Archive for the ‘Religious Wars’ Category

Rachel came home from a pedicure and mentioned that Molly, her pedicurist, had invited her to attend Molly’s church, Kensington Church, in Birmingham. They have rock music, Molly told Rachel. It’s a modern, upbeat, Megachurch. None of that old steeple stuff. In fact, Rachel tells, me, you can bring a latte.  Rachel has searched her entire adult life for a church that lets her sip coffee during the service.

I told Rachel it sounded interesting and that Alani and I would join her for a  church field trip the next morning.  But I’m apprehensive:  After two years of marriage, we still haven’t settled on a church.  We usually go to a Catholic parish up the road. I grew up Catholic, and despite my disagreement with almost all church doctrine, I like the tradition and liturgy.  What if Rachel likes the arena-church and wants to go there?

That night I made the mistake a drinking a double expresso after dinner, and woke at four am. I went downstairs, and, out of curiosity, googled “Kensington Church”. Their website is slick, and at first it’s hard to find anything objectionable. They talk nice. They help poor people in Uganda and inner city Detroit. They believe in Jesus. They have videos on the website, all done by attractive, pleasant men in casual attire.  Some confess that they were atheists in college, smiling ruefully at their shallow college selves.

But what did they really believe? I dug deeper, clicking on a button called “Small Groups”.  Paydirt.  Here they list the “curriculum” – the books they read in the small discussion groups.

One is “The Purity Principle,” by Randy Alcorn.   I read through an on-line chapter. Randy, a pastor, warns against the inevitable result if a woman has premarital sex: she will become a drug- addicted street prostitute. Randy’s seen it happen, to poor Tiffany, a parishioner who didn’t listen to his pastoral advice. Another parishioner who didn’t heed Randy’s warnings was Rick, a married man who had an affair. Rick ended up, as all cheaters do, in prison for criminal sexual conduct.

The curriculum includes a DVD by Chip Ingram.  I google Chip, who is also a pastor.  He wrote a piece called “What do I Say to my Gay Friend?,” in which he explodes the myths propagated by the gay and lesbian conspiracy, such as:  Myth No. 1: “I Was Born This Way”,  Myth No. 2: “Ten Percent of the Population is Gay”, and  Myth No. 6: “Once a Homosexual, Always a Homosexual.” 

Chip sets everybody straight. 

Ah.  Beneath the amiable facade, they’re fundamentalist.

 Rachel hates that stuff.   This, I’m sure, will be a death blow to the notion of attending Kensington Church. When Rachel gets up I tell her the results of my investigation: Her friend Molly’s upbeat, fun, Megachurch is anti-gay, puritanical, and anti-divorce. 

“So is the Catholic Church,” Rachel says.

Oh yeah.


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marleycolor 001My fling with the Unitarians is over.  They were too nice.  I missed the incense, holy water, and constant irritation offered by the Catholic Church. 

Rachel and I had gone to a second service at the Unitarian …. do they even call it a “church”?  The funny, irreverant, recovering-alcoholic lesbian minister wasn’t there the second time.  The substitute minister, in her sermon, urged us not to waste food, because some people don’t have any.

That was the theme of the service.  We sang a song about it.  We sang that we were thankful:

                  “For the ani-MULLs

                    And the vegta-BULLS

                    And the miner-ULLS”

I leaned over to Rachel.  “This sounds like a Barney song, ” I said.

And so, last Sunday, I returned with Alani to the Catholic parish I’d left in July. 

When I left, the congregation was locked in a fight with a new, conservative priest,  Father Obeymyrules.  This congregation had a custom of passing a microphone through the crowd during Mass so that anyone could offer a prayer: for a daughter with metastatic breast cancer, an unemployed husband, an alcoholic nephew. 

Father O. immediately decreed: No more microphone, no more individual prayers.  He re-installed the official drone of petitions from the pulpit – for the Pope, the Archbishop, the Bishop, and all the Saints and Martyrs.  He issued additional edicts to stamp out other heretical practices that had crept into the parish. 

I think the church piano player, Bob, especially irritated Father O.  Bob ocasionally slipped unconventional songs into the line-up.  Bruce Springsteen’s Into the Fire.  A  jazzy, swinging version of How Great Thou Art.  Patty Griffin’s Love Throws a Line.  Father O. stood stock-still and grim-faced during the toe-tapping tunes,  barely waiting for the last note to sound before he re-asserted control. 

I feared for Bob.  In a battle between a priest and a piano player, the priest wins, right?

Not this time.  When we returned to church I was relieved to see Bob still sitting behind his black Steinway.  Father O. was gone. 

Alani and I settled in and waited for Mass to start. 

“The processional hymn” Bob announced, “Is on the wall behind me.”

He flipped on an overhead projector.  Hand written music and lyrics appeared on the wall.  It was Bob Marley’s “One Love, One Heart.”  That explained the overhead projector.  Bob Marley is not in the official hymnbook.

The new priest, bald, portly, mid-forties, marched up the aisle as we sang One Heart.  He stepped up on the altar platform, and turned to face the congregation. 

