Monday, September 26, 2011

God's social network

God is on Twitter.

Jesus Christ is on Google Plus.

Of course, neither account has been verified.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hope Lutheran Church

What do you get when you cross smooth jazz with Melrose Avenue? Well, six days a week I have no clue, but on the seventh day, you get Hope Lutheran Church.
I'm going to be less than kind in my remarks about "the Lutheran church," but it should not be taken personally by members of Hope Lutheran Church. Included in their description on Google (written by someone from the church), "We are a Lutheran & Christian church." In other words, they understand. They get it. To be a Lutheran is not the same as to be a Christian. There is a difference.

Around 500 years ago, when Martin Luther fired off an angry email to the Catholics (technology adjusted to 21st century standards), his intention was to cause reform within the Church, but not to break away from it. Martin Luther was a Christian -- not a Lutheran. There is a difference.

Luther's primary complaint at the time was the then-popular notion that you could buy your way into heaven. This perversion of the concept of tithing was clearly not right. However, the modern Lutheran view is that all of your actions -- including financial gifts made to your church -- are meaningless. We are saved by grace through faith alone, which entirely discounts the dogmatic concept that actions matter as well as intent, a concept that has pervaded throughout the course of Christian history, as well as the Jewish history that preceded it (bearing in mind Jesus was a Jew). The Lutherans ignored all the history, as well as volumes of scripture wherein God issues commandments to mankind, telling them what to say, what to do, and what to think. Words and deeds don't matter in the Lutheran church. You can be a big son of a b*tch, a mass-murdering psycho, and even a Libertarian. If you believe, heaven awaits you.

Of course, no true Christian strong in moral character believes that actions don't matter. It is through our faith that we are motivated to perform good deeds. Christ did good for us, so it falls to us to try to do the same for others. Lutheran dogma dictates this is deeply flawed; belief is enough.

Hope Lutheran has been around almost 69 years, and its members are proud of the good works they do. At least I think that was why we were clapping during the church announcements. I'm going to be honest, Hope Lutheran has the worst audio setup of any church I have ever attended. Not only are the natural acoustics of the room abhorrent, the sound system which should have compensated only made things worse. I had a lot of trouble understanding the pastor, as did the older gentleman seated a few seats to my right who yelled out loud (more than once during the service), "I can't hear you."

The audio problems began before the worship began, as the praise band (yep) rehearsed through the official start time of the service itself. This is Hollywood; they ought to be more professional. The microphones were cutting in and out, and I don't think the choir members were able to hear each other over the band, which consisted of a pianist, drummer, electric guitarist, bass guitarist, and a man who played either a saxophone or a flute depending on the song. It was the stuff of a "lite-fm" station like "The Wave."

The design of the church was odd, which added to the acoustic problems. The church was more of a triangle in shape, and the cross was -- at best -- abstract. As the church was "Lutheran & Christian," there was a fountain for holy water, which is certainly not a Lutheran custom. Seating was a series of chairs with space between each seat for a Bible (NIV) to be wedged. Bible passages were read aloud by all in attendance which further contributed to making things hard to hear. The music was a mix of contemporary, traditional, Simon, and Garfunkel.

Speaking of the music, I found a homophone issue with the printed refrain of one of the songs. It dramatically changes the meaning.
The minister dressed in all black, but looked more like Steve Jobs than a man of the cloth. For starters, he wore no cloth. Pastor Mark Rasbach spoke about evangelizing, but I couldn't make out a lot of what was said. I know that someone named Scott made cards for all in attendance that we could give to others to invite them to Hope Lutheran. I know the church bulletin contained many loose pages about church activities and events, but not a great deal about beliefs. I know the pastor indicated we didn't have to find clever and not-so-clever ways to talk about God, but we should all try to mention and be mindful of the good things He has done for us. There was probably more to the sermon than that, but I couldn't hear it.

But I am thankful that I had a reasonably good extended weekend, and I was able to go to interesting places and hang out with people I like. I am thankful that Canter's Deli makes an amazing apple turnover. I am glad that God placed beautiful, intelligent women on this planet who will flirt with me, and I am glad that God invented British television so I have something to watch while US TV continues its steady decline. God is good.


Sunday Scorecard

This will be a regular part of my weekly reviews, a series of short-answer questions about the day's experience.

What is the contact info for the church?

Hope Lutheran Church
6720 Melrose Ave
Hollywood, CA 90038

What was the denomination?

"Lutheran & Christian"

What Bible verses were referenced?

