Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mega-Church #7 (Church #18): I Married God under a Chuppah

The service at Vineyard Church of Kansas City made me think of this song:

We Will Dance (David Ruis)
Sing a song of celebration,
Lift up a shout of praise,
For the Bridegroom will come,
The glorious one,
And oh, we will look on his face,
We’ll go to a much better place.

Dance with all your might,
Lift up your hands and clap for joy,
The time’s drawing near,
When he will appear,
And oh, we will stand by his side,
A strong, pure, spotless bride.

We will dance on the streets that are golden,
The glorious bride and the great Son of man,
From every tongue and tribe and nation,
Will join in the song of the lamb.

Sing aloud for the time of rejoicing is near,
The risen King, our groom, is soon to appear,
The wedding feast to come is now near at hand,
Lift up your voice, proclaim the coming Lamb.

Then, my mind wandered to this song:

Don’t Ever Leave Me Jesus (Faith + 1)
Don’t ever leave me Jesus, I couldn’t stand to see you go,
My heart would simply snap, my Lord, if you walked on out that door.
I promise I’ll be good to you, I’ll keep you warm at night,
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, why don’t we just shut off the light?

And before I knew it, my mind illustrated an image: me in a conservative but fashionable white dress, Jesus in cargo pants and an undershirt, the perfect wedding. Who better to marry than God in human form? In addition to the unlimited red-carpet experiences and world-saving excursions, I would have constant access to a healer, counselor and friend. I would love him because, well, he’s Jesus, and he would love me because he pretty much loves everyone. Though he may be a bit preoccupied and generous with his talents, no one can question his faithfulness.

Swooning now, I listened to the pastor ramble on about God’s covenant with us being just like a marriage covenant. He was pointing to a chuppah, the open tent used for marriage in a Jewish wedding. Reconstructed on the stage, the chuppah contained flowers, candles and a white runner. “And then,” he pointed to the right side of the chuppah, “the couple would go into a private tent to consummate their marriage.”

Wait. What?

“Then, they would come out afterwards for the big party and celebrate their wedding.”

Two questions formed in my mind, “What do the guests do while the couple…consummates?” and “Are you suggesting that I consummate with Christ?”

It does have a certain ring to it. Consummate with Christ. And the pastor didn’t lead into an explanation, here. He went straight from talking about us being like a bride to God to sex in a tent. Sure, I disliked the music and felt generally annoyed by the space already, but this took the daftness of both the congregation and their pastor to a new level. Did no one else notice that we went from loving God to being IN LOVE with God?

The Faith + 1 song above is from an episode of South Park when Cartman bets the other boys that he can sell over one million copies of his band’s CD if they sing Christian Rock. He then proceeds to take 1980s love ballads and change the words to include “Jesus” and “God.” Later in the episode, as the band’s success takes off, one of the record producers questions whether Cartman loves Jesus or is IN LOVE with Jesus. Quickly, Cartman tests the producers’ faith by asking if it is possible to love God too much.

I know of nuns who wear a wedding ring to signify their dedication and therefore marriage to God. That seems personally symbolic, and I get that. I don’t, however, appreciate taking a beautiful Jewish tradition and twisting it around to benefit a sermon. It’s the hijacking of faith that bothers me, the picking and choosing. We want to separate ourselves from the Jewish faith, so we take off our hats in church while they cover their heads. But occasionally, we will admit that we owe aspects of our religion to Judaism but not quite imply that Jesus, himself, was Jewish. We don’t get to damn them to hell one minute and then steal their traditions the next. We can’t cite Leviticus to prove the sinfulness of homosexuality and then turn around and eat a piece of pepperoni pizza.

