Year of Sundays

Year of Sundays

Jamming on a Sunday Morning

Photo credit: poetas.

Ever since sound engineer Frank Laico laid down the tracks to Miles Davis’ ‘Round About Midnight in an old Armenian church in 1955, jazz musicians have eagerly sought out echoey old houses of worship to convert into recording studios.

As if we need further proof that man is evolving.

That must have been the thinking behind Westminster Presbyterian Church‘s decision to offer occasional “jazz worship services” throughout the year. Built in 1892, the massive stone building is topped off with a lofty exposed timber ceiling that delivers an open, “live” ambiance. As it happens, the jazz worship service we attended this Sunday coincided with the Portland Jazz Festival.


And talk about a match made in heaven. What better way is there to endure the rigors of church than with a jam session! Apparently pulled from local church members, the sextet performed several tightly arranged church hymns, giving the horn players plenty of space to stretch out in their solos.  Local singer Gus Reeves supplied tobacco-warm vocals on a tune or two. My only wish is that these musicians should get together more regularly. It would have also helped if the congregation applauded after each solo and song. The music was slightly stiff, as if, for these players, a blues progression and the mantle of Christ were an awkward fit.

But hey, who am I to carp on such things? When the congregation was called upon to join their voices in a cool early 60s-esque bossa nova rendition of “The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” it was like stepping into a James Bond movie theme from an alternate universe. That’s a church I can get into.


At other houses of worship, when the collection plate is passed, the pianist will plink out a vaguely New Age devotional tune. But these Presbyterians definitely improved that necessary evil by stomping out the New Orleans second line march “The Devil Done Got Me Blues.” I noticed an unusually large number of 20 dollar bills lying in the bottom of the plate as it glided by. Inspired music choice, indeed.

The only sour note came, not from the musicians, but from the worship service itself. I’m talking about the Call to Confession, which demands that the entire roomful of people rise and recite:

“Ever-present God, we confess that we have trusted our narrow understandings rather than seek your will. We have taken our direction from the world rather than question the way things are ordered here. We have put our confidence in riches and worldly status. We have closed our ears to your call and, when we have heard that call, defied it. [Here’s the part that really gets me:] Even when we have followed we have resisted the evidence of your activity in our midst. Forgive us and save us from ourselves, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”


Jesus. What a downer. And even when we’re doing it right, we’re still doing it wrong. With the Presbyterian God, you can’t win for losing.

This idea that we are miserable, disobedient sinners, dependent on God’s charity, just doesn’t sit with me. If, 2000 years after Jesus died, mankind is still as pathetically lost as ever, I have to wonder if his crucifixion has really delivered on its promise. (Before you start filling up the comments box informing me about how the ransom works, trust me, I already got that lesson. Still, my point stands.) While the Buddhists are lighting up incense sticks and blissing out, the Christians are beating the hell out of themselves, convinced they don’t deserve that happiness.


This “I’m a miserable sinner” theology runs counter to what I see as the only redeeming aspect of Christianity: grace.

I love the idea of divine grace, where goodness emanates from God whether we want it or not. It’s such a powerful concept that it outshines any need for redemption. The problem with mainline churches is that they cut the idea short, attaching strings where there were none before. The Catholics believe grace is bestowed on an individual when he or she accepts the sacraments, while most Protestants demand that you have to do you part by maintaining a relationship with God. The idea is that you must take steps to make yourself deserving of what is by definition undeserved. So I call bullshit.

You know who taught me more about grace than anything I’ve learned so far sitting in a pew? Alfred Hitchcock. (Hey, you get devotional your way, I’ll get devotional mine.) His 1955 comedy The Trouble With Harry, in which a community repeatedly digs up and and reburies a corpse they’ve discovered in the woods, goes straight to the heart of the matter.


