I haven’t been to church in a long while. It’s the only thing that makes me feel homesick, so I avoid it like the plague when I’m not at home. Church was always a family activity – four of us in a row, mom complaining that she never gets to sit next to her husband, Allison silently competing for best singer in the church, dad mentally recounting his latest golf scores, reading Monseigneur’s “thoughts of the week” in the car on the way home. Same ritual every week, always the four of us together.
When I went away to university going the Mass service seemed a bit empty, the preacher was passionate, but not great at homilies, and I missed needling my sister through the service. I gradually stopped attending.
Last Easter I was on Grand Turk. Neal, on request of my mother, dragged me to church at the Lighthouse Church. It turned out to be not so painful. I still don’t know what kind of service it was (never able to remember the denomination of the missionary family who were repairing the Hurricane Ike damage), but we were amongst friends and that was enough.
It’s strange that the one thing I avoid is the one thing that makes me feel like I belong to something. Traveling has the unfortunate side effect of making you a stranger, but the church is a universal institution. I’ve been traveling alone all over the world and when I need a taste of the familiar, I don’t go to McDonald’s. I go to Church.
The first time was an accident. Somewhere in Paris I stumbled across a Mass while touring a small church. The priest saw that I stopped to listen and waved me into the partitioned area. Afterward, he and I held a broken but genuine conversation. He wished me well on my journey, wasn’t that nice? I felt much less a stranger after having held a conversation with someone other than myself.
Later, during the unusual London snowfall of 2004, I got swept up in a wave of holiday spirit and followed the sounds of vesper songs into an Anglican church. I was instantly recognized as a new face and was welcomed back for as long as I was in town. There you have it, taken in by various denominations – an instant link though we be strangers. Since then, church has become my fall back when I’m feeling out of place.
And man, have I been feeling out of place. Here I am, lost in the urban wilderness of Australia, not sure what to do next, where to go, or how to get there. Boy, do I need to go to church.
So when my landlady offered an invitation to her church a few weeks back, I told her I’d like to go for Easter. Now, my landlady has talked about members of her church being miraculously healed during services, but I figured I’m up to the challenge of keeping a respectfully open mind. Besides, this wasn’t about church, this was about not being alone on the holidays. Nicer to be around people i know with unorthodox beliefs then sit at the back of a Catholic service alone, I thought.
Mustering my traveler’s best of “Easter finest”, I rocked up in an outfit my grandmother would deem “church-acceptable”. (Actually, she would comment on whether or not I looked like a rag-a-muffin, but anyway.)
Right away I was tipped off that this was no church I was used to: it felt more like a rock concert. We walked up to the doors of the Geelong Theatre Company where large and plentiful signs announced “Planetshakers”. Uniformed greeters welcomed you in and copyright signs were posted everywhere (copyright infringement, really? What kind of a show is this?!). Inside the stage was set up with a 5 piece band, fog machines, and a projector screen displaying a digital clock counting down to zero. The audience is young and hip and not AT ALL concerned with “Easter finest”. Hoodies and leather abound. I feel like I have “boring traditionalist” emblazoned on my forehead. I’m clearly a visitor.
The Hot Cross Bun appreciating couple I met at Good Friday breakfast were present and I went to sit with them and met some of their family while my host sat in the reserved section.
So far my impression is of a close knit community who like to rock. I’m cool with that. It’s good to see so many young people finding a place they can feel involved in. It set me to wondering what they out of this. My first clue hits me over the head as soon as the count down begins – 3, 2, 1! This IS a rock concert. There is jumping and clapping and singing at the top of lungs. Even I can follow along with the words up on the screen. No wonder traditional services are struggling – this is fun. Yay God, praise Jesus! Thank you for the blessings in my life and for carrying me when I think I can’t go any further. The sermon has a familiar and welcome message: trust in the good Lord and things will be all right. Amen.
The sense of spiritual connection in the room was overwhelming and infectious. This was a crowd unashamed in sharing all the joys and sorrows of their hearts -they seemed to pray with their whole bodies; arms raised, voices lifted, passion exuding out of every pore.
This was new for me. Sharing intimate things is not in my nature. But was respectful of their enthusiasm – if we were all this passionate about the teachings of Jesus every day, the world would be a better place. Man, would it be exhausting though.
There were some parts of the service that gave me pause. I didn’t know until I got home and did some research, but Planetshakers is a pentacostal church and there were some roads down which I could not follow. The big annual conference was last week and the congregation was still high on the Spirit. On the projection screen we watched “City News”, local stories and news clips, where one man told how he regained his sight while praying at the meeting. I’m all for miracles, but I still feel curious enough to want to see his medical charts. The rest of the crowd didn’t seem burdened by this type of thought process. In fact, the preacher, whose sermon I was enjoying up to this point, told the crowd “don’t think”. Now, I understand that he meant to say trust yourself, trust your gut, trust that God is leading you, but that’s not what he said. He told a group of 14 and 16 and 18 year olds not to think. Religion, without though, gets you a one way ticket to Haley’s comet.
Even so, I can see how people get caught up in services like this. A friend always says “people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.” How true it is! There was I surrounded by this tight-knit community, a stranger in a strange land, going through relationship issues, trying to plan out my next stage of life and having trouble doing it. The preacher says: “Who needs me to pray for them? Who is having trouble and needs help?” My right arm started to tingle and seemed to shout, “raise me. Raise me! Raisemeraisemeraiseme Raise Me!” I started to get emotional. Suddenly I don’t like this sharing thing anymore and I want to escape this circus. Introspection is for the dogs.
The preacher continues to gave over the crowd, patiently waiting for us stubborn sinners to breakdown and admit we aren’t “right with Jesus”. How does he KNOW? The tingling in my arm gets stronger, but I’m contrary by nature and, hey wait a minute, before this moment in time I thought Jesus and I were just fine. I started to think about magicians who you know are some how manipulating you but you just aren’t sure how….. or the hand of God was upon me – your choice.
I didn’t sign up to receive the newsletter, earning me a patient but chiding look from the woman for whom I’d politely agreed to fill out the newcomer card. The preacher had WAY better game. He probably could have gotten me to sign up for a retreat, the way my insides were turned upside down. That which I rely on to be a comfort had prayed on my vulnerabilities. Ok, ok, exposed my vulnerabilities. Either way, I wasn’t a fan.