Wednesday, November 16, 2011


It is worse than murder. It is worse than adultery. It is worse than anything any human could ever do. 

I've never used the Lord's name in vain. Ever. My dad told me it was the only unforgivable sin, well before I had the balls to say something like it. There was a man in the Bible that had a whole swarm of bees fly down his throat after he shouted it, I've been told.

I was on the bus from Placer Hills Middle School, with my friend Mark. We were on our way home.

I almost said it. I exclaimed, "God.." and "Damn.." in succession. I did not intend this as an entire phrase, but two separate exclamations. I realized how it sounded immediately after it came out, and I dropped out of the conversation and prayed right away. With my face pressed against the leather-patterned vinyl of the tall bus seat, my backpack between my ankles, I prayed deeply that God would not forgive that I cursed, but that He would forgive the fact that some kids around me thought I said GD.

To this day, I still think about that. Whenever I say "God..." or "Damn..." I make sure I do not say them together.

Any song that I've known that has it - I won't sing along. Kanye West says it in a song. I edit it. Vanilla Ice said it when I was a kid. Countless others have used it as an unforgivable lyric.

I won't say it. I'll edit it every time.

"Gosh darn 'Yeezy now you hit 'em with a new style.."

"Gosh darn I'll be so hot I'll have to walk with a fan.."

I even feel bad about repeating those lyrics in my head to remember exactly how they went. I won't even say that shit in my head, for goodness sake (I won't say Christ, either).

I fucking thought about this on Sunday at The York, while I was standing at the urinal.

I've never used the Lord's name in vain.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I was in sixth grade.
Our Baptist church in Auburn was led by a working doctor. This man we would respect and admire, as instructed by our dad. The doctor pastor had a wisdom beyond any wisdom that we would encounter in everyday life. He was a leader, and a shepherd. Even as kids we knew it, and my dad reinforced it.
I didn’t know how he could work as a doctor during the week, and be a pastor on Sundays, but I guess he made it work. I thought a pastor just read the Bible all week. I always expected him to rush off from the pulpit to tend to a car accident in Newcastle, but that never happened. 
I remember my dad saying our pastor was in his sixties, which was the same age as my grandpa. He didn’t look like my grandpa, and he seemed funny sometimes, which just made him more powerful.
For the first time I remember having a significant and real hope that we just might stick around for a while in this town, and possibly because of this church. This hope hadn’t been part of my life since I could remember. 
We got committed. 
Our family stayed after the Sunday service for extra activities, even if extra activities just meant bullshittin’ in the foyer for 20 minutes. This was new. We borrowed books from the one-room Christian library. My mom and dad committed themselves to getting to know people in the congregation, and pushed us to hang with some of the kids. We even had conversations about them on the way home.
Up to that point, my family never knew people at church, we just knew about them.
The doctor pastor was firm, direct, and broke into reliefs of common language at crucial points of each sermon, letting you know - he’s just a person too, and look, you really should not zone out during such an intelligent sermon. I was coming of age, and I prided myself in being able to finally hold my focus for large parts of sermons now. 
I remember the doctor pastor’s sermons were the first to actually interest me. They struck a new, adult, chord in my being that led me to gently place him on one of very few pedestals I would hold as a growing young man. 
I believe tonight was our first time going to night church. It was important. Just this time. Something was up. The pastor could not wait until Sunday, nor could he address the entire congregation. This special Wednesday night service was for the true members. The believers. My sisters and I were excited to be going out this late.
It was weird seeing the lights on, and the windows black by night, showing only the pulsing and blurred glowing of the cars passing on the narrow road out front.
“I’m going to show you a video, to start things off, then I’d like to say something,” said the doctor pastor. 
It was just my two sisters, my dad, and me sitting at the empty pew, with a dozen other faithful congregants.
A large TV was already sitting on a metal rolling rack where the pastor usually spoke as he hit play on the VCR, after leaning in to make sure he was pushing the right button, looking up at the screen, then the VCR, then the screen, until the static turned into solid black, and he slowly stepped back, while eyeing the screen, and sat down once he trusted it was running. 
The video was a half-baked Christian documentary on aliens and UFO’s, during which they digitally morphed ancient paintings of angels into aliens with teeth. It was the most frightening thing I had ever experienced. They talked about the nephalim in Genesis, how the angels of the sky mated with the daughters of man, and how Satan’s workers are alive and well in the present day folks that you and I deal with on the regular. They talked, with conviction, about the second coming - and how anyone - anyone - may be passively possessed by not only demons, but demons that are actually what we consider aliens. It convinced us that aliens are not only here, but could very well be dormant inside of us.
Everything you trusted to be safe and loving, turned into a window to hell. 
My sisters hid their eyes in shock but my dad hissed us into paying attention. 
The doctor pastor calmly crept up to the TV once the credits rolled, pushed the eject button and paused before he started his rare, sullen, evening sermon.
Our doctor pastor then let us devoted few know, somberly and with incredibly honest and utterly unforgettable detail, about his multiple experiences with alien abduction.

