How One Night At Church Youth Camp Changed My Life

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I grew up in a home that believed the sun rose and set on the likes of Billy Graham, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, and the *cough* infallible *cough* Kenneth Copeland, just to name a few. If we weren’t AT church, one of these guys was on the television, OR Kenny Rogers and Ann Murray were belting out tunes on the turntable because they too, were god-like.

You might think that, by the time I was 16, I was firmly indoctrinated in the church. But no. Like those preacher’s kids you had in homeroom, the moment I got a taste of freedom I went in the opposite direction for a short while. However, after years of having the church and these mouthpieces of God’s word pounded into my brain, my actions–and the guilty thoughts they generated–were never far apart.

To confuse a young man even more, I experienced something once at a church youth camp that, to this day, I cannot explain and I cannot ignore–though I have tried mightily.

It was the year of my 10th birthday. I was still cute; thin. I sang frequently at church and though my voice was still that of a young tenor, I had good control and I wasn’t overly nervous on stage, which made me a perennial favorite. Truthfully, I never quite “got it” myself. There were other singers, much older and more talented than me, but somehow I still got called on regularly. Amy Grant was all the rage for young church singers then and thinking back on how I butchered “My Father’s Eyes” makes me cringe to this day.

But that year at church camp was my year. I won “Camp King” AND the talent contest. It was THE best year of my life. It was also the year right before everything changed, so it has remained a high point for me.

At camp, every morning started out in church, right after we finished scrubbing our cabins and eating breakfast. During the day, we played ball and mostly ran around like unsupervised hooligans. After supper in the evenings, we had church again. The night services were the serious ones and they could go on for two hours or more depending on how “the spirit moved.”

Up to that point, I’d never had a real personal conviction of Christ. Oh, I believed in that most revered godly creation, “The Trinity,” but, I’d never heard the voice of God or felt moved by him in one direction or another.

It was nearing the end of the service on the next to last night of camp. As usual, the pastor was ending the service with an altar call.  These were, and still are, so formulaic that they must teach it at seminary. How else can you explain every Church of God/Assembly of God pastor acting out the same ritual Sunday night after Sunday night all across the country?

Here’s the Formula; stop me if you’ve heard it: The pastor begins with a prayer. Then, “with every head bowed and every eye closed” he asks for people to raise their hands if they have a need they want him to pray about or if they want to know the Lord better. Or “maybe, you know the lord but it’s been a while and you just need a refreshing and want to ask the lord to come into your heart again.” A few initially raise their hands, then more as others in the congregation peek up from their own shuttered eyelids and see the other brave souls who have already raised their hands. The pastor promises “I don’t want to embarrass anybody here tonight, but please, raise your hand,” which emboldens a few others.

With enough hands raised, the pastor begins his prayer, which usually runs about two minutes. Any less and he can’t cover all the necessary topics, but any more and he risks losing people to sleep.

With the prayer said, he throws his promise out the door, “Now, I’d like every one of you who raised their hand to come down here to the altar.”

Wait, what happened to the “I don’t want to embarrass anyone” part?

So predictable.

At first, only a few venture down. Then a few more. Then the pastor asks “the elders” to come down and pray with them, which makes it look like a nice, anonymous crowd where, someone who maybe wanted to come down but didn’t want to stand out, might feel safe.

With the altar full and the band softly singing a rhythmic tune that just blends into the backround, people begin praying. The pastor moves from one person to another, laying his hands on them and pleading with the Lord in a loud voice to come and bless this person!

At this point, I was still standing in my aisle by my seat, unmoved by what was going on around me. The volume of prayer coming up from the altar began steadily increasing as did the tempo and volume of the music–all planned and carefully choreographed. I could see one particular friend of mine–a girl, but not one I was “into” more than as a friend–had gone down to the altar. I knew a bit about her home life and it wasn’t good. Having a taste of that myself, I had empathy for her and in a show of support, I moved out of my seat and walked down to where she stood, crying, her hands outraised, praying silently but with her lips moving.

I stood there for perhaps a minute before reaching out to her (we’re big on the “laying on of hands” in Pentecostal churches).

The moment I touched her, I felt a bolt of lightning go through my body and I hit the floor, knocked out! Pentecostals call this “being slain in the spirit.” It is believed that when this happens, a person is actually touched by God. In itself it doesn’t really mean anything. You don’t wake up with superpowers or the ability to talk to animals. It’s just a “thing” that happens; a supposed proof that God exists and that he does, in fact, move in this world despite the ample evidence to the contrary.

