Picture this, I’m 17 years old, and my tiny youth group has joined all the other Assemblies of God churches for a youth convention. The AG liturgy is followed perfectly. It’s an unspoken liturgy, because we consider it to be “the movement of the Holy Spirit” even though it follows the same pattern every time. (We value spontaneity.) I know the liturgy in my bones. My emotions burn at this point in worship, my tears fall at that, the speaker’s voice cracks at the right words in prayer. I’ve absorbed the liturgy. It has become a true pathway for me to connect with God, and it keeps on in the church, because it works.
The sermon ends, and we are all invited to the altar. Of course we all will come, because it’s super lonely and awkward to stay in your seat – you do that and the youth workers gather around you to penetrate the depths of your hardness of heart.
We’re always sinners needing re-saved, my sister says of her experience as a teen, always needing to repent anew, re-connect anew, at every single service. So when you are completely satisfied in your relationship with Jesus, and you have just worshipped and met him in a way that’s sweet to your own soul, and you feel zero compulsion to move to the front, you’re placed with a real quandary.
You never can be satisfied, I knew in my heart. For better or for worse, for right or for wrong, that’s what I understood. You must always be thirsting, wanting more, needing more, striving for more and if you don’t manifest this in certain ways, then surely your heart is…hard?
Though it is certainly not instructed, I felt by implication that Jesus is not our perfect rest, like Hebrews says, or our living water, as Matthew says, or keeping us in perfect peace, as the Psalmist says. The idea of striving was absorbed into the psyche of a young teenage girl by practice, by example, by liturgy. One always needs to have more. It’s dangerous to be satisfied.
The youth service is coming to a climax. As we gather before the altar the preacher moves into his second sermon – I call this the prayer sermon, because it’s a sermon preached in prayer to Jesus for our benefit. The prayer sermon restates the points of the message in a more emphatic way, trusting that we will hear it more deeply now that our emotions are roused and our eyes are closed and the energy of other bodies pressed against ours has made things feel intimate.
And now we have a choice: either we are the sinner in need of saving, or the person next to us is. So picture a 17 year old girl, me, feeling completely clear in my conscience before God, loving Jesus and weary from never speaking in tongues no matter how many times the hands on me are laid. I can be the one asking for prayer…or I can pray for somebody else.
I look around for a target. There he is – that lanky, unkept boy. He couldn’t possibly be feeling at peace with Jesus, like I am. My heart breaks. He needs Jesus. So I move over to him, lay my hands on him and begin praying furiously, with weeping, pleading, begging, pressing hard with my hands so that he will feel the pressure of the Spirit.
And I mean it. Every ounce and fiber of my being means it with good intent. My heart feels truly broken. I’ve been praying for him for a year. I know exactly what he needs – my journal is full of it. “Oh Jesus! If only K___ would do X, Y, Z! Move on him, Jesus, fill him, change him, bless him, convict him of A, B, C!” It’s all so clear to me, because I’ve prayed for him and have written a narrative to explain All The Things. I don’t see it as a narrative I’m imagining, of course. I don’t even begin to understand that I couldn’t possibly plumb the depths of another person’s heart. My liturgy has taught me that God gives gifts of knowledge – and I’m convinced that the idea in my head is of God.
I will fight through the night if I have to, for his soul. I will repeat my words until my voice is lost, and then I will repeat them in my mind. If only he would break! If only he would begin to cry! If only he would repent and be filled with the Spirit!
But K___ doesn’t. He stands there, at first worshipping, then quieting, then looking confused. There are at least five pairs of hands on him, now, and I am leading the prayers to a chorus Yeses and Amens, and my fervor just keeps growing. My concern has heightened. Oh, why does he have to have such a hard heart?
K___ is uncomfortable, now. He begins to fidget. His movements catch my attention and I open my eyes to look at his face.
Eye contact, and suddenly, something in my heart shrinks back. I know that look. I know that look.
He’s trapped. He’s betrayed.
This hits me with blunt force, my triggers all sounding alarm at once.
I drop my hands, step back, and watch. He’s trapped, uncertain what to do. I’m a part of this. Where does the liturgy go from here? Either he will hold his ground until the prayer warriors move on, or he will sink to the ground to pretend he’s filled. I don’t mean this with snark. Every pentecostal kid I’ve ever known has numerous stories of Pretend.
Something deadens in my soul at that moment. Every violation, every spiritual manipulation I’d been subject to converges in my emotional memory. What am I doing? What am I doing? Something is wrong and I don’t know what it is. What have I done? Why does this feel so bad?
I’ll tell you why it felt bad and what was wrong: I was trespassing spiritual boundaries. I was crossing a line. I was making assumptions about this person’s heart, believing I could read it and know what he needed. These assumptions and beliefs, and my subsequent acting them out upon his body, mind, spirit and personal space, violated this boy’s personhood.
God would never treat me the way I was treating this kid.
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