Friday, July 31, 2009

And Goldilocks Said, "This porridge is just right."

This is the pipe organ from the United Methodist Church of Hyde Park. It may seem like some gaudy tool for an ostentatious religion to you, but to me, it was a very good sign. That is because music is a very important part of worship to me. People can screw up religion without trying very hard at all. Pastors can preach temperance and have a drinking problem. Youth ministers can profess a dedication to family values while having an affair. Congregants can be conniving, jealous, vindictive, and never miss a church service. But music doesn't cheat, lie, or scheme, and what you get out of it is up to you. This church had beautiful music.

I glance around this mid-sized church and see -- to my relief -- stained-glass windows. The educational tool for the poor, the illiterate, the young. Now an archaic symbol to many, to me stained glass represents the church's desire to reach everyone, not just the elite. I feel like I can breathe again.

I also see many different faces, many of whom I did not see in the other churches we've tried. I see old and young, children and twentysomethings, white, black, Asian, Latino/a, a myriad of people. The visiting pastor is an African-American woman; one of the regular pastors is a female. A good sign! I feel like squeezing the stranger sitting nearest to me, and asking them, "Is this home?" But I refrain. Wouldn't want to seem like that crazy fellow from Idlewild, now, would I?

The sermon is about food. The pastor discusses the bread and fish miracle, and interprets it to mean we are spiritually fed, and we are often materially blessed; she encourages us to feed others in any way we can. She then outlines ministries in the church that would allow us to do just this. I am excited by her practical application of scripture, by her call to make the community we live in better, and by her specific suggestions outlining how to do just that.

My experience at Hyde Park reminded of Goldilocks's porridge experiment. The first was too hot, the second too cold, but the third was just right, and so she ate it up. And so did we.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Try #2: The Unitarian Universalist Church

After the megachurch "incident," as I would like to call it, we needed something much more broad-minded. Fewer references to women in the kitchen and fewer crazy people writing letters from Jesus. The criteria was loose but important. We decide to try the Unitarian Universalist church.

For those who aren't familiar, the Universalist churches welcome all faiths. They believe that all religions worship the same God but call him/her by different names. I am, at heart, a Universalist, so I had high hopes for this service.

In many ways, I was not disappointed. Despite its strange outward appearance -- this church was a large dome, actually more bizarre looking than the one in this picture -- the congregation was warm and inviting. People came early to talk to each other and to visitors, and they stayed late to reflect on what they'd learned in the service and to share coffee with each other. Universalists are against proselytizing, so no one tried to convert or pressure us. And the highlight of the service occurred when, before the "joys and concerns," the pastor reminded her liberal audience that "just because the microphone is available doesn't mean this is a time for political rants or polemics." That. Was. Awesome. "So this is where liberal democrats and academics go to church," I thought to myself. And all this time, I've been looking for other people who think like I do, who embrace all faiths as different interpretations of the same story. It was quite refreshing.

But it wasn't a fit, not wholly. To begin, unitarians (not universalists) shun the trinity. No matter how open-minded of a raving liberal professor I am, the trinity is a very important concept to me. And because the universalists welcome all faiths, the service worked very hard not to step on anyone's toes. While the principle is wonderful and welcoming to me, the practice translates into an entire service where nothing definitive is ever actually said. The hymns were purposefully vague; because no one worships the same way, the songs could only discuss the universe, space, and family. And "sameness." The sermon talked about the parking lot growing weedy outside, and lamented the fact that the Universalist church rarely attracted members who gave money. The credos expressed the idea that we are all one, but it was not a credo in that it professed any one belief. And for some reason, some stubbornness ingrained in me, this irked me a little.

In sum -- I appreciated the warmth, open-mindedness, and intelligence of the Unitarian Universalist church. But I'm in a new place, in a new job, meeting new people; I long for just a dash of something familiar. So for next time: the First United Methodist Church of Hyde Park.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Visit to a Megachurch

We needed a church. So we decided to try Idlewild Baptist at the recommendation of one of Andrew's family friends.

