celebration in honor of Brigid.

Before entering the ceremony hall we were each smudged with the fragrant smoke from dried herbs and our foreheads were anointed with sweet-smelling essential oil.  Ritual purification gestures like these help initiate the process of shifting our awareness from the mundane world into a state of attention to the Sacred.

We entered the hall and walked a “turas”, silently circling the central alter before finding our place in the large circle formed by chairs placed around the room.  As I looked around at the people gathered I noticed that with the exception of a few youths wearing long cloaks, the assembly looked the same as most other congregations – more women than men, more older people than younger, everyone casually dressed except the clergy who wore formal robes, in this case red and black.

With poetic and stirring images drawn from our own western NC landscape Byron and Jill called the directions inviting the energies and elements of the South, West, North and East to be present in our hearts, our minds and our circle.  Then Teresa performed the Invocation of Brigid of Cill Dara with equally beautiful and poetic words.  With this, our circle was cast.  As a group we breathed deeply and took our seats.

Once seated we were informed of the location of the bathrooms, thanked for contributions to the Mother Grove Food Pantry and invited to make a love offering to Mother Grove Temple as baskets made their way around the circle.  Mother Grove Temple has a goal to raise a Goddess Temple in Asheville, using green technology.

Now it was time to state the Intention of the Ritual.  Byron and Jill are both proud natives of these hills so the statement of Intention took the form of good old Southern Appalachian-style oratory, aka preachin’.  Y’all know I love good preachin’!

We heard about Brigid’s ancient history of worship and how she was co-opted as a Saint by the Holy Roman Empire as part of the occupation of Europe.  We learned that Her eternal flame had burned for 1900 years until it was extinguished by Henry the Eighth in the 16th century.  We heard that it burns again now thanks to Mary Minehan.  We heard light-hearted stories of miracles performed by Brigid including the one about how she turned bathwater into beer.

In a goose-bump raising moment we heard how her worship has continued in an unbroken line from thousands of years before Christ and David and Buddha across the Indus Valley to the farthest edges of Europe and into the New World until this very day.  In the 21st century Brigid is honored the world over including right here in the fellowship hall of an historic Episcopal church in the French Broad River Valley of the Southern Appalachians where so many people of Celtic heritage settled.

After the preachin’ we were invited to breath deeply and instructed how to proceed through the evening’s ritual by visiting each of the three stations or altars set up in the hall.

The central altar held a small statue of Brigid the Triple Goddess of Poetry, Healing and the Forge.  Surrounding the statue were other symbols of Brigid including crows, rosebuds, pussywillows and a pitcher of milk.  Below the alter on the floor lay a piece of lamb’s wool.  The altar also held candles with images of the Goddess and a tall arrangement of red and gold grasses.

Brigid's Cross

 

At the South end of the hall stood an altar of candles decorated with Brigid’s Crosses.  These candles had been symbolically lit from the sacred fires of the eternal flame at Brigid’s altar in Kildare and carried to our celebration across the ocean by means of a ritual called “smooring”.

Smooring is a ritual of lighting a candle from a sacred flame then envisioning the energy of the flame flowing down into the candle along with all the spiritual essence of Brigid.  In this way the eternal flame may be carried symbolically to any other altar bringing those energies and essences along with it.  We were invited to light and smoor our own candles at this alter so that we could carry fire from the eternal flame home to our own alters.

On the altar at the North end of the hall stood the clouty branch with clouty clothes.  Clouty clothes are essentially prayer flags that are traditionally tied to a branch by a stream where the prayers are released to Spirit as they wave in the breeze or fall into the water.

I experienced these stations as symbols of Past, Present and Future.  I began my ritual at the candle altar, which represented for me the Past.  As I lit my candle I whispered a prayer of gratitude that Brigid’s worship had survived terrorism and persecution by the Christianist Empire that was anything but Christ-like.  As my candle burned, I envisioned my grandmothers, Mamie and Bertha, with their hands on my shoulders and their mothers laying hands on their daughters’ shoulders and so on back and back and back through time.  I felt their love and support enfold me like Brigid’s mantle.

