The okay-ness

I’m surprised when Jackson tells me that officially the Buzz is Baptist. After seminary, he was struck by polls showing the abundance of people lacking a religious affiliation in the Pacific Northwest and, with the financial backing of a national Baptist organization, relocated here from Texas. At first he worked as the youth minister at a local Baptist church before striking out on his own about five years ago. Today, the ties to the national organization have loosened. It pays only a part of his salary and, of the 20 or so people on his staff, each one is responsible for securing his or her own funding, which comes from multiple sources. I wonder what it means about the future of denominations that I’ve had to work so hard to find one here.

When he asks me why I started my church-going mission, our conversation turns to the less material. “I’m trying to better understand spirituality,” I tell him. I’m surprised to hear myself admit this out loud, much less to someone I hardly know. Before I started this endeavor, I thought of spirituality like I think of ghosts—a phenomenon somewhere between fascinating and frightening, but of which I had no first-hand experience. When I imagined what it might be, I always pictured some object—chimes, trees, fabric—swaying in the breeze.

“What does spirituality mean to you?” he asks.

How to put it into words? I rarely have this kind of conversation. My None friends and I—we tend to lack the language. When we attempt to talk about these issues we turn into frustrated apes; we thump our chests and open our hands to the sky.

I know the official Christian answer would be something like “accepting Jesus as God and my personal savior” but I’m not sure if I can do that just yet even if I understood exactly how.

I tell him, “I think it’s being more like Jesus…like how he was day to day.” I feel as wobbly as a fawn taking her first few steps. “Jesus was aware of ordinary life and responsibilities, but he always kept something bigger in mind…an awareness that he’d be gone someday too, and an okay-ness with it that made the everyday more precious. It’s the awareness and the okay-ness…” I catch Jackson looking at me in a way that suggests I’m either saying something profound or profoundly incomprehensible.

I want to keep going because it feels good to try to talk about this stuff even if I’m not good at it. I need to say something about compassion because I know that’s a big piece of the spirituality puzzle, and the okay-ness is key because if we can be okay with the being here—and the not being here—then we might even be able to love ourselves and whatever force brings us here and then snatches us away.

I think about the atheist slogan: “I can be good without God.” I had thought I didn’t need help with that because the goodness they are referring to is about not breaking laws and making the right choices morally and ethically. But maybe it refers to something much more subtle, being “good” as in being “okay”—learning to be good to ourselves and others, gentle and kind, accepting of our own and each other’s foibles. The okay-ness is the root of this love, which we can only extend to others if we first possess it ourselves. I want to say all this and more but forming such abstract ideas into actual words suddenly feels too daunting. They dissolve into a sweet puddle like a clump of cotton candy on the tip of my tongue.

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Vibrant Belief

I’ve always looked up at the hill and the Vibrant Belief’s towering building, so standing in front of the church looking out in the other direction offers an entirely new perspective. From here, the sky is big and I can see a chunk of town, including a car dealership and an Arby’s just down the road and, beyond that, a strip mall. The atrium reminds me of a hotel trying to be fancy or perhaps a cruise ship. I pick up the program and a brochure that shows a faint image of guitar superimposed over a shot of the surrounding hills. A young man standing at the door to the sanctuary sees me studying the brochure and explains that the church pays a fee for the rights to use an entire catalogue of Christian rock songs.

The sanctuary is enormous, designed to seat many hundreds, though it’s not even half full. The stadium seating and my spot toward the back gives me an excellent view of the stage and all the rows in front of me. The band opens with a medley of Christian rock songs: “I Surrender to You” blends with “Count Me In,” fusing with “Take my Life.” Some of the younger audience members rush to the stage, and dance in the aisles. They sway and hop. One overweight fellow bounds and twists like a faux ballerina, his pants losing their hold of his ample backside. A row of sorority girls in front of me look on, exchanging glances, their eyes growing wider with his every leap, sucking the straws in their frappuccinos to keep from snickering.

A man’s voice booms from the loudspeaker, authoritative and deep. I look around to identify its source. It takes me a moment to realize it’s meant to be the voice of God. We are his children and he commands us to love one another. I created the cosmos and the earth, God bellows. Video screens display hundreds of points of light that fade in and out, like fireflies or stars being passed at high velocity. I start to feel a little nervous tingle in my toes, a panicky sensation caused by this unexpected reenactment of hurling through the cosmos.

