Experiencing God in an Ordinary Church

posted Feb 16, 2013, 10:22 PM by Phil Clark   [ updated Aug 27, 2015, 12:16 PM by Sonrise Lightmyway ]

From my earliest memories of church, worship was something you did on Sundays.  You worshiped in church, during the worship service.   For the people I observed worshiping in my formative years, their worship was a subdued event, with somber organ music or piano, throaty old biddies with heavy vibratos piercing the drone of other monotone voices, scripture readings by reluctant souls pressed into service, who stumbled pronouncing names like Mephibosheth and Zerrubababel , whose seeming lack of enthusiasm revealed that they hated to be the center of attention. This was their expression of worship and their experience of God . Their world of worship involved readings, benedictions, prescribed prayers and robes worn by the clergy. I remember the stained glass window panels on the north wall of the church “sanctuary” with names inscribed at the bottom of each window in memory of deceased loved ones.  These were meant to be worship enhancement windows. I can still see the dead flies and moths in the corners of the windows, caught in the webs of small spiders whose neon threads reflected the various colors in the stained glass.

Our pastor was mostly bald, except for the tufts of his hair on the sides of his head that billowed outwards from the frames of his wire glasses.  Easy prey I thought for a budding portraitist armed with a stubby pencil and a few blank spots of white within the pages of the church bulletin.  There were no erasers on these pencils.  Each pencil rested securely in a small hole drilled to the right depth into the hymn book holder on the backs of each pew.   Regular sized pencils with erasers would not have worked in those holes, I often thought to myself in my boredom.  My friend, Steve, was my church cohort in crime.  At the age of 10 and armed with one of these pencils, he could draw better than most adults.  Steve honed his craft and drew up amazing caricatures and cartoons that always brought irrepressible laughter. Steve grew up to become a commercial illustrator and then one of the top classical realist painters in America. Who would have thought.

I was still too young to plumb the depths of the meaning in all the traditions that unfolded before us each Sunday. Much of it went right past me. My strongest memories in those early church worship experiences were times when I fell asleep, only to wake up suddenly to laughter and discover that I had been drooling on my shirt for several minutes.  Or getting whacked by my mom for talking or for getting into a cold war with my brothers or sister.   If my father had to give me the frown, I knew I was in big trouble.   Why did my oldest brother get to sit in the back with his friends?  Why couldn't I sit in the back with my friends?  I knew why.

Sunday school after the church service was altogether another matter.  Once the ordeal of sitting through an hour or so of boredom was over, we ran off to Sunday School.   It was a Lord of the Flies situation for most of us until the teacher arrived.   Unsupervised chaos led by the most assertive personalities. Sunday school was conducted in temporary army barracks.  The grounds around the buildings were landscaped with a kind of tan bark for ground cover that put splinters in your socks, complimented with crunchy red lava rock 6 inches deep. All of it was carefully arranged so as not to detract from the temporariness of the structures.  The buildings were painted in a puke gray color giving it a military surplus motif. Except for the peaks of the roofs, the two buildings were basically gray hot boxes that baked in the summer sun.     The floors were a mishmash of donated carpet squares of various colors, checker boarding an uneven and somewhat sagging floor in places.  We discovered that a good foot-pounding in the right place could shake the entire structure.    Our Sunday school teachers were always women who were faithful, gentle, unassertive souls sent to the slaughter.   My friend and I would slip into the closet just before the teacher entered the room. We stayed there until class started and the lesson was underway, and then abruptly pop out of the closet to make our guest appearances.  I think they knew we were in there, and probably enjoyed the peace and quiet until we emerged. We never experienced the consequences of our unruly actions in those temporary buildings.

For the years our family attended that church, and for all the grief I gave my Sunday school teachers over those years, even bringing some to tears at times, God pursued me passionately.  It was in my 7th grade year of junior high school that my mother approached me and said to me that I could choose to stop going to church if I desired.  She encouraged me to make that decision after I attended something at church called a “confirmation class”.  She felt like it would be best if I made an informed decision.  If, after the class I still chose to not go anymore, so be it.  I respected my mom because I saw in her at that time evidence of something that went beyond Sunday church.  She read her Bible during the week.   That intrigued me enough to look into it for myself.

So I attended the class, conducted by my well-portraited pastor, the Reverend Geisler (make sure you role the R in reverend) and his right hand man, Mr. Swain.  This was my first encounter with male teachers at church.  I had come to terms with public school authority, but not with church authority.   We entered each confirmation class in the ensuing weeks with the same disdain for church authority as our earlier church class experiences and soon had the entire class distracted.  Ray was not your typical Sunday School teacher.  To us, Ray was more like the pope's bodyguard.  He would stand over us during the lessons with his large hands firmly clasped, observing everything under his watchful eyes.   Though graying, his full head of thick, bristle hair stood on end like a badger, his hairline almost to his eyebrows.   His military style flat top hair cut and broad shoulders sent a very militant and able message.  We watched Ray suspiciously.

One fateful day, during a part of the class when our antics were at an unusually irritating level, Ray's patience gave way to anger. He blew like Mt. St. Helens.  It was ugly.  Mr. Swain, filled either with a rage whose source was rooted in a very bad day at work, or an argument with his wife, came swiftly upon us like the wrath of God itself.   His response to our mischief could have been a righteous indignation, a holy and everlasting consuming fire from God, ordained before the pillars of earth were established and saved up for that moment. Whatever it was that triggered the strike, Ray was on us.   Maybe a little of both.   Either way, Ray lowered the boom on Steve and me.   Before we knew what hit us, we were being dragged outside by our ears .  The entire class watched in horror.  Mr. Swain at that point would not release his sausage sized fingers from our reddening ears.  He glared into our faces foaming something unintelligible for what seemed like minutes.   Whatever heavenly or hellish language it was, we had no trouble interpreting it.   It could have been our first encounter with tongues.  Whatever it was, it came with passion. To this day, both Steve and I look back on that experience and agree that we both met an aspect of God's holy justice that day that got our attention. Years later, as an adult, I revisited that church and saw Mr. Swain again. Instead of a military flat top hair cut, he had a more rounded hair style, still short, but grey now. He was shorter than I remembered and had lost weight from a bout with cancer. He was much gentler than I remembered and pleased to see me. Funny how we remember people as kids.

