At Church

MegaChurch, Fl — I learned at church the other day that you can buy a set of highlighters specifically marketed to use on your bible. The thin pages may require a particularly delicate highlighter. I don’t know, but you also can get a four-color pen that is sold as a bible underlining tool. In the same place, which is the bookstore of the particular church I was visiting, you can choose from a great number of books written to provide guidance with life’s choices. “Eat the Cookie, Buy the Shoes” was the title of one, the subtitle “giving yourself permission to lighten up” providing a hint of the good news inside, Chapter 4 “God Likes a Party.”

Which is good news, to the extent that it is news. I’m not sure. What kind of party? Not like a Sodom and Gomorrah one, I’m thinking. Depending on your interpretation of that story. Anyway, it was all reassuring that inside the church could be just like outside the church, which can be a good thing.

I was in this one because, having been raised as an orthodox atheist, I want to know more about shared understandings of the sacred and spiritual. I’ve been to Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, AME, and synagogues — in New York, Zambia, Dublin, Richmond, Virginia, for that reason.

“A house of worship is a house of worship, to me; I’ll go to all of them, Baptist, Methodist, synagogue, ” one of the women clustered in my coop’s pool surprised me by saying today. She was in the midst of a conversation of who had gotten ashes yesterday. I was reading a book and didn’t want to talk so I didn’t chime in to say “two minds one thought,” but also because they really are different. Churches are like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.

In Zambia, (Baptist and Pentecostal) the services are long, crowded, tend toward fire, brimstone and homophobia, and the benches are hard. In the synagogues I’ve been to, I had to sit in the balcony and couldn’t follow most of what was going on. In the Episcopal churches I can follow most of it, my mind wanders, and I love the melodies of the hymns. Aside from that, I can’t generalize.

A guiding principle of the one I went to the other day — with the bookstore, the cafe, the band, the ladies room with a line, the jokey delivery of the sermon — seemed to be to minimize the distance between inside and outside. But also to feel part of something by going in. The problem was I didn’t. The pastor resorted to tired sexual stereotypes for humor. That bothered my friend slightly more than it did me, but only because having grown up in an era when that kind of kidding peaked, my scar tissue has impaired nerve endings. I don’t think its a helpful way to make us closer to each other and our higher natures though. And it is at least as alienating as being sent to sit in the balcony. I didn’t get the joke.

That night, by some coincidence, I saw “For the Bible Tells Me So” an exploration of the interaction between organized religion and homophobia. It followed five families, all of whom suffered, in varying degrees because of what they believed, or didn’t know about homosexuality. In some cases their churches fostered outright hatred and intolerance. In the case of Bishop Eugene Robinson, the church gave its parishioners a chance to be part of a better world. In most cases the church did nothing.

And nothing, amid the tired jokes, no greater knowledge of how we can realize the promise and purpose of our shared humanity, is what I walked away with Sunday. The sermon was about the church being the bride of Christ, and how we all should work to get the bride ready, because He is coming soon. I don’t know how He will judge what he finds, but I believe history will judge the churches that stay silent or rooted in the past.

 

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