I came semi-awake sometime later, on the floor, crying, and praying. There were several people kneeling beside me praying with me. I lay there a few minutes honestly too embarrased to open my eyes so I pretended like I was still “out.” But finally, I cracked my eyes just a bit, then a bit more until finally, those around could see that I was awake.  More than still a little embarrassed, I tried to stand up on my own but I didn’t have the strength in my legs, so a couple of people grabbed me under the arms and half-walked, half-dragged me to my seat.

It took me about 15 minutes to fully recover and by that time, the service was all but shut down and everyone gone back to their cabins. I followed suit a few minutes later.

The rest of camp was uneventful and certainly, I didn’t get knocked out by the Holy Spirit again. In fact, I stayed away from the altar the rest of camp. But, nobody really talked about what happened to me, including me. I’m not sure even my parents knew.

To this day it remains the only real evidence I have that God exists and that he’s paying any attention to my insignificant candle of a life. But, it’s something you can’t just shake. I know I didn’t make it up. I know I didn’t “will” it to happen, but it did happen and I cannot explain it away.

As the years passed, my spirituality wavered, then came back strong again during times of difficulty as these things usually do. Today, though I don’t attend church regularly and though I put almost no stock in “men of God” at all, particularly those on television, that night at camp keeps me praying. That one moment where–maybe–God actually intervened in my life, keeps me cognizant of my actions and the things I do in this world.

I like to think that most of us are innately good. That, lacking a divine mandate like everyone used to get from church, we would all still be basically good people, looking out for each other; careful not to hurt others’ feelings. But, it does feel like that’s less so as the years go by. That scares me. People are capable of terrible things. Without boundaries, our own narcissism can easily overcome our innate safeguards leading us to do and say things that make us feel good, but which are not things civilized people do and say to each other.

Too often, the very people who demand equality and respect for others equally, are the first ones to condemn others for their beliefs. In that respect, we’re losing the fight for humanity, and that’s a difficult thing to watch.

I may not still go to church and it’s rare my radio seizes on the local gospel radio station anymore, but I cling to the belief there is a God and that he does still care. I don’t believe, as a race, we can afford not to.

One more candy holiday down!

Easter 20094Are there any more candy holidays until Halloween? I pray not. MLE has shown exceptional acumen at being able to sniff out and unwrap foil-wrapped candy. It’s a vice his older brother never picked up, but is happily playing along with.

*sigh*

CareerMom leaves town again today for the whole week, but this time, things are going to be  bit different. For one, she’s not leaving over the weekend, so I get a break during the day while I’m working and the boys are at daycare. Secondly, she’s arranged for my SIL to come watch the kids two nights this week.

TWO NIGHTS! That’s like, more free time than I get when CareerMom is home (and she wonders why I don’t mind her traveling so much).

However, in what is hopefully not a portend of the week to come, this morning we woke to discover bulging paint in the ceiling over our bedroom armoire, which, when coupled with the pounding rain we’re getting today, could only mean one thing–water leak!

Luckily (if there’s a silver lining when it comes to water leaks), the water is dribbling down a pipe where apparently, it’s not sealed well on the roof. I was able to stuff towels down to stop the water from getting further into my sheetrock and I’m hoping the rain is merciful as the day goes on. Friday night we had some nasty storms come through and we had a brief bit of large hail. I’m wondering if we didn’t accumulate some damage this spring with all the bad weather. So, I’ll be calling Mr. Insurance this morning to see if they want to come out and take a look-see. I know a few of my neighbors have gotten new roofs because of the weather this year so who knows.

Leapfrogging to another topic — church. Being Easter and all, we kept the boys with us in church on Sunday rather than sticking them in children’s church, which incites screaming fits each time from MLE, and they were really good for about 35 minutes. Unfortunately, church is more like an hour and 15 minutes. By the hour mark, MLE had played peek-a-boo with everyone behind us; he’s crawled around on the floor, and even wandered out into the aisle where he watched in awe at the unfolding passion play on stage. MLI just sat, laughed at MLE and ate Cheerios. Luckily, we were in the balcony where you can get away with a lot more shenanigans. It WAS entertaining at least (moreso than the over-emoters playing Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter on stage. And dude! You can’t tell me that Jesus and Mary M. weren’t an item!)

I hope you and your family had a good Easter, or at least enjoyed the fine weather if you don’t celebrate the holiday!

I wonder what God thinks about during church…

Church of God CareerMom and I, after much internal and conflicting debate, collected the boys and made it to church this morning. The service was full of Christmasy music and the theme was even one of debating whether or not God exists. So, it was all very holiday-serious.

Unfortunately, the preacher also preached for 40 minutes. Folks, I don’t know about you, but my attention span is little more than my 4-year old’s and after starting out the sermon by reading John 3:16–a scripture that even most Atheists can recite–my mind had started wandering even faster than usual.

