Might be a Mennonite

February 21, 2011

Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship, Fort Collins, Colo.

10:30 a.m. to noonish

Chosen because…I’m fascinated with buggies and bonnets

I love Mennonites. At least the ones I met at the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship. They’re friendly and as far as I can tell, they view Jesus as a symbol of peace, not a vehicle for judgement.

Now, on the judgment front…

I saw my first Mennonites at a Taco Bell in Fort Collins. The girls were darling in bonnets and homemade dresses. I assumed the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship parking lot would be full of buggies, men in cute hats and suspenders helping bonneted women to the street. Giddy, I thought, “Try not to make an ass of yourself by immediately asking about the buggies and bonnets.”

I’m not sure why these Mennonites are singing in a subway, but this is what I thought my Sunday would be like.

Mennonites Singing on a Subway

In a group of less than 30, I found one bonnet. I should have known. The Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship site addresses bonnets, notes they’re not the norm. Another newbie asked about bonnets and horses. The people he asked politely chuckled and explained.

So who attends the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship? Very chill people. Very Colorado looking people — jeans, Merrells, outdoor wear. I felt like I was at a peace rally. A bell kicked off service. Two girls — one barefoot — lit a candle with this long thing, the one without shoes nearly clipped the other’s face with the flame. Then some acoustic guitar, a bit about Haiti, sermon or talk, bell, discussion, refreshments.

Mennonites Hit No. 1 on Church Billboard Chart

The Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship is No. 1 on the ThumpMe billboard chart because they do peace and acceptance. They’re open-minded. In fact, I found them by going to www.gaychurch.org, curious as to which churches are cool with homosexuals.

While homosexuality wasn’t discussed (I believe David was gay), the Sermon on the Mount was. Mennonites believe Jesus’ word trumps all others, including angry God and confused prophets. The speaker talked about going beyond religious laws to uncover deeper meaning. Does it really make sense to take in all the wretched souls and then condemn them for committing adultery simply because they looked at another woman? No it doesn’t and that’s why I love the Mennonites. They are what I think people who proclaim to follow Christ should be — emissaries of peace and understanding.

The speaker asks, “If your religion does not go beyond, what is it?”

Nothing.

Observations

The bulletin said “we are all ministers in the fellowship” and included quotes from Buddha, which is confusing, all inclusive and quite a bit different than my southern Baptists. Two individuals knitted during service, one worked on a laptop, one read a book. Very laid back.

After the sermon/lesson, they opened the floor to discussion. Discussion! I couldn’t believe it. No one said much, but encouraging opposition nearly knocked me out of my chair.

At the end, we held hands and said a prayer which was way uncomfortable for me but whatever. I think I heard a bongo or some other instrument I associate with freedom, but can’t remember.

NOTE: I don’t have a photo of this church. I once again left a piece of clothing in a public place — my jacket, restaurant  — and was without a camera.

Suck Me in and Spit Me Out

January 24, 2011

Grand Avenue Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Ark.

11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Parking Lot Sign: “You are now entering your mission field.”

Chosen because…”You’re in Baptist country honey.”

For the majority of my eight-hour drive from Tennessee to Arkansas, I fantasize about this church experience. Small Baptist church in a field of sunshine. Large black women in robes singing in the choir. As the only white person, I stick out and after service, the women embrace me, invite me to a picnic. The pastor’s wife asks me to stay at their house for undetermined amount of time. I ask them about racism, get it on film documentary style. I’ve seen too many movies.

Woke up early. Asked white desk clerk how to get to the church. Said he didn’t have a phonebook (?!). I should ask the black bellhop. Awkward, did it anyway. Old white maid gave me directions.

“Is this OK to wear to a Baptist church?” Concerned about jeans and tennis shoes.

“Honey, as long as your dressed I don’t think they’ll give a damn.”

Suck Me In

Church is in large part about community and I loved this community. Over perfumed women walk to my pew, squeeze my shoulders, cup my hands, talk to me in those darling southern accents. Swoon.

No one looks at my shoes but then again, the man next to me has a Band-Aid in the middle of his forehead. I’m second tier entertainment.

First up, a baptism. Dressed in white, the pastor ascends to a spotlighted platform six feet above the choir and dunks a teenager. Creepy. Too much power. The pastor magically disrobes, descends, sits with kids on the stairs like Mr. Rogers and says, “Committing yourself to Christ means you’re willing to do something just a little bit weird.”

Asks those needing prayer to raise their hand. I want to raise both hands and legs, but I’m writing. Pastor invites people to pray at his feet. Men join him and they cry. Heaving shoulders. I cannot stand seeing grown men cry, especially if I’m the source of the pain. I want to hold them but they’re burly and I know I can’t assuage their pain so I cry.

Emotional pain manifests itself physically. When I start to cry, my left calf cramps. I lean down to rub it and smash my forehead on the pew back in front of me. This gets some attention. I turn red.

Spit Me Out

Then the sermon: “The Invisible War, Spiritual Warfare.”

The pastor talks about using prayer as a weapon against evil we can’t see — devils, warlocks, etc. The next eight weeks are devoted to this topic. Not only does he use the Bible and prayer as a weapon and religion as warfare, as he speaks his face changes, it’s almost demonic and every time he wants the congregation to “mm hm,” “amen” or laugh, he cups a hand to his ear.

One of the men in my pew sees me taking notes and gives me “The Invisible War: What Every Believer Needs to Know about Satan, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare” by Chip Ingram.

“Here, you can take your notes in here. There’s plenty of room for note taking.”

Though I’m a heathen, I respect my elders. I take it so as not to hurt his feelings.

Take Away

I’ll go to a Southern Baptist bakeoff or chili cook off for community but faith by fear is not cool.

