So, this was yesterday: two very different church services, not enough sleep, and a lot of singing.
I should explain that, after taking the summer off, my church's choir started up again last week, this time with me in it. After I participated in the one-off women's choir a few months ago the music director buttonholed me and extracted a promise that I would be there come September. Actually it wasn't as painful as I just made it sound, because I like to sing, and haven't had a venue to do it in a long time.
So this meant that on Sunday, I did not follow my usual routine of sleeping till whenever and going to whichever service was convenient. Instead I was wakened by the alarm at seven and did a lot of frantic running around, trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. Fortunately, it wasn't really that complicated, and the old hands in the choir helped me out.
When I got home I sat down in my easy chair and found it extremely difficult to get up again. It's been very very hot here in L.A. for the last 10 days or so, and I don't have air conditioning. Since I live just a couple miles from the beach, with no hills in between to interrupt the ocean breezes, only on rare occasions do I miss it. But this has been one of those occasions. It doesn't bother me so much during the day, but it disturbs my sleep. I wake up all sweaty with the sheets in a tangle, feeling distinctly unrested.
In the late afternoon, however, I managed to pull myself together for the appointment I mentioned in the last post to meet Katie at Bel Air Presbyterian. The church has two morning services and one at 6 p.m., which Katie and her boyfriend normally attend, so I could conveniently check out the new church without missing choir at my present one.
Mulholland Drive runs along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, the row of hills that separates the San Fernando Valley from the rest of Los Angeles. Their slopes hold some of the most expensive real estate in America -- Bel Air, Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills, Brentwood, and on the somewhat less chichi Valley side, Encino. But the strip around Mulholland itself is protected land, with only the occasional public building interrupting the scrubland and sky. And there, looming up on its own mound as if on top of the world, stands the church.
I got there a little early, so I walked across the parking lot to admire the view. The lot is nearly perched on the edge of a cliff, and on that clear and nearly smogless day I could see almost the whole bowl-shaped Valley, brown hills rimming its floor of manicured houses and trees. A few hundred yards below me, a backyard swimming pool rippled in the breeze.
As I waited the other congregants started to arrive. Since I've been attending a denomination that has very few other young adults, I was struck by how the attendees seemed to be nothing but young adults. As I watched I saw not a single grey head, and virtually no children; just an endless stream of willowy young Angelenos in tank tops and flip-flops. It was as if all the local Hot Topics and American Eagles and suddenly ordered their customers off to church.
Eventually my companions arrived and we went inside. The church was obviously modern, but it's one of the best-looking examples of the genre that I've seen. Everything seemed to be made of blond wood, set off by the soft grey of the flagstone floor and the metal of what Katie said was the largest pipe organ west of the Mississippi. The sanctuary was large, with pews in concentric semicircles around the altar, and a balcony of equal width above. Overall, it could probably seat 500 or 600 at a time, though for this service it was less than half full. The ceiling was vaulted, but oddly the spine of it ran crosswise instead of toward the altar.
The altar itself was fairly modest, and off to one side of what I can only call the stage that stretched across one side of the room. The enormous organ filled up the wall behind it. The back of the stage turned into a wide set of stairs that narrowed to run through an archway in the pipe case, and disappear above. I imagine it just led to the hidden keyboard of the organ, but there was something faintly magical about this stairway to the unknown rising behind the altar. It reminded me of a dream I had about a year and a half ago where I visited the Vatican and found the whole thing built on a gigantic set of stairs.
In the wall opposite where we were sitting, to one side of the altar, a set of windows ran from floor to ceiling. I could see a glimpse of the view I'd admired from the parking lot, slowly turning dusky blue and pink as the sun set. I wonder if the architect wanted the congregants to notice the work of God outside the church as well as within. Or maybe he just couldn't build a church in that spot and not use the view somehow.
Katie told me that this service was "really laid back" and people could show up wearing practically anything, which was quite evident. She said she appreciated this because she couldn't understand why God would want her to dress up like someone she wasn't.
"I don't think I've been to a church in L.A. that hasn't been laid back," I said. "I've been wondering where these mythical churches are where everybody has to dress up."
She laughed. "You would see that if you went to the 9:15 service at this church," she said. "It's very formal."
That's probably the one all the old people go to, I thought. Looking at the narrow age-set around me, I had to wonder if these two groups of people ever had anything to do with each other.
The service began. My church has a traditional and contemporary service, but the contemporary service is simply a modernized version of the same liturgy. The contemporary service here was identical to Christian Assembly, Venice Baptist Church, and probably a zillion other evangelical churches across America. A rock band played worship songs for about a half an hour, followed by a long sermon. There was no liturgy, no communion, no passing of the peace, and, surprisingly, no collection (in the manner of the third century, you were supposed to drop off your money on the way out). The congregation stood and sang along with the band, many raising their hands Pentecostal-style.
I thought of Tripp's post that I'd read earlier that day about his love of liturgy, and how much it echoed my own feelings. I couldn't deny that at some moments the music achieved a kind of raw power that the tamer Lutheran selections don't. But the volume was almost painfully loud, and especially in my weary state I couldn't get into the swing of things. I like the liturgy's sense of ancient rootedness, its movement from confession to forgiveness to celebration to education to communion to gratitude. I even like dressing up. But clearly, in our generation Tripp and I are weirdos.
At one point, though, the band started up a song called "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," which sounded awfully familiar. After a few seconds I realized why it sounded familiar: I'd sung it that morning! It certainly sounded different backed by an electric guitar.
Katie had told me that the pastor is a very intelligent guy, but he seems like a "country bumpkin." I wouldn't use that term, but I could see what she was getting at. He seems to me to have a sharp mind, and considerable learning, but can convey it in the sort of punchy 7th-grade-level English that all reporters aspire to. He is, apparently, in the middle of a series of sermons about the first few centuries of the church; yesterday's topic was St. Augustine. Or at least it was supposed to be. He actually started off talking about 1 Corinthians, describing the scene at ancient Corinth (major trade center, home to a huge temple of Aphrodite and thousands of prostitutes), and the squabbling, cliquish church there, and drew parallels with modern Los Angeles. He seems to have a strong sense of mission for the church, speaking repeatedly of how Christians are called to be "builders."
It was good to hear, because probably my greatest frustration with my own church is its aimlessness. Last week I had a rather heated conversation with my pastor about my current spiritual condition, and brought this up. How are the people here, I said, living differently from those outside?
"Well, the difference is mostly interior," he said. "But that's good, because most of your problems are interior, right?"
I've never been very fond of Telford's anti-modernist rants, but at that moment I really wished he was there to open a can of Hauerwassian whup-ass. I have interior problems, I suppose, but you could also claim that people in Mexico City who've developed emphysema after a lifetime of smog and cigarettes have an interior problem. But anyway, back to the Presbyterians.
The pastor marched us through the centuries, to the Christian emperors and the barbarians encircling Rome, which finally brought us to Augustine. The pastor pulled a number of his quotations on non-attachment to things of this world, and connected it to the Christians' lack of fear in the face of the barbarian horde. Apparently one of the German leaders ordered his troops to spare the Christians when they attacked, because he was impressed by their bravery and their care for his wounded. Even if America fell, the reverend said, even if the Taliban somehow won, the church would not fall. And on that note, he released us to face the barbarian hordes of greater L.A.
Katie turned to me and asked, "So what do you think?"
I hate having to come up with an instant judgment on these things, whether movies or churches or anything else. Now that I've had a day to think about it, though, I still don't know what I think. I probably just don't know enough about the church yet. I wonder what the early service is like?