“Never place a period where God has put a comma.” — Gracie Allen, quoted in UCC pamphlet.
"God is Still Speaking” read the caption on the name-tag the greeter gave me on my way into the tasteful, taupe-and-tan interior of the church. I found the precise meaning of this comma in the literature given to me by a congregant:
“There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word.” — John Robinson, Pilgrim
And I found the precise meaning of that in yet more literature: “The study of scripture is not limited by past interpretations but is to be pursued with expectancy for new insights and help for living today.” — Who We Are, What We Believe: United Church of Christ.
Throughout, there was an attempt to affirm the goodness of what had come before — the testimony and faith of Christians through the centuries — while at the same time affirming a “progressive” notion of theology, one “without dogma, where people are free to explore and deepen their faith in an environment open to questioning.” So, while Mission Hills UCC proclaimed “Jesus Christ as our gate to the realm of God,” they also recognized “the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the gateway to God’s realm.” While they affirmed “historic creeds,” they did not do so “as tests for belief but as inspired words.” While they spoke of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they also spoke of God as “mother, rock, liberator, savior, friend.”
“Mission Hills United Church of Christ: An Open and Affirming (ONA) Congregation” — from the bulletin
This designation, mentioned to me by more than one congregant after the service, meant that the church sought to proclaim “God’s extravagant welcome...for all to share.... We welcome and celebrate all who seek the experience of God’s unconditional love regardless of their ability, age, cultural background, economic status, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, race, religious heritage, or sexual orientation.”
The service bore witness to all this proclaiming and welcoming, even as it adhered to a rather traditional liturgical form. The call to worship sounded that traditional note at the outset, naming God as authority and lawgiver: “Give ear, all people, to the law of God. Give thanks for all the guidance God gives us.” The confession of sin was not perfunctory or rote. “God calls us to confess...our negligence of goodness, our secret and overt wrongs,” said Reverend John Rawlings (filling in for the vacationing Pastor Scott Landis). He turned to face the cross and led the congregation in silent prayer before leading the corporate prayer of confession: “...O God, help us to put away this sin.” Communion was referred to as the way “the power of Christ can be reborn in us,” the way that the church was made into “the body of Christ.” The hymns, too, were traditional, from the plainsong “Humbly I Adore Thee,” to “Great is Your Faithfulness,” to a closing arrangement of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The welcoming came in the enthusiastic passing of the peace (full embraces along with the usual smiles and handshakes), in singing “Happy Birthday” to a congregant who had just turned 95, in the friendly inquiries after the service.
The proclaiming came from the pulpit. “Listen up to what the Spirit is saying to the Church and to each one, individually,” said the reader before launching into Psalm 145: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that He has made.” That universal compassion was echoed in the Gospel: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Rawlings’s sermon dwelt on this verse, drawing anecdotes along the way from NPR, his own childhood, Peanuts, a documentary on the homeless, a book by another minister, and from history. These last were the most striking: war-weary Abraham Lincoln’s admission that “the really tired part of me is inside, and I can’t reach it.” Soren Kierkegaard’s proclamation that “now, with God’s help, I shall become what I really am.” Johnny Cash’s eventual discovery of a Father “who accepted him just as he was and made him new.” “It’s amazing,” said Rawlings, “how much inner turmoil can be eliminated from our lives when we know that we are loved and accepted and forgiven.... With Christ, we don’t need any longer to prove to the world that we belong.... The question that is at the center of the meaning of life is, ‘Can I trust God?’ Be yoked with Christ, and you will find your peace.”
What happens when we die?
“Our body is disintegrated; it goes away,” said Rawlings. “Our spirit is united with the great spirits of all.”
4070 Jackdaw Street, San Diego
Founded locally: 1911
- Senior pastor: Scott Landis
- Congregation size: 250
- Staff size: 9
- Sunday school enrollment: 20–25
- Annual budget: n/a
- Weekly giving: n/a
- Singles program: no
- Dress: semiformal to formal
- Diversity: mostly Caucasian
- Sunday worship: 10 a.m.
- Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 20 minutes
- Website: missionhillsucc.org