Thursday, November 29, 2007

Yes Ma'am I See Your Hand

On Sunday we decided to conclude our tour of churches by visiting one of the five largest churches in the country. Admittedly, differs from most mega churches in that it functions more like a denomination with satellites all over the country (although mostly in Oklahoma). So there were only about 800 of the nearly 20,000 members of this church at the one of seven "experiences" (which is what they call worship services) at this particular location.

For me, the experience was fascinating-- something like a cross between a rock concert, a movie, and a trip to the mall. Men in orange vests with glowing wands showed us to a parking space (which was really unnecessary-- the parking lot was half empty). Then we followed the sounds of Van Morrison into the building. Carol got coffee in the foyer so we were a little late getting in, but no worry-- a nice lady with a flashlight was able to show us to a seat where a cup holder was available on the arm of the plush theater-style chair.

There was no order of service, just a brochure detailing upcoming events and a place to fill in the blanks during the teaching, along with some take home notes. The lack of a printed order of service was probably due to the fact that there really was no order of service, just: music, teaching, pray for people to accept Christ.

The music was what you might expect: praise, rock band sort of stuff. The "teaching" was actually pre-recorded and resembled a music video, meaning that the pastor moved from park to city street to comfortable hotel room as he espoused the various benefits of the the Bible. You can watch it and other videos here, or by clicking "watch messages" from the main site

I did my best to participate in the service and take it seriously. Truthfully, I find rock music in church sort of fun. But when the music video sermon began with the man saying that we know that across the many voices and books of the Bible there is "absolute, 100 percent congruity" and I laughed out loud (assuming it was a joke only to realize that it wasn't), I knew there might be some problems. Still, I tried to follow along-- filling in the blanks on my worksheet and paying attention to the arch of the message.

It struck me sort of as an advertisement for Jesus. The initial part of the talk seemed to focus on how we were desperate, broken, etc-- without saying that explicitly. Then, came the convenient solution: the Bible in 5 easy steps. My hypothesis was best confirmed however, by the conclusion of the service.

At the end of the video, the pastor asked us to pray. Basically the prayer was for those of us who had accepted Christ to renew our commitment, and those of us who had not accepted Christ to do so. It seemed a very long prayer to me, and it talked a lot about how wonderful it is to accept Christ, how is the best thing you can do, how it will transform your life, etc. The praying pastor on TV moved seamlessly into a praying pastor in real life, who talked more about how great it is to accept Christ. Then, while our heads were bowed he asked people to raise their hand if they wanted to accept Christ. Much to my surprise and chagrin, he then simply acknowledged them by saying something like: "yes ma'am, I see your hand".

That in case you were wondering, is what life transformation looks like.

Now I have no idea what went on for the three or so people that did raise their hands, but I felt that the community and its leadership did very little to acknowledge whatever that was. They spent all this time talking about how great it was to accept Christ, and here was a chance to show us, here was an actual person actually doing it, and there was nothing but a simple acknowledgment from the stage, followed by a diatribe about how ashamed he was of this community for not having more people saved. The people who had decided to change their lives, who had taken this big step were worth little, because they didn't meet the quota.

I really am a different kind of Christian. I had heard tell of this other faith, this other world-- seen glimpses of it even, but truly, I had no idea.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Worship Space

Some worship spaces we encountered in the last couple of weeks on the journey...

The Rev. Joanne Sanders, Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford showed us the interfaith worship space. It has nooks for meditation, open space for each group to configure, and artistic banners representing several traditions. There are even special washrooms around the corner designed just for foot washing, a Muslim tradition before prayer.

At Glide Memorial in downtown San Francisco, about 500 people packed into the sanctuary for the early 9 a.m. service. They anticipate crowds every Sunday and add extra seats to aisles. The band is to the right in the picture. The full choir filled the stage for the service. They recorded part of a Christmas album live the day we visited. Rocking. Hopefully they'll sell it online.

This is part of the unique building of St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in San Francisco. They built it to fit their liturgical traditions. There is an saying in churchy circles, "The building always wins." This means no matter what your theology or congregation, if there is a giant pulpit, or an altar rail, or pews all facing forward, or pictures of just white men in all the stained glass windows, it says something. And even when your theology is trying to focus on something more egalitarian and multi-cultural, it's going to be really hard, because "The building always wins." So anyway, St. Gregory's built their own building.

Eucharist happens in the round hall. On the walls above is a 360 mural of saints through the centuries. They are dancing. Some you'd expect, St. Francis dancing with a wolf, and others are more surprising finds in a Christian place of worship, like Gandhi and Malcolm X.

