Church at the Chip Saloon

Church at the Chip Saloon

In the midst of the Arizona desert stands the old cowboy dusty town of Cedar Creek, which beckoned me to get up early on a Sunday and drive an hour to see if a church in a saloon could really be possible. Why, yes, yes it is!

The fierce blue Arizona sky waits patiently over the dusty saloon as the locals sit amongst the old wooden chairs and tables – some hands busy with a Bible, others with a frosty brew.  Ecclesia Church, aka Church at the Chip, gathers inside the Buffalo Chip Saloon at 9 a.m. every Sunday in Cave Creek, Arizona, 32 miles north of Phoenix.  On this Sunday, when it is 108 degrees in the shade, and just like every week during the summer, the cozy congregation enjoys summer services inside the cool, darkened saloon. In the winter, with less chance of a mind-melting burn, they meet outside in the wagon pen, ringed with wooden fences and an outdoor bar.

That’s right. The wagon pen.  And, what was that?  You heard me right. CHURCH IN A SALOON!

“Why do you meet at a saloon?”

We’re only half joking when we say, “Why not have church in a place where people already like to go?” To us, it seems like the kind of thing Jesus would have done. After all, listen to what Jesus said about himself: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19).”

I went to The Chip to shoot what I supposed might be a kitschy, tourist heavy, full-of-gimmicky-Southwest-charm church-in-a-saloon Sunday morning, but that’s not what happened.  Sure, Pastor Steve Gilbertson sports a handsome cowboy shirt/shoes/hat for his sermon, as does his music partner Kevin, and the two serenade the few dozen parisioners with friendly guitar riffs  and a slide show complete with western style super-titles sporting lyrics to morning hymns and the accompanying sermon. But this is a real community, gentle and true, and it gathers without fanfare each week to share love and hope in the dust.  Especially charming was the communion service, served in a pretty white cup and plate, broken cracker bites and grape juice sitting in holy reverence upon a saloon table. Juice it may be, but by the way, should you care to have a gin and tonic while you pray, please do step on up to the bar.

Cowboy boots dangle in their dozens from the ceiling; a staring deer head and Coors sign peer down, above the pastor’s head, all so worldly and real, as Pastor Steve leads the room in very gentle and enthusiastic prayer.  The Church at the Chip is a wonderful and authentic taste of the American southwest and though it may not be on the front page of every guide to Arizona, it’s a beautiful taste of real life in the tawny heat of Phoenix.

This kind and gentle morning service is so worth waking up early on a Sunday, regardless of your affiliation.  I give it two gins up.



Click Here to Visit: Ecclesia Cave Creek website

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Why Bad Things Happen: Divine Retinopathy?

Why Bad Things Happen: Divine Retinopathy?

Antique Typewriter in Colorado, by Anjani Millet

Vintage Typewriter, Colorado. ©2014 Anjani Millet

Does God have retinopathy? This was the question that was on my mind first thing this morning. What a weird question. Why was I even thinking this? Who knows, but first thing in the morning is ripe for strange imaginings. Here is how the rest of the story played out.

Does God have retinopathy? Is this why bad things happen? God would be elderly by now, and we know what happens to old eyes. If God had retinopathy, this would explain why bad things happen, and perhaps why some seem to congregate around certain geographic areas or groups of people, for instance.

I don’t mean to offend anybody – it was the crack of dawn when this whole thing occurred to me – but perhaps this is what is happening in, say, the Middle East. Perhaps this is an area directly in God’s line of sight and he simply can’t see what’s going on, down there, on the ground. Maybe he’s standing right over the thing, looking down, right where his cloudy old eyes can’t quite make things out. Maybe he has spots in his line of sight, just over this area – and maybe He has had them for some time.  Some health issues are just stubborn.

Or perhaps he has a whole bunch of tiny spots. As he looks around the universe, his eyes simply miss certain areas, which randomly move  as he looks this way and that. Perhaps today he can see Sandy Hook Elementary school, because he’s just left of it, hovering over there near North Dakota. But last year, unfortunately, not so much. He had moved over to Planet Xirfluff and just could not see what was going on when he looked in this direction.

I suppose this entire subject arises from my questions about prayer and God’s involvement therein. Prayer seems to comfort many, but when those prayers appear to go unanswered, as in the case of a very ill child, how do we square with this? Or, if two sides of a dispute are both praying but only one wins, yet both appear to be virtuous, what is up with that? Worse so when one side seems especially destructive, yet prayerful, believing God is on their side. This has never made sense to me.

What especially breaks my heart is the unspoken suggestion that if, for instance, a child is suffering, yet, for whatever reason, there is no one there to pray for her, she might not get any help from on high.  If that weren’t the case, then prayer would be unnecessary. Does God requires a request in order to step in? What about people who have no one to pray for them? That seems cruel and capricious, and not so Godly. Is God so busy, or cold, or uninterested, or, dare I say it, arrogant, that only if someone asks, sincerely and believing it will come, will He help? Without an intentional request, he will not? Once again, this seems an oddly human projection although strangely, beneath even the sort of decent human behavior that we, at our best, exhibit toward one another.

Take this scenario: You are driving down the highway, when you see a car overturned in a ditch. You see a woman inside, hanging upside down by her seatbelt, and she’s not moving. Which action would you take?

