My early religious upbringing took place in the strange overlap of Baptists and Pentecostals.
I have a very early memory of my mother being baptized at the Highland Park Baptist Church. She hadn’t been raised in a particularly religious home, but I think exposure to (or maybe the expectations of) my father’s very religious mother drove her in that direction. It’s important to note that she didn’t actually adopt the religion in which my father had been raised, but it awakened a spiritual need that she tried to satisfy in many different ways before she died.
So I was shuffled off to Redeemer Baptist Church every Sunday where we were taught how nice Jesus is. And that was the core of their Baptist mind-set: they were nice. Salvation was a given because, after all, you were a Baptist. But that left very little else to do while we were waiting for the bus to Heaven, or “The Rapture” as they called it. So we were supposed to be nice while we were waiting. However, “nice” did not describe me very well. I found “nice” to be very “boring.”
Now, the reason my mother did not adopt the religion of my Dad’s mother was that my grandmother was Pentecostal and, yes, Pentecostals were also nice but they were also very scary! I can’t say how old I was when I got my first exposure to a “Holy Ghost” revival meeting, but it made quite an impression. The preacher would get pretty wound up and then, smack dab in the middle of making sense, he would go into some kind of convulsion and start jabbering incoherently, quite unlike anything that my young Baptist ears where accustomed to. Sometimes even people in the congregation would jump up right in the middle of the preaching and start doing the same thing. What was that? And as if that weren’t enough, then came the strangest altar call I had ever seen.
We had altar calls in the Baptist church. I was used to them. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…” Every head bowed, every eye closed. But these Pentecostal altar calls were another breed altogether. Almost everyone would queue up. They were obviously not all unsaved, so why go up? Well, I soon found out. They would go up, and the preacher would lays his hands on their head and pray then, bam!, down they would go, flat on their backs. They must have been expecting that because they had people lined up behind to catch them. This was just too strange to let it slide. It took a while, but I finally got up the courage to go up there. The preacher laid his hands on my head, gave me a little shove and… no bam! There I stood wondering what I had done wrong. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t happening to me. I guess I was too Baptist by then.
My grandmother explained it all to me: the speaking in tongues, the interpretations, being “slain in the spirit,” being healed. She had plenty of biblical warrant for it (well, most of it), but I was having less and less of it. I am relating all this from a much more mature perspective today, but at the time I was just overwhelmed by it. In time, this Pentecostal weirdness actually became a catalyst for my now-accelerating adoption of atheism. All these people believed that this was real, and it gave me the self-justification I needed to reject their entire set of beliefs.
By the time I was in my thirties, the life I had chosen to live apart from God finally collapsed under its unsustainable consequences. So one day, in a solitary act of repentance for the life I had lead, I asked for God’s forgiveness. As I prayed I suddenly sensed that someone was in the room. Not wanting to be embarrassed I turned to see who was there and, of course, there was no on to see. I had for the first time in my life known the real presence of God. It transformed me and the reality of that experience continues to shape me to this day.
But as glorious as that experience had been, it was insufficient to bring me back to the religion(s) of my youth. Instead, I began to pursue the “Mere Christianity” of C. S. Lewis because I now needed a solid understanding of what had happened to me. I read and read and read. And the more I read, the less connected to that original experience I became. In time, I came to believe that Christian faith came from being part of a body of believers. But which body? I was Protestant. That I knew. But what kind? I couldn’t imagine being a Baptist because they seemed so far removed from that ecstatic experience I craved. And I was still very leery of Pentecostals. So I wandered the endless halls of sectarian Protestantism, trying on churches the way one would try on shoes. And nothing fit.
Eventually, in time and in ways that were inescapably part of God’s plan for me, I ended up in a Pentecostal church, Zion Evangelistic Temple, mostly because a lot of the people I knew in AA were going there. Here was a place where people seemed to be having the kinds of intimate encounters with God that I was craving. I wanted what they had in that sense, but I didn’t want the way they did it. I believed in the doctrine of the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Not all Protestants felt that way, but I saw no problem with it. But theological loner that I was, I wanted it on my terms and in accordance with my still-developing beliefs.
Jesus taught that “you have not because you ask not.” So I prayed for the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. I figured that if God didn’t want me to have it on my terms, then nothing would happen. I was wrong, spectacularly wrong. As soon as I had said my prayer, I was engulfed in what can only be described as pure ecstatic reverie. It lasted for some time and I had to believe that this is what Jesus had talked about, the second baptism. And I asked for it the next night and…nothing. Looking back, this makes a lot of sense. You don’t get baptized in order to stay wet the rest of your life. I had asked to filled with the Holy Spirit, I was and that was that.
But as I watched people queuing up week after week to be “slain in the Spirit” I thought that perhaps that was the path to an ongoing ecstatic encounter. So up I went, the preacher laid his hands on me, gave me a little shove and…nothing. It was very disconcerting. Why did this not happen to me? Okay, maybe I should be speaking in tongues. So I asked around about how this happened and the answer was cockeyed. You just did it. God would give you you “heavenly language” when you stepped out in faith and did it. Well, I could “do it.” I had heard it enough and could make the right sounds, but that hardly seemed to be what the prophecy was referring to.
And this brings me to the whole point of the next post.