When we walk in, the sanctuary is the size of a collegiate basketball stadium. There are no stained-glass windows or hymnals; in their place are two gigantic megascreens, a 75-person orchestra, and a balcony that must hold at least 300 people in a choir. The megascreens make me have palpitations, but I breathe, and tell myself to give it a good college try. They advertise a Starbucks coffee shop just outside of the sanctuary. I choke down a scream.

The deacons come forward, streaming down 6 church aisles all in nearly-matching suits. They are all men. This makes me wonder. I take a good look at the four-person ministerial team. All men as well. Strike one.

The preacher steps up to the pulpit. He is a visiting speaker and the president (or maybe former president) of the Southern Baptist Convention. No. Please no. He begins with an anecdote, and I think, at least it isn't a joke and he doesn't mention football. I try to stay open-minded. He makes a crack about women and cooking. I restrain from volleying one of those stubby pencils toward the megastage. His sermon goes something like this: Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. Buzz words synonymous with salvation, damnation, Hell, and Born Again. A smatter of guilt. A pinch more of guilt. And it concludes with "Turn to your neighbor and tell him or her that you know you're saved by Jesus." Strike two.

I peel myself from my seat, where I've tried to remain as low and still as possible to remain unnoticed. My tactic has not worked. Crazy McCrazy, apparently a regular congregant, sidles up to us with an envelope in his hand. He says, "I've had my eye on you since I walked in. This is for you." We wait to open the note until we're in the car. Apparently McCrazy has channeled Jesus, as his scrawled note is signed by none other than Christ himself, and in it he insists that Andrew is David (a philandering man-whore?) and I am Esther. Strike three.

Next week: the Universalist Church of Tampa. Updates to follow.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Carl, the Neighborhood Alligator, & How I Accidentally Ended up at the Social Security Office in Florida

Moving is irksome. But for us, it was particularly adventurous because we had to drive 19 hours across the country at 45 miles an hour in a Penske truck with 5 animals.  We took 2 days to complete our move to Florida, and along the way we stopped at a Best Western that promised it took pets.  I'm not sure it knew what it was getting with the Tillmans.  We had Brinkley, the 75 lb Golden Retriever, Sierra, a dog half his size, and 3 devil cats, one of which found great amusement in waiting on top of the entertainment center for a dog to walk by to drop claws-first on its back, making the dog bark, the other dog howl, and the rest of the cats hiss, spit, and knock over furniture.  We were tired.  The front desk calls.  "Do you have cats, too? You didn't say you had cats too."  I lie. "Nope, no cats here." Worm gets next to the phone and answers for himself: Mrrrrrow. Mrow! Mrowwwww!  "Nope," I reiterate. "We don't like cats." 

We get on the road and arrive in Florida what feels like 3 years later.  As we drive into our subdivision, I pass all kinds of interesting creatures: an ibis, something that lives in a nest the size of an SUV, colorful lizards and frogs, and, yes, an alligator, sunning in the lake not 2 blocks from my house.  People pass him as if he is a mailbox. We name him Carl. 

For mundane reasons I won't explain, we have to get our licenses changed over quickly and it is one of the first tasks we undertake.  I wish we hadn't.  I go to the DMV with an appointment, all of my paperwork filled out, and a box full of every piece of paper they might ask for and some they won't.  I'm ultra-prepared. I'm psyched; I'm there early and there's no wait!  Andrew breezes through the process and I prepare to as well, but there's a woman who has it out for me that day.  "The social security office says June 1 isn't your birthday," she says.  She seems almost happy to follow up with, "You'll have to go there to straighten that out."  "No!" I say. "I've ordered a passport with that card; there has to be a mistake on this end."  "Nope," she insists and sends me to the 9th circle of hell. 

If you were wondering what that is -- it's the social security office in the Old People Capital of the US.  Hours of waiting. By the time my number is called, I'm furious.  The woman behind the counter pulls up my record and says, "There's no problem here. Everything is correct."  I want to stab someone in the eye.  I drive 1/2 an hour back to the DMV, where a new guy pulls my SS# up on the screen and says, "Why did you go through all of that? Your birthdate was fine all along!"  

Andrew, thinking himself immune from this insanity, inwardly chuckled at me, I'm sure of it.  At least, he does until we get all the way home, and he finds out his new name in FL is "Andrew Tllman." A big ugly misprint on his shiny new license.   I love moving.