At the North alter, which represented for me the Future, I offered three prayers of healing and support – one for a struggling family member, one for my beloved partner and one for the Earth herself.  Then I tied each cloth to the clouty branch with three knots as I whispered the traditional words, “Brigid to the left of me, Brigid to the right of me, Brigid before me”.

Later, after everyone had proceeded through the ritual I looked with delight at the once bare branch now full of dear little pieces of cloth.  After the ritual, we were told, the branch would be ceremonially left by a stream in Asheville.

Finally, I proceeded to the central altar, representing for me the Present.  When it was my turn I took a moment to center myself with a deep breath as I gazed down at the beautiful altar.  I placed my foot on the lamb’s wool and picked up the pitcher of milk.  I offered gratitude for all the blessings of this moment and poured the milk over the statue three times in honor of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone.

I returned to my place with tears on my cheeks, feeling my connection to Spirit, my ancestors, this community and my loved ones.

When everyone had completed their visits to the three stations, the priestesses offered the ritual of Cakes and Ales, this time with pieces of Irish soda bread and milk.  As we took the bread Byron offered the first part of the traditional blessing, “May you never hunger”.  Jill followed with a bowl of milk completing the blessing,“May you never thirst” as we dipped our bread into the milk.

After Cakes and Ale the priestesses opened the circle by releasing the directions and inviting us to hug our neighbors in the circle.

My candle rests now on my personal altar at home along with one of the small Brigid’s Crosses.  (A larger one from last Imbolc hangs over my front door).  I’m using the candle in this Imbolc season to light my own candles and to remind myself that Spring must come.  It has never not come.  Meantime I’m blessed with a warm hearth, a resilient community and plenty of blessings to share.

Mother Grove Temple is currently located at the Park Building, 70 Woodfin Place in Asheville, where they hold Sunday Devotionals, workshops, private counseling services, and house food for the Mother Grove Cornucopia Food Bank.  Public rituals are usually held at All Soul’s Parish Hall in Biltmore Village during the colder months, and at public parks during the warmer months.

My best,

Michelle Smith, Minister and Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant

Posted in Ceremony, Community, Holiday, Ritual | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

WNC Baha’i – Peace and Unity in an historic Asheville social club.

WNC Baha’i Center

January 30, 2011

I have been curious about the Baha’i faith sense I first heard of it some 25 years ago in the early years of my spiritual search. That curiosity increased every time I passed the beautiful WNC Baha’i Center building on Ravenscroft Ave. downtown*.

Finally, last Sunday I gave myself the wonderful gift of attending a Baha’i service. This first visit will not be my last, Spirit willing.

Here’s how to know if you would enjoy a Baha’i service:

  • If you have ever wished for a spiritual service that felt soothing and restorative.
  • If you love the soaring, poetic language of inspired sacred writing.
  • If you appreciate the essential wisdom found in all religious traditions.
  • If you enjoy being in the company of sincere, warm-hearted, funny people.

As I paused at the door to turn off my cell phone before entering a gentlemen behind me asked graciously if he might hold the door for me. As we stepped inside I immediately noticed that the energy at the Baha’i Center feels peaceful and serene.

The gentleman introduced himself as Jim Turpin** and welcomed me warmly to the Sunday devotional, addressing me as Miss Smith until I invited him to call me Michelle if he liked. Dr. Turpin proceeded to direct me to a table with some literature about the Baha’i faith and to share with me some of the values held by its followers.

In a word, Baha’i believe in Unity – Unity of God and the Unity of Humanity as one Family. Our local Baha’i community reflects this belief in their open-hearted welcoming of a new comer. Dr. Turpin accompanied me up the stairs to the Baha’i Center’s suite of rooms on the upper floor and introduced me to some of the people assembled there.

I stopped to admire a number of large photographs of some of the seven Baha’i Houses of Worship around the world. There are only seven of these gorgeous temples, one on each continent. While they are all different in style, they all have nine sides and a central dome symbolizing the diversity of humanity and our Oneness.

