I once bought a VCR here. And another time, a CD for myself, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, I think it was. This was back in the day when this was still a Circuit City, and you could buy your electronics, music and movies here. Now all that’s changed, because they renovated the whole place and shipped out all that commercial stuff. Now what’s left is an auditorium with dark blue carpets and white sectioning curtains, a big stage in the front, and a room filled with rows of black, plastic office chairs, a ceiling with crisscrossing black wires, and spotlights and cameras pointing to the stage, giving the place a bit the feel of a rock concert, or maybe a movie theatre. And although movies and music are still available for purchase here, as they were back in the day, the content of the music and movies has entirely changed. Because now it’s God who’s for sale, who’s on display, and it’s God, who I came to look for today, too. But I can’t seem to find Him anywhere, no matter how hard I look. And I’ve been looking.
This non-denominational church, which I won’t name, located in my neighborhood, close to my home, serves in my humble opinion as the perfect example of a modern day Christian church in today’s America. It’s found at a small shopping mall, next to a Ross, a Dollar Tree, and a couple of other stores facing a McDonald’s across a parking lot. I’ve visited this church a couple of times before, and many of it’s brothers and sisters too, and aunts and uncles, these other Christian churches and congregations, and each time felt exactly the same as I do today, somehow out of place, and weirdly fake and shallow. It’s a feeling I just can’t shake.
But here I am, nevertheless, sitting in my chair and letting my eyes wander across the room to take in the scenery. There are four big screens hung high up on the wall. One is in the front above the stage and two are placed diagonally to the sides, forming a u-shape of screens around the audience. One screen is on the back wall, for whoever happens to let their eyes wander that way. “Pretty professional,” I think to myself. “They really know how to bombard your eyes with their message, there’s no escaping it.”
I watch the soft colors vibrate on the screens, light blues and pinks, with white dots floating across, like snowflakes falling through a soft, shimmering morning sky. Now the music starts, and the lyrics begin to appear and fade away on the screens along with the song. The usual routines of an ordinary Christian Sunday service are unfolding before my eyes. The worship is lead by a live band on the stage, the worship team, with the vocalist being the young pretty girl with the breathy voice, as usual, who sighs her lyrics into the microphone with eyes closed and arms raised up high. The standing audience is mostly mimicking her movements, with their arms held up high also, and many with their eyes closed. Some have the second most popular pose, which is hands held at chest level, and palms pointing up toward the ceiling, and others still, are swaying back and forth like reeds moved by a slight wind in some sort of holy ecstasy. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” they sing. “Hallelujah!” “Let it be, let it be Jesus!” they sing.
Freedom. Peace and Love is what they sing about. With capital letters. Unity with God is what they all supposedly feel right now. But me — the old cynical bat and misfit — I have my doubts about their emotional honesty, and can’t help these gnawing feelings, no matter how hard I try, because I‘ve come to know a thing or two about people and group behavior, especially when it comes to Christians - which I am one of. I’ve also had enough genuine experiences of God’s presence in my life, to know what’s real and what’s not, and to know that this orchestrated group swaying doesn't take me any closer to those experiences, but only pushes me away from them.
I can’t help it. It all seems so fake and rehearsed to me.
“For God’s sake!” I’d like to cry out. “Why can’t you all just admit that you’re NOT sensing His presence as much as you’d like to pretend right now? Why can’t you just be real about it?! It’s completely okay! Because if you DID, if you where REAL about it, and about yourself and your true feelings, and even your spiritual poverty, then maybe, just maybe you’d have a chance to actually be touched by Him!”
But of course it’s impossible to say anything like that. Who am I anyway? The chosen one? So whatever, I say nothing, and watch the crowd go through their usual silliness, the little mannerisms and dance moves, feeling a little tired and hollow inside. And that’s when the thought pops in my mind like a bright little fire cracker. And I start thinking about the fairytale of The Emperor’s New Clothes by HC Andersen.
