Sunday, December 27, 2009

It’s Church, For God’s Sake

I don’t consider myself a very religious person, as in I don’t ask for God’s opinion as to what to do and I certainly don’t consult a man of the cloth when it comes to life’s decisions. I believe that there is a clear-cut moral difference between right and wrong, and that there are consequences for making mistakes… and redemption for the truly penitent; there is a Devil, there is a God, and you’ll certainly go to Hell if you don’t follow the rules…but Hell isn’t in the center of the Earth; it’s probably closer to Heaven. I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I can’t be Buddha. I don’t believe anything written by Joseph Smith, so I can’t be Mormon. I don’t believe in supporting child molesters, the organization that defends them or the dogma of Catholicism, so I can’t be Catholic. And frankly, I have trouble believing Bible stories (how was Joseph okay with the fact that he married Mary and she suddenly became pregnant without him “knowing” her? Imaging that happening today. Genetically, how was Adam and Eve able populate the world?).


I was born Methodist, raised Presbyterian and married Catholic. Relations high up in the branches on my father’s side of the family tree are Jewish and probably Baptist equally high on my mother’s Germanic side. Throw some Muslim/Islamic into the mix somewhere (my folks just shuttered) and I’m quite a religious mutt, spanning the gamut of orthodox faiths.

On what pew do I hang my hat?

To put it bluntly, however, I don’t believe in organized religion any more, i.e. church, so that rather settles it. I’d like to; well, I think I’d like to, which makes me think that I should, and maybe I haven’t found the right one yet or I’m feeling guilty that I don’t.

Funny enough, there’s no word for people like me. Atheists believe that God doesn’t exist; agnostics don’t believe in anything they can see or touch; theists believe in a god, but not necessarily the God. Where do I fall in? Don’t get me wrong. I believe in The Church, as in a set of guidelines that will protect my everlasting soul from the torments of a fiery afterlife, but I don’t believe in the church, as a building created by a board of directors, a financial planner and a group of parishioners who need to attract an audience as a way of perpetuating a business in the shadows of the cross. It all seems sacrilegious and rather blasphemous.

Either way—any way—every time I step foot inside of a church, a wave of cynicism floods over me. Most of the people around me live a common life of general sin (of the Seven Deadly variety) and yet feel completely absolved come Sunday morning, a free respite to continue doing what you do and to not acknowledge any changes for the better. This happens because someone who went to theology school said so. These same sorts of people honk at others to hurry up as they’re leaving the church parking lot; there’s no need to follow the rules outside of church, right?

When Kara suggests that we should go to church, for the good of ourselves, for the good of the kids, for the good of the community, or for the good of whatever, I always groan a little inside and immediately hope she forgets the suggestions or we find something better to do that Sunday morning… or I’ll offer to let her sleep in, which is much more appealing than going to church. It’s subversive, sure, but at least I don’t have to sit in a building where someone tells me a Bible story and then asks me for money.

When did Jesus get so poor?

Kara said that an important part of Christmas for her was a trip to church on Christmas Eve, and as much as I relented, I didn’t put up too much of a fuss because it did sound nice. After all, she gave up on going to St. Matthew’s here in town, because we got dirty looks from one of the ushers that one time when a year-old Natalie threw a Cheerio into the main aisle…why weren’t we in the “Family Room” with the rest of the unbaptized kids his eyes glared. Well, church is for family, Kara glared back. The next time we went there, Matthew and I spent most of the service running around the church grounds, because he sits still in church about as good as a rabbit on a hot griddle. Since then, we haven’t been back, and I’m not too upset about it. I’d sooner avoid a Catholic church altogether. All the kneeling and the chanting… there’s nothing more annoying than having someone reciting the Lord’s Prayer three inches from the back of your head because you don’t feel comfortable kneeling to follow the doctrine of a religion you know nothing about, besides the fact that the Pope is as nearly a god as you can get and he’s worshiped as much as the real thing. I don’t kiss rings, and I won’t call anyone father unless he is my dad.

But it’s not all bad by comparison.

