“You do know he wears make-up, don’t you?”
This was one of the milder comments I got when I announced to a few select friends that after 14 years of struggling to find my place in the Pharisee Church of St Gregory-the-Try-Harder, I was throwing in the towel. From now on I would be transferring my allegiance to Nearly Creative, the rapidly growing megachurch down the road, and its secretive, multicoloured, multicultural, senior pastor—his real name is a closely guarded secret so I’ll just call him “JP” for now. (Not JC, that’s already taken.) He of the make-up. I’m not sure what colour lipstick he wears—I’ve never got close enough to find out, and I probably never will. Such is the massive popularity of the church I’m just happy if I can get in through the door on a Sunday morning, forget any thoughts of getting close enough to the front** to check his mascara isn’t running under the lights.
Not that I’m moving completely of course. How can I? After all, I write about Pharisee Church issues, and for that I have to collect material. The best way to do that is to be a part, so I’ll be keeping on with my membership at St Gregory’s, though perhaps with the slightly more detached attitude of an impartial observer than before.
I’ll continue to attend the meetings, I’ll listen to the sermons, I’ll continue to watch the thrills and spills of this strange, strange organization as it tries by sheer force of will-power and perseverance to impact the world for God. I’ll try to figure out what really goes on in the soul of the institution—and others like it—and I’ll be reporting what I find back to you, my long-suffering readers.
Right now my immediate task is to catch up on a backlog of sermons that has been building up while I’ve been relaxing in the snowfields of Switzerland. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. The St Gregory’s website is and always has been a catalogue of disasters, and the Sermon Download page—the only page that ever really interests me on a church website—is the worst of the lot.
Disasters … yes. The St Gregory’s IT system has been in crisis almost as long as anyone can remember.
It started with a lightning strike on the church. Singapore has one of the highest rates of lightning strike of anywhere in the world, so perhaps we should have been prepared better. Never mind. The lightning conductor failed, and the entire electronic infrastructure of the church was wiped out at a stroke.
Shortly after that, the unpaid volunteer looking after the church IT walked off the job. It seems he got sick of being kicked around and taken for granted as if he was a paid member of the staff. Really, I mean how selfish can you get? Though funnily enough I’ve come across this retrogressive attitude among a lot of church volunteers, and not just in St Gregory’s. They feel that just because they’re giving up their valuable time for free to help out, they should be entitled to some sort of appreciation. Very strange. I think the last straw was the attitude of “You’re a Christian! You’re supposed to rejoice when we abuse you. Count it all joy!”
No. He just couldn’t see it. Carnal obviously, not spiritual. Good riddance.
Then after that the church website got hacked. It’s difficult to understand why, out of all the millions of potentially hackable sites around the world, anyone would choose to go for the official website of the Church of St Gregory-the-Try-Harder. But they did. So who? Was it a disgruntled former church employee? Or a disgruntled church member? What about the unpaid IT volunteer? He has motive, he knows the system, and probably has the ability. But I don’t think so somehow. I suppose I could even have done it myself if I’d thought of it, and if I knew how—which I don’t.
Was it a Satanic attack? Perhaps the enemy getting so panicked about the prospect of the earthquakes our radical brand of Pharisee Christianity was about to set off across the island and then spread like wildfire across the rest of South East Asia? No, that seems about the least likely explanation of the lot.
Which just leaves—a trainee hacker, not feeling ready for the Pentagon or the NSA yet, looking for a nice soft, easy target to practice on and alighting on … St Gregory’s.
(There’s one other possible explanation that I don’t even want to think about—that it’s all a subtle blackmail to increase church attendance. If we starve them of information, put it all in the Sunday morning announcements and nowhere else, then they’ll have to come to church, just to find out what’s going on. Actually, now that I do think about it … but no, I don’t want to go down that road. Not today anyway.)
Anyway that’s all history now. The church IT system is functioning again after a fashion, and the church website is back up and running. Except for the Sermon Download page. Probably deep down they can’t really believe that anyone would actually want to access the Sermon Download page. And they’re probably right—except me, of course. And I have a secret, nefarious purpose of my own that will become clear shortly. (Read on!)
Most days the Sermon Download page is just a blank, featureless white screen. This is particularly the case early in the week, presumably while they’re struggling to upload the latest sermon. Sometimes the page actually comes up for a day or two towards the weekend—until a new sermon gets preached on Sunday morning and the whole cycle repeats itself. The trick is to catch it when it’s up and download as many sermons as possible before it goes down again.