My sisters and I will never forget that night at church.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Old War, Part 2

When you wake up on Sunday feeling like there is no way in hell you are going to church, trust me: 

That's just Satan fucking with your head. 
I’ve always known this. The idea of spiritual warfare was introduced to me before I can even remember, and it has always made perfect sense. I’m so aware of it, actually, that I have many a time forgotten that it isn’t a typical thing to mention to people you don’t know that well, which leads to a tricky recoil. 
My dad used to shout out the fact that our senseless Sunday morning rage was caused by the demons winning the tiny battle in our little, flea-infested house, to get us not to hear God’s word. I couldn’t argue, but I wouldn’t admit the invisible struggle either. Between me and my two little sisters, we could cause a shitfit that would make the neighbors’ dogs howl. 
There was something about those fits though. They were always worse than just any family clash. 

Only on certain and few mornings would I side with my dad. That would undoubtedly make both my sisters feel ganged-up on, which kindled the high-pitched fire. It was rare when I fully joined in on the familial tantrum, because I was the oldest. I would, though, save my best anti-church fury for when it really counted. And every now and then it would work, and we would get to skip church. 
The utter relief of knowing that you’ve successfully beat your own parents down enough to admit that walking into church this late would be more embarrassing for them than it was worth, is a glorious feeling to say the least. 
There was something, though. There was something about Sunday mornings. I always felt a distinct pushing; a pushing to be a complete wreck before getting in the car to go to a church service. 
This is the unexplainable part. 
When things go fine, when it isn’t at all a chore to get to church on Sunday, something is missing. This too has happened as long as I can remember, and continues to this day. If there is a struggle, if there is just a bitter torment to get your ass out of bed and get into communion with good people, if it is just plain hard to do - something ends up touching you on that very morning. This happens to me without fail. It is almost a game now. I know what type of service I’m about to experience because of how hard the enemy tries to get me to avoid it. 
Try it. 

Old War, Part 1

Churches in rich, white towns are just the best. 
We have an abundance of them within a small radius of our home. Fresh on the search, my wife did a mild mapping of a few nearby, and our digital finger stopped the globe on Oneonta. 
On a whispery, residential street twice as wide as any modern road, chunks of ancient sidewalk painfully peaked with roots seeking light, as the arching canopy of elderly oak trees carelessly guided us in. 
We chose the earlier Traditional Service as opposed to the more lax Contemporary Service. I felt great about this, as I wanted the real thing, and enjoyed having two options. I was not at all interested in their newest product, which they had the guts to title “contemporary”. 
The grounds were a bit hard to navigate, though we heard music, until we found a series of small stantion posts with small, hand-written pointers, leading us into one of what I imagine are a few main church halls. 
Oneonta is older, but not like 1800’s old. It shows signs of growth from every few decades. 
Everything was comforting to me. It was like I was at my grandmother’s church, without my grandmother, and I was free to watch it and judge it as I pleased. I felt a bit insecure upon entry, but once we realized there were no awkward greeters, and the entirety of the traditional congregation clustered themselves 40 pews down the aisle towards the pulpit, I was at ease. It also helped that the silver-haired worshippers could not care less that some new kids showed up. 
We came in, found some seats, did a couple over the shoulder hellos before even being prompted, and sat through the service. 
The pastor talked about reaching out to everyone around us and being Christ-like in everyday life. The examples were the post office, the grocery store (including a joke about parking at Ralphs - to a weezy giggled response), and family holidays and functions. What he meant by family functions I could only assume was funerals and reviewing of wills in a lawyer’s office. 
The sermon was disasterously geared towards the wrinkled set of individuals around us. I could almost feel the intelligent, well-spoken, early 40’s pastor looking at my wife and I, and thinking “Gosh you guys, I’m sorry - these decrepit trust fund mummies keep our parking lot paved and our stained glass window repaired - hope you come to the contemporary service after this!” 
I didn’t mind. I tried to apply his message. It was nice not worrying about anyone around us, and not worrying about an onslaught of emotional trampling. The sermon was lovely, and though only obtusely applicable, just nothing to go home with. 
We left without a trace. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The House of Gabriel, Part 2 of 2

Gabe’s church was so Little House on the Prairie. 

