Thursday, October 22, 2009

Church #4 of 10: Here I Am, Lord, Really Bored, Lord

Walking into Wilder, it was like an obstacle course to avoid all the smokers. Ducking, shifting, sliding and running, I leapt toward the door while also trying to hold my breath. I was rarely successful, as a disheveled, bearded man on a park bench so often called my name, leisurely, “Meeeegan.” His voice dropped with each word. “Come. Sit.” I concentrated on a smile and turned to face the bench. Cigar smoke in my face mixed with the smell of coffee, I stepped back. “Fred,” I tried not to sigh, or breath for that matter. He had a book open on his lap, cigar in one hand, and a cup of coffee in the other. It was at this point I could make an excuse and slip away or admit defeat and join him for what would likely be a twenty-minute lecture on the Epistles. Perhaps if I had known that this highly intellectual Lutheran Chaplain would not live much longer, I would have joined my then boss on the park bench any time he beckoned. I was not aware of his fragility, though, so most often, I would politely excuse myself and head into the building.

Have you ever been at a concert, service or event and been so distracted by one thing that the rest of the experience seemed unimportant (and rather dull)? Sunday’s visit to First Lutheran Church proved to be both hilarious and boring. I expect this isn’t due to the denomination or even the congregation, but to the general lack of energy and religious mojo. Therefore, the most exciting aspect of the service was not the adorable toddler who listened attentively during the drab children’s sermon, but rather, his father, on whose lap the boy sat, who was rocking the most awesome mullet I have ever seen.

"Mullet alert,” my mom used the small pew-pencil to scribble on her bulletin.

“Business in the front, partay in the back,” I replied quickly on my paper.

That’s about the time we lost it. In the small congregation, scattered throughout the pews, I don’t doubt that people noticed. Our heads down and lips closed, we tried to get the image out of our heads. The beautifully straight back and the adamantly short front, complete with poofy bangs and an “I can totally pull this off” attitude.

My mom felt guilty, and she swirled dark circles over her writing. But she kept glancing at my bulletin and turning away, shaking with laughter.

This is the first church we visited that had a published statement, on their website, bulletin board and order-of-worship, of openness to all sexual orientations. When my mom asked me what I expected from the service, I realized that I could only think of Garrison Keilor and the late Fred Lassen. I thought of the extreme Reverend Lassen, who seemed a parody of himself; and the satiric comedy of “A Prairie Home Companion,” which presented Lutherans as fierce, but stubborn liberals who had unique, comic identities.

So didn’t this mullet-rocking individual fit in with my ignorant assumptions? Someone confident, welcoming and distinctive presenting themselves quietly, without shame. Was it wrong for me to find humor in this representation? In fact, the mullet was the only passionate, animated part of my experience there. The mullet-man made me sit back and smile before I wrote this, and think twice before being too critical.

The hymns were beautiful selections, but slow and meaningless in presentation. The sermon was the head-down, read-from-a-paper approach with little to no inflection. The place was welcoming, in deed and in statement, but the worship felt so very…protestant. I felt like I was part of a routine, much like brushing my teeth before bed and then turning out the light. How much thought does that require? When I’m getting ready for bed, I’m not thinking about process…my mind is wandering elsewhere, to music, food, or academics. This is likely why I spent most of the service thinking of only two things: Oh my gosh, that mullet; and, what am I going to write about this church?

My dad could figure the probability regarding the likelihood that out of 10 churches, there would be at least one that I do not like or enjoy. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and being swept off my feet two churches in a row was pure luck. I have trouble letting the worship experience dictate my viewpoint of Lutherans, though. I would rather think of Reverend Fred Lassen, and that guy with the amazing mullet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Church #3 of 10: Holy, Holy, Holy High

Andy Barnett was best described by my best friend, Leah, as “child-like, but not childish.” He was (and likely still is) brilliantly talented, hilariously funny and eternally playful. When he walked, he smiled in way that made passersby believe he must be enjoying every step. He loved spending time alone in the outdoors, and was the type of person to comment gleefully on the sunrise. At mealtimes, he assessed his food with a ravishing grin and lived every bite like a 5-year-old eating a once-a-year bowl of ice cream for dinner. He was not greedy, but grateful, not selfish, but selfless, and most of all, he had a genuineness about him that made you feel lucky to be his friend. As studious as he was creative, Andy fit into the Oberlin mold while still thinking outside of the box. And though he struck me as contemporary, changing and “cool,” he introduced me to a church that was often accused of being the opposite. Episcopalians are sometimes described as anciently traditional, ceremonious and frankly, somewhat Catholic. If I hadn’t known Andy and his church as two adjoining entities from the beginning of our relationship, I would never have guessed this as his denomination.

It was this introduction that challenged me to visit an Episcopalian church as part of my journey. If someone like Andy found a place there, it seemed likely that I would as well. There must be something about that church, I thought, that makes people want to endure the drab rituals, put aside the political creed, and decipher the shape-note hymnal.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is, in my opinion, very “high church,” even for Episcopalians. When we walked in, my mom said, “I haven’t been in a church like this since…Europe.” The floor creeks while the statues shine, the congregational seating is simple and musty while the area behind the metallic screen, with the altar and the choir and the clergy, is ornate and bright.

Goose bumps trickled up my arm and down my back. My stomach buzzed with an intriguing awe. Overwhelmed with the beauty like I saw in the churches in Spain and the spirits like those I felt when entering a historical graveyard, I was instantly hooked.

I have always been a sucker for history. I love hearing about the past, believing in legends and imagining “the olden days.” I’ve always felt like churches are where the spiritual and earthly paranormal interact. Everyday ghosts meet up with worshipped saints and whatnot. St. Mary’s is no exception. The building is almost 120 years old and the church, 150.

I could see each year in the woodwork, every heart and soul poured into this place.

The congregation for the 10:00 a.m. Eucharist (they don’t call it a “service”) was small, maybe 20 people at most. Though I had attended an Episcopal service before, this seemed extra-structured. The choir, clergy and bible processed in to a slow-moving hymn, complete with bells and incense. When it came time to read the Gospel, the bible was taken from the altar to the middle of the congregation, splashed with incense, and held open by one clergy while the other read. It was a beautiful symbol of tearing down the curtain and allowing the lay-folk to experience Jesus first-hand.

Interestingly, the things I thought I wouldn’t like about the service, I ended up enjoying the most. The tradition was comforting and consistent, the creed was uniting and I even found myself intrigued by the classically efficient music (which seemed to kill time better than it praised God). This church, these rituals, the denomination, has worked for so many people for so long and now, I can really understand why. There is a physical representation of faith, stored up in the history and structure, the stained glass and the ornate statues, and just like an old, but loved book or stuffed animal, it brings a sense of peace to the soul.

So far, this has been my most challenging church experience, because without making any elaborate gestures or fancy statements, the church still made me feel welcome. I was part of a larger entity, a greater Christian community, one to which I will likely return…at least once more.