Raw Slice of Book #3 “Finding A Church in Houston”

Kim and I had visited a few churches since moving to Houston, but although most of them were fine—they just served to make me angry. My gag reflex for whatever looked like fake, saccharine sweet church-ianity had become so sensitive that I could hardly even walk into one on a Sunday morning. We still wanted to set aside time for weekly worship, and we looked to our crazy landlords for inspiration—we started a house church in our apartment.

I was meeting a lot of people while playing in clubs with Love in Grey. I also met people at my friend’s shows. I think the combination of my spiritual-mystical lyrics, along with the strange poems that I said between the songs, drew the attention of a certain kind of people. I got into a lot of interesting conversations after the shows.

“What do you think about Tarot cards or speaking in tongues?”

“Do you have a favorite prayer?”

“If you’re a Christian rock band, what are you doing in a place that serves beer?”

I started inviting these people to our house on Sunday afternoons for Bible conversation and prayer.

I’d lead the group in conversations like “what does holiness mean?” or “what does it look like to really follow Jesus?” I’d read passages of scripture and we would talk about what it might be saying to us.

We usually had between ten or fifteen people who would show up—there was always someone new. Sometimes they’d come back and bring their friends. Some people were almost always there, and others would only come every few weeks. It didn’t matter to me—I didn’t care at all about how many people showed up or didn’t show up—whether the church was growing or shrinking. We didn’t take an offering, we weren’t trying to be cool or relevant—we just got together, read the Bible—talked about what we thought it might be saying to us, and prayed for each other.

It was very informal and sometimes it seemed like we were simply hanging out at my apartment for a spontaneous discussion about God—there was nothing particularly organized about our religion. There was also usually plenty of spaghetti and garlic bread to go around.

I called it The Cave, named after King David’s time hiding from Saul in the cave of Adullam—that was my only attempt at being clever. I called it that because we were such an assorted bunch of misfits.

We were a mix of believers, unbelievers, agnostics, new age loonies, people who had been hurt by a church, evangelical burn-outs, a couple of self titled Satanists who fascinated with the occult, teenagers, young married couples, musicians, drug addicts, and people who were just curious and wanted to hang around the band—anyone was welcome.

This was our church for the first year or so that we lived in Houston. I like to think that we were House Church before House Church was cool.

Out of our music friends, Dug was the one who came most regularly and sometimes brought people with him. Alan, David, Eric, Jerry and Grace dropped by a time or two. Sam and his wife Donna came once and seemed to have a nice time—they both had a lot of great things to add to the discussion.

One day after rehearsal, Sam asked how my little church thing was going. I said that it was fine and wasn’t trying to be anything more than it is. He proceeded to ask who was responsible for the spiritual health of the people who came. I said, I guess no one—me—I don’t know—it wasn’t really the point. He went on to say it should be the point, and asked who was going to visit them when they were sick? Who was going to marry them? Bury them? When was the last time they had received Communion? Who does the baptisms? How much time do you spend each week putting together the Bible lesson? Didn’t I think they deserve better than a half-assed lesson I pulled out of my back pocket ten minutes before they arrived?

I started to feel the weight of what he was saying. In my reaction against what I perceived to be the phoniness of other churches—I had started a church that was neglecting some very important things. Things the Bible seems to say a true church is supposed to be doing.

He asked if I had ever gone to Kemper’s church. Kemper had been coming to our shows and we had spoken a few times, but I didn’t know he was in leadership at a church.

The next Sunday afternoon we had our last apartment-church meeting. I shared with them what Sam had said to me, and how it made me feel like I was failing them. We had a lively conversation about it, and in the end, most of them agreed to visit Kemper’s church—ChristChurch— the following Sunday.

ChristChurch met in the cafeteria of Lutheran High North at two o’clock in the afternoon—the perfect time for musicians who were out late the night before. I walked in with an entourage of about ten of our house church friends—noticeably adding to the size of the small congregation. We were each handed a Book of Common Prayer as we entered the fluorescent glow of the makeshift worship space.

