Tongues of Fire, Part 3

Tongues of Fire, Part 3

“He SEES you, young people!” Pastor proclaimed, as he stalked down the aisle toward our youth group. Pastor was determined to make an example of Us Youth today. It was the culmination of Revival Week, after all.

Seven evenings of fiery services from guest speakers, marathon prayer and worship sessions, supposed healings, and even a possible exorcism, according to the trickle-down gossip. Now, on this last Sunday, Us Youth were destined to receive a special message from On High, courtesy of Pastor.

Our church’s youth group was rather unconvincingly named R.A.G.E.—Righteous Anger Gains Eternity. Yep. The adults’ idea was that the Youth Ministers were whipping us up into a zealous group of on-fire culture warriors, ready to hit the streets and the highschool hallways with the Message of Christ (!) and to do battle against the encroaching evil within society. I’m sure the Youth Ministers tried; they’d ply us with snacks and outings and edgy Christian rock music, but for all their efforts, they got mostly just an awkward collection of 25 horny teenagers, all trying to out-cool one another, and more interested in staging an all-day trampoline Jump-a-thon to raise money for a Youth Mission Trip than actually going out and doing anything useful for the community.

But Pastor held out hope for us. We were, after all, the next generation.

“HalleLOOyuh!” he bellowed at us as he strode down the aisle. As he pulled up to us, he tempered his fire for a moment, closed his eyes and swayed under the heavy hand of the Almighty.

“Shaaa-hamalamada NEEshi COONdalamaDEEsius,” he murmured, in Tongues. Or something like that. It was always variations on a theme, no matter who was speaking. Lots of “lamadama” sounds, lots of rolled ‘R’s.

“Yes, he sees you, young people,” he repeated, lingering next to the kids on the aisle, laying a firm hand on their heads and staring vehemently at them through his bifocals.

“Yes, he sees you, and he loves you and he wants to RAISE YOU UP!”

Ooh, here we go.

“GAWD is RAISING YOU UP—”

Into a mighty army?

“—into a MIGHTY ARMY—”

And he wants us to do what?

“And he has COMMISSIONED YOU—”

Ooh, we’ve been commissioned! To march into battle?

“—to MARCH into battle—”

Yes! I knew it!

“—to FIGHT the Adversary, to break down his strongholds over this city, this state, and this nation—”

Slow down, now. That’s a lot of responsibility.

And to be LEADERS—

Wait, wait, don’t tell me! ‘In these Last Days’?

“—in these Last Days!”

Got it!

No revival was complete without gratuitous invocation of the Last Days. We were always perpetually waiting for the angelic trumpet to sound and for Jesus to burst through the clouds With a Mighty Shout. Society was getting so bad it could be any day now, but probably the year 2000. So much sex and violence on TV, atheist liberals determined to take God out of everything, teenage pregnancies. The gays. We all fully expected to be raptured away in the twinkling of an eye, unless we were, at that very moment, lusting, for instance, or masturbating. Then, all bets were off, and according to the prevailing eschatological theologians of the time, we might have to survive the Tribulation before we could be reunited with Christ in all his glory.

Pastor was ramping back up now. Marching Into Battle in the Last Days was a proven crowd-pleaser, and ordaining Us Youth to lead that charge got the congregation whooping and crying and cheering again. The worship band struck up a subdued series of chords, underscoring Pastor’s tirade, and with a flick of his hand, Pastor beckoned to some burly ushers posted at the back of the sanctuary. As the ushers drew near, Pastor finally decided on his target for the next act: Max Weldon—tall, blonde, and too-cool-for-Sunday-school.

“Max. Oh, Max.” Pastor didn’t have to raise his voice—the worship band had dialed it way down, and the congregation held its collective breath; these moments were always so precious to the adults, when Us Youth demonstrated how submissive we were to the Lord, how willing we were to take up his cross and follow him. I could feel the parents’ beatific smiles shining on us like floodlights.

Pastor held Max’s pale face between his beefy palms. “Max. Jesus loves you so much; you know that right?”

Max nodded dutifully, a pink flush beginning to creep up his white neck.

