Meeting God in an unlikely cathedral
At the beginning, I wasn’t sure exactly how I would go about exploring God and testing out a life of faith. I had, for the most part, prayed regularly, and I read a good deal of the Bible. Praying always felt good, even if I didn’t understand everything. I wondered why I would ever need to tell anything to God, since He was supposed to know everything, anyways. I continued to pray. I figured part of this exploration would mean putting my doubts behind me, fighting off ones that would arise, living like God was real, and figuring out more of it on the fly. I also figured I should start going to church in Santa Barbara, so I continued to attend Hope Community Church.
Apprehensively, I took an interest in going to church. I wanted to dive further into understanding God, and I felt that it would take more than reading books and thinking all by myself. Based on my experiences growing up, I still had plenty of reservations about going to church, but I figured it might be helpful to do some spiritual investigating with people who were a similar type of curious. I would go to church with an open heart, but a critical mind.
At the same time, I took an interest in philosophy classes, classes of other religions- Islam and Hinduism, and opted for as much immersion as possible into a spiritual life. Whatever nodes had led others to God I wanted to see for myself.
Real Life was a Christian community with a sizable presence on my campus. Very early on, I attended one of their meetings. While they insisted they weren’t a church, their meetings felt very much like church. Worship, announcements, message, and so on. They met in a lecture hall, but with a big worship band on stage, dimmed lights, and a unified enthusiasm, it lost all feelings of university academia. With so many people, and such a big presentation, I felt minuscule and awkwardly out-of-place during that first meeting. To be fair, this was during my first month of college and I felt awkwardly-out-of-place in most places, but I felt a bit daunted.
It would be another few months before I returned to Real Life.
My favorite class at this time was Public Speaking. We got to make speeches every week, and mine were usually well received. I usually sat right behind a taller, well-built guy with long blonde locks of hair that went up to his neck. This long haired blonde was Chris Ward. I noticed one day he wore a green shirt labeled Real Life.
“Hey, you’re in Real Life,” I told him, pointing out the obvious.
“Yeah, ever go?”
“I’ve been before,” I said, truthfully.
“You should go every time.”
Sometimes the simplest invitations are the most effective ones. I did what he said.
Part of me wanted to get to know more people, and figured it could be a good place to start. I had started to feel more lonely since I hadn’t connected to too many new friends in college by this point. I started showing up to regular meetings late that year.
I figured at least Chris Ward was a cool guy to hang out with. He seemed really comfortable with his faith and was never pushy or aggressive about it. I met him at the hall in time for the Real Life meeting, where he was just Chris. He introduced me to a few other people.
The first thing that stood out to me was how everyone really sung during the worship parts. People really got into it as the music played, closing their eyes, singing loudly, and lifting up their hands. Most churches offer music, but this was different. I always thought the idea of singing in church was a bit odd. Singing wasn’t for everybody, and I wondered why a church meeting had to include singing. No other kind of meeting had singing. It would be a totally bizarre thing to happen in Congress or at an office, so I wondered why churches seemed to force it. At this meeting, though, it wasn’t forced at all and made a lot more sense. It wasn’t singing, it was worship, and I could understand why a church meeting would have worship. It still felt a little bit weird since it was mostly new to me, but at least it made sense. People behaved like they were in the presence of God when the worshipped. People who were regularly just normal, insightful, positive, and intelligent people capable of thinking for themselves.
Talks were led by another guy named Chris, although this Chris was older. He wasn’t a student, but he dressed like one. He also brought a lot of insight and sincerity and I was interested in what he had to say and I figured this wouldn’t be a bad place to meet some new people, especially as I was trying to explore God and to make my faith my own. I went for the remainder of the year, mostly keeping to myself and blending in.
Sometime towards the end of this first year of college, and continuing on into the summer, things came undone. I had a relationship with a girl which fell apart. We simply viewed our relationship with each other in two completely different ways. In her, I saw the embodiment of me coming to life again, of completion, and of the end of loneliness. In my eyes, all the chaotic events and turmoil that surrounded the past few years had led to us meeting, knowing each other, going on a date. What I had built up in my head was amazing, it was so unexpected, and it was a remarkable togetherness to have experienced.
Except what I had built up in my head wasn’t real.
After this all collapsed, I didn’t know what to do. I was in my dorm room feeling shaken underneath the green Christmas lights I left hanging up around the window. I didn’t see it coming. One bit. I was so confused.
The next night, I went bowling with a bunch of people. I had spared most of them the news, but the way I was acting that night, I wouldn’t be surprised if they all knew. I barely focused on the bowling, not that I would’ve been any good anyways. I was surrounded by pink and neon blue lights all around, a floor that lit up with different patterns, and colors and thumping bass everywhere. The sounds of the music, the crashing of pins, and the clapping of the bowling balls as they bounced into each other blended with the machines and the fifty simultaneous conversations. And none of that was getting to me. I felt like my body was some sort of room, and I was trapped inside of it wanting to lurch out.