This place most likely doubled as a one-room schoolhouse well past the turn of the century. A dusty driveway led up a slope off the two lane road to a humble dirt parking lot. The tan earth of Oroville was highlighted by unending acres of dead, beige fields of wild grass and uninteresting species of birds. The cheery, morning folks migrated through the tidy files of trucks and cars towards the building. They were dressed conservatively, with an abundance of heel-length denim skirts and grey suit jackets. 
Me and Gabe just spun around his mom Vicki like stringy, toe-headed satellites, distracting each other with stupid accents or faces, as Vicki obliged us to timid, limp handshakes to familiar churchgoers. 
Gabe’s dad Roger was stoic and positive. For every footstep he made into the foyer, three other gentlemen in suits would make two towards him. Roger made the rounds in unison with his wife Vicki, who herself would outgreet the greeters with her awesomeness and praise Jesus-ness. She was always funny at church. She made the three of us laugh a lot, Gabe, me, and Roger. Roger’s eyes were always slow and open too wide. He was intentional with his speech and his movement, and if he hadn’t always smiled so much, fucking frightening. 
I went to church with Gabe a lot, at least I think. Holes of childhood seem to disappear and fill up with quicksand pretty easily. I know that over the years that I knew Gabe, either living in Oroville, or visiting from Auburn (where I moved back and forth numerous times) I joined Gabe’s family at three different churches, each of which his family was incrementally more involved. This was the first and the smallest. The stage humbly held a simple bench towards the back, a dark wood pulpit, a grand piano, and an electric organ; All the tools you’d need for a good, old-fashioned church service. 
This particular Sunday was not warming up to be anything other than ordinary. 

Generally, I would usually commit the lost hour and a half to shouldering myself with all my might up against the door that boredom was pounding. 

My standard practice for surviving the friend’s church thing was this: I would count down the minutes of the sermon that was undoubtedly over my tiny head anyway, and float along on the sweet thought of having an unending Sunday afternoon with a bicycle, a buddy, a video game, and a vhs rental. Gosh, that was a good thought. But until then, I’d have to worry about the rare catastrophe of neighboring people farting, me falling asleep and farting, or one of the old wooden pews making a noise that sounded like it was a fart that people would think was me. That fear kept me from falling asleep, but distracted me enough to not absorb the sermons. 
We were past the first round of electic organ-led hymns. We had heard the announcements of someone giving away kittens, an update on a church barbeque coming up in a few weeks, and the status of a missionary couple in Romania. The pastor began his sermon. 
On this particular Sunday, though, before I had even gotten used to the smell of strangers’ hairspray, a guest walked in.
A white man with loose clothes, a beard, and sunglasses saunters into view, and stops halfway down the aisle from the back of the church. He doesn’t mean any harm. He raises his hand, as if to ask a question, and graciously asks the pastor if he can say something to the congregation. He wasn’t shouting but he wasn’t whispering. I didn’t understand the tone of the pastor’s voice when it changed from addressing the sitting church to addressing a single person standing face to face with him. 
The pastor called him by name, and after a defeated pause, verbally allowed this man to come up to the front. The man was already shuffling up anyways and commandeered the black and silver ice cream cone shaped microphone. 
Had this happened before? Was this how they do things here? This guy looks homeless, though I can tell he’s not. Is he from a different church - like a biker gang church? I feel like Vicki and Roger got tense. 
The man was emotional, and spaced out his phrases. He had been saved. There was not a way in hell that I was falling asleep during this. I had no idea what was going on, all I knew is that I was still at church, and I was all ears. 
He was saved, he was saved, he was saved. Late last night, he had been in his truck, and he prayed to Jesus to free him. He was in bondage. He had gone back and forth with this bondage. Last night, he claimed, he was an alcoholic. But not now. He wanted the church to know that he was free from alcoholism and he was saved and he was free and he was saved and he was free. 
The pastor took back the microphone, gently, and the guest speaker poured into an open seat in a front pew. The pastor used the man’s examples a few times in the seemingly short sermon that followed. I remember thinking that this was proof that they planned this and it made me so intent on listening to the rest of the message. So intent, I was, that I don’t remember a damn thing about it. Well, I was excited at least. This had been a fantastic and quick Sunday at church so far. 
The sermon concluded and the music began. The electric organ was manned by the same older woman as before, peering into her hymnal. There was a younger woman singing falsetto into a mic on a stand on the other side of the stage. As the second song began, our guest, deeply swaying with the music and raising his hands in worship, sleepwalked up to the empty piano bench. He had lost his sunglasses, but his eyes were closed as he forced himself upon the keys. 
The faces of the two women on stage were cement. This was more proof that this church had a very alternative way of ending service, and it was so clever to me. I cannot believe that they planned this all out - a cameo by the mumbling sub-pastor to accentuate the raw emotion of God’s word through music. What a pure and holy way to join in worship. 
I was into it. 
Gabe kept nudging me, but I thought he was just trying to be annoying. The music kept on, and I was moved. I had never seen such a personal outpour of one person’s own truth, on the dry and dusty wood floors of a small church stage. When it was finally over, Vicki and Roger pulled us out to the van without the usual hugs and well-wishes by fellow congregants. 
--- --- ---

