Barking Like a Dog Might Not Be a Spiritual GiftEssays, Featured — By Allison Tannery on August 22, 2012 at 7:24 am
When I was a kid, the joke in our home was that we were only Methodist because it was the closest church to our house. Another arrangement of the three side by side churches on Kings Springs Road, and I could have either been Baptist or Catholic. The old Volvo just pulled into the first parking lot we reached. So I grew up in a very southern, very mainline, very nearly Baptist but sure as Hell not those crazy confessing Catholics, Methodist church. The only discernable difference between us and the Baptists was that we loved our drinks and smokes, and didn’t hide it behind the Drain-O under the sink. Nobody cared what denomination the marquee out front claimed, so long as the summer Trivial Pursuit game nights and kid-hated Christmas tacky ornament swaps would remain BYOB, and Pastor Gary strictly adhered to the One Hour Time Line. Twelve minutes of welcomes and announcements, three hymns, first, second and last verses only, the eighteen to twenty minute sermon, three minute altar call, and everyone out to Po’ Folks or the Piccadilly before those holier than us Baptists. They were right next door, eyeballing us through the windows, trying to figure out how to look more Godly, but still wrap it up by noon.
The clear start of Pastor Gary transitioning from three-pastors-walked-in-a-bar jokes, and moving into the Real Message was removing his watch and placing in clear site upon his pulpit. His billowing robe sleeve falling back as he began his three pastors tie in with The Word while loosening the leather strap let us know it was time to settle in and begin the count down. The definitive wrap up signaling our early exist strategies could begin, when we could start rustling about collecting gum and candy wrappers, bulletins and pocket books was the refastening of the watch. If on a super off morning, like if he’d been to the local hospital all night to welcome a new baby into the world, he actually forgot the watch, Uncle Bill’s cough from the choir lot would set to rights the gaffe. No last minute word from the Lord, or sleepy minister would get between us and our mason jars of sweet tea. The most spiritual excitement our little congregation ever saw was Paw Paw McLean’s occasional garbled amen from his Founding Member spot in the front left side, inner aisle pew perch. But that could have been Mama McLean poking him awake. No one could accuse Pastor Gary of any real fervor.
Marrying a boy whose parents didn’t become Christians until he was ten meant marrying a boy who had seen things I’d never heard possible and/or identified with snake handling. Blake’s youth was full of tent revivals, laying on of hands, mysteriously disappearing moles, and bizarre tongues. When he once described some crazy chick “falling out” in front of the entire body of swaying, murmuring believers, I asked him to stop talking and pour me another margarita. At least with the admission of alcohol in our faithful lives, we’d get by. With enough margaritas, I could ignore his nutter church background and focus on important stuff, like his lips. And hair. Over time and with a little maturity, we found churches to call home and to share with our children. They usually ran along the lines of “community”, or “non-denominational”, and hosted good teaching with a smattering of people who might lift their hands if the worship team was really on fire, and in the eleventh chorus of We Fall Down. Prayer was always offered at the altar, but I figured unless I’d just been diagnosed with stage four Somethingoranotheranoma, it would be sorta melodramatic to actually go up there. Still, we told our children that God is indeed a Mighty God, and capable of all things, even and especially those things we don’t understand.
We have moved a lot, following Blake’s career as a graphic designer. And because apparently we are easily bored. We’ve moved fourteen times in nearly twenty years. One year, we were in Nashville in January, Atlanta at the end of January, and back in Nashville by Thanksgiving. In the down time naturally occurring while renting a house, buying a house, starting pre-K home school for our four year old, and potty training the toddler, we conceived and birthed our third child. When the new year came, we were a little wrung out, and needing some of that word I hate in a jaded way: community. We found a church in the Four Square tradition, meaning very solid teaching, and more emphasis on the role of spiritual gifts than I had ever been around. People fell down, man. People would make weird utterances and other random people would tell us what that meant. Pastor Dale would hone in on someone in the congregation read their mail. You know, tell them something Significant straight from God. Yeah man. Kingdom now, Kingdom has come. Get all up in the wild stuff God is doing, and be a part of the Plan of Action. Getting hooked on righteous wonders of the Creator God was crack, leaving my daily routine of laundry, diapers, and chicken fingers looking like a Bartles and James wine cooler.
I signed up for a class with the pastor, entitled Gifts of the Spirit, as I was on my way to High Prophetess. There were dreams, feeling evil presences, reading people’s mail. I’m pretty sure a piece of art on our hall wall was causing negative spiritual vibes and even potential physical harm and was Confirmed of this when I discovered it had been created in an insane asylum. Of course it had been feeling weird when I passed it. The only logical response was to burn it on the propane grill. Phil Joel of Newsboys fame was in my class (but took no part in the art burning), and we shared some Deep Prophetic Stuff. He had a word for Blake. Something about becoming the man he’s meant to be. I’m still waiting for that to come to fruition. Har, Har. But I had to be on the right track if some famous guy with a New Zealand accent and lovely long blonde hair was whispering God’s sweet nothings in my ear. And then, Blake’s design shop closed in the financial storm aftermath of 9-11, and we were moving again.
