Sunday, February 3, 2008

Bad Buddhist vs. the Lord (and Celine Dion)

A crazy thing happened to me today.

I had an uplifting experience — at church.

It never should have happened. I don't do church. Or God, or Jesus, or any of that. I get very grouchy about things like separation of church and state (or the lack thereof) and Mormons drinking Coke and rich greedy plutocrats pretending to be upright Christians. The closest thing to a higher power I'm able to stomach is Flying Spaghetti Monster (may we all be touched by His noodly appendage).

But today I went, with a friend of mine who is visiting from D.C., to the Church of St. John Coltrane, which is of the African Orthodox tradition. It seemed like a fun, sort of touristy San Francisco thing to do. It was my idea to go, and I was curious, but I really had to brace myself for the God-talk and expected to be uncomfortable.

I also wasn't especially looking forward to the music. I don't get jazz; in fact, I just saw the Chet Baker documentary "Let's Get Lost" and was kind of bored. The most interesting thing about it to me was the mysterious, unnamed brunette cheesecake whose presence was never explained yet whose breasts seemed to dominate about half the scenes. People tell me I have no soul because I dislike jazz music and poetry, and I think it's probably true.

We got there a little late, and the music was already in full swing. Some kind of crazy jazz jam was happening, and there was this little girl playing bongos along with the coolly mindblowing jazz drummer dude, and this unbelievable upright-bass-player lady, and robed priests wailing on various horns, and people in the congregation played along on tamborines and maracas. One woman had brought tap shoes and a portable plywood dance platform and, man, she went to town. There was iconography of black Jesus on a throne, black Madonna and child, and Saint John Will I Am Coltrane with a sax full of flames. I looked around and thought, "Just think of them all as wonderful, strange space aliens, and go with it."

(I also mentally replaced all references to Jesus with Joe Strummer, but that's another topic.)

Much to my surprise, I didn't even have to work that hard. Within five minutes, I was hooked. I mean I got it. I got the music and I got what they were all doing there. I wished I had a tamborine, and if my friend hadn't been with me I think I would have been on my feet along with the regulars.

The jam ended and the choir sang and then various individuals gave tremendously individual, varied, inspired, amazing performances of some religion-applicable jazz standards ("Body and Soul" was one I recognzied) and spirituals. Then the archbishop gave a kind of musical sermon, which erupted in more jamming and some pretty wild dancing, until he calmed everybody down and set about the business of preaching. He had a reassuringly good-humored and compassionate and down-to-earth style, with plenty of laughter at his own foibles, and lots of common sense sprinkled throughout his exegesis of the Old Testament story of Jonah, the prophet who objected to God's forgiveness of the city of Nineveh. (Jonah wanted the city wiped out for its transgressions, mainly to vindicate himself, and spent a month in the desert waiting for it to happen. No go. Get over yourself, Jonah. You too, Dubya.)

I was a religion major in college and always liked biblical stories as literature and as examples of human storytelling. As grouchy as I am about religion, I think there's a lot of wisdom collected in the Bible, just as there is in the Sutras and the Tao Te Ching and The Joy of Cooking and tarot cards. So it wasn't too hard to listen to the sermon and kind of forget about the outward form or code (God this and Scripture that), and just listen to the logic and the lesson.

The best part was when the preacher started in on Barack Obama ("I like you, my boy, but what you're doing IS NOT SUFFICIENT.") I definitely liked hearing him tell "Sister Clinton" that her idea of housecleaning doesn't even begin to touch the filth behind the fridge. Social justice was a strong theme in the sermon, and this guy has got admirably high standards. He also has a knack for simultaneously talking about big, political, global issues and personal, behavioral and ethical stuff, relentlessly pointing out the connection between them — as inconvenient as it is to remember that a lot of the time. It feels good to revel in righteous indignation aimed at The Oppressor, but it won't do to forget about checking ourselves as well.

As for what everyone was doing there: probably more than I really want to think about, but what struck me was the sense of getting together to do hard work in a joyous way. The preacher was asking people to think hard about some difficult things, and they (we) were doing it in public (or among witnesses, anyway), and that was pretty intense.

It made me realize that even though I teach about media democracy and using new media for community building, I myself don't have much sense of community — and I didn't really know how much I felt that lack until today. I'm not going to run out and join a church to fill the void; I'm going to sit with that feeling and see what it really consists of, and pay attention to ways I could participate more in the communities I already belong to (the university I teach at, my department, my band, my neighborhood). Not bad for a bad Buddhist, eh?

And I probably will get a tamborine and go back to church next Sunday — and sit close to the drummer. He was freaking amazing.

(So what does Celine Dion have to do with this, besides being the anti-Joe-Strummer in my personal theology? Well, when I came home today my boyfriend had sent me a link to this video. I watched it and realized I could no longer think of her as a complete robot zombie idiot. I had to ask him if it's alarming that I discovered I like church and Celine Dion in the same day. I don't know; should I be worried?)

Saint John Will I Am Coltrane and his saxophone of holy fire watch over the congregation. The service was much less grim than you'd think based on this picture.

An equally iconic and eloquent image. I'm not joking about Joe. There's a reason The Clash were called the only band that matters.

One card from my favorite deck, Morgan's Tarot. This one means "The appearance of this card may indicate something scary is happening, but there is probably no need to take it too seriously." Fear is the mind-killer. (Was it Yoda or the Kyle McLaughlin character in Dune who said that?)

A Tibetan FSM sighting?





  1. With my other passion being Jazz, I was aware of the Church of St. John Coltrane. Thanks for describing the scene there. I always wondered about it since I never made it there. I have been trying to make the case that Yoga and Jazz are related in transcendental possibilities and think that ‘Yoga According to John Coltrane’ is not that far-fetched.

  2. love 'trane....and you need to come to one of my yoga classes!

  3. I like your writing, I found your post both entertaining and transparent. Good for you.
    I also like the title of your blog. My might have some similar leanings as I often find buddhist writing gets a bit stale...thanks for the refreshment.

  4. You have the best motto of all Buddhist blogs. And you write well.

    That is when you do.

    How long has it been?

    Please give us some more...

  5. This is nice. Found another Buddhist who goes to church.

    I'll be helping the church parish with wrapping Christmas present, putting up the Christmas tree and directing traffic at the end of this month.

    Have you seen any helpful Buddhists in temples before?

    I'm part Christian. LoL.

  6. rbridgesimagery.comNovember 13, 2009 at 4:22 PM

    I think you should definitly get a tambourine and maybe a shaker too and when you really start to understand the dharmma of the tambourine you can play it like I do in the car while I drive and listen to Van Morrison. Just make sure its clear you are not masturbating but are instead, really grooving on the bodhichitta of life!

    I like your blog title. I hope to see you maybe someday in church. I call it "The Methudistic Temple of Lght."

  7. Yes, a very engaging story! Elaine, I can identify with you. Personally, I consider myself atheist and Jesusian. (The "Christian" stuff was all fabricated after Jesus died, and most of it contradicts what Jesus actually taught and advocated.) And I occasionally go to church, preferring liberation-theology Catholic thinking. Incidentally, Marie, your wonderful motto has a spelling error in "eightfold"-- or perhaps that was intentional? Omitting the t leaves eight letters...

  8. I think we non-jazz lovers, who dare to be uncool ought to stick together. Jazz that goes outside the lines really irks me, I just don't get it....sigh, as I look down, I see yet another word verification.........time for that felony.