So here’s this Emperor, this leader of a kingdom, who’s the perfect image of the leadership of most modern day Christian churches, who also are “leaders” of a kingdom, supposedly, in this case nothing less but the kingdom of God! Yet so vain, so high and mighty are they, so filled with spiritual pride and superiority, that they can’t admit, will not admit, that spiritually they are often nothing but naked and empty, and most days don’t know what the heck they’re talking about!
Yes, here they are, before my mind’s eyes, and I’m comparing them together, point by point, these two Emperor’s, the one from the fairytale and other one, the church leadership, and I think how both of them are being approached by these two con-artists, these two sneaky demons that pretend to be weavers of fine clothing. Clothing, which by the way, is a common Biblical metaphor for the state of one’s soul, or spirit, whether refined or defiled, sanctified or stained. And just like the Christian leadership, the fairytale Emperor too, wants to make everyone think that he’s so refined, and worthy of that fine clothing, that when he realizes that he doesn’t see any fine clothing before him - because there’s NOTHING THERE - he’s too proud and cowardly to admit to the truth.
“Oh, it is very beautiful indeed!” he says to the weavers instead, pretending to see something that isn’t there. “It has my unqualified approval!”
And THAT, sorry to say, is the church leadership for you in a nutshell, in the majority of American churches these days, and the rest of the world too, for that matter, parading around stark naked, dressed in nothing but an illusion of holiness, and inviting everyone else to follow along!
But now my thoughts are interrupted by the youth pastor, who enters the stage in a slow jog. “Oh yeah, Lord!” he shouts. “Thanks for making us free!” And he holds up his fist in victory. “It’s a good day to be alive in the Lord!” He’s a man approximately in his forties, blond, slim and attractive, dressed in jeans and a beige dress-coat. Since he’s the hip youth pastor and has a more relaxed way about him, he can bend the rules a bit, and instead of asking everyone to shake the hands of the people near by, and tell them, “Jesus loves you,” he tells us instead to shake everyone’s hand and thank them for brushing their teeth this morning. A low chuckle passes through the crowds.
Me, the old rebel - I always let the hand shaking routine pass. What’s the point of this anyway? I’ve asked myself a thousand times. How exactly does this build my love? Is love about shaking hands on demand? I think about this Bible scripture in the Book of Romans that says: “Love must be sincere” (Rom. 12.9), and search in the crowd for one single sincere looking face, but at the moment can’t find one. All I see are these robots shaking each other’s hands wearing phony smiles on their faces. Christian love masks.
Today’s Bible series is called “Moodswingers.” Rows of bright yellow emoticons appear on the big screens and a cheerful introductory tune floods the airways. The pamphlet in my hand, given to me at the main entrance, repeats those images. “Don’t Be a Worry Wart” says the title on the pamphlet, accompanied by a scripture referring me to the Book of Proverbs. I open my Bible and check it out. It says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov.3:5-6) I nod to the familiar words. After all, it’s not like I disagree with them, and I continue to study the pamphlet, which is sprinkled with scripture references, each of them in response to some particular emoticon, a sad face, or a worried face, or perhaps an angry face, all of them giving a Biblical perspective on how to tackle these difficult emotions with the help of Bible scriptures.
And there’s nothing extraordinary about any of this, really. In its core, this is of course based on old church traditions - which by the way, I’ve never been a big fan of - where the priest or pastor, this spiritual authority figure, interprets the scriptures for me and explains how they apply to my life. (Something, which they quite often really don’t have a clue about, it’s quite a hit and miss thing, really.)
Here of course this traditional approach has been modernized to a technologically savvy, young audience, in this, supposedly, “hip” and “creative” way, using these everyday images that we’re constantly bombarded with through our cell phones and computers. “Yeah okay,” I think to myself, feeling the yawn coming already, “I see where you’re going with this.” And it’s not that I have any kind of problem with these scriptures - I believe in them. And it’s not that I think that what’s being taught here is fundamentally wrong either. It’s just that… it’s all so utterly pointless and empty. There’s no life in any of this, the way it’s done here, the way it’s wrapped up in a nice, socially acceptable package with a shiny bow on top of it. It’s just empty church talk to me. Nothing but a big show. No matter how much I believe in these scriptures, served to me in this way, in this phony package, they are as empty and meaningless as the words spoken to me by a parrot that mimics human speech.