Later that day, I listened in disbelief as Vicki explained to us that our bearded shepherd was actually still drunk. He had slept in the parking lot of the church in his truck, after a solid Saturday bender. She even knew some of his family. They didn't go to that church anymore, but they were still in town. I didn’t really know what drunk was, other than you get silly after drinking piss flavored soda. I believed that he could have camped out in the parking lot, to prepare for his morning exclamation, but I absolutely did not believe her when she said he was still drunk. He had opened up to a captive audience to express his joys of the newfound freedom in sobriety. C’mon, Vicki, he wouldn’t still be drunk while saying that - the bars close at night, and once they close, you’re sober again. I didn’t understand why she was lying to us, but I acted like it was no big deal. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The House of Gabriel, Part 1 of 2

It is 1991 and I am ten. 
My mom, dad, and two little sisters lived in a northern California town; a town I thought quite large, though I’ve never had any knowledge of the population. I always expected people to be familiar with Oroville. After the popcorn jokes, many would say, “Yeah I think my uncle has a trailer out there. He stays there in the summer to go to the lake. My parents don’t talk to him anymore.” My dad was open with us about our town being low-class.
The longest stretch I’ve ever been at a single school was two and a half years. From half of second grade through fourth grade, I was sent to a tiny Christian school before we upped and moved again. 
For those years, my best friend was Gabe. 
He was a bit of a bully, mostly out of love, but also (please pardon the coarse expression, but it needs to be written exactly as such) a total queer. This wouldn’t be a problem for him until after high school, and it wasn’t part of our friendship. I wasn’t aware of it until years later, anyway. Gabe and I played lazertag, circled our favorite Nike Air’s in monthly athletic gear catalogs, and spent hours talking about Regina, Tara, Jamie, and Kirstie* well after bed time.
Gabe’s mom and dad were Christians.
Gabe’s mom Vicki, though she was a sweet, conservative, motherly type, said “awesome” a lot. This convinced me that she was herself, awesome. I even remember directly asking my own mom to say “awesome” more often, so I would think she was cooler. I don’t think she did. 
Vicki and Gabe’s dad, Roger, held devotionals every morning. I always hated this, but so many friends’ families required this back then, and Gabe’s was one of the easier ones. They had really soft carpet in the living room to lay on in the morning while they delved through the New Testament. They prayed with us (for what seemed like forever) before we went to bed. They hanged Christian prints in light oak frames of Bible verses that had the stronger words like “awesome”, “life”, “forever and ever” in funky, pastel, cursive fonts. 
They were really, really good people, and they said “Praise Jesus” intermittently while washing dishes, doing homework, or driving through a yellow light. 
He had an older sister from a different dad that was about 15 years older than us, who lived down the street with her kids and husband. She ran a salon out of her garage. I only had a haircut by her a couple times, I think because we couldn’t afford to pay her, or tip her for that matter. Gabe’s sister gave Gabe’s light blonde hair a perm one time in fourth grade. I think he secretly enjoyed the ridicule of the top ramen pie attached to his head. 
Gabe also had an older brother from Vicki’s previous husband that wasn’t allowed to come around. Gabe’s older brother was possessed by at least one demon, possibly more, and we heard a lot about this when we ate dinner at Gabe’s house. The demon made Gabe’s older brother do drugs, steal money, and live in sin with a young girl.
Gabe’s family introduced me to DC Talk, Michael W. Smith, Carmen (the singer), and Michael Sweet’s solo stuff (he was the singer of Stryper, who controversially released the song “To Hell with the Devil”, verbiage that ruffled many Christian music feathers). Vicki’s big conversion van always had a basket of dusty cassettes on the floor between the captains chairs and a tape deck that was never broken. Drives to the Chico Costco were fun and frequent. 
Both Vicki and Roger would palm our heads like a volleyball whenever they’d pray for us, and whatever we were doing rendered a pre and post prayer. This included riding bikes, playing basketball, and going to bed, the store, or school. Every action required a skull-grasping shout out to God. 
Gabe was the first kid to talk to me about my family's divorce. 

