Flesh and blood, scars and blemishes

Another guest post from Mr. 52godpickup.

Noon Sunday Mass, Holy Name Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

When I’m backed into a corner and forced to say that I live in Birmingham, I sometimes add, in a weak joke, “in the poor part of Birmingham.” In my working-class Irish family we were taught by example to never let them think you’re putting on airs and never, ever let them guess what’s in your bank book.

Holy Name is most definitely in the part of Birmingham where the third generation of immigrants are lawyers and doctors and auto company executives, and where I hope at least one of my children will someday own a house with a little apartment above the garage where mom and dad can spend their old age gardening and volunteering.

My wife, knowing and probably despairing of my working-class sentimentality, had first steered me to the other Catholic churches nearby, but I was attracted to Holy Name’s Mass at the civilized hour of high noon. I ventured, and was glad of it.

To start with, the sanctuary is beautiful and the building bursts with meeting rooms, offices and conference rooms. I could easily picture a national brokerage or a marketing team taking over the place for the week.

In the lobby I saw more signs of success — posters and placards recognizing this year’s confirmation class of 124 eighth-graders. Yes, Holy Name has a school, but even so, 124 eighth-graders are practically a regiment of soldiers for Christ.

In the pews, I counted at least 200 worshipers, including a smattering of elderly gentlemen, white-haired but bursting with vitality, as if they had breakfasted on oatmeal and cantaloupe and then dashed off a few sets of tennis before going to fulfill their Sunday obligation.

More signs of vitality in the missal, which had three pages of local business advertising — and not just plumbers and roofers but also Realtors, financial advisors and orthodontists.

Then the Mass unrolled with its timeless comfort of ritual, familiarity and mystery. Even the new responses seem familiar by now. I had lapsed as a Catholic years ago, when I was a new father and I was frustrated by the Church’s near-criminal fumbling of the sex-abuse cases. (I remember a respected great-uncle snarling, “The bishops couldn’t manage a corner grocery.”) I was reminded today that home is always home. The Catholic Church will always take me back, should I choose to return.

And then the Rev. Msgr. John Zenz delivered a wonderful homily on Luke 24, in which the Risen Lord appears to His disciples and invites them to inspect the wounds in His hands and feet to see that He was indeed real. And then He said He was hungry and asked for a piece of fish to eat.

“Matter Matters” was Zenz’s title and his point: The risen Christ was not an apparition or an abstraction. Easter is not a metaphor, a celebration of new life blooming in spring, like crocuses bringing forth new flowers. Easter is a celebration of Jesus Christ rising from the dead as a physical body. And eating fish.

So we should remember that our outward glowing signs are not the whole story. We too are flesh and blood, scars and blemishes, wounded in all kinds of physical and psychological ways.

And it is our scars that are our bridge to Christ. He suffered; we will suffer. He rose; we will be resurrected.

Wonderful to hear that message insisted upon.

Second cousin to compassion

A guest post from Mr. 52godpickup, who did some seeking while I finished tax season.

11 a.m. Sunday worship, Pilgrim Congregational Church, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

I counted 23 souls in the sanctuary and it left me with an unfortunate moment of pity — the poor second cousin to compassion — and then the brooding sense one gets when watching a BBC documentary on ancient Crete.

Surely this was a thriving congregation once. There are pews available for a couple of hundred and a roomy parking lot out front, down the stone steps. A nice piece of real estate, too, on the nexus of Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Troy.

Where did the people go? Why did they leave? Were there angry words? A divisive pastor search? Or did members just slowly fade away, until the survivors went to church one fine morning, blinking in the summer sun, and realized they were alone?

These are interesting questions for a member of a declining Mainline Protestant church whose leadership bravely insists, as mine does (or did, I can’t decide yet), “We will not lead a dying congregation.”

The sad answers, I think, are the same for a church as they are for aging Japan and old Europe — when you lose children’s time, when the families go elsewhere, when your day-care centers are converted to nursing homes, then maybe only prayer can help you.

(Don’t get me wrong. A society needs octogenarians as much as we need toddlers, if only in part to answer some of the questions a visitor might bring, and to give younger members the sense of wonder I get when speaking to someone who was there at the founding … in this instance, 1961.)

To their credit, the people at Pilgrim Congregational Church understand their situation. Perusing their Sunday missal this morning, they pray that “God would bring new people to Pilgrim both to minister to and help us accomplish His plans for Pilgrim,” and, even more touchingly, that “God will direct Pilgrim to make any changes that He wants us to make and that we at Pilgrim would be open to His direction.”

