Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Abundant life in the assembly of G-d

When I was sixteen, my school friend Bekah invited me to join her Wednesday night youth group at an Abundant Life Assembly of G-d church in a northern suburb.  

It's quite funny to think of sixteen-year-old me, starting to learn who she is politically, starting to come out tentatively, starting to temper her repressed anger and stubbornness into action, joining a conservative church.  But I wasn't wary of the hermeneutic differences between Assembly of G-d and Episcopal churches, largely because I had no idea of them.  

In defense of my lack of knowledge: I was sixteen.  I had grown up in the Episcopal church, in a congregation that was high on Committees and Liturgy, and low on emotional engagement and personal convictions.  There were very good people at that church, but there was also a priest who had no interest in challenging the rudeness and disinterest of his youth group.  The year before, when a fellow confirmand had said, "I think the Bible is a bunch of baloney; we should learn about Wicca instead," there was neither chastisement nor engagement; he ignored the statement.  I remember Father B saying at one youth group meeting, "Yeah, sure, I've read the Bible all the way through, but I was seventeen and a dork."  I'd been passionate about getting confirmed, about affirming the vows made for me at baptism as a full and consenting adult - which made me the odd girl out in confirmation. 

Suffice it to say that I did not fit in there.  Everyone else knew I was a dork, and treated me as such.

So in going to youth group at the Assembly church, I was mostly excited about going to church with school friends who treated me kindly in spite of my dorkiness.  

Then, of course, I experienced worship at AoG.  If you are familiar with Episcopal services, you know they are highly liturgical - prescribed, well-planned, consistent from week to week, with fixed dialog between priest and congregation.  There are very specific (but unspoken) standards for physical attitudes.  When you sing, you look at the hymnal.  When you pray, you kneel on the kneeler, bow your head, fold your hands.  Everyone stands for the gospel, everyone sits for the sermon.  Prescribed.

If you are familiar with AoG (and, I believe, the majority of Pentecostal and/or non-denominational) services, you will know that they are incredibly, incredibly unlike this.  Prayers are extemporaneous.  Songs are led by band, not organ, with Powerpoint slides.  Singers and pray-ers can stand or sit or kneel or dance, raise one hand, raise both hands.  There is a lot of crying.  It is highly emotional.

For me, at sixteen, it was like coming home.  These people, unlike my stinking pile of apathetic "peers" at confirmation, actually wanted to do stuff.  They wanted to praise.  They wanted to read the Bible.  They wanted to come to worship.  The Holy Spirit had convicted their hearts and they weren't afraid to cry in church.  

So looking back, I am not shocked that I loved it.  AoG worship particularly connected with my emotional needs. As a lonely kid who experienced deep emotions (including, at times, crippling depression and social anxiety), I felt like I belonged, even when I cried.  If I cried at school, my friends were unsure what to do.  At AoG, I watched other youth group members cry - and peers and leaders swarmed them, put their hands on them, prayed out loud for them.  For the first time in my life, I saw people be emotionally moved in worship.

I know now that the emotional displays I witnessed come from a variety of sources.  It is likely that when I broke down and wept, the leaders and youth who laid hands on me and prayed for Christ's conviction on my heart were assuming that I was weeping because of the multitude of my sins, not because of the loneliness of my soul.  But this was unknown to me then; I just knew that I felt welcomed and loved in a way that I did not normally experience with my peers.  

And I love contemporary music - even now.  Jami will laugh if she reads this, because I am the one who gets billed as the liturgical, if-it's-not-in-a-hymnal-I-won't-sing-it kind of Lutheran (and this is fair, considering the abundance of my love for Marty Haugen, for the ELW, for a full service with the Confession, Forgiveness, and Gloria Dei thankyouverymuch; but I do love contemporary music.  It was moving to me then, and it is moving now.  I am reading The Scandalous G-d:  The Use and Abuse of the Cross by Vitor Westhelle for my Mission class, and I cannot look at the book without "Scandalous Night" stuck in my head for the next few hours:

At the wonderful, tragic, mysterious tree
On that beautiful, scandalous night you and me
Were atoned by His blood and forever washed white
On that beautiful, scandalous night

(Theologically I am not certain that I commit to the theory of atonement - but the song still speaks to me.  The crashing chords, the drum line, the soaring melody, the aching in each note.  I do miss being able to sing contemporary music.  But there are so few safe spaces - so few spaces where raised hands do not signal pointed fingers, where extemporaneous prayers do not become words of condemnation.  Someday, perhaps.)

I continued attending the Episcopal church on Sunday mornings - I tried Sunday worship at AoG twice, but could never get over the oddness of fifty-year-old men in stained white tees and beer guts with their hands raised and tears streaming down their cheeks.  Somehow I accepted the emotional displays of fellow youth but found them alien in adults.  A local Episcopal church led a Teens Encounter Christ retreat twice a year, and I continued leading on the music team at the retreats.  

And we hired a new youth group leader, Alison, who laid down guidelines for group behavior with specific Scripture references and called upon the youth group (now comprised mostly of younger students, as my peers had disappeared post-confirmation) to actually read the Bible.  Alison loved us - visibly and actually and compassionately - and in a way that Father B never did.  She is to this day one of my guiding stars, a hero and a friend.  

And it was good that I maintained my ties with the Episcopal church (as boring as I now found the services), because I would not last a year at AoG.  Hermeneutical differences will out, as I have mentioned.  

But without my subsequent re-connection with my Episcopalian self, I ever would not have volunteered at the General Convention of 2003 - not seen, that very summer, a mainline Protestant church stand up to the protests of Fred Phelps and the willful determination of fundamentalists - not seen a church lay hands on a gay and proud bishop and say, "Yes, yes."  

And if I had not been so emboldened by that summer - by the conviction that yes, the church could be brave enough - would Martin Luther's "On the Freedom of A Christian" have sung in my soul so deep?

I will not glorify the hurt I felt when I realized that the AoG could never be a home for me.  But the pain of my forceful disassociation from AoG gave my heart room to hear G-d's call, and the youth group gave me a dream of commitment to the Biblical narrative of G-d's love and of a worship service where tears do not terrify. 

The youth group promised abundant life.  I have found it; I just happened to find it everywhere else.

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