Psalm 78:1-4 and Matthew 21:23-32

What are the demographics of the congregation?

About a 60/40 split of white and black, with no children in attendance (Sunday school instead) so the age skewed older

Was the atmosphere formal or casual?


What was the music like?

Kenny G

How was the use of PowerPoint?

None at all

Being Hollywood, were there celebrities in the congregation?

Actually, a few familiar faces in the mix

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Church of Scientology

When it comes to Hollywood institutions, none are bigger than Scientology. They own the bulk of the real estate and members are in positions of power and influence all over the city. It is pervasive, yet secretive. Walking down Hollywood Blvd. yesterday, I saw an attractive woman walk out of one of the ostentatious Scientology buildings, cross the street, then use a key card and number sequence on a keypad to gain access to a nondescript building. She was wearing the salt-and-pepper uniform of the Scientologists, so she was clearly "one of them." And that is at the core of why so many people have reservations about them -- there is the flashy side that they present, but there is clearly something else going on that we don't see. Well, you don't see it; I went inside the belly of Hollywood's giant beast today. I went to the Church of Scientology on Sunset Blvd.
I reserved a spot for the 10:30 a.m. "Worship Service," only it didn't really begin until 11:00 a.m. ("We keep meaning to change the website"), and it wasn't really a worship service. I was led to a room with six chairs. A second congregant sat down a minute later, then the service began, led by a man who looked not unlike Ed Begley Jr. (note: it was not Ed Begley Jr., nor am I implying Ed Begley Jr. has any connection to Scientology).

Reverend Begley (note: NOT his real name) read from a book the size of a large volume encyclopedia, all the words contained therein were written by a single author: L. Ron Hubbard. To put it bluntly: L is Scientology, and Scientology is L. Before being escorted to the worship service, I had ample time to walk the corridors and learn, through a series of tactile displays and video presentations, about the founder of Scientology. There was information about how he grew up, his military career, less than two complete sentences about his days as a science fiction author, and volumes of information about his quest to save humanity. Around the corner from the displays is his office, which seems to await his return.

One of the displays featured some of the global initiative undertaken by Scientology. It included a photo and small caption related to my Central Asian home of Karaganda, Kazakhstan. I would argue with the caption, inasmuch as I lived in the heart of Karaganda for nearly half a year, and never encountered this supposedly massive movement of Scientologists in the region. But I digress.

The first thing Reverend Begley read was the Creed of the Scientologist (written by L. Ron Hubbard, of course). Included in the creed is the belief, "That the souls of men have the rights of men." I'll go ahead and state now that there was no mention of aliens inhabiting human bodies or any of the highly publicized, highly sensationalized aspects of Scientology. But this seemingly innocuous line immediately turned me off to the church because it reminded me of Karl Pilkington.

For those not in the know, Karl Pilkington is a friend of comedian Ricky Gervais, and Gervais delights in pointing out (whether in podcasts or on television programs) that Karl Pilkington has some wild ideas. For instance, Karl believes that parts of his body have minds of their own -- that he does not choose what his eyes look at or his ears listen to. He doesn't even choose what his brain thinks. Karl believes all of these parts of the body are not fully in his control, and that they do not make up who he is. And when I heard the bit about a soul needing the same rights as a man, that our essence is somehow distinct from who we are, that was enough for me to wave the white flag. But being one of three people in the room, a discreet exit was out of the question, so I settled in.

The topic of today's sermon/reading concerned -- I'm not sure really. I wish I'd have had the sense to record it, but there was a lot of cyclical wording... phrases like (paraphrasing), "A thing isn't known until it is known and you don't know something until you know it, because knowledge comes from knowing these things." Frankly, G.I. Joe summed it up better when they said "Knowing is half the battle." Reverend Begley also read about the varying levels between "I am" and "I am not" (apparently there are stages between being truly alive and being truly dead, so I guess maybe Miracle Max was a Scientologist).

Fortunately for all concerned, the worship service was short, wrapping up with "A Scientology Prayer for Total Freedom," including, "freedom to be; freedom to do and freedom to have [sic]." And that should have been that. But wait... there's more. Because no trip to the Church of Scientology would be complete without at least one test.

It was explained the reason so few attended the worship service was because they were too busy studying and testing. Sure enough, as we walked down the hall there were classrooms with smatterings of people flipping through books. I was asked if I wanted to take a test, and I was hoping they'd whip out one of those e-meters, but instead I was given a scan-tron sheet and asked to take the "Oxford Capacity Analysis." After three questions, I recognized it as the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, which can be a useful test when one is on a voyage of self-discovery. The difference is in how the data is analyzed and reviewed.

