He couldn’t sleep. The message light was blinking rapidly at almost strobe light speed with a red F for full. He jabbed the Delete button and the large white box made a lengthy squeak as the messages were discarded into that cosmic void where old electronic communications go to die. He didn’t know why he even bothered with this device. It wasn’t as if he listened to the messages with any urgency, if at all. As quickly as the messages were deleted, there was a long fluttering noise like playing cards shuffling as the device reloaded the next wave of messages and the red F flashed again as rapidly as before. He sighed and forced himself to walk away from the device. He could spend forever stuck in the endless loop of discarded and reloaded messages.

He was in one of those funks again. He hated feeling like this – when he started to question life and his own place in the world. He moped around his almost colorless loft high above it all, but still not high enough to distance himself from all of the troubles below. He hoped the mood would pass. He wasn’t really in a position to confide in anyone and talk through his feelings, so he had to work it out on his own.

Unfortunately, he was unable to shake the mood that hung heavily over him like a layer of Mt. St. Helens volcanic soot. He found himself in front of the huge wall-sized screen which served as his window to the world and gave his loft a tiny hint of blue color, rescuing the décor from full blown drab. Maybe a little mind candy would cheer him up and lift his spirits so he could go about his daily activity of running things. He had every channel in the world but he rarely could stay focused on one too long. There was never anything original.

The images on the screen flipped effortlessly and soundlessly from channel to channel as he watched.

Flip…A ginger-haired evangelist in a sky blue suit was blubbering in a glazed spectacle of tears, perspiration, and mucous, confessing his sins of the flesh, asking for his congregation’s forgiveness, and pleading for this media revelation of his indiscretions not to interrupt the generous pipeline of donations that had built his wonderful faith-based empire.

This had become an all too familiar occurrence on the large flickering screen. He thought he had blocked all of these channels, but apparently he had missed this one. One day there would be a 24 hour cable network devoted to tearful confessions of public figures that had been exposed.Flip…A politician stood cornered outside of his office by a ravenous press. He was apologizing and spinning his arrest in a gay prostitution sting, as a preposterous misunderstanding, and a case of entrapment, with a solemn, stone-like expression, not realizing the contradiction that his apology and his spin presented. He was professing his love for his wife and his family and adamantly denying that he was gay. He asked that he could put this nonsense behind him and do what the people had sent him here to do. He took no questions and made his way back to the chamber to argue against same sex marriage.

Flip…The image on the screen was grittier – it had the look of an undercover surveillance video. The priest, away from the trusting gaze of the congregation in his private quarters removed his silver framed glasses exposing his gentle brown eyes, and then removed his robe to expose even more. He loomed above the trembling blond young boy, who knew all too well what would happen next – something he couldn’t speak of – he had been warned of the fires of Hell and the angry hand of God by the man that was confidently approaching him…

A portly media pundit with deceptive, bright blue eyes buried in a pudgy pale face was fanning the fires of fear throughout his audience. He was working himself into a frenzy of spittle and high-pitched octaves to punctuate his message of doom. He was demonizing his perceived enemy – the non-Christian segment of society and claiming his monopoly on God in this battle for the souls of his audience.

Nothing betrayed a false profit quicker than the pronunciation of God as a two-syllable word, he thought.

Flip…A large church service was in progress, organ music played, baskets were passed around and filled to capacity with currency and checks from the bulging congregation – their down payment on salvation – or so they had been led to believe – the priest scanned the congregation, his gentle brown eyes busy behind his silver framed glasses as he watched the wave of baskets lap along the pews gobbling up the generous offerings.

