02 February 2014

God or Me or Somebody Needs An Answer

It's cold again.

Talking about the weather is one of my least favorite pastimes        but

It's cold again. At this point I am done with COLD:  enough already, sayonara baby get outta here!  Twelve hours ago I was standing barefoot on the front porch with the first stirrings of sultry rippling across my skin. I looked at the lawn and imagined myself pushing the mower...and sweating...and I smiled. I was standing alone in the dark and smiling 12 hours ago...

Fast forward. Sunday morning. Rain. Wind. Falling temperature. Joints chilled. Shoulders tight and hunched. I am well aware of the uselessness of complaint. So let's move on...

I drove out to Grace Lutheran church this morning to listen to the service. I am considering an offer to become their Sunday morning musician. I left home early enough to stop by Christ Church before anyone arrived and leave a final donation -- and key to the back door -- in a specially-designed "Miss Alex Piano Studio at Christ Church in Holly Springs" envelope. (I saved the Word template but destroyed all but one of my printed stock last night....such drama...)

There was only one car parked in the lot when I arrived. Sarah L_____, a member of the congregation, and I met for the first time last Monday at the courthouse. We were both summoned for grand jury service (she was selected; I was not). She recognized my name when it was called aloud by the clerk (a most agreeable woman) and introduced herself during a break. She knew I played and taught piano from her brother, Tim (who knows me a little from local political meet-and-greets) and she wondered if I'd be interested in replacing their current pianist who is moving to Kansas at the end of February. She told me they are a very small group and are fine with singing to recorded music in a pinch.

I entered the church. Very sweet, inviting front hall. Well lit. Lots of light wood and white walls and simple lines. Inside the sanctuary, seven or eight rows of chairs extending to either side of a center aisle. A pair of protruding knees were visible above the seat backs of the second row from the back. A few more steps forward and I saw a very tall -- perhaps 6'8" or greater, very pale-skinned, dark-haired, 20-something man reclined, wearing small white earphones.

He sat up when he saw me and said hi. "Hi," I responded and took a seat on the opposite side of the aisle in the last row.  Within a few minutes a woman arrived and walked briskly to the piano. I liked her portfolio cover:  b&w/gray tone image of a sheet of manuscript with music inscribed; from a distance it looked like zebra skin.

When our eyes met I walked over. We introduced ourselves and talked a little about the Lutheran music and liturgy.  As I returned to my seat Sarah L_______ entered from a door behind the pulpit that likely leads to the sacristy; she was carrying a communion wine tray and a large white cloth. She placed them on the alter against the back wall and genuflected before coming down to greet me.

In my memory everyone else arrived all at once then:  an older couple (probably my age but "older" than me in that way that married people sometimes are), Tim and Lisa L________ (brother and sister-in-law to Sarah), the minister, and another middle-aged woman entered the room within seconds of each other. It is time for church I thought. And everyone looks so.....sturdy...and white, I thought.

The pianist played a brief prelude that sounded like a slightly embellished hymn. And it may seem a strange observation but after spending a few days with the hymnal Sarah dropped off earlier in the week, it occurred to me this morning, with a certainty akin to sensing a gentle spirit in someone I've just met, that the people look like the music they sing in worship, both as it looks transcribed on the page and as it sounds when sung.

Both are the precise opposite of "elaborate." Both exhibit a steadfast passion:  not the  passion that flares and excites, rather the passion that burns without flame, smolders; banked embers that continue to radiate heat while holding the promise and possibility of igniting a future flame.

It was Communion Sunday which, as is true in many faith traditions, is celebrated with a longer and more complex liturgy, the details of which are not in the main relevant to this report. As in many Catholic services I attended as a girl, the piano accompaniment takes the form of a prompting support for singing. There is no ornamentation. No pianistic virtuosity or lyricism. Sustained chords while singers unwind melody lines that seem intentionally composed to avoid triggering emotion. In the liturgy, minister and congregants express in call-and-response interactions with spoken and sung texts intermingled.

Texts express praise. Mostly of God and Jesus; minimal mention of Mary; isolated reference to Spirit except as it imbues the words and actions of God and Jesus -- as contrasted to Pentecostal communities where celebration of Spirit is the core of their worship.

