God in a Strange Place



I was nineteen. I’d finished my first year of college and came home to find that my church was in turmoil, an old wineskin being filled with new wine.

The church I attended since I was six had always discouraged words like Holy Spirt, saved and born again. The church put a premium on making the congregation feel comfortable, not spiritually challenged.

From where I sit today, it seems like a travesty and an utter waste of God’s resources. But there is a place for such gateway churches, places where people can come and learn about God and the Bible before they receive the Holy Spirit. The trick is not to get so stuck in that spiritual comfort zone that we never get out.

The new minister challenged that spiritual comfort zone, using words like Holy Spirit, saved and born again. The agitated congregation pushed back with words like he doesn’t understand us, he doesn’t know who we are and we want him moved to a different church.

In the midst of this storm, the pastor’s wife took over running the youth group. As soon as she did so, all the high school youth and experienced youth counselors stopped showing up. She was left with a handful of middle schoolers.

During her first summer as youth director she decided to take the kids to a Bible Camp. It had been a blessing to her when she was teenager and she wanted the kids to have the same benefit. But she could only get one chaperon, a mother of one of the kids, and she felt that she needed a male chaperon as well. At nineteen I was barely qualified to chaperon a dog, and certainly not 7th graders, but I went anyway.

Take suburban youth from a marginally spiritual congregation and throw them into a charismatic Bible camp in rural Georgia and you get culture shock. I was certainly in culture shock. People were raising their hands, shouting amen and the charismatic pastors were very different than anyone I’d ever heard. I don’t know if previous years had been as intense, but during that week we were getting up at seven and going to bed after midnight.

I believed then, and still believe, that the vast majority of the counselors and staff were born-again Christians doing their very best to introduce the kids to Jesus Christ. But their keynote speaker, the man who preached twice a day and sometimes exceeded his scheduled time by more than two hours, struck me as wrong from the get-go. He was intense, unrelenting, and definitely violating my spiritual comfort zone.

At first I tried to dismiss my misgivings by reminding myself that it was just a difference in styles of our preaching and worship. By Tuesday I was uncomfortable enough that I wanted to pack up, take all of our kids and go home. I felt like something was pushing me to leave, to flee from danger. On Wednesday he started saying weird things like, “stop reading your Bibles, stop talking to your counselors and just focus on me and what I’m saying.”

I talked to our youth director immediately after the morning sermon and shared my discomfort. She listened to me and agreed that what he was saying was a little disturbing, but she dismissed my discomfort by saying that it was just a different culture of Christianity. There was no way that she could have taken our kids home early. If our church members heard even a whiff of a rumor that she took the kids to a camp where the preacher was “talking crazy,” her tenure as youth director would be over and her husband’s position as pastor would be threatened.

Wednesday evening and Thursday morning were epic struggles. I didn’t want to make a scene, but the Holy Spirit was pushing me harder and harder to leave. My level of discomfort was very intense.

Thursday night I got up and walked out of the sermon. The counselors, the grown-up ones from Georgia, were alarmed. They thought I was one of the youth; there was only a year’s difference between me and the oldest youth. They told me that I had to go back in. I said I wasn’t going to. They said I could either go back in immediately or go home immediately. I picked up the phone and called my mom in Florida. I was explaining that I needed the impossible, to be home that very night, when our youth director walked in, took the phone and told my mom that I was having trouble with the sermon, and that she would talk to me.

We went to the church van and started talking. Explaining the promptings of Holy Spirit seemed impossible. I talked about doctrine, words and feelings. I couldn’t explain how endangered I felt by that preacher. The youth director was unconvinced, and I felt that everything would keep going on as it was. I was only a chaperon, powerless to change anything.

Then another camp counselor came by, sobbing uncontrollably. The preacher had opened spiritual wounds from her childhood and made her feel like she didn’t belong in God’s kingdom. She joined us; we talked and prayed. What was unconvincing from me alone became very convincing when there were two of us. Our youth director, the sobbing counselor and I decided we needed to talk to the camp’s directors.

As can be expected, the directors were less than enthused to hear from us at midnight. They talked about how the preacher was “breaking new ground” in his church and how we owed them more than to just pack up and leave. In the end they insisted that we talk to the preacher face to face.

The pastor, his wife and the camp directors met with the three of us in a small room. The sobbing counselor talked about how the sermons made her feel and the sorrow they caused. Next, our youth director spoke about how she had the gift of discernment and how she was convinced that there was something wrong. The preacher never blinked through their comments.

Then it was me, the nineteen-year-old “chaperon.” The preacher stared at me with intense eyes. I returned his gaze as I spoke. I tried to defend myself from the inference that I was only upset because of the cultural gulf between charismatic rural Georgia and stuffy suburban Jacksonville.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s charismatic or not. What is important is that it is of God,” I said.

I was completely unprepared for what came next. The preacher kept his gaze on me and asked point blank, “Can you forgive me?”

A more seasoned Christian would have said Yes because we are quick to say we forgive. But I didn’t know, and still don’t know, what I was supposed to forgive.