The majestic Shrine of Bab, in Israel, holds the remains of the young man, known as the Bab, who announced the imminent appearance of Baha’u’llah, the divine Messenger of the Baha’i’ faith, in 1844 and was executed in the public square of Tabriz by the dominant Muslim clergy in 1850.

This Sunday an intimate group of a dozen or so gathered in the devotional room which is arranged very comfortably in the manner of a living room. The Baha’i do not have clergy so each week different members of the congregation take a turn preparing and delivering the service.

Baha’i service is informal and primarily devotional, centering on the readings taken from the Baha’i writings and sometimes also including the scriptures of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Zorastrianism and Buddhism. There are no rituals and yet I found the service profoundly moving.

A member of the congregation opened with words of welcome and a Baha’i’ prayer inspired by the bright, warm days that had everyone smiling with gratitude. This was my first taste of the beautiful writings that form the core text of the Baha’i’ faith, some 70 volumes by Baha’u’llah and his son, Abdu’l-Baha.

A lady named Jeanne chose the readings and music for this Sunday’s devotional. “A Message of Hope” was the theme, particularly fitting as the congregation remembered the people of Egypt this week. Several members of the congregation were enlisted to read in turn.

A smile rose up from my heart and settled on my face as I closed my eyes and let the words flow over me. Reading after reading my spirit was assured of God’s mercy, bounty and infinite love until I felt my being settle into a peaceful state of meditation. Here is a small sampling of these sacred writings.

May you be given life!

May the rain of the Divine Mercy

and the warmth of the Sun of Truth

make your gardens fruitful, so that many

beautiful flowers of exquisite fragrance and love

may blossom in abundance”

Between the readings, Jeanne played recordings of exquisite voices singing prayers.

Do not take into consideration

your own aptitudes and capacities,

but fix your gaze

on the consummate bounty,

the divine bestowal and the power

of the Holy Spirit –

the power that converteth

the drop into a sea

and the star into a sun”.

I’m told that devotional services vary somewhat depending upon the people leading them, sometimes including singing and other forms of devotion. The Baha’i’ calendar begins the New Year on Spring Equinox, March 21.   As with any other Baha’i’ observances there are no rules for celebration on this day.  Don, one of my new Baha’i’ friends, informed me that this is an especially nice time to visit a Baha’i’ community.

Members of the Baha’i’ faith represent what may well be the most culturally and ethnically diverse association of people in the world, an estimated five to six million members and growing rapidly.  Dizzy Gillespie was Baha’i’.  Rainn Wilson, most famous for his role as Dwight Schrute on The Office, is also Baha’i’.

The Baha’i faith emerged in the early 19th century. Followers of the faith are ”committed to helping humankind reach the long-promised age of global peace, justice and unity.”  Baha’i’ believe that there is only one God and that all religions are in essence different chapters of one religion divinely revealed to a series of Messengers whose teachings have provided the basis for human advancement toward an ever greater understanding of the Creator.

Baha’u’llah, the latest of these Messengers, brought new social and spiritual teachings for our time. His essential message is of unity — the oneness of God, the oneness of the human family, and the oneness of religion. Baha’i believe that men and women are equal and thatthat all prejudice is destructive.

Keep in mind, Baha’u’llah revealed this message in 19th century Persia, current day Iran. I’m sure you can imagine how well that went over with the dominant Muslim leadership of the day. (About as well as the dominant Jewish leadership received another young man’s message of peace a couple of thousand years before him). Sadly, in Iran and some other places in the world Baha’i’ are severely persecuted even today.

After the service we gathered for refreshments and fellowship. Baha’i services do not include an offertory. In fact, Baha’i Centers don’t accept offerings of money from people who are not members of the faith. Instead, I was gifted with two books:

Baha’u’llah and the New Era: an introduction to the Baha’i’ faith

and

Thief in the Night. This book, written in the form of a quest to uncover a mystery, examines the prophesies from the major world religions that foretell the arrival of Baha’u’llah, a divine Messenger for our time, whose name mean “The Glory of God”.

These books are available in the library of the Baha’i’ Center but don’t let them be your introduction to this faith if you can attend a service instead. You may find, as I did, a place to restore your spirit in loving community.