The Trouble With Harry is about human grace in the face of horror. As the characters in the film encounter the dead body, each imagines him- or herself to be responsible for his death. Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), for instance, thinks he may have shot him in a hunting accident, while Jennifer Rogers (21-year-old hottie Shirley Maclaine in her first film role) believes she killed him when she struck him over the head with a milk bottle. Yet, there is no judging, suspicion or recrimination. The townspeople accept each other for what they are, seeing themselves in the others’ humanity and empathizing with their various predicaments. They seem to agree, that, after all, there are more important things in life than death. That’s why no one gets bent out of shape over Harry’s demise as they repeatedly disinter his body. (If you’ve already picked up on some religious symbolism, that’s because it’s there. There’s even a morally myopic, authoritarian town sheriff named Calvin.)


In that film, Hitchcock replaced the Protestant saying, “there but for the grace of God go I,” with the nobler, simpler and more universal “there go I”—regardless of whether that person is a criminal or a saint. Which is to say, the characters in Harry live in a state of grace. I think I can identify with that.

I’ve rejected Christianity and the existence of a central God; I never pray; I go to other people’s places of worship, laugh at their rituals and write snarky blog posts about it. I drink, smoke and fornicate. Yet, for all of this, I feel cared for, cosmically speaking. No matter how dicey things may look, I know without any doubt that my needs will be met. Oddly enough, the farther I run from God, the stronger my faith gets. Why should I hang my hopes on the debatable value of a Jewish mystic’s grisly murder? It just seems so irrelevant. If this isn’t grace, I’m caught up in one hell of a delusion.


If you’re a believer, you might be thinking—maybe even hoping—that my comeuppance will befall me soon enough. Maybe it will. Hitchcock had an answer for that, too. In Shadow of a Doubt, Merry Widow Murderer Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) reminds us that “God looks out for fools and scoundrels.”

As it happens, the sermon this Sunday had to do with just that topic. It was based on 1 Corinthians 3:18: “If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise.”

The minister, Debbie Garber, made an interesting point. In the theater, the “fool” is both an insider and an outsider. He is someone who understands the value of living by society’s conventions, but who also sees the atrocities that sometimes arise from doing so—and he speaks his truth about both. In the comments section of this blog, Amanda and I have been called fools for embarking on A Year of Sundays. They might be right. I’ll bet that Jesus, wherever he is, is laughing his ass off.

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posted March 15, 2011 at 11:44 am

I knew I had truly accepted Christ when I *wanted* to live by His teachings, not from guilt or trying to keep up some kind of “Christian” front, but because there was a desire in my heart that hadn’t been there before to live my life differently. I’m still human and still mess up a lot, but I understand that I’m a child of God and I aspire to live the way He taught us. I already have His mercy and grace, so it’s not about trying to earn anything, but because I see and believe in the benefits of living my life according to Christian principles.

Amen, Rebekah! When I met my husband, he called himself an atheist (but really was more agnostic) and had graduated with honors in biology (even specializing in evolutionary biology!) from an Ivy League school. He comes from a loving Christian family, but most of his adult interactions with other “Christians” were with intolerant, judgmental hypocrites, and he understandably wanted nothing to do with them. He also felt less than inspired by the type of dry, passive faith he grew up with. I accepted him for who he was, but didn’t expect our relationship to progress past platonic due to our differences.

He surprised me by saying he would support what I believed by attending services with me, and I gradually introduced him to my Christian friends and my church. He found that most were willing to accept his doubts and allow him to learn and ask questions. He also found a place where Christianity wasn’t just about showing up at church on Sunday, it was being inspired to live your whole life according to Christian principles, starting with loving and serving others regardless of their beliefs. I tried to stay out of it and let God work through other people, and that’s how it happened. He kept an open mind, started reading the Bible and praying, and took the opportunity to learn about Christian faith from many sources. He eventually accepted Christ into his life and I think he would identify strongly with your husband’s faith journey. (And yes, he still believes in evolution – some might call his Christianity into question over that, but we prefer to agree that however “Creation” happened, God was behind it.)

