Saturday, September 30, 2017

Jesus Freak

The auditorium is pulsing with expectation. Youth Congress services always give me the feeling something is about to break, like a two-year-old on the edge of a tantrum. I’ve just tromped up the set of long steps in my new black heels, holding on to both Danielle and Stephanie’s arms for balance.  We giggle together and chat about the speaker scheduled for the evening. “Oh I love Mike Miller,” I say. “He’s just so anointed.”

I sit down and tuck my small purse onto my lap. It coordinates with my outfit just right; I can’t bear to let it slide unnoticed under my seat. There has been much careful outfit planning for this conference. I glance down at myself, going over all of the important modesty check marks in my mind. My blouse is black with life-sized orange flowers, poppies maybe, and it has quarter-length sleeves that flare at the elbow. The v-neck sits quite low, but I’ve worn a black tank underneath so as not to show skin below my collarbone. My skirt is the same print and material as the blouse. It flows to just above my ankles. I wonder for a second if the material hugs my hips too tightly. “You have a womanly body now that you’re sixteen, Emily. You need to be especially careful about what you wear.” My Pastors Wife’s words float through my mind. I glance over at Danielle, who is already praying in the Spirit and hunched over with her face in her hands. “Ohhhhhhhh Jesus. I loooooove you Jeeeeesus.” She trails off speaking in tongues. I take this as my cue to start praying as well, wishing I could be as diligent as my friend; wishing I didn’t have the tendency to be quite so distracted. 

Just as I start to pray out loud, asking Jesus for revival, break through, the Holy Ghost to fall during this service, the band starts to play a worship song. The singer passionately bellows the words, and I start to feel myself slide into the flow of worship. 

Jesus Jesus Jesus, there's just 
something about that name.
Master, Savior, Jesus, like the 
fragrance after the rain
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, let all heaven and 
earth proclaim
Kings and kingdoms will all pass away
But there's something about that Name

The auditorium seems to all synch together as five thousand young people sing about their Savior. Some people are standing, arms raised as they sing along. Others are sitting, bent in reverence, settled into a personal communion with God. Two rows in front of me, a teen girl sits and weeps into her hands. Her shoulders are trembling with emotion, and a young man lays hands on her head, the sweat from his hand mixing with the oils from her skin. Others are gathering around her now to pray, their “Yeeeees Lord!” and “Fill her with your Spirit, Looord!” in collaboration with the preacher. Weeping Girl is wearing khaki, bootcut pants and a black and white stripped tank top, both of these clothing items tipping me off to the fact that she’s not one of us. 

All at once, the loudest, rockiest, most ear-splitting music starts blasting from the enormous auditorium speakers. 

What would people think if they knew that I'm a Jesus freak? 
What would people do if they found that it’s true? 

The song is unquestionably about Jesus, but it is also unfitting for a Youth Congress worship service. The vibe in the room immediately changes from passionate worship to utter confusion. I turn to Danielle on my left and then to Stephanie on my right, giving them both the same, “HUH?” baffled look. As it turns out, everyone is giving their friends the same look. We have all stopped praying, and are now looking around and waiting for someone to explain what is going on. After a few minutes of this, I spot Brother Miller making his way across the platform to the pulpit. He grabs the microphone from its stand and the music stops, which by now I have recognized as being the song, “Jesus Freak”. I”m not sure which band sings it, but I know it’s popular amongst the other “Christians” at my high school - the people who think they’re saved but who don’t have the full Truth. 

The thousands of teens are quiet, all of us staring expectantly at the Preacher. He starts in with a firm, “You couldn’t worship to that music, could you? I am well aware of this so-called ‘Christian Rock’ infiltrating our youth groups. I am here today to tell you young people - if you can’t worship to it, you shouldn’t be listening to it.”

This was all purposefully orchestrated. I understand where he’s going now and the reason for the sudden blast of out-of-place music. As he speaks, people begin chiming in from all over the building. 


“Preach it, Preacher!”

“That’s right! Tell it like it is!”