And then the last chords of the opening hymn fell away and all these academic and gloomy thoughts were washed away by an organized, sincere jewel of a service that took as its cornerstone the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Paul’s message of joy was transmitted in the hymns, the Offertory Prayer, the formal Gospel reading and the informal sermon, all working to remind us, as Paul did in his missive from a Roman prison cell, separated from old friends and colleagues back in Macedonia, that the glass is not half-full or half-empty but always overflowing with God’s love for us.

That was Pastor John’s answer to me. What do you do when you have just 23 “saints,” as the church’s part-time preacher suggested we were? Well, you do the best you can and you thank God for the opportunity to deliver the message, and to absorb it.

Where are Christians persecuted?

Open Doors USA has released a list of the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians. Most are Muslim, some are Communist or ex-Communist — some are both.

The top five:

1. North Korea

2. Afghanistan

3. Saudi Arabia

4. Somalia

5. Iran

You can learn more about Open Doors here.

Wishing to satisfy the crowd

11 a.m. contemporary Shine worship, First United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

I’ve spent my life in small congregations, sometimes ones so small that they didn’t even have a permanent home for worship.

Cozy, yes. Claustrophobic, sometimes.

But chiefly “without many resources.”

First Church is one of the largest congregations in my hometown, but that isn’t why I chose it this Sunday. First Church is also the site of Friday Night Lights, which is a once-a-month rave that attracts 500+ middle-schoolers. Fun? “Made of awesome,” my seventh-grade son says.

So I thought he might not mind accompanying me to a contemporary worship at the very location of so much awesome, i.e, First Church’s Christian Life Center. I kinda figured he’d balk at the traditional worship being held in the sanctuary at the same time. (Two simultaneous services! A first for me.)

“Ooh, coffee,” my son said, coming through the entrance doors to the CLC. “Coffee, coffee, coffee!” Other churches have coffee before worship (see yesterday), but First Church has coffee with optional hazelnut and vanilla flavorings. And hot chocolate. With mini-marshmallows.

“You can take it in to worship, if you like,” said Cheryl, behind the counter. She pointed to the to-go lids and then to the gym behind me, where the band was warming up with a tune I couldn’t quite recognize. All right, then. The boy — converted for the price of a Starbucks — and I took our coffees to seats on the basketball floor.

First Church’s band is of the Christian pop-rock variety, professional and professionally amplified, with lyrics projected on big screens above our heads. The music is way more modern than 19-century hymns, but from my son’s stony look, I gather it’s nothing like what he listens to on his own.

Or maybe he was trying to maintain his cool. “I don’t do singing,” he whispered to me during the second song, as the crowd began to clap on the backbeat.

“Do you do dancing?” I whispered back. He gave me the Preteen Look of Horror, but he did stop frowning.

The rock concert stage may be the chancel of our times, but still, there are no altars in basketball gyms. Rev. Brian William paced in front of the microphone stands to deliver a sermon on Mark 15:15. You know, where Pilate asks the bloodthirsty mob which prisoner they want released, Barabbas the thief or Jesus.

Pilate knew the right thing to do, William said. But Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd — and so a great evil was done. When evil takes root among a crowd of people, what grows is horrific: Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo. On and on.

But in looking around a church built with so many appealing, market-tested features — new classrooms and youth parties, rock music and coffee bars — I couldn’t help but think that sometimes “what would satisfy the crowd” can lead to good. (And not just “good vanilla coffee.”)

First Church sponsors a ministry called Art & Soul at Central UMC in Detroit. Volunteers go on Mondays and Thursdays to help homeless people express themselves through art. (If you think “expressing yourself” is the least important thing a homeless person needs, ask yourself why a homeless person should need it any less than you do.) Only a prosperous church — one that has more than enough resources — can hope to offer a ministry like that.

We saw a short film about one visit, in which homeless Detroiters decorated cupcakes. One man decorated with gusto, piling sprinkles and frosting so high that the First Churcher helping him finally squeaked out, “Less is more!”

“Girl,” the man told her, “less is NOT more.”


Suffer the not-so-little 12-year-olds

Another friend, at dinner.

“I don’t want to tell him what to believe. He has his own journey, and I respect that,” she said over appetizers. “I just want him to know what he’s rejecting before he rejects it!”