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Joel Gunz

posted March 1, 2011 at 11:43 am

PS – I was able to quote these words verbatim because it’s in a printed program we received. :)

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Joel Gunz

posted March 1, 2011 at 11:40 am

Hey Katherine –

Like your experience, for me, the overall vibe was definitely about joy, with just the one exception. On the day we attended, the confession part of the program took place in four parts:

(Read from the pulpit) We, who have often turned away from God’s direction and purpose, have come together to confront our disobedience and our willful disregard for the divine intent. Despite good intentions, we have broken trust with God and with one another. Let us acknowledge our sin, that we may be open to God’s healing and the restoration of right relations with our neighbors.”


PRAYER OF CONFESSION (Quoted above and recited by the congregation)
“Ever-present God, we confess that we have trusted our narrow understandings rather than seek your will. We have taken our direction from the world rather than question the way things are ordered here. We have put our confidence in riches and worldly status. We have closed our ears to your call and, when we have heard that call, defied it. Even when we have followed we have resisted the evidence of your activity in our midst. Forgive us and save us from ourselves, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”

“God offers us a place in the eternal realm that is present, even in the midst of all life’s distortions. The form of this world is passing away. Injustices are begin overcome in God, for whom there is no high or low estate. Believe the gospel; we are forgiven.”

So, for what it’s worth, there you go. But overall, the experience was GREAT. We might even return, next time there’s a jazz service!

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posted March 1, 2011 at 10:54 am

Hey Joel –
I’m really enjoying reading about your adventures with Amanda exploring what’s out there and (I hope for both of you) eventually finding a “home” spiritually, even if it isn’t at a “physical” church.

I have an interesting perspective on the whole “faith and Atheism” conversation, that funnily enough, ties into the mention of the film Contact. My very scientifically-minded, intellectual husband was an Atheist with Buddhist underpinnings when I met him. I’ve been a believer and follower of Jesus’ teachings for most of my life. *Please note, I don’t consider myself to fall into the larger group of “Evangelical Christians” but much more along the lines of what you mentioned Joel when you said you wondered about people just sticking to the Gospels for their guidance.*

Anyhow, meeting my husband opened my eyes to the realization that Faith is something that cannot be taught, or purchased, or forced into anyone. You just have to come to it on your own. And yes, I do believe Atheists have Faith – maybe more than many people who follow an organized religion – an Atheist is believing – having Faith – that there isn’t a supreme being/creator/higher level of self to get to – and are taking responsibility on themselves to live this life the best way they can, and hopefully in an ethical, caring way that benefits those around them because they believe this is all we have – this one life. My husband (then boyfriend) and I would stay up all hours discussing why I believe in a loving God, why this loving God could allow bad things to happen to people, why God would care if we prayed or didn’t, why it even matters if we worship/believe in Him as long as we’re good people, etc. Our discussion never came down to me saying “Why can’t you just believe what I believe?” because I truly feel that true Faith comes from within. How am I going to tell anyone what to believe if, after a certain point, I myself have to just say “I don’t know why God and the Universe works the way it does, but I have absolute Faith that my God is there, loving me, and wanting me to know Him. I can’t prove that in any way – I just KNOW it because of my Faith. I just have Faith that it IS.” I think that this stance, and my husband realizing I would never tell him what to believe – or judge him for believing differently that I do – opened him up to seeing a possibility of Faith in something other than just science or humanity.

Not long after that, my husband saw the movie Contact and it had a big impact on him. His Faith is very personal and private to him, but he told me that seeing that film, watching the way my family treated him with love and not judgment, and realizing that all of humanity reflects a part of God that helped him open up to his views on God and Faith changing. He will now tell you that he believes in God and having a personal relationship with Him. He will tell you when he looks at his fellow man he can see the face of God. His Faith is individual to him, and comes from a deeply personal belief not beholden to any pre-established religion or sect. And I believe that’s how it should be.

To me, and to my husband, our relationship with each other and with God is about love. We love God because He first loved us. We love and care for our fellow man because God loves them, and wants us to love each other. That’s about as basic as it gets. I have no more “right” way to love or worship God than anyone else on this planet – my Faith is between me and God. I think the two songs that sum up my feelings best are “How He Loves” by John Mark McMillan (yes, that’s a Christian rock artist – but check out the lyrics) and “Brotherhood of Man” by Innocence Mission (not a religious rock group, but again, listen to the lyrics).

