Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lenten Voices: Unplugged

by Laura Onstot

I recently found myself discussing the down-for-repairs organ with a friend and music director for a large Baptist congregation in southern California. “So are you using a piano then?” he asked.

“No, just the choir.”

“Couldn’t you at least get a keyboard or something?”

“Yeah… We don’t believe in worshiping with things that plug in.”

His church has a rock band. And I have to admit, I kind of judge him for that, which I’m pretty sure is something Jesus wouldn’t do.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about lines and where we draw them when it comes to faith and worship. Believing someone’s faith is somehow less “right” because they use electric guitars and no hymnal seems pretty obviously wrong. But what about the ordination of women or a strict Calvinist view of salvation, complete with the requirement to be a confessing Christian? Two very dear family members attend churches with very conservative stances on both of those things. And much as I love them, I’m not sure this is the kind of place where we ought to agree to disagree.

What speaks to me about the message of Jesus is grace. Grace is that crazy circular logic where God just accepts you, warts and all. And as a result, you can and should love others. Again the warts thing applies. And finally, when you screw up and treat other people like dirt, because of your warts, you get to forgive yourself, even if they don’t. And why is that you ask? Because God forgives you. I love how that works. (And Lord knows I’ve needed my share of grace.)

But when people are suddenly pushed into boxes (that coincidentally always seem to reflect some kind of social norm—there was a time when Blacks had to sit in a different section of the congregation) it seems to tip that whole elegant grace cycle off its axis. Something about telling one half of the population that because of their genitalia at birth (or sexual orientation for that matter) they can’t use potential vibrant gifts for ministry seems completely counter to the message of grace. So does deciding who is and isn’t saved by virtue of their spiritual path.

And I’m not sure that two Christians, one who sees Jesus’ message as one of grace and one who sees the message as one of grace with a whole lot of caveats, really both have the same religion. I attended a Unitarian solstice service once and came away realizing that while I disagree with them on some things, at least if they’re wrong they’ve erred on the side of seeing Godliness in everyone else. It feels sometimes like if my family members are wrong, they’re erring on the side of putting people into tiny boxes arranged in a hierarchical pyramid of salvation. And I’m just not sure that’s something we should agree to disagree on. Then again, maybe that’s where I fall away from grace.

Laura attended her first St. Paul's mass on Ash Wednesday 2004 and now sings in the Parish Choir. She is a staff writer for the Seattle Weekly (online at, a novice knitter, a lover of mountains, and is always up for communing over an aged scotch.


Barb Levy said...

I loved this post. Maybe Jesus and the Disciples did some mellow drumming, but definitely just acoustic. I'm not sure what they'd think of our organ and hymns, but the part of God that is Anglican surely knows how good we have it.

sarah said...

Yesterday at the Thursday night mass at St Paul's, John Forman gave a very thought provoking sermon that made me think more about Laura’s post “Lenten Voices: Unplugged”.

The text was from Luke 16:19-31
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

John posed some interesting questions: What great chasms are being created in our lives right now? Who is our Lazarus at the gate? How can we better acknowledge the interconnectedness of our life in Christ with the lives of people we encounter? Especially with those people we’ve marginalized because their paradigms are in conflict with our paradigms?

While listening to this sermon, found my brain shifting back to halting conversations I’ve had with friends who have more conservative views about the church and about the Bible, conversations that seemed to go nowhere because we are so far apart, and there was so much anger that seemed to well up and choke off communication. These are people that I love, and I find that instead of talking about these issues, I hold back on communicating the beliefs that I'm afraid they will see as an attack on them. In doing this, I'm alienating them and myself, and I don’t really want to live that way. I want to work on having grace filled conversations that foster community that are still honest and open. Regardless of which one of us is “right”, my fate is intertwined with their fate.