Sunday, December 17, 2006

Beyond the Pale: Into the House of God

My people,

Feel me here for a minute, if you will. I'm writing you in a state of complete and utter stupification.

I was dragged

It's fair to say that I wasn't stuffed into a burlap sack and thrown into the back of an SUV. But I may as well have been. Yes, I went freely (that is, without being handcuffed to anything) with a very well-practiced smile of polite resignation on my face.

It is also fair to say that I would never voluntarily venture into suburbia on my own. The place scares me, shrivels me, dashes my optimism in the whole of humanity, turns me into a version of myself that I don't particularly like. My spirit recoils at the sight of too many Starbuck's, too many excessively convenient strip malls, too many barreling SUV's. But, above all else, and I'm really very sorry to say this, suburbia (at least, the place beyond the pale of my particular comfort zone) is firmly entrenched with politically Red, Evangelical Protestant America, which frightens me more than the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal.

But for months, the Old Folks Upstairs, (henceforth the OFU's) have been insisting that I attend a Sunday church service with them. The pastor, they say, is a highly intellectual man who memorizes his sermons by heart and never reads from a piece of paper. According to them, their church is also a great place for "young Christian people" to meet "other young Christian people". (Their son met his wife on a youth retreat there.) A preacher with a photographic memory and a swarm of young, horny singles looking for love? Clearly, this is a special place.

Really, I couldn't bring myself to say "oh, no. but thank you for thinking of me!" one more time. In addition to this, I actually decided to not look at this as an infringement on my time and psyche, but a unique opportunity to test the far reaches of my rather self-imposed (and admittedly self-righteous) personal boundaries. Maybe this could be an opportunity to lay to rest my prejudices against such things.

So, at the ungodly hour of 8:00 am, we piled into the car and drove through the misty streets of a Sunday suburban morning. Anxiety rose in my chest at the sight of the first excessive strip mall with it's equally appalling slab of a parking lot, all adorned with Christmas cheer. The concrete slab was already filled with a colorful array of glistening SUV's waiting in long rows like silent manatees while their humans milled around en masse, individually overspending and mass consuming in the glow of the holiday season. "Joy to the World" came on the radio. I swallowed the lump of fear in my throat and attempted to sing along. I realized that I was being completely melodramatic.

The streets grew even bigger and the skyline became significantly larger with no native foliage in sight. As I peered from the window of the backseat of the OFU's car, I could, however, see native suburbanites in their natural habitat. Despite their layers of winter clothing, I found that I had to shield my eyes from the penetrating whiteness that filled my eyes. White! Flesh! Everywhere! And so much of it, too! I couldn't help but wonder, was it me, or had we somehow ominously crossed over into that "Alice in Wonderland" moment when everything grows in size? The natives?--they were twice the size of other humans! Large and in charge! Virtually super-sized! Even the children! What special, processed food are they feeding these people out here? I started wondering, was this suburbia or the Sahara? In proportion to the people, more and more hippopotamus-sized SUV's seemed to spontaneously generate from the strip malls themselves. Then, finally, just when I was sure that the world was flat and we were about to drive over the edge, we arrived at the OFU's special place of spiritual worship--a 6,000-person-strong monstrosity that sits upon a hill. By the landscape alone, I was instantly reminded of the Old City of Jerusalem. However, instead of overlooking the expanse of desert that stretches to the Sea of Galilee, the OFU's suburban sanctuary overlooks a desert of cultural and social commodifcation, otherwise known as the Sea of Suburbia! If not for the 50 wooden, mass-produced crosses displayed across the grounds and on top of the monster building itself, I would have easily confused this place for a sports stadium or convention center.

To my utter amazement, beyond the fact that nearly 6,000 people were descending on this particular facility at once, it was a very modern, and exceptionally well-ordered place of God. There were computer self-service posts for parents wait in line and then check their little ones into their early childhood spiritual classes. At the front doors, there were two rows of men and women lined up to shake every person's hand and give them directions and announcements for the day. There were flashy kiosks, advertising a little something for everyone, including an assortment of extra-curricular classes from, "Understanding Islam to be a Better Christian" to "How to Budget Your Bankbook, the Christian Way". There was evening a kiosk for young, unmarried folks like me, looking for like-minded friends. And even for those of us who didn't have a chance to stop for coffee at one of the 40,000 Starbucks venues along our way to pray this morning, there was a fully-outfitted Starbuck's coffee shop already conveniently located within the Church complex, just next to super-sized room where all the good people go to get their God on. I, for one, was relieved at the sight of this and could not seem to hold myself back from throwing my money into the coffers of Evangelical Christianity, and simultaneously into great Starbuck's Satan. I couldn't help but be amused by the serendipitous feeling that I had discovered a working example of "Yin-Yang" in suburbia this morning. Or can a Starbuck's in a church also be considered an oxymoron? Hmmm. "Don't be so snippish", I chastized myself, "consume your watery Chai and smile!"