Now all the fortunate events in my life that led to this relationship I had placed on a pedestal suddenly went nowhere. I felt like the period of good things in my life had effectively come to an ending. I felt no love. I didn’t think I could ever find anything good again. Having lost that, none of my world made sense. I didn’t think I was loveable. That was it, really. I didn’t think anybody could love me and I figured I blew my one shot. I couldn’t really imagine anyone seeing me as someone that would interest them and I figured I would be alone for a long, long time.
That was the big thing. I returned to feeling incredibly alone. One of the best things about a relationship is how it helps keep loneliness at bay. With that gone, I saw how I allowed it to inhibit me from nurturing old friendships or forming new ones. Loneliness had made a reentry.
I hated feeling alone. I never saw life as anything good if you couldn’t share it with other people. I think one of the worst things I can imagine is being the only person on the Earth. I know all the people on the Earth mess things up a lot, but being the only person would be terrible, boring, and lonely. That was how I felt. I had made a few casual friends through school, but there were only a few I had things in common with. A lot of them I couldn’t relate to very well. At this point I had yet to feel like I knew anyone well enough to share how I felt. I was pretty guarded about it all.
With all torn down, I had no choice but to rebuild. Towards the middle of summer, I returned early to get a head start with classes. I moved into my first apartment with people from my dorm the previous year. We were all very different. We bought cheap Ikea furniture and learned how to get the stubborn shower to hit a decent temperature. I put posters up all over the place. I could tell this year was going to be different.
I went back to church at Hope. On my first Sunday back, Jim talked about change. He talked about how it was a part of life, and how to weather it.
“Everything that grows, changes,” he said. “Change is just a sign that you’re growing. All change comes with stress and difficulty, but these are just growing pains.”
The words struck me as so incredibly relevant. The pleasures of life had started to thin again, and on a few occasions depression started creeping back in. After a relationship I carried at the end of high school fell apart, I realized that a number of my other relationships did as well, mostly due to neglect. The few remaining close friends felt so far away and communication was strained. I started to question my presence in Santa Barbara, wondering what it would’ve been like if I went to school at one of my alternative options. It seemed quite sudden, too. How, just after starting to live a more vivid life, suddenly I found myself struggling to enjoy anything without anybody to share it with.
Things were definitely changing, but was I growing?
“There’s an old quote,” mentioned Pastor Jim. “God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to keep you the way you are.”
I found a two-unit class called Leadership and Team Building. Based on the course description, it sounded like an office retreat. It was all about trust falls and ropes courses. I signed up in a heartbeat. The class was taught by Rod Tucknott, my favorite goateed optimist. He was the kind of guy who was always cheerful, upbeat, and encouraging, and even if you weren’t having a good day, it made you feel better to see that it sure seemed like he was. Every class was a team activity followed by a life lesson.
Rod was big on goal setting and working to attain our goals. One day, he had us write down all of our goals on a sheet of paper. He told us to think of things we wanted to do, to have, and to be. He told us to use our imaginations and go wild. I knew I wanted to make some friends and not be lonely, and to have what it felt like everybody else had. I didn’t want to say that, though, since I would sound desperate and there were some cute girls in that class. I filled my list up with superficial things. I wanted to own an ice cream truck, a domesticated bear, and the Philadelphia Phillies.
One guy in our class was named Sam. He lived at the Snow Club house, one of the best party houses in Isla Vista and looked the part. He wore shaggy hair and spoke with a deeper, dragging voice.
“What are some things you would do if you were president, but just for a day?” asked Rod.
“I would legalize marijuana,” said Sam.
“Legalizing pot!” echoed Rod, chuckling.
“And I would lower the drinking age to 18.”
We also had to do personal presentations in this class. We introduced ourselves, things we did well and didn’t do well, ambitions in life, values, and we had to perform a special talent. Sam usually said things that were funny and insightful at the same time, so I was excited to hear him speak. First he did his talent, he juggled. Then he introduced himself. He was from Seattle. He liked snow activities.
“And the thing I value the most is my relationship with God.”
Rod had warned us not to make any assumptions about people. In addition to knowing how to have a good time, Sam had a very sincere love for God. He was always positive and joyful, and I had to ask him about it. My fundamentalist upbringing led me to believe such a person could not exist.
“I make my share of mistakes, for sure,” admitted Sam. “Hey, if you’re interested, I’ve actually been thinking of having a church in my backyard. Just somewhere where we can sit around, have some wine, talk about God.”
That I had to check out.
