I was invited by an Episcopal (Anglican) priest to teach a house church conference in his Episcopal church, which I thought was a strange, but I went anyway. When I walked into that church with its rich woodwork, orderly pews, altar and the eternal flame up front, memories of my childhood flooded back to me in rapid fire succession like a movie trying to show years of a person’s life in a matter of seconds.
It’s all I knew
“That flame is the presence of the Lord”, was mom’s answer to my question of, “What is that red candle on the wall by the altar?”, as we walked across the back of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Kokomo, Indiana.
I was probably 8 years old if that, and mom was introducing us to church for the first time. As she answered, I was trying to wrap my mind around God living in that building, right there behind the altar, with us just THAT close to Him, while also thinking I could walk up there and blow the candle out – then what would happen to the universe? Would I be struck dead? I didn’t want to think about it.
Part of me wanted to run outside and stop passing cars with the great news that God lived in the church building RIGHT THERE! Part of me wondered why, if this was real, weren’t others running out and stopping passing cars with this exciting news? Something didn’t make sense, I thought to myself.
St. Andrew’s was my introduction to Christianity and church life. We went to church, genuflected before entering our pew, to give respect to Jesus or something, and settled in. In my mind we always made a scene when we went to church each Sunday – 4 kids each born 2 years apart so we looked like perfect stair steps – and everyone turned to see dad lead the way, then mom, then we 4 in birth order.
Older women would smile while I cringed inside. Someone patted me on the head once and I offered a look I thought was part snarling dog and part ‘Yes, I know we’re cute and we’ll make the most of it at fellowship
hour to get an extra donut’.
Things changed, but didn’t
Dad left our family when I was 11 1/2 years old, but mom kept taking us to church each week. The divorce is what drove mom to seek the Lord, and she found Him and the Baptism with the Holy Spirit. Soon, she and her best friend in church were pushing our priest to allow tongues and (heaven forbid), a guitar in worship!
I didn’t know all the infighting that was going on. I knew the liturgy loosened up a bit, allowing a pause at places in the liturgy for members of the congregation to speak out loud their prayer requests. It was scary to a kid because like any traditional church, we were all in pews facing forward, so you never knew where a loud voice was going to come from – behind and right, front and left, the end of your own pew (how embarrassing to be on the same row with someone who spoke out a prayer request!).
I felt like a Londoner in a bomb shelter during the Battle of Britain, never knowing where some bomb would explode. Some people barely whispered while others practically yelled. It was unnerving. And the liturgy changed from thee and thine to you and yours, so that was suddenly very strange, yet familiar.
But everything else stayed the same – we entered in stair step order – except dad was missing which made me feel conspicuous. Then the processional, then we’d look at the board on the wall up front that had hymn numbers which were sung in the posted order, (the younger kids left after worship to go to Sunday school), followed by a 20 minute homily with exactly 1 joke, then the ceremony around Communion, receiving Communion in the long lines as pew by pew went forward, then the recessional, then to the donuts downstairs for ‘fellowship hour’. Sunday after Sunday, the order never varied.
Even then I had a desire to find out about God, and Father Cooper was very good during Confirmation classes stirring our 12 year old minds with the unfathomable. I remember a whole class was spent answering the question of where the very first atom came from. Could it exist by chance, or was it Created?
One other thing I remember about Confirmation. When the Sunday came for our class to be Confirmed, one of the girls in the class who was also a friend of mine, Margaret, had brought her next door neighbor and best friend to watch us get Confirmed.
I stumbled over the stairs and my words upon meeting her that day. She recalled later I was a chubby, clumsy, red headed kid with buck teeth, in an ugly green wool suit and there was NO WAY she would give me more than a passing greeting. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and especially liked her blunt transparency and ornery streak with a touch of mischievousness. Little did she know that within 3 1/2 years she would ‘go steady’ with that chubby red headed kid who had stretched to 6′ 6″ tall, got his teeth straightened, his hair turned blonde, and within 7 years he would ask her to marry him.
In my teen years I was searching for a father though that desire had yet to gel and become fully defined in my mind. I was searching, I just didn’t know what for. So I became an altar boy, and acolyte. I think 2 of us served each Sunday, marching in the processional and recessional with Father Cooper, and assisting with the Lord’s Supper and ringing the bell at the right time.
