Thursday, April 24, 2003
Thanks so much to everyone who sent prayers and condolences my way.
I'm going to spend the weekend in San Francisco for the memorial service, so there will be no blogging for a few more days. However, a few days ago I wrote an email to Telford about my friend, which he said was the sort of thing that should be read at the service. I don't think that'll happen, but in lieu of that I'll reprint most of it here:
I've been thinking about the influence John had on my
current "walk." I didn't talk about him a lot to you,
but I think he had a profound influence. There were a
few important Christians in my life before you, and
definitely he was one of the most important.
I met him in 1996, when he arrived as a temp at the
office where I used to work. He had lived in SF for
about a year then, I think -- he grew up in the
Central Valley. He really didn't have any friends
there. Like me, he was pretty slow at socializing. If
you think you're a geek, he was a GEEK. He had a huge
collection of comic books and could tell you all the
ins and outs of the relations between the Federation
and the Klingon Empire. He lacked social skills and
had this weird, affected way of talking (one friend
said he sounded exactly like Roger Thornhill in North
by Northwest). He also suffered from frequent
depression, which I think came at least partly from
his diabetes, which was then undiagnosed.
So he didn't exactly bowl me over on first impression,
but gradually we became friends. He invited me to the
First Covenant Church, which he had been going to
since he moved to SF, and I went to a few services
there. We then got into a protracted series of debates
about Christianity, much like I've been having with
you. This went on for a while until it pretty much
came to a deadlock, and thereafter we dropped the
subject. But we kept seeing each other socially.
One day shortly after this he called me up and
announced, "I'm going to say a bunch of things that
are going to annoy you and make you want to hang up."
This time it wasn't about God, though. He had called
me to tell me he had developed a crush on me. It kind
of vexed him because he had told himself he would only
date Christians, but he wanted to go out with me.
I did go out with him, once. But I had to give him the
whole I-like-you-but-not-in-that-way thing.
After essentially being rejected twice, he would have
been forgiven for not having much to do with me. But
that, you might say, is where the real witnessing
started. He remained an utterly steadfast friend; in
fact I became almost like his virtual girlfriend,
because we did so many things together. One woman we
knew said we seemed like an old married couple, we
were so much on the same wavelength.
Over time, I also saw the effect the church was having
on John. When we met he was new there and didn't know
anyone there well, but the community didn't judge his
weirdness and really embraced him. Slowly he
blossomed, and became a lot less gloomy and more
confident. I was pleased, because for a while his
social life was basically just me, and I knew I was
After I moved to L.A., naturally, we had a lot less
contact. And when he started seeing his girlfriend Ina
about a year ago (they met through an Internet
matching service, of all things), I was no longer the
woman in his life. I think that worsened my
disaffection last year. When he came down last summer
to visit Ina (and me) he saw what a funk I was in and
all but ordered me to spend a weekend in SF with him.
I did that in September. But he just wasn't able to
deal with the magnitude of my troubles.
I think it was partly because of the whole experience
with John that I turned to you, and to CA. I think the
love that the church showed for him, and that he
showed for me, led me to hope that love could be found
there. If it could rescue one screwed-up nerd, why not
It's a shame you never met him, but I know he was
really happy I connected with you and with CA. I think
he was glad you could provide the 'ministry' that he
couldn't, much as I was glad the church provided him
the emotional support that I couldn't. I think if you
do meet on one of the golden streets of the New
Jerusalem, he'll thank you. I like to think we will be
there, because it hurts too much to think anything
Monday, April 21, 2003
Shortly after I posted the last post, I got a call telling me one of my closest friends had died. I don't think I'll be posting a lot in the near future. But those of you who pray (and I know there are at least a few of you!), please think of my friend John and all his family and friends.
As I mentioned a while back, for the last few months I've been volunteering for a food giveaway the Christian Assembly does in Watts. I have long wanted to do work for the poor, and this was a good start. But it's only once a month, and I'd like to do more. CA, however, has just been developing its charities in the last few years, and it doesn't have anything else going on locally.
I asked around about programs at other churches I might get into, and one person at Alpha directed me to All Saints. All Saints is a very different animal from the CA; it's an old Episcopal church in downtown Pasadena, known for its liberalism. Telford was actually baptized there as an infant, but his Republican family left after a few years because the clergy was getting into Vietnam War protests. The church is still highly politicized -- if you go to the main page on the website, you'll see a picture of a rector getting arrested while protesting the Iraq war. But the church is also known for its efforts to help the local poor and homeless and so on, which is what the Alpha leader thought would interest me. And Telford, who is nothing if not ecumenical (at least within Christianity) invited me to go to the Good Friday service, which his family attends every year.
The difference between CA and All Saints starts with the architecture. CA is a plain modern building with a modern (and fairly ugly) hexagonal sanctuary; All Saints is a traditional stone church with a vaulted ceiling, stained-glass windows and elaborately carved altar and pulpit. At CA you can take or leave the programs that they hand to you when you come in, because the service is so unstructured. At All Saints you'd better pick one up or you'll be totally lost, because everything is ritualized and scheduled.