Sunday devotional services begin at 11:00am a the WNC Baha’i’ Center at 5 Ravenscroft in Asheville. You can also find out about other services in the surrounding counties at www.wncbahai.org.

*The building, I learned, was formerly the home of Asheville’s local chapter of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, which is fitting considering the Oddfellows were founded in the early 19th century as a means of “making the world a better place to live by aiding the community, the less fortunate, the youth, the elderly, the environment and the community at large in every way possible”.

The gentleman with the courtly manners turned out to be Dr. Jim Turpin, now 80 years old, a practicing MD, an ordained minister before discovering the Baha’i Faith, and the founder of Project Concern (www.projectconcern.org).  That’s Jim 50 years ago in the photo on their home page.

If you’ve been curious about this religion and perhaps longed for a quieter alternative for worship, as I have, I encourage you to visit our WNC Baha’i community.

My best,

Michelle

Michelle Smith, Minister and Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant

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Fr. Richard Rhor discusses the role of nature in Christian Spirituality

This is not about Asheville specifically, but it does address the conversation faith communities are struggling to have as we envision Asheville in the next 20 years.

Shared from www.elephantjournal.com

My best,

Michelle

Michelle Smith, Minister and Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant

Posted in Environment | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Man in the Mirror appears at Jubilee! Community

Jubilee! Community

January 23, 2011

This Sunday I visited Jubilee! Community, a church I’ve attended off and on for several years.  This Sunday I witnessed something I have never seen happen before in any church ever.  I was so proud of the loving, peaceful way the incident was handled by Rev. Laura Collins and the congregation.   It happened at the end of the service so I’ve left it for the end of this post.

Jubilee! Community calls its Sunday services Celebrations, and they are not kidding.  Sunday mornings at Jubilee! promise great music, a powerful message of connection creatively delivered with good humor, spontaneity and a rich reminder that the Spirit of Life is with us right now, alive in All Creation.

The first thing one notices upon entering the sanctuary is that the seats are arranged in concentric circles rather than rows.  Since its inception in the basement of the First Methodist Church, the Jubilee! Community has worshipped in circle.  Sacred objects including a chalice, candles and flowers sit on a beautiful round table in the center of the sanctuary.  Above this altar hangs a large carved wooden globe of the Earth.

As it says on their website, this faith community accepts and appreciates “the wisdom of all religious traditions, spiritualities and indigenous cultures”.   Nevertheless, Jubilee! identifies itself as a Christian Community rooted in the teachings of Matthew Fox and creation spirituality.

So while the service will include elements from almost any of the world’s spiritual traditions, at the core of the sermon (called the Meditation) lies Biblical scripture — a passage from the Old Testament and a passage from one of the four Gospels.  This winter quarter the scriptures each week also include a passage from the Qu’ran.  (In the community room before the Celebration I picked up a very handy 8 page handout called “Understanding Islam and the Muslims” provided by the Asheville Islamic Center.)

Howard Hanger is the Minister of Ritual and Celebration and the Founder of this vibrant faith community.   He’s gifted worship leader as well as a fabulous jazz pianist and composer.  Though he doesn’t play piano during Celebrations, services reflect his passion for great music.  Howard, along with the immensely talented Daniel Barber and Lynn Rosser, coordinate the music for Jubilee!  All three are Baby Boomers so you’ll often have rock-and-roll, soul or pop standards woven into  the service in such a way that the songs become hymns .   Don’t be surprised to sing a Grateful Dead chorus while Sharing the Peace or hear a Rolling Stones hit punctuating the message of the Meditation.

Howard was away on a much deserved vacation so Rev. Laura Collins and Jay Joslin led  the Celebration this January morning.  Jay welcomed the congregation and set the tone for the Celebration by Calling the Four Directions as drummers played an ancient rhythm.