We were taking a piss at the end of recess, and I thought I should kinda sit him down and let him know that my mom and dad were getting divorced, you know, break the news gently, so that he didn’t get upset. 
I took a breath and said, “Ya know dude my parents are getting a divorce.” 
Gabe sort of laughed and shot back in a low voice, “Yeah that slut..”
He didn’t mean slut. That wasn't even a word we used. He just didn’t know what to say and had to blurt out something. 

He was actually a very nice guy, his words were usually quite sweet, and it was obvious he didn’t know what he was talking about, nor how to talk about it. He wasn’t a particularly funny kid, and that was the only way that he knew to give a kneejerk reference to the subject of divorce. He didn't know if there was cheating going on or anything. 
I just said, “What?” 
He replied, “Oh nothin nothin. Yeah man that's sad. You’re gonna be okay though. Sorry man.” 
We didn’t talk about it again, and I didn’t talk to anyone my age about it for many, many years. 
Vicki was the first adult to talk to me about the divorce. I didn’t even know it was called that at the time. I just thought things were rough and my mom and dad were mad at each other all the time. She brought it up on a drive to school. I didn’t know why she was so sad. She was basic about it. She just asked how I was doing with everything at home and I knew from her tone what she was talking about - though I had no idea how she could possibly know what was up. It perplexed me, and sort of angered me that she knew my secret, but it was comforting after a while, for years in fact, that she went out on a limb and mentioned it to show she cared. 
Vicki and Roger were strict, but they loved spoiling their baby, Gabe. They also loved spoiling me when I was around. I don’t have any proof, but I feel like the extended praying, the groggy devotionals, the punctuality of Sunday services (and other days of the week if we were that unlucky) were amped up when I was around. I never talked to Gabe about it, but I always had that feeling. Like they were watching out for me. 
Church was, at that time, just being with Gabe's family. 

They taught me that this stuff was important. It was more important than school, more important than friends, more important than my family, especially while my family was weathering a nasty, drawn-out divorce. 
*Gabe had an obsession, at the age of 10, with Kirstie Alley, which neither proves nor denies his homosexuality.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

H-ROCK! Part 3 of 3: The Sermon


I want to butt into my own conversation (Josh will love that phrase) and remind you there is an overarching goal to our church search. 

The previous posts had a lot of very superficial commentary, and intentionally so. My goal is to note all the un-noted things; small and large, physical and spiritual, human and animal (wait what?). Church needs to suit me again, whatever church is. To make this happen, I am in the process of looking back through all the experiences that struck such loud notes with me, recent and long past, and tweaking the mixer. The high notes, the low notes, and the balance are all being adjusted. I want to make this whole church thing sound good again. 

And with that, unpause: 

The H-ROCK announcements finally came. 

The pastor's son sauntered up to the Sugar Ray spotlight. This guy put on the casual thing, and put it on thick. He was my age (late 20’s/early 30’s), Asian, and good looking. I can’t confirm, but I think I remember seeing slippers. The way he spoke reminded me of so many youth pastors, struggling to really, really convince you they are down. He used subtle “you guys” and “ya know”s. He was good at it. He gave off a very strong “my dad owns the place” vibe, though his words were nothing but humble- written on an index card, and humble. He wasn’t up there long enough to get to me, but I’m glad I’m not in his college group. 
The pastor, who we'll call Charlie - seeing as since I've started this blog, more people than I ever thought possible know personally someone close to this church's upper management- and Charlie's wife had been on-stage clapping and generally getting into it for the last quarter hour, so it was natural for Charlie to just go into his sermon when the music was (finally) done. 

Pastor Charlie didn’t exactly break the mold for me, but he certainly gave it a few stress fractures. He was wearing an awful, sparkly, embroidered shirt and expensive jeans. His watch was deflecting the pin-spots into the mezzanine and rafters like a wrist-mounted light saber. I imagine that when he looks back on the video of the sermon, it may remind him of the sword of the spirit mixed with a little Peter Parker. I can't ever remember being offended by a pastor's garb. This outfit was loud and I was forced to ask myself, "What kind of pastor is comfortable putting that on?" 
Pastor Charlie seemed very cool. Like, just real enough, yet just crazy enough for me to want to have a one-on-one conversation with him. He is probably smart. He is probably a lot like this off-stage, too. This was comfortable. You were getting the real Charlie. Unfortunately, he eventually broke down the “hey it’s just you and me here, fella” thing with some common church rhetoric. He started a lot of sentences with, “my friends” and the old go-to, "brothers and sisters".. 
Charlie also did something else that I’ve only seen before in smaller churches, or in a small group or special Wednesday service. 

