Wednesday, February 4, 2009

House of Worship

Top Ten Things to do at The Grand Canyon
1) Hike
2) Take pictures
3) Sit on the porch and read
4) Take in a Ranger talk
5) Spot a condor, or a binary star
6) Watch the Kaibab squirrels at play
7) Enjoy a fire on a brisk fall night
8) Find a window seat in the Dining Room
9) Share a North Rim Ale with someone special
10) Worship

I’m trying to learn how to recognize truth and beauty wherever it may exist.

I think these things ultimately come from God.

I think these things help my soul.

I think finding a sanctuary and worshiping is also supposed to help my soul.

So, what makes a sanctuary a sanctuary?

Stained glass?



A home?

A hole in the ground?

Or a flat, sheltered surface embedded on a sheer cliff wall?

Cuddling in bed?


A sunset?

The beach?

And about
worship …

I think there needs to be truth and beauty in worship.

But if there is truth and beauty, is that enough? Doesn’t there also need to be a sermon?

And what about music?



And people! Does there have to be people?

“Ah, but worshiping here, in this place,” I thought, “how could we miss? Take beauty as far as the eye can see, add a touch of truth … Who needs stained glass, or music, or anything else?“

Worship, as I see it, is an offering. Ultimately that’s what it’s about. Sometimes, though, we may need help in knowing what to offer, or how to offer it. I think this is where the setting and content come in. Sometimes that content comes in sermon form where some enlightened soul brings a message that illuminates some aspect of life that is supposed to help me understand my offering a little better.

While I’ll take good preaching over bad anytime, my wife, the preacher, considers it an art form. And one form she really loves is good African-American preaching. Maybe more than good preaching of any other kind. I know I may sound condescending and I may be guilty of stereotyping, and so I hope you will forgive me as I try to describe this, but there is an intensity that accompanies a message delivered with a rhythm and a simple refrain that builds from a spark into a fiery call and response between the messenger and those gathered. And so when we arrived in the meeting hall of the Grand Canyon Lodge to worship on Sunday morning, my wife was very excited to see an African-American man standing up in front. The potential of combining natural wonderland with moving oratory in worship was, well, just say there was an air of “expectancy.”

We arrived a few minutes early and the man was already speaking to maybe two handfuls of people seated comfortably apart from one another in the big hall. Besides us, there was a woman sitting by herself in the front row, three other couples (all appeared to be older than us), and a few scattered sitting alone. We guessed, based on the casual and conversational tone, that perhaps our preacher was answering some questions or finishing up a Sunday school type lesson. So we tried to be as unobtrusive as possible as we sat down to wait for worship to begin …

But he just kept talking.

A few more people came in as ten o’clock, time for worship to begin, rolled past.

But he just kept talking.

He talked about a lot of stuff. It seemed like he began in Genesis and progressed through the scriptures to show how grateful we should be to Jesus and that we should go to church meetings instead of bars on Friday nights. And the conversational tone was getting louder by the minute. Each sentence was punctuated with an “Amen?” that, with a different audience in a different setting might have been answered by an agreeably agreeable “Amen” or two.

But he just kept talking.

He also talked about how we shouldn’t get mixed up with gangs, and drink and drugs. All significant temptations and each meriting an “Amen” of its own from our preacher and to which we might have answered back with an “Amen” of our own …

But he just kept talking.

Saved by the non-stop preaching from proclaiming our own Amens, the sermon, which began at who-knows-what-hour, was still going strong as we approached 11 am.

But he just kept talking.

By this time, with each “Amen” I prayed it might mean he was finished.

But he just kept talking.

I promised God that if the sermon would end I would never skip church to rob a liquor store.

And as if in answer to my prayer, came a very robust “Amen” that most certainly heralded the end of the lesson …

But he just kept talking.

And on he went. I have to admit that after some of his points I was tempted to respond with an “Amen” of my own. But I would’ve been the only one. And by now I certainly didn’t want to encourage him.

But he just kept talking.

Two latecomers sitting behind us got up to leave. Maybe they made today’s early lunch reservations three nights ago with Gwyneth and wanted to make sure they got their treasured window seat …

He noticed them leave.

But he just kept talking.

One of the elderly couples sitting across the aisle from us got up to leave.

But he just kept talking.

It was well after 11 am when the woman in the front row closed her Bible. My wife guessed this was our preacher’s wife and that by closing “The Book” she was signaling the end of the sermon.