I know of many Christians that admire the Jewish faith and participate in their traditions with open-mindedness and respect. The outrageousness of this pastor’s implication, though, reminded me of the innumerable inconsistencies within Christianity. And it made me wonder, can a faith’s devotion to love go too far? Do I really want to marry Jesus?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Interlude: The Ashes of my Neighbors

I’m really good at feeling sorry for myself. Wallowing around in the depths of depression is a hobby of mine. A skilled complainer, I am quite prone to prolonged sessions of eloquent venting, followed by a good cry. I flourish in affirmation and could easily die of disappointment. My own anxiety both inspires and intimidates my growth. If there is sickness to be had, I will suffer thought it. If there is credit to be earned, I’ll spring to martyrdom.

Therefore, I always thought Ash Wednesday was about me. I was created by God and will return to God, from dirt and to dirt. I need to forgive or be forgiven. I perceive the guilt of my troubling lot as motivation for the next few weeks of Lent. In high school, I followed suit with my Catholic friends and gave up sweets or caffeine. I read my bible every night for 40 days of my sophomore year of college. I have used Lent as an excuse to pray, workout, take more “time for myself,” diet, and revel in self-improvement. Ash Wednesday was a means to both an end and a beginning in my life. Unlike Advent, there was not hope or anticipation, only a continuation of pity and loathing for myself.

But the ashes of my neighbor reveal that Lent is not about self. More specifically, it’s not about ME at all. The black cross on the foreheads of my kin show that I am just a former butterfly, previously a flower, a waving, joyous palm. I am just a few crumbs of burnt ash amongst an infinite amount of suffering. I share ashes with brothers and sisters across the world. I was born from them, I will die to them. By popping out of my me-bubble, stepping down from my soapbox and clearing the dust from my eyes, I see the ashes of my neighbors on my hands and face.

Do I, like Pilate, simply wash away the responsibility so that I can again only see myself in the mirror? Or can I wash away the ash, put on a little make-up, and utilize my privilege and happiness to serve my community? Fasting means nothing if the uneaten food remains uneaten. Praying seems self-righteous when not directed away from myself. Selflessness is challenging, not only because it means giving of oneself constantly, but also, eliminating visual, mental or emotional credit. When tired, it is appearing very awake; when sad, it is providing a smile. It is not “taking one for the team,” but just simply being part of the team…being a part of the neighborhood of ash.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mega-Church #6 (Church #17): Ridiculousness

Halfway through the service the man sitting in the front pew, about six rows ahead of us, turned around.

My right hand darted to my face and I covered my peripheral vision on that side. Too late. My stomach was shaking with the hilarious truth. And though I had shielded my eyes, I could hear my mom’s muffled laughter over the electric keyboardist in the midst of a C-Major improvisation. That was the moment when my analytical brain checked-out and my immaturity checked-in. That was also the turning point, after nearly an hour of oddness, when, what I had mostly classified as “weird” and “uncomfortable,” became completely and utterly ridiculous.

After enjoying my first Assemblies of God experience so much, I not only gave this church the benefit of the doubt, but also had some standard expectations: good music, consistent conservative theology and a genuine atmosphere of welcome. I recognized quickly that we were not in a giant protestant service like the week before, or even a large Assemblies of God experience like two weeks prior. We were back to the convenient, commercialized good ole contemporary mega-church, complete with multiple service times and locations, several dining options and a gift shop.

Still, though, after enjoying a couple mega-churches already, I have started to enter these places of worship with less cynicism and more hope. I really wanted to like that service. Scathing blog entries are harder for me to write than pieces abut intense religion and spirituality. Even after I knew that this would not be anything like Lenexa Christian AG, I looked forward to a new, thought-provoking experience at Sheffield Family Life AG.

It only took ten minutes for my hopefulness to melt away into eye-rolls and watch-checks. First, the music was repetitive, boring and thoughtless. “He is awesome, He is glorious, God is so cool, blah, blah, blah.” The musicians, though talented, couldn’t save the three-chord disaster. Then, under the lyrics on the big screens, little notices popped up: “Blue Toyota, Missouri plates, lights on,” “Set of keys found in lobby with WWJD keychain,” or “Red Honda, Kansas plates, doors open and parked in grass.” Seriously? Am I at a football game?