I’m sure there are a couple more Catholic churches in this town, but we haven’t yet tried them or found them, and that leaves only a couple of other possibilities, all within a half-mile of the house, which is nice. There’s the church that Matthew goes to pre-school at, which seems nice, but each time we go in there—just recently for Matthew’s debacle also known as the WWF Takedown Christmas Recital—I feel as though we’re sitting in a dark conference hall at a hotel, about to listen to a presentation on how to make more money buying and selling real estate.

Next on the list is The Big Church, Crossroads Church, the behemoth that comprises an entire city block, probably a 20-acre complex of buildings, parking lots, schools and open fields for expansion. It’s Christian, sure, but I don’t think they’re too picky with what comes through the door. As long as you have a beating heart in your chest and 10 percent to tithe in your pocket, you’ll get a slap on the back and a gracious “welcome to the flock, brother” as they pass you the shiny brass plate.

It was here, on Christmas Eve, that I had my last stand with churches, where I finally gave up on organized religion, where I lost faith in those whose job it is to save my soul. I decided that I was better off on my own, that my conscious seems to be much clearer if I’m left to my own beliefs. My soul doesn’t need saving, thank you very much, as my relationship with the Creator is on just wonderful standings.

So, we were going to church for Christmas, just like the other 90 percent of the population who chooses to get some religion twice a year—Christmas and Easter. Half the point is to enjoy the splendor of the holiday, to restore some Christ in Christmas and to understand that without Him, there’d be no Christmas. Of course, don’t get me started on the fact that Jesus was born in the Summer (Jesus’ parents came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census, and such censuses were not taken in winter, when temperatures in Judea often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition) and Christmas was started to combine two celebrations, the ancient pagan festivals of the great Yule-feast of the Norsemen and the Roman Saturnalia… and it wasn’t decided that Jesus was born on December 25 until 400 years after he died… and they didn’t call it Christmas until around five hundred years after that. Essentially, Christmas was a religious takeover of a pagan holiday by the Christians to further spread Christianity. Quite ingenious, really.

At any regard, it doesn’t change the fact that I own two suits (black and dark green), a dozen pre-tied ties and a sport coat, all for the prime purpose of going to church. I don’t wear the green suit for the sole reason that it fit me, perhaps, 15 years ago and I haven’t had the guts to try it on again—or I’ve had too much guts to try it on again. That leaves the black one, my marry ‘em and bury ‘em suit, an all-purpose “little black dress” for a variety of occasions mostly held inside a church. I got my last two jobs in that suit, saw many friends get married and several people greet the afterworld in that suit. It has served me well since its debut at my 10-Year Class Reunion eight years ago, and I get to wear it maybe twice a year.

Nevertheless, a full black suit is too much for church, just a shade lower than a tux, so I settled on the sport coat and a tie. Green for Christmas. If it wasn’t so cold out, I probably would have gone with just a shirt and tie, the lowest denominator for church attire, in my opinion. When I was in high school, I attended church with some regularity, for many reasons, one main one was that nice girls attended church and if you want to meet a nice girl, at church they were plentiful. One bright Sunday morning, I appeared in the living room wearing jeans and a button-up shirt, ready to visit God’s house. Needless to say, that didn’t fly with my folks, as much as I protested that everyone my age dressed this way and that I would be out of place if I were to put on a tie and a nice shirt. I don’t remember if I went to church that morning or not, but if I did, it was in a tie and a nice shirt.

Many years later, that lesson stuck with me, and today I believ, if you’re going to church, even if it is to scrub the toilets, you do so in a tie.

I had never been inside Crossroads before, but I’ve been inside lots of big churches. There were greeters passing out candy canes to the kids and everyone was wishing us a Merry Christmas (in itself a relief from the normal and all-inclusive politically correct “happy holidays”). It felt good, warm and inviting. We were going to church! Yet, that wave of welcome soon ended when we passed the coffee shop on the main patio… and the long line of people attached to it. It if I had any good feelings about church left after that, they were soundly decimated upon entering the “sanctuary room.” There wasn’t a pulpit. There was a stage. There wasn’t a choir. There was a rock band. There wasn’t a wall bristling with brass or copper pipes attached to an organ. There was a sound booth and two cameras on a riser toward the back. There weren’t pews. There were movie-style seats…each equipped with cup holders. Cup holders! Cup holders for the coffee they were selling outside. Cup holders so you could put your water bottle or Coke or baby bottle in while the service was going on.