“Convict us, Jesus!”

I am amen-ing and clapping at the appropriate times, but deep down my heart sinks. I know what he is saying is right. It has to be. He is the anointed preacher, the one chosen to speak Truth to all of us tonight. I am feeling the familiar impression of what I recognize to be “conviction”, and I already know what this means for me, not five minutes into the sermon. 

My favorite albums will have to go. I picture my favorite Third Day cd in my mind, the one I have been blasting daily in my car for months on end. The cover is orange. The design is abstract, but I’ve always thought the wild swirls look like fire. I’ve started to get into the Christian rock genre recently, and Third Day is unquestionably my favorite band. 

I sit down and begin to pray, asking God to soften my heart to do His will. Brother Miller is now telling a story about the kids in his youth group back home bringing their “Christian” rock music cd’s to the altar, breaking them in half, and leaving them there. 

“We must consecrate ourselves wholly to God. We must not let anything worldly get in the way of our worship.”

I know what I will have to do when I get home. I cannot have anything in the way of my commitment to God. Even still, there is a sadness that lingers in my heart. I am already mourning the loss of my favorite music, the music that has carried me through countless lonely days. 


I am home three days later, sitting alone in my 1987 Nissan sports car. I love this quirky car, with its chipping red paint and sporty sunroof. Sometimes the horn even honks randomly by itself due to some sort of electrical glitch. 

It’s time, I tell myself as I begin flipping through my case of cd’s. Lord give me an obedient heart, I pray. I should try to get into the spirit so I can make the right decision on which albums make the cut. I slide my one Jars of Clay cd out of its clear plastic home. Definitely too rocky. 


The sound of it  breaking in half cuts through the silence in my car. That wasn’t too hard, I think to myself. I never liked that band much anyway. I flip to the next page and see Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation Project. I quickly decide this one can’t make the cut because he raps on a song or two. Definitely too worldly. 


Ouch, that one hurt a little more. I’ve always loved that album. I sift through more pages, the pile of broken cd’s on the passenger seat beside me quickly growing. Finally, I flip to the last page in the cd case and it’s there, the orange swirls all too familiar.  Third Day: Conspiracy is the name of the album. I take another look and quickly close the book. Maybe another day, I think. I feel a prick of something in my heart, something subtly powerful.  Conviction, Emily, God is warning you this decision will keep you from Him. My hands are sweating and I can hear my heartbeat thumping in my chest. 

I’ll pay for this decision. The price is never cheap; it is always heaps of guilt and fear. 

I brush the leftover bits of broken cd’s off of my lap in one quick sweep. As I slide the key into the ignition and begin to back out of the driveway, I reach for my cd case. Before I know it, those familiar words are blasting through the speakers. 

Peace like a river flows within me
Love like a waterfall pours on me

The twang of the guitar and the gravely warble of the lead singer fill the car. I turn onto my favorite twisting backroad and I shift from first, to second, then third and fourth gear. The window is rolled down just enough to let the wind to have its way with my hair. 

Faith is a light shining down on me
Mercy is a wind blowing over me

I sing along as the endless evergreen trees whip past my windows, and slowly I start to feel a little more like myself. If this is rebellion, rebellion feels a little something like home. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Be Careful Little Eyes

It is a slow and peaceful weekday afternoon in Stockton, California. It should have been peaceful, anyway. Spring has settled in nicely, and I’m breathing in the sweet, fruit tree-laced air that has already become familiar and homey. The solid, suffocating heat of a Valley summer has yet to set in. I’m babysitting for the Waller family this afternoon. Sister Waller is taking her time getting ready for her date, so I go into Distract the Kids Mode. “You wanna build a tower, Buddy?! Come play! We are going to have so much fun together!” 

I am interning at the church where the Waller's pastor in downtown Stockton, wanting to learn more about the workings of an “inner city” church. The people who attend this congregation are the down-and-outs. They are the addicts, the single mothers hoping to find mentors for their fatherless children. We like to talk about how we even get the occasional slip-in from a prostitute - “probably a transvestite” we say.