Flip…Another screaming media talking head, ironically with a receding hairline. He was a spoiled little bully in an aging man’s body and skin. He barely hid a perpetual smirk underneath the surface of his sad clown face which subtly sneered at anyone not as fortunate as himself. His voice was raised even when he spoke in normal conversation, as if by making more noise he could drive away his fears and personal demons. He was preaching from his bully pulpit to his mindless choir of regular viewers about the War on Christmas that was raging and how it would end civilized society as we knew it. He cited an example of a department store greeter being asked to say “Happy Holidays” by management instead of “Merry Christmas.” This was the extent of his proof of the culture war that had been waged against Christianity but that was all he needed because he was talking loudly and enunciating with an authoritative voice deep from within his chest.

Flip…One of those “reality” shows – A corporate CEO had infiltrated the workers of his company in an undercover capacity and was playing the part of a new employee so as to fit in as a mere wage earner. A few of his unsuspecting underlings were not being very accepting of the big man. His performance thus far had been poor, they told him and he was not learning the ropes fast enough for the veteran wage earners. The CEO stood silently stone faced as his clueless minions berated him instead of teaching him. A subtle smirk flashed momentarily on the CEO’s face, as he quietly contemplated his handling of these wage earners when he returned to his boss position.

He felt the volcanic soot of his mood begin to dissipate. He was inspired. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? He guessed, maybe he did, depending upon where one came down on the notion of divine intervention and muses. He was most likely involved in the creation of the idea in some form. Regardless, the “reality” show that was on the huge screen convinced him that the way out of his funk was to pay a visit to the people. A road trip; wasn’t that always the answer to most of life’s problems? It got you out of your rut for a while and gave you a new perspective and a new set of eyes by mingling with people you didn’t normally interact with directly. He watched the undercover CEO on the screen immersing himself in his new role as one of the common men. He could do that – piece of cake. He just had to find the right look. He didn’t want to overdo it so as to call attention to his true self, or hold back and give himself away.

He came to the people as a stranger. His lengthy light brown hair, combed by the warm breeze hung in wisps around his pale weather hardened face and complemented the slightly darker shadow of stubble along his jawline and chin. He wore the no frills greenish brown polyester uniform shirt of a laborer punctuated only above his right chest pocket by a white name patch with embroidered cursive black letters spelling J-E-S-U-S. His shirt tail was untucked and flowed past his waist, stopping a few inches above the knees of the matching uniform pants. One pant leg was tucked into his worn brown boot, a detail of his disguise for which he had been quite proud.

He scanned the church parking lot as the people began to arrive in their oversized, overpriced cars and trucks adorned with messages and emblems serving as advertisements and testaments to their faith:

Jesus Saves, Keep the Christ in Christmas, there were Jesus fishes on license plate frames, crosses and crucifixes hanging from rearview mirrors, and plastic Jesuses and Virgin Marys, on dashboards.

The people slowly flocked from their vehicles, as if on cue. They filed into the church in an unthinking mass of designer clothes, garish jewelry, and pasted on smiles. Each of them wore disguises of their own ready to play their parts as well.

The stranger crossed beneath the shadow of the giant monstrosity of the lighted sign in the parking lot of the church with its bright neon letters displaying empty promises, and lifeless Bible verses in all of its blinking glory. Glowing quips interspersed with administrative information scrolled horizontally across the rectangular marquee of light and color:

Jesus is the answer…Sunday Morning Service 9:30 & 10:55…You become what you worship… Kids for Christ signup ends this Sunday…For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God Romans 3:23…When did I agree to play Vegas?” The stranger mumbled. “I’ll show them Vegas.”

He entered the church after everyone else. He was met by a cold rush of air and a chorus of cold stares as the collective gaze of the congregation swept across the room as if reacting for one creature and fixed upon him. He saw their appalled faces as they gazed at this stranger under dressed in his work clothes and obviously not a member, who had intruded into their church. He took a seat on the aisle of the last pew, isolated from the people but with an adequate vantage point of the spectacle before him.

He scanned the congregation. His head reverberated with their collective whispers of prayers. Most were requests for favors, let me win the lottery this weekend, heal my sick mother, let my child make the varsity team, and pleas for forgiveness for acts that had been committed the previous week, and would most likely be committed the following week and the week after that. The whispers quickly morphed into the familiar fluttering playing card shuffling sound that he knew all too well.

