Church is Our Classroom Part VIII: Abundant Life Church

Abundant Life Church
May 31, 2009

It was a perfect Sunday morning. I had gotten there first and was definitely nervous opening the door. Based on the website, out of all the churches we’d been so far, I knew that our outsider status would be most obvious here. The second I stepped inside, a man greeted me with a firm handshake and a “Good morning, brother.” And then another past the vestibule. As I went to sit somewhere near the back, a woman gently ushered me up the aisle, inviting me to get closer.

Four women and two men took the stage, each grabbing their own microphone and the band dropped it. They were awesome. The congregation swayed, stamped their feet, dancing in place, and let out improvised sung and half-sung exclamations. I started out self-conscious and a little stiff, but was soon swaying and dancing along. It’s funny the music really got my pelvis gyrating and I was a little self conscious that I might be dancing too sexy for church.

A small projection screen with the lyrics typeset atop images of clouds and sunbeams came up and down throughout the service, operated by two young casually dressed boys.

From start to finish the service was truly a celebration. At one point, in a fit of singing and shaking it, I thought to myself, “We’re all celebrating the same thing!” Ever since DP’s god post last week, I’ve been remapping the word God in real time to refer to the universe and its themes of beauty. It rang so true on this day. These people were excited to be alive and in the perpetual presence of beauty and they weren’t holding back their excitement. Sunday was their day to celebrate an abundance of life.

Pastor Larry Ward referred us to Acts 1:21 2. An usher quickly passed three bibles down to row to Jeff, Lauren, and I.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [a] as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, [b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

I was struck by the linguistic implications of this passage. Before language branched and differentiated through evolution, we all spoke the same language. And to some degree, we still speak the same language - that of the body. The consistency of bodily communication signals across cultures is astounding, but not surprising. I didn’t need to believe in the same details as them or even know what they were singing about.

In fact I wasn’t processing the lyrics most of the time. (I generally don’t with sung music.) I was synchronizing with the congregation. This is the thing rituals are made of. It is a powerful thing. Bodies moving side by side together in time to the same rhythms. It was not that different from losing myself in the middle of a nightclub dance floor. It is a bodily loss of self. It confirmed for me the universality of movement and music so dramatically conveyed by those bombastic Church of Drum and Bass videos on YouTube.

It was a far cry from the Mormons last week and the Episcopals a few weeks before that. Rather than seeing natural man as an enemy of God, this tradition seemed to be embracing natural man and all of his inherited body movement programs. I could see so clearly the ritualized infant / mother movements I’ve been reading about. Not to mention the dancing babies to the right. Granted, it was a small Church, the tight sense of community here was palpable.

The loosening and tightening of group / individual dynamics was fluidly ushered along by the music. Sometimes, when the pastor spoke, the keyboardist would back him up with a light passage, playing counterpoint and amplifier to his already emotionally colored words. The epilogue of each song was a five minute improvisation in which the music would decrease in intensity and the entire congregation would reinforce each other with a half-rhythmic half-melodic soup of words. During a few of these improvisational passages, I closed my eyes and was immersed in a moving soup of voices and personal affirmations.

The pastor started with something to the effect of “God intended pentecostal to not be a group, not a sect of Christianity. It’s for everyone.” I was pleased with the inclusiveness of his opening. Perhaps it was even for our benefit as visitors. It wasn’t until a few days later that I pondered some of the people that might not be welcome in this Church.

“You don’t even know what’s in store for you. Wait til you see what comes next!”, Pastor Ward exclaimed. I don’t know if any of us really knows the true depth of this statement. We can barely begin to imagine. E.O. Wilson agrees: We are nothing compared to what we will become.

Members of the congregation were called up to share their personal stories of good fortune by the hand of God. It was the same tradition I had witnessed a week earlier at Mormon church, with a different flavor. People got up and talked about their scholarships and their new jobs. A recent graduate of Harvard talked about her admittance and full scholarship to an MD/PhD program. I was struck with the nonchalance with which dollar amounts of money were dropped into the stories. “I passed up an $80,000 job.” “I got a $10,000 scholarship” And so on. These numbers were important. They gave both wings and weight to these stories.

Everyone rejoiced for each person collectively. I wondered how many people were jealous in private. No matter, this formalized gesture of group celebration for individuals was very powerful.

“Be a vessel for God.” With a simple remapping of the word God to “the tendencies of the universe”, this command rings true for me. Embrace feedback and reflexivity. Roll with the evolutionary processes at work in our existence. Be a vessel for mutations.

At the lowest level, what does it mean to give thanks? It is a moment of reflection to point out what is good in the universe. While my thanks might be directed to a different addressee, I whole-heartedly agree with the importance of stopping to give thanks.

“God is good.” What is goodness? Is the universe and its proclivities goodness? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently. On first inspection, it seems like an easy question to answer. At times, I feel that our Plebian conversations seem to take the concept of goodness too much for granted. If you really drill down, it’s not an easy question to answer.

When the basket came around, I had no reservations dropping cash. It would go toward “this stimulus package called Jubilee”, as the pastor put it. I was moved by the service and wanted other people to continue to be moved in the same way. This is how religions spread; an overwhelming desire to share an emotion.

At the end the pastor asked all the visitors to raise their hands. We were the only visitors, so he was obviously referring ot us. We received goody bags with mints, leaflets, brochures, and a condensed version of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life.

Female pastor came and said hello personally. With a bit of self-deprecation, she wanted to be sure we weren’t overwhelmed by her zeal on stage. She let us know that sometimes people think she gets a little carried away up there. I assured her that it was not too much, that they were great up on stage, and that this had been my favorite church so far.

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2 Responses to “Church is Our Classroom Part VIII: Abundant Life Church”

  1. danielle applestone says:

    I like the term “church-sexy”. Like a whole different genre of sexy.

  2. game blog says:

    Powerful post.

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