The feast

In the Episcopalian service, we arrive at what my program calls the “feast.” When I read that, I think I’ve hit the jackpot. I’m picturing fat slices of ham, scones piled with jam. I’m wondering if they’ll use the good china and whether the OJ will be fresh squeezed. I scan a little further down and realize with great disappointment that “feast” is just another word for the nub of bread and sip of wine received during the Lord’s Supper. I suddenly recognize this as one of those instances when the power of piety turns one thing (a crumb) into another (a banquet). Normally, I find this alchemy beautiful. Today, my stomach growls its disappointment.

The intricate movements of the rector and her assistants kick into overdrive. One of the helpers approaches the altar with a mound of bread on a silver tray. Another comes forward with a glass canister of something clear (holy water?) and a second container of wine. A chalice appears; liquids are poured, mixed, tasted. The individuals at the altar weave in and out and around one another. If a different color ribbon were tied to each person, a beautiful braid might form. There is much bowing, pressing of foreheads against the surface where the bread and wine sit, lips moving in silent prayer.

The peace is shattered by a loud crackle from the speakers, and the serious moment is split open by a trucker’s voice. The interstate runs out of town only a few blocks from here; the church’s PA system must share a frequency with the CBs. Broken snippets of a trucker’s conversation come through. “Rain…road…highway?” I can’t help but smile, thinking what a funny moment this is: could there be anything further from “high church” than an 18-wheeler hauling goods across the American West? I look around to gauge reactions, but no one flinches. The rector bows her head; she lets the trucker’s voice fade.

The rows are invited to the altar one by one. I realize we are back to eating the actual flesh and blood of Jesus, but I decide to accept the invitation in the program for all visitors to participate.

We kneel on beautifully hand-embroidered pillows designed to fit perfectly on a little ledge below the altar. Mine has an old scroll and some sort of harp. We wait for the bread lady to come around. I watch her work her way down the row towards me, whispering something to each person. “This is Christ’s body given for you,” she says solemnly as she stands before me. “Thank you,” I reply. I study the little lump of bread, awed by its powerful significance.

At the end of the communion, which marks the end of the service, something happens that I haven’t seen before. In an extension of the ceremony, the rector packs the elements of the sacrament—the remaining bread and wine—into a small red cooler. She explains that these will be taken to congregants who are too sick or frail to leave their homes. She carries the communion-to-go kit up the aisle and hands it to a woman who stands and accepts it with a slight nod. I think how nice it must be for the recipients of this small token. Even if Jesus is just the excuse, even if some people are more eager to see the person than the goodies she brings, it’s such a beautiful gesture to sit and spend a few minutes with someone who is not well. I like how communion inspires worlds to collide: the sick and healthy, priests and truckers, the high and low. I picture an 18-wheeler rumbling down the freeway, its cargo nothing but fine merlot and fresh-baked baguettes. I pull up alongside to glimpse the trucker’s face: it’s Jesus.

His long hair blows through the open window. He winks and pulls the horn for me.

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The King & I

I arrive at a cozy English cottage version of a church. A red door leads directly from the street into the chapel; no grand foyer eases the transition. The scale of the building is intimate, with exposed wood beams running the length of the chapel’s ceiling and stained glass windows at eye level. It’s like something in a curio cabinet, a miniature to gaze upon when you want to feel “churchy.” I can almost smell lush pastures dotted by sheep. The images on the stained glass are unmistakable in their realism: wise men, Jesus, angels.

I take a seat halfway down, on the left side of the aisle. Many of congregants are bent with age or reverence or a little of both. Their hair is well-coiffed, crisp leisure suits are donned, walkers are politely placed out of the aisle. A wave of latecomers hacks a good 20 years from the median age, helped by a sprinkling of teens at my back.

