It's Billy Graham's Fault
Why I Love Pentecostals
I was sixteen when Henry invited me to go to church with him and his family. If I came along with them, he said, his mother wouldn't object to our hanging around together.
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He said the people at his Assembly of God church got possessed by the Holy Spirit. The thought of people possessed gave me the creeps, and mention of the Holy Spirit reminded me of the God my dad's mom had taught me to fear. But Henry said these possessed people were just crazy, like his mother, and they were fun to watch. As I was reluctant to go, he convinced me to get a taste by spying on a weeknight prayer meeting.
The meetings were held in a small building with a large rear window. I drove us there, entered the parking lot lights out, and we sat waiting for the show to begin. After a couple songs and a brief message about an upcoming picnic, the leader sat and everyone turned to prayer. Soon the action commenced. One by one, about half of the small congregation leapt or heaved themselves up. Some began to sway sideways or back and forth. Hands shot up high. Shouts rang out, as did musical phrases, some in English, some in what Henry's mother called tongues and Henry called gibberish. He was laughing when I noticed the leader had approached the picture window. When he pointed in our direction, Henry yelped, "Let's go."
His mother hadn't attended that night but someone who saw my car described it to her, and she recognized it as mine. Henry got whipped and grounded, and I was no longer welcome at their church, at least not with their family.
The next couple years brought tragedies, strange occurrences, travel, and doubts about most everything, I later reported them in a memoir I call Reading Brother Lawrence. They confounded me so severely that, between my first and second years in college I attended a Billy Graham crusade.
Mr. Graham spoke with such gentle authority I thought maybe he was channeling Jesus. He quoted the prophet Isaiah. "Learn to do good, relieve the oppressed and the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now," he said, "and let us reason together."
He reminded us that the hydrogen bomb had cast its shadowy threat of annihilation over the whole earth. Sooner than we imagined, the basic power of the universe would be given into the hands of mad men. Then, how could our planet avoid destruction?
God wants his children to be happy, Mr. Graham assured us, which is why Christ said we must be born again, so he could give us new moral natures, new affections, new objectives, and new directions.
What planted the hook in me was: according to Mr. Graham, when you make your decision for Christ, you do it for the sake of the nation and the world. A better world requires better nations of better people. Christ can make us into those people.
Over some months, I tried out churches, Congregational, Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, but they all reminded me too much of the Christian Scientist place my dad's mom used to drag me to. Besides, all the churches I visited after the crusade felt rather like required high school classes. I found more compelling answers to my urgent questions in folk music coffee houses. And in churches I often imagined people were trying to recruit me onto their team. Like my dentist, while torturing my mouth with dangerous instruments, told me I needed to enlist in the National Guard.
I was a college junior when I learned about Subud and the practice of the Latihan, a sort of free-form meditation. Men in one room, women in another, we were supposed to shed all thoughts, to open our minds fully and experience whatever came, whether mental or physical. We could stand, sit, walk, run, kneel, lie down, jump, prance, scream, mumble, speak in strange languages, anything. Subud was fun and suited my rambling mind better than any quiet meditation. But a couple years of it seemed to offer all the revelation it ever would. So I moved on to other pursuits: writing obsessively, raising kids, playing softball.
More than a decade passed before I heard God speak. In that famous still small voice, He told me to go to church. I asked which church? He told me to figure it out.
When I mentioned to a friend what God had commanded, she invited me to a Calvary Chapel and I agreed to show up on Sunday. But her church was about twenty miles away and I slept late, and since I knew of a nearby church with a later service, and since I supposed sleeping in wasn't a valid excuse for ignoring a divine order, I dressed and hustled to Faith Chapel.
I had visited Faith Chapel a few times, when my cousin Patti performed in a Christmas musical. During those visits I thought too many people appeared as slick and phony as many sales people do. I hadn't attended any regular services there and had no idea to what Denomination the church belonged.
What I learned that day after I obeyed God's order, and the next Sunday, and the one after that, and so on, was that the preacher, Charlie Gregg, was wise, soft-spoken, and more about reason than bombast. Much like Billy Graham, only shorter. And the denomination was Assembly of God. Decidedly Pentecostal, though rather subdued compared to the prayer meeting Henry took me to witness, or to Subud. And hardly any of the people were slick or phony.
I attended Faith Chapel for maybe a dozen years, until after Pastor Charlie, who moved away for a while then came back, started a new church. This one belonged to no denomination but to me it was Pentecostal. Because most of us came there hoping the Holy Spirit would make an appearance. Besides, whenever someone believed they had a prophecy or message, in English or other language that might be spiritual or gibberish, he or she was welcome to stand up and take the floor.
Our dear friend Olga did that a lot.
By the way, can someone tell me the essential difference between Pentecostals and Charismatics? I'm here.
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