“I feel like I should have worn my dreadlocks,” he said. 

We laughed. 

 He looked over toward the Steinway.  “Thought you’d slip that one by me, didn’t you, Bob?”

Bob just smiled.

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Borders Rip-off

Alani and I are at Borders, paying.  The cashier gestures toward small stack of children’s books on the counter and asks if I’d like to donate one.  He says something about “underprivileged children”. 

I always say no.  I’m cynical about corporate charity.  If they trumpet it to the world, it’s not charity, it’s business – polishing the corporate image to increase sales.  Especially when they’re  asking me to pay for the book.   If  Borders wants to help underprivileged kids, why don’t they just give them the books?

Last Sunday, I noticed an old woman sitting alone in the pew in front of me.  Scraggly grey hair.  Frail.   Hunched.  I felt the benevolent superiority I often feel around elderly people. 

She rose when it was time for the readings, and I realized she was the lector.  When she lifted her foot to step from the main floor onto the elevated platform holding the lectern, her leg rose so feebly I feared it would not clear the lip, and she’d fall.  She made it,  though, and walked painstakingly to the lectern while we all waited patiently.  Her crooked spine forced her head down, so she had to look up from under her eyebrows to see the congregation.

I’d already scouted out the New Testament reading.  The lesson is that religion, without good works, is meaningless.  Ho-hum.

But then she spoke, and the words came alive in her mouth.  Her tone was commanding, her gaze intent.   “Faith,” she said, “if it does not have works, is dead.”  

Why did she look right at me when she said that?

At Borders with Alani  – a few days later – I pick up one of the children’s donation books on the counter.  A waddling yellow duck is on the cover .  “So, how does this work?” I ask the cashier.  He tells me they give the donated books to pediatricians who care for underprivileged kids.  Oh, for chrissakes.  The books are for kids who are poor and sick.  I lay the duck book with my other purchases.  “Ok,” I say.  Alani smiles.

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Alani elbows me.  My eyes are closed.  I’m sitting in the front pew at church, before the start of Mass, meditating.  I open my eyes.  A lanky nun stands in front of me.  It’s Sister Angela, the grey-haired nun who dresses in regular, if understated, clothes and plays her acoustic guitar with the choir at 10:30 Mass on Sunday.

She’s kind, smart, speaks slowly, and thinks about what she says before she says it.

She asks, now, “Will Alani be making her Confirmation this year?”

I look at Alani, sitting in the pew next to me, then back at Sister Angela.

“No,” I say.

“Not now,” she asks, “Or not ever?”

Alani was baptized – she had no choice in that.  Confirmation, in contrast, is a young teenager’s voluntary affirmation that they believe the doctrine of the Catholic Church.  Alani doesn’t.  Neither do I, although I am a huge fan of the Gospels.

“Not ever,” I say.

Sister Angela nods.  “Thank you,” she says without any sourness, “That’s good information to have.”  She moves off, like a tall ship, back into the dim recesses of the sacristy. 

A week later Rachel and I are at a Unitarian Church, auditioning them.  The encounter with Sister Angela made me realize how dissatisfied I was with second class citizenship in the Catholic Church.  It wasn’t that I merely quarreled with Catholic teachings – I passionately disagree with bedrock Vatican doctrine, and so cannot fully participate. 

I liked the Unitarians.  They’ve got an enthusiastic choir, a minister who’s sermon moved some of the congregants to tears, and several nice lesbian couples.  A gay couple used to sit behind us the Catholic Church we attended, dressed conservatively in sportscoats, ties, and neatly trimmed haircuts.  I never understood why any self-respecting gay person would attend a Catholic Church – it seems an illustration of the Stockholm Syndrome (the tendency of hostages to eventually be grateful for any small kindness from their oppressor).

I leaf through the Unitarian prayerbook.  In addition to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, they feature Lao Tzu, Black Elk, Thich Nhat Han, and e.e. cummings.  They are open to all.  The advantage of the Unitarians is that they have no doctrines grounded in bigotry or muddled medieval thinking.  The disadvantage is that the Unitarians have no beliefs at all.  They are adrift upon a sea of individual conscience. 

I call my sister Ann, a lifelong Catholic who questions, but stays.

“I’m out,” I tell her.  “I’m joining the Unitarians.”

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godandcoffee 001On Tuesday Rachel  told me that she’s not going to church on Sundays anymore.    This development was not unexpected.  Raised Catholic like me, she has many objections to church doctrine – the ban on women priests, the position against stem-cell research , the fact that you can’t bring a latte to Mass. 

We don’t disagree on these matters, it’s just that I enjoy the familiar ritual and ignore objectionable teachings, and she cannot.  I usually meditate during the sermon.  Rachel listens, and doesn’t like what she hears.

Her decision will be greeted with alleluias by her sons, Michael and Jack.  They seldom went to church before their mom married me, and hate the Sunday tradition we adopted as part of our plan to forge a stepfamily.  “It makes my legs hurt,” Michael complained, referring to the relentless standing, kneeling, sitting.  He monitors the time remaining in each service,  repeatedly asking how much time till his agony will end. 