For a moment, I’m overcome by the fascinating history of push and pull encapsulated in this simple place: the “Episcopalian” title of the denomination harkens back to the colonists’ demand for independence after the American Revolution. They changed the title from “Anglican” to dissociate from the British monarchy. Yet, everywhere are loving nods to Great Britain. Colonists may have rejected the king as divine head of the church, but they embraced this version Christianity, outlined during Henry VIII’s reign, as a middle ground between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Like a daughter who balks at the rules under her parents’ roof only to recreate their orderly world in her own home, the Episcopalian colonists wrote a “Book of Common Prayer” almost identical to the one in the motherland. Henry VIII installed himself as “pope” of the Church of England to marry and divorce as he pleased, secure a male heir, and ensure the unity of his kingdom. The results of his efforts became an unwitting vehicle for other types of empowerment. Unlike Catholic and even some mainline Protestant denominations, women are allowed in leadership positions in the Episcopalian system. The first female Episcopalian bishop was appointed in 1989. In 2009, the House of Bishops voted to allow homosexuals to serve in ministerial positions. The most traditional house on the block is surprisingly progressive. Today’s service is dominated by female leaders. The priest, or “rector” (as it is called here) is a woman, as are most of her ministerial helpers.

The choir begins its walk down the aisle toward the altar. They wear emerald green robes with bright yellow hoods. A majority of the congregants stand, though there is a little disclaimer in the program. It reads, “please assume postures comfortable for you.” It goes on to state, “Our first Book of Common Prayer noted in 1549” that positions can vary “as every man’s devotion serveth, without blame,” a nod simultaneously to English roots and physical differences.

A handful of the very elderly remain seated, and I might have too if I’d realized what was in store. Today we perform something called “The Great Litany,” a series of 43 calls and responses; after each one, the choir takes a baby step toward the altar. It starts with the rector saying, “O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth” and then the people and choir reply, “Have mercy upon us.” Over the next six pages of the program, the rector asks God to spare us from sin and everlasting damnation and earthquake and fire and flood and plague; to bless and keep all people; to increase our grace; to make wars cease; to inspire us; to comfort those in danger, in childbirth, and all who suffer. The responses the congregants provide change every few lines, so in turn we beg: “Spare us, good Lord;” “Good Lord, deliver us;” “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord;” “O Christ, hear us;” and “Christ, have mercy upon us.” This ritual is so emotionally charged; it feels as if we are pleading for our lives. Fifteen minutes after they started at the top of the short aisle, the choir members take their seats at the altar and I fall into my own, worn out…

Brunch

The first year of my religious journey, I was only a few months in when Easter arrived. I decided to skip the church-going that Sunday. I knew in a way I was cheating myself. I had endured the gloomy crucifixion only to miss the celebratory conquering of death.

Part of the reason I decided to take the day off: I’m not quite sure what to think of the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ story. Making blind people see, walking on water, and, most astounding of all, rising from the dead. Some modern theologians suggest these events never occurred—at least not exactly as written; the stories about Jesus were told by word of mouth over many years until they developed these fantastical elements. If I preferred, I could choose to see them simply as powerful ideas that resonate on some profound level.

But, to be honest, that was more of an excuse. Here’s the truth: one of my pals was throwing a brunch.

After several weeks of reserving my Sundays for God, I was feeling homesick for my old ways. For Nones, Sundays are for getting up late, lazing around at home and, if we do go out before noon, we are most likely up for one thing: brunch.

But at my brunch date, I had to wonder if my None friends and I aren’t more influenced by religion than we realize—even those who might balk at the suggestion. In ways we might not even recognize, our day-to-day lives are shaped by religion. The concept of a weekend comes from the Jews. Our historical calendar is divided into “before” and “after” Jesus. Even something as innocuous-sounding as “holiday” comes from “holy day.”

I accept Jesus’ principal message on a fundamental level, as do the people to whom I’m close. From a very young age, I understood that others are no different from me and that every person is a significant and equally valuable being. I find it difficult to imagine a time in human history when this reasoning wasn’t the norm, when certain people were considered no better than lion bait, existing for the sole purpose of being ripped from limb to limb for entertainment. I can imagine that Jesus’ “Golden Rule” must have seemed like a novel idea back then. The Roman Collosseum was completed about 80 years into the Christian Era, so the “good news” hadn’t gotten around much.  But have we evolved past this? Could it be that the spiritual exploration and evolution of our ancestors has accumulated in our DNA so that what were once alien teachings are now fundamental to who we are as people? Is it possible that some of us have adopted Christian concepts in the building blocks of who we are? Are my cells Christian even as I declare myself a “None”?