He glanced toward the elderly woman in the light blue floral dress hunched over the church organ keys as if worshipping the organ itself. She was obediently playing the obligatory church organ mood music with complete conviction. The priest in his garish robe draped loosely over his gangly frame, towered from his podium at the front of the congregation. He spoke without emotion into the microphone clipped to his chest while behind him a giant video monitor flashed bullet points of his sermon, driving home the key points of his message.

The stranger shook his head in disbelief. This was a clear case of technology compensating for a charismatic deficiency.The stranger observed the congregation. There was bowing and kneeling, and cross signing, splashes of special water and clasped hands all around him. There were chants of faith and worship and displays of religious symbols and icons and complete, unquestioning acceptance of the entire ritual. Everyone played their part. It had become so ingrained, passed down through the generations; they could do it in their sleep.

How could the people ruin something like this so badly? How could they turn worship into a Monty Python skit? At least, Monty Python played it for laughs. But these people were serious. If they could only see themselves as he saw them, they would have to realize how silly they looked, right? Probably not… The people weren’t as bright as he had originally planned.It was time to go to work. The stranger rose silently unnoticed and was up the aisle past the priest and behind Agnes Sweetwater, the elderly organ player in the blue floral dress. She didn’t rise from her crouch over the organ’s keys or even acknowledge the stranger that approached her. The lifeless church organ music ended abruptly and segued into a slow, creeping build up of individual notes that converged in a climax of emotion that this congregation desperately needed.

This quickly caught the attention of the priest and his congregation. Their heads swept simultaneously toward Agnes Sweetwater and the stranger standing before her conducting her play in cartoonish gestures. There were collective gasps and a growing murmur from the gawking collective face of the congregation at this intrusion. Could they do anything on their own, or did they always act as a group? The stranger wondered as he conducted Agnes’ musical performance.

A hiss of unintelligible whispers rolled across the congregation as they stared blankly at this disruption.

The stranger leapt effortlessly up to the top of the organ landing in a standing position, his back to Agnes who unconsciously played the slow rhythmic organ music the stranger was conducting. He bellowed out the words to accompany this peculiar musical score while he had the attention of the congregation:

“Cancel my subscription to the resurrection.
Send my credentials to the house of detention.
I got some friends inside.”

On the front row, Janis Trickle in her shiny, black clinging dress gasped in revulsion at this intrusion into her sanctuary. She punctuated her displeasure by bringing her hand with its glossy diamond ring to her mouth but it only made the stranger kick up his musical conducting and performance a few notches.

This was the same Mrs. Trickle who was cheating on Mr. Trickle and utilizing positions that the unsuspecting Mr. Trickle would never have dreamt of suggesting to the wholesome Mrs. Trickle. So naturally, Mr. Trickle was practicing said positions with Mandy Powers, a rather adventurous and limber neighbor, and soccer mom, he had come to know in the most intimate sense after spending many Saturdays on the sideline at his daughter’s soccer games.

Out of nowhere the stranger brandished a laser pointer and aimed it at Mrs. Trickle. The beam struck her between the eyes. She reflexively batted at it like it was a bothersome gnat. The video monitor image above and behind the priest flipped from the words of the sermon to a clear video of Mrs. Trickle naked and entwined with someone who obviously was not Mr. Trickle – Her face, a mosaic smear of ecstasy and emotion was reflected in rather revealing ceiling mirrors above her and her partner…

The stranger sang along accompanying the video and the continuous creep of organ music dutifully played by Agnes:

“The face in the mirror won’t stop…”*Agnes unconsciously jabbed two successive organ notes to punctuate the stranger’s words adding emphasis to the revelation he shared with the congregation.

