8. The Sunday Services
Well we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening, just hanging and chilling. We were very happy to have almost nothing to do. It was a good time to relax and to rest and we finished the evening with a camp fire. But without a doubt perhaps the most talked about topic during the day was the excitement and anticipation of church in the morning. Our friends needed to go into church early the next day. Because their usual Sunday morn’ babysitter was not available, Sharon and I volunteered to get the kids up, fed, looking tidy, in the car and off to church.
I had a hard time fighting the jet lag this trip, it seemed to be no matter what time zone I was in, I was wide awake between two and six am. Thank God for my ipod and Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life(31). Without it I probably would have been so bored that I would have fallen asleep.
So by the time I got up, our friends had gone, so it was just us and the kids. I stumbled my way into the kitchen to get breakfast cereal. In my experience, all American breakfast cereal is really, really nice, like I mean really nice. But if I was packaging it, the boxes would look a little different. They would read similar to this: ‘This one is SUGAR with nuts’. ‘This one is SUGAR with chocolate’. ‘This one is SUGAR with, well, more sugar’. American food is so crammed full of sugar and additives that it is a wonder that Americans are not born with two heads and three eyes. Though American food tasted really nice, most of the time it just left me feeling gluggy. We hear often on the BBC(32) how American kids suffer from hyperactivity, dah guys get rid of the sugar and additives and then see how your kids fare.
Anyhow I finished my sugar fix, backed it up with a caffeine fix and spent the next couple of hours bouncing off the walls playing paper aeroplane golf with the kids. It was a bit of a struggle to get some of the kids to eat their sugar bomb breakfast cereals, but we managed to cross that hurdle just before they got into the car. Consequently as soon as their butts hit the seats, the sugar kicked in and their heads hit the ceiling, the kids went ape’o(33). Now I understand why grown-ups passed a law that requires kids to wear seatbelts in the back seat…. to hold them in and to keep them off the ceiling. But really these kids were good kids, they just got a little over excited in the back seat. And to be fair I didn’t help matters by encouraging them to be loud. Once again we got lost on the way to church; no stinkin’ steeple.
We had been asked to get to church about thirty minutes early, in order to get a seat. Now I don’t know how many people this church seated, I would guess about six hundred and at that they have three Sunday services. So to me it seemed a bit strange to get there thirty minutes early. However all became perfectly clear as soon as we rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill that Bethany sits so Jerusalem-like upon. There were cars everywhere.
I know a.k.a Kyoto(34), comparatively speaking that Americans led by George Bush are not really that interested in working with the rest of the world to protect the environment. ‘If China won’t do it we won’t’. Oh grow up George! This place was crazy. If this church quartered the size of its car park and ran a fleet of church buses in and out of town, then global warming would probably turn around and Kiwi kids could spend more than thirty seconds in the sun before they turn into char-grilled, baked, deaf, flightless birds(35). Your cars are partially responsible for the hole in the southern hemisphere ozone layer. I can just see it now…. the last American standing, or at least driving, before the melted polar cap finally floods America. There is Joe Redneck sitting on his Japanese pick-up truck, saying to himself, ‘This is my final moment, I am about to drown, well dang, at least I am going to die with a nice truck’.
I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on the church, after all they did have a bus service from the car park to the church building. It was a ten minute walk from the bottom of the hill, fifteen minutes if you are over forty. Americans, those two things inside your shoes are not for the brake and accelerator, they are to walk on. If you would learn to use them, the environment would be a better place and Hillary with the Democrat movement could probably afford to give you free public health care. Anyhow, I will jump back on this hobby horse later. Back to church.
So because the church does not have a steeple, we were running a little late. Christians speed to church all of the time. It kind of works. Sin on the way to church and be forgiven at church. So I frustratedly wove my way up the hill through the throng of cars and pedestrians, past the pastors’ and other important people’s car parks, stopped under the flags and kicked out my payload. It was thirty minutes before church started, so we were running quite late. It is a lot easier to find a park and navigate footpathless America without three lovely kids. I drove to the right of the building, no parks there, I drove to the left of the building, no parks there, so I drove back down the hill, around a sports field and found a whole bunch of frantic people clearly trying to find parks and get up that hill in order to get good seats. These people really were as manic about getting into church as your average Baltic European is about getting on a Ryanair flight. Freaky stuff. And with all the hype and excitement, I was just as bad though I had a disability. I had not brought any summer shoes with me. The only pair of shoes I had brought from Lithuania was a pair of fur-lined boots. So gracefully our host had lent me a pair of her jandals(36). Note the word ‘her’, these things were very feminine, they were leopard skin in colour, one size too small and very slippery when walking over a dewy playing field while trying, panic-stricken, to navigate my way into church.
