Suck Me in and Spit Me Out

January 24, 2011

Grand Avenue Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Ark.

11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Parking Lot Sign: “You are now entering your mission field.”

Chosen because…”You’re in Baptist country honey.”

For the majority of my eight-hour drive from Tennessee to Arkansas, I fantasize about this church experience. Small Baptist church in a field of sunshine. Large black women in robes singing in the choir. As the only white person, I stick out and after service, the women embrace me, invite me to a picnic. The pastor’s wife asks me to stay at their house for undetermined amount of time. I ask them about racism, get it on film documentary style. I’ve seen too many movies.

Woke up early. Asked white desk clerk how to get to the church. Said he didn’t have a phonebook (?!). I should ask the black bellhop. Awkward, did it anyway. Old white maid gave me directions.

“Is this OK to wear to a Baptist church?” Concerned about jeans and tennis shoes.

“Honey, as long as your dressed I don’t think they’ll give a damn.”

Suck Me In

Church is in large part about community and I loved this community. Over perfumed women walk to my pew, squeeze my shoulders, cup my hands, talk to me in those darling southern accents. Swoon.

No one looks at my shoes but then again, the man next to me has a Band-Aid in the middle of his forehead. I’m second tier entertainment.

First up, a baptism. Dressed in white, the pastor ascends to a spotlighted platform six feet above the choir and dunks a teenager. Creepy. Too much power. The pastor magically disrobes, descends, sits with kids on the stairs like Mr. Rogers and says, “Committing yourself to Christ means you’re willing to do something just a little bit weird.”

Asks those needing prayer to raise their hand. I want to raise both hands and legs, but I’m writing. Pastor invites people to pray at his feet. Men join him and they cry. Heaving shoulders. I cannot stand seeing grown men cry, especially if I’m the source of the pain. I want to hold them but they’re burly and I know I can’t assuage their pain so I cry.

Emotional pain manifests itself physically. When I start to cry, my left calf cramps. I lean down to rub it and smash my forehead on the pew back in front of me. This gets some attention. I turn red.

Spit Me Out

Then the sermon: “The Invisible War, Spiritual Warfare.”

The pastor talks about using prayer as a weapon against evil we can’t see — devils, warlocks, etc. The next eight weeks are devoted to this topic. Not only does he use the Bible and prayer as a weapon and religion as warfare, as he speaks his face changes, it’s almost demonic and every time he wants the congregation to “mm hm,” “amen” or laugh, he cups a hand to his ear.

One of the men in my pew sees me taking notes and gives me “The Invisible War: What Every Believer Needs to Know about Satan, Demons, and Spiritual Warfare” by Chip Ingram.

“Here, you can take your notes in here. There’s plenty of room for note taking.”

Though I’m a heathen, I respect my elders. I take it so as not to hurt his feelings.

Take Away

I’ll go to a Southern Baptist bakeoff or chili cook off for community but faith by fear is not cool.

If the pastor wants views faith as war against the spiritual world fine. That’s his opinion. I can accept that. But would he accept mine? Unlikely.

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18 Responses to “Suck Me in and Spit Me Out”

  1. Kevin said

    Very interesting, Ivy. Reminds me of something I did in college, which is visit a small black church. The kind elder that greeted me asked “Welcome, have you come to observe or criticize?” I was guessing I was not the first (nor last) white person to want to learn about black church sub-culture. Every church is slightly different, as I am sure you are learning. Keep searching…

  2. CopperBot said

    This type of “faith” is the very reason I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore. I was “converted” to Christianity at the age of 12 because of a lengthy sermon on Revelation during revival week. You want to talk about a completely inappropriate way to bring kids to Christ… I didn’t know if I truly believed in salvation through Jesus blood but at 12 I was still trying to nail down whether or not ghosts were real… (still haven’t achieved that goal) and I was willing to do anything & say whatever had to be said to avoid dealing with the horrible things covered in the sermons that week.

    Nowadays I look back on that experience and think “How dare they?” What a horribly manipulative way to bolster the ranks of your church… yes TERRIFY young kids into believing so they don’t have to experience the second coming from a non-believers standpoint.

    • thumpme said

      I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and the ones who actually treat people well and have what I would consider faith, think this is awful too. You should have seen these kids. They were horrified. God only knows what would have happened in my life if I had been forced to make a major life decision at 12. I’m almost 30 and I don’t trust my decisions!

    • Noah said

      BJ, I hope this isn’t the only reason you don’t consider yourself a Christian anymore. I am not assuming that it is. I just hope that though this experience was warped and wrong, that you’ve been able to compartmentalize it to a degree as a false-projection of who God is and hopefully, as objectively and unbiased as possible, examine who God really is.

      People are jacked up, all of us are to one degree or another. It saddens me when people decide to not follow Christ solely on the basis of what they see Christians (or “Christians”) do. Some of these Christians are complete phonies while others are just fumbling and bumbling along. In either case, I hope you can look to Christ as the example of Christianity and make your assessment of your own faith based off of him, rather than projections people display of him. I encourage people to look at Jesus in the Bible and then find the church that most closely resembles that in their (the church’s) attempts to follow him.

  3. Q. said

    Come to Jonesboro, AR, Ivy. I’d love to meet you and I think you’d like to meet the people of my church. It’s not a faith-by-fear, everybody’s-gonna-burn faith.

    I wish you could have been there for this past Sunday’s sermon. I think you would have found a lot to value from Debra. She’s real; I think you’d get along.