And I would dare say that our preacher did get his wife’s message because the tone of the sermon did change at this point. He had already made several hundred points, each meriting an "Amen" of its own, while he meandered through the scriptures during the last hour and fifteen minutes and now his finger looked to be only a few thin pages away from the curled leather binding at the back of his Bible. It seemed like he began to move into his concluding remarks. His wife set her Bible down on the chair beside her and he finally closed his.

But he just kept talking.

I watched his hands as he spoke. His fingers were caressing the smooth gilt edged pages of his Bible and the index finger of his right hand was beginning to make an indentation near the front cover again. The finger slipped in between the pages. I guessed it was near Genesis or maybe Exodus. I feared that this would not be a neat and concise conclusion. I said a short prayer ...

Please God,



Another couple quietly moved slowly toward the door and mercifully, he didn’t open the Book,

But he just kept talking.

I think even my wife, the preacher, was beginning to squirm uncomfortably and my own mind wandered into a silent prayer that was finally interrupted by an “Amen!” coming from the front of the room.

It was The Conclusion … followed by a few more casual remarks, encouraging words and a short exhortation about how much we owe Jesus and Jesus’ disapproval of drive-by shootings and immodest women’s clothing.

I thought, “Just please, please … pray the prayer and make the altar call. I’ll sing all 57 verses of ‘Just as I am.’ I’ll do anything, go anywhere … Just please, let me leave this room before my next birthday … Please, let me go …” I was struck by how this last phrase brought to mind the classic spiritual Go Down Moses and the plea in the sorrowful riff to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.”

Was I actually thinking that my sufferings here rivaled those of my ancestors along the Nile 3,500 years ago? Or that of any enslaved soul from any era?

God, what a whiner I can be!

I hope God loves whiners…

Some friends of ours are pastors of predominately African-American congregations. My wife loves to worship with them and joins them whenever her schedule allows. She loves the music and the prayers and the enthusiasm there. But she really loves the preaching. Back home, I think of Pastor James and how he comes prepared with a message, but it also seems like he can tell what everyone’s thinking about while he’s talking. So sometimes he’ll change directions midstream, right then and there and start preaching about what’s going on right then and there before anyone recognizes what’s happened, and all of the sudden he’s talking about what you and I are thinking, and he asks, “Amen?” we can’t help but say, “Amen!” right back to him.

And some days he’ll wait to give this alternate sermon, the one the people really need to hear that day, till he prays at the end.

Today, on the ledge of the canyon with 5 other people in the room I couldn’t help but wonder whether we’d get the simple closing prayer or the alternate sermon.

I don’t want to say it was painful, but whether it was a sermon or a prayer, it was a really long time before another “Amen” slipped in. But when it did, my wife grabbed my hand and we were on our feet. I couldn’t tell if the “Amen” was the real and final “Amen” or the generic and rhetorical “Amen” but I did know we were headed for the door before he could begin speaking again.

As we moved out of the room I looked back at him while he stood at the foot of the stage conversing with his wife and the only other couple left in the room and I believe he really had concluded his message. We caught each other’s eye and nodded to each other. And Shawn and I went outside to look out over the canyon.

As we sat along the trail to Bright Angel Point I wondered about our experience this morning. The “Worship” consisted entirely of almost an hour and a half of sermon. The message we heard today probably wasn’t really going to influence whether or not this middle-aged white tourist would join a local gang or take up pimping, and the reports of drive-by shootings at the North Rim are, well, there aren’t any … Waking up this morning, I thought about how this incredible setting could be “used” in worship.

But there was no connection. Not to the canyon. Not to my life. I was expecting more.

And I was disappointed.

But I was missing something.

I don’t know for sure if God spoke this to me, but I realized right then that our preacher was totally out of place at the Grand Canyon.

Not that he didn’t belong here, or that he wasn’t welcome here, but that his heart was somewhere else.

Maybe it was at home.

Why else would he preach such a sermon to a handful of tourists?

I wondered how many times his heart was broken by a gang’s claim on a “trophy”, or a drive-by shooting, or the vision of a girl or young woman dressed up for all the wrong reasons, or any number of alcohol induced catastrophes and drug related tragedies. So, what may have been a long and painful sermon for us may have been his own long, heartfelt and soulful prayer. A prayer that, had I recognized it as such, may have been a beautiful offering that I could’ve joined.

Had I not been so busy whining.

Then I wondered what brought them here to this remote outpost. Where did this man come from, and why were he and his wife here? Was this their sanctuary? Was this their sabbatical? Would I … If I was in his place, would I feel alone here at the Grand Canyon?

We got up off the bench and went back to find him. I hoped we could invite him and his wife out to lunch.

But he was done talking.

And the room was empty.