She has a 13-year-old son, a bright, engaging, thoughtful boy who happens to be best friends with my 12-year-old son, another bright, engaging, thoughtful boy. They call each other “brother.” That sounds right.

And the two of them — maybe because they are bright, engaging, thoughtful boys — have decided that God just doesn’t make “sense.” I haven’t been privileged to hear the 13-year-old’s arguments, but I have heard my son’s: Belief in God is an opinion. There’s no proof. The world is messed up. We’re little more than animals. Etc.

None of this is fresh, of course. I’m glad my son is thinking about the Big Questions, and thinking hard. I’m glad he has a good friend to talk about them. I know that true faith often emerges only after a desert trek through non-faith.

And yet we, the mothers, are tearing our hair out.

How on earth, how in heaven, how how how do we get our beautiful boys to even consider that God might exist? How do we teach them the broad swath of deep thinking about God and faith that has gone before, if they’ve already shut their minds?

How do we get them to church?

“I’m not very satisfied with the Religious Ed program at our church this year,” my friend said. I have news for her and for all the church leaders: No parent is ever truly satisfied with the religious ed program. A free tip from my pew-hopping so far. (Another free tip: If you want people to show up on time for worship, have a coffee urn in the entrance hall. Amazing how the promise of caffeine can motivate.)

That doesn’t mean religious ed can’t be improved. We didn’t get to the specifics of her complaints before the checks came, but mine are that our neck of liberal Christianity has stopped teaching Scripture and Jesus and turned to vague lessons about how “God loves you” and “you’re special.” And crafts, with snacks. As if our kids didn’t get enough self-esteem inflation at school. Or enough crafts, with snacks.

My friend’s plan of attack so far has been to try to drag her son to Mass (by the ear?) and to hope that her own deep faith might impress him. “And then my husband gives him ‘The God Delusion!'” she wails.

Well, it’s not like the boy can’t google “Richard Dawkins” on his own.

My son has read great swaths of the Bible without pressing from me  — his favorite book is Job — so I’m not worried unto death about the attack of the atheists. But I’m also not all that sanguine about my side’s chances with my boy, either.

What’s a poor mother of Godless to do?

Awe and shock

I was having coffee with a dear friend when the subject of my journey — the one chronicled here — came up. I might have brought it up.

I wanted to talk about a sermon that I had found unsatisfactory. Not “unsatisfactory” as in “D-minus work,” but as in “I came to drink deeply and was left thirsty.” Too much of it had seemed too focused on the little “I” and its ego, and not enough on God.

“I wanted awe,” I said.

“More awe,” she said.

Yes, more awe. But what could that mean? How would it look? And would I want it if I found it?

A book I finished recently comes to mind. “An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order” — who needs a summary when you have a subtitle like that — by Nancy Klein Maguire (Public Affairs, 2006) tells of, well, five young men who entered an English monastery of the Catholic Carthusian order in 1960 for a five-year novitiate. Only one stayed. That tells you a lot.

Why are the Carthusians the “most austere”? Not necessarily because they deny themselves food, though they fast, impressively. Not necessarily because they deny themselves material comfort, though they do. (They even wear hair shirts.)

They’re austere because they deprive themselves of companionship, and in a particularly challenging way. Each monk lives alone in a small house with a small garden, connected to a cloister that leads to the church and other common areas. A monk will spend most of his day alone in his house cell, but will join the other monks for worship and some meals. So he is not precisely a hermit.

But, for the most part, he will converse with the other monks only once a week, on a walk in the country. The rest of the time, no conversation, no greetings, not even eye contact during many hours of communal worship and chanting. The monk is surrounded by people yet alone.

Do you expect me to say, “Isn’t this true of all of us? Are we not each of us essentially alone? Is this not man’s tragedy?” Or maybe point out that the Carthusians seek solitude so that they can focus on prayer and on God? But you guessed as much. Why else?

Why else? I’d read the book because my husband had. He’d come to the end of it a little wistful. The life sounded peaceful, he said, and valuable. “If God exists,” one of the novices says, “then being a Carthusian makes sense, is rigorously coherent.” My husband appreciated that.

What I said:  “It would be nice to know what to do each day.”

What I didn’t say: “If God were to appear to me while I was in prayer in a small, cold, dark house in deep winter, I’d … I’d … I’d … I can’t imagine that.”

A failure of imagination?

Alas, I think it is a failure of awe.