That’s the next thing visitors will notice about Jubilee!  Celebrations begin by calling the directions.  Calling the directions is a practice used in many indigenous cultures to bring people into a state of sacredness and to call to mind a sense of connection between humans, Spirit and Earth.  Jay lit some sage and cedar, also sacred to many indigenous people, in a clay bowl, and blew on the embers to release the fragrant smoke.  Beginning in the East, everyone faced each of the four directions in turn as the spiritual qualities associated with each direction were invoked.   When we returned to face the center, I felt centered myself, grounded and ready for worship.

Next the congregation is invited to Feed the Hungry by placing an offering in the hunger baskets on the altar.   This is a separate collection from the offering that is collected toward the end of the service.  To me this is a powerful gesture of faith by this community.  The first offering that is collected is not money that will pay a single bill nor purchase a single supply.  No, the first gifts collected by this congregation go directly out the door, put to work caring for the “least among us”.   That is faith in action, if you ask me.

This morning we enjoyed the special blessing of hearing the Jubilee! Singers led by Lynn Rosser.  The song they offered this morning was written by our own Linda McLean.  Who knew this wonderful local film maker, creator of Little Pearls, could also write beautiful music?!

After the song, Jay led us into a time of silent prayer with the ringing of the Tibetan singing bowl.  Several people bring their own singing bowls for this prayer time and the whole place is filled with the healing vibrations.  We were invited to pray with one of the prayer partners if we wanted or at the Western Wall, a small alcove in the sanctuary where one can light candles, kneel to pray or post a prayer request.

Following the prayer Lynda LeTourneau and her son Dylan sang the sweetest duet, a song called Ocean of Love that they learned at the Meher Baba Spiritual Center.  I just closed my eyes and let the words flow around and into my heart.

The core of the service began with Rev. Laura reading from the scripture, first from the book of Jonah (that’s right, the guy who got swallowed by the whale), next from the Quran, then from the Gospel of Mark.

Sharing the Peace followed the reading.  This is a large and loving community so Sharing the Peace takes a minute.   And why should we rush greeting each other and wishing each other Peace?  What is more worthy of our time, I ask you?

The Meditation, as the sermon is called here, centered on the idea of repentance as the beginning point of change and transformation.  Now, one would need to approach the idea of repentance with a good dose of humor at Jubilee!  For one thing, creation spirituality honors all Creation as original blessing.  That is, the universe is something we experience as basically good including us, the humans.  This is not the church you want to attend if you’re deeply committed to the doctrine of original sin (which one person in attendance seemed to be but I’ll get to him later).

Change is mostly what we’re up to here on Earth, either consciously or unconsciously.   This Meditation offered wisdom for changing consciously.  The word “repent” is used in the modern translations of both Jonah and Mark but in the original scripture three different words actually appear.

The first two words that were each translated as “repent” appear in the story of Jonah’s journey to Nineveh:

“Nacham”, meaning “to sigh,” describes that moment of sorrow  when one has missed the mark.  I heard it as something we feel, a bodily response to a thought of regret.

“Schuwb”, meaning to “change directions,” describes the moment when we turn toward a different goal and purpose.

The third word that has been translated as “repent” appears in Mark’s Gospel at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry:

“Metanoia”, meaning “to change one’s mind,” describes the moment when we set a new intention.  “Repent and believe the Good News!  The Kingdom of God is at hand,” this scripture reads.   There is no longer any need to think the Kingdom of God is far away in some other life.  Jesus came to re-mind us that it is here, right now, in our willingness to see each other as Brothers and Sisters and intentionally act as if we Love one another.

The scripture from the Quran echoes this principle of Intention. “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Sura Ar Ra’d 13:11)  Then,  just as God changed God’s mind in Ninevah, deciding not to destroy the city when the people realized they’d missed the mark and turned in a new direction, we can expect Divine help when we set our intention to see that help all around us.  Usually this requires great faith.

The Meditation at Jubilee! always weaves contemporary culture into the message, showing the relevance of this ancient wisdom to our lives today.  Santana’s “Evil Ways”, led by the World Beat Band, had us smiling gently at our own moments of “Nacham”.

Laura reminded us of Jon Stewart’s response on the Daily Show to the recent mass shooting in Arizona.  Stewart urged us not to blame but to grieve, experience our deep feelings of loss, and to be comforted by the truth of how much “anonymous goodness” there really is in the world.