Two other observations worth sharing:  One:  Standing and sitting and standing. And standing a lot (yes, it's relative; in this case to Baptist or Methodist or perhaps, even, "black" church services). For me, these exertions in combination with the singing provided a welcome physical balance to the staunchly mind-oriented components -- language, thinking, listening, etc.-- of the ritual.

Two:  When we spoke last week, Sarah assured me there's no requirement for the pianist to be Lutheran. I didn't press for a similar assurance if the pianist is also not a "believer." I didn't want to manufacture obstacles to accepting the invitation. I enjoy sacred music; I could use the gig; the idea of getting out of bed early every Sunday also appeals; and opportunities to meet people here are too few and far between to carelessly brush one away.

Somewhere during the service I began to feel like the Devil in their midst....a wolf in sheep's clothing....an interloper (the definition of which reads "
1.  a person who interferes or meddles in the affairs of others: He was an athiest who felt like an interloper in this religious gathering.)
Vampire Interloper | Art by James Ryman
 Hymns like "Stand Up! Stand Up for Jesus", "The Church's One Foundation", and "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun" combined with commentary from the minister along the lines of "We are all unworthy sinners. Every hour surrendering to the forces of evil that surround us..." provoked a growing sense of unease.

Reminded at least 10 times during the 75- minute service, in a variety of ways, that we are surrounded by evil, that we are unworthy, that God and Jesus are our only hope and  Heaven is only open to those who confess their wickedness, ask forgiveness and swear allegiance to Jesus.

The sermon title was "Look & See, Duh" as in "It's apparent, unquestionable and simple: Jesus is the Son of God! If you don't get it or don't believe it...well, duh...what's wrong with you?"

Even in this dispassionate community of faithfuls, the drums of evangelical warfare echo, impelling believers into a competitive struggle with the world, based on ideological difference. I had a sudden gripping understanding (again) of why conversation with religious fanaticism is impossible. Quiet fanaticism is fanaticism all the same.

The rejection of difference and a will to subjugate all difference are among the features I find most challenging and unattractive about mainstream, organized religion. Does the world need more rejection and subjugation? I say "no."

Without calling our names, the minister made it plain in his Preface to Communion that John (the long-legged young man) and I were welcome to come forward and share the "bread and wine" (it occurs to me as I type quotation marks that I have just typed a euphemism for a euphemism...or is a metaphor for a euphemism?....or...). We were the only two who did not participate in the communion ceremony.

"Moment of Truth" by Joel Rea
Near the end of his sermon, the minister walked away from the podium, clearly enjoying this scripted digression from the usual form, to ask us to consider what it would be like to have Jesus suddenly manifest in the flesh right in front of us, looking us in the eye, talking to us.

A fat moment or two of silence followed to allow our imaginations to engage with that idea (longer-than-usual-silences are one of my favorite tools when I'm teaching or leading workshops so this was one of the rejuvenating spaces in the service for me). "Well," he finally said. "You don't have to wait or imagine. Jesus is that close to us all the time but we're usually distracted and not paying attention. He is always offering us the unconditional love and forgiveness of the Lord of heaven and earth."

In the pregnant pause, contemplating the idea he offered, I felt an expansion of sensorium, partly joy but mostly a feeling of relatedness and access to everything, everyone, everywhere, forever. And after he delivered the "punch line," my first literal thought was "Yes!...So, why are we still sitting here? and why are you still talking? and why would I draw (and patrol) a dividing line between me and anybody or anything else in this vast, wondrous Creation?

That inquiry resides in a space accessed by stepping off the cliff edge of Christian obedience. To reach the Inquiry and swim it, a believer must take a crucial first step that is, often, expressly prohibited. Even acknowledging that the inquiry exists, that neighbors, friends, children have taken the plunge and are willfully engaged with the inquiry is defined as problematic.


I brought the hymnal home with me. I am thinking of going back next Sunday to observe the musical outline of a non-Communion liturgy; and also, finally, to ask how much they're paying. (I got the telephone number of the outgoing pianist today and may call her with this question; Sarah and I have avoided the topic altogether so far...).

My fear, i.e., the worst that could happen if I accepted the gig, is that I won't find enough ecumenism and cosmic holism to counterbalance and "sanitize" the solid, white, plain, besieged-beleaguered-and-vile flavors I observed today and getting up early on Sunday to drive to the edge of town becomes a drag. Plus, they're nice people and I wouldn't want to accept only to resign after a short time and leave them in the lurch.