I was excited to meet him. He told me some of his story, how back in high school he was a pot dealer, and that he hadn’t completely dropped his lifestyle, but he toned it down a lot. He always dug into the Bible, and often came up with things from the book of Psalms to encourage his friends and roommates, who happened to be some of the dirtiest roommates in Isla Vista. The majority of Sam’s friends loved to party it up, but just through knowing and talking to him, they got a little bit more in touch with their spiritual sides.
Sam wasn’t without his critics. Once I told somebody in a more traditional Christian circle about Sam’s non-judgemental, personal, way of going about his faith. In response I got a, “yeah, but he’s not being a very good light.” It kind of upset me when I heard that. I wanted to continue to defend him, but let it go. I’m not anybody’s light monitor.
“Kickback Church” was pretty easy to find. You just had to go behind the Snow Club house where the altar of red cups awaited. Sam set out a makeshift snack table with reheated garlic bread from Costco and boxed wine. I helped myself to some wine. Everyone gathered around a makeshift bonfire on chairs, stools, and kegs.
Sam, who I suppose was temporarily “Pastor Sam” made it a point of not wanting it to be a case of him speaking and everybody listening. He told everyone that we were free to guide the conversation in whatever direction we wanted. Since no one really offered anything, he pulled out a Psalm, read it, and then looked at everyone. Suddenly people started talking. I immediately learned that this was a diverse group, full of all kinds of opinions. Everyone was definitely respectful, even the guy that was completely drunk. The people gathered were also really intelligent, and experienced in their own ways.
I’m not sure where Sam found everyone who went to Kickback Church, because a good portion of them didn’t even go to our school. A lot of them had tumultuous lives and were at some sort of transition point. At least half the group had experience dealing drugs, if not working deeper in drug trafficking. About a third had served time in prison. The younger members liked to party, and they knew Sam because of that shared bond. It was clear that not everybody present was a Christian. One girl came saying she didn’t know what she believed about God, one woman came saying she used to be a witch, and one guy came to show off his rapping skills. I wish churches like these were easier to find.
I continued to attend the more traditional Real Life, as well. What initially weirded me out was how enveloped by the worship music everybody gets. Depending on your exposure to Christian circles, it can be either an intimate time or an intimidating time. Everybody would get really into the music, and I mean really into it. Eyes closed, singing at full volume. Fortunately most of them had good enough voices so this wasn’t distracting. But people were emotionally moved to the point of tears, a lot of times. People would randomly shout, and throw their hands up in the air. Some people held their palms open, as if they were expecting God to drop down a scared cat who was stuck atop a tree.
I didn’t understand this at first. I got the concept of worship, but I figured it would be more purposeful to worship God by doing things. Volunteering at an abuse shelter or helping provide medicine to the poor seemed more like a form of worship that I can understand. I didn’t get the whole music thing. Why would God want me singing to Him? I don’t have the voice to sing musical theatre, much less to perform for God. I also couldn’t get why everyone got so emotional. They did this regularly. Every week. You’d figure after some time, you’d remember what you felt the last time and the emotional impact wouldn’t be as big in the future.
It was another moment of confusion, and it bothered me how theatrical it seemed. It wasn’t until I went and tried it out for myself and surrendered my reservations that I understood. Really allowing yourself to feel in commune with God during the time of music can be one of the most uplifting things you’ll ever experience. They say the presence of His Spirit fills the room. That’s almost too accurate of a way to describe that feeling, so it seems true. It’s also said that this kind of worship looks different for everyone, which is why you don’t need to worry if you’re a hands up kind of person, or a palms out worshipper. It’s all about connecting with the Spirit of God.
It still probably sounds a little weird with that said. After all, it still doesn’t explain what God gets out of this, when we could be feeding orphans. Well, I don’t think you can explain it or that you’re supposed to. You can’t really explain kisses, either. There is no physiological reason why two lips coming in contact with each other should create such euphoria. It doesn’t trigger the same arousal as sex. It really isn’t much more than contact made between two parts of the face that normally don’t make much contact with things other than food. But anyone who’s ever shared a heartfelt kiss understands that it’s so much more than lip contact.
A kiss is a promise. A kiss is a statement, one that doesn’t translate into words. A kiss is something that can leave you surprised, elated, overcome with joy, scared, incredulous, and content, all at the same time. Yet on paper, it’s nothing more than lips coming into contact.
If you imagine a romantic relationship without kisses, something will feel like it’s missing. Sure there are other ways to say I love you. You could make your spouse breakfast, or buy some jewelry on the way home. Those things do clearly say, “I love you,” but a kiss does as well. Ingrid Bergman describes a kiss as “a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” This is how I’ve come to understand worship. It’s a bit like the kiss of God. You don’t get how it works, but things happen behind the scenes, and you’re filled with more joy, contentment, and peace than ever imaginable. Worship grew on me like kissing. Usually, my hopeless romantic side confuses me and lets me down. Sometimes, it helps me understand things.