The music is also quite different. As I've described before, CA has a rock-type band, and you pick up the songs by ear (though fortunately they project the lyrics on overhead screens). All Saints has two choirs, with the good Anglican names of the Canterbury Choir and the Coventry Choir, and the singalong parts of the program are printed as sheet music in the liturgy. They do a mixture of old hymns, classical devotionals by folks like Bach and Beethoven, modern-classical pieces, and what used to be called Negro spirituals. I was kind of skeptical about the last, because those songs always sound goofy sung in the classical style, especially in dialect. So I was shocked when, about halfway through a song called, "He Never Said a Mumbalin' Word," I had tears in my eyes. Those black spirituals can rip your heart out, even in the middle of a tony Episcopal church.
The mood of the whole thing was appropriately somber, and I liked that. Pentecostals are good at joyfulness, but it can get to be irritating sometimes, especially when you aren't feeling so joyful yourself. Sorrow is part of life, and a church that does it well can be valuable in its own way. CA also doesn't do much of anything meditative or inward, and I had missed that. There's a song the band does occasionally that would make a neat meditation: "Here I am, seeking after you/Listening for your still, small voice..." But whenever they play it everything goes full-throttle before you know it, with people standing and stretching their arms in the air. It always makes me think, can't we scale it back once in a while?
I didn't talk to anyone on staff when I went on Friday, but I noticed on the website that there was to be a "newcomers coffee" on Sunday morning. I decided to go to that and then stick around for the late Easter service.
When I arrived, I asked an usher to direct me to the rector's office for the coffee.
"Actually, I don't think there is a newcomers' coffee this morning," he said.
"It says so on the website," I protested.
"Well, that doesn't mean anything," he said.
And indeed, there wasn't one; everybody was too busy with Easter. So I hung around a while thinking about the fact that churches would really be a lot more seeker-friendly if they actually gave a !@# about their websites. If you look at the CA's site, it's little more than a glorified Yellow Pages listing. I remember one time I wasn't sure when the next Watts visit would be, and my mother said, "Why don't you look it up on the website?" I replied, "You'd think it would be there, wouldn't you?" But it has nothing about that, or about small group activities or any special events. You wouldn't know that the schedule changed for Easter weekend, or that you had to park in a different lot. That information was given out in previous services.
In a way there's something charming about this reliance on old-fashioned communication, but it's pretty unfriendly to anyone who isn't already networked in. I realize CA might just not have enough volunteer geeks to keep the site updated, but All Saints' site is fairly extensive, so I don't know why they'd put up with inaccurate information.
But I digress.
The priest's sermon at the Easter service also magnified the subcultural difference between the two churches. In a way, their makeup isn't that different -- the racial mix is about the, and they're both basically middle-class. But the priest started out his sermon talking about the big Matisse/Picasso exhibit he'd visited while in London recently, and analogized the two artists' different takes on the same subjects to the four Gospels' different takes on the same story. The CA pastor, on the other hand, favors analogies about surfing.
The priest also spoke about -- and defended -- the church's anti-war activism. Some say church and politics don't mix, he said, but he believed he could not truly follow Christ and steer clear of involvement. The Prince of Peace had no tolerance for violence.
This was interesting to me because the way Telford first caught my attention (though he didn't realize it) was in a debate last summer about pacifism. (If you didn't see it at the time, start here and keep scrolling up.) Telford also believes Christians should not commit violence, but he does not think they should promote pacifism by way of state power. To do so would confuse the kingdom of God with the earthly kingdoms.
In a way, I sympathize with them both. The whole reason Telford's words so impressed me back then was that they called to an idealism in me that had almost disappeared under layers of armor I had built up against the world. Especially after 9/11, many people turned angry and hateful towards the enemies of the U.S.; and yet the secular peace activists often seemed equally angry and hateful. I was drawn to the hope that there is still room for compassion in this world, despite all the heartbreak.
Is the attitude of All Saints' priest the logical extension of this compassion? In a way it seems so, and yet his case was not airtight. For one thing, he lapsed into that frequent failing of political Christians, speaking outside his area of expertise. Talk soon moved away from the ideals of Christ towards practical ideas of how to deal with the current conflict, through international law and so on, that seem like a matter of policy on whose efficacy people with the same goals can disagree. They should not be confused with religious doctrine. (Leftist Christians are hardly the only guilty parties here; the Assemblies of God, for instance, opines in its doctrine that pornography isn't covered by the First Amendment.)
But the larger problem, I think, was that he often made the anti-war argument through its supposed temporal consequences. War only begets more war, this war will beget more terrorists, etc. But I think any honest discussion of war has to admit that it often works, at least in the sense of achieving its objectives. Sometimes, a whole lot of people really are bettter off for it. That may be the case for this as well. The difficulty of opposing war -- as with many sins -- is not that it fails but that it succeeds.
Lately a lot of warbloggers have been engaged in a utilitarian calculus, weighing the war dead against the benefits to the surviving Iraqis and to us. Such calculations are sensible, but they're also horrible. If you look upon people as more than scoring-marks, you should wonder: isn't there a better way?
In that sense, I think the priest and Telford are on the same page. The priest described three ways to respond to evil: do nothing, fight it violently, and create communities of good within evil. It's the last to which Christians are called, he said; to sit at the table with all comers, even their enemies. I think Telford would agree.
Anywa, there really is a newcomers' coffee next week, so I'll be back.
Sunday, April 20, 2003
When I try to sing this song, I
Oh, I try to stand up
But I can't find my feet
I try, I try to speak up
But only in you I'm complete
In te domine
Oh Lord, loosen my lips