A Survey of Portland Churches by the Faithless
It is the first Sunday of Lent and the Piedmont Presbyterian Church has informed me that Lent lasts 40 days “with the exception of Sundays”. I want to ask if the church calls today Fat Sunday, but resist. It is a strange experience, an agnostic—in the mildest terms—attending church. But I want to explore the reverent feelings that even most atheists would feel upon entering the Sanctuary. Am I dressed properly? Should I bow my head more? Should I not think about the church’s choice to use microphones in the sacred air of the place of worship?
No, I hold myself from these questions. Besides I am dressed more appropriately than the man in red suspenders sitting behind me. And honestly the crowd is small anyway. Most people act as if it the first day of school and sit in the back pews. There is a printed itinerary for today’s sermon that I forget to grab at the entrance, but a nice old woman gives me hers. The crowd itself is mostly octogenarians and any kids or young adults are with parents.
I still find it hard to believe in Christ’s Rebirth, possibly always will, so I try to replace His name with something more mundane like Toby or Alan or Boris. It helps me feel not so neurotic or awkward as a non-believer in the church. Sooths religious guilt I didn’t know I had.
I try not to look perplexed but the first song of the morning is
“Woke up this mornin’ with my mind
Stayed on Jesus.
Woke up this mornin’ with my mind
Stayed on Jesus…
Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallujah!”
And the woman on pipe organ is laying down a funky beat. This is the worship of Lounge Act Jesus. This is the Apostles circa 1961 singing for their Lord. And it goes on like this through another three songs with interludes of prayer by a woman who still needs work on her “people skills”. She is pleasant though. I feel a bit more at ease.
Then the lesson of the day begins. For Lent, we have been cast out into the wilderness, where we must avoid temptation from Satan. Most give up admittedly petty things, like sugar and television. Or find creative ways to give up the same petty things, like a week without sugar followed by a week without television. The heater hums loudly like rain. An old man in front does not look at the pulpit, but writes notes to himself instead, using the Bible as a writing surface. I seem to be the only one riveted, the only one trying to soak up the message, one that probably comes every year at Lent.
But lest the audience be without sound and chorus too long, readings from the Bible are punctuated with songs and hymns such as “I Love the Lord, Who Heard My Cry” and “Come Out the Wildness African-American Spiritual”. (I am not exactly sure why ‘African-American Spiritual’ is specified on the itinerary. It seems an inconsequential specification to make, to an all-white congregation. Perhaps a note to the older generation who may not recognize these hymns?)
By the short lesson’s end, some of my initial feelings of reverence have worn off. The ritualistic messages come too fast for me to comprehend at times. I am stranger becoming more and more strange. There is talk of Churches in China that need our support. I had assumed, before attending, that much of the binding power of the church came in the sermon’s lesson, but it had been brief and unfocused. It had been sandwiched between a wide array of ceremonies that required standing and then sitting and then standing again. I sing half-heartedly. I bow my head and am not sure I am thinking about God or Toby. I don’t feel it is appropriate to take communion. And I do my best to leave without being roped into coffee and doughnuts. Next time, I will not be attending Presbyterian.