Sunday, August 17, 2014

A New Religious Experience

As many of you know, I worked as a camp counselor at Bethelwoods Camp and Conference Center in York, SC, this summer. The week of July 4th, we had a different sort of camp experience. The high school youth program of Covenant Love Church in Fayetteville, NC, brought about 150 high school students to camp Saturday-Tuesday.

They had been setting up at the end of the previous week, and I could hear their worship team practicing in Horton Lodge late into the night every night. It sounded like we had a concert or huge music festival at camp, something I've never heard in my 15 years at Bethelwoods.

I had heard that this was a different sort of church, different from my strong Presbyterian roots or anything I had ever experienced before. I was a little skeptical about what this would mean, but I was open to showing extreme Christian hospitality to a group that was using our facilities.

We would help to serve them meals and facilitate activities for the kids each afternoon. Many of the leaders were college students, like me, who cared about sharing God's love with youth, like me. They had a passion for the kids and for the ministry they were doing, like me. However, the youth and leaders were also different. This was the first time I could truly be a fly on the wall and observe a truly multicultural and multiracial church. I saw so many different tints of pigmentation that were not simply fair, pale, or tan. It was a breath of fresh air to see what the Church could be. Clearly, it was a successful ministry. How else do you convince 150 high schoolers from all different backgrounds to go to a camp three hours away for a few days to be outside and, you know, learn about Jesus and stuff like that? Crazy talk.

Monday night was the final night of worship, and a few of the staff decided to head over to at least check out this contemporary and charismatic worship service we had heard so much about. I was open to what would happen because I can find nothing but benefit from experiencing different religions or expressions of faith; however, I came to the service with a certain amount of skepticism. I was open but ready to critique and analyze anything I saw.

We lingered toward the back as the worship team played songs and the words were projected onto a screen. So far it was a typical contemporary service. The folding chairs were filled. People swayed with the music with their hands at various levels in the air, and a group of youth were at the front jumping up and down, sometimes yelling and screaming, worshipping together as if they were at a concert. Again, not my personal preference of worship method, but I was not there to judge. If I want to take myself seriously in any form of interfaith dialogue, I know I need to be open to experiencing Christian traditions that are not my own. It was with this attitude that I began to observe and then participate in the worship service.

As I read the words on the screen, I could find no fault, theological, factual, or spiritual, in them. We sang, asking the Holy Spirit to be in this space of worship. I agree with that. We sang, asking the Holy Spirit to break down our walls so that we could fully experience the Spirit's presence. We all have walls and barriers that we need to allow God to break down. We sang about God's love and our love for God. That's a pretty key foundation of my faith. So far, I was feeling pretty comfortable.

Then, the music continued in the background, and leaders of the church came into the crowd to pray with/over worshipers. A leader would talk with the person very closely before asking to pray for them, always asking consent. Another person would move chairs and other obstacles out of the way and stand ready to spot the person if/when they fell to the ground. I was amazed by what was happening. It seemed as though everyone ended up on the ground in positions that seemed unnatural to me. I was somewhat skeptical of this because I did not, and still do not, fully understand the theology behind this practice. At the same time, my heart yearned for someone to come pray over me. Even if I had never experienced prayer in this way, it was still apparent that it was powerful.

Eventually, the leaders made it back to our safe counselor corner. They knew that we had just drifted into the service and probably had never experienced worship and prayer like this before. Eventually, one of the leaders made his way to me and asked if he could pray for me. I said sure. He told me that I didn't know why I had wandered into their service but that God had called me to be here for this experience on this particular night. I should write this down that night (Monday, June 30th, 2014) and make sure to tell people what God did for and through me that night.

Well, I'm about 6 weeks late, but I think it still counts.

I still did not know exactly what this night held in store for me. He held my head and a woman had her arm on my upper chest/shoulder area. Both of them prayed over me with such conviction, and yes, sometimes they spoke in tongues. I did not fall backwards or lay down on the ground. I did feel an intense spiritual presence in this time, though. I cannot explain it, but I believed his words.

After they had a chance to get to each of the staff, the youth pastor gathered us and thanked us for coming to check out their worship even though it may be strange and/or different from our comfort zone of worship. He was not speaking some crazy talk. He had biblical passages to support his arguments, but he was not pushy. It was actually quite comforting.

Later in the service, I felt myself becoming quite emotional. It was clear that God was telling me something. I moved to a chair, sat down, and burst into tears. Sometimes God puts things on your heart that you are not ready or willing to face. God was telling me to face my fears and anxieties about my year serving in the Philippines. I cried and cried. This was the first time that I had actually allowed myself to think about the tragic possibilities of my year of service. I could be swept away in a typhoon. I could fall off a jeepney and die. I could miss a significant life event in my friends' or families' lives in a year. I could find it difficult to do my work or lose sight of God or feel absolutely and completely alone in a new culture. I could get sick from food or some virus to which my body is not accustomed. I knew that no matter what, God would (and will be) with me through any and all of these scenarios, and that I would never be alone truly. However, this was my time to acknowledge these fears that I had pushed out of my mind whenever I thought about the Philippines or anyone asked me if I was scared. After I cried it out, I remained in my seat to continue to observe the service.

I didn't know what I was going to get into as I watched the next part of the service. They started talking about Baptism in the Holy Spirit and how certain people receive this gift. They asked anyone who wanted to be prayed over to come to the front to meet with a leader. I saw two other staff members, my friends, walk to the front. I decided to go up, but I was just going to watch.

Not quite.

One of the leaders asked me if I was heading to the front. I explained I just wanted to watch. He asked me if I wanted someone to pray over me. Hesitating, I said, "Sure?" He then led me to the front and brought me to a prayer leader. She explained what was going to happen and told me to raise my hands, close my eyes, and let myself be open to the Spirit. I felt a hand on my stomach, my shoulder, and head. I knew multiple people were around me, and I heard lots of speaking in English, as well as other sounds. As I stood there, I tried to be open. I felt my arms kind of go numb, but I could not put them down. I definitely felt a presence of some sort within me. Eventually, I let out something that sounded a bit like the gibberish I speak with my friend Julie. After a while, we stopped praying like that, but I still felt an overwhelming sense of the Spirit. I continued to pray silently.

At the end of the service, they asked all to stand who had been baptized by the Holy Spirit. They also asked for people who had given their lives to Christ and wanted to be baptized. We headed over to the pool, and I lifeguarded for the baptisms of 40 people. Some were students. Some were leaders. Some were re-dedications, Some were for the first time.

Now is this fully in line with my personal theology and faith? Does it really matter? It was clear that a religious experience occurred during that worship service. Hopefully, that will lead to lives changed for the better in order to further God's will in this world. That is what matters.

I am still a skeptic, but in that night, I experienced God in a new way. Nothing can change my mind about that. I believe I will have to take this understanding and expand it on a case-by-case basis. For this instance, though, I could find no theological fault with the preachings and teachings. I did not observe anyone forced into anything or any condescending tones if people did not have the same experiences. I observed and participated in a group of people worshipping God in a way that was different from what I normally do. I now have a newfound respect for different expressions of worship to the Triune God.

No comments:

Post a Comment