The right time to ring that bell was when Father Cooper was preparing the Lord’s Supper, and he would kneel down and strike his chest with his fist 3 times, saying, ‘Lord, I am not worthy’, ‘Lord, I am not worthy’, ‘Lord, I am not worthy’, and then the altar boy was to hit the gong after each statement of being unworthy - not too loud so as to make someone pee their pants in the congregation, but not so soft that old Mrs. Whoever couldn’t hear what was going on. It was hard to get it exactly right.
The trouble was, we were all kneeling over at the time, supposed to be looking forward and down, and I never could anticipate the timing of the ‘I am not worthy’ thump on his chest. At various times the congregation heard ‘Lord, I am GONG….a pause to let the echo fade…not worthy’, and other times the bell wouldn’t be hit at all because my mind was drifting off to donuts or how hot it was or something like that.
Didn’t fit in, even then
That was the first time I realized I didn’t fit into church life. No matter how familiar the routine became, I felt no connection to any of it. God – I thought He was worth checking into – but none of the rest of it seemed to fit me, nor I, it. All I did in church got me no closer to Him, but it was all I knew at the time.
The big change in my life came in 1974 when a girl in German class, Janny, a Roman Catholic believer, would tell me about the Lord in between language exercises. I had scoffed at my mom’s faith, but Janny was different – she told me of situations she and her boyfriend (her future husband) would encounter, how they prayed, and how the Lord answered those prayers. She didn’t preach at me as mom did, she just opened her heart to talk of walking through teenage life in faith.
When I mentally tracked 7 answered prayers in a row I decided that was proof enough that Jesus and God the Father in particular could be personal. I went home and reasoned it out – if Jesus has the last word in my life, then if I lived for Him, no matter what other people thought of me and my faith, or how they hated me or spoke evil of me, if He would have the last word it only made sense to serve Him now. On that basis I ‘asked Him into my heart’ – told Him I believed He was God, and He could have my life if He wanted it. (Though I sincerely doubted He’d take me up on that offer). Then I started talking to the Father.
Janny’s boyfriend had led her to the Lord, Janny led me, then I led my girlfriend – the pretty girl I saw at Confirmation 3 1/2 years earlier, to the Lord. They started discipling Barb and I though I didn’t know that’s what they were doing. They were just being friends, taking us to a Saturday night prayer meeting out at a farm house, talking about the Lord at Pizza Hut afterwards…and in those German classes. They even took us for a drive out into the country one day where we found a spot on someone’s lawn, sat in a circle holding hands, and prayed that Barb and I might receive the Baptism with the Holy Spirit. And we did.
The Saturday night ‘prayer meeting’ as we called it back then, was a weekly home gathering of Spirit-filled believers from all sorts of backgrounds, but full of love and joy and pureness for the Lord. The worship had the 1970′s musical instrument, the auto-harp, which must have been a required instrument in some unspoken Charismatic Renewal rule or something because autoharps were ALWAYS in meetings back then.
We would worship until we could worship no more. We studied the Bible, someone had a lesson, there was prayer for anyone who wanted it, and if the whole night was spent in worship or maybe praying for something or someone in attendance, so be it, that must be what the Lord wants so out with man’s plan, let God be God.
It was there I saw my first miracle. The hosts for those meetings had a farm dog, a German Shepherd, who got kicked by a horse or cow so that a tooth was dangling by a mere strand of tissue and his mouth was swollen and other teeth misplaced by the force of the kick.
After removing our hands from his muzzle the mouth and tooth that had been so damaged a couple minutes earlier, was now completely normal, with the canine tooth that had been dangling, now firmly back in place – and off the dog ran to be play, completely healed!
The start of being ruined
I remember going back to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church after the Baptism with the Holy Spirit, after some of those Saturday prayer meetings, and reading the liturgy with shock and surprise – “Hey, this stuff is scriptural!” I said to myself. The Nicene Creed and Apostle’s Creed were correct! I had never seen that before. I was amazed the Episcopalians had so much of the core belief correct.
And then the rest of the service proceeded…and the uncomfortable feeling you get when you don’t fit in and you think everyone can see or sense that about you came roaring back. I wanted to be back at our Saturday night prayer meetings! I wanted to tell them they don’t need all these trappings. They don’t need the robes, the incense, the 3 dings of the bell, the stained glass!
I was on my way to being ruined…but I had another 25 years to go before I fully realized it. More next week on what ruined me. Blessings,