Can I Get an Amen?

May 17, 2011

10 a.m. t0 12:30 p.m.

Abyssinian Christian Church, Fort Collins, Colo.

Chosen because…ethnic diversity touted on website.

I grew up in what’s fondly referred to as Vanilla Village. White, middle class America. When I was a kid, if we saw a black person it was like encountering a rare bird. “Oh my God look, it’s a black person! Where do you suppose he lives? What’s he doing in Ft. Collins? Where do you think he works?”

Our fascination wasn’t malicious. We weren’t trying to find his workplace to torment him, we were just curious. Ft. Collins is more diverse than it used to be, but it’s still really, really white.

So imagine my surprise on Sunday morning when I walked into the Fort Collins Abyssinian Christian Church and found myself in the minority. It was fantastic.

Culture Shock

This church is in the middle of a neighborhood, which is how church should be — an extension of community. It’s very plain. Blonde brick. Basic A-frame. Old office chairs stand in as pews, each one with what appears to be a handmade pocket on the back. The pockets don’t hold Bibles as everyone brings their own and, when they pray, they hold them up to heaven. This is new.

A woman greets me at the entrance, hands me a handful of peppermints. Confusing. Later, during a pause in worship, a woman sitting near me offers me a peppermint from her stash. Is this some sort of new age icebreaker?

Several men stand to the side of the cramped aisles. They’re well dressed and big. They look like bodyguards and do not leave their posts during service. I’m intimidated. Not by them, but the situation.

I’m not the only white person in the congregation, but I stick out because I look like a bum and everyone else seems to adhere to old-fashioned church values of dress up. The dreadlocked hippie in the choir provides some comfort.

Get Your Shout Out

The choir and keyboardist are active and unbelievable, providing accompaniment I actually want to listen to. This is the first time I’ve heard a church choir sing. Usually they mumble, occasionally harmonizing words. This choir does its thing throughout the service, including when the preacher speaks.

The preacher greets us. “I hope you woke up with prayer.”

We all did. Even me. My prayer was, “Dear God, please shoot me.”

I can’t imagine anyone else in the congregation greeted the day this way because they’re moving about singing, talking, dancing, smiling — they’re thrilled to be in God’s house.  This is an anomaly. I’ve never ever seen such enthusiasm for God. Ever.

As per usual, the greet your neighbor bit sends me into a panic. A very large hatted woman to my left gives me a huge bear hug. I sit, terrified that the man jumping over a chair is headed toward me. He isn’t, kisses the kid in front of me instead.

The preacher encourages us to “get our shout out,” which means clap, yell, sing and dance the devil away. Terrified and amused, I sit, watching. Eventually a smile dents my crabby face. Though I’m not shouting, the shout out is working.

I’m fascinated by a woman in the front who looks like she’s leading a Jazzercise class. She disappears. She either had to suddenly tie her shoe or she’s fallen to the ground. When she pops back up, she sits in a chair fanning herself so I think she was probably writhing.

The preacher says religion is “not a spectator sport,” but I cannot will myself out of my chair. I don’t feel judged by anyone other than myself. Personal problem.

The preacher’s messages are simple. Be grateful for the day. Put your faith in the Lord. I like what he has to say because he speaks like a human – not a theologian – and says things like, “Can I get a witness?,” prompting the congregation to follow with“Amen” and “yes sir.” I freaking love it especially when the older woman behind me starts croaking out “that’s right.”

I don’t care about this church’s message. The congregants are so excited about God that it really doesn’t matter. Enthusiasm for anything is half the battle. Why is this the first time I’ve seen people get excited about church?

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ft. Collins, Colo.

10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Chosen because…went for Pentecostal but service times didn’t suit my needs so swapped it with another “al” denomination.

Well I Never

I’ll never stay in Colorado. I’ll never read the Bible. I’ll never go to church. I’ll never get married. I’ll never get divorced. Never say never. Lesson learned.

Since the Redeemer Lutheran experience, I’ve put my pissy pants on every Sunday morning, bitched and moaned all the way to church and resisted pre-service temper tantrums. But when I left St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, I was calm. Like abnormally, once-in-a-lifetime kind of calm. Why? Because it turns out that I’m getting dumber, not smarter and for that I’m grateful. I’m so sick of thinking.

Age: The Great Eraser

I don’t know anything about Episcopalians and that’s fine as knowledge taints experience. I love the church interior. Basic. A few stained glass windows. A cross draped in white cloth hanging from the ceiling. This is the first church I’ve been to with organ music, which I love. Very traditional. Love that too.

Service starts. A choir cloaked in white, wooden crosses hanging from necks, floats down the aisles. Priests or whatever take the stage. There are many. They have hoods on the back of their white robes. I’m not in the deep south or Michigan. I wipe KKK from the brain. During meet your neighbor the preachers step into the aisles, shaking hands as they go. I like this but am trapped between an old woman in a powder blue suit and a crabby note taker who nearly clips my toes every time she pulls down the prayer bar.

Most of the congregation will be chillin’ with God soon. Perhaps that’s why the preacher chose John 3:1 – 17. Here’s the story. This arrogant dude, Nicodemus, meets with Jesus at night because he’s ashamed to be seeking advice from a lowly country boy but he needs counsel so he does it anyway. Nicodemus thinks he knows everything but in his later years, after Jesus dies, he doesn’t say anything. He kicks his know-it-all attitude, which suggests that as we age we either lose our minds or realize we don’t know a damn thing about anything.

I believe it’s the latter. I’ve realized this in my own life, particularly within the last few months. I’ve ripped the blanket off some of my more gregarious opinions and stereotypes, but I still use “you’re wrong, you’re just wrong” when backed in a corner during arguments. Turns out I’m usually wrong, which I hate especially when my mom hauls out the dictionary as backup. You can’t argue with Merriam.