In the class sessions that followed, I took a much more sober approach to my church experience.  For us, the gentle nurturing and soft patience of our former Sunday school teachers gave way to a masculine side of God's nature.  Ray's passion, regardless of it's expression, was my first encounter with passion of any kind in that church that I could understand.   It got my attention and made me think.    Someone did care about what was being taught, and was willing to defend other's rights for that to be heard and understood.   It was important.  Church for them wasn't just a game.   There was an important message and they believed it enough to take time away from family and leisure to make that message known to us.  We could have walked away at that point.  But we didn't.   We took the class seriously from that point on. For this and other reasons, both Steve and I eventually made life-long commitments that year to take God seriously and to follow Jesus. We began a journey that led us into a love relationship with God and into many other God experiences.

For example, Steve and I led a “bible study” at his house about a year later. Our first meeting consisted of 4 or 5 other junior high students at his backyard patio table. We opened the bible to a random page, put a finger on a spot and started reading. We were there to meet with God. We didn't know what we were doing. At the end of the time together, during our prayer time, one of the youth stood up and began praying in a language we did not understand. It was clearly not babbling. He walked around the room and put his hand on the head of each person at the table. There was a sense of awe and wonder during that first bible study in Steve's backyard. We can argue to this day that it was meaningless babble because there was no one present who could interpret the strange language. It didn't matter at the time. The experience had its' effect on us. We were in awe and felt God's presence. We expected nothing less from the time.

God certainly met us there in our early church days. Some today might call Ray's passionate expression towards us a form of abuse. Unquestionably, it was an encounter with maleness and authority. Exactly what I needed at that time to get my attention. It was a kind of grace that comes in scary packages. Some might have called it a form of speaking in tongues or laying on of hands. As time went on, the Christian movement of the sixties and early seventies began redefining what worship was supposed to be. Guitars soon replaced organs and folding chairs replaced pews. I remember bending my knee in prayer one afternoon with one of my siblings to plead with God to provide worship music for young people in the area to listen to. It seemed like the right thing to pray for at the time. Ironically, not too long after that prayer, a few Christian artists were emerging in the SF Bay Area scene. The radio station “Star Song” came on the air with great worship music for youth. A young musician in the area was so audacious as to think that you could blend rock music with Christian lyrics. Churches were not ready for his kind of worship music. His name was Larry Norman, who is considered the father of Christian rock music. Many considered rock music a demonic expression of music. His father, Mr. Norman, was my high school English teacher. Ironic timing? Perhaps it was answered prayers from an emerging generation of worshipers wanting to connect with God in a deeper, culturally relevant way. God answered our prayer.

Years later, at another church, my artist friend Steve and I, along with my brother Steve and my brother in law Alan, led a Sunday School class for 3rd and 4th graders. The span of our collective efforts in teaching that class and sharing the love of Christ with young kids stretched across 10 years of students.

As I think about worship, and worship styles, and my experiences growing up, I think it is easy to miss the point when it comes to a worship experience. I think we all need to be challenged to excel more in the discipline of finding God in ordinary places and ways of blessing Him with our focused attention and prostrate hearts, rather than waiting for him to come and to bless us first. We consume worship like we do other forms of entertainment. We too narrowly define the opportunities to experience God in worship and to find meaning. I don't think God is as concerned about awesome worship music or eloquent sermon messages. We invite him to show up and inhabit our worship places. We know he is already there in our hearts waiting for us to acknowledge his presence. He will show up either way. His desire for intimacy with his people is too great to stay at a distance until the ambiance is just right. It is as if we are trying to conjure his presence, when God has and always will be there to meet us when our hearts are broken and contrite, even in the ordinary places of worship.

I think of a pastor, well into his 50's, faithfully serving a small community of Jesus followers. He works part time as a buyer by day for a high tech company so he can serve his flock by night, who themselves also make a modest living. He is lucky to have one or two people in his congregation who play any musical instruments to lead worship. His 70 hour work week involves his day job, writing sermons, visiting the sick, providing outreach programs and keeping up with the business of church. He barely makes ends meet for himself and wonders sometimes why it has to be so hard. So does his wife, but she is committed to his ministry too. He sees other pastors working full time for the church and making a full salary, with growing congregations. His community is a tougher nut to crack. The needs of his congregation are many. His pastoral heart breaks for those suffering in his small congregation. He never gives up on them though some fall away. A few come to Christ each year. A few are restored after divorces or trouble with the law or with finances. Together, they gather weekly for worship in their small, rented building. They pray faithfully each week that God would use them to reach their community. His sermons are sometimes dry and he occasionally meanders, but his message is always centered on the unconditional love of Christ, rooted in the Word and from his heart. The songs sung are 10 years old and amateurish at best, with a tinny sound system that was given them by their parent church. Can God be worshiped passionately in a church like this? Can the experience of God be powerful despite the lack of super gifted worship leaders or skilled orators. Absolutely. Forty years of experiencing God in powerful ways in other ordinary places makes me think so.