This was a liturgical church—meaning they read formal prayers in the king’s English, chanted creeds, and knew the secret rhythms of standing up, sitting down, crossing themselves, kneeling and responding with phrases like “and also with you.” It made me feel like an idiot when I didn’t instinctively know when to do what. I had never been to a service like this before—was it a Catholic church? The ministers wore black cassocks and looked like medieval monks. I had to admit that Kemper and his ArkAngel guitarist David Marshall (who was also one of the ministers) looked pretty awesome with their long rock-n-roll hair and black robes.

I didn’t know what to think about all this—it was strange to me, but we went back the next week anyway.

I had a lot of questions, most of them I had based on wildly inaccurate presuppositions—but I didn’t know that. I asked the man who was handing out Prayer Books at the door some of my concerns about the previous week. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I know how he made me feel—like I was in the wrong place and this wasn’t the church for me. He seemed to be saying, “ You don’t get it, and you might as well put the Prayer Book down and drive back home.”

I think this is what they call “seeker insensitive.”

Kemper must have noticed something about the conversation from across the room because he came charging up to us and interrupted, “Hey Frank! I’m glad to see you came back.

The over-eager greeter jumped back in, “I was just explaining to Frank how this kind of worship isn’t for everyone…”

Kemper interrupted him again, “Come over here, there are some people I want you to meet.”

As I walked away, I overheard the greeter begin to talk with the nice Satanist couple I had brought with me.

He introduced me to David Marshall and his son Jonathan, both of them were playing acoustic guitar in the worship band—which consisted of another guy on acoustic guitar and Kemper on mandolin. They led us in songs from a small paperback songbook filled with folky praise compositions by Kemper Crabb, John Michael Talbot and others.

One thing that was very different about this week’s service from last week’s was the sermon. This week Kemper gave the sermon, and it was amazing. He taught from the book of Colossians about the ultimate authority of Christ, and I swear I had visions of Jesus returning to earth like a victorious superhero—complete with a billowing cape spun from threads of pure gold. As a preacher, he was soft spoken and mostly read from his handwritten notes verbatim, but I had never heard a more powerful sermon.

After the service—which other than the sermon was every bit as strange to us as it had seemed the week before—they were having a potluck lunch. It appeared that the luck of the pot was mostly Kentucky Fried Chicken, which was fine by me. Especially since it gave me the opportunity to sit across the table from Kemper for most of the afternoon, where we began one of the most important relationships of my life.

I learned that he had not only been coming out to our shows, but was actually a fan. He told me how much he loved my bass playing, our dark ambient music, and the thought provoking lyrics. I was extremely flattered by his encouraging words.

He said, “You are obviously a reader to be able to write lyrics like that.”

I was a little ashamed to admit that I really didn’t read anything except the Bible and comic books—although, to be fair, I was talking about really cool comic books like The Watchmen, Sandman and Stray Toasters.

Along with the Bible, he had also read all of the comic books I mentioned—I was impressed. Then he went on to express his shock and subtle disgust that I hadn’t branched out a little more in my reading.

“Really? You haven’t read C.S. Lewis? G.K. Chesterton? Flannery O’Connor? Not even Tolkien? Are you serious—dude, we have to talk,” and after that he started throwing books at me—all of the authors I mentioned, plus Francis and Frank Schaeffer, Rookmaaker, Thomas Howard and so many others. That conversation was over twenty years ago and since then I have probably averaged two or three books a month—many of them handed to me by Kemper.

On the way home, Kim and I were talking about ChristChurch—comparing it to our little house church experiment.

“I don’t know—I don’t really like all the liturgical stuff,” she said, “it seems weird.”

“It feels weird to me, too, but I think we could get used to it.” What I actually meant was, I felt like we were supposed to be part of ChristChurch for a while—whether we liked it or not. We kept going, and grew to love it pretty quickly, though. It wasn’t long before we actually started to prefer liturgical worship.

It turns out that “for a while” was going to be the next eleven years.
I’m thankful and humbled that God put those amazing men in my life. He used them to challenge me and stretch me into who He wanted me to become. There was nothing I had done up to that point, and there was nothing I was ever going to do that could deserve such extravagant honor.  Sometimes it seems like they poured wisdom and knowledge all over me, and I just let it roll off of me onto the ground. It seems like most of it was just wasted on me—but, I guess that’s what I mean when I say that it’s humbling.