Flustered, with wet feet, I walked into what I remembered was the cafe, it was so cram packed full of people that it could not be recognised as anything. I immediately beelined towards what some churches call the sanctuary(37). It was also crowded but had more walking space. We had instructions to find seats up the front in the middle aisle. I walked up and down that centre aisle looking for a space. There were plenty of empty seats, but rather offensively a lot of them had signs on them that said they were booked, and the rest had people’s clothes and bibles strewn across them, thus they were all claimed. This sucked, but judging by the amount of claimed seats, this was Bethany culture. I wish there had been a sign on the door on Saturday to prepare us. Perhaps we could have left our bibles on seats then, never mind. Eventually I spotted an equally-as-flustered Sharon sitting close to the centre isle and close to the back, she had scattered a collection of clothes and bibles out to claim all of our seats. Clearly when it came to finding the good seats for church we had failed dismally. Now we had about fifteen minutes to wait until church started. With all of the whohaa and hype that it took just to get a pew(38) I was more than a bit nervous. I was trying to remind myself that my friends seemed like everyday normal Californians. Not that I had much of a concept of what that was. And indeed our friends did meet us and take their seats just as the service was starting.
Well, church was awesome. In fact after all the hype it was even a little disappointing. When worship started, some of the people stood, some sat and some walked up the front. I hate pews, passionately do not like being crammed into a row of seats when I want or rather need to express my love to God. So I kicked off my appreciated girlie jandals and walked wet and bare foot down the front. Though the stage was big, the worship team did not seem to be the centre of attention. Bizarrely enough, I thought the music was a little too quiet. To the left of me was a middle aged dude on the stage flying flags, cool! The fascinating thing, there was no hype. Worship was led well, people were clearly worshipping, mission accomplished, well done.
The notices were a little scary. I have never seen another nation where the church and the state are so closely interwoven. Of course the prime example of that is the generalisation that all Christians vote Republican. I have some Democrat Christian friends who feel as if their salvation has been questioned when they have mentioned their voting tendencies. Bethany never told us whether we should vote Republican or not, but they did tell us how to vote on another matter. As far as I can remember the state of California had previously passed a bill allowing gay people to either marry or enter into a civil union. Now another bill was on the table nullifying the first. We were clearly told to vote against gay marriage. I do not mind churches giving out all of the information and then telling us to vote as God leads, but being told how to vote was a bit of an insult to my intelligence and my relationship with God. In normal circumstances, I go to church to meet with God’s people and to worship him. I do not go to be told how to vote, and do not expect it during the worship service. They did show an excellent video put out by the Catholic Church, which encouraged everybody to vote. This was cool enough but it still did not bring me closer to God. Anyhow notices are horrible in most churches.
Next was the teaching. Many people have given me podcasts from this church, so I knew what to expect from the teaching. I cannot remember what they taught, but I do remember that it was good.
After the prayer at the end of the service we met someone from America’s east coast that we had had email contact with around four years ago. We had never actually met this person so that was kind of freaky and fun.
Anyhow I have one more church service to talk about and then we are done with church for a week.
After the service, we picked our way through the throngs of meandering people and went home. Actually we didn’t go directly home, we were in America and when in America, do as the Americans do, right? We stopped for burgers.
Again, we spent what was left of the afternoon, just hanging and resting. We still really needed rest and our friend’s home was great for that. And then yet again we left nice and early for evening church because we wanted a car park and a seat. My friend had promised to come in a little later and get some of his mates to prophesy(39) over us. Sounded cool.
Well, this time we did not get lost on the way to church. In fact we even seemed to find somewhat of a short cut, or perhaps it was actually the correct way. I am one who tends to pray quietly for parking spaces and this time after dropping Sharon off with the instructions ‘quick, go find a good seat’, I found a whole new huge car park that I had not found in the morning. And if I had snuck out the side door of the cafe it would only have taken me a long five minutes to get to the car. Huh, thank God for small things eh!
