As I sit here this Saturday morning reading The New York Times I learn that the nation is still engaged in a near-constitutional crises, my 401(k) is shrinking faster than a cheap T-shirt, and a busload of semi-naked women have just been arrested for pulling an advertising stunt in midtown Manhattan. What more could go wrong this week?
With all this depressing news, I think maybe I need some spiritual uplifting—something to get my poor, tired and angry soul back on track. I'm thinking perhaps I should go to church again. After all, I haven't been in a long time. Yes, that's it. That's what I need! So I turn now to the Religious Services page to see what the local houses of worship are serving up tomorrow.
I have a long history with church-going. Back in Missouri my father was a part-time minister for the Valley City Christian Church. Valley City was a farming community about sixty miles east of Kansas City. They had this one-room church right out in the middle of nowhere. The church in the movie Tender Mercies could have been modeled on this little country chapel. It even had the crude baptismal tub up front behind a drawn curtain. I don't know how they ever filled that tank with water because the building had no plumbing. I know that for a fact because there were two outhouses in its backyard.
The Valley City Christian Church didn't have a full-time minister so my father—who had gone to divinity school but never became ordained—trekked down to Valley City and preached for them on alternate Sundays. They paid him right out of the collection plate. As a child I would frequently accompany Dad on these trips and the two of us would always get invited to after-church dinner on the farm of one of the nice congregation's families. I have very fond memories of those days and, initially, going to church was a most positive and pleasant experience for me.
One of the reasons I liked going to that country church was because—from the point of view of this easily impressed kid—it was something of a show. My dad was (and still is) a great public speaker. And like that other Great Speaker 2000 years ago, he had a knack for boiling complicated theological themes down to simple analogies. He wasn't hellfire and brimstone at all, but rather would use humor, read poems to the folks and tell stories. I was his biggest fan and would always sit in the front row, my feet not even able to touch the floor. I was usually separated from the rest of the congregation by several rows of empty pews. I would also really get into the singing, as one of the local women would bang away on an old piano. At least someone kept it tuned.
On the alternate Sundays, however, our entire family would attend our regular home-base house of worship. Dad was not the minister there, of course, although he was a deacon or an elder or something. Anyway, he was very involved in his "own" church and we kids sure as hell had to attend as well. Unfortunately, the preacher at church ground zero was uninspired and his sermons were excruciatingly painful to sit through.
My taste in church theatrics became more refined when, by the time I was a teenager, my family had moved to Florida. There we joined a much more sophisticated congregation, where they had acolytes with candle-lighting paraphernalia and real-wine communion instead of Welch's grape juice. And the preacher wore a robe—I thought he was a judge at first. This represented a definite step up in presentation value, and as an impressionable teenager I was quite taken in by the higher production standards.
What was unique about this church was that it was a brand spanking new congregation of the recently formed United Church of Christ—inspired by the ecumenical movement that was sweeping the country's religious community of the late 1950s and early 1960s. That little country church in Valley City may not have had much of a building, but this squeaky new congregation in the Sunshine State didn't have any building whatsoever. It rented worship service space from the town's Greek community—in their Hellenic Center.
But the fact that we didn't have a building never held us back from putting on a good show. We had a handsome, young and single minister who drove an Austin Healy. He was also something of an opera star with a terrific voice. Naturally, he doubled as choir director and frequently would treat the congregation to a special solo performance. To this day, except for Pavorotti, I've never heard Oh, Holy Night sung more goosebumplely.
The fact that this fledgling church didn't have a permanent home did not, nevertheless, prevent it from buying an expensive electronic organ— with humongous speakers—to accompany the choir. How they got that purchase past the board of directors is beyond my comprehension. Here we were using a cheap rented hall with fold-up metal chairs and we had a concert organ that today would no doubt cost six figures. But damn, did it sound GOOD! (The guy who played it, by the way, was my high school civics teacher, who was also young, single and good-looking. When he pulled out the trumpet stops for "Faith of My Fathers," you were ready to get up and fight. Hot Damn!)
Well, as time went on I got into semi-professional musical theatre in high school and college. That, of course, made me an expert in the performing arts. We had long since left that infant church in the Sunshine State and had moved back up to the Show Me State. Still being a minor and dragged to church, however, I became something of a theological arts critic. Nothing could please me. Why is the lighting so bad? Look at the way that guy is standing! Why did they pick THAT song to sing? And the sermon—it sucked! Since I HAD to go to church, I became its worst critic.
When I was finally old enough to go out on my own, church and I departed company. Except for visiting the great cathedrals of Europe or attending the Bar Mitzvah of a co-worker's kid, I've pretty much been a stranger to organized religion. When I do go to church—like at Christmas time—it's more often than not for sentimental reasons.
On the other hand, I have been on a spiritual quest most of my adult life. First there were the psychological and self-help books. I read all the great thinkers on the subject—Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Gurdjieff, Tony Robbins. Then I got into the Zen thing. I took karate classes and I meditated every day. I got tired of that shit when I questioned why I was paying good money just to clean the floors of a gym and to bow to some asshole because he wore a different color belt than I did.
It wasn't until June 6, 1988 that I started to get a handle on the spirituality thing. That's when I started to keep a journal. I've been writing in it ever since. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I don't know that I totally agree with him. After all, he was something of a nut. It seems to me there are a lot of people running around doing just fine without ever having had a moment's introspection. My dog, for example, has never thought about anything more deep than her next meal. But is her life not worth living? I don't think so. And I can't imagine MY life without my loyal dog. So Socrates was wrong, in my opinion.
But, on the other hand, I wouldn't be able to even disagree with the hemlock sipper if I hadn't first examined my own life. So I guess that makes him at least partially right. That's what journal writing does. It allows you to drill way down into the very soul of your being. You start to figure out who you really are. You develop your own thoughts and opinions regardless of what the so-called experts say.
I want to get back to The New York Times now, but the point of all this blathering on about churches is just to say that, for me anyway, they just don't provide much spiritual inspiration.
Back now to the Religious Services page, a quick perusal of tomorrow's offerings suggests that there's not much sustenance on the menu. But you sure can have a good time. Show business is not dead! And I suppose you can even walk away feeling better about yourself, because there is a lot of feel-good religion being served up these days. Here are some previews of tomorrow's coming attractions:
The first thing you notice is that the churches with the most money have the biggest ads. They're the ones at the top of the page, complete with details of their featured preachers, musical directors, show times and, of course, web site addresses. Lest you be tempted to go to the competition, they try to entice you into their pews with clever titles for their sermons.
Most of the sermon titles are innocuous enough, but they give you little clue as to what the preacher is going to talk about. Tomorrow we have, "The Elephant in the Christmas Story!" Well, I've already been to the zoo this year so I'll pass on that one. Then there's, "Leave Your Crutches at the Manger." I guess you have to be handicapped to get into that church. Or how about, "Embrace the Struggle of Your Search?" I don't know, three things going on at once—embracing, struggling and searching. That's a little more than I'm up for tomorrow. Isn't there something easier? I just need a quick fix.
Here we go! "One Hour Can Change Your Life." Now that's a little more like it. I can handle one hour. I wonder if that includes commuting time. They must be expecting a large turnout because they're booked into Lincoln Center.
Whoops, here's another one at Lincoln Center. Well, why not? I hope someone is directing traffic. I don't want to wind up in the Big Apple Circus by mistake. This one features "Les Brown, World-Renowned Motivational Speaker." He'll be speaking on "Releasing the Power Within You."
I think I'll pass on Les and wait for Andy Rooney.