    E-mail me if you’re at all interested/in the area and I’ll give you my cell phone #.

    I love that you’re doing this.

  4. Steve 'the boat pusher' said

    The power of the attendance at church and rule by fear… odd indeed. Today at work, one of my co-workers, called out to a patient (her patient) “CHURCH SKIPPER!” Where were you Sunday?!? Mind you this is in a professional (not then) health care office. Amazing lack of class.

  5. marg said

    If a person believed that your life was in danger, would you want them to warn you or would you prefer to be left alone?

    If the Bible is true, spiritual warfare is true. 1 Peter 5:8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

    I see the pastor only trying to warn his people of danger…encouraging them to be sober and vigilant.

    Since I wasn’t there, I can only speculate in debate to what you wrote. So I won’t enter into that. (regarding how the pastor looked and if the kids were indeed terrified or if that was simply your perception)

    I’m curious, did you read the article by Chip Ingram?

    ~marg~

    • thumpme said

      The Ingram thing is an entire book and I’m not going to read it. No time. For me, the delivery was horrifying. First, he started the thing by generally talking about war saying “even if you’re a pacifist, whatever that is, blah, blah.” The fact that he just breezed over the idea that someone might not want war of any kind raised the hair on the back of my neck. The idea of talking about religion as war in any sense is entirely difficult for me to grasp. There has to be another way to address it. I get the general idea but war? That puts minds in places they don’t need to be. Syntax.

      I don’t know if the kids were terrified. I don’t think I said that. They definitely looked uncomfortable.

      • marg said

        Hi again,

        It was in your answer to Copperbot, but you actually said “horrified”. I misquoted you. I am sorry.

        Was he talking about religion as war? Or was he talking about and to individuals and imploring them to be on their guard?

        It’s hard to get the full picture.

        I’ll make supposition:
        He was referring to the battle going on between God and satan. When God created everything, it was “good”. Enter satan: determined to have what is rightfully God’s or to destroy it.

        Christians, belonging to God, are one of satan’s prime targets. Anyone seeking to know God is a potential target, too.

        I’ve felt the spiritual tug-of-war going on in my own self. “Do what’s right.” “No, this will be more fun.” “Do what’s right.” “No, this will be easier.”

        Haven’t you mentioned feeling the presence of something evil in past posts?

        Good and evil, in our physical world, definitely exist. The Bible speaks of good “God” and evil “satan” existing in the spiritual world. And God warns us that satan can have some influence on us…that is the “spiritual warfare” he was likely referring to. We fight him off the same way Jesus Christ fought him off: with prayer and Scripture.

        But like I said before, not being there in that church, I am only speculating. But I am hoping my speculation helps clear up any in-perception that might have happened.

        ~marg~

      • thumpme said

        Oh, I believe in evil. No doubt about it. I just don’t like the idea of associating war with religion. It makes me think about extremists, the never ending religious wars, etc. I think it paints a really negative picture and as one who has gotten in a lot of trouble by misusing words, not thinking before writing, etc., words are powerful and we need to be careful how we use them.

      • Noah said

        Marg, Ivy’s comments about the pastor’s pacifism comment didn’t have to do with the war between God & Satan, but had to do specifically with how the pastor flippantly dismissed pacifism as a credible viewpoint in his introduction. This is what “raised the hair on the back of (Ivy’s) neck”, and it indeed raises mine as well.

        War is a very complex issue and I am not a pure pacifist, but a strong argument can be made that Jesus supports pacifism more than he does the traditional conservative view of war. Jesus says (Matt. 5:44) “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, he also says (Matt. 5:38-39) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
        But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” There have been many strong Christian leaders who were pure pacifists (i.e. Dr. (Pastor) Martin Luther King, Jr.) . Shane Claiborne is a solid Christian leader today who has some very thought-provoking stuff on pacifism (read “Jesus for President by Claiborne & Chris Haw if you ever get the chance).

        My point is NOT to argue that we all should be pacifists or that it’s 100% correct, so I ask that no one argue with me on that. My only point is that for this pastor to dismiss pacifism as a biblical viewpoint is ignorant and ridiculous.

        It’s unfortunate the pastor said something so ignorant during his intro because he lost credibility for the rest of what he had to say.

  6. BJ said

    I was baptized at 12 because of a lengthy hell, fire, and brimstone sermon from Revelation too…go figure. I got into an argument with my church leadership a few years ago because I refuse to preach any similar sermons. And I TOTALLY agree that syntax matters. Our rhetoric leads people to specific conclusions. Any minister or public speaker who says, “I’m just stating the facts,” is either stupid or a liar. When we who get paid to speak actually speak, it’s with the intent to lead our listeners somewhere. If I start out by advocating war, then I have to consider where that thought will take my listeners. Plus, there’s a very fine line between battling “satan” or the “demonic” or whatever, and then battling an actual person I deem demonic. In other words, I’m not really battling “satan;” I’m battling you. What Churches end up doing is advocating hate, fear, and prejudice, the very things we say we stand against.

    I look forward to reading about your next experience and appreciate your insights.

  7. I’m impressed he gave you his book, just like that, when he could have handed you an offering envelope or some kind of visitors’ card that might have been tucked in the back of the pew. Seems mighty generous to hand your own book to a stranger.

    What I like most is that you took the book because you respect your elders.

    And, being a Northern gal, I loved imagining “those darling southern accents. Swoon.” 🙂

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