Dec 21, 2005

On Fire For Jesus

It was October 1996, and I was in Irwindale, California, at a Speaking in Tongues Conference. I looked out at the people talking to Jesus in their special language. I saw the light in their eyes, the passion on their faces, and I thought to myself, what the f#$ am I doing here? How did I start on a path of wanting to know God, and end up with a bunch of white-trashers shouting “Shambala”?

It was because of the fire.

Growing up my Lutheran Pastor, Torvald Ingebretsen, talked about the fire of God like it was this deep, powerful mystery, like Harry Potter magic. Fire was a sign of God's presence. He appeared to Moses in a burning bush; He led the Israelites out of Egypt in a pillar of fire. And at Pentecost when the apostles got the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire rested on them and they started talking other languages. Like being in a yoga trance, only not as cool. I was six: I didn't want to be cool; I just wanted that fire.

However, by the time I was 16, the only thing I was on fire for was John Lennon and my boyfriend. I asked my sister for The White Album for Christmas. She gave me a Holly Hobbie Study bible. You know, Susie, she glared, when all your actor friends have dropped out of school or gotten thrown in jail, you might want to read it. And then I got dumped, John Lennon got shot, and I got lost. Sitting alone in my room, I thought of what my sister had said. Actually I thought, That self-righteous bitch! Where's that Holly Hobby Bible ?

So I read it, about how God loved me and he had good plans for my life. I thought back about the fire. So I asked God, and Jesus, and the Holy … – OK all three of them -- into my life. And you know what? I felt peace. I felt loved. It was like God was saying: I'm here. You're going to be okay. Life is going to be an adventure!

I started going to a surfer church that met in a circus tent. It was there that Pastor Craig asked us, Are you on fire for Jesus? Are you like, so in love with Jesus, that you just want to spend all your time with him, knowing what his will is for your life, letting him love on you? Because that's your love story, Man!

And if this was a love story, then I was in the infatuation stage. I'd wake up full of expectation and pray: Jesus, I just want to be with you. I just want to know your what your will is for me, man! Every moment! I don't want to do anything, make any decision, without your will! Like this morning: Should I eat frosted flakes or eggs? Just show me, man!

Sometimes it took a long time to get out of the room. But that's how it is when you're in love. Everything changes: the way you look at the world, the future. Even your senses are heightened. I'd smell a gardenia, or see the stars, and I'd think, Wow, God, that is so You! You are such an artist! Even my angry music had new meaning. I mean, what WAS so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Which brings up music at church. It was like Metallica got religion. And we tranced out to Jesus power ballads every Sunday:

All Consuming Fire (pronounced Fye-Yuhhhhh);
You're my heart's desire (dee-ZYE-yuhh) …

I love yew Lorrd-h.
And I love my life with yeeew, Lorrd-hhh
And I'm soooo in love with me, loving ... yeeeeeeew-h

Well, after a few years of trancing out to Jesus music, the infatuation wore off. So I went to see Pastor Craig.

Pastor Craig? Look gardenias are great, and I love the stars. But what are we doing here? What those plans God had for my life?

You just gotta wait on God, he said. Just gotta wait on God.

But Pastor Craig, I have waited on God. And I've gone to the conferences: Inner Healing, Healing the Father Wound, Fathering your Wounded Healer. I've been washed in the blood, slain in the spirit, zapped. You know what I haven't done? I haven't LIVED! – not outside this circus tent! No one at this church has time to date or get a real job!

Well, Suz, I'd rather be on fire for Jesus in the unemployment line, than working at some cush job for Satan!

That made me turn for the door.

Wait up, Suze, Craig called me back. Have you told God how you really feel? You should check out this Speaking in Tongue Conference in Irwindale. Blow your doors off man!

You know that bad boyfriend you know you shouldn't give another chance?

I prayed, Okay God. I want what you have for me, I swear I do. And if this is it, show me.

I drove out to Irwindale, a landlocked town an hour east of Los Angeles, home of the largest rock quarry west of Pittsburgh. The 1993 Malibu fires had been raging. The skies were red, and smoke had blown east all the way to Barstow.