“I’m not who I ought to be, but I’m not who I was”

I managed to fall behind in the first weeks of a new job — or I succumbed to the sin of procrastination — so now I’m finally posting about a church visit in January.

11 a.m. Sunday worship, Grace Baptist Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

“How many of you have brought your Bibles?” Pastor Charles Whitfield asked those of us crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews.

Two hundred Good Books went into the air. (But not mine. I’m used to Bibles in the pew, not in the purse. But a sweet woman to my left pressed hers on me, and she shared her husband’s.)

“Oh, it’s good to see so many Bibles here today,” he said and beamed.

And there you have a key difference in Christian worship, between those churches in which they have Bibles in the pews but don’t really expect you to take them out (Catholic, Unitarian), those in which the Bible is there so you can follow along during the Scripture readings (Lutheran, et al) and those in which you bring your own, preferably in a personalized cover and with bookmarks bristling.

Grace Baptist Church is one of two churches within a quarter-mile of my house. I’ve walked or driven past it at least two thousand times in the past 10 years, but I’d never gone in. Maybe I was put off by the “Baptist.” Not my people. Could not ever be my people. In this I share the prejudice of many in my particular corner of liberal Christianity, a prejudice that deserves a lot more scrutiny than I can get into today. But we will return to it.

And maybe I was put off by the knowledge that the church had been there for 50 years with the same pastor and by the glimpses of gray-haired congregants going in. Never mind that my church — like many churches — has plenty of gray-haired congregants. God willing, I will be a gray-haired congregant someday, too soon. But surely Grace Baptist was a sleepy, boring place to visit. Surely.

So of course I got kicked in the prejudice.

For one, the service was packed. I later learned the congregation was on its second sanctuary in the same building, having outgrown the first, but even so, we filled every inch of the pews and spilled out into the lobby. My seasoned-journalist count came to about 200 in the pews themselves, and that would not include the 25 or so choir members arrayed behind the pulpit. I’d arrived 10 minutes before the 11 a.m. service, not realizing that the 10 a.m. Sunday School advertised on the church sign was not all that optional — everybody had come to that — so I had to ask politely at several pews before I found one that could shift enough to find me a seat in the middle. So much for sleepy.

For two, Whitfield — who has been the pastor of Grace Baptist since 1956, before I was born, so do the math — had the fire of a platoon of younger men.

After crooning approvingly over our Bibles, he directed us to Romans 1. Now, Romans 1 doesn’t get read much in my liberal Christian church — too much punishment of idolators and too much fulminating against “males (who) gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another.” (I think this passage of Paul’s gets misread, but never mind.) We’re too “open and affirming” to sanction such talk from the pulpit. I braced myself. I was really liking this worship service — from the baptisms to the fine choir to the friendliness of my pewmates — and I didn’t want to start hating it.

It is really something to hear someone read Scripture well, someone who knows the text so thoroughly he makes it both conversational and poetic. I wonder if the letter sounded as natural to the church in Rome in its original Greek. And then Whitfield stopped on a sentence I hadn’t expected. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel!” he read, and repeated. And he was off. What is there to be ashamed of? he demanded . Why shouldn’t we share the good news we’d found? Why should those of us who’ve found salvation in faith in Jesus Christ — who have embraced that gift — be ashamed to bring that gift to others? “Amen!” called out a man two pews ahead. “Amen!”

But what of those of us who think we’re not good enough to spread the gospel? The work doesn’t need perfect people, Whitfield promised us. God will make us who we need to be. “I say, ‘I’m not who I ought to be, but I’m not who I was,'” he  thundered.

“Amen, amen!” went the congregation.

I wonder if that isn’t the power of the evangelical churches, and why they grow when the old-line (what gets called “mainstream,” even as the numbers dwindle) Protestant churches don’t: They give their members a purpose, something to do. You have been saved, now go spread the word. Your role is clear.

Later, during coffee hour — no, not a single person asked if I saved, though many people came up to talk to me — I met a woman who had grown up in Grace Baptist, then had moved to Florida. A bad marriage and a couple of babies later, she found herself in metro Detroit, looking for work. She found a job with a bank and was assuming she’d have to move to another suburb. Then, suddenly, the bank called her. Could she work in Birmingham? Did she know the town? And so she found a house a couple of blocks from her childhood church, and brought her kids to where she’d been raised. “I think the Lord made it happen,” she told me. Her daughter, now a lovely young woman, smiled beside her.

Not a bad way to find a church.

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