Oh, and there wasn’t a service planned. There was a concert.

Forget finding a Bible or a Hymn book on the back of the seats. There weren’t any. Neither were there prayer cards, those little pencils, or tithe envelopes to modestly conceal your offering. They were gone. Instead, peer pressure came in the form of cash only when the shiny brass plates were Frisbee’d from aisle to aisle. Throw a $20 in there, pass it down the row and my $5 pales in comparison. Does God love me one-quarter as much as you? The church would like me to think so.

The “service” started about three or four minutes late. We got there about 15 minutes to five, enough time to find an empty row of seats in the stadium seating section, where I could get a good look at the vast room slowly filling with the masses of humanity. Walking in, I noticed lots of button-up shirts, sweaters, jeans, a few in shorts, some in sweat pants and t-shirts. The younger kids were in jeans and skater-style t-shirts, some with hats (inside). Among the people around me, I was the best dressed, which I found disappointing… and when we sat down, I took it to find anyone else wearing a tie. I was accepting ties only. If you were wearing swim trunks and flip-flops but with a tie over one of those tuxedo t-shirts, I counted you.

I saw four people wearing a tie besides me. Only four. One was in the group of people I’d call a choir but you couldn’t hear because of the band. One was the drummer in that band. One was an usher, an older man who guided people to their seats after it became crowded. And the other was just another poor slob like me with old-fashioned out-of-date ideals.

But the building holds 2,000 people. One person out of 500 felt that church on Christmas Eve, the eve of the (accepted) birth of our savior, was a good enough reason to wear a tie. To everyone else, it was just another day at the show… and that’s exactly what it was, a spectacle that probably Jesus himself would walk out on.

The first 20 minutes consisted of music, 20 solid minutes of guitars, drums, keyboards and singing similar to a hair band of the 80s, something like Stryper (a Christian rock band that gained some fame during that time). They sang “Come all Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night” and a couple other traditional Christmas carols, only sped up with a rock twist to garner the young crowd. The tie-clad drummer was wailing away behind a sound wall, while a camera crew crept around the stage to get some close-ups for the JumboTron behind them and the three other giant TV screens positioned around the room. And everyone had to stand. The lead singer asked that we all stand while they played. But why? Why did we have to stand for 20 minutes while they invaded our ears with twangy solos, hip drum fills and fitful keyboard riffs? Reverence? Reverence to what? Rock and Roll?

The people behind us sang along. Either they were the truly faithful and saved or they could read well, as the words to the song were not only splayed across the giant screen but also called out by one of the band members… “Okay, now we sing ‘Come and behold Him.’” For starters, I was bored, but also, I was a bit put off. If I wanted to hear a rock band’s rendition of “Silent Night,” I would have gone to an Aerosmith concert.

Call me old fashioned, but a choir should sing Christmas carols—as much as I don’t even like Christmas carols—or a group of people walking down the street to the annoyance of their neighbors should sing Christmas carols. What happened to tradition? What happened to ritual and custom of the King of all Holidays?

And what happened to the choir? It looked like they pulled two dozen people out of the audience and onto the stage to sing and dance.

When that finished and we were allowed to return to our seats, a couple of people were baptized in a wading pool above and to the left of the stage. I’m okay with that, because it was a full dunking instead of merely splashing some water on their forehead, but I assumed that a full-fledged baptism should come at the hands of a representative of God, specifically a pastor of some sort. Those that did the dunking were family members and that just didn’t seem official. And they could have removed the chlorine float from the pool first, but I’m just being picky.

We all applauded, and in situations like this, I rarely contribute much to general applause.

Then came the front man, the youth pastor, with his squirrely new-born daughter in his arms. I only know who it was because they flashed his picture and name on the JumboTron behind him. Like I said, there was no pulpit, so he wandered around in front of the stage with a head-set-style microphone to amuse the crowds and prepare us for the head pastor. He was the warm-up guy to the headliner, the opening act. He told a couple of stories about the church’s youth group, a few jokes to make us all seem like this was just a small gathering of friends in someone’s living room.

