I have mixed emotions about treading this particular “Holiness” path. As a newbie to Christianity, I’m worried about witnessing fervent displays of faith. I feel it’s akin to sitting in on a stranger’s therapy session or watching from the gallery of an operating room—you’re witnessing an intensely private moment. Except in this case, the subject not only knows there will be spectators but welcomes them. Part of the point is to demonstrate to others the work of the Holy Spirit. All of which is perhaps okay except…what if the spectacle becomes particularly freaky? What if the patient struggles with multiple personalities or the surgery is gory open heart? What if people are jabbering uncontrollably up and down the church aisles? Is it too much for an innocent bystander? Or, more frightening still, what if the Holy Spirit grabs ahold of me?
Already, I’ve discovered that one of the best friends I’ve made since moving to my new town was, until recently, one of them: a Pentecostal. When she told me, I was knocked me off kilter for several moments. I knew she had been a committed church-goer until about five years ago when her devout then-husband ran off with another woman, I just didn’t realize it had been that kind of church. Today she’s a card-carrying None. A few years ago she was speaking in tongues. Is it really such a fine line?
So I start off gently, with a Church of the Nazarene, which is a type of Holiness church that doesn’t do “speaking in tongues,” the spontaneous ability to utter a foreign language. I imagine putting my finger to the patient’s wrist to take a pulse. Unlike others with a steady rate, this one calms and quickens, calms and quickens over and over. It begins slowly with announcements and hymns. Then the preacher says we are entering prayer time and a handful of people approach the altar to kneel, their arms wrapped around their neighbors’ shoulders. Others raise their palms into the air. When the preacher says, “God put you here to lift you up,” the rate spikes. A man cries, “Yes!” and several others shout, “Amen!” A similar thing happened in the middle of an Episcopal service I attended several weeks earlier, but with a much more awkward result. A woman blurted “Amen!” from the back row and everyone turned to look at her and smile. Here, the exclamations rise up unacknowledged, par for the course. The pace slows for a Bible reading and then the preacher says, “God hates lukewarm—he likes his church hot!” Shouts of “amen” ripple through the congregation like exclamation points at the end of his statement and I can almost feel the temperature in the sanctuary rise.
The next week I try a Pentecostal service. The church is the size and shape of a double wide trailer. It’s located just out of town on the side of the freeway in the shadow of a grain silo. Inside, where fewer than 20 people are gathered, I sense the relaxed vibe of familiarity. A sullen, stud-adorned teenager drapes herself across an entire row. It’s hard to imagine these laid-back congregants wound up with Spirit.
At the front of the room are two women: a keyboard player and a singer with a microphone. Is amplification necessary in such a small space? My guess is no, but the woman holds it earnestly, speaking into it with such sincerity that I sense to her it is no less than the ear of God…