I think there’s a more fundamental spiritual reason why our church communication system is always such a shambles. It’s the basic spiritual principle that “the harder you try the worse it gets”. And St Gregory’s does in fact try very hard. I can’t fault them for effort. Sheer, unmitigated, grinding human endeavor. Our mediaeval patron St Gregory-the-Try-Harder would be proud of us if he could see it. And that of course is a big part of the problem. Not all of it, but a part.
Back to the sermons. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a church member a few years ago. I don’t remember his first name but his last name was Dell. I only remember that because he was in process of applying for a job at Dell Computers, and we had an extended discussion about whether coincidentally sharing a name with the founder, owner, and CEO would be an advantage or a hindrance when it came to interviews. I think we decided probably the latter, but I don’t remember the outcome. Anyway the conversation started something like this:
“Norman, do you think there’s something wrong with me? Spiritually I mean? You see, I come to the Sunday Morning Services, and I try and engage in what’s going on. But about five minutes into the sermon I find my mind starts wandering off onto other things. Sometimes I almost feel myself drifting into sleep. Such a dreadful thing to do when the Word of God is being preached—I know it’s wrong but I just can’t seem to help it. What should I do?”
No, Mr. Dell. It says nothing about your spiritual health. Nothing about you at all in fact, other than indicating that you’re probably normal. It may say something about the sermons though.
So why my sudden interest in downloading and listening to St Gregory’s sermons? After all—like most churches, I’ve noticed—the message is generally the same from one week to the next. At Nearly Creative it’s all about the grace of God. At St Gregory’s it can generally be summed up in two words: “Try harder!” No one else takes the slightest notice of that message, so why should I?
It goes back to when, as I said, I started telling people I was planning henceforth to split my allegiance, keeping my St Gregory’s attachment but at the same time committing firmly to Nearly Creative. And I was quite shocked by the sheer negativity of some of the comments I got from people I respected.
“Norman, I can’t believe you even want to go there! It’s total heresy, surely you know that! All that prosperity stuff, health and wealth. It’s not just about make-up, not even about the designer leather jacket he wears when he preaches. He’s actually telling people that they don’t have to try harder! That Jesus has done it all on the cross! All they have to do is believe, trust and enjoy! Can you imagine where it’s going? Anarchy! Orgies probably! No wonder they’re all fighting to get in—but not you Norman, surely!”
In the midst of all that there was one comment that intrigued me particularly. It came from a former Gregory’s staff member who had been pushed out of the church under unpleasant circumstances. She had committed two cardinal sins. The first was that she had tried to live out the teachings of the New Testament, literally, in her life and in her church work. The second was that she had assumed that the others were all trying to do the same. The first could be forgiven, just. The second, never.
Considering the circumstances, I thought her comment was really quite noble: “Norman, you should really stay at St Gregory’s. The preaching is very sound, very theologically correct. I grant that they don’t live it out, but if you can ignore how they live and just concentrate on what they teach, you can learn a lot.”
Such nobility deserved to be taken seriously. But … Their teaching is sound, just that they don’t actually live it. I’m not sure I can buy into that one. Surely what you preach has to ultimately reflect what you believe. Is it really possible to preach a perfect message and at the same time live a totally contrary life? If you preach “Try harder” it must be because you believe “Try harder”. And if you believe “Try harder” you probably live “Try harder”. Or do I mean that the other way round? Now even I’m getting confused …
In that sense, I suppose they could be seen as consistent. But then, so was Judas. So was Caiaphas. Is consistency enough? What are the answers, and where can I find them? Are they hidden somewhere on the St Gregory’s Sermon Download page? I need to know.
And right now, I just have a feeling that a rare opportunity may be at hand. It’s Friday afternoon, and it’s just possible that the Sermon Download page may temporarily be up, before its next white-out. So that’s where I’m heading. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know what I find …
** Unlike at St Gregory’s, where I always sit in the front row. If I’m going to suffer through it, I might as well at least be seen to be there. Furthermore while Nearly Creative fills up from the front, backwards, St Gregory’s generally fills up from the back, frontwards. So the front row always has space for last-minute arrivals, like me.
The Chronicles of the semi-mythical Church of St Gregory-the-Try-Harder are based on real life experiences. Names have been changed to protect the guilty and the innocent alike, but any resemblances with living persons or with dead or living institutions are entirely deliberate and non-coincidental.