Yes, all I needed was a little caffeine. Even though my heart rate could not have been higher, the fleeting buzz I got from my Grande Soy Chai Starbuck's Church Latte was exhilarating. More than this, however, I must say that the biggest marvel of this particular Starbuck's coffee shop is that every single worker is there on a volunteer basis, in the name of One Mister Jesus C. himself. (I asked.) And, really, in all fairness, I have never been greeted more nicely or had better customer service than this in my life. As a matter of fact, if I ever find myself embracing the urge to spend my money in a Starbuck's again, I may be found driving back into the bowels of suburbia for this reason alone. What should also be noted is that even if I did not feel like attending a live church sermon, I could also just as easily not miss a beat, due to the several, super-sized and strategically-placed television screens all over the building, including, yes, you guessed it, just over the fake fireplace in the interior of my new favorite Starbuck's shop! I really didn't know what I was missing until this moment of discovery. In the past, I have worried about how I could connect my spirituality with excessively wasteful, mass-produced caffeine addiction. Now I know where I can get both...

With my Grande Soy Chai [Jesus] Latte in hand, I still had a few minutes before I needed to return to my place with the OFU's and 6,000 of their closest friends in the "Sanctuary". I decided to linger a bit and watch the crowd sort itself out before services. Again, for such a large crowd, I was amazed by the Hindu cow-like passivity of this mass of masses. Of course, there was more than enough space for every single adult and child to spread their arms to a full expanse and not touch their neighbor, but this is beside the point. In observation of this, however, it rather suddenly it occurred to me that this particular setting on the hill was more than just a place of worship. If the Iranian nuclear shizzle suddenly does hit the fizzle, this place could be a veritable fortress for all of these followers! It made me wonder if there might be an extensive underground network of bunkers and so-forth, all labeled for the superior leaders of this organization, for the "extra special" Christians of the congregation, for the folks that someone more or less has already ordained will carry the spiritual message and lifestyle of White Protestant America should the rest of the world be turned to nuclear dust. I imagined that perhaps two of everything might somehow be saved for future propagation of heaven on earth--two electric guitars, two synthesizers, two microphones and sound systems, two SUV's, two over-stuffed Starbuck's chairs, and maybe a partridge in a pear tree? In their benevolence, would they also take two Jews, two Muslims, two anarchists...maybe even two Democrats? Hmmm....

Relieved that I had discovered the Noah's Arc of the modern, Western world, I returned to the start of service, and was immediately taken by the state of the art sound and broadcast system. The 10 television screens across the room were the size of small nations. When the opening preacher man person came out and greeted the crowd with a discussion of "giving" during the holiday season, and how badly the Noah's Arc Church needed to "make ends meet" this December, I admit, I was tempted to give my money to them, too. I wondered if it was possible to somehow set up a payment plan to maintain my spot in the Arc, should the need ever arise...

The preacher man person was quite a talented orator, although I quickly realized that the reason he didn't ever read from a sheet of paper was because of the 3 subdued teleprompters at his feet upon the stage. I assumed that the OFU's weren't up to date on their knowledge of teleprompter technology, but I didn't say anything. The sermon of the day was about something called "testimony". I attempted to listen very carefully. I'm good at listening to highly abstract accounts of things, so I was eager to hear what this man had to say. I followed along for the first 10 minutes of what he was saying, but then god sidetracked on his warning to parents of college-aged children that "those professors" will both "challenge and insult" their faith. I wasn't sure what this had to do with this thing called "testimony", and as much as I tried to play along, a part of me couldn't help but want to stand up and asked him what the heck he was talking about and did he have any sound empirical evidence to support this? The crowd seemed to love it, and I had to wonder if the preacher man person guy had ever wandered into my neck of the woods for a Sunday morning cup of joe and some empirical testing. But I digress.