1) Notice the incident, and her, yet remain in your car and go on your way.
2) Pull over, approach the car and, seeing she is hanging there, wait outside her window, listening to see if she will actually ask you for help.  You stand and stand, observing her from outside her window… and wait.  When she doesn’t ask you for help, you return to your car and go on.
4) Pull over, approach the car and wait. When she stirs from her near-death coma and feels your eyes upon her, she turns her head toward you, and says, “Please… help me.” Alright, now you will help. You call 911.
5) Pull over, approach the car and, but everyone you require intercession from a third party before you will get involved. You wait for somebody (other than her) to ask you for help – but there is no one else in the car. She asks, pleading, but you don’t answer, no matter how much she begs. The sun sets, morning comes, but no one outside of the woman asks. You are patient, though, and she can see you are always right there, benevolent, and you are listening. She loses conciousness and is near death.  At last, after two days, her frantic husband (whom met you at church last May) guesses that you might be there, standing outside her window, listening, waiting for a phone call from somebody in order to trigger your help.  He happens to know your number, and rings your cell phone, urgent, weeping. “Please, please, can you help my wife? I can’t find her!  She is about to die. Please, with sugar on top, could you please get her out of the car!  Please save her life!”  And so, benevolently, you kick into action, pull her out of the car (leaving her with a spinal injury), and save her life.
6) Or nearly, anyway. Her husband didn’t specify clearly how long he  wanted her to live, so you do pull her out of the car, but then, having fulfilled the request, leave her there on the ground. Did I mention it is February?  You return to your car. She dies from hypothermia and dehydration. But you’ve got to get going – you have a war to watch, after all – someone else just called!

About war… the guy on the phone, he wants you to help him. This Saturday afternoon, he’s got a little bombing campaign planned for a soccer field in a dusty, destroyed town. All the young men from the opposing town will be there, and it will wipe them all out – and you’ll get all the credit. How can you pass that up? Can you help out? But hang on, you’ve got call waiting, and the other line is ringing. Another man, from that opposing town, is calling on you too. He asks you to help him successfully bomb a crowded shopping mall near the home of the man on the other line. You consider both, and give your magnificent explosive power to both sides, but you secretly tell each you were on their side alone, and had nothing to do with the other. You help them both, because let’s face it, they asked – and you get the credit in both cases.

After you get off the line, yet another client calls, insisting you give your divine blessing to the downing of a passenger jet in a major metropolitan city. As the plane flies toward a building in New York City, you assist the rogue pilot to hone in on his target, despite the struggling pilot. But you must ignore the pleas of the woman on the street below who sees this event unfolding abover her, and begs you to stop it, since her girlfriend is inside, at her desk, eating lunch at this very moment. Sadly, she didn’t ask you loudly enough, or in the right way – or, since there was only one of her, her request alone was insufficient. She needed to ask you through the proper channels, such as the fellow down the street in the funny hat who has your direct phone number.

Really? Hmm. All of these scenarios make God look like an asshole.

My childhood friend Ron, a lifelong Christian, tells me he believes God does not intercede in human affairs and prayers are ineffectual. This seems cold. Others believe there is no God. I have no idea if there is or isn’t. I have debated this with myself all my life, having grown up in an evangelical Christian family, I just really don’t know. I consider myself a Buddhist now.  Some days I think perhaps there might be a God; some days, not so much. Certainly my questions were heightened with the death of my devoted Mormon sister and her husband within six months of each other, both from cancer, leaving their 5 children, all under ten years old, to be orphaned. Now my mother, deeply religious all her life, suffers from Alzheimer’s, along with all of us scraping by to help her. So did her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her father. She is begging God to heal her, but sadly, this is unlikely to occur, unless God deems her worthy for a major miracle, unlike the millions before her who have also asked. Alzheimer’s is fatal and there is no cure. She is suffering, every single day, and so are we, and so did they, the millions before, just like the millions after us.

The rise of fundamentalist ISIL and other religious fanatics and their insistence that God is on their side against The Evil Ones, while Western powers call on God to help them overcome The Evil Ones – well, all of it has me wondering.  Either there is no God, or God isn’t helping – and if he isn’t, why not?  Either he doesn’t care, or isn’t capable – neither of which seem terribly Godlike – or we are just talking about very different sorts of Gods.

Western religions think of God as kindly and compassionate, yet willing to help kill adversaries. Fundamentalist religions everywhere view God as vengeful and angry. This could be due to a universe in which lots of God come in all sorts of flavors, all of whom have their favorite people and causes and political ideologies. This leads to the question of tribalism in a pantheistic universe, all taking sides in political and personal affairs, all of which seems so sadly human and not so divine to me. Or if God doesn’t always intervene, why is that?  Sometimes he’s too busy? Doesn’t care? Limited abilities? Those options seem so limiting to an all powerful character envisioned by all religion canons.

So, since we’re labeling God with human limitations, I must have been dreaming of a really human reason this fellow isn’t helping out everywhere, all the time, with everything. Perhaps I have empathy for the guy – and let’s face it, God is usually pictured as a guy, so we’ll go with that for now. Everyone tugs on him, wanting everything all the time. Big things, like overcoming Hitler. Little things, like the coffee shop owner who told her daughter that God helped her find the right syrup in Costco. Yes, I actually heard that conversation with my own ears.

God can’t be bothered healing cancer, but he’s good with syrup?  What?

So in great respect to all these possible scenarios, in my sleep last night I came up with the only explanation that makes any sense to me. It definitely places a very human limitation on God,  but it makes much more sense to me than indifference, or arrogance, or petty tribalism.

God has retina problems. He simply cannot see some of the stuff going on here. He probably has some hearing loss, too.  And maybe, who knows, even God forgets where he put that little blue planet once in awhile. Didn’t he leave them over there by his keys to the Kingdom…?

Even God is getting old.

-Anjani Millet

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