The year that I was 13 was a significant year indeed. (See the two blog posts before this one.) I came back from a summer in Europe to my father’s new pastorate, which meant seemingly everything in my life had changed. Returning to America after spending time in Germany had felt disorienting before, but now I was dealing with a new home in an unfamiliar town. I didn’t know anyone, and I missed our small mountain community and our cozy little home on the lake.
It was 1971, and it didn’t take long for the Jesus Movement to find us again. (My father had already held youth-oriented evening church services in our previous church, and they had become quite popular.) Soon a few ragtag hippie-types were meeting with my father, peppering him with questions, and begging to be taught by him. “He knows the actual Greek!” one of them enthused to me.
These kids had dramatic conversion stories: almost all of them had been “into something”, like drugs or eastern religions or promiscuous sex or all three, before coming to Christ. It was a truly exciting time, to the point that some people were sure we were observing the end times revival.
Eventually I got caught up with this group of new converts who had somehow found my dad. They were intense! For awhile, it seemed as if we had two youth groups, our regular bunch of typical kids and the “spiritual” semi-ex-hippy group who wanted only to study the Bible, sing choruses, and have deep discussions. When the two factions got together, it was awkward indeed.
I guess we weren’t intense enough at our church because our hippy friends invited my older brother and me to what was supposedly just a Bible Study — only we called it a “Bible Rap” because it was the early 70’s and that’s how we talked. It consisted of a bunch of us sitting around on the floor in a beautiful little Episcopal church, with one of the most breathtaking carved wooden crucifixes I’ve ever seen.
As far as I could tell, there wasn’t any real leadership within this group. We met weekly and, maybe once every few months, some older guy showed up who everybody seemed to hold in respect, if not awe. There was talk of trying to emulate the “New Testament Church” which, to this bunch at least, bore a strange resemblance to hippies sitting around singing “Happy in the Lord”, talking about the end times, reading the Bible, telling our testimonies, and complaining about people who we thought didn’t measure up spiritually. But gradually there seemed less emphasis on sharing our unschooled interpretations of the Bible, and more on being baptized with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.
Around the same time, people in the group became extremely judgmental and legalistic. “Rebukes” were common: I got fussed when I referred to a boy as “cute”, for example.
I remember being surrounded by older girls (I was probably the youngest kid, by at least a couple years, who attended) and they were demanding that I confess the SECRET SIN in my life, because there had to be some, it was obvious, or my spiritual experiences would match theirs exactly, and I would speak in tongues. I remember week after week of confessing everything that I could think of, like being “lazy” (undiagnosed inattentive ADHD) at school, having a “messy” room, etc., etc. The weekly interrogation sessions were only one aspect of how controlling and pushy and borderline abusive this group had become.
I went on a quest to be “baptized in the Holy Spirit“ — to be slain in the Spirit and speak in tongues — and I went to meeting after meeting and event after event, wherever I heard that “the Spirit was moving” and I had a way of getting there. (My mother patiently drove me to a number of these.) I would go forward and, inevitably, almost everyone around me would fall down and speak in tongues, but nothing ever happened to me.
Eventually I missed one of the Bible Raps, but something that night got my brother all upset, to the point that he and his girlfriend were convinced that they had observed demonic activity. We never returned.
My experiences during that time were mixed, with lots of excitement, but also seeing what seemed good at first — like the Bible Rap — fizzling out or turning into something negative. My view of “church” was both challenged and, in retrospect, strengthened. Summer camps, youth rallies, and the enthusiasm of so many new converts galvanized my faith. Shy little me handed out “Jesus Papers” at my junior high school, carried around a cool looking Bible, and even started a weekly Bible study that met before school. (Talk about the blind leading the blind…)
Eventually, by the time I reached high school, one by one, the “Bible Rap” kids started “falling away”. It was a sad, discouraging thing to watch, made all the more so because of painful things in my personal life. My faith walk during those years became one of lukewarmness, pain, and even doubt — punctuated by times of renewal and re-dedication. It was definitely a roller-coaster ride.
Even years later, I would miss those first few Bible Raps that I attended, before things got weird— when we sat around on the floor, filled with youthful zeal, gazing at a beautiful giant crucifix and earnestly pouring our hearts out to God.