Since this post is becoming less of a rant and more of a novella, I should close by saying that I made it out alive. Of course, somehow during the morning service my cell phone slipped from my pocket to the floor, a fact that I did not discover until I safely returned home. Although I silently weighed the cost-benefit analysis of sparing myself a second journey into the Land of Super-Size Me, the cost and inconvenience of getting a new phone was overruled. I made the plunge. I did it again. I bravely ventured back out into suburbia twice in one day. I returned to the mega church on the hill and witnessed the day's second sermon (identical to the one in the morning, of course). As I waited for the sermon to end, I wandered back through the Starbuck's cafe and said hello to all of my new friends. It was good to see them again. I almost even bought another round, but decided that my adrenal glands had worked hard enough this morning. My "fight or flight" response was already at its very best.

As I was wandering the auxiliary branch of the K-8 training ground compound, taking in the whole early childhood Sunday school regime, when a nice, important-looking man in a gray suit approached me and asked if I needed any help. Because I was in a place of God, I didn't have it in me to make up a story and lie to his face, I smiled and told him that I was waiting for the service to end because I lost my cell phone this morning. He smiled back, reached into his pocket, pulled out his hand and said, "This cell phone?". There it was, in the palm of his angelic, snowy white hand!

"That's it!", I said. "Thanks very much."

But before he gave it back to me, he closed his hand, lowered his head a bit and looked at me very gravely.

"Young lady," he seemed to admit, "I should confess to you that I opened your phone trying to look for information about the owner."

"Oh! That's ok," I shrugged. "I would do the same thing in your position. No problem at all!"

And yet, he still held my phone...

"Well," he continued, "I noticed that you have a very curious Indian name in there. That's not your name, is it?"

(For the record, when my phone is opened, the word, the name, the blessing "Namaste" appears on the screen in bright bold letters. I use this as a personal reminder to honor myself by honoring others. I admit, I'm not perfect, I need to work on my inner sarcasm a bit, but it generally helps me make it through the day as a polite and sensible human person.)

"Is it my name?," I laughed, shaking my head. And yet, I could tell by the look in the man's face that he was primed to lecture me on something. I stopped myself from looking sarcastic and very resolutely said, "Actually, YES, as a matter of fact, it is my name. My parent's were hippies."

"Well," he said. "I wasn't sure...because kids nowadays get into all of this pagan yoga stuff and start using words and saying things that don't come from God Above. I just wanted to warn you about this. But if that's the name that your mother and father gave you, then I guess I really can't argue, can I?"

"No, sir. I guess not. Because neither can I," I fake-smiled.

He handed me my phone. I made a mental note to wash it of stupidity when I got home, and I dashed out of there faster than my grandmother and belt out a Hail Mary.

As I sped away down the broad streets of suburbia, I knew I had to write about this. And I knew that in writing about this from my point of view, I would inherently offend a few readers. I'm perfectly I'm ok with this, if you are. I, for one, can say that I pushed my own limits, experienced something that I usually attempt to shelter myself from, and learned a little more about the world of worship today.

Now my Sunday evening yoga class awaits, and so I must go to get my pagan ritual on...

Peace and god bless,



I-66 said...

I'm actually not offended by any of this, though as a child and current resident of Suburbia, I'm a little chafed by your POV on the matter. The 'burbs are far from perfect I realize, but I feel the need to defend my home, yanno?

That said, I've never been one for church and rather enjoy your account of the churchgoing experience. It's good that you went of your own volition, because I never have (with the exception of a friend's wedding which was held in a church and thus I really didn't have much choice in the matter). And really, for those who are presumably taught not to judge, it seems odd that the phone-finder would come to such a conclusion after opening your phone. That's called something. I don't know... starts with an H, ends with "isy"...

Namaste said...

Ha. Thanks, 66. I'm clearly being more melodramatic about the suburbs, more for affect than anything else. Nothing against it, at all. I hate to overgeneralize. But yeah, now that you know that your full church experience can be enhanced by a Starbuck's, too, you should head out this way. :)

Thanks for the pics, by the way. They were great!

Lots of love,

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the fun account N. Martin Marty has a sure fire way of telling if you're attending a 'new line' church or an 'old line' church. The new mega's will have the fantastic sound systems and all the up to date techno stuff. The old liners will have a pathetic sound system they got free from a closed school, and most of the time it's not working well or at all, and that about suits folks there just fine. But yeah, sometimes it can be very scary inside. Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

Anonymous said...

A confession: I'm a seminarian who ditched class this evening. And I, as a Christian, found this absolutely hilarious. This bears little resemblance to the group of 300 Mexicanos with whom I alabanzar on Sunday, but I've been in places very similar to the place you describe. Con todo respeto, they're not for me. I need a smaller, more folksy approach. But to each his own. Thanks for this! May I link to this?

Namaste said...

Link away, JMR. It's the gift that keeps on giving!