on the nature of churches

MexicanRestaurantSome years ago my hair stylist made the comment that all the churches in town are alike. I thought that a rather odd comment, and I knew then and know now it not to be true. To visit Gilroy United Methodist Church vs. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, vs. South Valley Community Church vs. Gilroy Presbyterian Church is to have very different experiences. I scratch my head than someone would think otherwise.

But I saw a similar comment recently from a clergyperson I respect, Boston-area Unitarian minister Victoria Weinstein, aka PeaceBang. Her thought process was started by a visit to a local family-owned restaurant. She writes:

I went to get dinner at a little neighborhood Mexican restaurant without thinking of it as a “Mexican” restaurant. I was hungry, and this place is like stopping at a family member’s house for dinner. They’re glad to see you but they don’t get all big deal about it. You sit in the kitcheny living roomy space and wait patiently while dad or mom or sister or grandma cooks up your food, and it’s going to take awhile. The decor isn’t really decor so much as Things We Have On The Walls Because We Like Them, like a big Jesus poster with a prayer in Spanish. For some reason I never thought of it being specifically Mexican food until I got home with it.

I love that image, and we all enjoy supporting such places. But this led her to a conclusion with which I don’t agree:

It made me think about churches that obsess about branding and denominational identity. I think that people need to be able to go to their neighborhood church and just be fed.

I really don’t believe it works that way.

Some people love being part of charismatic churches where the congregation sings praise songs with hands raised in the air. For myself, I find that uncomfortable, bordering upon creepy. But this works for many people. For many, the Methodist routine of a set order of service with hymns, scripture readings, a choir anthem, and a sermon works very well.

Episcopal worship includes all of the above, but also includes Communion. You know how important that is to me. But a friend of mine and her husband attend the Methodist church in the town up the road. Most Methodist churches have Communion once a quarter. Way too infrequently for me. But she and her husband are part of the recovery community and the husband simply skips church on those Sundays.

Different things work for different people. A church is not like a neighborhood polling place or even a neighborhood family-owned restaurant. One size does not fit all.


the right decision

Last month I wrote about having made the decision to switch doctors so I was seeing a physician at a clinic in my medical group that was closer and easier to get to. Of course when one makes such a decision one often second-guesses oneself, which I did a certain amount of. It turns out though, that I made the right decision.

stethescopeThe new clinic is much smaller than the old, and hence the lab is much smaller. But that also means fewer patients waiting. Rather than having to wait an hour and end up getting an extern (as they call them) who has difficulty with my hard-to-find veins and ends up having to go to an experienced technician for help, I waited just a few minutes and got an experienced technician who had me in and out of there before I knew it.

As for my new primary care physician, he was thorough and straightforward. He asked a lot of questions, listened to my answers, and made suggestions. He commended me on my exercise routine. There was no lecturing and no bragging about his stellar healthy vegetarian lifestyle and gym regimen as I got from my previous doctor. He understood my work situation, the company I work for, and the high-tech industry, something my previous doctor never seemed to be in touch with.

I guess I did indeed make the right decision.


Out of the Vinyl Deeps

A book review and a Pitzer College recollection

vinyldeepsOut of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
Ellen Willis
Kindle Edition $13.81
Paperback $16.26

If you remember the rock music of the 1970’s, this book will be a trip down memory lane. Willis was music critic for The New Yorker and wrote for other publications as well. She died in 2006, but this anthology was put together with the help of her daughter. Willis writes about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Moby Grape, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin (in one essay comparing the pre-Big Brother and the Holding Company Joplin to the Joplin who sang with that group), and others. Essays come from as early as 1968 and as late as 1980, but most of them overlap with my years at Pitzer, 1971 to 1975. Since the month of publication was also included with each essay (September 1971, March 1973) the book also took me through my residence hall sojourn at Pitzer.

PitzerftnsmI hope you’ll indulge me as I recall that journey.

  • Fall 1971 — Corridor A1 in Sanborn Hall, an all-male all-freshman corridor.
  • Spring 1972 — Corridor C1 in Sanborn Hall, a co-ed corridor where I had Todd as my roommate, with Sue and Leslie across the hall.
  • Fall 1972 — Holden Hall, I believe it was corridor L1. Dario was my roommate.
  • Spring 1973 — Back to Sanborn A1, now all black men except for me and the guys on the other side of the bathroom. It was noisy, but it was a double room I had to myself.
  • All of 1973 – 1974 — A suite in Mead Hall several of us put together which we called the quiet suite and where we all got along nicely, except for the brief stay of one interloper.
  • All of 1974 – 1975 — A room off campus in a big old house on College Avenue, a place I still look on with great affection.