Crazy shit happens but it is rarer than corporate media would make it seem.  Mass media will not show these countless stories of anonymous goodness, depending as it does on our belief in our separation, aloneness and unhappiness to sell us products we don’t need and answers that won’t work.  When we change the direction (Schuwb) of our focus and set the intention to believe in one another, the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed at our very fingertips.

A soulful rendition of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror by the World Beat Band closed the Meditation with all the voices of the congregation raised up in song.    Here is a video of Michael’s 1988 Grammy Awards performance of this song.  I dare you not to get chill bumps at 2:51.

As the carved wooden offering bowls were passed, Rev. Laura, offered the microphone for announcements.   That’s when it happened.

Laura gave the microphone to a young man who affirmed that yes, his announcement was about a Jubilee! activity.  He then proceeded to proselytize his own interpretation of these scriptures – a fundamentalist interpretation rooted firmly in the doctrine of original sin.

At first I felt embarrassed, then angry, then resentful.  What made him feel entitled to impose his beliefs here?  There are plenty of other churches in town that share his beliefs. I could feel the energy of similar emotions throughout the congregation.

I watched Laura wait patiently for an opening to take back the microphone.  Daniel began to play the closing music which helped to ease the tension.  I took a breath and remembered that I can choose a loving response even to this person, who, after all , is also my Brother and a reflection of me.

After Laura retrieved the microphone she gracefully proceeded to close the service with the final songs of dedication and benediction.   When the service was over it appeared that no one approached the young  man in anger though a few people were speaking with him quietly.  I was even able to regain a sense of humor about the whole thing, even my own opportunity to “repent”, change my direction and change my mind.

Celebrations are held at Jubilee! every Sunday morning at 9:45 and 11:15 .  On the first Sundays of the month there is an 8:30am service with Communion.

My best,

Michelle

Michelle Smith, Minister and Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant

Posted in Church, Community, Interfaith, Liberal | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

In the tradition of Dr. King

The Nazareth First Missionary Baptist Church

January 16, 2010

I wasn’t able to locate a website for Nazareth.  The church’s address is 146 Pine Street at the corner of Hazzard St and MLK Blvd. just east of downtown Asheville.  Sunday service begins at 11:00am.

This Sunday I chose to visit one of Asheville’s predominantly black Baptist congregations in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a Baptist minister.   I picked Nazareth because it’s a Baptist church located right on MLK Blvd and always plays a leading role in the Asheville MLK Day Celebrations.  I’d also heard they had a particularly excellent gospel choir.  I LOVE gospel music!  Who doesn’t?!

While I do not wish to encourage people to visit churches as spectators (church is not a performance for an audience) but rather to approach the experience as an open-hearted guest receiving gifts, more people really should hear the Voices of Nazareth Choir.

The Choir was just finishing their first song and the first prayer beginning when I arrived a little bit late (not unusual for me to my constant chagrin).  While I waited for the prayer to conclude before entering I admired the photographs and commemorations of people who’ve led and supported this congregation over the years.   Mrs. Maybin, whom I met in the foyer, greeted me warmly and gave me a visitor card to fill out, which I did and returned to her.

As  I entered the sanctuary one of the youth ushers in black pants, a crisp white shirt and white gloves gave me a program.  The congregation was singing a hymn from the African American Heritage Hymnal.  Another youth usher, this one a girl in a ruffled black skirt, a white shirt and gloves, noticed that I did not have a copy of the hymnal on my pew  and brought me one almost before I noticed myself.

I looked up from my singing long enough to notice two friendly and familiar faces.  Associate Minister Rev. Paul Milsaps, who formerly led a congregation in my neighborhood and, I believe, Elder John Hayes who manages WRES –LP 100.7FM.

Dr. Charles R. Mosley, Sr. the Minister of Nazareth, leads his flock like benevolent father–with high expectations and good humor.  When he was not satisfied that the congregation had been holding up their end of the congregational singing he expressed his dissatisfaction, charged the congregation with its duty not to leave the singing all up to the choir and had us all sing it again.  We did so and I certainly participated with an increased gusto that may or may not have been appreciated by the lady standing in front of me.  Dr. Mosley is clearly loved and respected by his congregation as well as many other people in Western NC.

