Thursday, July 31, 2008

More Quiet Church

Windows still open. A lawnmower’s energetic snarl oscillating loud and soft with the breeze and its position among the houses as it goes about its business.

The bench is hard. It’s becoming harder. There’s only the cushion of myself between my bones and it. Oak. Some real pain coming from my nether regions.

The others close their eyes or look elsewhere. I look elsewhere: at the bush outside, the house next door, the lawn, the sky. I look at the people. Mostly women. One golden retriever of a young man on my bench with a sniffly, watery-eyed young woman. One stray looking mongrel of a man near the coffee women, sitting in relation to them as a dog might sit, waiting for some attention.

One more man in front of me. A sort of aging bull mastiff of a man. Alone.

Four men. Ten women. Odd. I don’t know. We men may feel like accessories, but we’re not sure.

The day passes slowly now. It pokes at us through these infernal oak benches. It torments us by its deliberately slow and smirking passage.

Finally, after about an hour, one of the coffee women tells a story about watching the television news with her grandson and about his concern for some illegal immigrants who were arrested recently nearby. She wants to talk about these illegal immigrants and the injustice of their arrest. The unfortunate impression made on her grandson.

She invites comment. She asks for other concerns.

Silence. The bubble is once again invoked.

Ten minutes later, we break for coffee and donuts. One of the coffee women asks me several questions. Turns out she used to be something different but in that different church, no one was interested in talking about their concerns about the then-imminent Iraq invasion and war. This was several years ago. So she left the different church and came here. Where people care about the things she cares about.

The mild mongrel man asks a few quiet questions. Then they need to move on to their business meeting, and I depart. And I feel. Well. A little sore in the hindquarters and a little sudden freedom of spirit. Outside, it’s warm. The sun is lovely as it washes over everything.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Quiet Church

Windows open. A lightplane’s lazy snore in the bright blue sky overhead.

A few women come into the meeting room from the kitchen, where they have been talking quietly and making coffee and setting out the donuts and breads on the counter.

It’s time. The silence enters this former home like dawn light. Small at first. Then larger and larger. The several assembling people bring more silence with them as they enter and take their seats.

Soon, there are fourteen of us sitting in a rough rectangle, holding in ourselves the consciousness of an enormous and delicate quiet. A quiet that floats around and among us, roughly spherical, like a bubble the size of this living room.

Outside, children speak to one another quietly. A car door shuts. A screen door slams. A grackle proclaims, its iridescent purple shimmering like shook foil in the rose of Sharon outside the window. A car moves slowly past in the street out front.

The worshippers look elsewhere or close their eyes. I close my eyes.

I see or have the impression I see many people and things moving and morphing and flowing and changing. I can’t even say who and what they are, they move so fast and are so quickly different and are gone.

Then I seem to be moving. Not so much with everything and everyone else as through all of this, collecting everything and everyone into me as I move through the spiritual space. As I rise.

Then I see a celestial city from a great distance. It is below me and some distance away. I see spires and light structures of various shapes.

The city seems to be made of light, as if light could be made into a substance. Starlight. Sunlight. Moonlight. All of it made of these. The spires concentrating this light into thin, upwardly moving brightness. All of this floating in a blue space.

Something like a cloud city. Fantastic. Other worldly. Unknown. With unknown beings inhabiting it. Celestial beings, maybe.

I hover here for awhile. Adoring the city. Curious as to what it will be.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Gymnasium Church

Sweaty. A place of sweat and echoey sound. High ceilings and high windows. Cathedral-like this way. Light pouring down onto the polished wood floors that shine silver in patches and go an amber brown everywhere else.

I’m reminded of the poem, “High Windows,” by whatshisname. The English librarian. The guy who thought misery deepened like a coastal shelf and so forth. Who thought faith and God had disappeared. Well, at least they had for him. And it seemed to him so much a thing that was everywhere he looked that he supposed it had happened to all the world.

But not here. Not today. No. If I had him here today, I’d whisper, “Phil. Now there’s to be no talking. No poem making. Not even in your head. Especially in your head.

“What I want you to do is sing. When those words come up on the screen up there, just go ahead and sing. I know there is no musical notation. I know there is no time signature. I know all that.

“But that’s okay. Really. I just want you to read the words and sing them. Sing them along with the other people. Don’t worry about what they mean. Don’t worry about the semantics or the semiotics or the deep structure or the possible political linguistics or the philosophical or theological assumptions or the cultural norms or the socioeconomic subtext or the gender politics or the… Don’t think. Stop the machine of your mind that just loves to grind away on this stuff. Grind it down to a dust of its own making that it then proceeds to choke on.

“Just sing, Phil. Just let it go. Let it all go and sing. These words are fine words. They are praise words. They are thankful words. They are grateful words. They are humble. And this is what we’re here for after all. To sweat a little. To sing a little. To look up into that light and sky up there. And feel as small as we really are down here.