That’s it. I had to get this out of my system. So thank you for indulging me.


a way of looking at the Bible

A week ago Sunday, 8 September, was Pentecost 16, Proper 18 and the gospel reading was Luke 14:25-33, which includes some harsh language:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

BibleFr. Phil had an interesting take on this. He reminded us that the gospels were written in a time of tumult, when the followers of Jesus were being thrown out of the synagogues. The readers of the gospel of Luke and the other gospels were under a lot of stress and no doubt confused. He suggested:

So how are you and I going to read these hard words attributed to Jesus?  We can read them as intended for one specific circumstance in history; some things do not bear to be repeated.  Some words never need to be applicable again.  All of the Bible does not have to have future application; many of the words can simply remain the historical record of a single event in the history of a particular group of people.

That can relieve a lot of stress for us today, ya know?


Yom Kippur

YomKippurI remember the one time I attended an Erev Yom Kippur service. It was in Oklahoma City in the early 1980’s. I think it was much later in the fall that year, because I remember it being cold and blustery. It was before my late first wife Ruth, Jewish and the child of survivors of the Holocaust, took offense at what she perceived to be a slam at her New Age vocation in a sermon the rabbi had preached, and we stopped attending Friday evening Shabbat services. I remember how deeply that Erev Yom Kippur service, and in particular the Kol Nidre, resonated with me.

You know how I feel, of course. I have mentioned it many times before. I love the perspective of rabbinic Judaism with its emphasis on one’s direct relationship with God. I have never felt the need for an intermediary and I have long thought the doctrine of the Trinity to be unnecessary. Yet I remain an Episcopalian, a tradition deeply immersed in the doctrine of the Trinity, and I deeply value the privilege of receiving Communion each week.

Still, on this most solemn of Holy Days, on this Day of Atonement, I pause for a moment of reflection.

To all of my Jewish friends, may you have an easy fast.


The Last Train to Zona Verde

lasttrainThe Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari
Paul Theroux
Print Length: 373 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 7, 2013)
Kindle Edition $9.45, Hardcover $18.69

I have read almost all of Paul Theroux’s travel books, and some of his fiction as well. I read The Great Railway Bazaar when it was first published in 1975. Most of his other travel books I also read when they first came out. If I somehow missed a book I corrected the error when I learned of it. One of the few I didn’t read was Dark Star Safari, because its subject was Africa, and that part of the world holds less of an interest for me than does the rest of the world. As I recall, the reviews at the time accused Theroux of being a curmudgeon, a characterization he disputed.

When I saw the reviews of Last Train, I downloaded the Kindle sample and added it my queue. Yes, the book is about Africa, but the word “ultimate” in the subtitle doesn’t mean “best” or “greatest,” but rather last. That meant I had to read the book. However, I failed to note that the subtitle reads “My Ultimate African Safari,” and not “My Ultimate Safari,” or “My Ultimate Sojourn.” More on that shortly.

Theroux does his usual masterful job of vividly describing the people and places he encounters. As one would expect in Africa, there is plenty of poverty and a lack of infrastructure and Western amenities. But Theroux was happy to be there, and I saw no trace of curmudgeon-like behavior. Africa, after all, is close to his heart. He was in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the 1960’s and later taught at a university in Uganda. It’s easy to understand his desire to make that last trip.

I wouldn’t quote the closing paragraph of a novel, but it seems appropriate here to quote how Theroux ends the book. I think that he sums it all up nicely, and he seems to have gotten Africa out of his system. So if you have thoughts of reading The Last Train to Zona Verde you may want to stop reading here. Theroux brings his journeys in Africa to a close by writing:

Not the end of travel, or of reckless essaying— there is no end to those for me— but the end of this trip and this sort of travel, marinated in politics and urban wreckage, where the only possible narrative I see (and am unwilling to write) is an anatomy of melancholy. There is a world elsewhere.

What am I doing here? I knew at last. I am preparing to leave. On the red clay roads of the African bush among poor and overlooked people, I often thought of the poor in America, living in just the same way, precariously, on the red roads of the Deep South, on low farms, poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills— people I knew only from books, as I’d first known Africans— and I felt beckoned home.


on being unassuming

XiamenI have written about my Facebook friend and fellow blogger, Mike Todd. Mike used to be married and live in Vancouver, Canada. Then he got divorced and moved to Xiamen, China. How’s that for making a major life change? Mike often writes on Facebook about the cultural idiosyncrasies he observes. And he has a tendency to be unassuming and self-effacing.

I really appreciated the comment he made about hearing Simon and Garfunkel sing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” in an elevator in Xiamen:

I’m not completely unfamiliar with the complexities of the various theories of globalization—I know, for instance, that it’s a small world after all…

Thank you, Mike, for that.