When I became passionate about Christianity in my teens, in the midst of the Jesus movement, I was first hooked because the experience was so powerful - and unexpected. But after a year or so, it was the intellectual challenge that stimulated me and had me wanting more. The deep dive into studies with scholars and theologians impassioned me. There was something to bite into, something to hang my hat on. I hungered for more knowledge, and deeper understanding.
Over the years, this changed, but why?
During those early years, I was learning much more substantial and meaningful information than had ever been broached in Confirmation class or Sunday School. I attended a Bible School at a Brooklyn church, Salem Gospel Tabernacle, led by Malcolm Smith. It was a powerful and spirit filled time, ripe with gifts of the Spirit and passionate faith. This was the pre-evangelical movement, and I'd love to take a step back in time and be there again - to learn what it was that made it so fresh and authentic. I know what I think it was, which others who shared the experience also attribute it to, but are we right? It's hard to know for sure.
Was it the newness, the charismatic, and the authenticity of worship which didn't have an ounce of performance in it that made it so special and filled its pews with people from every race and nationality, income level, and age group. Four or five elders stood up front, arms in the air, praising God for parts of the service while we either worshipped in deep reverence or waited in silence on God and the Holy Spirit. Jesus was written in large, bold letters across the front wall of the old tabernacle in this poor Brooklyn Latino neighborhood that had, not long before, been filled with Norwegian immigrants. It was customary for some to prophesy in tongues during prayer, and we could always count on one old Norwegian women to yell out an interpretation if nobody else did. The Bible School was in the building's basement, and it was serious schooling. I didn't attend for long, but remember every minute I sat in that room. I remember sitting in church one Sunday thinking, "Linda, you're not in Lutheran Kansas anymore."
It was alive and filled with the same energy that I, most recently, have grown accustomed to feeling at TED conferences.
Ironically, a taste of the reverence we felt at the school can be experienced at TED, but not surprisingly, it doesn't compare to a shared experience grounded in the sacred and holy. It's pretty hard to top that - even with the world's best thinkers in the room.
I'd love to touch the enthusiasm and hopefulness we experienced in those years. The social movement of the 60's and 70's reached the Christian world through the Jesus movement, and we were filled with idealism and faith.
We didn't have the fear and legalism built into our faith then. It was more likely that we were defending the peace sign to our more conservative parents who were told it was hostile and intended to represent the cross upside down and broken. Our long sideburns, yellow moratorium bands, and I Love Jesus pins made us a unique image of the social revolution.
Sometimes you can learn a lot from someone you don't expect can teach you anything. This man taught me to think twice about what I think I know, even if I don’t believe him. Mel Johnson was a preacher with a storefront church in a run down town in the first city lit by Atomic Power in Arco, Idaho. At first glance, he gave you the impression he was a very friendly snake oil salesman, but a second look introduced you to a good man with a sincere heart, even if he sold snake oil - along with fruit and vegetables at his roadside stand.
He’d taken three years off from work to study the Bible. Some of his friends joined him, who in the process also began wearing overalls and grew the exact kind of beard he did. Locals whispered that they'd started a cult down there on the bend. All the fringe Christians hung out there too. There was Finisia, a woman with the largest hands you ever did see who traveled the country in a sheep camp wagon handing out tracts. The sheep camp had Jesus written in large letters across the top, along with a variety of other scripture verses. Her traveling companions were her two horses, two dogs, her Bible and very big rifle. If there was ever a place in a rural farming town in the middle of nowhere in Idaho that attracted the element you don't expect to see at church, this was it.
There were a host of others too, including more sheep camp traveling characters. How they'd all found one another in this remote place near the Craters of the Moon, beat the heck out of me. But with a colorful bunch like this, a knack for reflexology, and could give a good back and neck adjustment for free right there on the church or living room floor, made him someone I wanted to know. Or at least get to know enough to find out.
The guy sure read the Bible a lot. And he was smart - in a hillbilly kind of way. The wonderful things about Mel Johnson is that he's appreciate me describing him like that. He'd laugh that big laugh of his, and then look at me as if to say, "You revealed something about your spiritual and emotional life by saying that." He acted as if he knew something you didn't, but I'm not so sure he did. Perhaps it was his way of disarming other people, or maybe he did have something on us. Either way, he was a great guy with a well meaning soul, albeit pretty far right of center and I'm not talking about politics. This is what made him special.
I hung out with that crowd as often as I could for a few months because I couldn't stay away. It was far too interesting and the eccentricity of the people was starting to grow on me. Some days it reminded me of a Christian version of The Addams Family, with Mel's two young adult daughters in the role of the Addams Family niece, Marilyn. These girls became close friends, and remain dear to me to this day.
Mel Johnson had read the Bible. From front to back and then back again. Many times. He'd read it up and down, backwards and forwards.
He read it in the way I’ve always preferred - by opening oneself in such a way that the spirit lives in the page behind the words. There is something about holding this intention when reading the Bible that brings it to life in ways traditional reading can’t, or at least doesn’t for me. Reading it this way made it three dimensional somehow, and took me out of my head and helped me let go of any resistance to it - especially when I let my mind wander, and I began worrying if I was turning into a weirdo and didn't want to be seen like that in the community. My image still mattered to me.
Sometimes I'd think too much about the self-righteous people at the church I used to attend, or how I felt when peeing there and forced to look at anti-abortion posters with dead fetuses screaming for help, or the creeps I'd get when right before the sermon, the pastor would play a patriotic, flag waving video about marriage and family and values and Iraq. Ugh.
Instead I’d think about the people in the black church in DC whose sincerity and pure heart of Christ coupled with the kind passion we all long for; or I'd remember the Nicaraguan gentleman who came down to the beach every day in his t-shirt to read his Bible in the shade of a palm tree, always smiling kindly when anyone walked by. There was something about their simple faith and pure hearts that reminded me of Jesus. Not something I'd experienced much in many American places I'd looked for Christ in.
I wanted to be like these people, but not like the others even though they were the ones that looked most like me on the outside. I desperately wanted to continue touching the spirit in the ways I had...not in an emotional outburst but deeply moved from the inside out in a way that released all fear, anxiety, and outward projection of the ego. Although these moments or times didn’t happen all the time, I knew an occasional occurrence could fuel and sustain my Christian fire for a lifetime.
Sometimes when I think about the idea that Christ is alive in me, it scares me. Not because I dont think it’s true - because I actually think it is true. But I'd rarely admit it because I didn’t want to sound like them. I never wanted to sound whiny and submissive, slobbering about Jesus, while talking in poetic circles with breathy voices and lace collars. Ugh.
I think I just had one of those mirror moments when you can hear Jesus saying, "Judge not lest you be judged."
My bigotry towards “those” Christians is a sin. I know it - and you know it. But you understand it too, right? Or maybe you don’t. It’s my hope that by reading this you will understand me if you don’t already. It's ok if you don't like or agree with me. It's much more important that you understand for the sake of the big picture.