I read about a recent spate of billboards being erected in a few key cities paid for by an atheist group. They picture smiling individuals with the quote, “I can be good without God.” I have no doubt this is true—that the people pictured are kind-hearted and well-meaning—though I might argue that technically the “without God” is a bit misleading. They are likely leaning on the spiritual work of previous generations. So that while these individuals may be taking a break from thinking about God, their great-grandmothers and great-great grandmothers probably spent quite a bit of time honoring the divine. Whatever wisdom these ancestors gathered they passed down to their children who passed it down to their children, and so on.

But this billboard raises an excellent question: isn’t religion about much more than being good? I hope so. I’m not looking for motivation to be good—like the atheists on those posters, I don’t necessarily need help in that area (though a little brushing up couldn’t hurt).

I am shooting for something more along the lines of deep inner peace.

Talking trees

The Pentecostal preacher leads us in a series of hymns. At the end of each, there’s a fluttering of voices, people saying, “Thank you, Jesus” or “Praise the Lord.” They repeat the same phrase over and over, each time with such feeling that it’s like a brand new thought—like they’ve never said it before. I’m starting to get the hang of this, these waves of exuberance washing over us. Here are the “Holy Rollers” I’ve heard about. I once imagined that nickname referred to writhing on the floor, but I’m starting to think it has more to do with the way the energy of their services climbs and dips like a roller coaster.

The preacher is a neatly coiffed older woman wearing chunky turquoise jewelry. I would never in a million years peg her for a Pentecostal preacher—more like a painter in Santa Fe or an art teacher in Berkeley. She is talking about feelings now: how they start as thoughts and end in actions. We are climbing. She says that while all those things matter, they are not the primary focus. She shouts, “God looks at the heart!” I brace myself. Any second, someone will yell in an incomprehensible language I’ve heard described as sounding like Hebrew. It is the perfect crescendo, the logical conclusion. Instead, the repetition of each person’s pet phrase of praise or gratitude winds down into something softer, more guttural, though I can’t make out if they are words. If I closed my eyes, I might think it was a stream running over rocks.

My ex-Pentecostal None friend insists it doesn’t always happen like that—sometimes people really will shout stuff in what is considered a foreign tongue. Others, she explains, might follow up by calling out the English version of those first shouters’ words. So what sounded like unfamiliar words might be translated as “God hates money!” Different individuals have the propensity towards one or the other—some have “the gift” of tongues, some the ability to understand those tongues.

But what I really want to know is how my friend feels about her own history of speaking in tongues. I expect her to claim it was all hogwash. It would certainly be an easier sell among her new crowd to dismiss this past behavior as an aberration—but she doesn’t. She can remember twice being moved to speak in tongues and both times, she says, it felt like a genuine response coming from the depths of her own being. She says she made the same sound over and over again. She tells me, “Maybe I was saying, ‘red’ in Hebrew or ‘squash’ in Korean, but it felt like I was saying, ‘God, you’re cool!’”

I leave the Pentecostal service feeling more upbeat than I have in weeks. All that exuberance has rubbed off on me and I’m almost giddy, like I’ve popped a dozen Prozac. It reminds me of the part of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is in the dark forest and unexpectedly one of the big trees starts to talk. When I saw the Wizard of Oz for the first time, I thought nothing could be more frightening: the trunk shifted to reveal facial features, the bark formed a mouth. I wanted to scream. I wanted switch off the television and run from the room. But I waited, frozen in place. I looked out from squinted eyes as the tree says a few things, and then Dorothy says a few things back. Then I laughed at my initial reaction: what’s so scary about a talking tree? Even if it has a face, it’s still just a tree. It can’t chase you. A tree that talks is kind of cool. It doesn’t even compare to the flying monkeys.