Never Say Never

I didn’t want to go to church, assumed it would suck, thought “I’ll never enjoy this” but like I said, it really chilled me out. I liked the sermon but I also didn’t feel any pressure to share my non-existent relationship with God with other people. I’m not sure I’ve gotten that from any other church.

Example. Rather than harping on Bible studies, the pastor focused on Foyer Groups, groups of eight-to-10 people who meet for dinner etc. to get to know each other. I like that. I need friends but I don’t want the Bible getting between us.

I never thought I’d use the prayer bar or reply to the preacher as outlined by the bolded text in the leaflet, but I did it. I kind of want to get baptized so I can receive communion. But I’ll never do it. I’ll never stick with organized religion. And I’ll never say things I don’t mean. Ever.

Religion or Bust

February 15, 2011

I had every intention of going to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. In fact, as soon as I realized the events surrounding the Mercedes-sponsored Laureus sports event would prevent me from going, I tried to extend my stay purely for the mosque. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the eighth largest mosque in the world and the largest mosque in the UAE. It’s gorgeous and open to visitors for educational tours. Understandably, visitors are asked to respect cultural norms ie. wear modest, conservative, loose fitting clothing; long sleeves, long skirts and trousers; leave shorts, short skirts and tight clothing at home; avoid intimate behavior such as kissing or handholding; wear a headscarf (women only); and keep beachwear at the beach.

My first experience with Islam was, naturally, inappropriate. I first heard midday prayer while relaxing on a private beach in a garish, unholy Victoria’s Secret bikini I bought on a whim of overconfidence (I’ve lost the bottoms to my standard plain Jane swimming suit). Though it was a private beach, I felt uncomfortable until the wind forced me to cover up.

(The dreaded VC suit on a lampshade…where it belongs.)

The prayer was surprisingly soothing and nothing like the chaos Fox News links to everything Middle Eastern and/or Islamic.

I did have a little prayer mat in my room and realized on day three that the diagonal arrow above my bed was intended to lead guests toward Mecca, not the closet. Waking up to the early morning prayer was delightful and saved me from missing my return flight.

I only wish I could have made it to the mosque and actually come back with an impression a tad more substantive than prayers and an arrow.

My flight out of Abu Dhabi had some quote from the Koran but I can’t remember it. However, when I got home, I found a Bible on my front porch — no joke — and there was a bookmark in the Book of Esther so I randomly grabbed a quote as I need guidance and apparently, sometimes when people are struggling, they reach for a random bit in the Bible and relate it to their lives.

This is what I got:

“And the ‘drinking’ was according to the law; none did compel: for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure.” (Esther, Chapter 1)

I was looking for something more substantive, something that wouldn’t encourage my commitment to vice. I thought the Bible was supposed to speak to people when they’re hurting. Maybe it’s supposed to act like a cheering section. Who knows. I was hoping for something like:

“This too shall pass,” a Facebook post from a friend that may be Biblical in nature? I’m not sure.

On a side note, my flashy binki may not have been entirely inappropriate. Apparently bikinis and religion can work together as proven by another Mercedes-sponsored event — the True Religion Bikini Runway. I wasn’t asked to participate in this one. I can’t imagine why. You wouldn’t believe the number of swimsuit modeling offers I turn down each year. It’s out of control.

True Religion Bikini Runway 2011 Line

I will be heading to a Mennonite church this coming Sunday and apologize for the flighty posts. Travel. Hopefully I’ll adjust.

(You can follow us on Twitter @thumpme or join our Facebook page. No obligation.)

I should write about suicide and sex all the time. They’re huge sellers. That being said, the honesty of yesterday’s post really freaked some people out. Initially it irritated me, but then I realized the reactions reflected our discomfort with honesty. We covet our feelings, our flaws and our desires for fear that others will judge us. Myself included.

Yesterday’s confession was three years late. Why? Because it’s easier to talk about things that are embarrassing or emotionally intense once they’re in the past. Way in the past.

In short, we’re often ashamed to be human, which is why I like Jesus. He encourages honesty and introspection. He also allows us to forgive ourselves for being human.

Unfortunately God gets all the glory. All I ever hear is “Dear God” or “Thank you Lord.” God is the one who brings people to their knees. Jesus heals. The Lord hates. Jesus loves. Jesus accepts. God damns. Jesus helped the poor. God damned them (at least in the beginning of the Old Testament, he did the same to foreigners).

Do people pray to Jesus? I’ve heard “In Jesus’ name,” but that doesn’t sound prayer-like to me.

Why does God get all of the kudos? Well, he’s older and we’re taught to respect our elders. He’s also very Hollywood. He loves special effects and doom and gloom. Jesus, on the otherhand, is like an Independent film. Listening to him takes patience. He offers substance.

Last night I tried praying — to Jesus, not God — and instead of peace, I had a horrific nightmare, woke up yelling, knocked water all over my side table and quintupled the width of my favorite short story collection. My hips, back and stomach also seized up, preventing me from cleaning the mess. The dream —family murdered, me living in a house of blood with an invisible killer that suffocated me from time to time — wasn’t what I was looking for, but it made me think. God may have delivered blood and guts, but I don’t know if he would have putt me in the house or subjected me to the invisible killer. Jesus did (maybe) and I’ve been analyzing both all day. How do they pertain to my life? Emotional state? Etc.

I like Jesus, but I think this is a farce: “When  you pray and ask for something, believe that you have received it, and you will be given whatever you ask for.”

When I sort of prayed, I did not expect physical and mental torture especially because my prayer was altruistic, which is uncommon. Is exorcism a common response to prayer? Is that why everyone prays to God instead of Jesus?

Well, I’ll give Jesus another shot. As for the Lord, adios Dios.

Stopping Point: Book of Luke

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