I said, “I have nothing to forgive. It is a matter of trust. We need to trust that you are giving the message God sent you to deliver.”

We left, and I went to sleep uncertain if the preacher with the intense eyes had heard me or changed. I only know that I said the words the Holy Spirit had given me.

The next morning the preacher abandoned his theme of “Being Desperate for God.” He talked about God’s grace and love, and how blessed he was that God had given him his wife and her love. After that final sermon the preacher and his wife sought me out and thanked me–again for something I didn’t completely understand.

God did something there, something good, and he used me to do part of it. The Holy Spirit may call us in our distress, even while we feel powerless against the might, wisdom and conventions of our world. When I was powerless, the Holy Spirit filled another counselor with her pain and sent her to me at just the right moment. Together we could confirm and reinforce what the Holy Spirt had been telling us, and we could change our world.

Is there a time when the Holy Spirit filled you with distress, urged you to cry out, and you felt powerless?

Is there a time when you cried out, and He sent you a brother or sister to cry with you?

And when two or more of you are gathered together, maybe crying together, isn’t He with you, and can’t you change the world?

Wilderness Baptism

In the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college I volunteered at a missionary training camp in northeast Alabama. If I mentioned the nearest town, people would ask, “Where is that?” And I would have to say, “In the middle of nowhere.”

My main job was to work with the various youth groups who would come on mission trips for a week. Most of that work took place in the Third World garden, where we practiced growing food in a Third World setting, without pesticides, machinery or store-bought fertilizer. We made a lot of fertilizer through composting, mixing dung with soy leaves and letting it cook. Weeding was also at the top of our list. Sometimes we rounded up chickens, picked plums, or dodged geese determined to drive us off. It was hard work but it only lasted for a couple hours between breakfast and lunch.

The highlight of the week was Thursday evenings when we brought youth groups down to the model Third World village. It had no electricity and no running water. The only sleeping accommodations were hammocks. We cooked rice and beans over an open fire and rewarmed it for breakfast.

I never figured out how to sleep in a hammock. After dinner I would stake out one of the wooden benches, put my sleeping bag on it and doze on and off until morning. It was a stark lesson on how most of the world lives, and we taught it every Thursday night.

The camp was never short of interesting people. Former communist revolutionaries from Bolivia, couples who’d spent their lives as missionaries in Nepal, French-speaking missionaries from Mali and, of course, Ken and Sarah Carson, the directors, who spent more than ten years as missionaries in the Bolivian jungles. One of their most vivid stories was of how they’d been living on mildewed rice for so long that their children started eating cockroaches in protest. Every week there would be someone else from a different part of the world with a different story.

During the week I had little free time. The other volunteer and I got up before five to help cook breakfast. Then we would work in the garden until lunchtime. Then there was a bit of program after lunch, and we’d be back for dinner. Sometimes, maybe a lot of times, we’d be with the youth group in the evenings for Bible Studies or whatever they were doing.

From what I understand, we had it easy. Every previous summer they’d worked the kids and the volunteers in the afternoon as well. The problem was that it was so hot that they needed to buy Gatorade so the kids wouldn’t get sick. In the end they decided that the work the kids did in the afternoon wasn’t worth the cost of Gatorade.

Once the kids left on Saturday mornings the camp became a ghost town. The kitchen was closed, and the fulltime staff was gone until Sunday night. I lived in what we called the glass bottle house made of mortar with glass bottles stuck in the walls so light could get into it during the day. It had no electricity, no running water, and was closer to the Third World village than the main buildings. But watching a lightning storm through those bottles was worth whatever inconvenience. On the rare occasions when I did drive my car out to the ridge above the house, I could literally roll down my window and pick blackberries without getting out of my car.

That summer was a time of incredible spiritual growth for me. I experienced the Holy Spirit on a regular basis. During the week I was surrounded by mature Christians who had given, were giving, or were expected to give their lives for Christ. During the weekends I took up the disciplines of prayer, Bible study and fasting. The fasting was more a matter of convenience. To get food I would have had to walk out of the woods, get in my car and drive for half an hour to get the food and another half-hour to get back. I usually made a foray on Saturdays, but I would fast from sundown on Saturday nights until the evening meal on Sunday when the next youth group came in.

One Sunday morning I woke up absolutely convinced that the Holy Spirit was telling me to be baptized again. In human terms that was a somewhat difficult proposition. I couldn’t remember my home church ever baptizing an adult and certainly not baptizing someone who’d already been baptized as an infant. But I made my way to the side of the river and started upstream. I was praying the whole way, seeking an inspiration on how I could baptize myself. After a twenty-five minute walk I was sure that I couldn’t do it alone. I started back.

Five minutes later I found myself in the middle of the river with no idea how I’d gotten there.

I guess I could have slipped, or “accidently on purpose” slipped, and forgotten the moment. But that day I felt that God said, “So you want to be baptized?” and shoved me into the middle of the river.

Since then, I’ve never worried about being baptized. If I am willing to trust my Christian community and accept the urging of the Holy Spirit, I am born again. Every day, God shoves me into the river.