Rachel said she will begin some sort of Sunday spiritual practice with the boys.  I ask her what she’s going to do.  “Maybe meditation,” she says. “Maybe I’ll even do some nature stuff.”   She told the boys that if they didn’t take her Sunday spirituality program seriously, they’ll have to go back to church.  “We’re not just going to sit at home and watch videos,” she said. 

Alani dislikes church as much as Michael, but because she is under my jurisdiction, she’ll continue to suffer.  It is a stepfamily divide.  Alani and I will get up on Sunday morning and go to church, Rachel and her boys will not.  A year ago I would have been much more apprehensive about this split.  Without these joint traditions, it’s hard to tell what we are, exactly.  A family?  A husband and wife raising their respective kids separately under the same roof?

Don’t know.  But I’m now content to let it all happen organically, without imposing a traditional family structure.  And I have to admit, I’m envious of Rachel’s spiritual home-schooling plan.  It’s liberating, the idea of teaching the kids what you believe, instead of trying to navigate them around medieval religious doctrines.  Plus, the lattes.

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jesusrabbit-001Alani recently announced that she is an atheist. I reacted with nonchalance. It’s easy for a seventh grader to be an atheist. Teenagers believe they’re immortal – they are gods, so what do they need with another?

She later clarified. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in a god. She just doesn’t believe in the God, the one described in the Sunday readings at church.

Having read about the murderous temper tantrums of the jealous Old Testament God, I agree with her. Who wants worship such a petulant, childish deity?

She’s also skeptical of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. When she heard the story of him on the mountain top with Elijah and Moses, for example, she raised an eyebrow. “Really?” she said, “He just started glowing? I don’t think so.”

I asked her if she gets anything out of the Jesus stories.

“Um…” she said.

“Be honest.”

“Not really.”

On the other hand she read, cover-to-cover, a five volume Manga graphic-novel style story of Buddhism. She found it more convincing than the New Testament. That’s the problem with Christianity – they don’t have a good comic book. All the Jesus illustrations are so pleasant, kids lose interest the same time they lose interest in Barney.

I’d read some of her Buddhism book, and remembered a scene in which a talking rabbit (a previous incarnation of the Buddha, according to the story) offers itself as dinner to a hungry man. The final panel in the story shows the rabbit roasting on a spit.

“What about the talking rabbit?” I ask Alani. A glowing Jesus seemed to me at least as believable as a talking rabbit.

“It’s like that song we sing in church,” she says. She starts to sing: “There is no greater love, saith the Lord, than to lay down your life for a friend.”

“It’s the same thing, ain’t it?” she says.


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drphil 001Yesterday, filing out of church by myself, I spotted our friend Beth ahead and felt a twinge of apprehension.  Since Rachel and I started coming to St. Columban’s more than a year ago, Beth has been an admirer of our brand new marriage.   “Everytime I see you two, you’re smiling and holding hands,” Beth said once.  “You seem so in love.”  Rachel and I accepted the accolade modestly. 

Now I felt like a fraud.  If our marriage was so perfect, why was I at church by myself?  The immediate reason was that Rachel’s son Jack had a 102 degree temperature, and her other son Michael, given the choice between going to church with his stepfather or watching a Star Wars video in his pajamas, had picked Star Wars.  My daughter Alani was with her mom.  

Jack’s 102 temperature gave me an easy answer to the inevitable “Where’s your lovely wife?” question at church, but that answer concealed a dark secret: 

My wife prefers Wayne Dyer to Jesus.

Rachel denies this, but it’s Dyer’s Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life she curls up with in bed, not the Gospel according to Matthew.   During the sermon at church, she tends to read the bulletin.  “I’d have no problem with church,” she explained,  “if I could bring a latte.”

After months of groaning her way through Sunday Mass,  Rachel announced two weeks ago that her attendance on  Sunday would no longer be automatic.  She announced this with some trepidation, because it meant that she and her sons would stay home and my daughter Alani and I would go to church.   We both feared this divide.  If  the family that prays together stays together, what happens if half the family prays together and the other half watches Star Wars?

And I felt bad for Jesus:  He’s the earnest, geeky kid.  The cool kids,  Wayne Dyer, Mary Ann Williamson, Eckhardt Tolle,  Dr. Phil, and the rest all have their glossy bestsellers, pricey seminars and Oprah appearances.  Poor geeky Jesus just has his dusty old gospels and his parables. 

I  called Rachel on the way home.

“Hey” I said.  “This Jesus guy says that to flourish as a person, you have to abandon your ego.”   This isn’t exactly what Jesus said in the Sunday reading.  I’m trying to rehabilitate Jesus by  translating King James into New Age.  He actually said “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall  into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” 

 “Huh,” Rachel said.  “That’s what Wayne Dyer says.”

“No offense,” I said, “but I think Wayne stole some of his stuff from Jesus.”

Rachel patiently acknowledged that Wayne Dyer may have drawn from Jesus’ teachings.

“I think this Jesus guy is on to something,” I said.  “He should write a book.”

Rachel tells me she’d like a tall decaf  from Starbucks.

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