Today's post comes to us from the talented and delightful Michelle DeRusha, who is a longtime participant in our little online community.
A Massachusetts native, Michelle moved to Nebraska in 2001, where she discovered the Great Plains, grasshoppers the size of Cornish hens … and God. Michelle writes about finding and keeping faith in the everyday at michellederusha.com, as well as for the Lincoln Journal Star and The High Calling. She’s mom to two bug-loving boys, Noah and Rowan, and is married to Brad, an English professor who reads Moby Dick for fun.
Her first book, Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith, is excellent, and was published in April by Convergent Books. I highly recommend it, especially for those who love the spiritual memoir genre.
“So how did you go from Pentecostal to Lutheran?” I lobbed the question at James one evening as our small group members sat in a circle around my living room. James nodded toward his wife, who was tucked next to him on the couch, Bible open on her lap. “I married her,” he said, and the whole group laughed because we all knew, sometimes that’s exactly how such a journey unfolds.
“But to tell you the truth,” he said, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his knees, “I miss the intensity of my old church. It’s different there; you feel an energy, an aliveness. You really feel the Spirit’s presence.”
The rest of us nodded, intrigued. Most of us in our small group are long-time or even lifelong Lutherans; we don’t have much experience in the Pentecostal church.
James settled back into his chair, paused a moment, and then suddenly leaned forward again, looking me straight in the eye. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just think if you’re not getting off the pew and on your feet, if you’re not physically in the moment, you’re not truly experiencing the Holy Spirit.”
I know James didn’t intend his comment to be inflammatory or judgmental; he didn’t intend to start down the “my religion versus your religion” road. In fact, the moment I cleared my throat, planted my feet on the floor and leaned forward in my chair to object to his statement, James immediately backpedaled. He undoubtedly realized he’d crossed the line in a living room full of stoic, Midwestern Lutherans whose idea of exuberant worship is timidly repeating, “He is risen indeed!” once a year on Easter Sunday.
Yet I also suspect James is not alone in his thoughts on the Holy Spirit. Somewhere along the line it seems our understanding of where and how the Holy Spirit is accessible has become synonymous with a certain brand of worship – expressive, demonstrative, emotional and physical. We’ve focused exclusively on the wind and fire and tongue-speaking of Pentecost and dismissed the still, small voice Elijah heard in the cave on Mount Sinai. We’ve deemed one experience powerful and authentic and the other less-than.
It was clear from the way James lit up when he talked about his former church that he prefers a more emotionally expressive, physical worship experience to the formal, liturgical format of the Lutheran service. He comes alive and is energized by Pentecostal worship; it’s where he most often meets and experiences God. James likes to be on his feet, voice raised, arms uplifted, surrounded by the cacophony of tongues. I get that, and I don’t have a problem with it. My defensiveness was sparked not by James’ personal preference, but by his suggestion that my preferred worship style is less Spirit-filled and a less authentic way to experience God.
The temptation to privilege a physical, demonstrative faith is understandable. If we can create a script for belief, we can measure adherence to or deviation from it. Perhaps that's why we spend so much time fixated on the physical motes in the eyes of others (sexual sin, for example) and neglect the spiritual logs – like pride and hypocrisy – in our own.
The fact is, what James perceived as a lack of the Holy Spirit is simply a difference in worship personality. James is praise band, wind and fire and tongues. I’m old-school hymnal, contemplation and still, small voice. James would thrive at a 10,000-person worship service in a stadium; I’d prefer a Benedictine monastery with twelve monks in brown robes. Our preferences couldn’t be more different, but neither is wrong, and neither is more Spirit-filled than the other.
I think sometimes we Christians allow our passion to cloud our perception. We conflate what’s best for us personally, as individuals, with what’s best for everyone else. So enamored are we with our own brand of worship and our own denomination, we are blind to the beauty and uniqueness of those that differ. So passionate are we about our own personal experiences with the living God, we fail to understand that others experience the Spirit in wildly different ways – experiences that may not look and sound like ours, but are no less God-filled and good.
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