Holiness Hill

I have mixed emotions about treading this particular “Holiness” path. As a newbie to Christianity, I’m worried about witnessing fervent displays of faith. I feel it’s akin to sitting in on a stranger’s therapy session or watching from the gallery of an operating room—you’re witnessing an intensely private moment. Except in this case, the subject not only knows there will be spectators but welcomes them. Part of the point is to demonstrate to others the work of the Holy Spirit. All of which is perhaps okay except…what if the spectacle becomes particularly freaky? What if the patient struggles with multiple personalities or the surgery is gory open heart? What if people are jabbering uncontrollably up and down the church aisles? Is it too much for an innocent bystander? Or, more frightening still, what if the Holy Spirit grabs ahold of me?

Already, I’ve discovered that one of the best friends I’ve made since moving to my new town was, until recently, one of them: a Pentecostal. When she told me, I was knocked me off kilter for several moments. I knew she had been a committed church-goer until about five years ago when her devout then-husband ran off with another woman, I just didn’t realize it had been that kind of church. Today she’s a card-carrying None. A few years ago she was speaking in tongues. Is it really such a fine line?

So I start off gently, with a Church of the Nazarene, which is a type of Holiness church that doesn’t do “speaking in tongues,” the spontaneous ability to utter a foreign language. I imagine putting my finger to the patient’s wrist to take a pulse. Unlike others with a steady rate, this one calms and quickens, calms and quickens over and over. It begins slowly with announcements and hymns. Then the preacher says we are entering prayer time and a handful of people approach the altar to kneel, their arms wrapped around their neighbors’ shoulders. Others raise their palms into the air. When the preacher says, “God put you here to lift you up,” the rate spikes. A man cries, “Yes!” and several others shout, “Amen!” A similar thing happened in the middle of an Episcopal service I attended several weeks earlier, but with a much more awkward result. A woman blurted “Amen!” from the back row and everyone turned to look at her and smile. Here, the exclamations rise up unacknowledged, par for the course. The pace slows for a Bible reading and then the preacher says, “God hates lukewarm—he likes his church hot!” Shouts of “amen” ripple through the congregation like exclamation points at the end of his statement and I can almost feel the temperature in the sanctuary rise.

The next week I try a Pentecostal service. The church is the size and shape of a double wide trailer. It’s located just out of town on the side of the freeway in the shadow of a grain silo. Inside, where fewer than 20 people are gathered, I sense the relaxed vibe of familiarity. A sullen, stud-adorned teenager drapes herself across an entire row. It’s hard to imagine these laid-back congregants wound up with Spirit.

At the front of the room are two women: a keyboard player and a singer with a microphone. Is amplification necessary in such a small space? My guess is no, but the woman holds it earnestly, speaking into it with such sincerity that I sense to her it is no less than the ear of God…

 

Hello, God

After studying everyone in the Quaker circle, I close my eyes again. This must be the “open worship” portion of the service I’ve read about where each person is engaged in his or her own private communication with God. If that’s what this is, I want to do it right.

I imagine my scalp retracting like the roof on an observatory, receptive to messages from God. I see patterns dancing against my eyelids, but no thunderbolts of insight. At 30 minutes, I open my eyes and look around the room again. Will there be a sermon? If so, who will give it? George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, said each person is illuminated with the “divine light of Christ” so any person might be a group facilitator. I close my eyes and try opening the roof again. After 45 minutes, my eyes pop open. Is this the Quaker group? Forget passion, I’m worried these people have slipped into comas. I stare at each of them, willing their eyes to open. At the hour mark, I feel a rush of relief when Ma Kettle comes alive and says, “Does anyone have anything to add?”

Over tea and Fig Newtons, I chat with Ma Kettle. She has a wide smile, rosy cheeks, and several prominent whiskers. She explains that some “Friends,” as Quakers sometimes call themselves, incorporate more traditional elements into their services like sermons and hymns, but that at the core of all Quaker gatherings is the open worship in which each person becomes a conduit for divine wisdom. If an individual feels moved to speak at the end of worship, he or she is invited to do so. Some may interpret a fellow worshipper’s words as messages from God.

In its day, George Fox’s suggestion that a person converse directly with God may have seemed particularly impassioned. It has since been eclipsed by denominations whose worship style makes the Friends seem subdued.