But, I made it through the service and as usual, the preacher did his little altar call thing where he asks people to raise their hand if they need special prayer. It’s a sucker move see, and only new people fall for it. Those of us who attend on a regular basis know that, despite saying, “I don’t want to embarrass anyone here today,” he IS going to embarrass you later by asking you to stand up in front of everyone while the rest of the congregation remain seated. And then after you’ve stood up by your lonesome for a few minutes, he asks everyone else to stand up too.

It was after we had all stood up and while I had my head bowed in reverent prayer, that I felt CareerMom nudge me. I looked up at her thinking perhaps she was having a spiritual revival and wanted to tearfully tell me how much she loved me.

Instead, she pointed her eyes down towards the pew seat in front of us where there were two elderly ladies sitting. There was a Bible lying on the pew between them with about 1/3 of a piece of paper showing from underneath it. In a whisper, CareerMom said, “Look at that note.”

I couldn’t see much, but the words I did see, which spanned about five sentences were, in this order:

blah blah blah blah blah bras

blah blah blah blah blah pink

blah blah blah blah caught

blah blah blah black

Apparently, we weren’t the only ones having trouble concentrating.

Bras indeed!

AMEN!

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My good deed for the day?

top secret Ever since I was forced out of Children’s Church into the “Big Church” with mom, dad and all the other big kids, church has been an exercise in extreme boredom for me. I remember when I was younger, sitting in the second from the front row where all the teens sat (we figured sitting up close with our friends at least got us away from our parents, even if we were then under the watchful eye of the preacher) with my eyes fixated on the pastor as he stomped to and fro on the stage. Sometimes, I remember that I’d stare at him so long and hard that I’d actually get tunnel vision. It became a game in fact–seeing how long and hard I could stare at him without blinking.

Having been in church since I was very young, I’ve heard just about every take on every story in every chapter of the Bible. I’ve heard metaphors made out of Psalms that would make Pythagoras scratch his head. I’ve heard God’s vengeance on Sodom and Gomorrah soliloquized to the point where one could almost hear the screams of the city’s denizens as the fire rained down, and I’ve heard Jesus the Fisherman preached so much that I could almost tell you what his bait of choice was when fishing the Sea of Galilee with his buds.

You preach it, I’ve heard it, and that’s why to this day, church bores the mess outta me. But there are other reasons I go; such as for my kids.

Because we can’t seem to settle down in a church, and because I never see myself  “joining” another church, MLI doesn’t have a bunch of friends at church that he likes to go play with. Previously, any attempts to make him go to children’s church so that mom and dad could watch the service without having to constantly admonish him to be quiet while also fishing crayons off the floor, were met with extreme crying and fit-pitching. But this past Sunday, I was determined to make him go to children’s church if it was the last thing I did.

We actually got there early, thanks to having started getting ready at 7 a.m. We checked the boys in and a nice lady escorted MLI and me upstairs to a “holding area” where they put a lot of kids until all the various teachers show up. As soon as we arrived at his room, he started his act:

  • Hands in his mouth
  • Pulling away from me
  • A slowly rising whine that threatened to embarrass me in public

So, I squatted down and said, “Come here, let’s talk.”

Not quite sure what to make of this odd development that didn’t involve daddy yelling and threatening to spank him, he stopped whining and with his hand still in his mouth, came over to me.

I said, “I’m gonna tell you a little secret, but you have to PROMISE not to tell mommy ok?
(In my head, George Strait was singing, “…a secret that my daddy said, was just between us…)
He nodded.

In a hushed voice, I told him, “I don’t like church either. It’s kinda boring, and it’s long and stuff. But, mommy likes for us to go and we want you to learn about Jesus and stuff, so that’s why we all go. So do me a favor, and just go in there and try and have fun and before you know it, it will be all over.”

He looked at me with those red eyes and with a bit of a sniff, he turned to face the head lady who was coming towards him, hunched over and with a cow sock-puppet on her hand. As she got near, a spooky voice emanated from the sock puppet, “I’m scared too!”

I wanted to say, “Lady, you’re not helping,” but rather, I took off running down the hall before he could change his mind and come running back to me.

Turned out, he had a great time. They ate lots of junk food, and made rice crispy treats for me and CareerMom. In fact, he was talking about how next time he didn’t want to come in big church with us.

So, mission accomplished.

If so though, why I do I feel kinda crappy about it? At the time, I thought maybe he would appreciate a little “man to man” truth–a secret that was just his and daddy’s. But now I’m not so sure. What if I just colored his religious experience for the rest of his life? What if, rather than being open to what God wants to do in his life, he’s instead just going to go through the motions to make other people happy?

I’m struggling with this, even in the face of apparent success.

What do you think? Did I help, or hurt?