I appreciate an every-once-in-a-while spirit-led service. In fact, one of my most memorable spiritual experiences was at Peace Community Church in Oberlin, when instead of a sermon, we had a laying on of hands for a friend struggling to change lives in Guatemala. In the current situation, though, the spirit-led seemed pastor-planned, when the sermon was replaced with a spur-of-the-moment, 30-minute altar call. People prayed and wept, hugged each other and raised their hands toward the ceiling. I know it is self-righteous and elitist of me to doubt these churchgoers’ prayers, but I felt like I was in a movie. Everything seemed scripted and ultimately fictional. There was a middle-aged man bent over on the floor for the altar call and remainder of the service with his rear-end up in the air but his knees not quite touching the ground. It was like a comedic metaphor: “Please, someone come and kick my ass.”

We were mid-altar call when it happened. When an innocent guy in the front row turned around to scan the pews. And I swear this with my mother’s support, but that man who glanced at us WAS the Emerald City Gatekeeper from the “Wizard of Oz.” The unfortunate and awesome thing about having the same sense of humor as my mother, is we both saw the Frank Morgan look-alike in the exact same moment, not able to control our simultaneous reaction. For at least ten minutes, we laughed so hard that tears streamed down our faces. I bent over and rested my forehead on the pew in front of me, covering my face with my hands and shaking. My mom sat-up straight and made several failed attempts to stop giggling. At one point, a woman sitting behind her thought she was crying and asked if she would like to go to the altar and pray. Barely able to speak, she uttered “No, thank-you,” and continued laughing, partially out of situational embarrassment.

Then, the ridiculousness became obvious. The service ended without closing or benediction and as we left, we saw the fictional man at least three more times in the lobby and parking lot. I still look back on the experience with a smile and a snicker. I wonder, “Was that for real?” “Seriously, did that really happen in real life?” And, “Am I horrible person for finding it obnoxiously hilarious?” Answers: Yes, yes, and yes…but it was totally worth it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mega-Church #5 (Church #16): Nazarenies, Nazarenites, Nazar…snore

After the service, my mother and I were gawking at the large stained glass windows above the altar. Thus far, they were the most interesting aspect of our experience at College Church of the Nazarene. Each panel portrayed a biblical event, and because most of our religious knowledge comes from musicals, and there was no obvious Technicolor Dreamcoat present, we were spouting incorrect guesses loud enough for an older couple nearby to hear.

The man approached and after asking our permission, began explaining each piece of glass: The Ten Commandments, Loaves and Fish, etc. His wife stood beside him quietly until he reached the last panel.

“And this one,” he exclaimed with more excitement in his voice, “this one is my favorite. This is when Jesus comes back!”

My mom looked at him and in a serious tone, without missing a beat, asked, “Oh? And when will that be?”

I turned my head to roll my eyes and smile.

“We don’t know,” the wife finally spoke. “We just have to be ready.”

“Oh, okay,” my mother nodded in believable agreement.

When the couple left I turned to glare at my mother with a laugh, shaking my head. “When will that be? Seriously, mom?” She shrugged and walked toward the exit.

After I laughed my way through the mockery and hilarity of her interaction with the couple, I started to recognize the true genius of my mother’s sense of humor. On the surface, her flippant question was literally shrugged off by the both of us. Deeper, though, was her direct and serious questioning of the couple’s beliefs. I began to wonder if her question wasn’t meant as a joke, or at least not completely.

Any professor will tell you that in writing a research paper, your research question(s) will change an annoying amount of times. Without that willingness to change our query, we are essentially judging the book by its cover. In the 16 churches I have visited, my question has changed from “Are you just like I thought you were based on my liberal upbringing and sickeningly awesome tree-hugger education?” to “How?” On many church websites, there is a tab entitled “What we believe.” Usually, within that section is an explanation as to why the church believes as it does. The “How” is missing only because it is so personal. I would agree that it could be dangerous for a church to affirm “What” and “Why” they believe. Everyone is different, even in a conservative denomination. But even more frightening would be trying to dictate how people come to those beliefs; how they worship, pray, sing, rejoice, cry, keep the faith…

My mother had the guts to ask a question that was then submitted into my spiritual consciousness. By asking when Jesus would return, she was really asking how they know he’s even coming back in the first place. I wish they had jumped at the opportunity to evangelize, explain and convert, but instead they left me to ponder the Second Coming and my own beliefs on the revelation. And though I have dismissed the left-behind, final-battle, Jesus-rules-the-world scenario as a way to make people submissive and afraid, I now ask myself, “How did I come to that belief?”

