I nudged Lacey with an elbow and hissed in her ear. “A little suggestive for church, don’t you think?”
Lacey didn’t respond except for to close her eyes and sing more loudly along with the worship music.
With drums, video clips and a light show, the worship service was like a rock concert compared to the formal liturgy accompanied by pipe organ at Blessed Redeemer Lutheran back home. I joined in the clapping on the first few songs, and even swayed and moved my feet a little to the groove of the beat, though it felt a little sacrilegious to dance in church.
Then the band slowed the pace. The worship leader, a man with a comb-over and a sweater vest, cried out some unintelligible phrases, drawing a huge response from the congregation. Lacey and everyone else in the room but me murmured “Hallelujah,” and “Praise you, Jesus,” and lifted their hands in the air. A few older women waved flags printed with pithy slogans as the music continued in a hypnotic repeating pattern. Still the worship leader spoke, uttering words in a language I didn’t recognize. One man near the front sank to his knees and fell face to the floor.
Unsettled by the bizarre scene, I stood rigid with hands clasped behind my back. I felt like a voyeur, an unwelcome guest. I’d never been so emotional or passionate about worship like these people were. Was it possible I’d been doing something wrong my whole life?
I couldn’t help but wonder again if I was a “real” Christian, whatever that meant. Back when I was five or six, I thought that my family was very close to God. We went to church every Sunday. We prayed before (almost) every meal, and to me, that’s what a Christian was.
Did I say we prayed before every meal? I’m not sure it counts. It was just the trite recitation of the old Lutheran favorite. We three girls would holler and jostle around the table, but when Daddy said, “Let’s pray,” suddenly everyone would settle down and say in a sing-song cadence:
Come Lord JesusBe our guest
And let thy gifts to us be blest
… and then we would dig in. The fact that Jesus died to give us the privilege to talk directly to God was pretty much forgotten about until the next day when we all sat down to dinner again. There were exceptions though. No prayer in restaurants, or when Daddy was out of town. Somehow macaroni and cheese or pancakes for dinner didn’t rate inviting Lord Jesus to be our guest either.
Of course, there were a few other times when we Gottliebs prayed. At church, toward the end of the service, the pastor would get up and face the altar and intone formal prayers that always began with lofty phrases such as “Almighty and everlasting God, since…” and when he got to the part when he said, “Lord in your mercy” we’d respond with “hear our prayer.” Finally he would wrap up with the line, “as you taught us to pray” and the congregation would launch into a sing-song recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. My whole understanding of prayer in a nutshell: formal words brought out and used at specific times, under the leadership of a parent, teacher or pastor. The concept of personal prayer was utterly foreign until the summer I stayed with my Mom’s sister.
The first night there, Aunt Martha prompted me to start saying the grace at dinner. I parroted the little sing-song poem, and was bewildered when each of my cousins in turn continued the prayer by telling God one thing they were thankful for about their day and one thing they needed. They didn’t exactly talk to Jesus like he was an ordinary person in the room, but they made him sound a whole lot closer than someone who had to be implored to “let thy gifts to us be blest.” I felt left out.
Later that night, I overheard Aunt Martha talking to Uncle Vince. “Didn’t that sister of mine raise the child to know Jesus? It’s no wonder what with her married to a Lutheran of all things. I always said it was a mistake for her to marry him. That church of his is so stuffy it would suffocate anyone’s faith. I’m sure the Lord has a few souls in that dreary place, but there can’t be many.”
At bedtime, Aunt Martha tried to teach me how to pray properly, but it was no use. I couldn’t forget what she had said. If I gave in and prayed her way, it would be tantamount to admitting my parents and the church I loved were wrong. The rest of the summer, I stubbornly refused to join in the evening grace or bedtime prayers, earning the nickname of “little heathen” when they thought I was out of earshot. Ever since then, I’ve never felt like I could be sure whether or not I was a “real Christian” or just a “little heathen” like they said.
As worship ended, the cavernous hall echoed with the din of the congregation settling into the rows of padded folding chairs that served as pews. An elderly man in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt climbed the steps leading up to the platform in front of the members of the praise team, who were still clearing away their equipment.
“Thank you, Brother George, for giving us that refreshing outpouring of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “I’m Brother Thomas, senior pastor of Main Street Fellowship. I see old and new faces here today. For those of you returning to campus, welcome back. For those of you just arriving, thank you for joining us. We hope you come again.”
We sat only one row back from the stage. Brother Thomas paced as he spoke, and came to a stop immediately in front of us.
His intense blue eyes bored into me. “It’s no accident that God brought you here today,” he continued, not moving or even blinking. “Someone here needs a deeper experience of Jesus. Someone here needs to be made holy. Someone here needs to confess her sins and be washed in the blood of the Lamb. This is the place for all that and more. The Spirit says ‘Come.’”
He closed his eyes and led the congregation in a long rambling prayer, his wrinkled arms stretched to heaven. I barely paid attention. Had Brother Thomas really been speaking directly to me? Or was that my guilty imagination?
At the end of the prayer, Brother Thomas began a simple sermon about eternal security. I grabbed a pen out of my purse and took notes in the margins of the bulletin. My spidery scrawl covered every inch of available white space long before the message came to a halt. Putting my pen aside, I leaned forward, resting elbows on the back of the chair in front of me, chin in hand.
That’s when I noticed that the left side of my jaw ached.
I straightened up in the seat and ran fingers over every millimeter of flesh between ear and chin to discern the source of the pain. A lump, just in front of the bony outcropping of the mandible joint. It was small, no bigger than a sesame seed, but undeniably there. Was it something bad? No, that was unlikely. More likely a swollen lymph node. I was probably just fighting off the summer cold that had made its way from Mom to Kirsten to Ruth on our trip east.
Brother Thomas raised his voice to emphasize a point, bringing me back to the moment. Of all the places in the world, here in church, in God’s very presence, wasn’t the place to worry. “Cast your cares on the Lord,” had been my confirmation verse. So, after making a mental note to see a doctor if the tiny lump didn’t clear up on its own, I willed myself to leave it alone and refocus on the conclusion of the preacher’s message.
“The only way to have eternal security,” he said, “is to confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord. ‘Confess with your mouth,’ it says. Silent prayer just isn’t enough. Even if you think you’re already saved, even if you were baptized as a baby, if you’re wondering at all today about the reality of your salvation, there’s only one way to answer that question once and for all. You must stand up, come to the altar, and confess Jesus as Lord this very day!”
I stood up.
It was worth the humiliation if I could just be sure. I was tired of wondering if I was a little heathen. Maybe Lacey was right and infant baptism wasn’t enough. It would make sense if the reason I’d been unable to keep that purity vow was because I wasn’t really saved.
I wanted to feel born again. The right words said now, as long as I followed the preacher’s instructions exactly, would surely be what I needed to feel Jesus in my heart and have more willpower. Then I could keep mind and body pure once and for all.