The church was in a concrete warehouse in an industrial park right off the freeway. It felt like Costco for Christ. The place made miss the circus tent.

The pastor was an ex-WWF wrestler. Maybe he found Jesus during a steroid blackout. He looked like the Incredible Hulk, ready to explode. He got up on the stage, flexed his arms and shouted to the crowd: Have you been shredding the scriptures for Jesus?

Woo Hoo!
The crowd replied, amped on adrenaline and Jesus.

And that's when I heard it, behind me: the first Shambala.
I was compelled to turn and look. It was a woman in a perm mullet. Her eyes were closed and her body writhed like an eel. She stood up to speak. Thankfully, in English.

I see a film of gold dust in the air, she cried. the Shekinah Glory of the Lord!
(Never mind it was sunset and we were downwind from a rock quarry).
The gold! The Lord is turning our silver fillings into gold!

The warehouse went nuts. All sorts of people came forward, compact mirrors hanging out of their mouths, claiming that their silver fillings had been turned to gold.

I couldn’t take any more. I stood up and raised my hand.

Praise Jesus, the Mullet Prophetess cried. More gold!

Sorry, I don't have cavities – Look, Pastor (Hulk?) I believe God can do whatever he wants, and I came today because I want whatever He has for me. But this doesn’t seem authentic.

The Hulk pastor smirked. How do you explain the silver fillings turning into gold? He flexed his muscles. Unless it was The LORD?! The crowd whooped it up.

If it WAS the Lord, I reasoned, Why didn't he turn the silver filling into TOOTH?

Pastor Hulk smashed his eyes closed. Lord! I pray for my sister here. I pray you would cast out the demons of pride and arrogance from her!

I heard a few Amens mumbled through mirror-stuffed mouths, and that was it. I stood up, calmly ran through out the door, got into my car, got onto the freeway, cranked up K-Rock on the radio, and screamed at the top of my lungs, That's it! I HATE YOU GOD. I hate you and all your side show freaks. Get your hands OFF OF ME! Get out of my life!

What was more terrifying than my anger was the feeling I'd been violated. And not by the Hulk or the Mullet, but by God. I had gone in trusting my vulnerability to him, and I was met with something dark and sinister. And there was no bottom to it.

If this was a love story, then this was the breakup. But you can't break up with God. Not really. Once you've had an experience of God, you can't go back and pretend that experience never happened. I remember too much. I remember being 8 years old, watching my brother fly a kite in the March sky. The clouds were so high you could see them hug the curvature of the earth. Suddenly God felt so big, and so close. I was not alone. I knew I was loved, and that I was loved by a Person. Ever since then, I've being running either toward – or away from – that knowing.

I've come back to church since then. Never with the same level faith or trust, but I'm back. I've tried the Lutherans with their Jello salads, the Episcopalian champagne communions; the Presbyterians with their intellectually cogent sermons… As we unpack the theological of God's sacrificial love or "agape" in the Greek, as that love is transmuted to us, it is then experience the phenomenon of joy, or "falapalos."

It's like going to a lecture about Beethoven, and not hearing a single note of music.

What happens in a relationship when the fire dwindles? Or maybe you still love the other person, you just can't stand his friends.

I know there are freaks and geeks everywhere. And there's not that much difference between Shambala and chanting a mantra … except for the yoga pants.

That night I told God off, I drove down to the beach to watch the Malibu fires. Have you ever seen fire at that magnitude, out of control? I'll never forget it. It was stunning, beyond good or evil. It was pure Nature. It was God. And God was beyond my control. As if He were saying, I'm not a circus monkey here to entertain you with gold teeth or your personal fulfillment. I am that I am. Get over it.

A while ago I woke up from a dreamless sleep: I had heard a deafening sound, like all the notes of the audio spectrum had been swept up into one whispered word: my name. I heard my own name. It was terrifying. And it was over too soon.

I don't miss those days, waiting on God to tell me what cereal to eat. I don't miss the gold fillings. But I kinda miss being on fire.