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?