So the cafe, book shop and probably the toilets were all crowded once again. I went straight into the main hall to see how Sharon has fared on her seat hunting duties. She had done a lot better, but I think if we had wanted good seats we should have never left for lunch.
I am a visual person, I think in pictures, I learn languages through the pictures in my head, I paint what my mind’s eye sees and I love taking photos. This means that the next forty or so minutes was a genuine popsicle paradise(40) for me.
I know other churches do church this way, but it was just the first time that I had seen it. And things, people resource wise, are a little easier at Bethany because they have that extraordinary high number of young, freaky and highly motivated students, who are willing to serve God at the drop of a hat.
In the morning I had worshipped through singing, but during this service I was so gob-smacked that though my mouth was hanging open, words just did not come out. I was like an eight-year-old who had learned to watch multiple television stations at the same time. And indeed this is what it was like for me.
So let me explain my evening popsicle paradise. Naturally barefoot, I headed up to the front for worship, but there were more people up there, which kind of defeated the purpose. There were two large men in front of me who jumped around a lot, yelling ‘yeah, come on God’. But despite this somewhat bizarre form of worship happening in front of me, I worshipped like never before. The worship band was way in the background and sometimes it was hard to actually work out who was leading. To the left of me was the same flag dude. Centre stage were some young women doing some kind of modern dance…. they were running, jumping, twirling and twisting themselves in large scarves. There were many of them, but usually just one or two on stage at a time and they seemed to be oblivious to the fact that there was a whole auditorium of people in front of them. They were just out there dancing in their own private universe. It was beautiful, it was worship I loved it. I wish they could have danced through the teaching as well. On the right of the stage were three or four people painting. I had the same issue, I wanted to critique their work and had to stop myself and perhaps it is no surprise that the painting which I liked the least at the time is the one I can remember the most now. It seems that no one had told this person that you cannot paint with dark colours in worship, because it has to be happy. Right? Wrong! I still remember the insecurity of her dark colours and the out-of-context, abstracted, centred, red square. She broke all of the painting rules, but her rebel picture still reminds me that most of us have a part of us which is still rebelling against God and that perhaps we should get before people and before God and surrender our rebellion to him. Yes this woman’s painting is still both challenging me and bringing me closer to God.
I know for some people, the whole concept of a church worship service having flag wavers, musicians, dancers and painters all harmonising disorderly in sync together is just one oxymoron too much. But for me this was a symphony, reflecting the glory of God back to our creator. It was beautiful, breath-taking and worship.
And unfortunately it ended with pretty much the same notices that I had heard in the morning service. Oh well, earth ain’t all heaven! The teaching was interesting, but not nearly as good as the morning nor as good as many of Bethany’s podcasts. But it finished interestingly.
Interestingly, why? Well, some codger got on the stage and said that this evening, we are going to have a traditional ministry time. ‘Ministry time’ is God-bother’er language for ‘let’s get together and pray for our needs’. Most churches invite people up to the front of the room and have a special group of people assigned to pray for them. It is an okay but somewhat impersonal system where people can receive prayer for, well, whatever. But this guy qualified his statement with the word ‘traditional’. For some of you this may harness pictures of people kneeling deeply in pew-strapped-prayer, whilst a dog-collared heavy breathing priest wheels out some blessed thousand-year-old benediction. But alas no, not here. This is a rather modern manifestation of church. For them tradition is probably anything over five years old that has been done before. It is often easy to replicate because you can spend pain-stacking hours studying the video of God moving personally in people’s lives, on the rather impersonal You Tube. Ahh love it or hate it, people on the end of technology are watching us and then showing it, to seemingly everybody.
Anyhow back to the bloke on the mike. He informed us that we were going to do our traditional ministry ‘Toronto’ style. Aka a 1994-berthed tradition from the aforementioned, formerly-named, Toronto Christian Fellowship. ‘Toronto style’, yuck I hate that name. It is a great example of how baby-boomers seem to have a narcissistic need to take the mystic and beauty out of a God who was and is intrinsically artistic, and replace it with the perceived straight lines of an ever-so-boring and practical table-making carpenters son(41). Gone are ornate carved altar-rails flanked by often dark deep paintings or sculptures focusing on the life of Christ our Saviour inside a stained glass-windowed building. In now are practical, square, windowless warehouse-style church buildings, filled with empty stages, empty walls, corrugated air conditioning vent-pocked ceilings and lined, benign carpet-squared floors with stackable, comfortable and totally boring chairs perfectly placed upon those lines. And the pinnacle of baby-bomber churchianity is the intensively practical ‘Toronto’ style ministry. Oh, church is such a strange and un-natural place to do God. I think God cares more about the market-place than he does the holy-place. If we were to invest fifty percent of our time from the holy-place on pure religion in the market-place, then the world would be a whole lot better off. For those of you who do not know, the bible says that pure religion is ‘looking after the widows, and orphans and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’.