During worship the congregation sits facing one another. The liturgical leaders sit near the painting as seen above. The preacher sits on something like a flat throne.

Some of the many crosses of St. Gregory's.

The baptism font was outside on a side porch. The Sunday we attended two kids were baptised and the whole church danced outside to gather around. It took about five conga lines, but we all got out there.

Thad's in Los Angeles is also an Episcopal inspired church. They meet in the Jazz Bakery, a non-profit Jazz club, though the music of Thad's is more rock-a-billy, blue grass than jazzy. They will have a cd out soon of some of their original music. The band creates a song to go along with the scripture reading. They finished 61 weeks of preaching through 1 Corinthians the day we visited. Yes, folks sixty one weeks. Check their website for this great find and really good, original, spiritual themed music.

The coast of the western United States is a worship space like no other.

Sometimes evening prayer needs no words.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

San Fran feast


Last Sunday we went to three churches/ faith communities in San Francisco:

Glide Memorial
St. Gregory's of Nyssa

Later this morning we head to Thad's in Los Angeles.

Here's a tid bit on Glide. We'll write about the others soon.


Glide meets in downtown San Francisco. The church awnings along the sidewalk could be for anything. It's a big downtown looking building. The walk to the church filled our nostrils with urine. I actually saw a woman passed out cold, legs laying in the gutter, head on the sidewalk. This is the neighborhood they serve. But not exclusively. Glide is for everybody. We heard the actress Sharon Stone goes regularly and likes to sit near the front.

On our way in we could have either gone to a free breakfast or to the service. Inside the place was packed. There are two services on Sunday mornings. Both full blow out worship events.

Here's a bit from the Glide history books as presented on their website. Perhaps it explains a bit of how they got to be the truly diverse, welcoming, and social change agents that they are to this day...

"In 1963, winds of change were blowing mightily through San
Francisco. Nowhere were these forces of transformation more
visible than at Glide Memorial Church. That year, a young
African-American minister named Cecil Williams came to Glide
determined to bring life back into the dying congregation. Cecil
changed both the policies and practices of the conservative
church, helping to create the Council on Religion and
Homosexuality in 1964. In 1967, Cecil ordered the cross removed
from the sanctuary, exhorting the congregation instead to
celebrate life and living.

"We must all be the cross," he explained. As the conservative
members of the original congregation left, they were replaced
by San Francisco's diverse communities of hippies, addicts,
gays, the poor, and the marginalized. By 1968, the energetic,
jazz-filled Celebrations were packed with people from all classes,
hues, and lifestyles. That year, San Francisco State University
erupted in protests over demands for ethnic studies and
affirmative action. Cecil and the Glide community helped lead the
demonstrations; the church became a home for political, as well
as spiritual, change. Glide offered a safe space to groups ranging
from the Hookers Convention to the American Indian Movement
and the Black Panthers. In the midst of their political work, Glide
never forgot the basic needs of the community. The meals
program was launched in the 1960s, serving one free dinner
a week to all comers. As a decade of clamoring change came to a
close, Glide further added to the joyful noise: The world-renowned
Glide Ensemble choir held its first rehearsals in 1969. And Janice
Mirikitani, a noted poet and dancer, had also just been appointed
Coordinator for Glide's programs. The church would never be
the same again."

Even though this church has become a bit of a tourist attraction in the city, I experienced a glimpse of the real church—the kindom of God—at Glide on Sunday morning. The congregation and leadership was diverse in every way. Downstairs hundreds of people were getting a free breakfast. I knew that someone had already checked on the lady in the gutter and would again when she came to. The announcements that flashed up on the screen before the service were for things like the gay and bi men's group. Ushers welcomed us, but not in a cheesy or fake sort of way.

As things were about to get going, the jazz and blues band started riffing. Then the congregation started clapping. At first quietly, then it grew. Something powerful and palpable started rising up out of the very midst of us. Then the gospel choir started walking onto the front "stage." They started swaying and clapping and the momentum picked up even more.

Now I know that my friends who are professional church musicians might say I just got caught in an musically manipulated moment. But it was more than that. The joy came from feeling like I could trust this church because of their bold and messy, generous giving during the week.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

San Francisco

On our way down the coast to San Francisco we lingered in the Redwoods. The giant, mysterious, delicious smelling, awe inspiring, ancient Redwoods along the coast in northern California.

We prayed morning prayer among them on Wednesday morning.

It is ridiculous to take pictures. How can you capture awe. It slips right out. But we tried anyway.