Charlie mentioned no less than three times that he used to be a “drug pusher”. It wasn’t only that, it was the fact that when he did, he would follow it up with “selling and pushing drugs on my own street corner”. It was a phrase. It wasn’t used as a sad and personal specific detail, to really bring home a point. It was part of his vernacular. My supposition is that this congregation tunes that little tidbit out after attending H-ROCK a few Sunday’s in a row. There were no gasps. 

I always wonder about the fine line between appropriate content and the size of the congregation. There were probably 400 people in that service, and in any other service that size, I can imagine a more watered down version of “drug pusher” would be used, if mentioned at all. Yeah, not mentioned at all. 
The sermon was based around customer service. He flowed into it. He knew how to talk to people. I got the feeling there was only 20 people in the room - that's a good thing for a newbie to feel. And being that he was yapping about customer service as the sermon's fulcrum, as a small business owner myself, I’m thinking I came on a pretty good Sunday. 
Pastor Charlie used the example of a trip to Alaska and his interaction with the customer service reps at the Nordstrom store in Anchorage when he needed to return something during a trip. It was a very simple story. The expected overtones of the Holy Spirit intervening into his retail episode were not present. 

He didn't dance through his words, he didn't push them up a hill. I would say that Charlie sort of pawed at them with two hands. He interrupted his own sentences about every minute - which was acceptable (as in, not super annoying). When he did this, it kept your attention. Charlie was into it. Charlie really, seriously, wanted to tell you about his thoughts on this Nordy thing and his returned merchandise. 

Charlie's point was that we, as Christians (which he didn't assume we all were [smart Charlie!]), should be like Nordstrom. 

Charlie used a lot of wikipedia-ish stats about the financial status of not only Nordstroms, but many other shops that you've heard of, in between, of course, references to himself as a former drug pusher, you know, selling and pushing drugs on his own street corner. 

Charlie's frank manner and open method of speaking to his shadowed congregation did two things for me: 

1) Made a simple point very clear that as Christians, we are to be servants to everyone, in every situation, and through that, the Lord will do His thing. This was a great point. It hit home. It was easy to swallow. I hadn’t heard it in a long time. It was easy to implement. Easy. I call that a good sermon, mostly because I still remember it.

2) It made me see what kind of guy this Pastor Charlie is, in the real world. I got an almost uncomfortably voyeuristic look at this person who runs what I would consider a huge church, in a normal situation that included his opinions on personal belongings, travel, ego, and money. He gave it all up, and I don't get the sense he knew it. The part that I am disappointed in myself a bit with, is that I didn’t really like Charlie after that. His sermon hit home, his sermon worked. But Charlie seemed without a doubt, full of himself, a bit ignorant, and absolutely obsessed with money. 
I believe that just as the love of money is the root of all evil, like I’ve been taught since childhood, I also believe that not Charlie, but the second affect that Charlie's sermon had on me, has something significant to do with what I'm missing in church. 

Next: Well I still haven't picked. Let me ask you. Which of the following should I post? 






Thursday, July 28, 2011


We made our way successfully through the throng of outstretched hands and earth tone henley’s, which showed my wife and I, the H-ROCK rookies, a style of greet-efficiency that would have put any major stadium security or Ritz Carlton concierge to shame.  
When you enter H-ROCK, it feels special. 

You’re not at church. The ceiling disappears as you walk through the corridors and into an aisle. It sounds creepy, but there is darkness and holy music everywhere. A gentle sensory overload that just feels right. You’re enveloped in whatever H-ROCK is.

I instantly made sure my wife was still beside me and squinted to make out the aisle, ensuring we didn't trip on anything. Check and check. This aisle, by the way, is sloped so sharply that you can’t help feel that maybe when the resurrection comes, it isn’t going to pull us up. It may just pull us all down. You fall into H-ROCK, and with that kind of slant, your pace unintentionally speeds up. Every fresh attendee looks like they cannot wait to join the morning service. 
The shift in atmosphere is breathtaking, and it is natural to hastily remind yourself of the many normal things you already did this morning, to assure yourself you’re in the right place. You totally remembered to brush your teeth, you were listening to Car Talk on NPR five minutes ago, and you wore the thick socks that feel good with these shoes. Those all seem like they happened yesterday, now that you're in H-ROCK. 

