A message was pinned to the bulletin board standing in the cozy courtyard off to the side of the trim yellow church with the red-tile roof: “If your photo is not on this board, please get your photo taken after Sunday worship.” The better to build a sense of family for those gathered under the verb-heavy banners (Bless, Pray, Celebrate) hanging from the Mission-style ceiling and singing everything from “My Country ’Tis of Thee” to “How Great Thou Art” to a folksy marriage of “Amazing Grace” and the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” (“I get a peaceful, easy feeling/ I know He won’t let me down...”)
The liturgy was brisk and full of song — now accompanied by organ, now piano. But I’m afraid I’m going to give all that short shrift this week and stick with the themes: chewy subjects such as God’s power, human freedom, and human suffering.
“We are an affluent community,” granted Pastor Dahle when I spoke to him about La Jolla Lutheran’s church family. But, he added, “it has the same troubles as any other community, in that people have hopes that they never accomplish in their lifetime. One thing that happens in an affluent community is that people sometimes think their story is unique because everybody else looks like they’re doing so well. But everybody is struggling with something, and if they’re willing to share that, they can get help at a much deeper level than plastic surgery. Your heart can be helped.”
I asked Dahle about his community because of something he said during his sermon (which offered a commentary on the story of Jonah and the whale). “You will find people in the same context who view it wildly differently and who have wildly different outcomes. Two people in a ghetto in Calcutta — one is dead at age 20, and the other at age 20 has done stuff that nobody can believe: how did he accomplish it in the midst of depressing, oppressive poverty.” Meanwhile, here in La Jolla, you can have another two people, “and one of them, by age 20, has completely decimated their life, while the other has done something...amazing. It has a lot to do with the mental screens you use to view your environment. You can get your mind refocused, but sometimes it takes a little bit of work.”
How does this tie in with Jonah? Dahle looped around to the answer: Jonah fled when God told him to go to Nineveh. “If you keep practicing in the will, saying, ‘You can’t tell me what to do,’ you might even wind up saying ‘no’ to God.” Which is a shame because “God never tells you do something that is bad for you. It will be great for you, should you have the courage to do it. One of the ways you can have the courage is when you hear something challenging but not that hard, build up the muscle that takes action on things.”
It’s also a shame, said Dahle, because it’s futile. “Jonah either hasn’t read Psalm 139 or he’s forgotten it.” But we read it, so we knew that “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me fast.”
“The Psalmist realizes two things,” offered Dahle. “One is that there’s nowhere you can go to be away from God. The other is that this is a good thing because God loves us and wants what’s best for us.... He’s the only person in the universe Who actually loves us unconditionally.”
Even when He’s sending a great fish to swallow us. “Jonah was constrained — trying to escape God, but unable to escape the knowledge that God was going to hold him no matter what he chose.” Later, he prayed, “God, we thank You so much that You do not let us go; that You hold us tight. That You give us freedom of choice, but You don’t completely give in to our choices. You constantly keep presenting us with better options.”
But lest that line of thinking veer into Shiny Happy Christianity, the prayers of the people acknowledged, “it is often difficult for us to understand how a loving God who is all-knowing and all-powerful can allow tragedies to occur and wars to wage.” Prayer leader Genie Hudkins mentioned natural disasters in China, car accidents in California, drug lords, and soldiers under fire. “God, You know who all these people are and what they need. We trust in Your goodness and we call upon Your mercy.”
What happens when we die?
“The same thing that happens when we live,” answered Dahle. “God has mercy on us. God’s primary attribute is love, so...”
7111 La Jolla Boulevard, La Jolla
Founded locally: circa 1945
Senior pastor: Mark Dahle
Congregation size: 75
Staff size: 2
Sunday school enrollment: 12
Weekly giving: n/a
Annual budget: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to formal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian, but wide age range
Sunday worship: 9:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 15 minutes