If the pastor wants views faith as war against the spiritual world fine. That’s his opinion. I can accept that. But would he accept mine? Unlikely.

Wednesday I drove up a canon to find my inaugural church/dive bar. I picked the cutest church I could find — white, capacity of 30-40 parishioners — perfect. Right down the street, a dive bar. Lovely.

Sunday I woke up hours before the 10 a.m. church service however, I didn’t quite make it to a pew. It wasn’t the night before Tullamore, it was my living quarters and the weather. Bright white room illuminated by fresh snowfall. Basically I woke up feeling like an angel and since God wanted me to revel in my angel self, I decided to relax and think good thoughts about humanity.

That lasted for about two minutes and then I did the last thing any humanitarian angel should ever do. I read the Ft. Collins Coloradoan and the Wall Street Journal. First the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Gifford (D-Arizona) and then this stupid story about two old women sharing mom’s mink by cutting it up and turning it into two teddy bears. Weird? Definitely. News? Uh, no.

Trying to go back to God, I held my own service in bed, reflecting on one of my last religious experiences. Five years ago. Summer in Michigan. Hot, humid. Body thirsty. Sobering agent dissolving in stomach. No sleep for 24 hours.

I didn’t want to go to a church service in a graveyard, but I couldn’t weasel or beg my way out of it so I womaned up and pouted during the 45 minute drive. I was wholly unprepared for the event mentally and physically. Strapless sundress. Heels sinking in mud.

We were late. The place was packed. I tiptoed between headstones to avoid losing a shoe in the mud. People stared. In-laws offered us their chairs, I looked for a headstone large enough to support my rear. Couldn’t find one, opted to stand, knees bent, weight shifting to avoid cramping and fainting, which happens a lot. (Low blood pressure resulting from running, according to the dr.)

I tried to concentrate on the pastor’s message, which I managed until my hearing dimmed. I kicked off my shoes (I’m smarter than scary movie chicks), grabbed my husband’s hand and said, “we have to go.”

He said just a minute. I said no, right this second, death grip on his hand. He asked why, I couldn’t talk. I get lockjaw before and after I pass out.

Four steps into the crowd, hearing gone. Step five, vision collapsing from the periphery. Step six, down on my knees. Gone. Wake up surrounded by people, pouring sweat, dress soaked, fat man in a short sleeved yellow shirt and bad tie running at me with water and a cookie. Someone put me in a chair, told me I was pale, did I need something? Could they help? Husband —  back off, I’ve got it.

It was about 10 minutes before I could talk, drink or eat but all I wanted to do was get the hell out of the cemetery because, even though we were at the back of the crowd, we were the center of attention. But I didn’t have the use of my legs so I couldn’t escape. Thanks God.

I don’t have a video of my personal blackout, but this is exactly what happens. Generally I fall backward, but I knew I was going to faint in a dress so I fell to my knees. Modesty first.

Best Man Faints and Falls Backward

This is one of my few church memories and it occurred in the best possible environment for me — the outdoors. So, hopefully you can see my hesitation going into this whole church hopping experiment.

Now I’m all worked up. I’m off to snowboard and find a dive bar. Until Wednesday…

If you don’t have at least one vice, don’t plan on infiltrating my personal circle. I’ll never trust you.

God and I agree on this point, he just doesn’t know it. According to this bit of Bible, God gives non-believers “corrupted minds” so they can do things they should not do, so they can entertain vice, which includes: evil, greed, jealousy, murder, fighting, deceit, malice, gossip, evil talk; hating God; insolence; pride; disobedience; lies; and cruelty.

Above all else “every man is a liar.” Agreed (women included), but what a disingenuous way to garner followers. Essentially God is saying, “since you’re human and these things are bound to happen, you’re screwed so you may as well give yourself over to me and, if you do you’ll have eternal life and this drudgery you live will disappear.”

I’ve stayed away from cliché arguments against religion, but using force and fear as a means to facilitate loyalty is repugnant.

The Book of Romans is fascinating. It’s about God’s Law and it is written like a congressional bill so if a person isn’t paying attention, they just get the fear and follow message. It’s winding, wordy (new word) and extremely difficult to follow. But the stuff Paul wants us to know — you’re bad and if you don’t love God you’re screwed — is written in plain English.

At one point Paul says (in parenthesis), “I use every day language because of the weakness of your natural selves.”

As in, listen up dummy, here’s everything you need to know. God created you to sin, but is merciful and will forgive you and let you walk among angels if you believe. Aside from coercion, this is a lie. In the Old Testament, God is anything but merciful. He doesn’t show grace, turn a blind eye, or bestow patience on sinners. He eviscerates them.

I know the Bible offers a lot of value — I see it — but this is propaganda used to fool people into letting fear overtake thought.

Now, I’m trying to remain open minded. As I said, I’ve found a lot of value in the Bible. I even found two bits in The Book of Romans that apply to my life.

“If our gift is to speak God’s message, we should do it according to the faith that we have.” If we don’t act on that faith, then we’re in trouble. But, if my faith is within myself, does that count? It may not be what God intended, but it’s faith.

Paul says that if we, as individuals, think something is right and we do that thing, we’re OK. But if we have any doubts about it, we’re guilty and therefore it’s wrong. So if I think it’s OK to kill a certain person – no doubts, no guilt — is that OK?

At one point Paul portends to address some important questions, questions no person of faith has ever answered for me. For example, if God is merciful, how can God find fault with anyone? Peter’s response: “But who are you my friend to talk back to God?”

That’s my problem. The answers I see in the Bible are ones of don’t ask don’t tell.

Unfortunately, interpretation is nine-tenths the law and I’m the outlier.

Stopping Point: Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians

* Note to the few of you hanging on despite this post: I will be traveling across the country starting Friday. I will continue the posts, but may add some travel updates as well.

 

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