After Fox’s death in 1691, the idea that worship could be a stirring experience must have stayed buzzing in the ether because a generation later his fellow Brit, John Wesley, the father of Methodism, was weaving it into his own thinking. As a student at Oxford, Wesley developed a systematic approach to living a religious life. He created guidelines based on his own “methodical” schedule of daily Bible reading, prayer, and communion with fellow Christians. At the heart of his format was the “Holiness Club,” a small group whose members met regularly to encourage one another’s study, spiritual questioning, and attendance of Church of England services. After years of developing and preaching this small-group structure, he sensed a gaping shortcoming: it was devoid of passionate devotion. Not long after, he was imploring listeners to embrace faith with an unparalleled vitality—and insisting that this fervor can even be proof of God’s continuing work in a person.

From an outsider’s perspective, I can see how the combining of these two styles of worship—one orderly and the other spontaneous—made for an odd marriage. Methodism spread like wildfire throughout the United States, due in large part to the efforts of itinerant preachers. As it became more established (and some might say “staid”) those who gravitated to the expressive side began to feel dissatisfied. Thus, the “Holiness Movement” was born and, with it, Pentecostal denominations whose members wanted to engage in the more demonstrative displays they say arise when the Holy Spirit moves a person. These are not flights of fancy, they believe, but an essential part of the ongoing process of becoming a more evolved Christian. The centerpiece for many who practice this style of worship is the act of “speaking in tongues.”

If my exploration of religion were a board game such as Candy Land, this next series of churches might be a strange little offshoot from the main course—a forest that might bear the marker “Holiness Hill.” Is it dark and scary? Or enchanted? I’m not sure, but it’s a safe bet that the trees will talk.

Moved by Spirit

What would it feel like to be so overcome with religious enthusiasm that one howls like a dog?

Here’s a scenario that plays in my mind: It is 200 years ago—early 1800s—and I’m a young woman living on the American frontier in what is roughly modern-day Ohio. I’m attending my first “camp meeting,” which is an open-air church revival presided over by traveling preachers. These are men with regular jobs, blacksmiths and farmers, who exhibit extreme dedication to the Lord by adding preaching to their list of responsibilities. This will be my first exposure to a worship setting that is not my family’s kitchen table. The preachers call themselves “Methodists.”

My imaginary gathering takes place in a big field. A preacher tells the assembled crowd that God isn’t just something you open a book and read about: God is here right now. He’s inside each of us and if we feel Him working in us, we shouldn’t be shy—we should shout or do whatever else we want because these expressions demonstrate our love for God. As he speaks, the preacher paces back and forth and his face turns red and he looks like a man possessed. He begs God to make his presence known and when he falls to his knees and puts his hands in the air, it’s as if the Holy Spirit rips through the crowd. People shout, shake, and cry. There’s moaning, babbling, fainting—and, yes, some people even howl and bark like dogs.

Two centuries and 2,000 miles further along, I’m making my way to the Sunday worship services of a group of Quakers. For the last few days, I’ve been reading the first-hand accounts of attendees at early religious revivals in the early frontier. In this book, ordinary people recount the wackiest spectacles they witnessed at camp meetings. Some of their stories had me in stitches. I’ve been preparing to embark on the next phase of this journey, which is a series of denominations known for their emotional devotion. The Quakers were some of the earliest purveyors of passion-filled worship. They earned their nickname from their reputation for trembling with emotion during their services.

When I walk in, I’m a few minutes late. Having struggled to find the right building, I’ve missed whatever introductory remarks were offered. A group of about 10 sit on overstuffed couches and chairs arranged in a circle. The median age is mid-70s. It could easily be a group therapy session at a senior center—except nobody is talking and their eyes are closed. I spot a cylindrical device out of the corner of my eye and think “oxygen tank!” Turns out it’s just a fire extinguisher. I join the circle and get comfortable. My heart is racing from climbing a hill outside.

After 15 minutes, I open my eyes and take a closer look at each person. If I had to guess who is in charge, I’d say it’s one of the two guys whose extra-long beards make them look like members of the rock band ZZ Top, or maybe it’s the old woman smiling like a beatific Ma Kettle. For a group whose name is based on shaking, they are surprisingly still…