“Buy God from us! We’ve been selling Him for years and we’re the best in the business!” That’s what I think of when I hear the pastor talk. He talks too fast, too, reminding me of a salesman. Even his moves remind me of one. “I bet he practices his choreography on an empty stage,” I think. He brings to mind this one German guy from years back, who once tried to sell my family some pots and pans on a free bus ride from Switzerland to Lake Garda in Italy. We took the trip with a bunch of retired old ladies, because it was free, and ended up in a conference room for 4 hours to listen to the sales speech by the German guy. Every now and then he’d do a little trick and bang his pots together, to wake up the grandmas in the back row, who had started nodding.
Now I watch the pastor on the stage do something similar in order to grab our attention, only his version is to hold up a piece of sandpaper before the audience. He explains to us that God will not make our paths (our lives) completely straight (easy), because there will always be curves and bumps in the road (agreed), but the good news is that God will be like that sandpaper that smoothens those bumps down (agree with this also). “Anyone here need God to smooth down their path today?” he asks, waving the sandpaper in the air. I see one person holding up their hand. I’m too tired to raise mine, although my path probably needs more sandpaper than anyone else’s. Instead I pull out my cell phone and check the time to see how much longer until it’s over, already drifting some place else in my mind, feeling exactly the same way as I did at that pan conference, wondering, when oh when can I finally go and see the beautiful Lake Garda, as promised.
The minutes go by, stretching longer and longer. Some time later, 5 minutes or 40 - who knows - I hear the pastor exclaim cheerfully: “The only thing I like about rain is that cats disappear!” I don’t know where this is coming from, because I haven’t been listening, but I note how the comment seems to amuse the audience. Encouraged by his success, he continues: “Yeah, I didn't even write that one down, but the Holy Spirit just gave it to me, just now!” That’s when my brain completely checks out. “Why can’t you just admit that today your pockets are empty?” I want to shout. “Empty of Godly inspiration, and not full! It’s okay! Give it up! So are mine! Most of our pockets here are!”
My thoughts return to the Empire again, who’s responsible for the showmanship in this place, as well as the other churches in this country, or the whole world for that matter! He’s really no one in particular, but instead, many people, with many names and faces, and comes in all shapes and sizes, all these people with trouble to admit to their human weakness and smallness, who instead of being open about it, hide behind their programs and religious routines, and all their impressive titles, these spiritual name tags, such as “ArchBishop” and “Reverend.” It goes back and forth among them, these puffed-up emperors, all this foolishness, trickling down the hierarchy to the smaller players, like this guy, this poor youth pastor of this semi-sized church, who’s just following along with the program, desperately trying to find something substantial to say, while being tied into a spiritual straight jacket of pretension, and forced to pass along the nonsense to the crowds.
A scripture in the Book of Revelation pops in my mind, one where Jesus reprimands one of the seven churches, basically His own followers, meaning, Christians, saying: “You say, I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” (Rev. 3:17).
How long, I wonder, and what drastic measures will it take, for these crowds to finally wake up to see this nonsense for what it is, and come out of it, this snowstorm of blindness, and stop with the pretending? That’s what I ask myself, as I’m sitting there.
But now it’s all over, finally. I watch the people getting up, grabbing their jackets and things, getting ready to leave. And I’m free to go too, to Lake Garda, or wherever, but instead, I decide to stop by the “prayer room.” Yes, they actually have a designated room for it, a very organized and neat little area, and there’s a sign on top of the glass door, with the words “Prayer Room” on it, this sound proofed booth, which looks kind of like those booths at music stores where they test instruments, all glass and octagon shaped, and with comfy sofas inside. And it’s all very efficient and thought out, with a special “prayer staff,” and these little name tags that they put on your chest too, so they can call your name, these prayer warriors, as you sit there waiting for them, like you wait for your sandwich at the deli.