For the record, I’m quite sure Jesus did love Max Weldon, but probably with reservations. At 17, Max was about 6’3’, thin as a wire, white as a summer cloud, with a mop of cornsilk hair that he loved to toss out of his eyes. He was an insidious prick in the following ways: he would constantly flick imaginary specks of lint off his Tommy Hilfiger jeans, and pluck at his Nautica polo shirts (collars popped) to get them to fold just so over his braided Calvin Klein belts. He was A-list popular—his family had close ties to church leadership—and though he wasn’t overtly haughty per se, if you tried to engage Max in conversation, and you didn’t happen to rank high enough on the scale of significance within the church, Max’s ocean-blue eyes would never quite meet yours while you spoke to him, and his attention would gradually wander off over your head, looking for someone cooler to be seen talking to. Now, all that could have been tolerable, he might have been able to convince me that he was actually a decent person, but for one damning detail: he would carry his car stereo’s detachable faceplate around with him. Yeah, let that sink in, 90s kids. He’d just set it right on the floor beneath his chair during youth services. What’s this? Oh, that’s just my Bose. Never mind that it was slim enough to slip into the deep pockets of his wide-leg corduroys. No, he carried it casually in his hand, with the keys to his SUV, as if he’d forgotten he was holding onto it. This, to me, was simply irredeemable.

Pastor set his palm squarely on Max’s forehead, and the two ushers moved silently into position, hovering a few steps behind Max. “Max, are you ready to be a soldier? Are you ready to go out there into the world and spread the light of Christ?”

Max nodded, but that pink tinge had ebbed from his face; his eyes were closed, head bowed slightly. He knew how to roll with this, and from my position of safety in the middle of the row, I was fairly sure of what would come next.

The presence of big ushers was a tell-tale sign that someone was going to be Slain in the Spirit: that is, Pastor would lay his hand on your forehead in a moment of great spiritual fervor, and the power of the Holy Spirit would leap from him, through his hand and into you, like conduction, and you would be walloped with a such burst of Holy Spirit electricity that you would fall backwards into the waiting arms of the ushers, who would gently lower you to the floor, and there you’d lay, semi-unconscious and tranced-out, maybe having holy visions, or maybe just wrapped in that elusive, cottony shroud of God’s Love, but eventually the power of the Spirit would lift, and you’d get back up, a little shaky, a little fuzzy-headed, a little holier.

I wanted that touch from God, but I didn’t want to lay there, sprawled on the floor in front of the entire youth group. Max could’ve gotten away with it; he’d have made it look cool somehow, with a smooth slide to the floor into peaceful repose. He’d probably stand up again, two minutes later, plucking at his shirt, flicking at his jeans, as if nothing had happened. Me, my mouth would probably hang open, or my fly would be unzipped. The kids would snicker.

“Are you ready to be everything that Jesus needs you to be?” Pastor said to Max.

Max nodded.

“Are you ready to march into battle with him?”

Max nodded.

“Hallelujah,” Pastor said. He closed his eyes, and muttered under his breath in Tongues for a moment, processing some download from On High. “Hallelujah. Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord.”

Pastor’s eye’s snapped open. “Then let’s show him! MARCH with me!” Max’s eyes widened in horror as Pastor slipped an arm around his skinny waist and guided him into the aisle.

The congregation roared with praise. God was moving mightily here. The worship band rocketed into an instrumental crescendo, and Pastor’s voice dropped away as he reached toward the ceiling with his mic-holding hand, red-faced and praising, holding Max in a side-hug as he began to high-step toward the pulpit.

Up the aisle they went, Max towering over Pastor, the back of his neck and his ears rosy with mortification. Pastor did not seem to notice this, or he mistook Max’s florid countenance for his own devout exertion, but as they reached the pulpit and turned back, Pastor showed no sign of stopping their praise-march.

My mouth twisted in a wry smile as I watched Max’s face twitch with the effort of trying to make this seem cool. Eye contact with anyone, especially R.A.G.E., was clearly out of the question, so he stared resolutely into the middle distance, a dozen different expressions vying for control of his face. He couldn’t have simply scowled and refused to accompany Pastor; since Pastor was obviously wholly submitting to the power of God, any resistance would only make Max look surly and rebellious, a sure indicator of an unrighteous life. So the end result was an expression frozen somewhere between a grimace and rigor mortis, and an unclassifiable gait that looked something like a slow dance step performed in a straight line. The whole spectacle was beautiful and horrific at the same time, but despite Max’s best efforts, it did not come anywhere close to looking cool.