This stained glass window was the man’s favorite. He smiled when he spoke of it, and joy illuminated his body. There was no fear or submission, only faith. The woman’s answer was direct and secure. For me, faith doesn’t come with that assurance. Perhaps, it is not the Rapture that scares me, but instead the lack of comfort I still feel about my own convictions. If my mother were to ask me a similar question about my supernatural beliefs, jokingly or not, I would not have an answer. For me, the most sacred and valuable securities have come during the least likely of times. As long as my heart and mind are open to accepting the faith, I know it will come eventually. I guess I just have to be ready.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Interlude: Regret

Regret is a wondrous tool in the crooked hands of any situation. If there were a devil, I would imagine it has a long rod with a sharp point on which the words “wish” and “had” are written in blood. Satan pokes people with it, laughing, “Wish you hadn’t done that, eh?”

I’m actually starting to grasp the existence of evil in the world, and possibly in the supernatural sense. I have always believed in God, ghosts and the beyond, but maintained that their presence was only positive and could not harm. As for where horrible people go after they die, I figured they must be in class, working off their regrets one by one before they can get into heaven. But recently, at what are possibly my healthiest moments in life emotionally and physically, I have felt a burning temptation of evil. This fiery image is always surrounded with sighs upon sighs of regret.

It seems normal to feel regret after wrongdoing. Sociopaths that feel no element of remorse must have a larger-than-life sickness, because I’d like to think that each of us has at least of ounce of regret built into our emotional structure. What frightens me currently is the presence of regret after doing-right. I regret not making a bad decision. Even after thinking, praying and considering, I still look back at good choices with sadness. Sometimes, I feel the regret is as bad, if not worse than when I actually do the wrong thing. It makes me wonder, “What is the reward in the positive if it only creates a negative?”

Of course, some decisions are hard enough, complicated enough, that we are bound to feel immense regret, regardless of the choice. I think of the television shows I watch on A&E and MTV as I’m falling asleep. A father regretting turning his murderous son over to the cops. A teenage mother regretting giving up her baby for adoption. An addict regretting ever entering rehab. My regret, however, seems much more lame than these life-changing decisions. Right now, I’m regretting that I had food and drink at my fingertips two nights in a row and resisted both nights. I don’t feel good about it at all. I just think of the sandwiches, chips, vodka-tonics, hot toddies, cheeseburgers, cake and nachos, and I feel that what was and still is the “right” decision is also a bad decision.

Though I consider myself generally in a “better place” now than ever before, these painful breakdowns have the ability to take me to evil hostility. Last Friday, I resisted snacks in the teacher’s lounge all day, only to regret that decision so much that I binged the same evening. I have heard that referred to as “falling off the wagon.” I say, what fun is a wagon when I’m on it all by myself? Screw you wagon, I’m not going to fall off, I’m going to jump off willingly!

Here comes the dichotomy, the revelation, the only thing that is keeping me going this very minute: There is a difference between giving-up and giving-in. When all my will is tied up in “will power,” all my positive is wrapped around “positive thoughts,” all my resist is directed at “resist temptation,” and all my strength is woven through “be strong,” my only emotion left is the emotion of giving-in. Giving-up would be letting go of the will, positive, resist and strength; but giving-in involves surrendering my all to the pain. Lame as it may be in the “you think YOU’VE got problems” world we live in, I have to admit that this totally sucks before I can continue to move forward. I have to regret not making bad choices because it reminds me how powerful and meaningful those choices are.

