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CENTRAL CHRISTIAN CHURCH PASTOR EXPLORES `BACK ROOMS’ OF SPIRITUALITY IN HIS SERMONS

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Standing in front of the congregation at the Central Christian Church in downtown Salt Lake City, Pastor Francis Houchen can reach back into a deep reservoir to call up some compelling material for a Sunday sermon.

With a bachelor's degree in sociology, a three-year degree from the Lexington Theological Seminary and a doctorate in education from the University of Northern Colorado with an emphasis on care for the dying, Pastor Houchen has a wealth of knowledge and experience from which to draw.And Pastor Houchen, who came to Salt Lake City just this past spring, uses it when assembling a weekly sermon for the 135 parishioners who form the congregation, which next June will celebrate its centennial.

Pastor Houchen taps the "back room," which he says exists everywhere when preparing a sermon.

"All the world has a back room," he says, a notion he realized on a trip in the mid-1970s to a Navajo trading post in Oljeto, Utah, in the southeastern corner of the state.

There, the proprietor of the remote post ushered Pastor Houchen and his wife into the back room of the store where the real wealth - guns, jewelry and wood-carvings - were stored, out of view of the regular tourist traffic.

"I suddenly realized this is the way I approached everything," he said. "Everybody has a back room in their lives and they share it with me if I just shut up and listen," he said.

Take his experiences with the dying. Pastor Houchen spent ten years serving the dying in Colorado hospices before he came to Utah.

Once, a dying man told him he had served as a chauffeur for a high-ranking Nazi officer in the German army. "What was he like?" Pastor Houchen asked the dying man.

"He was a very nice man; strange how he could be so cruel," the dying man responded.

Parishioners don't like to hear stories of death and dying, Pastor Houchen says, even thought the experiences "are not morbid."

"It (dying) is full of life," he says.

"I have encountered more honesty, more raw honesty, in dealing with the dying then at any other time in my life," he said.

Tapping the world's "back room," particularly the feelings exposed during experiences with the dying, and reflecting on weekly scripture readings, Pastor Houchen prepares his sermons.

Pastor Houchen says "I just listen to what the scripture tells me, and I say how is that like, or how is that unlike my time. Then I turn it over to my imagination.

"The hands and the keyboard and I guess the Holy Spirit come together. When I feel that it's working, I turn the printer on," he said.

Pastor Houchen's calling came when he was in high school, "wondering what I would do. I admired clergy figures in my life and thought I would like to do what they did . . . I think that was the way God told me what he wanted me to do with my life. It came in a very human way," he said.

Pastor Houchen will be at the Central Christian Church only another year. He was assigned to an "intentional interim ministry" at the church in order to fill a transitory period following the departure of another minister.

Pastor Houchen said while he willingly serves the mission, he would prefer a permanent assignment.

"I think having done it now I've decided that it's not the style for me. I tend to relate to people pretty intimately and I get involved in families," he said.

"I'm not sure from my own personal preference that I want to do it (an interim mission) again. . .I'd rather have a long ministry."