“To feel that wide expanse of blue out there. That endless infinite blue. And that light. That enormous light. All of it. Flowing down among us here. Through those high windows.”

And then I would put my arm around Phillip Larkin’s rounded shoulders. Rounded like a beetle’s shell. And then we would sing together. We wouldn’t care what anyone thought. We’d just sing as loud or soft as our spirits would direct. As long and heartstrong as our hearts felt like.

We would allow the doors that keep our hearts shut away to open through our exhalations. Through the vibrations surging in our hearts and throats and heads. And we would sing like this together all morning, until the band ran out of music. Until we’d sung the same songs several times. Until the other people left and the sweepers came to sweep up after us.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Impossible To Sing

A class of churches I’ll call Impossible to Sing. Which I’ve delved quite deeply into now. So deeply it’s a bit depressing. Like visiting a city destroyed by flood. Destroyed by floodwaters from the local river that have risen. Oh. Let’s say into the first and second floors of all the houses and businesses.

And now you’re driving through the city on a Sunday morning. The flood waters having receded. And there are no people to speak of. Nobody around. Just the professionals and the evacuated buildings. The empty evacuated buildings resonating to the sound of a drill or a nail gun or a saw. Their contents removed. Trucked off to some dump somewhere. Empty. A silence punctuated by the sounds of power tools. A silent hollowness presiding.

This class of churches. The music intricate. Difficult. Subtle. The hymns rather dirge-like from time to time. A dirge type of tone to them moving in and out.

And the music, a flood-like discipline. The music flooding into the silent buildings and out. The people silent and gone. Lost. Their city lost in the floodwaters. In the passing of the floodwaters. The people sorrowful that they can no longer sing because this is too difficult. Too sorrowful. Too subtle and intricate. Too arcane. People who have not been trained in counterpoint. In minor keys. In half-notes.

People who are after all quite simple. Who only want to praise and glorify. Who want for a little while to stop thinking so much and sing with their whole voices. Their whole bodies and souls. To God. Who would like to expel themselves in notes that they hold whole and long. Who would like to shout to God. And not feel like a bunch of simpletons.

But in this class of churches, this is not possible. It is nuance and complexity that the music wants. The music here seeks the professional. Draws the professionals into the empty structures of an almost mathematical or economical play. And they are the singers. And we are the audience to their complex worship.

And so we go away as from a performance. A performance provided by others. In which ours is an incidental and inessential part.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


I called it quits on the former church of my ambivalence couple months ago. Oh, I don’t know. It was obvious, I suppose, near the very beginning, when the pastor couldn’t tell me what predestination is. What the various thoughts through the ages on this topic might be, beginning with Paul.

Far as I could tell, all he had were blanks. Blank spaces in the dialog filled with noise. As he struggled to converse with yours truly on the odd topic.

And so it may have been predestined, as it were, that I would go questing. Questing, as I am today.

Downhill from there, theologically. So to say. A straight drop to the valley below.

And so I climbed out of that particular locality after I had heard enough. After I heard enough stones falling upon themselves, over and over, punishing themselves gradually into sand.

And now. Now? Now I’m touring, I suppose. Touring the universe of churches in this part of the cosmos.

Reminded a bit of Mark Twain on tour. The Innocents Abroad: Or, The New Pilgrims’ Progress was the book that came out of it. Travelog of sorts. Here was this and this and this and this and this. The ridiculous and the superb and the supine. The replete and the scriven and the undine. The raconteured and the splendid and the rapine. The raspberried and the sooty and the refined.

All mixed together, you see. The great wide human experiment sliced open like a beefheart in tenth grade biology for inspection by the student. For instruction on the workings of the heart at the heart of the living.

And so I am trekking once again. Hiking and ravening. Bringing the hidden among God’s people and their weird ways out into a travelog of sorts. Into the light of. Well, if it isn’t day, at least it’s into a kind of light.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Harley Davidson Shirt

The other day, I run into Harry, a friend of mine from way back, an ethicist at the local university. A professor of ethics. Used to be.

He used to be a tweedy sort of a guy and had been since the day he was born. His parents are tweedy also, both academics. She, an anthropologist. He, a linguist. Both emeritus but not quite dead yet.

So I was shocked to see him in black leathers, with Harley Davidson logos distributed liberally across the uniform. I stopped him. We had a beer together. Turns out, he’s divorced. Another man is functioning as father to his children. Two girls. One fourteen. The other twelve, almost thirteen.

He’s living alone. A bachelor. No attachments. “Free as the open road,” he said.

“But what happened?” I asked. “You and Camille and Christine and Jasmine seemed so happy together. If ever a family was happy, yours was happy. I mean, I must confess to having envied your happiness, just a little,” I said.

