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St. Dunstan's — the building was dedicated in 1969 — is a church on the cusp. If you look back and up as you pass through the front door, you behold a row of exquisitely detailed stained-glass windows, with the crucifixion in the center. To your left is a sort of miniature chapel — short pews facing a crucifix. Other traditional elements: shields on the church walls bearing the symbols of the evangelists; a measure of old-style gothic carving on the communion rail. The building's shape, however, is a progressive-style inverted ark. The blocky priests' chairs are made from '70s oak, and the corpus-free central cross is fashioned from gold tile and wood and backed by an enormous blue-and-ivory permabanner patterned after mother-of-pearl. But surrounding this somewhat modern touch? A massive bank of organ pipes. A few of those progressive (perhaps "casual" would be a better term) elements showed up in the course of the liturgy. Two guitars and a tambourine accompanying the choir for "On Jordan's Bank," the blessing of quilts for the sick, a youth minister doing a jumpy dance in the sanctuary to teach kids about the Bible's references to Christ. ("The books of the Old Testament point forward to Jesus; the Gospels point at Jesus....")

But from the moment the choir processed in — at least 30 strong, draped in robes, and singing "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" while the organ sounded forth — a more formal, even traditional sensibility carried the day. It was the second Sunday of Advent, and change was in the air — the old-fashioned change from sin to righteousness. Instead of a Gloria, we had a sung Canticle of Zechariah: "My child, as prophet of the Lord, you will prepare the way/ To tell God's people they are saved from sin's eternal sway." The Collect pleaded with God, who sent "prophets to preach repentance" to "give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins." The readings rejoiced in hope for the coming Kingdom of God, while the Gospel gave us John the Baptist: "Prepare the way of the Lord!" "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" "One who is more powerful than I is coming after me.... He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.... He...will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Father David Montzingo sallied forth into the center aisle for his sermon — another casual touch — and then dug into an examination of John the Baptist: who he was (a prophet), why he was popular (he announced the coming of the Kingdom), what he preached (repent!), and what his purpose was (prepare). As a prophet, he announced God's plan. In preaching the Kingdom, he touched "our deepest longings...the eternal reign of justice and peace."

Repentance got a more thorough treatment. "The Old Testament word that we translate 'repent' means to make a U-turn in your life" — and John stands as "the hinge between the Old Testament prophetic tradition and what comes to us in our Lord Jesus Christ." But "the New Testament word we translate 'repent' means to have a change of mind and a change of heart.... I change what is at the very center of my life.... God's coming kingdom is not something you can casually saunter into.... You've got to be born anew; you've got to become a new person.... C.S. Lewis wrote, 'We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved; we are rebels who must lay down our arms.' That's what repentance means: to surrender to God and say, 'I want to be a new person; remake me for the Kingdom.'... John prepared the way for Jesus to come and baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire, and that changes us, and it hurts — because it burns.... I have a suggestion for people who have Nativity scenes...

get a John the Baptist and put him out there."

What happens when we die?

"I am a lifelong C.S. Lewis advocate," said Montzingo. "He talks in several of his books about the judgment of God being a consuming judgment — in an obliterating sense. I would echo his sentiments: if we are without the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, then in the end when we die, we are nothing.... I tell people in this congregation, 'If you know Jesus Christ as a part of your life, you don't need to be afraid of death, because First John says that we have already passed from death into life.'... In the end, if we have not acknowledged the presence of God through Christ in our life, why would we want to be in eternity? There is nothing that would interest us there." Still, he noted, Lewis's novel The Last Battle "holds out hope for the righteous captain" who mistakenly worships Tash instead of Aslan.

Saint Dunstan's Episcopal Church

Denomination: Episcopal Church USA

Address: 6556 Park Ridge Boulevard, San Carlos, 619-460-6442

Founded locally: 1948

Senior pastor: Tom Phillips

Congregation size: 350-400

Staff size: 7 full-time, several part-time

Sunday school enrollment: about 75

Annual budget: around $600,000

Weekly giving: around $11,000

Singles program: no

Dress: semiformal to formal

Diversity: mostly Caucasian, some African American

Sunday worship: 7:45 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 5 p.m.

Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Website: http://www.stdunstans.org

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