The march continued down the aisle, bolstered by the whooping and shouting of the congregation, and the crashing melodies of the worship band. Pastor pulled Max into a full hug, slapped him robustly on the back, and then released him back to his seat. Max’s face was still inscrutable, but his eyes were shining. What the fuck was this? After this ordeal that Max clearly wanted no part of, the Lord still pours out his glory on this prick? This arrogant, bony preppy who bragged about girls he’d fingered to the guys that crowded around his SUV in the parking lot after church? This fucking guy?

…And then I realized his shining eyes were brimming with tears. His face finally found an expression it could honestly display, and it was rage. Not the righteous kind that gained eternity, either. His pale skin was going to give him away, though. Nose beginning to turn pink, eyes, red-rimmed. He kept tilting his head back, probably willing the tears to stay in. When humiliation reaches a tipping point, this is what you get. I’d had a taste of it. The occasional time when I was stuck on the aisle seat and Pastor had found me, laid his hand on my head, shouted at me in Tongues—what was I supposed to do? Nod and smile like a simpering idiot while the congregation ogled me with patronizing smiles? Lift my hands and loll my head back, ‘fake-n-shake’ to make Pastor think it was working? Or squeeze my eyes shut until I saw starbursts against the black, and try to visualize Jesus on a throne, or the Lion of Judah, or a robed Messiah, anything at all, and beg, and plead, and try—oh God, please—to feel something. While two hundred pairs of eyes stared at me on the other side of my closed lids.

Max, just leave, I found myself thinking. Go to the bathroom, go for a smoke, something. Before someone else sees.

It was too late, though. A few adults nearby clearly thought he was overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit, and hands reached out to squeeze his shoulders. It wouldn’t have mattered to the kids in R.A.G.E., though. Boys were boys, and tears were tears, and never the twain shall meet. A couple girls next to Max were starting to whisper, behind cupped hands and curtains of hair. If even one tear slid down his face, the repercussions were unthinkable. I’d rather go to a R.A.G.E. service in Smurf Underoos. But the tricky part: don’t run out of the sanctuary right away—then everyone knows you’re distraught. You’ve gotta wait—an interminable five minutes or so, burning with embarrassment, until your departure could simply be taken as a trip to the bathroom.

I slid down the row toward the opposite end, bumping into knees, stepping on a few toes, mumbling apologies as the other kids clapped halfheartedly to worship songs or simply mouthed the words. I stumbled over the last kid, and out into the far aisle, next to the wall. Circled around the back row and turned up the center aisle.

I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned. His face tight, and then confused, because it was me, and I was decidedly not A-list popular, and what could I possibly want at this particular moment, and was it less cool to be seen talking to me, or to break down in humiliated tears in the middle of Sunday service?

I jerked my head toward the sanctuary doors, turned on my heel and walked off.

I pushed through the doors of the church, out into the blazing sun, and strode off across the parking lot. I looked back. Max caught the doors on the backswing and came out, squinting in the sudden brightness. Perfect camouflage for blinking back tears, if, of course, one were to need to do that.

His saunter returned as he followed. “What’s up?” he called after me.

I unlocked my car, opened the door, rummaged around under the driver’s seat. Pulled out a half-crumpled pack of Kool menthols with three cigarettes rattling around inside. I pulled out two. He looked around, furtive, but casual, of course. It was cool to smoke, bad-ass to smoke at church, but really not cool to get caught doing it. His ice-blue eyes, no longer brimming, regarded me for a long second as he took the cigarette.

We smoked in silence at the far end of the parking lot, in the mid-morning sunlight. A freight train blew its horn somewhere off to the east. We made sure to stand upwind of the smoke, keeping an eye on the church doors in case someone came out, but no one did.

“I gotta get back in,” he said. We flicked the butts into the gravel at the edge of the lot. He pushed off from my car, brushing imaginary bits of lint from his Tommy Hilfiger jeans, plucking at his Nautica polo shirt (collar popped), so that it folded just so over his braided Calvin Klein belt.

“One sec,” I said. I reached back into my car, came out with a travel-sized bottle of Listerine.

We sloshed it around in our mouths, and spat.

“Thanks,” he said, and meant it. He sauntered back toward the church doors, and I followed.

As we entered the sanctuary, the congregation was wrapping up “You Shall Go Out With Joy.” The worship band belabored the last chords, drawing it out, wallowing in it. A couple of snooty girls turned questioning eyes on Max as he strode in ahead of me. He ignored them, and slid back into his aisle seat. I squeezed past knees and stepped on toes and sat back down in mine.