There were three of us presenting “ministry opportunities” in church that Sunday. After the first presentation, the Pastor called for a laying on of hands for the man who’d made the presentation. In true Pentecostal style, men in suits gathered around, laying one hand on their brother-in-service who was bringing the gospel to the underprivileged of their city and raising their other hand toward God.
I gulped and hoped they wouldn’t lay hands on me. They didn’t. Nor did they for the other woman who made a presentation about her bookstore ministry. Though it was probably an indication of deep-rooted sexism, I was willing to let that one go.
My presentation fell flat. The Pastor hadn’t managed to get my powerpoint to work (or hadn’t even tried, I’m not sure which), so I had to tell the stories without the pictures. As I talked about Aghnia in India who suffers from not only hunger but injustices that we have some responsibility for, I realized that people were only half listening. They’d been more engaged when they’d heard about how Jesus had transformed the poor of their city into Bible-thumping-praise-Jesus evangelists and prophets.
They were good people in this church, seeking goodness in this world. But they’d come to church this Sunday morning to hear about what God could do for them, not about what they should be doing for Aghnia in India. If Aghnia repented of her sin and raised her hands toward Jesus, perhaps then her story would be worth listening to.
The presentations over, the Pastor got up to preach. I’d dared to hope that the presentations were meant to replace the sermon, but I’d underestimated the drive of a fired-up-Pentecostal-capital-P-Pastor who feels called to lay the word of Jesus on the hearts of his (big H or little h?) followers. I remember little of what he preached about, but I know there were loudly expressed words about sin and evil and salvation and healing. I thought back to the comment I’d heard not long before about why television preachers always sound so angry. (“Imagine hearing the same tone of voice from someone advertising a mattress, or a friend telling you about their new love interest,” the person had said. “You’d wonder what was making them so pissed off.”)
I wanted to be judgmental about the lack of intellectual thought in the sermon, or the emotional “uh-huhs” and “praise Jesus” in the crowd. I wanted to cast it off as irrelevant and even damaging. It didn’t fit my questioning/grappling/over-thinking approach to faith. But… is it a bad thing if some people find an emotional doorway to God while others of us seek truth through more intellectual routes?
After the sermon, the Pastor invited those who needed healing to join him in the front. “If you haven’t received healing yet, it’s not because God is doing something wrong, it’s because YOU ARE NOT BELIEVING it will be done,” he shouted. I cringed.
One by one, people shuffled to the front of the church, crying out to God for release from whatever ailed them. A bent over old man, a tall elegant middle-aged woman – people of many races and walks of life.
My eyes came to rest on the young father who carried his small boy to the front. Was the healing for himself? His son? I didn’t have to wonder long. The Pastor laid his hands on the boy. Trustingly, he reached out and the Pastor scooped him into his arms. When they turned in my direction, I could read the story written on the young face. He was clearly living with Down’s syndrome.
I didn’t hear the prayer (there was a loud din of people praying by this point), but I assume the Pastor was asking God for a release from Down’s. My heart ached for the little boy. What did he believe about himself? That he was broken? Sick? In need of healing? What would he believe tomorrow when the prayer was not answered to the satisfaction of the grown-ups in his life? Would he beg God to help him have more faith? Would he curse himself for his otherness? What about the young father? Would he wonder what sins of his past had been visited upon his son?
I wondered if the healing that is needed is not for the young boy, but for those of us who view him as “different” or “incomplete”.
I try to accept the different roads our faith takes us down. I try to live with a “generous orthodoxy” and accept that God looks different to different people. But I can’t help but wonder about the collateral damage - people whose lives are tainted by the dark side of faith. Not just their version, but mine. The little boy who will grow up believing God made a mistake or his parents didn’t have enough faith. The old woman in India whose hunger is less important than her salvation. The young man who’s attracted to a person of the wrong gender. The young woman who can't live out her passion and calling to serve as a leader.
Is there an approach to faith that will make a difference for them?