The priest stood frozen, his mouth hanging open, unable to process the video image behind him, and the chaos occurring all around him.

Mr. Trickle sprang to his feet hoping just this mediocre show of force would bring an end to this commotion created by the stranger.

This gesture only intensified the rock and roll edge to the stranger’s voice as he belted out the song with more energy, and sped up the aged hands of Agnes Sweetwater as she banged her bony fingers down hard on the keys with more force than her frail body seemed to possess. The stranger cackled gleefully admiring his orchestration. Agnes Sweetwater’s rendition of this classic tune was so accurate you would have thought she had been replaced by Ray Manzarek in drag.

The stranger spun around on top of the organ and with a sweeping flourish zapped the laser pointer beam at Mr. Trickle, the pinpoint of light zeroed in on his crotch. Mr. Trickle instinctively dropped his clasped hands in a futile attempt to cover the red point of light, which elicited scattered giggles from the congregation. The video screen flipped to a new image – through her bedroom window you could see Mandy Power’s bare back and shoulders as she knelt down before a bare chested Mr. Trickle his eyes closed in a goofy expression of gratification.

The stranger sang along with the video image and the continuous pulse of the organ beneath him…

“The girl in the window won’t drop.
A feast of friends alive she cried,
waiting for me outside …”

The priest finally broke out of his frozen trance of disbelief. He turned and took a small step in the direction of Agnes and the stranger strutting and spinning on top of the church organ.

The stranger spun around and made a gesture with the palm of his hand as if pressing down the air in front of him. Agnes reacted by bringing the pulsing music down several notches, yet still audible to the congregation. The stranger whirled back around to face the congregation.

The priest’s jaw clenched tightly as he tucked his chin in toward his chest and barked into the microphone clipped on his robe. He pushed his silver framed glasses up the bridge of his nose closer to his delicate brown eyes as he squinted at the stranger.

“Excuse me, young man, is it Hay Seuss?

The organ music played a low, steady rhythm – a backbeat pulse to the interchange, giving it added weight.

The stranger chuckled.

“Do I look Hispanic to you Dude?” His voice carried easily throughout the congregation without the aid of a microphone.

“You can call me Father, thank you very much,” the priest said in a shaky voice made more obvious by his microphone.

The stranger leapt gracefully off the organ onto the stage and stepped slowly and casually toward the priest and the congregation. Agnes continued to bow over the organ, tapping the keys softly, repeatedly with conviction.

The priest took a clumsy step backward.

“Dude, you aren’t my father,” the stranger said.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave; this type of behavior in God’s house is not acceptable” The priest’s voice cracked nervously, inadvertently breaking the word “God” into two syllables.

“Acceptable behavior. What is that exactly?” The stranger nodded to the video screen above the priest.

The video screen flipped to a grainy video of the priest in his private quarters as he removed his robe to expose his pale, wrinkled flesh to an anonymous blond haired boy. The priest loomed above the trembling young boy as he approached him with authority and a look of bliss on his face.

The rhythmic organ pulse continued contributing to the seediness of the video.

The stranger swept his hand through the air, twirling the laser point between his fingers like rock and roll drummer. The red beam hit the hem of the priest’s robe. He flicked his hand in a quick flipping motion and the priest’s robe billowed upward and flew up over the priest’s head plastering itself tightly to his face and exposing his naked body below.

His pale, shriveled, uncovered body flailed uncontrollably trying to wrestle the robe back into place and regain his vision and his dignity. His microphone still on, amplified his helpless whimpering and muffled panting and broadcast it to the entire congregation. He lost his footing and stumbled backward crashing to the floor on his back with an audible grunt. His lower body still exposed, he writhed around on the floor, his arms now tangled up in the wire of his microphone, unable to break free.