Other moves made me sad. This move broke my heart. We landed in Greenville, SC, where churches were plentiful, but really good churches were not. Something about the south produces a lot of churches pew heavy, Jesus light. I became a Spiritual Snob in a Signs Dry land, turning up my discerning Holy nose at bodies of people dirging through the first, third and last verses of Just As I Am and checking their watches twelve minutes into the message (it’s a message, good people, a message. Sermons are for the mainline folk.). I scoffed at choir lofts of be-robed automatrons, all lined up by vocal range, sitting and standing, sitting and standing on cue. I presumably lifted my praising hands to show my deep reverence, but in reality I was showing my deeply shitty attitude to the spiritual lesser around me. I had what they did not. Straight up words from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday was no match for tongues touching off across five hundred people, making a complete message to us from the Lord on High. I was submerged in my old church. Submerged. What is this sprinkling? I had fasted wine for thirty days – – – THIRTY ENTIRE DAYS – – – in advance of my baptism in effort to plead the Holy Spirit His revelation in my life, and dammit, I wasn’t going back to plain white be-robed bread. I wanted all the whole chewy grains, dressed in denim and tight V neck tees. I wanted the nuts.
Our God is a funny God…he reigns from Heaven above, with wit, humor and love, our God is a funny God (sing along, you know the tune). While I was patting my own devotional back for all my hard earned achievements in Him, looking for the church that could live up to my advanced state of existential understanding, I forgot to ask Him if maybe He might help us know just where to go next. I also totally abandoned the idea that waiting to hear from Him in some way might be prudent. I found the nuts.
It was quite a charismatic church. I’ll not name it because any church of any denomination can get skewed, and I think the fundamental doctrine of this one is sound. We still have good friends in attendance. It was very small, less than fifty people, and filled with more than it’s fair share of just the kind of people Jesus invites to his house. The broken, the doubting, the addicted, the adulterers, the mentally ill. There were also the kind of people who were convinced the good Lord wants total earthly healing for all, in His Kingdom now. The kind who believe enough prayer and faith will deliver the shazaam moments we all kinda wish we could see, like wow, God really is real moments. People called Prayer Warriors who felt moved to bark and howl loudly in our living room during prayer group, as the Spirit moved her. People who thought God really hadn’t touched you if you’d not buckled to your knees up there in prayer yet. It was a church lacking solid leadership, and full up with some extraordinarily needy people. It lacked healthy balance. All signs we missed entirely on our search for signs.
Following what everyone knows to be the smartest method to quitting antidepressants, I decided I could quit cold turkey. Without telling anyone, including my husband. And my doctor. I’d been on them most of my adult life, and frequently wondered if I really had to. You know? Is there was some conflict between God’s love for me, my faith in Him, and my dependence on medication? If I really trusted God, and His healing abilities, wouldn’t I be able to ditch my meds, and really feel The Love? I’d tried to scale back, and quit, more times than I could remember, even after, oddly enough, telling Blake that I thought the meds had allowed me to really feel love for the first time, his and God’s. But as much as I tried to push it down, popping that little blue pill every day continued to feel like a little failure in my faith. Like I was somehow being so secular. Surrounded by swaying and praying people I’d begun to trust, speaking scriptures over me, and encouraging me to let go of my inhibitions to Truly Trust The Father proved to be irresistible. On the International Faith Scale, 0-10, this was a 12, and I wanted it. I wanted to finally be totally vulnerable to Jesus, to my husband, in all the areas I’d been self protecting. If I could force myself to let go, I might get to the higher levels of spiritual gifts, and faster orgasms. I could make your pesky tumor disappear, andimprove my sex life. It’s all about vulnerability, right?
Feeling guided by the Lord Himself early one morning, I found a passage in Ruth. This was it. This scripture was my answer. I cannot even find it now, nor do I remember what it exactly said, likely because it really didn’t apply to my situation any more than that art being created in the Cuckoo’s Nest meant it was inhabited by an evil spirit. Writing this, I hunted several sources. When Google results came back with links likeHealing Scriptures: An extensive listing of healing scriptures to activate your faith for your miracle, and Scriptures on Healing: Yes you can be healed. Or Beliefnet’s 10 Most Healing Scriptures, with the recommendation to send to an ill friend, I got all boily and churny. Forgiveness is coming hard, for myself and the people I keep thinking should have known better in that church. Because I don’t believe this is the way God works but I fell for it. None of us like feeling the fool.
