part 1, My Love/Hate Relationship With The Church & Denominationalism
It's the Sunday morning after Judgement Day and I'm still sitting in my jammies, still here. I haven't been translated to Glory. One would think, that such a fact might behoove me to run down the block to my local church and plead my case before God at the altar---just in case they missed it by a day or two. Nah, why start now. See I've come to believe, with a growing number, that I can meet my God and plead my case right here, in my apartment on Garfield Place, in my jammies, with the Pepto Bismal colored fluffy slippers that have the word "Princess" etched in glitter on each foot. But, I won't be going to hell for foregoing getting all "gussied-up" and gathering with the saints in some cathedral, steepled building, Broadway theater, store-front or high school auditorium. That's not to say I won't show up to these places from time to time, but I no longer believe it is a requirement of my faith to do so every Sabbath day (let the tirade of comments commence over that statement).
It's been a long, Spirit-filled, sometimes ugly, yet beautifully complex journey that has brought me to my current love/hate relationship with the institution know as 'church'. And I feel the need to unpack this wild ride, mostly for myself, but for others who may have had a similiar experience. So for the next few days or weeks I'm going to try and do just that. I warn you this most likely will be a disjointed, possibly out of sync rendition of my experience. But, aren't memories like that. They are often ambivalent in nature---the good and bad knotted up in a ball of recall. At this mid-point of my life, God is taking me through a waterfall of healing and I'm feeling that part of this process needs to include the act of writing down my story. So, for what it's worth, here goes.
I wasn't raised in a typical church tradition, per say, although my Dad was an ordained Assembly of God minister and that was sort of the denomination I guess I was born into. The overarching umbrella of the sect I was raised in is often called Pentecostal, sometimes Charismatic. We were, what some derogatorily describe as, 'holy rollers'. Not the snake handling types, but the dance in the Spirit, pray in tongues, revival meeting, tamborine playing, gospel singing, demon-chasing, slain in the Spirit persuasion. The movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall, comes pretty close to painting an accurate picture of the heart of this tradition. And I come from a very long-line of Pentecostal preachers, most likely dating back to late 1800's.
But, my early church life memories come from Teen Challenge chapel services. My Dad was the Co-founder and Executive Director of the faith-based drug/alcohol rehab program, which some have coined a 'para-church' organization. Not quite your traditional church body, although it had many similar traits related to church life. There was community living (some might even describe it as commune-like); many of the same rituals were performed in chapel services, such as communion, praise & worship, prayers of the saints, the preaching of the Word and most assuredly, the altar call. But, many of the 'congregants' were not attending these regular services because they chose to be there, rather it was a requirement of the program to do so, as a part of their recovery process. So the church body was not made up of your average hardworking joe & jane's taking a Sabbath rest to meet and worship their God after a long week of daily living out their lives. Strictly speaking the parishioners were made up of mostly men---off the streets, trying to recover from addiction-- and the staff members and their families who were trying to help them do so. So the hierarchy of relating was not natural, there were restrictions on how everyone could relate to each other. But, from the time I was a baby, this type of community was my first introduction to how the Body of Christ operated.
I believe it was my Dad's mother, Grandma Wilkerson, who prayed the sinner's prayer with me when I was pre-school age. Memories going back that far are a bit fuzzy, well at least the good ones are. From that day on, I was schooled in the workings of the Holy Spirit and I was gifted in it at that. I'm not boasting about this, it just was a fact that I was a very spiritually-minded girl. I just always knew how to 'walk in the Spirit', I guess you could describe it as being a Pentecostal Savant. I saw Angels walking up stairs, as well as heard & felt demonic, evil presences. I would get, and still do to this day, what I called 'hot hands' and I'd pray for people and they would get physically healed. These along with many other supernatural occurences were common place for me. Jesus & the Holy Spirit were my imaginary friends, my earliest and best friends. I talked to them constantly and they spoke back to me in tender and sometimes frightening ways. I had an unwavering faith and believed Jesus could do anything if simply asked to do so and often had a hard time when older & wiser people didn't believe the way I did.
Chapel services at Teen Challenge, at the time, were magical for a little one with my disposition (later my memory of them would be clouded with pain, but that is for another post). For many years they were conducted in both English and Spanish, so I had the benefit of learning the music and poetry of the Spanish language. We sang lively hymns about the love of Jesus and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, so I got to sing about my two best friends. We sang about the power of the Blood and about Heaven. There were tamborines, guitars, piano, and even maracas, it was always loud and boisterous, FUN! People raised and clap their hands, cried out with joy, swayed and danced with total abandon. There was never any inhibition when it came to praising God. I wouldn't flinch when Sister So and So gave a prophetic utterance in tongues and Brother This or That interpreted it for everyone, often starting it out with the phrase--'Thus saith the Lord'. People would simply fall over, splat, having been overcome with 'The Spirit'. Others might laugh uncontrollably or spin round and round or run up and down the aisle. Worshipping this way, was not weird, it was a supernatural response to truly understanding Who God is, What He did for us and Where He's taking us in the future. There were times I felt more at home & 'normal' in a chapel service than I did in 'real life'. There was more joy there and I understood my purpose in that framework. It was a beautiful, ecstatic, joy-filled bubble of a place.
But, in truth, it really wasn't real life and though important, living in services like that didn't completely prepare me for the actual nuts and bolts of daily existence in a broken world. And I would eventually learn this in a very hard way, or rather on THE WAY, that of carrying or wrestling with the cross that all who believe eventually have to take up. Or I simply grew up and came to terms with the disillusionment many of us face as we mature. More on exactly what that means later...