Sunday, May 28, 2006

Curious Pilgrim: On the Road

It was a difficult choice this week, and had my car not been taken from me unexpectedly I may have attended multiple services (providence? It was a wake-up call in the harshest sense of the term--asleep at the wheel--and I was fortunate to come out of it with little more than a cut inside my mouth) There are places here in Eureka, California that I've always been curious about.

After scanning the many possiblilities in the phonebook and listed online I had narrowed my focus to a handful of Pentecostal churches and Faith Center, because I was recently encouraged to include a Foursquare community in my journeys. I was eager to check out Gospel Outreach, which as I discovered arose here in the late seventies and has now reached out and staked claim into countries across the globe. Apparently they border on the cultish--Mandy told me as much. There is also Full Gospel Tabernacle just down the street, which is a United Penecostal congregation--on a side note, I hoped to attend an additional service there this morning, so I approached the building and just inside the doors was caught with a tractor beam of hospitality that almost overwhelmed me. That minor taste--peppered by learning that all the women and girls must wear skirts and the Spirit does in fact descend on Sunday worship--has piqued my desire to seek out some speaking-in-tongues back up in Seattle.

Per your encouragement, I chose Faith Center. It's what everbody's doing, right? Families leaving Sacred Heart and Catholicism for the simple comforts of Christ the savior, baptiser, healer and king. It's a welcoming institution from the first step into the door. I was greeted by a handful of staffers, given a pamphlet and led inside (much the same as Mars Hill, though with more attention). I was directed to a pew, greeted by various neighbors and compelled to join the rousing but overtly religious singing taking place (as opposed to layered within alternative rock). It wasn't until the sermon began that a feeling of difference came down upon me.

Once again, I'm perplexed by this practice of teaching and absorption. The crowd at a Foursquare church, or maybe just an Evangelical one in that particular vein, listens without dissent to things that I'm sure many would dispute if they took a minute to consider them. I wish I knew more of their reactions/opinions. Or maybe I'm wrong, maybe part of the appeal of this setup is the lack of analysis and dialogue. Maybe the passive way is the preferred way for these people.

I felt like I was on a televangilical set. The clothes matched, the decor matched, even the delivery of the pastor matched. What I appreciated most was his fervent, reaching-into-your-heart-and-pulling-it-out emotion. Here was a man who fully believed in his words. He made me want to pause the service and say to him, "You know, it's really not that bad. We'll be OK. You'll be OK. If you believe, God will provide for you."

I was encouraged to accept Jesus as my personal savior, but was a conscientious objector. I was told of so many things that I do, or don't do. My human nature seems to be much stronger than any individuality I might exhibit. But what it all comes down to is that the devil's on my tail. I didn't get to see any of that first hand, but I trust that at some point he'll make an appearance. The thing about a Foresquare church service like the Faith Center's is that you do whatever you are going to do internally--prayers, proclamations, deliberations. If you feel so inclined, you can approach someone about it afterward.

But why? Here's an enigma that I can see will figure into my further adventures: what compells people to embrace a religion that doesn't involve participation? Accept Christ, and you're set! Is it the ease? The security? The clarity? I look to the pilgrimage ahead.

I'll be back in Seattle tomorrow; farefwell Faith Center and all the other churches I've yet to experience here in quaint little Eureka. Keep up the good fight.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Guitar God (Updated)

A caveat for you, Mom: one glaring lesson has surfaced already in my pilgrimage, and that is the effect that circumstance can have on an institution. Though I can safely say that the majority of Catholic masses I have attended in my lifetime have been the same, I am sure the Vatican or a small chapel in the rural Phillipines would surprise me endlessly. These accounts are by no means endemic of the general state of a particular denomination. They are merely my observations at one time in one place.

That said, does--or should--any church need security guards? If I was in war torn El Salvador at the heyday of Liberation Theology, I might say possibly. But in Seattle, these days? As spiritually hostile as the world may be, this city poses no threat. But if your service is a rock concert, I guess it makes sense.

Security is one theme that I found running deeply through Mars Hill. Here were doors wide open, with hundreds of people filling the seats, and yet the (admittedly thrilling) risk of the crowd was not present there. I could tell that these people, these fans of God, felt safe within those walls.

Safe from a world that they seem to pit themselves against. It seemed to me that "us and them" was also a thread woven through much of their teaching and literature. It was hard not to feel the alienation in the pastor's joke during the offering "if you're a visitor or a non-believer, we don't want your money", tongue in cheek or not. That's the strange thing I was experiencing--I was reminded of huge lectures at Berkeley and nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco, not my childhood church-going. Intentional? Odd if it was; I have always eaten up the anonymity of those events, in stark contrast to any desires for community.

I didn't talk to anyone, except for hushed thank-yous as I moved to allow people to file out of their seats at communion (didn't expect that to happen--it was minus the transubstantiation, of course). No one talked to me, either. The audience didn't seem to have come to commune, but to listen. These were not the smiling elders of my previous visits but peers, dressed for the show and secure in their belonging. This was the denotation of congregation: a flocking together. I guess as an outsider, without the benefit of outside community meetings (discussion sections?) and not drawn in by the pastor's confident eloquence (though it was potent enough to almost creep through my mind) I couldn't take part. And since, at least at the start, I'm seeking something other than spiritual guidance, I was disappointed.

