My friend Michael lives with his family in Florida. That in itself makes me wonder how he can be my best friend. Given our academic professions, Jeanne and I can only visit in the summer, which means that we annually have to answer questions along the lines of “What kind of fool goes on vacation to Florida in July?” My newest response is “The same sort that goes on sabbatical to Minnesota in the middle of the winter.” It would be much more convenient if Michael and Suzy moved to Alaska—Jeanne and I have always wanted to visit there. But there probably are few Alaskan opportunities in Michael’s line of work. He’s a Catholic theologian.
Michael and his family live in one of those large Florida subdivisions where everyone has a lanai, a pool, and exclusively St. Augustine grass in their lawns. The subdivision’s grass Nazis would torch my clover and crab grass dominant lawn in a heartbeat. The first summer Jeanne and I visited several years ago, we managed to make it to within a mile of Michael and Suzy’s house in a driving rainstorm, but then turned left instead of right. After floating through empty acreage for several minutes, a huge building under construction loomed directly in front of us. “I don’t think this is it,” Jeanne helpfully remarked. Once we found our way to Mike and Suzy’s, I asked him about the vast expanse where we had been lost. “That’s where they’re building Six Flags Over Jesus.”
Six Flags Over Jesus is a gigantic Baptist church that has grown too big for its britches at least twice over the years. Chances are they won’t outgrow this “campus,” as they call it. The sanctuary is massive, surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prime acres ready and waiting to be developed for Jesus. There is ample room for schools at all levels, recreational fields galore, a theme park, a planned community, and a hospital. With some creative planning, by the time Six Flags Over Jesus is finished a person could be born, raised, educated, married, raise little Baptists, take vacations, get old, be put in a nursing home, die, and be buried without ever leaving the grounds. The foyer of the church includes a Starbucks to help parishioners manage the down time between Sunday School and morning worship.
A Disney-esque trolley shuttles church goers from the distant parking lots to the front of the sanctuary. I was disappointed to discover that the parking areas are identified simply by color—Blue, Red, Yellow—rather than by something more imaginative, such as the twelve disciples. Those who arrive early could park in Peter, James, or John. Late arrivers would be consigned to the Judas Iscariot lot. They would have to pay for their ride to the sanctuary, waiting until the offering collection for the usher to unlock the doors and let them in.
I have never been inside the church, but that doesn’t stop me from being critical. This is where I come from. Inject my childhood church with steroids and fund it with unlimited resources, and you get Six Flags Over Jesus. Michael, Suzy, Jeanne and I have conversed frequently about the horror of it all—the worst of American capitalism joined in unholy matrimony with the shallowest and narrowest of Christian fundamentalism. This is a union guaranteed to produce the offspring of intolerance, judgmentalism, sanctimonious exclusivity, and simplistic neuron-destroying certainty. I have wondered aloud what temple-cleansing Jesus would do if dropped into the foyer of this church with its Starbucks and God knows what else. I can see the painting now: “Jesus Overturning the Baristas.”
It’s comforting to know what the divine prefers in terms of worship, or at least to know what he/she/it definitely doesn’t want. My updated prayer from Luke 18 would read “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this fundamentalist, Starbucks-drinking Six Flags Over Jesus Baptist guy over here.” On our occasional Sunday morning trips to church, we usually pick up a Dunkin’ Donuts for the ride. But at least we have the good sense not to ask the rector to install a Double D just inside the front door of Trinity Episcopal (although that certainly would be convenient). I’m pretty sure I know roughly how the order of worship goes at Six Flags Over Jesus—I saw the error of those ways and left them behind years ago.
But there is another prayer in Luke 16, somewhat shorter and less confident. The publican prays “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Slightly expanded, “God be merciful to me, just another flawed, limited, imperfect human being who wants to know and worship you as best as he can and as much as you will allow.” It is truly shocking just how many varieties of attempts at worship the divine is apparently willing to tolerate as human beings occasionally look upwards. The very idea of trying to figure out God’s favorite ways of being worshipped is a stunner at its core. Annie Dillard writes that “I often think of set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without getting killed.” And yet God invites our worship. If I presume that God’s standards preclude divine attendance at Six Flags Over Jesus, I’d better remember that the divine standards are broad enough to include even me. The divine love respects no boundaries, certainly not mine.
God in the flesh was remarkably flexible and welcoming with respect to everyone who crossed his path. What would Jesus do if he dropped by the foyer of Six Flags Over Jesus on a Sunday morning? He’d order a double espresso macchiato grande. Sometimes the morning service goes overtime.