Having taken (and administered) the Keirsey a few times, I know the results are not judgmental in nature. Based on your answers to questions, the test helps to clue you in as to whether you are more introverted or extroverted, emotional or rational, and so on. The point is not to be critical or even to point out flaws or strengths; the point is to merely help identify/clarify one's temperament. In the Church of Scientology, however, the results are interpreted differently. There are goods and bads.

You'll be happy to note that I am very certain of myself, well-composed, active, aggressive, appreciative, and communicative -- all good things. I fall down the middle on the happiness scale (yes, they have a happiness scale), and I am average when it comes to showing responsibility. But the most troubling result of the test (according to my youthful and concerned proctor) was that instead of trending towards what they termed "correct estimation" (which is -- I guess -- a good thing), I was worryingly "critical." I won't even doubt the validity of the results, though I would dispute the concept of deriving goods and bads as a result of them (for instance, I'm not sure it is such a good thing that I am aggressive). The one result I haven't mentioned yet, and it ought to give those who know me a laugh or two, is that I rated astoundingly high on the stability scale. Yep -- that's me in a nutshell.

On the way out I was directed towards a few books I ought to purchase to raise me up on the happiness scale and lead me close to "correct estimation." I opted to pass. In the end, the entire morning felt very much like a way to drum up sales of self-help books.

I suppose some of my atheist friends would contend Christianity and Scientology are equally silly. I would dispute that, arguing that Scientology appears to be what Christianity would be if Jesus had been a struggling writer instead of the Son of God. I would dispute the concept of different parts of our bodies somehow maintaining independent identities. I would even add that men in ascots do not possess all the answers to life's questions.

Obviously I was only exposed to the entry-level of Scientology today, the family-friendly, rated G, suitable for all ages, sanitized-for-your-protection version. However, based on all I've seen and read, that's all the majority of Scientologists ever achieve; only a select few rise up the ranks to the Tom Cruise level. For those who stay closer to reality, I doubt there is any real harm to what they do. It is frankly not much different from the cult of Oprah Winfrey. But the fact there are levels troubles me. The fact the answers are not freely available (you have to pay for the words of L Ron Hubbard, and you have to pay for classes and workshops) troubles me more. If the man really was a spiritual leader on a holy crusade to save humanity, why are his cohorts charging humanity for the keys to salvation?

Last but not least, Scientology's many edicts encourage people of all faiths to join Scientology, yet they use a Christian cross as its symbol -- that smacks of being disingenuous. I witnessed nothing Christian in the Church of Scientology. At its core, it was a bookstore with an overly aggressive and overly complex marketing strategy.

Of course, that is just me being critical.


Sunday Scorecard

This will be a regular part of my weekly reviews, a series of short-answer questions about the day's experience.

What is the contact info for the church?

Church of Scientology
4810 Sunset Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90027


What was the denomination?


What Bible verses were referenced?

None... just the gospel according to L Ron Hubbard

What are the demographics of the congregation?

Just me and a man named Vito

Was the atmosphere formal or casual?

It was very much like a Borders bookstore

What was the music like?


How was the use of PowerPoint?

None, though there were several video kiosks with presentaions

Being Hollywood, were there celebrities in the congregation?

A few familiar faces and voices in the videos, but none in person

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Holy War (of sorts)

I always have my doubts (a word often used where religion is concerned) when I see "witty" pictures of church signage, but in this case I really hope these are genuine. The battle of the billboards supposedly began when a Catholic church across the street from a Presbyterian church put up this sign:
As your see by clicking on this link, the Presbyterians retaliated, and then things really took a turn or two.

Or three.

Monday, September 12, 2011


After two months, I can finally start to see how well the blog is trending. Overall I like the numbers because I can see that I'm actually reaching some people with my words and -- possibly -- making a difference. I'd like to see more readers comment and discuss the various churches, but I am frankly pleased at how fast the blog has established an audience.
I haven't hit all 50 states yet, but I'm reaching both red and blue states, which is awesome. I'm tired of religion being considered a political issue; both believers and nonbelievers have tried to divide the nation through theology. You'll see none of that here.
I like the percentage of new visits vs. returning readers. More people are discovering me every week, and then many of them come back for more.
Facebook is clearly where the bulk of my readers are coming from (I created a fan page for the blog a few weeks ago). Direct traffic and G+ traffic makes up for most of the rest.
Perhaps the most encouraging of all the statistics is that people are actually reading what I wrote instead of just clicking away as soon as they've landed on the blog.

