Some of my best friends are Catholic. Quite a few are Jewish. There’s a smattering of Greek Orthodox and dozens of assorted Protestants. I’m not sure how to classify, as a bunch, those who attend non-denominational churches but I really like a lot of them. Honestly, I don’t know any Muslims and I don’t know any atheists but I’m not going door-to-door looking for any, either. Mark Twain may be right in thinking “heaven is the place for altitude and hell is the place for society” but I’d like to think it takes a little more effort on our behalf to go in any direction.
Or, as I saw recently on Facebook, you can tell a lot about probable destinations when you learn there’s a “Stairway to Heaven” but a “highway to hell.”
We were driving between Monte Vista and Alamosa one morning when the fog was particularly heavy. My daughter told Patience, the 9 year-old, that we were driving through a cloud. She was incredulous: how can angels sit on clouds if we can drive right through, she wanted to know. Theology is not my long suit. Nor, might I add, is it the long suit of some ministers I know.
Some preachers (ordained or otherwise) teach by example, others do it (less effectively, I think) with elaborate exhortation while a few try extortion (of one sort or another). Do you remember the televangelist who promised his congregation of viewers that he would be “called home” if several million dollars in donations were not forthcoming. Posthaste. As has been said, it’s a shame the millions poured forth like summer rain because, had he gone, he “would have saved more souls in one day than Billy Graham, the Campus Crusades and the entire Catholic Church have saved in the last 13 generations.”
The majority of ministers and their families live on a church-mouse income and the clink in the collection plate is more often a nickel than even a quarter (hardly anyone saves a penny anymore.) We’re constantly assailed by the media with the pressing need to increase minimum wage or what percentage of the ticket at Chile’s you should add as a gratuity for your waitress. Nobody suggests a minister might welcome a raise anytime soon. Well, they’re preaching from the same old book.
Attendance at any church seems to depend on season and weather and the time of day. More people show up at Christmas and Easter than any other Saturday or Sunday of the year. My brothers, sisters and I loved going to midnight mass on Christmas eve: it was almost like getting to stay up late on a school night. Our church was, in all seasons, roughly the same temperature as a barn. With the doors open. If it had been any warmer in summer, I suppose we might have been tempted to catch a few “winks” but only if you can sleep while standing or kneeling. And only if you weren’t next to a parent (or grandparent) in the pew. In winter, we hoped for a full house so everyone had to sit “cheek to cheek” in the pew, like Eskimos cuddling in an igloo.
Going to church was as much an obligation in our lives as going to school, except we didn’t get “vacations” and it didn’t end with graduation. Most churches make a real effort to attract, entertain and educate children but they’re running a close race with cell phones, tablets and assorted electronic gadgets and toys. The dedicated adults who teach Sunday classes, catechism or summer Bible school must feel like they’re being asked to put on a dog and pony show. With clowns, elephants and cotton candy.
It’s probably not a condition for going through the “pearly gates” that one attend a church service every week but it’s great to be with “like minds” and to feel a part of something bigger and better than Facebook or Twitter or even the GOP.