Saturday, September 28, 2013

Thawing chosen?

I don't know how familiar you are with Protestant denominations, but Presbyterians are often referred to as "the frozen chosen," and their church services feature few, if any, audibles outside of group readings or songs. On the other hand, Charismatics (often, but not only Pentecostals), are known for demonstrative speech and action during services. 
In keeping with those descriptions, I often feel as though I am a Presbyterian with a Charismatic trapped inside; I struggle to find the words to express with intensity and clarity what I am thinking. I let slip the actual and proverbial "Amen!" from time to time when I manage to break free from my frozenness, both literally and literarily. However, all too often I just feel trapped.

It’s one thing to feel like I’m a Charismatic trapped in a Presbyterian’s body. It’s quite another thing to know that I’m a Presbyterian and I’m trapped in a Charismatic church.
            Going to church is something that I do on a regular basis. I was raised in the church, as they say, with my attendance expected at the weekly prayer meeting, Sunday school, and morning and evening services on the Lord’s Day. Our religious exercise was to participate faithfully in the “life of the church.” I was taught the Bible from my earliest days, and my parents practiced what they preached. Sundays were reserved “for the Lord,” and no unnecessary work or leisure was undertaken on that day. 
            As I grew and matured, I took greater pleasure in going to church, but I increasingly felt stifled. My heart soared on the wings of eagles, but visible and physical expression of religious fervor was frowned upon in the Presbyterian church; that kind of behavior was only done by Pentecostals and some Baptists. No raising of hands in worship or saying a hearty “A-men!” for me. No, sir. Just the steady four-four beat of hymns, with silent, stoic faces during the preaching.
            During my college years in the South, I found some freedom. I discovered that some Presbyterians acted more like Pentecostals in worship. They clapped as they sang to the beat of drums, electronic piano and electric guitars. They offered “A-men!” or “Hallelujah!” or “Preach it!” when so moved by the Spirit. The preacher even encouraged such exclamations and on one occasion he acknowledged that some of us might come from church traditions that made this a foreign experience: “I am sure that some of you sit there all quiet on the outside, but on the inside you’re ‘A-menning’ all over the place!”
            With time, I overcame my hesitations and learned to speak up. Timid at first, I was soon hollerin’ with the best of ‘em. Well, it felt like I was hollering. I was probably speaking just above a whisper, but I could tell my inner Charismatic was being unleashed from its Presbyterian shell!
            A number of years later, I was back in my home church, working for a local Christian school as the headmaster. One of my responsibilities was to visit area churches to talk about the school and try to get people to enroll their children there. I had matured a bit from my rambunctiously religious youth, but still considered myself something of a closet Charismatic, the more gracious name given to exuberant congregations in Christendom. In reality, though, I had really become something of a square in public circles, not wanting to offend prospective families by exhibiting pretentious religious airs.
            Several years into my position at the school, I gained entrance to a Charismatic church not far from the school. I knew that an older couple from my home church had been attending evening services there owing to the close proximity to their home and to their increasingly limited mobility. When the wife had passed away, the pastor of the Charismatic church had attended her memorial service, and I had met him there. A couple of families from his church attended the school where I worked, so I was glad to make an official visit on behalf of the school. What I got was an education.
            I sat near the front so that when I was called upon I could make my way to the podium quickly, deliver my presentation, and be a visible reminder of who I was and why I was there. I shouldn’t have. I should have found a place in the back, near the door, where I could monitor my display or pack up and run as soon as necessary.
            Much of the music was unfamiliar to me, though they did manage to sing one or two choruses of something I knew. The Bible passage that was read for the sermon was familiar, too, and I was eager to hear what the preacher would say about it. As he spoke, he quickly became animated and excited. He began to thump the pulpit with his hand, emphasizing the glory of the Lord with each bang. His voice rose in pitch and volume and I began to sense he was reaching his point.
            Suddenly, he called out, “lsmfpaoijopbarllduboarar! Hallelujah!” and shuddered. “Glory be to God on high! Glory be to God on high! Hallelujah!” Right then and there, I knew I had heard a man who believed he was speaking in tongues, which is about as Charismatic as a fellow can get. I felt very Presbyterian from that moment to the end of the service.
            I don’t remember much else from that point on, besides the men and women all around me calling out, “Hallelujah! Thank you, Je-sus! GlorybetoGodonhigh!” and so on. The preacher went on and completed his message, but for the life of me, I don’t know what he said.
            After the service, a friend from the congregation approached me. “So, what did you think of our services? Have you ever heard someone speak in tongues before? I bet that’s a new experience for you!”
            “It, uh, was a nice service. And you’re right, I’ve never heard anyone speak in tongues before.” I’m totally freaked out and ready to get out of here, if you really want to know, but I have a job to do.
            “So, what did you think? You must’ve thought the preacher was going crazy or something.”
            “Uh, no, I kind of figured out what was going on. Um… .” Keep your voice level and don’t betray your concerns for what happened here today.
            “What did you think of it?”
            “Well, to be honest with you, it was a bit unsettling.” That was the understatement of the year. “Unsettling” was right on; “a bit” really should have been “tremendously.” How to say that to this friend, though?
            “I bet it was! I wish I could’ve seen the look on your face at that moment. Ha! I bet they don’t do that at your Presbyterian church, do they?”
            “Yeah, it would’ve been quite a sight, I think. And you’re right, speaking in tongues is not done at Presbyterian churches.” If you do it there, you’d better have an interpreter handy, or you’ll get tossed out on your ear.
            “Why not? Don’t you believe in speaking in tongues?”
            “Well, uh, speaking in tongues is not really part of our worship services because we believe that when a person speaks in tongues publicly someone else needs to interpret it right away. I, uh, was expecting someone to stand up and, uh, interpret what the pastor said this morning. Did you know what he was saying?” I’m ready to pack up my stuff and be on my way.
            “I see. No, I just know he does that sort of thing all the time. You never know when the Spirit’s gonna move, you know. Hey, Pastor! Come on over here! He’s never heard anyone speak in tongues before.”
            “Hello, Pastor. Thank you for inviting me here today.” Is my fake smile fooling you?
            “You’re welcome. Glad to have you with us. I remember meeting you at that funeral last year. So you go to the Presbyterian church, huh? Is it a lot different from ours?”
            Different? Yeah, like a different planet, Pastor. “Eh, you could say that. I mean, we believe the same basics about how to be a Christian and all that, but some practices are different. “ Let’s not have a big theological discussion right now, okay?
            “No speaking in tongues, right? Well, you believe in that ‘once saved, always saved’ stuff, right? Go forward to the altar once and never have to think about obedience to God again?”
            “Nope, no tongues. And we’d really call it the ‘preservation of the saints’, not really ‘once saved, always saved.’ If there’s no evidence that some has repented from sin and turned to Christ then that’s not really ‘saved,’ right? Please, can we stop this theological discussion? It’s a really long road we’re headed down, and I’m becoming less of a Charismatic-trapped-in-a-Presbyterian-body all the time! Oh, good, someone else wants your attention.
            “Well, thanks for coming. You’re doing good work at the school. Keep it up!”
            “Thanks, Pastor. Take care.”

            “You, too. Good-bye.”

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