Then the band played again. Some song of some sort that everyone seemed to know except for me. We had to stand again, which was becoming as cumbersome and exasperating as having to kneel. At this time, I saw something that I found most irritating, something that hard-core Christians do during music that, to me, is the ultimate sign of religious idolatry and spiritual extremism. They raise their hands up, not really straight up as if they’re being robbed at gun point, but more outwardly as if Hitler was walking by: Palms facing out, arms outstretched in awestruck worship. Some had both their hands up and their head held back, swaying to the music, while others held out a hand and placed the other over their heart. In my opinion, it’s disgusting, but I watch too many World War II documentaries not to make the association, and suddenly, I’m surrounded by Nazis and Adolph himself is about to enter and give one of his riling speeches.

We’re nearly 40 minutes into this by now. I’ve heard music and some news about the church’s various services, youth members, couples retreats, etc. Finally, the pastor comes to deliver the main sermon. I’m not sure because there’s no program. There’s no list of hymns to follow the course of the evening’s events. There’s just the band and a rag-tag collection of men and women singing behind them that, like I said, is considered to be the choir but I can’t hear a word they’re singing over the drone of the lead guitar, the high-pitch of the solo and the rat-tat-tat of the drum kit, not to mention pious Paul singing his heart out behind me.

The collection plates are shuffled down each row, and as Kara dumped our $5 into the plate filled with $20s, I was wondering how much of my money went to film, the electric bill for the sound mixing board, microphone cable for the keyboardist, brooms to sweep up the Cheerios the little girl three rows in front of me was eating off of the floor, and high school expansion buildings scheduled to fill the northeast acreage.

Anyways, the pastor finally enters—frankly, I had forgotten we were in church—an older man in his mid-50s, black hair, black short cropped beard in nice slacks and a plaid shirt (no tie either). He also has a headset-style microphone on and the only thing that dwarfs his stentorian voice booming throughout the stadium is the size of his head on the JumboTron behind him. He doesn’t stride up to the pulpit with a Bible in his hand, nor his he wearing a traditional flowing robe. Instead he approaches a cafĂ©-style table, one of those waist-high round chrome tables you’d find in a coffee bar or tea house. On it sat a glass of water, similar to a stool and water I’d expect to see on stage at a comedy club.

He doesn’t talk about Christmas either. He doesn’t mention the holidays as far as I remember. At this time, it dawns on me that there are no Christmas decorations inside the main room at all. Besides the giant Christmas tree on the patio that shades the money-changers inside the temple… ahem, I mean the coffee kiosk, there is no sign of Christmas at all. What gives? Everyone was full of Merry Christmases until we got inside.

What exactly is he saying, really? Not much. He told some stories about a Christian retreat he recently went on, a story about a woman who decided that instead of trying to remove an ugly rock from her backyard, she’d polish it instead (and in doing so, she ruined her wedding ring on the rock, thinking the flakes of gold she saw on the rock were going to make her rich). The only thing that made sense was how people lose faith in prayer when they think God isn’t answering when nothing in their lives change. Instead of not answering their prayers, God actually is. He’s saying no. Other than that, his sermon lasted about 15 minutes. What came next was the commercial, and you always have to leave time for the commercials.

We prayed. He told us we were about to pray. He said we would do a regular prayer (not the Lord’s Prayer as I expected) and then we’d do the “let Jesus into your life prayer.” I’m okay with that. I’ve done it. I did it again. But, the part that bothers me is the timing. We’re a captive audience, fresh meat for the offering plates, the unusual visitors to church, so they took advantage of the situation to bring a few more into the flock. Do you like what you see? Why not join? Why not become one of us. Just pray with us and—get this—join us in this separate room for a few minutes until the end of the service. At which time we’ll pass out some literature about the church and what it offers. We’ve sold them! And this was the real message of church, a not-for-prime-time televangelism like all the ones I’ve rolled my eyes at on TV or scoffed at over the years.

And here I was a part of it.

We were free to go. The concert was over. The spectacle complete. Jesus quite shamed and embarrassed by what passes for church, I’m sure.

Of course Natalie liked it. Matthew was happy to leave, saying at the end, “Does this mean we can be loud again?” But later, Natalie remarked that they had to get ready for another show…and that was exactly what it was. A thinly veiled guise of rock music and friendly chit-chat masking a whispered religious message.

Me? I just want my five dollars back.


web site tracking
Sierra Trading Post