I hear the familiar click-clack of heels on a hardwood floor, and I look up to see Sister Waller walk down the hall. She’s ready for her date, and her outfit is as on-point as ever. I don’t even try to hide the fact that I’m most interested in what she’s wearing, and my eyes immediately zero in on her attire. My hope of a future as a Pastor’s Wife is a weighty motivation toward perfecting my righteous, holy look. I know this dream hangs on my willingness to follow the rules. The Holiness Standards are most important to me because they please God, and they set me apart as being one of the few people who know the Truth.  My eyes study her as I take mental notes on how I should be putting together our required modest-but-effortlessly-stylish outfits. She makes it look so easy.  A cream skirt flows almost to the floor and hugs her petite frame in all the right places. A lacy, soft pink top sits just snug enough across her perky breasts. It’s the underlying but not overtly sexy look, and I need to learn to pull it off. Sister Waller clears her throat, and my attention shifts abruptly from her clothes to the rest of her.  I have to catch my breath as I realize she has no hair. 

I feel my body start to tingle as the heat rises, starting in my chest and rising until I am sure my apple-red face is the elephant in the room. 

“Have a good time!” I say, mustering enthusiasm. I physically have to reach up and touch my forehead so as to coax my eyebrows down from their furrow. I am terrified. I am embarrassed for this woman who no longer has hair.

Pastor and Sister Waller leave, and I gather some snacks to let the kids picnic on the front lawn grass. This is one of those typical, uniform middle class neighborhoods - the type of neighborhoods where every house is painted some predictable shade in between cream and taupe.  The perfectly spiky grass is itchy against my bare, skirted legs. The baby whines and I pull her to my chest. Her skin is buttery soft, and I relish in the smell of new life as I kiss her downy head. I start to let myself think, and as I do the shining day turns to an unfamiliar fog in my mind. I usually don’t let my thoughts wander this much. “Get thee behind me, Satan! In Jesus name! ” I whisper. This usually is enough to keep worldly thoughts at bay, but not now. 

I’ve known that Sister Waller was diagnosed with breast cancer, and that it is advanced. Her prognosis is not hopeful, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of faithful believers praying for this woman. I’ve had the faith that she would be healed, and my 19-year-old faith does not easily waiver. She is a faithful woman of God, after all. Except I just saw her for the first time since learning of her diagnosis, heading out for a date with her husband, bald head screaming of the sickness ravaging her dainty physique. I look down at my uncut, knee-length hair. The last five inches or so are frayed and thin, full of split ends.  I’ve always been proud of this. Our hair is our glory, after all, our protection from evil and a telltale sign of our commitment to God and obedience to the Church. Apparently, cancer doesn’t care. 

Slowly yet all at once, like a wave, confusion starts to linger in my mind. This is uncomfortable, yet I cannot escape it. The little boy stands, dumping the Tupperware container of watermelon on the grass. He giggles and smashes a grassy piece of melon with his bare feet, looking for a reaction. “Heeeeeeey you! What are you up to little man?” I ask playfully. I attempt to entertain him with a song - one we sing together often in Sunday school. 

Be careful little eyes what you see, 
Be careful little eyes what you see, 
There’s a Father up above 
And He’s looking down in love
So, be careful little eyes what you see.

The diversion works for a few minutes, for me and for the boy. I am proud to see he remembers the motions to the song, pointing to his eyes and then at the sky at the appropriate moments. I distract myself the best I can, but now all I can see are innocent children who’s worlds are about to crash into a mess of pieces and a lifetime of questions. The darkness of these thoughts close in on me. It is as if all that has been - or whoever has been - holding me steady, turns around and starts to back away. The baby cries and reaches for my hand. I hold her close and rock her against my chest, tears rolling down my cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I whisper, wishing I could change the trajectory of her life. There is no God. The thought slips into my mind like a disgruntled churchgoer slips out of her pew, quiet yet glaringly conspicuous. Oh my god there is no god.

This is the last time I see Sister Waller. She dies two weeks later.