Church on the Beach




It’s a beautiful hot and clear morning. We decided to head to the beach with RJ’s big foam noodle and a slick boogie board to crash in the waves. I set up camp in the shade of a palm tree with baby while Matt took RJ to the water. I noticed some music—the un-chick, un-chick of inexpert ukuleles—from a nearby pavilion. I pointed my toes along with the beat—the singing was loud and earnest. I was feeling a bit antsy and lonely and thought—what the heck. What’s the purpose of music, anyway? To create a little community, to participate in something. So I picked up baby and walked over to listen.

It wasn’t a sing-along. It was church-on-the-beach.

I’ve seen the signs along the road, “Come Worship With Us!” It reminds me of the Simpsons joke about the godless showiness of nature. I’m sure it cuts down on A/C bills.

The pastor looked like a model in a catalogue—Carribean black skin, with a goldenrod silk short-sleeved shirt and brown pants, leather sandals. He shook my hand and invited me into the pavilion--and I bounced around with baby, harmonized to a couple of hymns with repetitive choruses about mountains and valleys. Then he invited us to pray—and began to preach.

John 3:16 never sounded to rich and resonant, the palm trees swaying, the surf crashing, Pastor Jedidiah’s rolled Rs and emphatic gesticulations. He quoted Socrates, Calvin and the Apocrypha, he shouted and shook his fists, he hobbled and lisped. He named each person in the congregation (numbered 8, including me) and asked challenging questions in the Voice of God: “Where were you, Sister Cordelia when I found you! You were DEAD in your SINS!” And answered the questions without pausing.

I’ve been reading about human evolutionary psychology—about how our brains and bodies haven’t had a chance to evolve for 10,000 years, since the invention of agriculture. Our environments have been so unstable, changing drastically and quickly, that what is adaptively advantageous for one generation is useless for the next. We need environmental stability in order to adapt. And I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s “A Case For God” – about the purpose of ritual to create belief, and the special symbolic thinking that feeds an instinctual (adaptive?) belief in God.

So sitting in that breezy pavilion in my flip-flops, rocking my baby who was gumming the puka-shell lei the pastor draped over my hat when I came in, I was thinking about our cave-man brains, evolving to act, to wonder, to experience transcendence.

Pastor Jedediah riffed about sin. “The young! The old! The free! The black! The white! The Hawaiian! The rich! The poor! We! Are! Sinners! Sinners, one and all!” He turned and faced the sun-bathers and the white-painted tourists: “But GOD LOVES us, Sinners all!”

I imagined the Neolithic shamans on their trance-flights, locating prey to hunt on the tundras, honoring the sacred source of the antelopes’ lives, and blurring the distinction between hunting man and sacrificial animal. And easing the necessary pain of the kill.

I don’t know what Pastor Jedediah would think of the comparison, but there is something ancient and powerful when people gather together and ponder the mysteries of life. How can we kill animals when we ARE animals? Does God value our lives—and how? And the mystery—the moment of silence when words fail, and we recognize the limits of our ability to understand ourselves, our lives, and our higher natures.

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