The music that surrounds you is so well-mixed that you feel like someone slipped on an invisible pair of Bose headphones without you noticing. It was probably that last greeter. He was too happy. 
I was too overwhelmed to find us seats. My wife dibbed us spots, and I don’t remember that part. It wasn’t packed, there were plenty of empty spaces, it just takes a moment to believe you’re not in some freaky movie theater. No one was sitting yet, so there we stood, humming along to the music instinctively before we had opened our programs or spotted the lyrics on the projection screen. We did not know the particular tune, but there they were, and it was as if your mother sang you to sleep with them as a child. 
And it sinks in. You’re inside H-ROCK. You feel bad about calling it huhrock and balking at the gaudy banners. You hope no one knew you thought that in the first place. This is the real deal. The lighting matches the music. It’s spectacular. It moves and changes in what I can only call a heavenly display. You don’t consider the monetary cost of that until much later in the service. The contrast between the raised, fully lit stage and the smoky shadows of faceless wailers in the audience is surreal. You immediately reference the last big concert you attended. The National playing at The Wiltern, man. I was back there, drunk, except it was Sunday morning, and much more comfortable. The air was the perfect temperature. There wasn’t the sense of an A/C duct blowing anywhere near us, it was a breeze. I still don’t know how they pulled that off. 
The songs weep and moan with fervor. They’re familiar, yet I’ve never heard them before. All the fundamental instruments are present, though it took me a bit to take inventory of what was actually going on up there. 
The H-ROCK performers guiding our worship were larger than life, and they were all the right ones. 

In the middle was the leader. Think Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray. Not like him, him. Down to the hair (head, face, and chest), the fancy, ripped jeans, the untucked, worn, collared shirt with one less button buttoned, and a sweet acoustic guitar. Perfect. If God created man in His image, this guy would be anyone's casting pic for Adam in the movie. 

The leader was flanked on his left by a tall, gorgeous, black man. He was flanked on his right by what non-believers would refer to as a smokin’ hot Armenian girl. Both of them were dressed stylishly and conservatively. They all looked like they could be anywhere between 23 and 29, but with their facial and body structures combined with the lighting effects, I have no idea. Think Tyrese Gibson and the younger Kardashian sister. I’m serious, they were beautiful. They were placed far enough on the stage that you didn’t think they were sleeping together - Please, it was two uncommonly pretty people, you’d think the same thing. They were singing their hearts out to our God, in perfect harmony (Tyrese was handling the extra trailing runs towards the end of the verses, and he was damn good at it, pulling the mic away for the loudest parts and all). 
The backing band as a whole was even more picturesque. Two black-clad, slightly chubby Asian girls, possibly sisters, passionately played violin and keyboard with inhuman synchronicity, solemnly staring in each other’s faces at many points. The drummer was an older white guy with a propensity for big drum intros, and spot-on beats. He was kept at bay with that horrible plexiglass perimeter many churches use, though this one just seemed cleaner and clearer. The white, style-challenged bass player and lead guitarist were both on small raised columns towards the back, the effect of which was camoflauged by the clever lighting (no one wants a spot-lit rhythm section). They were easily forgotten, but if you chose to focus on them at any one moment, they were talented, rocking out, and loving it. 

As a centerpiece, there was also a grand piano (on wheels) in the middle of the stage. It went unused and seemed out of place, until a deep song transition when Sugar Ray swung his guitar around his back and calmly but confidently sat at the bench. Adjusting the tabletop mic to his mouth, resetting his shoulders and spreading his hands on the keys, he visually reminded the congregation that to really worship, you must use all the gifts He has given you - and oh look, brothers and sisters, here’s a piano. 
If you've ever been retail shopping in Pasadena, then you’d know that the worship band of H-ROCK is a remarkably accurate racial representation of our fair Crown City. 
The thing that surprised me the most about the H-ROCK worship, was that it was an hour long. With the main service beginning at 10:30am (an almost irreverently late start, in my opinion) we didn't meet the pastor until our legs were weak and our heels burned. After the emotionally weighted music, in unison with the lighting, on-stage beauty, between-song spiritual mumblings, and my own need to just partake in a nice worship session, I was drained. They could have told me they had proof Jesus piloted a UFO, Job was a little complainy bitch, and the pastor was stoned. I still would have left thinking that I should probably invite my friends to this church, somehow. 