The microphone is being passed through the congregation. It stops on a woman who says into it very seriously, “I sense someone is experiencing blurry vision.” I squint to check one eye and then the other. A hand goes up in the front and everyone around that person places a hand on or near her, other members of the congregation reach their hands in her direction. For a moment, the audience looks like a big sea anemone stretching towards a floating morsel. The microphone moves again, and another lady says, “I have a feeling of a stiff neck.” I pull my shoulders down and stretch my head in both directions as someone else claims the ailment and the tendrils stretch in that direction. Technically I wasn’t the one suffering, but my eyesight feels crisper, my neck looser. When the healing session is over, I see an older gentleman with a mop of white hair leaving an audio booth to the side of the stage. I think to myself: “That must be God!”

After his brief sermon, the minister announces the presentation of a short video. The big screen comes down again from the ceiling above the altar/stage. Someone has shot footage of the installation of a new of a new digital display board. I noticed it that morning as I passed through the intersection: at the street corner, a wide monitor sat atop two poles with freshly moved earth around their bases. The time lapse video shows the sign going up at warp speed. Everyone applauds at the freeze frame of the finished product. This morning it flashed a screen of the service time with the words, “Everyone’s invited!”

The new sign seems to soften the hard edges of the hillside, or at least draw focus to a more welcoming sight—it appears to be an attempt to present a more inviting image to the community at large. Though is it too superficial an effort? Something about it feels like collagen injections into the face of a movie star who’s lost the bloom of youth. Not that she isn’t lovely in her own way or can’t be great again in the right role, but first she has to accept that time has marched on. Otherwise it’s just uncomfortable watching her.

The carpenter

 

Change happens, intentional or not. Time does that. The protesters become the establishment and a new wave of rebels rise up.

In the 1970s, before rock and roll had been integrated into many Protestant services, after the explosion of youth culture in America claimed its first and second wave of devotees, some within this emerging youth culture began to feel disillusioned by churches in which they grew up. They did not favor the dying Jesus or the risen Jesus or even the God Jesus. They were drawn to the real man who walked the earth in dusty sandals. They wanted to emulate his humility and simple desire to love and help others. Some were in the “hippie” counterculture when they began to gravitate toward a Christian message; others were Christians drawn to the counterculture. They saw Jesus as the ultimate hippie, and they aspired to be like him. They got labeled “Jesus people” or “Jesus freaks.”

One church in my town links its founding directly to the 70’s Jesus Movement, and I’ve been anticipating my visit there all year, wondering what it will be like to penetrate the invisible barrier that seems to separate its congregants from the rest of the community. Their building sits in stark contrast to what I know of the group’s humble origins. The founders of this church began as a ragtag group of college students who met wherever they could—in living rooms and borrowed spaces—until finally, 20 years down the line, they raised enough funds to construct their own building.

The building watches over one of the busier intersections in town, the impression of its size magnified by its position at the top of a hill. The church is a modernist structure, all right angles and glass. Large beams protrude above the entrance, one on either side, each bent in the middle, supporting a long thin cross. They look very much like enormous arms holding a sword poised to stab hapless bystanders. The hillside leading to the church is covered in hundreds of juniper bushes with sharp points like enormous shards of green glass. No path leads to the church’s door, the only entrance is a driveway for cars.

Despite the flashy building, and its lack of consideration for pedestrians or anyone who might approach on foot, the emphasis is still on the Jesus who walked. Every member is encouraged to take the “foundation course” called the “Carpenter Series” to help students build lives more like Christ “whether you have never heard much about Jesus…or have been walking with Him for years…”

The denomination is listed in the newspaper Worship Directory under a category called “Interdenominational Charismatic.”  It’s a label that downplays denominational divisions while focusing on the extraordinary works—“Charisma” means “gifts” in Greek—faith can bestow. Such gifts may include spontaneous healing and impulsive displays of joy. The name of the church alludes to the burning conviction in such works; it’s called something like “Vibrant Belief.”

So large does this church’s insular reputation loom in our community that my None friends use it as an explanation for anyone who seems to minimize contact with them. If a coworker or neighbor barely speaks to anyone but seems normal in every other way, one explanation is always that he or she is “probably Vibrant Belief.”

Even though this church’s distance from my house is walkable, I drive there and park in a guest spot…

Plexiglas box

Strumming his guitar, Pastor Jeff approaches the microphone stand and begins to belt out the first song, “Glory to God Forever.” The band behind him reaches full throttle.

I look around to see if I can catch smiles on anyone’s faces.

It’s Pearl Jam meets Jesus.

This is ironic, no?

John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, was famously opposed to displays of flamboyance and mirth. He considered dancing at weddings a vulgarity, as was providing too many types of food at dinner. What would he think of this?

But today’s congregants are extremely earnest. I follow them as they stand.