I know this was a long comment, and sorry for that, but I can’t tell you what to believe, or how to believe, I can just tell you that having Faith is an amazing thing. I hope you can find yours.

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Katherine Gray

posted February 28, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Huh. I go to this church irregularly, was married in it, and my mom is a deacon there. In defense of Westminister, this is not their usual vibe. At all. I’m not questioning your experience, but I’ve never, ever seen them do anything like this. In general this congregation is all about the joy and mystery of Jesus and service to others, never about shame.

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Joel Gunz

posted February 26, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Thanks much, faraway…. we should add Contact to our Netflix list!

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posted February 26, 2011 at 11:53 am

I can relate Canadian Rachel, I found my own brand of “faith” when my father was fighting cancer for his life, I finally understood the saying , no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole, I didn’t know to whom I was praying, I was just asking the Universe for mercy for him. My Father is an atheist as well and he attributes his survival solely to the miracle of modern medicine and his amazing medical team. My grief and despair during the darkest days of his illness made me have to believe in something, thought I still don’t know what it is. Maybe that’s why I am enjoying this blog series so much.

Great post Joel and your science/faith conversation with Jules reminded me of the Carl Sagan book/movie Contact, love that book/movie.

Thanks for the thought provoking topics, keeps an agnostic atheist like me thinking (is that redundant ?lol)

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Rachel R.

posted February 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Thanks, Jules! I’m happy if I could show just one religious person that not all atheists are faithless, angry anarchists (I know you didn’t write that, but it is a common misconception). That written, I also want to dispel another rumor that all atheists lack any kind of moral guidance. The atheists that I know, as well as myself, tend to go by the idea that we make decisions based on how they will affect other people. If it’s going to hurt someone, I don’t do it. And, yes, I try to treat everyone with equal respect. It can be really difficult, and I can get cynical and snarky about others, but I try to withhold judgment and treat people respectfully.

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posted February 25, 2011 at 9:17 am

Thanks for the clarification Rachel. And I think you’re belief is beautiful-because if you believe we are all connected through the same cellular makeup-then you will treat all things with an equal respect. Nothing wrong with that!

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Rachel R.

posted February 24, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Jules, it is a common misconception about atheists that we don’t have faith. Like Canadian Rachel (great name, Lady), I am also an atheist with faith. My faith is not the same as yours, Jules, but yours may not be the same as Joel’s or a Hindu’s or your neighbor’s. Faith is very subjective. Possibly you are encompassing faith as a faith in God. Once again, there are many different versions of God and even different versions of faith for the same God. While I do not believe in a supreme entity, I have faith in the interconnectedness that ties together all matter because everything is made up of cells. To me, the concept that I am equal to and a part of you, Joel, mountains, slugs, the ocean, and Jupiter is a grand form of spirituality even if it does not focus on a divine Creator. I find this belief just as awesome and humbling.

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posted February 24, 2011 at 8:18 am

We don’t want them to find a spiritual home yet! This is too interesting!

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posted February 24, 2011 at 5:48 am

Go to a Quaker meeting next. Please. My husband and I found our spiritual home there.

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Canadian Rachel

posted February 23, 2011 at 7:11 pm

I’m an atheist and I have faith. But then, I’m the weirdest atheist I know. Wish I had time to elaborate, but I don’t this minute. I’ll be back — to haunt you all!

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posted February 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm

No apologies needed! As for faith-you’re right-most people have faith in something-except atheists I suppose-i guess i was being too specific. The thing is-the story of Jesus and the crucifixtion, as well as the miracles of the New Testament can sound ludicrous when you pare it down to the bare “facts”. it’s only when you believe in God and Jesus and grace that it comes together in a different way. I confess while I own C.S. Lewis’s book (title escapes me now)-I haven’t read it yet. I’m one of those who doesn’t like too heated of debates on religion, politics, world affairs-because I always feel like I just don’t know enough to carry the debate through. I’m a wimp like that! And while I don’t mind sharing my views and listening to others-I don’t feel the need to justify my views, if that makes any sense at all.