Thanks to everybody for all the support and interest. The journey has proven to be an interesting one for me, and I'm glad others are intrigued as well.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mosque repellent

The best laid plans of mice and infidels...

This morning was an auspicious beginning to what I'm still fervently hoping will be a month devoted to attending worship services of other faiths. My plan for this weekend was to participate in a Muslim call to prayer, something Muslims must do five times each day, whether alone or in groups. It was a simple enough plan: Locate a mosque in or around Hollywood and visit it. A quick Google search informed me that Google is far from perfect, and my task would be more daunting than I'd suspected.
As you can see, the search results included a church (been there, done that), Buddhist temple, mortuary, synagogue, and Kabbalah center (way to go, Google). Suffice it to say, the sixth result looked the most promising, and its website contained messages about the last days of this year's Ramadan. I thought it best to email in advance when it comes to visiting places of other faiths. Even though I have been to Muslim calls to prayer before, it was overseas and the conditions were different. I sent an email earlier this week and never heard back from them. Not a good sign. But, frankly, there were no other options in the search results.

This morning I took a drive to North Hollywood and found a choice parking place near as nondescript a building as I've ever seen. There was no signage to indicate what it was, and the door was closed and locked behind a set of cast iron bars. The neighborhood seemed nice and friendly, but this particular address was clearly not open for business or pleasure. I knocked all the same; no answer. Nothing of the building's interior is visible from its exterior. No signs of life.
Undaunted I returned to my trusty Google iPhone app and searched for mosques in the Burbank area. Again, the search results were downright goofy, but they did include an Islamic center in Glendale. Not wanting to arrive at another locked door, I clicked on its website so I could determine exactly when their calls to prayer would take place. The website is, as you can see, less than clear.
So I have sent another email and am awaiting a response. My hope is to attend the Asr prayer in the late afternoon and report back; we shall see what happens.

The most recent official statistics (2007) indicate 0.7% of the US population is Muslim. nevertheless, I assumed there would be easier access to a nearby mosque. After all only 1.7% of the US claim to be Jewish, but there do not appear to be any issues locating a synagogue in the area (in fact, they pop up in search results for mosques).

There are obvious reasons for selecting a mosque on this day, and it doesn't need to be dwelt upon. It frankly doesn't matter where I was ten years ago on this date, though two months after that I had begun the process of joining the Peace Corps, and six months after that I was living in a Muslim country in Central Asia.

Walking into the main mosque in the city of Pavlodar, Kazakhstan, there was certainly a sense of awe and wonder, as it was unlike any church I'd ever seen. It was also unlike a standard mosque in its architectural style. The locals had given it the unofficial nickname "Darth Vader's summer home," but we silly Americans thought the exterior closely resembled a badminton shuttlecock/birdie.
Today while people are arguing over who didn't get invited to what memorial, I thought I'd do what I normally do: Demonstrate in my own way that we are all connected, even those who believe differently or not at all. It is still my hope to be able to attend a Muslim call to prayer today; if not today then perhaps later in the week. In any event, wherever you are and whatever you may be feeling on this day, please know that you are never alone.


Monday, September 5, 2011

San Diego road trip

This won't be my typical Sunday church review/recap. This weekend I found myself down in San Diego, attending a memorial service at the same church that essentially disowned me (see the inaugural installment of this blog for the basic details). The notion of returning to that place filled me with dread, apprehension, anger, and fear -- so I knew I had to do it. The person being remembered was the husband of a coworker who had been very supportive of me, and returning to the scene of the proverbial crime, I was deluged with others who had supported me as well. Ironically enough, I felt pretty amazing as I left the memorial.

What I keep forgetting -- and this weekend served as a terrific reminder -- is my removal was asymptomatic of the larger problem the church was facing and continues to face. By all indications, their numbers are not good, and not all of it can be blamed on the economy. And if you'll permit me. I'd like to take some time to address the larger issues facing churches today.

The way they stand, the majority of churches are simply not relevant. Society has changed, beliefs have changed, the entire planet has changed -- but religion is either stuck at the dawn of the written word or has ignored the past in a desperate attempt to feebly grasp at the present.

The first issue, that of being stuck in the past, probably smacks in the face of all of my previous ranting and raving about how much I enjoy the traditional aspects of worship services. What I admire in traditions are their connections to history, but a connection to history does not mean we overlook everything else.