Turns out, it was the shirt. A Harley Davidson shirt the two girls got him for Christmas, as a joke. A joke he was amused by at first. Oh, he laughed with them. He was socially very adept and made self-deprecating jokes about himself all the time. And so he laughed as hard as anyone at the incongruity of it. Him. A tweedy guy. A mild-mannered, polite, courteous, socially smooth sort of a guy. Wearing a Harley shirt.

But the following spring, he actually put the shirt on. Just to see how it felt. He wasn’t intending to wear the shirt, but it felt so suddenly and inexplicably good that fine spring day that he could not help himself. He went ahead recklessly and wore the incongruous shirt.

Soon it became his favorite shirt. When he wasn’t teaching, he wore it all the time. Camille found it embarrassing going grocery shopping with him. Doing anything with him, really.

And as he began to wear the shirt, he began to think. He began to wonder. He became quiet. He went for months without saying much of anything, whereas before, he was the most vociferous guy you’d ever want to know. Now he became silent and as Camille tried to coax the old Harry out, he retreated further and further into a rather taciturn and pre-verbal state.

Then he began buying some of the Harley Davidson gear. Some of the licensed gear. Which he wore more and more often, to Camille’s discomfort and then to her growing horror.

Soon, he was spending time at biker bars. Drinking cheap beer, which before he would never touch. Drinking it in mass quantities.

Then, in the spring, over two years ago, he bought himself a Sportster. He began riding with a local club. Began spending more and more time with the club members. Occasionally he wouldn’t come home.

Camille became frightened. Frightened of what was becoming of him. He drank heavily. He became angry easily now. He became loud and boisterous. He began sleeping with his female students. He didn’t even try to hide the evidence from Camille. From his colleagues.

He slept with women who frequented biker bars.

He began urinating in public.

Camille finally threw him out. Divorced him. He was fired from his teaching position.

Now he works installing wind turbines. Assembling them at the site. He enjoys the work. He enjoys watching the turbines turning in the wind. Round and round. He could watch them turn all day, he says.

“Bill,” he said, “I don’t know what it is. The life I’m leading now. It just feels right. It’s like I was made to live this life. Sure, I miss the kids. But I’m not someone they should be spending their time with anyway.”

Sunday, July 6, 2008

But What Do I Know?

I was on the phone yesterday with one of my pastor friends, and he was telling me about a book he’s reading by a. A. I think he’s a psychologist. And he was writing about the brain. Brain physiology. Brain chemistry. Brain morphology. And brain evolution.

And his idea is that the hemispherical structure of the human brain has a great deal to do with how we humans are different from the other species. About how our brains provide in their basic structure the capacity for much greater complexity and shorter connections. And about how complexity and shorter electrical connections make all other emergent human potentialities and capacities possible.

And I went on a rant. I mean, I blew a cork. Reminded me of all the arguments I’ve read. All the essays and books and whatnot I’ve read—particularly in my Anthropology student days—about how we humans are different from all other species and more admirable, better in some way. Essays and books that more or less pat ourselves on the back for being the wonderful species we are.

Oh, you know. Tools, for example. We are tool-users, and other species are not. Then once evidence was collected that no, other species use tools also, it was tool fashioners. Then once evidence was collected that no, other species fashion tools also, it was makers of tools that in turn are used to make other tools.

Other arguments were based on language. On the use of signs and symbols. But then people found that animals used signs and symbols.

All the way along, there were other arguments about complexity. About how complexity is better than simplicity. And we are much more complex than other species.

And so I said that all this is pure speculation that gets bandied about as though it were actual real science. People who are more or less science-sounding spout off trying to differentiate humans from others along lines that really have to do with morality. Directly or indirectly have to do with morality and ethical behavior. With what is good and not so good. What is admirable and not so admirable. What is valuable and not so valuable.

I don’t know about you, but we’re probably the last species that should be making that quite specious argument. I mean, what with the great misery, pain, suffering, death, and destruction that we humans visit upon one another and the members of other species.

My friend threatened to play back to me all the rants that he’s recorded. All my rants that I’ve subjected him to over the years. He’s convinced that later in life I’ll sound like an idiot to myself. A ranting idiot.

He’s probably right.

But I expect that the science-sounding yahoos who speculate that humans, of all the species, are the most wonderful may also later in life find that they also sound like idiots. As long as they’ve done the requisite reading to qualify them as literate and informed about the history of our work as a species here on earth.

When actually coerced into giving a definition of humanity. A definition that will distinguish us from the rest but not contain the odious smell of moral or intellectual superiority. I repeat something I heard in a classroom a very long time ago: featherless bipeds. Sums it up quite nicely, don’t you think? Featherless bipeds.

All in all, I'd rather have the feathers.