San Diego Denomination: Church of the New Jerusalem
Address: 4144 Campus Avenue, University Heights
Founded locally: 1883
Senior pastor: Reverend Carla Friedrich
Congregation size: 22 active members
Staff size: 1
Sunday school enrollment: no school, but an outreach through providing space for the arts
Annual budget: $30,000
Weekly giving: $150--$200
Singles program: no
Dress: dressy-casual: sweaters, sport coats, some skirts
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 11 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 15 minutes
"All are welcome in this space," said the Reverend Carla Friedrich into the contained hush of the boxy room. "In just a moment, I'm going to ask you to get up and go to a different place in the church. It's just a way of moving out of our regular positions and perspectives. Ask the person you sit down next to what they had to give up or overcome to get here today." After the bustling subsided, Friedrich said, "First, I'm noting your stubbornness. You're still in your regular places. It's very telling, anyway." Laughter. "It's in our willingness to engage with discomfort that we are often made better for it." The regular organist was absent. "Pearl is going to play the piano for us," said Friedrich. Pearl rose from her pew and sat at the baby grand in front of the Sanctuary. As the yellow midday light glowed through the pebbled yellow glass on to the hymnal's creamy yellow page, we stood and sang: "Morning has broken/Like the first morning/Blackbird has spoken/Like the first bird..." The diffused light and the pale almond walls highlighted the dark stained wood of the room's crown molding, its organ, its multipaned windows, and its altar, lecterns, and altar rails.
Friedrich ascended to the altar. She opened the massive Bible that rested there and switched on a backlight that illuminated the burgundy curtain that rose behind the altar and the plain wooden cross above it. Everyone prayed in unison and joined in a responsive invocation. Congregants offered prayers of petition, prayed "for those concerns that are too tender to speak," and listened as Friedrich asked and thanked God for His forgiveness. Then the Our Father, then the Sanctus: "Holy, holy, holy/Lord God of Hosts/Heaven and earth are full of thy glory."
The Gospel recounted Christ's expulsion of an unclean spirit in the synagogue, and also His curing Peter's mother-in-law of her fever. After the Swedenborgian affirmation of faith -- "Please join in as your will permits," said Friedrich -- and another hymn, the reverend began her sermon.
"I'll start with the children's sermon -- for the day when this church is filled with young people," she said as she descended into the congregation, carrying a clear glass head full of paper strips. "This is my head, full of wonderful thoughts. I'm going around, and you can take a thought. These are affirmations. I think of things coming from the other world...as affirmations or defamations.... It's important to take hold of the things that are positive...." Mine read: "I am surrounded by the White Light of the Christ, through which nothing negative can penetrate."
Friedrich introduced congregant Irv. "He's going to give us a few thoughts on movement." Irv -- white-haired, goateed, in a V-neck sweater -- reminded us that "as you're sitting there in the quiet of this church, you are moving at a thousand miles an hour" -- rotating, revolving around the sun, hurtling through the galaxy -- and a mass of moving cells and atoms to boot. "Join me in moving, growing, changing, developing, and see also if we can create maybe a new unity within our being, within our church -- doing something positive, useful, beneficial."
Friedrich applied the notion of movement to scripture, noting that physical movements therein "are very real, but they represent something spiritual.... Every doorway is representative of impending movement, the Lord calling us forth.... Even one word can hold so much meaning about movement.... 'And' is a demonstration of the Lord's desire for us to move into a new spiritual state. It's indicative of things being joined together...heaven and earth, God and man, the beginning and the ending." Sometimes, we don't want to "go into the dark places," but we are guided by three gifts the Lord gives us: the desire to seek truth; the spiritual spark of love; and, to put these things into action, a love of movement.
January 29 marked the 318th birthday of Emanuel Swedenborg. "Somewhere in the spiritual world, someone is celebrating," said Friedrich. On a table in the sunny alcove at the back of the church, she and others laid out coffee, juice, peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, apple pie, blueberries, dulce de leche ice cream, pineapple upside-down cake, cookies, and two quiches that Friedrich had made that morning. Most everybody stayed after the service, joined hands for a blessing, and shared in the feast.
What happens when we die? "We go on living in bodily form," says Friedrich. "When I say 'bodily form,' I mean that that life is more real and has more substance than this one. We feel that true substance has to do with love and wisdom and God's life. When you enter into that world, you become more substantial. When you do something of interest to you, you feel more alive, more engaged. These are the things that give true substance to life. There will be a lot of activity, using the skills and the love that are in your heart. As a colleague of mine said, 'God doesn't want to bore us into heaven; neither is heaven boring.'"