Now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when visiting Nazareth.  First, this congregation does not do anything by half-measures and the includes the Welcome to Visitors.  All churches express their welcome to visitors at some point in the service, usually from the pulpit, and sometimes even ask visitors to stand.   At Nazareth, I was called by name, Sister Michelle Smith, and invited to stand which I did. The entire congregation turned to face me and offered me this welcome in unison, “In the name of our Master, we bid you a cordial welcome to this house of God, its comfort and its peace.  It stands for Loyalty, Missions, Benevolence and the Salvation of all mankind.”

If this sounds like more attention than you’re normally comfortable with  I invite you to just relax into the experience.  As I looked around into the faces of these people I felt truly honored to receive so much warm attention.  I expressed as much when I was asked by the Minister if I had any words I’d like to say.

When I sat down I felt a little flushed from all the attention and began to fan myself with my program.  Another young usher quietly brought me a proper fan.

The second thing to keep in mind is that this congregation enjoys church and each other.  They are not in any hurry to get out.  I failed to keep this in mind and, unfortunately had to leave before the service was over due to another obligation that afternoon.

The sermon started about 12:30 and looked like it was going to carry on until 1:30 or so.  I was very sorry to have to leave early and normally I wouldn’t have if I’d been better prepared.  Be sure and eat a good breakfast so you don’t get hungry.

This is a working congregation and good part of Sunday morning services is devoted to taking care of God’s business.  Announcements, reports on fund raising efforts for scholarships and other ministries, fund raising calls to action, and of course, the Offering.  Nazareth takes up offering in large, shiny golden plates as befits money dedicated to Spirit’s agenda.

As a professional fundraiser, I was completely inspired at the power of this organization to gather resources for the world changing work these people value.  Talk about a fundraising culture!   All you folks in the non-profit world who want to raise money but don’t want to have to ask anyone for it ought to go and watch what happens when people know they are channeling their resources to their highest vision of the world and people they trust ask them to contribute.  I’m seriously considering assigning attendance at a Sunday morning service at Nazareth as homework for my clients.

In between and along with all these proceedings there is singing, magnificent singing! With a choir like the Voices of Nazareth and a preacher like Dr. Mosely, I can understand why this church enjoys Sunday morning to the fullest.

The choir sang no less than four songs before preaching started not including the Gloria Patri, the Offering hymns and the congregational hymns.   One of my favorite parts of the service was the Pastoral Prayer and Altar Call.  I had not seen this done before.  Members of the choir and congregation gathered in a circle holding hands around the Altar to pray with their pastor for each other, their church and those in need.  I’m sure this is a favorite part of the service for many and one that helps bond this community together for good times and hard.

Dr. Mosley is himself a fine singer and he takes advantage of this gift in his preaching.   He took his sermon from the third chapter of the Book of Acts, the story of Peter and James and the miracle of the lame man outside the temple.  I enjoyed hearing this story again.  I haven’t thought about it since childhood and I didn’t think much about it then.  This was one of dozens of miraculous stories that I knew and could recite from the Bible.

In the story the man, lame from birth, is brought everyday to the temple gate called Beautiful to beg for alms.  (Don’t you love it?  A gate called Beautiful.)   Peter and James look him in the eye and tell him to take up his bed and walk.   Then Peter reaches down with his right hand and picks the man up and the man goes walking and leaping into the temple praising God.

For me, the story gives us a compelling picture of how we can leave ourselves outside the temple, in our comfortable story of littleness and deprivation, feeling unable to change our perception of our lives from broken to Beautiful.

Peter and James did not see the man as lame, but as whole.  They refused to buy his story about himself (“Silver and gold have I none”).  Then Peter offered him a hand up and the man was able to believe in the possibility of a different story about himself.  Dr. King asked the same of this country.  He spoke his vision of wholeness and people walked toward it.

