This Is The Church, This Is The Steeple

By: Brian Robertson

sunrise cross



When I was a kid, my mom used to say that I was a finicky eater. Actually, her exact words were, “Brian will never eat anything he hasn’t already eaten before.” It makes me wonder how I even got started eating things in the first place! That, I think, led to her preparing things and telling me that I probably didn’t remember eating it before, but I had.

I admit that for better or worse, in many ways I am still a creature of habit (a less charitable person might say “in a rut”), one who doesn’t particularly enjoy new situations. I’m decidedly low key in my old age. For instance, I’ve always found it nearly impossible to open a closed door leading to a meeting that I’m late for. Perhaps it has to with drawing attention to myself. It’s odd, considering I toured playing blues music professionally or traveled doing storytelling for years. I am addicted to Mexican food, and will practically live at the same restaurant over and over. In religion, too, I find a place where I like the balance of the service or the atmosphere and I’m there for the long run. Perhaps one reason I made such a lousy Buddhist years ago is that I just never quite cared for change and, believe me, accepting change is at the basis of Buddhism!

The point is, this whole perhaps goofy viewpoint about food apparently transfers over to going to various churches. I’m beginning to think that, in spite of my early years of being way too open and outgoing, I’m becoming a lot more monastic in my ways. Consider this: I shun the 11:00 services with the loud choirs and the Phantom of the Opera style organ playing behind everything. In other words, I’m an 8:00 am Christian, getting up insanely early on Sundays and driving through deserted morning streets to get to a quiet service, usually sparsely populated by other people who prefer to be left to their own meditations and thoughts. In the same way, I also love the late night compline where a mixed group of singers enter amidst the darkened church and the silence and the heavy fragrance of incense to chant/sing/pray for 45 minutes, designed to suggest the last service of the day in a monastery. In fact, I believe if they’d toss a Eucharist in with the deal, I’d be in heaven, at least figuratively speaking of not literally.

I’ve said all this to give background. Last Sunday, I broke tradition and journeyed to another church I’d heard a lot about and, in fact, whose sermons I’d read online and really enjoyed. I was a victim of timing, at least in part. I showed up their second weekend in a new facility, and it was obvious everybody knew everybody else very well, in fact, huggingly-well. The church sported a wonderful  diversity of age, race, sex and so forth. Also, the place was packed, largely because the church was sponsoring a jazz festival that particular weekend and featured a wonderful trio during the service, the classic jazz — piano, bass and drums — that thrilled me since I discovered Oscar Peterson forty years ago.

But, alas, a 6 year old Brian doesn’t eat what he hasn’t already eaten in life, and a 56 year old Brian isn’t much more adventurous. I listened to the music, which was wonderful in part because organs apparently had been banned within a 25 mile radius of the building and the instrument of choice was the piano, which along with the wonderful solo singer and the choir a classic gospel feel straight out of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama which, long time readers of this blog, know I adore.

By the hour mark, I had listened to the various speeches as awards were given, including the remarkable, teary acceptance by the jazz musician to whom the award was given this year. I listened to the group of visitors from the some other part of town who were introduced and got up to give their speech. Finally, that was the point at which I left.

Perhaps it hearkened back to when I was a Presbyterian and later, where Protestant churches on Sundays where I visited came to look and feel more and more like business meetings or, perhaps, a Kiwanis Club at the local cafeteria back room. Now, older, I admit I look forward to a good sermon, which is defined by a speaker who (1) gives me a new look at a familiar old verse and, in doing it, (2) makes me know that this person is speaking from their own experience and study.

But on this Sunday there was no sermon, really, as there wasn’t enough time. I know I should have felt otherwise, but after an hour, I was struck by the fact that I was a stranger in a strange land where things seemed to be veering farther off from a church service into something that, while entertaining and certainly deserving, wasn’t what I was looking for.

At the same time, I marveled at the sense of community I saw. These people were simply comfortable within the congregation’s accumulated skin, and part of me felt the role of outsider looking in, like a black and white 1930′s movie where a snotty-nosed orphaned waif glances longingly through a frosted, show flaked window of a toy store on Christmas Eve.

I could have waited another 45 minutes to get to the Eucharist, which I have come to hold as central in my church experience, but something about the crowds ahead of me seemed less desirable than the 35 or 40 people at the 8am service I was used to. It was, everything in me told me, time to ramble.

Obviously, none of this is the fault of the church. I’d say it if it was, or felt that it was. And I’m sure visitors to CM come in all flavors. Perhaps you prefer the vibrant sense of community while the organ player pounds out the melody line that’s to follow and the spirited hymns (although, for the most part, God may indeed find them to be “dreary” as he complained in one of the Monty Python films). Perhaps, like me, you happen to like the more contemplative service, although often the congregation responses do come out as if everyone had ingested downers right before coming in, which was certainly not the case where I visited on Sunday. In fact, the first time the congregation members spoke aloud — And also with you — I nearly jumped.

It strikes me that, in the long run, no one particular form of worship has a front row seat on God. What matters is how close the service brings you to God, for worship services of any size are expressions of Hope — hope that beneath all the turmoil and troubles, beyond all the headlines of the day and the petty political positioning, God remains always just within arm’s reach or, perhaps more accurately, within the heart’s reach. Each of us are wired a bit differently than everybody else, you are the person who decides which type of worship vibrates or resonates within you — be it a church or a stream that runs through nature or in the silence of your own room as you pray with words or thoughts or feelings or even if what you do at those moments you’d never call a prayer, even though that is really what it is.

Am I ever going back to that church? I’m sure I will. Will it be different? Maybe. Perhaps, however, I have to admit the question may be, “Will I be different?”