Anne Lamott has said that God is not a genie in a bottle. We don’t just ask, and receive in that way. We don’t rub for the wish. There’s a lot of deep truth beyond my feeble understanding to learn about praying according to His will (thy kingdom, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven), and in accepting our perspective about how He answers prayer is not always His. He is mysterious. We are simpletons. And there is gobs of evidence that God uses people, talks to people, heals people and chases people down for His purposes who have not only not been a Prayer Warrior, or Profuse Prophet, but have been actively been avoiding Him. Jonah? Didn’t want to hear from God. His attention was only gained through a spell in the belly of a whale. Moses ran, and had to get a talking to from a burning bush that would not be consumed before he’d even consider the reality that the God of the Universe was talking to him. He didn’t really want the job of confronting an egomaniacal, half naked Pharaoh in full eye makeup or of taking all those whiners out of Egypt. These men were not shining examples of prayerful, beseeching faithful, seeking God’s face and refining Glory. Rahab was a prostitute who just followed a gut instinct. She had definitely not spent months on knees in her prayer closet, looking for God’s Higher Truths. She hadn’t been making sure the first tenth of her sex trade earnings went to the church before she purchased gold bracelets and crocodile dung birth control. God used her, she went along, so was spared mortal destruction when all the rest of Jericho came tumbling down to tooting horns. Which is a weird way to befall a city. But whatever. When we fall for the message that there is something, there is anything we can do to well enough, long enough, or right enough to achieve some sort of spiritual promotion, or revelation, I think it’s deadly dangerous. It takes us out of the grace of God’s love, and into the pharisitical. It takes back from the Lord what is really His, as rightfully purchased – our lives.
When I hear if we just…then God will, I start sweating on my upper lip and furtively looking for the exit. God can zap a hand back on an amputee if He wants to, but not because you did anything hard enough, or long enough. He also tells us normal, boring stuff that really isn’t high-inducing, like seek counsel. Talk to a pastor, or trusted friends. For the love of sweet Mary, talk to your spouse. These people are God’s hands, feet, mouths, and ears. I went on a near six month slide into a major depressive episode. With three children under the age of eight to care for and homeschool, I sunk farther and farther into that nasty dark hole people who know depression know and usually have a hard time describing. I do, at least. I was so convinced I was doing the right thing, the Godly thing, that even as I recognized the symptoms creeping round again (creepers), I covered my eyes, and ears and mouthedwatermelonwatermelonwatermelon to block out the obvious. These signs obviouslymeant I was under spiritual attack. If I just prayed more, waited longer, wanted it enough and trusted harder, God would deliver me from the excruciating pain of twisted up anxieties and debilitating depression.
God loves us so much. He wants so much for us. But he also allows us to live in a flawed, fallen world. There will be illness. There will be physical death on this side of heaven. We will mourn, stumble, wander and wonder. There is no amount of faith that will remove these earthly conditions from us. What I did to myself reminds me of that old church joke about the guy sitting on his roof while the flood waters rise. He passes on a copter, a speed boat, and some sort of raft, I think, telling each vehicle’s driver that the Lord is going to save him. When he finally drowns and gets to heaven, and bitches to God that he wasn’t saved as his faith told him he would be, God says, Dude. I sent you a boat, a raft and a helicopter. What more do you want?! Just because it doesn’t look all miraculous, like a blazing chariot led by brilliant white horses descending from the sky, or sound dramatic like four limbs spontaneously growing back, it doesn’t mean He’s not intervening, listening, answering our pleas. It just might mean our brains are too feeble to see it clearly. We are constantly told from the pulpits and the scriptures that His ways are not our ways, yet we insist on fitting him into our ideas of what He should look like and how He should perform.
My dumb-assness reached its zenith on the way back from a three week car trip out west to see my in-laws, and back. We were stuffed in a minivan with all three children, the dog, both gerbils and a netted pavilion full of chrysalis about to burst into butterflies. What. It was our science experiment. Three hours from home, I was considering leaping from the car that was doing eighty down the interstate. I was so distraught; alternately crying, screaming, shutting down, then yelling at the children and Blake, and wishing I could peel the insanely burning skin from my own body, when I finally blurted out that I’d not taken my meds for nearly six months.Wheeeeeeeeeeewwwwww. That felt almost better. At least I could stop faking so hard. But it was months of therapy and medicinal voodoo before I would start to feel OK again. My doctor said if she’d seen what I was describing as my melt down in the car, she’d have recommended the straight jacket. And then she compassionately told me I was really stupid.
As I needlessly tortured myself, my family, and made all our lives miserable for the better part of a year looking for my own private miraculous healing, I was ignoring the real help God had already offered. Can He bounce the need for SSRIs right out my brain? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean He will, and I can’t force it. I also can’t blame the people of that church we left shortly after my crash, but I can say there are real issues to examine before diving headfirst into any new body of believers. I can also remember God’s most frequent word for us is on how we treat one other. His greatest commandment is to love Him, and each other. Jesus doesn’t play favorites over whether or not you have a monthly prescription to keep filling. Going all down some rabbit trail of desperately seeking signs, wonders, spiritual gifts, and sudden hair regrowth takes away from the main thing. He tells us to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, to forgive one another and to love each other, and to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts. If along the way, we witness, or are a part of something utterly amazing, it’s a blessing. But so is being able take insulin for your diabetes, or an ibuprofen for your headache. And so is being able to give, and receive love.