Next up: The Sermon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

H-ROCK! Part 1

In a prominent mid-century modern hall planted squarely at the peak of Pasadena’s own sinful strip, Colorado Boulevard, there’s a church called H-ROCK. Everything about H-ROCK is carefully designed to be, quite simply, the shit. 
Bright orange banners (we’re talking like 50 feet tall) are installed to fit into the building’s own vertically linear facade. I appreciate that this contemporary addition was designed around the original design, at least. From about a mile away, you can make out the bold font on these loud banners. H-ROCK. Because this church is along my daily drive, I thought the banners were for a new, zealous youth group. I thought it was put together by a college, perhaps nearby Fuller Seminary (no way), or maybe even a more westerly off-shoot of Azusa Pacific University. Surely this firey youth program cannot monopolize this entire building. The building is large and stunning. I don’t know for what purpose it was built, but I would assume it was some sort of meeting or event hall for one of the local museums, colleges, or big corporations. It was obviously built in a time of prosperity during what has become my absolute favorite era of commercial architecture. Think MadMen West. If it was originally built to be a church, it must have been a strong and progressive one. 
H-ROCK was not this church's God-given name. It used to be called “Harvest Rock”. I don’t know when they launched the tangerine-tone campaign, but at some point it was decided H-ROCK was an appropriate improvement. I have a particularly tough time with the revised title, being a more literal reader. I fully understand how you're supposed to say it. H. Rock. I get it, but I always say it in my head as “huhrock”. I end up mouthing it repeatedly to get rid of the hyphen, and you know saying anything over and over makes it sound bizarre and foreign. At that point it just degrades in my head. “Huhrock. harock. crock. crotch.” I can’t help it. Saying “aitch-rock” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. It turns into Russian. Hyello komrades! Plees jyoin me ayt aitch-Яock!
My wife and I made our decided morning voyage to H-ROCK, and were anything but alone. A-frame signs were put out on all the surrounding streets. You couldn’t miss them. They were brand-new and bright white. They were all exactly perpendicular to the street, as if placed by God’s very own parking patrol. The graphic design was startlingly well done. These were the expected yet surprising miniature versions of the towering orange banners looking down onto the San Gabriel Valley. I was unsure if these little signs were set up to actually broadcast the parking instructions, or just to inform the droves of passing cars headed to the nearby Rose Bowl flea market that there was something very big, very orange, very rad going on here. I noticed the “H-ROCK” text was much bigger than the traffic-guiding arrows. 
With all this parking forewarning, we decided it would be best to park in the first space, in the first lot we found. I mean, if the signs are a half-mile away, there’s gotta be a huge jam when we get close by. 

We parked in a near-empty lot, the first we found. The H-ROCK branded sign sat proudly at the entry, greeting us with its stylishly weathered fonts. This was the parking lot belonging to the old Pasadena Moose Lodge.

I feel it went like this: A sleepy pair of H-ROCK youth volunteers brainlessly placed that sign at the lot’s entryway, early in the morning, as instructed. The sign indicated “You’re in H-ROCK’s hood, y’all”. The H-ROCKers were confident that at some point in recent years, H-ROCK’s big cheeses made a handshake deal with the elderly cheeses of Moose Lodge for use of their smoothly-paved and highly-underutilized parking. They had to. There’s just too much H-ROCKing going on across the street. An H-ROCK cannot survive on an H-ROCK lot alone. Looking at the dusty relic that was the grand, colonial Moose Lodge, and seeing the sparse Lincoln Continentals and Buick LeSabre’s parked in the spaces closest to the Moose entry, it just felt disrespectful. This plot of land once supported the hooves and wooden wheels of horses and carriages ridden by Pasadena dignitaries. Though forgotten by present-day passers-by, the Moose lot is meticulously maintained just the same. Now it pragmatically accepts vehicle overflow of a few confused stragglers drawn to an unpronounceable neighbor. 

We entered the stream. We walked the block and a half in the same direction as the scattered, young families and Asian college students. We had no idea where the front door was, but it would be impossible to end up anywhere other than the gates of H-ROCK. As we turned the corner to the front of the building, it became apparent there was in fact no parking shortage, nor was there any traffic jam. This was indicated by a steady and spread-out flow of cars into a huge garage. The kind of flow you'd expect to see in the background of a car commercial with a mod parking garage as the backdrop. H-ROCK’s Public Signage Outreach Program had psyched us out. Oh well. 

We get to the funnel of folks at the building's entry. I do well at this part. I have a marginally cool haircut, two pretty bold tattoos on my forearms, and a cute wife. All this paired with a decent shirt usually gets me through most church crowds with the absolute minimum of obligatory interaction. Tattoos mean: “Oh my, maybe he’s looking for some spiritual guidance”. Being well-dressed with a pretty girl means: “Eh, he’s probably got it figured out, and he’s not gay. I’m gonna get some coffee”. 

H-ROCK does have more truly attentive greeters per square foyer foot than any other church I’ve attended, without a doubt. No matter which type of congregation, be it a church, a bar, a hotel, or a DMV, it’s just awkward guarding a door, any door.  I don’t feel one way or the other about this part of the churchgoing experience. 

It is perfectly fine to trade a name and a nicety as a cover charge at church. It is a small price to pay for entry to a place you didn’t help build, and that you have no commitment to. So I gladly say hello and consider that my rent. And with this, we got through the name-tagged turnstile of anxious H-ROCK greeters. 

Next up: ENTER THE H.