There were shrieks and gasps, and there was fainting throughout the congregation caused by both the video and the real time exposure of the priest. Amid the confusion, several, hands dipped into the collection baskets having second thoughts about the generous offerings they had made shortly before. Mr. and Mrs. Trickle took this opportunity as their cue to slip separately out of the church unnoticed and duck into permanent hiding to nurse their shame and think about whether this church was really for them.

The stranger descended the stairs and advanced toward the chaotic congregation. The church members were still erupting in a collective frenzy of emotions; their rigid truths practiced for generations had been yanked out from under them like a tablecloth in a magician’s trick. Women were crying mascara tears, grown men were blubbering, slobbering messes, as they tried to reconcile what they had witnessed.

The stranger addressed the congregation.

“Our paths will probably cross again. I suggest you all behave until then. You’ll probably want to be on my good side. Right Dude?” The stranger said over his shoulder to the priest still floundering on his back trying to escape his entanglement. “I hope we all learned something here today.”

The stranger approached the young boy with the look of shame on his face cowering beside his mother in one of the center pews. The boy feared exposure but the stranger had been careful not to betray his identity. He patted the boy on his head tousling his blond hair and then casually made his way down the aisle and silently exited the church in a whisper of warm air.

To the traumatized congregation, the stranger’s last gesture toward the boy was merely a pat on the head, a gentle form of encouragement – from an adult to a child. To the young boy, it was much more, the secret he had been burdened with and any of its collateral baggage was permanently erased from the boy’s memory and mind. For the boy, it was as if it had never happened. The boy’s mother grabbed her son and pulled him close to her, a sour milk expression on her face. She cringed at the thought of the stranger laying his hands on her child.

Outside, on his way back home, the stranger crossed below, the church marquee, the scrolling electric neon letters on its screen bled into gibberish, and then shuffled forming a new series of messages which scrolled horizontally across the marquee in an electric explosion of colors:

People see God every day; they just don’t recognize HimGod specializes in happy endingsDon’t make me come down there

He had an endless supply of them.

He wandered into the church parking lot crammed with its rolling billboards of faith and disappeared, leaving the people to their own devices for the time being.

Back at home in his loft, he wisely chose not to turn on the huge video screen. He cleared the messages on the white device and heard the inevitable shuffling of them filling up again. His trip had cured the funk he had been in, a least for now. He just wanted to get some well deserved sleep. And that is what he did.

by Bob Langham

If you like this,  read more.

Sources: * When the Music’s Over – The Doors, Elektra Records 1967

 *Author’s note:  Click on the song title and artist’s name at the end of this post to listen to this song in its entirety and to visit a Web site dedicated to the band.

One of the great things about the time period I lived in Austin, Texas was the music you could hear on the radio and see live around the town.  This song actually got airplay regularly on the great, yet underrated radio station KGSR.  You will never hear anything close to this on the radio stations in bigger markets like Houston. For this reason, I rarely listen to commercial radio stations anymore.  I also was lucky enough to see this band perform this song as well as many other songs live at the Cactus Cafe in Austin one evening as Charlie’s six piece band crowded onto the tiny stage with their instruments (including drum set and stand up base) and played an incredible set for the enthusiastic crowd.  The intimate setting was about as close as you can get (which is really close) to having a band play for you and your friends in your own living room.

Sunday Clothes captures the strong hold religion and the church can have on you from an early age through adulthood and how they use fear and the empty promise of a better life passed on unchallenged by logic and reason from generation to generation.

– B

sunday_clothes4church preacher2

Grandma slicked my hair down
I cinched up my belt
I can still remember how that polyester felt

Townsfolk all a tremble
Yeah they knew what lay before
As the preacher takes the pulpit
And the usher shut the door

Came into this crazy world round 1968
Fathered by a crazy kid with nothing on his plate
Daddy got in trouble, yeah Daddy did some time
Visiting day at the penitentiary was where I learned to cry

Yeah we were singing those hymns over and over again
Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday nights
I never understood it all that well back then
But it probably saved my life

Charlie Sexton, Sunday Clothes