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Holy Spirit Episcopal Church
130 S. Sixth Street E.
I don't remember asking about religion much as a kid. Part of the reason, surely, is because our family's always had a man on the inside—someone who served as our direct connection to the Big Guy upstairs, regardless, it seemed, of whether or not we regularly attended church services.
My uncle declared himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war in 1965 on the grounds of his religious beliefs. It was a particularly bold move at the time considering his father, my grandfather, was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. It was also before much of the anti-war movement had become so popular. To fulfill his "alternative service," my uncle took a position as assistant to Episcopal Bishop William Gordon Jr., better known as "The Flying Bishop of Alaska" because he frequently traveled to remote villages across the state.
My uncle is still in Alaska today, a reverend now, and the long-time leader of a congregation that must, much like my family, appreciate his rare brand of spiritual leadership. My uncle drinks roughly 12 pots of coffee a day, smokes Camels and once had an office wall—floor to ceiling, corner to corner—covered in scribbled Post-It notes. Every time I picture him in my mind he's not wearing his white Sunday robe, but a Rolling Stones sweatshirt, jeans and—inexplicably considering all that coffee—a sleepy, far-off gaze. Yet, despite his not fitting the model of traditional church leadership, he's a revelation in front of his congregation. I've seen him deliver some of the most engaging, insightful and accessible sermons I've ever heard. He single-handedly makes me consider being more committed to my faith.
But I'm not. I'm too lazy, and still too skeptical. I haven't been to church for anything but a wedding or a funeral in maybe seven years. That track record—not to mention my admittedly odd connection to religion—left me at a loss when my 5-year-old daughter suddenly started asking about church. What is it? Why don't we go? What happens there? Each answer led to even more questions, as is often the case with a kindergartener. It wouldn't end until I actually took her to see for herself.
Holy Spirit Episcopal Church provided a warm first impression. The idyllic historic church, originally founded in 1870, includes three structures and a perfectly manicured courtyard situated just off Sixth Street. Two women greeted my daughter and I as we entered for Sunday morning services, and we filled out nametags as a children's choir finished rehearsal. Inside each pew my daughter noticed the hymnal and prayer books, as well as an Advent-themed coloring book and small box of crayons. It's as if Holy Spirit knew she was coming.
Nothing captured her interest, though, quite like the stained-glass windows. She studied the details, asked about the symbolism and chose her favorite. Her only critique: Holy Spirit should have left one window "un-stained" so people could peek inside.
The service itself couldn't hold her interest; she was coloring by the first reading. I, on the other hand, appreciated Rev. Dr. Lydia Agnew Speller's genial delivery and comfortable rapport. Any sermon that somehow connects social media to John the Baptist—and makes sure to mention John's penchant for eating locusts and wild honey—works for me. Like I remember from my uncle's sermons, there was no heavy-handedness, no preaching, no pretense. It was funny and poignant. There aren't many places, I realized, where you can listen to a story and hear good music for free.
My daughter hasn't stopped asking about church since our visit. Everything she saw and heard—the award-winning choir, communion, the fold-down prayer bench, the contents of the coloring book—beget more questions. I'm still holding my own with the answers, limited as my experience may be. But I imagine she'll need to talk with my uncle soon enough.
Expect the unexpected
University Congregational Church
401 University Ave.
On the second Sunday of Advent, members of the University Congregational Church show up to discover there's been a furniture revolt. Instead of rows and rows of pews facing forward toward the lectern, the seats have been turned inward to form a circle surrounding a table with an Advent wreath on top. Pastors Peter Shober and Amy Carter—who often pair up to co-facilitate the church's sermon—smile slyly. Their theme for Advent this year is "Expect the Unexpected." And in church—where ritual is the norm—even an innocuous seating rearrangement seems like an act of rebellion.