Dr. Mosely preached his way all the way from the beginning of this story to the end reaching into the meat of every sentence and phrase while the congregation testified with feeling.  The organist, drummer and percussionist rejoined their instruments as Dr. Mosely began to build his oration to a satisfying crescendo.

Sadly, that’s when I had to slip out in order to meet my other commitment.  I look forward to returning to Nazareth First Baptist Missionary Baptist again when I can relax and enjoy the entire service.

Communion is served at Nazareth on the first Sunday of the month.  Baptism is offered on the fourth Sunday of the month. Perhaps I’ll make a point to join the congregation for one of these special services.

My best,

Michelle

Michelle Smith, Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant

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GLOW in the New Year at Unity Church of Asheville

Sunday, Jan. 2, 2010

After departing from the early service at UU Asheville I hurried on over to West Asheville to attend the 11:00am service at Unity Church of AshevilleUnity is a progressive approach to Christianity based firmly in the teachings of Jesus that also honors the universal truths present in all spiritual traditions.  I have attended services at the larger Unity Center in Mills River before with great pleasure and when I heard there was a small Unity Church in West Asheville I knew I wanted to visit.

In addition, I noticed on their website that they have A Course In Miracles class that meets right after Sunday services.  I’ve been practicing the Course in Miracles lessons for almost a year now so I was looking forward to spending time with other folks who were practicing the Course too.

Since I’d hurried over from the UU service I arrived a bit early at the Unity Church, which is situated on a lovely wooded property at 130 Shelborne Road.  I browsed the church library for a few minutes as more people arrived.  I was greeted by both Barbara, the church’s administrator and Angela Plum, one of the church’s ministers.

This is a small, family-like congregation who especially love sharing the gift of music with one another.   There is no choir.  Instead, Minister Rick Ackers leads a small band and the congregation sings along joyfully.   This is one of my favorite things about church — it provides an opportunity for people to share their artistic expressions with their community for the sheer love of sharing.   After a few songs a man read a passage from a spiritual text (I didn’t get the title) and then, in one of the finest baritone voices I’ve ever heard led the congregation in singing the Lord’s Prayer.

Next, Rick, led the congregation in a deep meditation that opened my heart and left me with a profound sense of my connection to Infinite Source.   After the meditation the congregation affirmed this statement of faith and unity:  “I am one with God.  We are all one in Spirit.  I can never be separated from Spirit, for God and I are one”.  I’m not always able to affirm statements of faith when I visit Christian churches because I don’t always share the beliefs on which they are founded.  But this was a statement I could affirm whole-heartedly.

Unity Church is one of those churches that includes a segment in the service called “Sharing the Peace” where everyone sort of moves around the congregation shaking hands or hugging and saying “peace be with you” or “God’s peace to you” or simply “welcome, I’m glad to see you”.  It’s just delightful.   In close, informal congregations like Unity Church of Asheville, Sharing the Peace can take a while.  It was clear these people love each other and sincerely welcome visitors.

Rick’s message for the New Year centered around our efforts to make changes in our lives, especially changing habits.  Habits become hard to break, he said, precisely because we see them as bad. If we can think of these habits instead as tools that got us this far, we can find it easier to bless and release the behavior as we move on to choose new behaviors that are more in line with our spiritual path.  He offered this acronym, GLOW, as a way to remember this process:

G – Gratitude for the learned habits that got us this far.

L-Letting go of guilt, resistance and fear.

O-Opening up, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and to give more of our attention to the present moment filled with blessings and power.

W-Will, exercising our choice in the moment.

After a few more songs about Divine Love and prayers service ended with the whole congregation holding hands in a circle singing the Peace Song: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”.

I stayed for the Course in Miracles class which had about a dozen people in it all together.  The group welcomed me and another visitor warmly as we shared a lesson and some readings from the Course.  I felt a little inner giggle when it turned out the section we were reading from that afternoon was the same one I’d been reading that very morning.  Little synchronicities like that remind me that I am always connected to Spirit.

My best,

Michelle

Michelle Smith, Certified Life-Cycle Celebrant

Posted in Christian, Church, Liberal | Tagged | 4 Comments