My morning began a little too early. I had friends over last night, and I’m afraid there was both whiskey and beer involved, and this fact made my six hours of sleep a little less productive than I might otherwise like. I managed to crawl out of bed and into a large french press full of coffee, which helped my mood considerably, but I was hardly at my best. I needed a shave, I probably needed a shower, but mostly I needed the proper attitude to care about these two things.
I threw on some clothes, and started on the 1.1 mile walk to the Orthodox church. The walk turned out to be very therapeutic, and after a while I began to feel a lot better. On the way there, since I was very early, I walked through the Oak Tree Shopping Center, where the Epic Life Church meets in a theater. Even though it was more than three hours before their services started, the theater doors were unlocked, and there was activity within.
I walked in and found the band setting up on stage in one of the theaters, and a nice young woman who greeted me. They have a regular group of folks who come early and hang out, sometimes going over to the nearby Starbucks, and she invited me to come along. But I needed to get a move on, because I was going to the morning Divine Liturgy at the Orthodox church a few blocks away. I told her that I would be back, if the Orthodox church let out early enough for me to sit in on the sermon from the beginning, and I left.
Well, I could have stayed. I wasn’t allowed to stay at the Orthodox church because of my disheveled state. I really don’t blame them, but I was disappointed. It was an amusing scene. I went in, and heard someone droning on about God over the PA system, and thought that meant the services had started already. I asked a man dressed in a black robe if I was late. He looked at me with horror, and told me to wait where I was, that he would get the father. The father came out and told me I wasn’t dressed appropriately, and told me to leave. He was very stern about it. He actually told me that I would cause a riot if he let me in.
Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to be responsible for a riot, so I left right away.
So, taking that as my queue, and realizing that I wasn’t exactly minty fresh, I walked back home, took a shower, shaved, and made myself a little bit more presentable for the Epic Life guys. I still dressed like a tourist, however. They didn’t seem to mind.
I got back to the theater about ten minutes after their scheduled start time, but fortunately for me, they hadn’t quite started yet. I would guess that there were perhaps thirty people in there. I took a seat as far forward as I could, right near the band.
I have to say, having church in a theater is kind of awesome. The seas are nice and comfy, they rock a little, you can see really well, and there are cup holders for your coffee. Two thumbs up!
The band was excellent, and played four warmup songs. The lead guitar player was particularly good. While they were playing, most folks in the theater got up and danced around and sang along. Some put their hands up in rapt agreement with whatever the lyrics were on the screen. Even though I had time to wake up and such, I was still too tired to stand and sing, so I stayed in my seat.
They had a slide projector throwing the words out on the big screen behind the band. There was a smaller (although still large) screen set up on the stage, and another projector connected to a laptop off to the side. On that screen was a slideshow that followed along with the pastor’s sermon.
In the middle of one of the songs, the lead singer spoke a hymn that had a response part, and the audience read it back with enthusiasm. Some of the parishioners were ad-libbing “amens” and “hallelujahs” at various places as well.
After the crowd was properly warmed up, the pastor came on stage, and began with an opening prayer. The prayer was quite long and felt like he was making it up as he was going along (which is not a complaint), and was about praising God and being happy to be alive. At various points during the prayer, the parishioners would shout “amen” in agreement. It was a lively group.
He then welcomed new people, looking straight at me as he did so, and talked about last Sunday’s camping trip to Lake Diablo. There were pictures on the smaller screen from the campout, and some amusing stories, including a joke about trying to exorcise Diablo out of the Lake.
The sermon was from two books: Acts, and Mark. Two books that I am getting to be very familiar with, because almost every Christian place I’ve been to has touched on them in some way.
The story from Acts was about Peter and John getting tossed in jail for preaching about Jesus, and tied into his theme of mountains and valleys. Essentially, you have to visit the valleys to appreciate the tops of the mountains, meaning that you have to suffer a bit to appreciate the good things. And also, sometimes God doesn’t rescue you from trouble, because He has a higher purpose that we can’t understand. That idea, that you can’t always just beg God for help and expect him to do it, ran throughout the whole sermon, and it was interesting to me, because I’ve heard exactly the opposite from so many other Christian pastors. And the Jews too.
From the Book of Mark is the story of Jesus walking on water. Jesus was sitting on a mountaintop contemplating his navel, when his danger sense warned him that some of his faithful were in a boat and in trouble on the Galilee. (There are quite a few stories in Mark about Jesus and boats. I think the biblical author(s) of Mark must have liked sailing.)
So Jesus goes down to the water, and walks out to the boat. He had just intended to walk right past them, to, you know, inspire them, I guess. Or maybe brag that he could walk on water and they were stuck in a rowboat. But when he got close, they freaked out, thinking he was a ghost. Now, this annoyed Jesus, so he yelled at them to stop being wimps, calmed the waves, and then climbed aboard.
The pastor points out that Jesus waited quite a while before going out there. Like, more than eight hours. This demonstrates his contention that you just can’t scream to Jesus for help and expect him to immediately jump at your request.
Now, that might not sound very positive, but I like that message. The pastor is telling his flock to take care of themselves and not rely on Jesus to fix everything. It’s the opposite of the typical Christian mantra of “Let Go, Let God.” And it’s worth a point on my scale.
Since these guys are Southern Baptists, I had expected to probably give them a zero, unless they said something bad about women or made a big deal about money, in which case, they’d end up negative. I’m happy to have found something humanist in their message.
Many of the people there keep journals, and write in them during the sermon. In fact, the pastor stopped and repeated a few things to make sure they got it in there. They are supposed to share this with other people, particularly those who go and give prayer services in peoples’ homes. This is definitely an evangelical church. Followers are encouraged to spread the word.
After the sermon, the pastor announced that they were starting up a formal program of membership. This church is only a few years old, and so they haven’t had actual members as such. But a few folks have gone through classes, and made certain promises, as part of becoming official members. He had them stand up so we could all clap for them.
They promised to read the bible and become educated in it, spread the gospel, attend the church regularly, and give money. This is the only time during the sermon that money was mentioned.
That bit of business concluded, two members of the band came back on stage, a singer and an acoustic guitar player, to perform a song while people took communion.
Communion consisted of standing in a line, taking a piece of bread, and dunking it into a chalice filled with grape juice. I didn’t partake. Why? Well, the pastor made it clear that those who hadn’t yet accepted Jesus into their hearts shouldn’t do it. And again, he looked right at me when he said it. I got the message.
Today has been a day for not-so-subtle messages tossed my way. I’m not complaining. Far from it, in fact. I prefer directness to subtlety.
And on to the score:
Being good to your fellow human: 0 (no mention)
Help your community: 0 (no mention)
Be good to yourself: 0 (no mention)
Good and timely advice:1 (fix your own problems, don’t rely on Jesus to do it for you)