This post appeared originally on Quiet Anthem on July 25, 2012.
In the space between our freshly washed bed sheets and the soothing summer cold of our bedroom hardwood floor—within the last remaining seconds before lumbering out of bed and trudging to the fridge for Eva’s milk, and laboring up the stairs to the girls’ room to quiet their calls to us from across the house—lingers a decision my husband and I have had to make every Sunday since we arrived in Phoenix: What church do we go to this week, or should we stream Colorado church again?
Greg and I understand the importance of community. I remember our days without church, without friends, without family, in Colorado, when in 2010 our life fell apart. I rushed out of teaching my last fiction workshop of the week—9:15 p.m.—and when I got to the cocoon of my car, I realized I couldn’t go home. I called an international ministry’s hotline, where a woman somewhere on the other side of the country, with a honey drawl and a mama’s admonishing words, prayed to Jesus for me and my tiny family. Strangers become friends even if they remain strangers when our only hope of surviving is because they have prayed.
Because community matters, Greg and I get out of bed and rush the girls through showers and unknotting knots and cooking and eating and cleaning up after a complete breakfast before we punch in an address on the GPS and pull into a parking lot that wraps around way too many buildings.
In Phoenix, there are hundreds of churches—many contain multiple buildings, rendering the site a “campus.” It seems as if every single inhabitant of the city ought to go to church since there’s likely plenty of room between the myriad campuses to accommodate several million people.
Each church has its personality and defining characteristics that Greg and I must examine and discern whether we want to accept as part of our lives.
During our first weekend here, we schlepped to a faraway church (the hub of many Valley-wide campuses). Not only was this church charismatic (tongues, prophecy, dancing, et al), but it was multicultural. These things, for us, are good. However, once we began singing, we also started to cough because the fog machines were evidently on Level “Smoke Out.” The strobe lights (purple in 1980s zig-zag shapes) brought on for me a migraine. Then (there’s more!), a lady stood in the back with us so she could sing in a piercing soprano—entirely off-key.
Between Greg’s and my coughing—and now laughing—it was hard to suck it up (ha) and worship. To the church’s merit, the pastor spoke several encouraging, and one very specific-to-me, words that led me to ask a counselor for prayer. I received some insight into something I’ve been battling and truly feel freed from that issue post-prayer.
We streamed Colorado church the morning of our second weekend.
On the third weekend of our being Phoenicians, we went to a popular nearby church that has an orchestra (!) and impressive children’s programs. We were invited by friends we admire and enjoy, and so we figured we’d give it a shot—if community could come with a church, we were in. However, after fifteen years of my going to churches—from California to England to New York to Colorado—it was this church experience that helped me recognize why I had stayed stuck in hurt and spiritual dysfunction for much longer than was necessary.
Sometimes what works for church doesn’t really work in reality.
This church, with all objectivity, was perfect: there were no fog machines or strobe lights; everyone sang in key (except me, but I sing to myself); the worship set was straightforward; the pastor began and ended his PowerPointed (and printed notes) sermon to the minute. Anyone with a 12:30 lunch reservation would have been appreciative. The sermon contained truths I needed to hear and could apply to current life situations. I was reminded about the love and grace of Jesus. People greeted and waved goodbye to us reassuringly at the door.
There was nothing wrong with this church or any one of the hundreds of churches just like it that I’ve been visiting since the nineties. But as I looked around at the congregants—in flowy sundresses or khaki shorts—I realized this: without the Holy Spirit’s active participation, it doesn’t matter the worship or the sermon or the good intention.
Without the Holy Spirit there to connect with and speak to our hurt—instead of a pastor merely pointing out that Jesus can heal such hurt—church is best left for museums, where God is a distant memory preserved in Corinthian columns and stained glass windows.
For so long as a Christian, I wondered what was wrong with me: why couldn’t I heal from past or present abuse? Why couldn’t I overcome depression and rejection? What was wrong with my relationship with Jesus that He felt so prescriptive, yet so far away?
When I was introduced to the Spirit-filled life, my eyes opened to the Jesus in the Gospels. I met for myself the Jesus who turns and searches through a crowd because a woman—I—had touched His robe. My faith increased when I knew I could hear His voice—He still spoke! And He didn’t just speak through pastors and men appointed to be up front. I as a woman could pray. I could prophesy. I could do more for others not by offering my services in childcare or the kitchen—where my gifts are entirely unfit—but in the pew, where the Holy Spirit highlighted women (and sometimes men) for me to speak to. I could see their pain and I heard God’s response to it.
It took time for me to overcome my fear of tapping on a stranger’s shoulder, but once I did—and after I saw their tears of sweet relief—I realized this is God. I remembered that it was the bold ones—the ones who had tapped on my shoulder, who had escorted me to the back of the church to deliver an insight—who had led me to my ultimate healing from abuse and dysfunction.
I realized this is the church. It’s not merely going and sitting and then getting lunch. Church is going full of the Spirit and doing out of the Spirit to bring the Holy Spirit’s business back to the building.
Sometimes the Charismatics go too far. I know this. I’ve seen the manipulation and control some charismatic churches breed. The fog machine, perhaps, is an physical beseeching to a spiritual/emotional need.
And I know the serenity of liturgy and tradition in church—with the columns and stained glass—isn’t merely precious. I’ve experienced the awe of God—His overwhelming existence—in the raised ceilings of a cathedral.
But sometimes fundamentalists and evangelicals don’t go far enough. They keep to a schedule because of necessary order; they fill the biblically stated roles to remain theologically sound; they remind us of Jesus without showing us Jesus, not because they don’t want to but perhaps because they don’t know how.
The second Sunday here we may have streamed church in the morning, but in the evening we decided to attend a physical church. This church, too, followed all the rules of worship sets and sermon length. It was an engaging time of worship followed by an inspiring sermon. An “Amen!” escaped me—entirely too loudly—before I had a chance to realize it had left my tongue. Everything about the church was sound: Biblically solid; culturally diverse; rhetorically educated. Greg and I were satisfied.
As the service wrapped up, I looked across the room and received a bit of knowledge about a young man running sound. After the service, I approached him and asked him if I could speak to him. He nodded, and so I did. His eyes teared up and then he looked at me, “How did you do that?”
I explained to him about recognizing the nudge of the Spirit—that small voice that’s so scary at first because the knowledge it offers is too raw, too personal. It’s too much to approach a stranger across a room and risk being wrong.
But it’s too much to know a thing about a person and to have God’s healing for them shut up in your bones. The weight of regret for not telling a person what they deserve to hear is heavy.
I’m thankful for grace.
I looked at the man and asked him if he, too, had the gift. I gave him that knowing look, the one a mother bird must show her fledgling before she nudges him off the highest branch.
The man nodded and said, “Maybe. But how do I do it?”
“You listen,” I said. “And then you speak.”
He thanked me for the encouragment, the one that spoke to his depression and reminded him that God is going to answer his prayer. For, you see, it was Father’s Day that Sunday and this man had no father. When I approached him I spoke the words, “God calls you ‘son,’” and neither he nor I could have known in the back of that sanctuary what the Holy Spirit was after—for a son and a daughter to hear His voice, to know He still speaks, to believe He is here to heal.
It was church.