And when I say I don’t question my faith-I would say I do scrutinize it. Which is I suppose the same thing. It’s been a long time when I’ve questioned the existence of God and Jesus. But I do question my religion all the time. I don’t agree with every stance the Church takes. For example-homosexuality, assisted suicide, and birth control. I want women priests. But as a whole-it does speak to me better than any other church I’ve attended-mainly because of the Eucharist.

I LOVE to be around spiritual people. You really can just learn from their actions. I used to belong to a Baptist bible study group and I loved the way they prayed-very free and personal. Less formal than Catholic prayers.

I had a priest once who when I asked about whether good people who weren’t Christians went to Heaven (my grandparents are wonderful people who while they don’t ascribe to a religion or go to church or anything-live by the Golden Rule)-and he told me that “no God he knew would turn His back on a good person”. I liked that.

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Joel Gunz

posted February 23, 2011 at 11:17 am

Hi Jules – Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Of course, Christianity isn’t the only religion whose theology runs counter to science. I’m thinking of Hindu physicists who inhabit one worldview in their worship services, but who shift to quite another in the laboratory. It could be that you’re thinking of Matthew 11:25 here, but, for me, Christianity isn’t –or shouldn’t be–difficult for the very intellectual. It wasn’t difficult for, say, C.S. Lewis.

I’m okay with the scientific contradictions: I think debates about creationism vs. evolution etc. are really beside the point. Actually, I feel that I have very strong faith. I would say that my confidence that I am and will be cared for is FAITH. So, I don’t feel the Call to Confession is illogical, I just think it’s a rather self-insulting way to approach God, whoever he or she is.

One of my very closest friends and confidants is a very conservative Christian, and we’ve debated these things passionately. While I don’t share his view, I deeply respect his intellect and the solid philosophical foundation on which his faith rests. For me, he is a model Christian. On that note, in the spirit of 2 Corintinthians 13:5, isn’t it a good idea to question your faith? If it’s as strong as you say it is, it can handle a little scrutiny. If not, you’ll see room for growth.

Anyway, I apologize if I sound like I’m sermonizing. Thank you very much for your intelligent engagement!

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posted February 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

Joel-your perceptions in this post and also from your post about the Grotto are not new to me. Christianity is a very difficult concept for the very intellectual person. This is not to say that Christian are dumb by any means. I work in the field of science and Christians make up the minority of my colleagues. Scientists are trained to believe what they can see and prove-it’s very hard to make that leap of faith sometimes.

And there it is-FAITH. That’s what you’re missing. That’s why some parts of the services seem so illogical. The Call to Confession (or whatever it’s called ) is simply this: “Lord we have sinned this week. We are not worthy of your grace but thank you for bestowing it upon us anyway. Help us to follow your ways more closely”. It doesn’t matter that you’ve been baptised and confirmed in the Catholic Church or accepted Christ in another Christian denomination-we do continue to sin. We are human after all with free will. So there’s your Grace.

I question the Church all the time. I look for my own answers in the Bible and in other sources. I pray. But i don’t question my faith (well, I have in the past). And the thing is-I have no clue how to explain it really. It just is. And it’s comforting. I always find answers that satisfy me-whether they satisfy someone else? I don’t really care.

My philosophy is that there is one God-I picture a mountain with God (or whatever his name is to other people) at the top. And there are many paths up that mountain. My path is Catholicism. It satisfies me. But there are many paths (religions, spiritual journeys) up that mountain and we all take the time we need to climb it. Simplistic? sure. Would the Pope like my analogy? Probably not! 😉 But I feel at peace with it-and with all the other religions/beliefs in the world. . . .Cults? notsomuch.

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Joel Gunz

posted February 23, 2011 at 10:26 am

Thanks, Shannon! I’ve sometimes thought about what it would be like to start a church based purely on the gospels, with the rest of the New Testament only allowed in for historical perspective. It would probably look a lot like what you’re describing.