If I have my history correct (and I probably don't), the Council of Nicaea met somewhere in the 3rd or 4th century, and it was this council that laid the groundwork for how Christians would worship for the next 1800 years. Even the Reformation caused by Martin Luther didn't impact churches as greatly as the Nicene. That tells us aside from some cosmetic changes in language, a few dropped books of the Bible, and an extra line in the Lord's Prayer, Christianity hasn't been united enough to keep up with the world.

Imagine if a modern council met featuring religious scholars and leaders from every faith to review, discuss, and debate how things have changed. As one small example, most western nations have a distinct separation of church and state, but Christian doctrine has never evolved from the time when religion was the law of the given land. Also, 1800 years ago, it might have taken someone weeks, months, or years to journey to a region with different beliefs, but now people of different faiths live next door, and we can access anyone in the world via technology. Why aren't there large-scale adjustments being made to Christendom, to account for new ways of living and communicating?

The folks who are stuck in the past will quickly contend there are choice passages in the Bible that cover every scenario that might come up; if they are correct, they have failed to convince me of this. They have also failed to convince me that the New Testament is the last set of Divinely inspired words. More than a millennium has passed since we accepted something as having been penned by God -- did he run out of ink? I have read some prophetic words by everyone from Shakespeare to Joe Campbell, but we can't entertain the notion of potential Divinity, because all that matters is what came long ago? This leads us to the rut many churches are now in, specifically that anyone who embraces something new must therefore be rejecting something old.

The flip side of the coin are those churches who seem to want to remove history from the equation -- those who believe tradition is for squares. After all, they contend, Jesus was a rebel. In their eyes, if Jesus was alive today, He'd be sporting tattoos and a pierced nose. So these churches reject all connection to what came before, embracing only the new. They are casual to the point where the word "organization" doesn't really apply. "Come as you are, nothing special about us or what we're doing, just be the best you that you can be" seem to be familiar mantras in these settings. Herein lies the rub: Because the Bible -- because history -- doesn't address all our modern issues, these ultra-modern churches believe it is better to set it aside as something that is quaint but out-of-date. In the two months I've been visiting churches in Hollywood, I've already encountered a few that didn't feature Bible readings in the worship service. I've encountered churches with no religious iconography -- no visible indication that Jesus even exists in their lives.

Both types of churches are juvenile. That is not hyperbole; they are acting like spoiled children, and they are doing so at the expense of the souls they claim to be trying to save. One child is closing its eyes to the present, and the other is closing its ears to the past. Both need a spanking.

As a school teacher, when I ask a question, one of the most refreshing answers I can receive is "I don't know." It implies a level of trust and honesty that few students are willing to offer up. Frankly, I don't think the church leaders of today trust us very much. The truth is, they don't know what God really looks like. The truth is, they don't know how He'd respond to the plurality of beliefs found within the borders of the United States. The truth is, they don't know -- when inconsistencies or omissions exist in the Bible -- what the truth is. But they are not honest enough to admit that. And they lack the courage of their conviction required to form a council and work through the last 1800 years of evolving civilizations.

I love my iPhone and my iPad. I love the ease of communication, but mostly I love the freedom of media. I can play any song at any time, in my car, through headphones, or connected to some kick-ass speakers. It is a very modern miracle that so many songs can be stored on a device so small, and as technology continues to develop, the devices will get smaller and the miracles will continue. However, I love my record player. I love the tactile experience of pressing the needle gently onto the spinning vinyl. I love the occasional pop as the needle encounters debris in the grooves. I love the connection I feel as the record plays -- a connection to those who played it before me, as well as a connection to the artists themselves who had to decide what order of songs told the best story. The record had its limitations, but it also seemed more personal and more purposeful. There is room in my heart for the old and the new.

The truth as I see it is the church that rejected me is stuck in the past -- though they have made changes, they are largely cosmetic and smart people tend to see through that. But God was there, in that church; of this I am positive, if for no other reason than God would seem to be everywhere. But a select handful of people are refusing to open their eyes; until they do, the church's days are numbered.

Having said that, I went back to San Diego. I walked back into a church that rejected me, and I felt loved. More importantly, I felt God. Driving back to Los Angeles, I was treated to an amazing light show as lightning crashed all around me, filling the night sky -- not exactly a burning bush, but I couldn't help but believe He was trying to send a message to somebody, as long as they had eyes to see it.