As I sit in the dark, feeling hungry, though I just ate, I am letting myself be not okay for a little bit. I feel Satan’s regret-wand getting closer and closer and try to fight it with prayer and medication. And as it reaches the small of my back, I know it will just pass through my body and eventually go away. So, I give-in.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mega-Church #4 (Church #15): Assemblies of Awesome

There is something about a 100-person choir that can amend any controversy. It can change expectations, overlook disagreement and immediately make discomfort into comfort. The sound of passionate, dedicated voices could very well solve all of the problems in the world.

My experience at Lenexa Christian: Assemblies of God, is hazy, like a dream that you can remember right when you wake up, but not afterward. Then, certain pieces stick in your mind vividly, like reality—sights, smells, sounds—and the rest of the dream disappears. The first thing I heard when I walked into Lenexa Christian was the choir. I could see them in the distance, through the sanctuary doors, moving back and forth to the music. The band was musicless, relaxed and improvisational. Though they were rehearsing, it sounded sincerely on-the-fly, like a tight-knit jazz combo that can change keys together just by mutual feeling. I was overcome with joy. I suddenly forgot how worried I was to attend a tongues-speaking, bible-preaching, altar-calling mega-church. What should have seemed foreign and distant felt strangely like home. Throughout the service, I had moments of liberal Protestantism, when I stopped and realized how much I was enjoying myself. That’s when I started to really freak myself out.

The preacher sang as he spoke and extenuated his thoughts with movement and volume. He spoke in tongues twice, and though I now look back on it with a smile, at the time I didn’t find it that funny. Every aspect of the service was joyous and uplifting, and the people were as genuine and heartfelt as the church. The sermon, which I expected to be filled with hell and damnation, offered a different approach to the concept of “God’s Will.” Whereas other conservative preachers claim that sickness, debt and job-loss is due to lack of prayer, tithing and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Pastor Purkey (awesome name, right?) suggested that God’s Will is unique to each individual. He presented an example: two people have cancer. They each undergo the same treatment. One individual goes into remission while the other person's disease worsens. This is not because one is less of a sinner than the other. It is because God’s Plan is different for everyone.

I still have trouble accepting this theology. People often say, “Everything happens for a reason,” “God never gives us more than we can handle,” or “It’s God’s Plan.” I don’t really believe in the devil or Satan, but I do believe that bad things sometimes happen to good people, and I have trouble believing in a God that “plans” that. Though I try to comprehend an almighty, powerful God that is perhaps capable of inflicting such pain, I tend to also give credit to circumstance and reason. Sometimes, there is no explanation, just circumstance. Sometimes, in order to feel strength and have faith, we conclude that God must be behind it. Like the Israelites thought that God was hardening the heart of Pharaoh, we often reason that God is behind our suffering.

And I guess that’s okay. If that is helpful for people during a time of crisis, to understand suffering as part of God’s Will, then I have no right to disagree. For me, though, I can’t trust a God that gives people cancer for a reason, utilizes misery to teach a lesson, or makes pain a part of the plan. I appreciated that Pastor Purkey verified what I do for sure believe, people don’t get sick because they don’t pray hard enough. That is just outrageous.

Near the end of his sermon, as if the terrifying connection I felt with this church couldn’t get any stronger, I heard a phrase I thought I would never hear again in church, “Never put a period where God puts a comma.” I turned to my mother to view a mirror image of my own shocking expression. And then, I cried. I cried out of mourning for a denomination I’ve lost, and a family that I desperately miss. I wonder now why I didn’t feel anger or resentment because another church stole the UCC’s slogan. I think it’s because that experience affirmed the only type of evangelism I do support, the spreading of new ideas, progressive change and serious discussion.

I have come to terms with the fact that I enjoyed this service so much. I was in a joyous, uplifting, non-judgmental, diverse environment. I felt affirmed, involved and completely emotionally present. Now, I must consider the same dichotomy I experienced with the Southern Baptists: Could I justify attending a church that is part of a denomination that is extraordinarily anti-gay?

Maybe now and then, if it’s God’s Will.