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Joel Gunz

posted February 23, 2011 at 10:23 am

Hi Susannah! It certainly is a journey. Interestingly enough, I see a sort of split between the insider/outsider thing. For instance, in most of the churches we’ve attended, the leaders and average churchgoers often make an effort to reach out to us before and after the service to proseletyze, or to make sure we get a good first impression. But it seems little thought is given to how the service itself might be viewed by a newcomer. Frankly, if they are thinking about that at all, it can’t be without cringeing a little sometimes.

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posted February 23, 2011 at 8:54 am

Favorite lines:
“This “I’m a miserable sinner” theology runs counter to what I see as the only redeeming aspect of Christianity: grace.”

“The idea is that you must take steps to make yourself deserving of what is by definition undeserved. So I call bullshit.”

Perfectly put.

Most perplexing line:
“If, 2000 years after Jesus died, mankind is still as pathetically lost as ever, I have to wonder if his crucifixion has really delivered on its promise.” This is a question all intellectually honest Christians should ponder. It might even help us (Christians) more honestly evaluate our belief in a blood-thirsty god. I really like your “cosmically-caring” God much more than the fundamentalist’s son-sacrificing one. And I think your notion of God is the one Jesus taught about.

Enjoying this my friend!

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posted February 23, 2011 at 6:38 am

I, too, was raised Presbyterian although I have long since and VERY intentionally left those beliefs behind. (I consider myself agnostic now). I found your experience of a Presbyterian church interesting for a couple of reasons, the most being that the pastor was a woman. It always irritated me that the church I grew up in was very strong in its views that women could not lead a congregation. I do know that that is no longer the case for many (but not all) branches of Presbyterian churches. The church I grew up in still feels that way but the one my parents attend does have a female pastor. Additionally, the Presbyterian church I knew was WAY too uptight to have something as interesting and fun as a jazz sextet.

We did recite a confession and a profession of faith every week but I seem to recall them being the same thing every week. I think one of them was called “The Apostle’s Creed” if I remember correctly (like I said, I’ve blocked most of it out).

Anyway, I find this project very interesting and I’ve enjoyed following it. I think that people very rarely consider what an outsider and first-time attendee’s view of their particular worship service might be and that viewpoint might actually be the most unbiased. Just my opinion…

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Jeff Lewis

posted February 22, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Thanks for your post I loved it! And not just because you said flattering things about the music. (disclosure: I’m the drummer for the ensemble, and a member of the congregation.)

A brief word about the Call to Confession. Those change every week and are either chosen or written by the pastoral staff. I don’t know if there’s any “official” sources of liturgy – I’ve always taken them to be uniquely our own. I also don’t interpret it nearly as starkly as you did. Here’s what I hear: take this moment to reflect and take your eyes off yourself, and listen to what God might be saying to you. Yes there’s a bit of of “I’m not worthy” in that second to last sentence, but what I also hear (and this is where my attention gets focused) is: be wary, even when you think you are hearing God – you might be missing what he’s really saying. But that’s just what pops out at me when I read it – everyone’s free to get out of it what they will!

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posted February 22, 2011 at 6:11 pm

I said this on Manda’s post already, but I find the Call to Confession really weird. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, attending two separate churches for fifteen and eight years respectively, and I’ve never heard that, nor anything close to that. It sounds like that’s the Westminster Church on its own, rather than a Presbyterian thing. In fact, my church growing up would have been horrified that it sounded too Catholic. (Heh.)

When I was a kid, we were taught that grace is giving you what you don’t deserve, period. (And the flip side, mercy, is not giving you what you DO deserve. It always made me laugh.) You don’t have to work for it, because if you deserve it, it wouldn’t be grace. Ah well.

For the record, I’m a believer, and I’m not hoping for your comeuppance. Anyone who thinks you’re embarking on a fool’s venture is ridiculous, because what you’re doing has been endorsed by Christian scholars like C.S. Lewis for ages, so what the heck, people.

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