Change creeps in unawares
Suddenly, after months of resistance, after exhaustion, after going to church six days a week, after listening to three hour sermons every night and skipping school when I was too tired to get up in the morning, suddenly I wanted to be what they were. I wanted to have what they had. Suddenly I understood what I was missing.
I close my bedroom door, sit on my bed, pull my knees up to my chest, and shut my eyes. In my mind, I picture a teenage girl standing at a makeshift altar at the front of a small basement arranged like a church.
Her lips move in silent prayer as tears stream down her face. Tom Shaffer, a visiting evangelist from Texas, lays hands on her, his ostrich-skin cowboy boots spread hip-width apart, firmly planted on the concrete floor, his pudgy fingers pressing down into her hair. His words are so loud, he doesn’t need a microphone in this small sanctuary. He hardly needs one when he preaches in the VFW or Oddfellow’s hall, either.
“Repeat this prayer after me,” Tom says. “Heavenly Father, I want to receive this power that Jesus spoke of. I ask you now to baptize me in the Holy Ghost.” The girl repeats, timidly at first, but getting louder with each sentence. “I say by faith that I receive Him now in all His fullness, and as the believers did on the day of Pentecost, I will speak in tongues as the Spirit gives me utterance.”
The people in the congregation pray with Tom. Those close to the girl place their hands on her shoulders. Those further away reach out toward the girl, as if sending waves of blessings to her through their outstretched hands. The air is thick with the murmur of prayers, as every person in the room concentrates on the girl and her desire to grow closer to God.
The girl starts sobbing now, her words are jumbled, she is ready to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Tom releases her head from his grip, and with a quick flip of the wrist, pops her on the forehead with the heel of his right hand. “In the NAME of Jesus, recEIVE ye the HOly Ghost!” he shouts. The girl shudders, her knees buckle, and she starts to fall. A man standing behind her catches her and gently lowers her to the ground; a woman standing to her side straightens the skirt around the girl’s legs. The girl is praying loudly now, but her words are not English. She has been baptized in the Holy Ghost and has received the gift of tongues. Oblivious to the people around her and the rest of the service, she is in communion with God, speaking in words only He can understand.
The congregation sighs in relief. “Praise the Lord!” several people shout at once. “Amen!” echoes across the small room. A few women jingle tambourines and dance in the aisle between the rows of metal folding chairs as Tommy and Chris start playing their guitars. “Glory to God!” “Hallelujah!”
In my bedroom, I imagine that the girl is me. I desperately want to be baptized in the Holy Ghost. No-one knows if I speak in tongues yet or not—not my mother, not Katie or Jimmy, not Tom—and I am embarrassed to admit that I can’t. As badly as I want it, I know I will never get hands laid on me in church. There’s no way I would be able to get up from my back-row seat and walk all the way up the aisle to the altar to be anointed. My feet would freeze to the floor; I would forget how to walk. I shudder just thinking about it in the privacy of my own bedroom.
I open my eyes and reach for the Bible on the floor beside my bed. I flip it open to the second chapter of Acts and begin reading at verse 1.
1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
I know the Lord wants to bless me with the gifts of His Spirit. I know that I love Jesus with all of my heart. I know that I am ready. I breathe deeply, opened my mouth, and whisper “I love you Jesus. I want to receive your power in my life. I open my heart to you. Please fill me with the Holy Ghost.” I wait.
That night, nothing happened, but I didn’t give up.
I don’t even remember how I changed, but at the beginning of 1976, I was a smart-ass, rebellious teenager and at the end I was a goody two-shoes Christian. At the beginning of the year I wanted to go roller skating with my girlfriends from school, at the end I only wanted to hang out with Jimmy and Katie, or with adults who were more fanatical than I was. At the beginning of the year, I wanted to skip ahead and take calculus and physics. At the end of the year, I quit biology to take music theory and what I wanted more than anything was to be able to speak in tongues.
Looking back, the periods of change in my life are foggy. It’s hard to remember how I morphed from nominal Christian to fanatic and, later, how I changed from true believer to agnostic to atheist. I look through my old journals from time to time, trying to unlock the clues. Lately I’ve been talking to old Christian friends on facebook, trying to awaken dormant memories. I haven’t remembered as much about my changes as I want to, but I have remembered my good friends and the good times that I had when I was a Christian. For a while, under the influence of the writings of the “new” atheists and the media attention given to ridiculous caricatures of Christians like Fred Phelps and James Dobson, I had forgotten everything positive about my past experiences.
I am just as certain today that God does not exist as I was that Jesus was the Lord of All when I was in my teens and twenties. Today, however, my own certainty does not carry with it the need to convince or convert others. Nor does it carry with it a mandate to save the world. Although I never would have chosen to stop believing, I am happy with the place where I find myself today. I can accept that people, seeing the same evidence, do not all come to the same conclusions. I can enjoy the company of my Christian friends again, even though I have no desire or intention to “return to the fold.”