To: Jesus, or his Rep out West
From: Chuck Fager
Re: Need some Leads
Look, JC, I know you’re busy, but this: I heard from a nice young family in one of the big cities out there, one of those in the middle of the desert.
It’s a familiar story: she’s creamy, he’s dark chocolate, they have un bébé très joli et très café au lait! Plus more of the usual: they’re short on money, work, and a community.
So they’re kind of struggling, but they say they had a good break a week or so ago: they went to church.
Now in theory, I’m all for that: a welcoming & supportive community would be just the thing.
Except they said it was a mega-church, where the management brought on a comedian to warm up the crowd or something.
A comedian? But wait, I thought. With all their issues, don’t these kids at least know how to laugh?
Maybe I’m kind of old school, I guess, but . . . you know: “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” not “come unto my shtick.” [I like that Bible quote, as long as it’s from a version where “suffer” means “welcome,” and not the one I remember from church in my own, kidhood: “Make those kids suffer, like you did . . . .”
Anyway, maybe this is just more old school.
And I can’t help but riff on this, JC, so bear with me:
I think folks who go to church do so because, besides community & support — because they’re also looking for some kind of encounter with —and this is one of those points where good words are hard to find, but let’s try — they want an encounter with something sacred; something transcendent; something — okay I’ll say it plain, holy.
Now I don’t understand a lot about this, but I have learned this much: holy, or sacred, comes in different ways for different people.
Take me: as a child I was taught holy was centered in a place, mainly a church: in my family’s case, Catholic. We were taught it was the only real one.
On Sunday we came in, and started talking in whispers; dipped our fingers in what was called “holy water”, made the sign of the cross on our chests with damp fingers, slid onto a long pew, and then down on our knees. Folded our hands.
If we looked up, there were usually stained glass windows on either side, a railing at the front, and beyond it a pulpit on one side, a table (aka altar) in the middle, with some candles glinting off gold cups on it, and a man in colorful vestments standing, back to us, murmuring over the table in Latin.
[You know these places, JC: Everything about them silently (or loudly) shouts “Sacred!” Sometimes there was even incense, so we could smell the holy too.]
As a boy I just took all this for granted. But eventually I came to realize that, while maybe it worked for others (after all, the Catholic Church has millions of members), it didn’t work for me. I realized I didn’t believe the dogmas that went with the paraphernalia. And more important, over time the “holy” part dissipated like the drifting incense. Then I was left in large, heavily decorated rooms, where voices repeated rote prayers that ran together like traffic noise on a busy street, and it was mainly tedious. And tedium, sooner or later, is hell on holy.
That was a long time ago. Nowadays I “go to church” in a much smaller place, out in the country, called a meetinghouse.
Compared to the Catholics, the building is almost aggressively plain, stripped down: windows, but no stained glass.
No statuary, no altar, but occasionally a small spray of local flowers; a piano at left, only occasionally used. No railing, priest, or pulpit, instead a simple hardwood lectern, easily carried or put to the side. Much of the furniture is sturdy, refinished secondhand. The ceiling lamps, I’m told, were found on EBay.
I find the building very comely in its unadorned array. But it isn’t the good looks that hold me: all I can think to say of it, as a child of the long-lost 1960s, is that from the start the place had a vibe. A unique vibe. Or, more to our point, it feels holy.
“Holy” here means special. The front doors are plain white, only decorated some of the year with local wreaths. No holy water fonts (it’s okay to bring bottled water if you’re thirsty, though); candles are lit only rarely.
Further, the meetinghouse has not been blessed or otherwise ritually hallowed; that’s not our way. Yet many other people, in the decade plus I’ve been coming, walk through the doorway, look around, and then whisper to someone: “This place feels” — a slight hesitation — “special.”
I nod, and put on my best imitation of a knowing expression. I think they mean holy. But most are reluctant to say that out loud, and I don’t blame them. “Holy” is a word that’s easy to overuse and misuse.
Like “Jesus.” But we’ll get back to him later, because there are a couple more things to say about holy: first, it can be an event, or a time, as well as a place. Here are two examples:
#1- One Sunday, sitting in the meetinghouse shortly after we had gathered, I heard the door open. Up front, our Friend Cindy was at the lectern, worship leader for the day (we take turns). She was, I think, reading announcements from a sheet. Not hearing anyone walking from the door to a bench, I glanced over at the entrance.
A woman stood in the doorway, a newcomer. She seemed transfixed, staring at Cindy, a look of amazement on her face.
What was it? I wondered. Surely the visitor was not overwhelmed by the list of names and dates Cindy was reading, or the announcement she moved on to for a committee meeting about protesting the latest war. All routine.
I took another look at the doorway, and then it clicked: the visitor was stunned to see a woman in a stance of leadership, in a church.
The transfixed look lasted until Cindy asked for two volunteers to pass our collection plates, and then sat down while the offering was taken. The visitor came in and found a spot on a back bench. I thought she was going to cry.
She didn’t, but otherwise my hunch was right on target: the visitor, let’s call her Angela, had been expelled by another church, in which women were kept to very limited, subordinate roles. She had been in it a long time, stifled, yet believing it was the only true religion. After she had quietly rebelled and been cast out, she almost despaired: was there any faith community where women were treated as equals? Did such a thing actually exist?
She turned to today’s oracle, Google, and found our meetinghouse. Could it be? Then in fear and trembling, she opened our door that morning. . . .
