In 2016 I went to a memorial Mass said in Palm Springs for my mother, the offering of some life-long friends of the family. To keep up my once-a-year average for attendance in the House of the Lord, I waited until Dec. 31, 2017, and visited a nondenominational Christian church. I had met someone who goes there. The light of God shone in her face. It stood to reason that her church must be extra special.
I found it in a plaza with supermarket, beauty supply store, mailing center, and restaurants ranging from sandwich shops to sushi. It’s in a former retail or otherwise commercial space that makes no architectural impression. It’s God we’re talking about, right? If you look at the holy buildings around the world, He generally likes to play it up. A buttress here, a dome there. This place felt like a one-time boot warehouse and clearance joint.
A greeter introduced himself and shook my hand. It was about 9.33 a.m., so the trio already droned its simple monotonous melody, six repeated notes and the seventh rising and the chorus with as many notes a half-octave higher, the last held a full beat. At least In-a-gadda-da-vida has an organ solo. With the male trio, three females were in the spotlights on the low-rise stage to supply their voices to mealy-mouth lyrics of generalized praise. No mighty fortresses here, but thank goodness there were no tambourines, either. The sly drummer, though, made the tune pretty lively, mixing up styles and stealing the show. Were one to return, it would entail having a better viewing angle to watch him. That’s assuming he’s not going on tour with Amy Grant.
The interior of this church was blackened. No telling if the side walls of concrete bore iconography or grafitti.
I went down a few rows and took a seat more or less in the middle. With special prayer requests being welcomed, people came up before the stage and milled around and hands waved toward Heaven, and then after a while a man and woman stepped before the musicians and uttered truisms about Jesus.
I am accustomed to a printed program spelling things out, even in a pew-less church. On my seat–one in the rows of chairs that had likely earned freedom from dining hall service at Ouachita Baptist University, would that Sarah Huckabee Sanders had sat upon one of them—there were two info cards to be filled out and an envelope for donations. Conveniently, I hadn’t brought a pen. And it was too dark to write.
Instead of rigid and fixed, the proceedings were chaotic, loud (no need for those microphones and amps in 3,500 square feet), and a trifle tawdry. The highlight of this opening interlude was our being urged to shake hands with three nearby persons. One of them may have been the driver who cut me off when I entered the plaza. “Happy New Year!” we said. And those were the last words spoken to me.
Finally the band quit and we heard from the pastor, a flat-nosed middle-aged man of medium height who wore jeans and a dark jacket over an untucked dark shirt. In charge of a backhoe crew repairing a broken water pipe beneath the plaza’s parking lot, he would have been convincing, but he was the big spiritual cheese in the room.
He talked about prayer and fasting to start 2018. I guess when one is starving, like his father, also said to have been a pastor, who fasted 40 days at the beginning of each new year, probably in Elmo Hollow, Kentucky, one keeps the Holy Spirit much in mind. It made me think of those zealots in the Philippines who reenact Jesus’s crucifixion on Good Friday. Let’s not go overboard. I grew up with fish sticks on Friday as the epitome of self-denial and sacrifice. And nowadays holding off clear liquids for two hours before a radiologic procedure is about as far as I’m willing to stretch.
Pastor Elmo Hollow also encouraged church members to formulate a giving plan for 2018, and he couched this as a type of insurance: the more you give, the greater will be your prosperity. Tithe $1,000 per month, and your annual income will reach $120,000. The method entails more mysteries than the Trump Bump, but its espousal isn’t limited to pastoral economists in shopping-plaza churches. It’s from a dirty trick the Lord God played in Malachi, and all clerics avow it. The counter-effect of such an income assurance policy would prompt one with rare financial surpluses to rotate through houses of worship and get the benefits of what Jesus freely gave without having to download a payment app and set up auto-overdraw.
Despite the strange setting making do with no outside windows (lest one even think of stained glass), with the three-panel video display hanging too high up and being rather underutilized, with the disavowal of any but the loosest structure for the service, and with the lack of a swishing surplice, it was small-town preacher stuff cloaked in laid-back California cool. It would have been no shock to be told that being at a pool hall or drive-in theater when Jesus comes back for the faithful would mean being left behind.
Pastor E.H. next invited a church member to give the sermon. The speaker, a man in his late-30s, wore a scruffy beard, a crew-neck top, and jeans. He had been addicted to drugs but found Jesus in time to aid his recovery. There was a touching quality about him and his adamant style, pacing back and forth across the stage, drinking half bottle of water, and drawing an abstruse point: the analysis of Daniel’s royalty in relation to Peter the Apostle. Convinced at the time, I can no longer quite bridge them together. But the substance of it was good for ten minutes instead of twenty-five. And I can’t help it, but getting up before an audience, even where California informality rules, ought to lead to selecting a shirt with a collar. As the least parson knows, it brings authority.
About 20 minutes into the sermon, the trio crept back to their instruments and started playing the original song but keeping quiet about it. The sermon wrapped up, and after the briefest benediction, so did the proceedings. I was soon in my car, where I hummed “How Great Thou Art.”
Maybe it was wrong to have expected greater uplift. It would rightly take enrolling in the new members’ class and serious Bible-reading and repeated attendance to get it. My heart just wasn’t tugged.
Already, that was last year. The issue of visiting a church in 2018 confronts me if I’m to keep batting 1.000. Picking one and going to its service this very Sunday, the first of the year, would make me over-churched for the present, but the grace ought to sustain me for twelve full months.