Seeking is not the way of believers, however. At least that was part of the message during the bulk of the service. God comes for people, in their sin. And then, apparently, hungry for more God they come to rock out. If it wasn't for the lyrics projected on the same screen that later showed the pastor's face (though I could see him clearly up at the stage), I could have mistaken Mars Hill for Neumos. On a good night, because the place was packed. Lord, they were rapt. Might not have seen me if I stepped out. Just another face. They won't miss me next week--I'm sure someone else will fill my seat.

Next of Kin

I remember the Presbyterian Church. That's where my grandfather's funeral was held. And I used to attend youth group there. Good people--yes, wasn't so different from the old Mother Church.

Neither are Methodists or Lutherans, apparently. They were my first choices for this project--this Exodus out of my Catholic past out into, well, some bigger conception of religion that I won't be able to acknowledge properly until I'm much further down the road.

Now, in my estimation, no offense to their congregations, these two mainliners are just not as well rounded as their parentage. I understand, their founders must have gotten a little spooked by the cannibalism of the Eucharist and the mysticism of the Sacraments. But they've really sacrificed a lot of depth.

The Lutheran church I visited is part of the "Missouri Synod". To make a long history short, this sect operates on the basis of self-governance for each particular community within the body, the only unifying principle being the Word. Here are some of their main tenents, which they propose are the pure ideas of Martin Luther:

Grace alone

God loves the people of the world, even though they are sinful, rebel against Him and do not deserve His love. He sent Jesus, His Son, to love the unlovable and save the ungodly.
Faith alone
By His suffering and death as the substitute for all people of all time, Jesus purchased and won forgiveness and eternal life for them. Those who hear this Good News and believe it have the eternal life that it offers. God creates faith in Christ and gives people forgiveness through Him.
Scripture alone
The Bible is God's inerrant and infallible Word, in which He reveals His Law and His Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. It is the sole rule and norm for Christian doctrine.

On the other hand, the United Methodist Church has a much different lineage from Catholicism. It arose in America from the roots of the Anglican Church in England. It developed because there weren't any official leaders here, and so certain ambitious folks took it upon themselves to carry out the mission and in the process established their own denomination. It, as opposed to the Lutheran platform hinted at above, was very much grounded in the idea of works--the language of their doctrine is filled with images of labor, and there is a central understanding the the truth of scripture can only be realized when put into solid, practical discipleship. Here are some of its major concepts:

Prevenient Grace—We acknowledge God's prevenient grace, the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our "first slight transient conviction" of having sinned against God.

Justification and Assurance—We believe God reaches out to the repentant believer in justifying grace with accepting and pardoning love. Wesleyan theology stresses that a decisive change in the human heart can and does occur under the prompting of grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Sanctification and Perfection—We hold that the wonder of God's acceptance and pardon does not end God's saving work, which continues to nurture our growth in grace. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor.

Faith and Good Works
—We see God's grace and human activity working together in the relationship of faith and good works. God's grace calls forth human response and discipline.

Mission and Service—We insist that personal salvation always involves Christian mission and service to the world. By joining heart and hand, we assert that personal religion, evangelical witness, and Christian social action are reciprocal and mutually reinforcing.

So the path was Zion Evangelical Lutheran followed by Sandpoint Community Methodist. What were they like, in the flesh? Well, I'll tell you, if this pilgrimage was dependent on thrills and enticements it'd be over now. If it had anything to do with attendance in the pews, it'd be over by now. I'm not looking for those things, though. I'm just looking for people. And I found them.

Desperate, aging people. Kind, welcoming, homely people. The kind of folks who are ready with the coffee and fresh baked goods. The kind of folks who want to know where I went to college and have kids who are your age. One woman I met had a family line stretching back to the founders of her church. Several of them were returning members, who had moved away and were drawn back somehow, some way. They all insisted that I stay and chat.

You know it's amazing how regularity eliminates passion. Now I'm not arguing that there is no spiritual fervor deep within these folks, it's not my provence to claim, but there's a sweet and comfortable way in which after so many years settled in your beliefs, there are no questions asked. I sat for a long time with several life-long church-goers, and not once did they engage me on religious terms. No, far from; we talked of retired basketball teams and ailing husbands. I was a visitor, and consequently embraced. One woman, at first reserved and even a bit off-putting, graced me with tales of her road trip through California in her youth.

These mainliners, these veterans of the flock, are holding up well despite decline. They know that it's coming; they can see the derth of youth around them. When I inquired about their children they all smiled and spoke with a distance, as I imagine you might do. Maybe that's their tragedy as well as their virtue: they see it happening and yet, for age or for cemented ways, they do nothing.

I wish them the best, these cousins of Catholicism. They offered me their hospitality, made me at home. I've got nothing but gratitude.