Perhaps I should shut up and explain ‘Toronto’ style ministry. Well, first you need to grab those boring, versatile, stackable chairs and stack them against those very straight and boring walls. Then everybody in the church needs to line up, aided by the lined carpet, shoulder-to-shoulder facing the joker(42) with the mike on the stage. Now there is one very important detail that needs to be mentioned in this ordered display of practical’ism. That is that the lines need to be a body length apart. Believe it or not, this is just in case that whilst being prayed for, that heaven forbid, or maybe encouraged, that you should fall over. Clearly these baby-boomers thought these instructions were either very complicated or they actually understood that us gen x’ers just didn’t care, because they sent ushers out into the ranks of facilitated boredom to make sure that we were doing it correctly and of course we weren’t. So after they had sorted us out, God bless’em, they sent a small army of people and students to pray for us.
As if by magic or the more believable method of teleportation, our friend appeared in front of us, grinning from ear to ear like a ten-year-old who had just been caught with his hand in the cookie(43) jar. He was clearly and delightfully excited about what was going to happen and informed us that he was off to find his friends to prophesy over us. And wham, powered by an endearing love of seeing God love his people, our friend was gone.
We stood there a few ticks and watched God slowly, purposely and perhaps cheekily dismantle the order. I will tell you a secret. God does not live in a square house and people do not fall over in straight lines. Our friend, eyes burning with the love of God, appeared with two middle aged male seasoned Holy Spirit ministers. He introduced us by name and told his friends that he did not want to give them more information and politely commanded them to prophesy. They stepped forward and laid a hand on each of our shoulders and suddenly there he was. There who was? There was that juxtaposition of a Holy Spirit who is everywhere all of the time suddenly, intensely and calmly manifesting himself in us as if he had flowed through these people’s hands. Just what Holy Spirit feels like again, is such a subjective thing. For me it is a warm fuzziness similar to sitting in front of a heat-belching Juno fireplace, eating thick New Zealand butter-soaked hot-cross buns while watching a cold wet Easter fog shroud a rather disgruntled-looking, mushroom-clogged Saddle Hill. Or in other words, peace and security. Sometimes the realness of God can almost be construed as strange.
I forget how many people came up and prophesied over us, but quite a lot and definitely more than I have ever had before at one single time. Some were older, some were younger, some were those students and some just didn’t fit in my boxes. Some were smiley when they prayed, some deadpan and some simply didn’t care. There were two constancies. They all had those wonderful burning eyes, eyes that seemingly and securely look, empowered by God’s love, deep inside you. And the other thing was, they all said basically the same things. I mean one could be forgiven for thinking that God is boring. Between all of these people, God only really said about three different things but that is great, that is God and he is consistent. Don’t you find it interesting that God kept on re-wording the same things through completely different people, remembering that none of these people had ever met us or even heard of us before? We were greatly encouraged. And our friend, well he looked like the most blessed. He had let out the occasional ‘yeah come on God’ through the process. His smile had grown as each person prophesied, he was clearly loving seeing his old friends blessed. In fact there was not much room left on his face for anything else other than his huge beautiful smile. And thus finished our Bethany experience.
To summarise. Bethany is just another church doing the stuff for God. On the outside they seem to be doing a fantastic job at serving the kingdom of God. Their healing service freaked me a little, but was perfectly cool. Their Sunday services and podcast were and are wonderful encounters with God. I loved the Sunday evening worship. Bethany expectedly was a good experience for us. If we were in town again we would return for a visit and if we were close by we would probably consider travelling up for a conference or something like that. Well done Bethany.
To be continued. Next edition we ask ‘why Mountain Dew? We also enjoy wine and steak on Southwest.
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You may have noticed some bracketed numbers in this chapter. These numbers correspond with explanations and definitions that are in an accompanying glossary. To read the glossary you will need to by the yet to be released book. Sorry 🙁
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