Monday, March 22, 2010

Five Things for Cynics to Do at Church

The first thing I learned yesterday did not come from church, but from an article I read about being a good blogger.  It said that you should make the title of your post a list with numbers in it.  Apparently people can't get enough of that sort of thing.  Although math is not my strong suit, I will try to deliver on the numeric promise of this title. 

We went to church yesterday, which is not something we regularly do.  Before my betrothal to Dr. Mom, I had probably only been to church a couple dozen times.  My mom will protest and say she tried to get me to go when I was a kid; but really, I'm thankful that she didn't try harder.  Somehow the religiosity gene from my mom's side of the family was overcome by the sleep-till-noon-on-Sunday gene on my dad's side.  I felt like I needed the sleep more than the redemption.  

My wife's family, on the other hand, have been hardcore Roman Catholics since the first Jesuits started knocking on doors in Hanoi about 400 years ago (although they still burn incense at ancestral altars when no one is looking).  So in order to marry into this family, I had to go through a year of adult catechism, get baptized, and renounce Satan and all his works (I was all even the footnotes?)  This was not negotiable. 

Since the year of my conversion, we have gone to church faithfully on Easter, Christmas, and whenever the in-laws are around.  We also went a number of times in the run-up to the baptism of our girls, so that we wouldn't be complete strangers to the priest when he performed the rites.  One of the things I like about the Catholic faith is that, as far as I can tell, baptism is a "get out of hell free" card (as one of my evangelical cousins would disapprovingly say).  Of course, the idea that we will be tormented for eternity if we choose the wrong religion--or no religion--strikes me as preposterous. And the implications even for the people who choose to practice the right religion in the right way--they'll go to heaven but most of their friends and family probably won't--are pretty sucky.  But still, a little holy water never hurt anybody.  Except vampires. 

But yesterday we did not go to the Catholic church that we regularly attend every so often on a sporadic basis.  We went to a Unitarian Universalist church.  The welcome message on their website explains their M.O.  as follows: "Together we explore the answers of humanity's wisdom traditions - not only from Jewish and Christian sources but also from the world's religions, from nature, from science, and from modern thought."  No one longs for answers from the world's wisdom traditions more than I do, and the most pressing question that I wanted an answer for was, "Can we go ahead and jump the line to get our kids into your conveniently located, reasonably priced preschool?"  Seriously--people get their kids on the list for this school while they are in utero.  We are way behind the curve.

So that's the main reason we were there.  And here are the five things I did while we celebrated the service, and that you too can do if you find yourself in a house of worship:

1) Scoff.  As the words of the hymns appeared on the screen above the somewhat disheveled youth choir, I had a knee-jerk reaction to roll my eyes.  The hymns were familiar Christian verses modified to eliminate any religious references.  The purging of "God" and "Jesus" resulted inevitably in the overuse of terms like "compassion," "love," "spirit," "life force," "tolerance," etc.

2) Gawk.  This was not the same crowd that we would see in the Catholic Church (at whom I still gawk, but for different reasons).  The UU congregation comprised mostly older folks.  Like my age and up.  There were very few small children, but a good number of eclectically dressed teens whom I probably would have been friends with as a kid (as long as they didn't go spouting off about spiritual healing and social justice).   I know it's not completely accurate or fair to judge people by their haircuts, but I would guess that a good 30% of the pews were populated by lesbians.  The church being in the heart of Fiercetown, this didn't surprise me.  But where are all the gay men? I wondered.  It turns out they were at brunch having mimosas.

3) Recoil.  This was another visceral reaction that I was not expecting.  When everyone enthusiastically recited the Unitarian Universalist creed (specific to this congregation, I think, because UU'ers are dogmatically opposed to dogma) while throwing the "UU" gang sign and smiling broadly, I found myself looking for the nearest exit.  I think this panic was due to my having overheard a conversation between students one time in which the Baptist student was trying to get his classmate to join him at church.  The classmate said, "Sure, I'll go to church with you.  I'm open to anything.  I even went to one of those Unitarian churches once.  But it was weird--seemed kind of like a cult."  CULT...Cult...cult...cult.  The word echoed through my skull and set off a montage of scenes from afterschool specials I had seen in the eighties.

4) Judge. This is something you can do anywhere, not just in church!  Just look at someone you suspect is not pure of heart and say to yourself, "Phhht.  Hypocrite."