As I head towards the prayer room, which is on the opposite side of the auditorium, I watch the people pass me by. They’re just ordinary people, and good people, too, most of them, I think. I like them. It’s not their fault, this whole charade. They’re just snowed by the silly Emperor, and follow along in his footsteps, like sheep, in the safety of the sheepfold, because that’s all they know. I see their faces everywhere, in stores, and on the streets, buying hamburgers at drive-through windows. They’re fathers and mothers, young people, and old ones too, clerks at the grocery store maybe, mail carriers, or accountants, I don’t know. Just normal people, living normal lives. It’s not their fault.
In the prayer booth, on the sofa across the room from me sits a middle aged, heavy-set latino woman. She’s leaning towards another woman, who sits by her side, listening with a comforting arm over her shoulder. She’s crying, this latino woman, half whispering to the other woman, who’s her friend, I think, and not part of the prayer crew. I can’t hear what the woman is saying, although I try to sharpen my ears, I can only catch the random wails that occasionally escape her throat, as she tries to suffocate the open cry. That’s all I hear, nothing more, in addition to the mute sound her face is making, as the pain and sorrow screeches to me from across the room. There’s no Christian mask left. These tears are real. Is she a single mom, like me? I wonder. Crushed and lost and losing hope in humanity, and herself? In God even? Is she sinking into a darkness, an abyss so vast and endless it makes her image in the mirror disappear? Is she, like me, all alone, traveling a dark and rocky landscape, a place where daylight is just a dim memory somewhere in the corner of her mind? And the sun is nothing but a faint memory of something she saw years ago, almost a legend now, but something she still believes in, because she has to, has no choice but to believe, because she still remembers how she saw it once! I want to take her hand and tell her that I understand, and that I know that abyss too, intimately, and that I’ve known it for so long now that it’s become a permanent part of me. As I sit there, watching her, I wish I could walk over to her and take her hand, and tell her that I’ll pray for her, for real, and not because I should, but because I want to.
“How can I help you today?” asks the prayer warrior, who’s pulled a chair in front of me. She’s a petite, middle aged woman, probably in her mid-fifties, with brown hair and kind eyes. I look at her, trying to come up with something appropriate to say, something easily labeled that would work for this place, and would fit in with the program, the church mindset, and the Christian lingo too, but I’m at loss for words. So finally I just stutter something random about my childhood traumas, and how they still keep me in a prison cell, and keep me from living my life, isolating me from people, and even myself. My rocky, and out-of -the-box relationship with God I don’t even want to get into.
“I understand,” she says. “You know, this is not very uncommon at all. We actually have a program especially for people like you. It’s a twelve step program, where people can become free from trauma. It’s not only for alcoholics, but anyone who struggles with boundaries and dependency issues, regardless of what kind of dependency, emotional or substance abuse. And it’s a Christian based program, and very good.” And she writes down the meeting times on a piece of paper, and hands it to me. I take it, fold it in half, and stick it in my pocket, knowing that I’ll never go, reminding myself of why I’m actually here - her prayer - which I still very much believe in, despite her church mindset and the program that wants to swallow her whole, head first. “All that, God can bypass,” I think to myself, “and see and hear only what actually matters, which is the warmth in her eyes and heart for me, a fellow human being, and sister.”
Afterwards, as I walk out to the bright November morning, I think about those things that are real. About the grieving latino woman, and her human face in the midst of a sea of pretension, feeling surprised by finding such a rare gem hidden in this place. I also think about the prayer warrior, who, despite all the brainwashing, still managed to carry some genuine human warmth in her. These are the things I still keep looking and thirsting for, these little things that still invite me in. I’m like a half-dead plant growing at the base of a dam, living off the tiny drops that occasionally escape through the tiny cracks in a concrete wall. It’s been years since I was able to drink freely, but I’m still waiting for that miraculous day, when God comes with his hammer, and the dam breaks open and the water runs free.