I’m holding the lyrics on a photocopied sheet. I can’t for the life of me catch the beat. I’m reminded of when kids sing a song they barely know, and they mumble along until they stumble upon a familiar series of words—but blurt them a tad too late. I’m the worst offender: my mangled version dangles from the other congregants’ slightly less mangled versions. I whisper-sing hoping my contribution gets drowned out. The pastor has an excellent voice, and a dynamic stage presence. If I could, I’d vote we all just zip it and listen. But I suppose that would run counter to the spirit of participation.

If this was anywhere else, I’d be swaying. I find it almost impossible not to move at least one limb to any music with the semblance of a beat. Everyone else stands still. They are redwood trees in a forest alive with exotic birds. It’s the strangest sensation, all this vibrancy electrifying the air, and they are as immobile as steel rods. Actually, this is precisely what I was expecting before I showed up this morning. The rock star pastor is a surprise, but the congregants fit right in with my preconceived notions of Presbyterians, who I associate with the early colonial settlers. Here are my puritans—it’s not that they don’t feel passion for God, just that they are more comfortable with the pastor expressing it on their behalf. I decide on a little unobtrusive foot tapping.

After a medley of opening songs, we settle into traditional service elements that include a Time of Silent Confession, Assurance of Pardon, New and Old Testament readings, giving of tithes and offerings, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

In retrospect, what’s funny is how ordinary the pastor’s rock performance turned out to be. I came to realize that many mainline Protestant denominations offer two versions of their Sunday services, one with hymns and the other with a drummer in a Plexiglas box. Sometimes I saw older people in the contemporary service or young people in the traditional service but, in general, the age divide was clear. I wasn’t sure who was making concessions to whom—whether the elders were accommodating current tastes or if new leaders were hoping appease their base of long-time congregants and likely best tithers. Each time I had to decide between services, I couldn’t help but note how meager the attendance usually was and how, if services were combined, twice as many people would be present. Because what seems to matter more than the style of music is that people bothered showing up; everyone sits elbow to elbow and at least tries to join their voices to whatever songs play.

Dividing services feels to me like one group or generation saying to the other, “I choose music over you.” Isn’t this just the sort of gap worship is meant to close?

Right on

Maybe it took almost 500 years, but the Catholic Church has adopted some reforms originally demanded by Protestants.

Today, in turn, some Protestants are borrowing ideas from the Catholic Church. In an effort to feel more in sync with other Christians, some denominations have created their own Bible-reading schedules similar to the Roman Catholic Mass Lectionary; they are literally on the same page as others using that same guide. Traditional elements such as more frequent communion, celebrating Lent, or Stations of the Cross strengthen ties between Christians around the world.

The Protestants who came to these soils may have achieved the religious freedoms for which they set out, but lost something vital along the way. How else to explain the “Plan of Union of 1802” when 2,000 independent Congregational churches traded their autonomy and name for the Presbyterian structure and title?

The pilgrims and pioneers yearned for autonomy, to be free of directives about how to worship or live. The Plymouth Rock Society Toast summed it up: “To a church without a bishop and a state without a king.”

But perhaps the only thing more American than to fight for freedom is to achieve freedom and then look longingly at severed ties. It’s the same struggle I experience on a most intimate level. I want to make my own decisions about spirituality but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to trudge the path alone.

Protestants may be turning back to the Catholic Church for inspiration—but they’re reaching forward too. It wasn’t until I was further along in this journey that I could reflect on some of my earlier church visits and see how popular culture, particularly trends in music, were being incorporated into the services of more established denominations.

“Are you here for the contemporary or traditional service?” a young man inquires of me at the chapel door of a Presbyterian church just a few months after I started my church-going.

“What’s the difference?” I ask. This is the first I’m hearing of two services.

“The music mostly. I think. I don’t know.” He looks around self-consciously. “I always go to the contemporary one. I’ll get Pastor Jeff. He can explain.”

He returns, tailed by a baby-faced man in an enormous blazer. Pastor Jeff has recently lost 100 pounds or he just likes really loose-fitting clothes. Either way, it makes him appear even younger than he already seems, like a kid wearing his father’s suit.

“You’re visiting us today!” He exudes oodles of confidence. He is handsome in a clean-cut way. I nod, picturing him in Christian camp as a teenager, all the girls chastely fawning over him in the mess hall.

“Right on,” he says enthusiastically, using a phrase I associate with surfers. He explains that the contemporary service uses newer “rock” songs and guitar, whereas the other features older hymns and a choir. Besides this, they are the same: identical message and readings and sermon. “The newer music rubs some of the older folks the wrong way,” he says.