5) Repent.  Toward the end of the service, I started chastising myself for being so cynical.  After all, there was nothing anyone said from the pulpit that I didn't agree with, which is more than I can say about any other service I have been to.  So why was I turning into Glenn Beck when I heard these values proclaimed joyously and publicly?  And why do a couple of innocuous symbols seem cultish to me while the ritualistic rigamarole of Catholic mass doesn't even faze me anymore?  I'm going to take a tour of the preschool soon and get a better idea of what goes on there; but insofar as it's possible to indoctrinate toddlers, I think these are the people I want doing it.  And I will try to work on my squeamishness around earnest, sincere people.   



  1. we regularly attend every so often on a sporadic

  2. Andy, your blog is dope. I have been laughing my ass off for the past 7 minutes. Yes, it took me that long to get thru it as I had to read every other sentence out loud to Jeff. You see, I spent 12 years in catholic school and went to church everyday. I finally weened myself off and it's been 9 years since I have gone. The way I see it, I put in enough mass time and absorbed enough guilt to last me a life time so I still get to go to heaven...........unless Jesus hates me for being gay. Then I get to go to hell, which is fine too 'cause I'm thinking that most of the people in my life that I truly care about will be there anyway. Don't get me wrong, I'm a spiritual guy and definitely not bitter. I had a blast in catholic school. It's just disturbing to learn that Poop Benadick and his buddies have covered, shell gamed and excused years of sexual abuse by the church. What a guy, huh?. And then they scapegoat it on to the gays. There is a huge difference between a gay person and a pedophile, primarily that most gay men are not pedophiles. Yep, gotta love that catholic church.

    Anyway, great blog Andy and you have a new reader.

    Sorry to hear about Stella, she's a great pup and hope she is doing better.

  3. (Posting anonymously because my dad is one of those old people who goes to UU and even leads their worship services sometimes)

    OMG. This is awesome. Did they have the "sharing of joys and sorrows"? My dad feels that when he shares a "joy" during the UU service he also must share a "sorrow" in order not to upset the great cosmic balance. We must make all expressions of emotion come out even...? I've attended several times over the years and the scoff/recoil instinct was strong.

  4. @Mark--Thanks a lot for reading! Yeah--I only have a few problems with the Catholic church; but they happen to be HUGE ones. I remember when I was facing the prospect of conversion and I told a Catholic friend that I worried about feeling like a hypocrite professing beliefs I didn't really share. She responded, "Oh, we Catholics are very comfortable with hypocrisy." That made it easier for me to stomach. Hey to Jeff and Hoss!

    @Anonymous--Heh heh. They didn't do the joys and sorrows this time; I think because they were in the middle of a fundraiser. To their credit, the fundraising was brief and painless, and they apologized a lot. At Catholic mass, it seems like asking for money is always a big part of the service. Tell your dad I said thanks for helping with the cosmic balance. Somebody's got to do it.

  5. My Thai/Vietnamese/Chinese Catholic inlaws do the same thing with the alters. Old habits die hard.

  6. Wow, Cpt. That's quite an amalgam of cultures your your in-laws encompass. Must make for some good Christmas dinners!

  7. OMG OMG!!!! That was my preschool!!!!!!! I LOVED IT! I would relive preschool if I could!!!!! I hope you guys get in!!!

    Many of the professed values of most religions are quite nice. The problem usually comes in, as you pointed out, with hypocrisy, or sketchy interpretations and lots of loopholes. In the end it just seems like some people are good and some people are nasty hypocrites, both in and out of the religious realm.

  8. That's enough of an endorsement for me, Anisa. I'm going to sign them up!

  9. Hey Mark, Jesus LOVES you for being gay, because his Dad made you that way.

    Just sayin'.

    I have to defend a few of those lesbian haircuts. I have really short, spikey hair. And sometimes it's bleached. But I am straight.

    The Unitarians freak me out. But the Catholics often piss me off. So yeah.

  10. Diane--I totally have a lesbian haircut too!

  11. Straight up Christian here, but I have to say pretty much all of the churches I have attended have given me those "let me out of here" willies at one time or another.
    I guess I'm just not a conformist. Turns out if you just look for the people that have the basics down pat (the golden rule)you don't run into as many nitwits.

  12. Mayor--

    The golden rule was the moral compass for our family when I was a kid. That's really all you need. I was wondering if that actually came from the Bible. Better look it up.

  13. The UUs? Yeah they are a little out there but totally harmless. I was raised UU and now as an adult, I sleep in on Sundays. My mom is one of those 50 plus women with the lesbian haircut (although she is straight... I think) sitting right in front with her environmentally friendly re-usable coffee cup wearing socks with sandals.

    I still would take a UU service over my in-laws' Catholic mass any day. Good luck with the UU preschool, I survived!

  14. Why not try a secular school? Still at least you show that nominals are judgmental too


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