Sunday, October 9, 2011

The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood (second visit)

I opted to take another look at The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, this time attending the traditional worship service at 9:30am instead of the contemporary late morning worship. I first checked out the church a few months back and was pleasantly surprised by two things: the diversity of the congregation and the fact Pastor Dan Baumgartner's sermon didn't assume I was an idiot.

While I have enjoyed visiting the wide variety of churches the last few months, the argument could be made that I have strayed a bit off my original course which was to select a new home church for myself. And in a less literal sense, I wanted to find God inside one of these venues.

The less literal sense is kind of silly when you think about it. If you believe in Him, then it is a given that He can be anywhere, so God has been inside every church I've visited, just as He has been inside every 7-11 I've visited. But what I'm seeking is a place where I can feel Him, or at least feel closer to Him. But -- really -- I am seeking a place where I feel welcomed and where I don't feel inferior. I think maybe we all seek that place.

I noted not nearly as diverse a congregation in the earlier service, which disappointed me. However, it was stated in the announcements that a sizable chunk of the church membership was away at a retreat, so it might not be fair to use this morning's attendance as an accurate depiction. Clearly, a third visit will need to be made down the road. 

Pastor Baumgartner seems to be focused on the book of Luke this month, which contains more than its share of parables by Jesus. And just as he did last time, he spoke of a story in a way that I didn't feel talked down to. I concede that I am impressed with his approach to delivering a sermon.

The concept of delivering a sermon without being patronizing or condescending is worth repeating. A lot of people see the stories of Biblical times as told to children during Sunday School, and they never quite snap out of that mindset and into the concept of treating kids like kids but adults like adults. This leads all too often to atheists and agnostics talking about the juvenile nature of religion and faith. And a lot of the pandering lies in what is emphasized. Children should marvel at Jonah being swallowed whole by a big fish, but adults should marvel at how a man can hold onto his convictions in the face of overwhelming adversity. Children should marvel at the world being created in seven days, but adults should marvel at how a balance of nature can be achieved in such a complex structure at both a macro and micro level.

Today the pastor talked about the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Children should marvel at the familiar refrain in most theologies that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven (*not applicable to followers of kabbalah). Adults, however, can look past the superficial and dig deeper into the substance. In this case, the story was about comparisons and contrasts.
  • Clothing: Rich man was expertly wardrobed in colorful garments, while Lazarus not only had no clothes, but he had open wounds that the village dogs licked (ick).
  • Food: Rich man feasted every day, while Lazarus looked on from outside, hoping for scraps.
  • Housing: Rich man had a palace, while Lazarus had no place to lay his head.
  • Buriel: Rich man was buried or entombed in the traditional manner of the wealthy of his day, while Lazarus would have died and decomposed out in the open air.
  • Names: Rich man was never given a name in Jesus' story, while the name Lazarus translates loosely as "My God Helps."
In the end, one makes it to heaven and the other winds up someplace else. But instead of focusing on the superficial, one can dig deeper. Jesus was telling this story to the holy men of His day who had become obsessed with the finer things in their lives. As Jesus saw it, their pursuit of attaining things in the name of God had caused their lives to shrink. A modern version of this story would be the current pope living in his own private country, so far removed from humanity that he could not possibly relate to their experiences... not even with a profile on Twitter. I have no doubt the pope has great faith and feels blessed -- so would I if I had a palatial Italian penthouse and all the big hats I ever needed.

Pastor Baumgartner referenced this now-famous commencement address by the recently departed Steve Jobs, wherein he stated, "Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important." People have been critical of the idol worship after news of Jobs' passing was released, but I think many of us mourn the creative spirit that drove the man more than the man himself. I never met Steve Jobs, but the technology he helped to create and the passion he had would indicate to me that while he was pleased to have money, it was not money alone that drove him. There were multiple points in his life when he could have kicked back and enjoyed the millions of dollars he'd earned, but his idealism seemed to prevent that.

Reading the story of Lazarus and the rich man, while Lazarus is certainly aware of the rich man, there is no indication the rich man is aware of Lazarus until after both men died, and that is a poignant point. It is obvious the pope is unaware of my plight, but it is less obvious where Steve Jobs is concerned. It was never enough for Jobs to simply know the technology existed; he wanted it to exist in such a way that anyone could use it. My mother just bought an iPhone yesterday, and she'd be the first to admit she is not strong in technology. But she likes sending texts and playing games and staying in touch with friends and family, and it is now easy for her to do so.

As I understand it, Steve Jobs was born to a Muslim family and converted to Buddhism. I'm unaware of any public statements he made about God or the afterlife. Irregardless, his attitude towards this life is commendable. But if there is a heavenly reward in the afterlife, Steve Jobs might have passed through the eye of a needle to get there, so to speak. In any case, there are lessons to be learned today from two different rich men; one who had a name and one who did not.



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?

The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood

1760 N. Gower St.
Hollywood, CA 90025

What was the denomination?


What Bible verses were referenced?

Deuteronomy 15:7-11 and Luke 16:19-31

What are the demographics of the congregation?

The late service was much more diverse than the traditional 9:30am service

Was the atmosphere formal or casual?

Formal in structure and tone

What was the music like?

Organ and a voluminous choir

How was the use of PowerPoint?

Very little, just for the Bible verses and song lyrics

Being Hollywood, were there celebrities in the congregation?

Either yes or a good lookalike

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