That makes sense. Pastor Peter calls the church a place for "religious refugees." Many of his parishioners, he says, joined the church after deeming their own religious upbringing too fundamentalist or strict. Other attendees come from marginalized groups, and since the UCC is "open and affirming" the idea isn't just about tolerating diversity but celebrating it by way of religious background, sexual orientation, race and abilities.
The church is obviously progressive in other ways. One of the pastors is a woman, for one thing. And neither Pastor Amy nor Pastor Peter seems concerned only with "What would Jesus do?" (WWJD). They're also inspired with what contemporary movers and shakers have to say about how we should live. Pastor Peter quotes political activist and author Anne Lamont saying, "Expectations are resentment under construction." He asks members of the church to remember, instead of being busy and consumerist this holiday season, be silent and focused. Be in the moment. He quotes John Lennon: "Let it be."
On this particular Sunday, Pastor Peter isn't done surprising his congregation. "Do you know what these are?" he asks the congregation. He's holding what looks like a silver tray that, if he were a butler, could easily be covering a small baked ham. When he pulls the lid off, however, it reveals tiny cups full of communion wine. "Does anyone remember these?" he asks. "When we found these trays they were covered in dust. We haven't used them in years."
The congregation passes around the retro cups of wine. Everyone has moved around the Advent table to stand closer together and they hold hands to recite the benediction—something that usually doesn't happen when the pews are lined in rows. The pastors are surprised.
"I didn't expect that to happen," laughs Pastor Peter. "This is wonderful."
Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation
301 S. Sixth Street W.
When walking into Missoula's Church of the Annunciation—or any Eastern Orthodox Christian church, for that matter—the first things one sees are icons, and lots of them. On the walls. Around the altar. On the ceiling. Everywhere. In the Orthodox tradition, icons are images or paintings of holy people or events. They serve an integral role by acting as a visual representation of the faith, and are often referred to as "windows to Heaven."
One particularly large icon hangs on the back wall of the worship area (the nave): It depicts a bearded man wearing mainly red vestments and a bishop's mitre, standing on a green plain with water and a tree on the shore. I see this icon every time I go downstairs for coffee and fellowship, but because the only writing on it is Greek—which I should know, seeing that I'm five-eighths Greek, but growing up in Montana didn't allow for many such opportunities—I simply pass by its tarnished frame on my way to breakfast and/or lunch.
But on Sunday, Dec. 5, I finally learned whom the foreign lettering identifies.
Following our typika—a service led by lay people in the absence of a priest—parishioner Peter Stokstad stands before the congregation of roughly 20 people and tells us tomorrow, Dec. 6, is the feast day of a very important figure: Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as "The Wonderworker." Stokstad then points to the icon by the stairs and tells us that it's, in fact, Saint Nick's icon.
Growing up, the feast day of Saint Nicholas meant retrieving my cold shoes from the front porch to find them filled with candy canes and snowman-themed ornaments. To this day, my mom—or Saint Nick, rather—still visits us with the usual, but no-less-meaningful, gifts.
Stokstad tells us that Saint Nick—as well as the other saints, in icons here or elsewhere—are all pointing to one thing this Advent season: the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and His taking on flesh so that we can be in union with Him. To further articulate this point, Stokstad reads from Bishop Kallistos Ware's The Orthodox Way: "When God becomes man, this marks the beginning of an essentially new stage in the history of man," Stokstad reads.
After reading that passage some days later, I notice a nearby quote from Saint Basil, who says the Incarnation of Christ "is the birthday of the human race." As Orthodox Christians, we believe this to be a fundamental truth—one articulated by the likes of Saint Basil and Bishop Ware, enacted and performed by Nicholas and the other saints, and continued through us each and every day. We believe that, because God himself became flesh and dwelt among us, we can aspire to, and achieve, the glory he's promised us.
It's something that tends to get lost amidst the shopping-mall sprawl of the Dec. 24 frenzy, but every Advent season we turn our focus to the coming of he who made everything anew.
And that's the reason to rejoice; after all, Christmas is our "birthday," too.