I choose the one starting immediately—the contemporary one.

In the main sanctuary, Pastor Jeff says a few words of welcome and then disappears into the corner. Suddenly, a loud guitar riff fills the chapel. I scan the room to spy what I had previously overlooked: to the side of the altar sit the accoutrement of a full rock band including drums, bass, keyboards and two backup singers sandwiched between tall concert speakers.

The pastor spins to face us, an electric guitar strapped to his chest…

Save Me

Save Me is the name of a new 30-minute “situation comedy” that debuted on NBC last week. I had been seeing commercials for it for a few weeks and I recognized the lead actress, Anne Heche. I’ve enjoyed some of her previous work and was intrigued by what appeared to be the show’s strong religious theme, especially on a big television network during a “primetime” slot. How would the show’s creators mix humor and faith? Would it work? Would anyone watch? I had to find out. On its premier night, two back-to-back episodes of Save Me aired before a rerun of old-favorite The Office, providing an hour-long sample in one sitting.

Here’s the show’s premise: Heche plays Beth, a 30-something wife and mother to a teenage daughter. She and her family live in a nice house on a charming tree-lined street. It looks ordinary. But things are about to change!

The first scene shows Beth in the middle of the night standing at her open fridge hunting for something to eat. Mascara raccoons her eyes and she’s obviously drunk. She begins to greedily devour a huge hoagie. She starts to choke. She crashes to the ground. She dies.

I’m thinking: How’s this going to work? Two minutes in and the main character is deceased. I’m wondering if she’ll come back as a spirit to hover over her family members like Touched by an Angel except hilarious. In the morning, her hunky husband comes into the kitchen to find his wife…alive! She greets him with sweet, overflowing exuberance. The audience is meant to understand this is a brand new demeanor for her. In quick flashbacks and with the help of a voiceover, we see that Beth’s life had been circling the drain. She had been partying way too hard, and making a complete fool of herself at social gatherings. Her friends are avoiding her, her daughter hates her, and she readily admits her behavior has driven her husband into the arms of another woman. Basically, she’s a sad sack of a lady: pretty on the outside but loathsome on the inside. Not at all the sort of person one might expect God to speak to directly (or, perhaps, just the sort?), but that’s exactly what Beth realizes is happening.

The audience never hears God talking to Beth. She insists that the voice is audible and, in a politically correct detail that might appeal to contemporary tastes, she describes it as “gender neutral.” She refers to its source as “He/She.” It tells her things that are about to happen or that she shouldn’t otherwise know. If any of her friends is inclined to doubt Beth’s new skill, it appears to be accompanied by an ability to channel electrical currents. When her husband’s mistress shows up on the front lawn, Beth seemingly cracks her over the head with a lightning bolt in front of an audience of neighbors.

A neighbor invites her to church, and Beth’s face lights up. If she was ever a church-goer it was a lifetime ago, but it suddenly seems to her like the best idea. The church scene is idyllic: congregants milling and chatting congenially, one strumming a guitar leading a sing-along. It’s a None’s fantasy of fellowship and good vibes. No mention is made of the denomination, but Beth instantly feels at home. She grabs the microphone to sing the hymn, baffled that she knows all the words by heart.

She confides in the minister that God is talking to her. He seems not-at-all surprised. In fact, while they’re together another congregant approaches to deliver a “message from God.” This congregant is obviously mentally ill, so the minister might assume that Beth, too, is a bit deranged.

Is this a show about a woman whose near-death hoagie choking somehow changed her brain to be more God-oriented? Or is it about a less-than-perfect suburban-mom-turned-prophet? Or both? Either way, its appearance on mainstream television raises some interesting questions. Are we hungrier for spirituality than we recognize?

This quirky show probably won’t last. Its premier at the start of the summer season is apparently a bad sign. However, the network has a handful of already-completed episodes that are supposed to air in the coming weeks. I’m curious to see where it goes.

So far, the messages God provides Beth are mundane. He/She tells her the location of her missing daughter (the park) or to return a cappuccino machine she stole from a neighbor. It’s not that this isn’t good information to help her be a more attentive mom and sympathetic friend, but I’m wondering if she’ll move from fixing her own wrecked life to helping heal her community or even the world. Can she be a real prophet if her mission never goes beyond her street?

I’m also curious to see if the show will explore why Beth had become so messed-up in the first place and how her new-found connection to the divine addresses whatever pain had worsened her predicament. Will the storylines stay superficial or will they attempt to say something profound about the human condition? Can a sitcom be used to explore faith in a meaningful way? What does it suggest that the creators of this show are even trying?