And saw Cindy at the lectern, on her own, in front, reading birthdays.
Another passerby might have peered in and not noticed anything out of the ordinary — and they would have been right in their way. But I saw it happen and do bear witness: this was a holy moment, holy and liberating. Angela became a productive member of our group, and has taken her turn at the front as well.
#2- A young mother had suffered a seizure, choked on her own vomit, and lay brain-dead in a rural Eastern hospital, “breathing” on a wheezing respirator, as family and friends assembled for the last moments.
Not exactly a relative, I came to support others who were. Among them was my daughter Molly, a nurse, half-sister to the woman in the hospital bed. She had flown in from California, still stunned by what had happened.
And there too was the mother’s youngest child, a baby girl less than a year old, who looked at one moment distracted and at another closer to terrified. The baby’s father was near, drifting through the group: not long out of drug rehab, he was homeless and unemployed.
I hung back as others said their goodbyes to the departing sleeper, and soon noticed an anomaly: Molly had picked up the baby.
This was an anomaly because among my three daughters, Molly had always seemed unquestionably the least maternal. So it was unusual to see her holding a child. It was even more unusual to see her keep hold, and stand staring down at her.
The doctor moved in, and at a signal, flipped a switch, or maybe two. The respirator hissed and shuddered to a stop. The moving green and red lines on various small screens at the bedside went flat. The young mother’s skin began to turn gray.
I followed this ghoulish spectacle for a few moments, then looked up. And there was Molly, still holding the baby, only glancing up briefly at her receding sister, and then back down, with a kind of fierceness at the de facto orphaned child.
I left shortly afterward, to return to my own unfinished life. I knew I had seen something unusual happen to Molly, but didn’t know what to make of it. More, I felt nagging apprehension about the child: mother dead, father homeless: where would she end up?
News came a couple of weeks later: Molly announced she was leaving her California job, her apartment, and her boyfriend. She was moving clear across the country to the rural East. She would find another nursing job, another apartment, and would take care of the baby. She didn’t have custody, but that could be settled later.
Then I understood. That’s what I had glimpsed in the crowded deathbed room: something had come upon Molly unbidden, something not like anything else, something not to be ignored. Something holy. (Molly, by the way, said she was an atheist, but I don’t think that matters; this is about experience, not theology.)
Molly did move East, found a nursing job, cared for the child and in due time did gain custody. Not all since has been easy or cloudless; holy times don’t guarantee happily-ever-after anymore than a lovely sunrise assures a storm-free day. [JC, you can explain that best.] But she was called, not to bear a child but to mother one, and she answered. I saw it, and I do bear witness.
[So, JC, how do these upbeat anecdotes translate into finding a church for the young family I’m writing you about? The stories I told are true, but they don’t yield any kind of simple formula.]
But why is that needed? Because as we know, it’s a mean world, even in churches. Too often, especially there. We’ll stick with Christian churches, where they all talk about you. Couldn’t the couple just go church-shopping?
Alas, not so simple. There are many JC churches out there, and they preach many different versions of you, JC. And here I’m recalling a couple of your warnings from your Book, to your own guys, about, “Be careful, I’m sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves,” and “some of those wolves are disguised in nifty sheep costumes,” and how “among those who babble on about ‘JC this,’ and ‘JC that,’ some don’t really know the first thing about me, or care.”l
How can we help them tell one from the other? I don’t know any 100% foolproof rule, but I try to keep in mind your other main guideline: “Judge a tree by its fruits: do we gather figs from thistles?” (Personally, I don’t like either one: figs taste yucky, and thistles have sharp stickers. But it gets the point across, I hope. Gets the point, get it??)
If they’re not into fruit trees, another way to apply it is twofold: take a close look at their Jesus, and take a close look at their backstory.
These days, you can find any kind of Jesus you want, and reactionaries specialize in the Repackaged Jesus, who looks like one kind, and turns out to be another. They have Jesus with guns; homophobic Jesus; Jesus-Trump; and lots more.
As for backstory, try this one: there’s a big megachurch in greater LA, and behind the celebrity preacher there’s a guy who calls himself the Chief of Staff, running the show. Before he got into the megachurch biz, it turns out the Chief spent years running big phony “nonprofits,” which sucked up all kinds of donations for campaigns to “save the family” from gay marriage.
And here’s the kicker: almost none of that money ever went to actual campaigns, but into the pockets of the fundraisers.
Of course, that Stop-the-Evil-Gays-from-Marrying gravy train went Poof! when the Supreme Court legalized it. But by then, hallelujah! the Chief had found Jesus, and has been rolling in dough ever since. His new church claims to be very “welcoming,” but I smell Repackaged Jesus. They don’t talk about the Chief’s previous life. But I found out.
To get backstories, it takes homework. Which is not what most people go to church for. But just like avoiding ransomware attacks on your computer, it’s something the smart young seekers need to get used to. Bad backstories point toward future bad frontstories, and big church or small, bad frontstories play havoc with the holy.
I’ve sprinkled some mean Jesus memes through this post, to give some visual hints about what comes out when you unwrap Repackaged Jesus.
It’s not all bad, though. There are still churches that remember your call about liberty to captives, justice for the poor, and the least of these. You have to look for them.
Which brings me back to you, JC: where can these folks find a safe church out there in the Big Sand? Like, you know, one with a vibe.
But can you hurry up with the leads, please? Maybe ship them by J.C. Prime?