I feel I’ve given up connecting with the congregation. Every Sunday morning I slip a black robe over my head, and put a stole around my neck, satin and smooth, brightly colored according to the liturgical calendar. And every Sunday morning I go up to the pulpit and guide everyone like a director leads an orchestra. Everyone knows their parts but I set the pace. The Methodist service is like the menu at McDonald’s- the same everywhere. Much easier than the free form Baptists where the preacher shouts and the church swoons at will.
I raise and lower my hands. Everyone stands. Everyone sits. We recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Responsive Reading from the back of the hymnal. No one really sings the songs; they just read along in time with the music in a monotone that barely makes a breeze.
Above my head is a vaulted ceiling with large and ancient octagonal chandeliers swaying like ominous pendulums over the congregation. Their action is almost hypnotic, giant metronomes of narcolepsy . The yellow glow from them doesn’t really light the church. There are modern spotlights that illuminate the pulpit and supplies the pews of people adequate light to read. Still the giant chandeliers send a message of quiet beauty to the sniffing sinners adorned in their Sunday best, like the beauty of a hearse slowly creeping to the grave. But the light isn’t warm, just a cold and lifeless ochre, bright but sulfur like a welding arch.
Each Sunday the pews are spotted with the dozers and overzealous. There are wives in dresses and hats just fine enough to make their neighbors jealous. There are husbands who would rather be playing golf, their bored faces a daydream reflection of greens, clubs, and drinks from flasks. Little old women clutch worn leather bound Bibles with tissue pages curled. Most of the little old men are absent, already gone to glory. The old ladies are living in fear that each breath could be their last. They are wasting their fear on the inevitable.
But this particular Sunday when I raise my arms up then lower them, when I direct the sparse spattering of the devout but rote, something tells me that it’s really for nothing, that going through the motions is just that, no thought or belief behind it. This feeling has been growing inside me, the only thing growing in my soul in fact. No understanding of the mystical, no realization of the divine spreads to fill my being- just an echoing void.
Now a void is necessarily hateful. Where there is no love, there is only hate. Emotions work like material things. A bottle is always filled with something. Once it is empty of its contents, it filled with air. In the vacuum of space, the bottle is filled to the lip with potential. But an emotion like love and with it the physics being metaphysical, hatred spills over to fill the void. It is not replaced by disinterest, sadness, or any other human emotion or state of being. Absence of love creates hate.
And I hate my robotic congregation.
The air conditioning is on, but I am sweating anyway. My revulsion for everyone in front of me feels solid, like it sits in my hand, a small brittle bird that I can crush if I wanted. Instead of being inspired by their plights, in place of being sorrowful for their human sinfulness, I feel rage, anger at them for remaining the same group of intransigent fools they were four years ago when I was assigned to this church.
I open my mouth, suddenly filled, and my voice booms out. “I would die for you. That’s what Jesus said. By taking that cross, by not divinely intervening to ease his own mortal pain, He took his sins onto Himself.
“But what have you given Him in exchange for your salvation? You come here each Sunday morning exactly the same as you came here last week, last month, last year. You tithe exactly what you’ve always tithed, dressed in your Sunday best, ready only to hear what you want to hear. Your faces and hearts are stone that only eons of time will erode.”
They all gasp. That took them by surprise as if one of the giant swaying chandeliers had crashed down into their sparse ranks. The sour looks on their faces tells me that they don’t like what they’re hearing.
“Now, who among you is ready to meet God? Which one of you has cleared your conscience?”
I know the video cameras up in the balcony are capturing everything. I raise my arms and feel my physical body dissolve, my robe falling to the ground, empty, a black hull molted and left behind. I see the congregation below me. This is going to go viral.