4044 Lark Street, San Diego
“The church was built in 1913, before there was even a street here,” said a congregant at Mission Hills United Methodist. “People love it for weddings.” Between the stained-glass dome, the Arts & Crafts woodwork, and the cozy way the curved pews slope down and surround the corner sanctuary, it was easy to see why.
Bootsy the Church Cat sat at the top of the steps leading up to the church, extending silent greetings and receiving the occasional scratch behind the ears. Once homeless, now adopted and given his own donation box beneath a framed photo portrait, the patchwork feline would, during the sermon, stroll across the sanctuary and plop down in a heap center stage, much to the delight of the congregation. “He’s here for all the meetings, whenever the church is open,” a chorister told me.
The cat shared the stage with a sort of tailor’s dummy, outfitted in full Bible-times regalia. When Pastor Millspaugh called the children to the front for a lesson, she told them that the dummy was a prophet. “Have you ever been in a very, very dark place?” she asked. “If you turn on a light, it will help you feel safer. In the Bible, we read about people who were in dark times, where they didn’t feel safe. The people that God sent to help at those times were called prophets; a prophet, in some ways, turns on a light.” She lit a mealwork lantern and gave it to a girl, who hung it from the prophet’s hand. “The light the prophet brought was a promise — a promise that God was with us, and that God was coming to be with us in a very special way.... The promise was that Jesus was going to come, and Jesus is often called the light of the world.”
For the adults, the liturgist lit the first purple candle on an Advent wreath. “We light candles to symbolize the various portions of Advent,” he explained. “First, we light the promise candle, to remind us of the light of hope that the prophets had in the coming of the Messiah.”
“We are here, watching and waiting in hope,” proclaimed the congregation during the Call to Worship. “May God’s light dawn afresh in the darkness!” “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” boomed the choir, sounding larger than its numbers as it joined with the rollicking piano down front. “Nations are in chaos and lives are in turmoil,” continued the congregation in the Unison Prayer. “Lead us through any present chaos or darkness into the light of Your presence.” The choir answered with twining harmonies, “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”
Ushers brought forward the prayer requests from the congregation: prayers for the bereaved, for the sick, and for the unemployed. “Lord, we do ask for Your help in this difficult economy,” said Millspaugh after reading from a card, “that You would sustain individuals and families.... Please help us to be open to ways we think will help.... Help us to, more and more, embody Your love, reaching out to our community and Your world.”
Millspaugh ran down a list of charitable projects for interested souls. “At Uptown Faith Community Center, the number of clients has doubled in the last few weeks due to the economy, so I would invite us to be generous with donations.... We have adopted a family for Christmas through METRO ministries; we need donations of food and clothing. And next Sunday is the Alternative Christmas Fair; a new project this year is the Nothing But Nets campaign to provide anti-malarial nets in different African nations.”
The Gospel reading recounted the appearance of John the Baptist in the desert, quoting Isaiah: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” But where John preached repentance, the text from Isaiah began, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” and Millspaugh stressed the difference between the two messages. “Both the comfort and the challenge are part of the Advent preparation.”
“In the bleak midwinter, long ago,” sang the choir, recalling the first Christmas. Both the Baptist and Isaiah lived in “bleak, midwinter times,” said Millspaugh, and while they “surely needed comfort,” they also “needed to hear John the Baptist. He was pointing beyond himself, to God’s promise.... God is telling us good news, and it’s important news: it’s an offer of new life and new hope, even in the bleak midwinter.... God the comforter accepts you as you are, but God, the one who calls for repentance, does not leave you as you are. How can we respond to the hope that God offers?”
What happens when we die?
“We trust God’s love,” said Millspaugh. “He holds us and loves us, eternally.”
Denomination: United Methodist
Address: 4044 Lark Street, Mission Hills, 619-296-1243
Founded locally: 1913
Senior pastor: Carol Millspaugh
Congregation size: 120
Staff size: 6
Sunday school enrollment: 20
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: semiformal to formal
Diversity: Mostly Caucasian and African American
Sunday worship: 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 55 minutes