I asked on Facebook about a time when people heard the voice of God or at least, someone said they had and thus given a ton of unsolicited advice. This is part 1 in response to that: a little history of my 90’s church upbringing before we dive into the theological implications of the Voice of God and the Church’s long history of being obsessed with hearing it.
I was in my early twenties, attending a small Liberal Arts college in Southern California, and dating a boy that played guitar, was a Christian, and subsequently was nice on the eyes. The decision to apply and attend a Liberal Arts school over a Christian University was a choice I consciously made, and for my Younglife group back in high school, a good one. The more you were aware of the world and in it, the more you could change it.
See, I grew up in the church, but found myself along the edges most of the time: my mom was in the choir, my dad a Deacon, my sister sang solos or “special music” while the offering plate was being passed around, and I tried my hardest to really picture Jesus on the cross during communion; the only thing I could legitimately come up with to do during this time of silence that seemed to last for eons.
Sundays were spent at church, and Wednesdays were spent at youth group meetings, where I was devastated if they ever separated the middle school and high school because that meant I had to be away from my sister, and she was my saving grace. She laughed at the jokes I told, understood why I didn’t want to play any of the games, and pulled me away when I felt awkward that some of the church boys said “no frontal hugs”. Our Youth Pastor, Tim, was somewhat of an odd character, sporting blue, button-up plaid shirts and a goatee that was cool in some realm of the 90’s that we didn’t know of. In spite of all of our grievances with his dress and awful jokes, I really think he cared about the church and the kids.
We were able to give grace to him and his awkward ways because there was pizza and soda at youth group and it gave us something to do while my mom was in choir practice. However, that headed south fast for me, when my sister and I didn’t attend summer program because we were out of town, and Pastor Tim sent us multiple emails asking if we were ok, or how he could pray for us. I remember waiting for the dial up modem of AOL to be finished, only to sign in to my email to find this disappointing request. No messages from friends, or boys, just the Youth Pastor. And bless his heart, he was just doing exactly what he should have been doing, but for my sister and I, it just made us feel more awkward and we refused to go back to youth group in the Fall. I can’t say that it was specifically because of these careful and kind emails requesting why we wouldn’t attend youth groups, or it was the overall sense that I didn’t fit in with the youth group crowd, but we decided that sitting in church with my parents was a much better alternative.
I didn’t like the idea of being checked up on. The title “Pastor” was ambiguous to me, and it felt like he was the eyes of God, or at least he wanted to be. With this lens, it was hard for me grapple with a God that emailed me, took attendance, also wore a goatee.
Everyone at our church was old, at least they felt really old and my sister and I, although 3 years apart, we looked well enough alike that if she sang a solo that week, many members of the church who couldn’t see well would come up to me after and tell me what a lovely voice I had. I would politely say “thank you so much” and even one week, when I noticed my sister was stuck talking to someone at the front of the church, I took it upon myself to stand in the back and say goodbye to people as they left, a tradition that the lead pastor did every Sunday. I passed on all the compliments I received to my sister during the drive home and we giggled hysterically about this ruse we had pulled. Because no matter what happened at church, we both knew the best part about Sundays: going to Subway, getting the meatball sub and then eating it on our bean bag chairs as we watched Sweet Valley High.
It was the early 90’s and that was the way that church worked: you went on Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights, and you did so in your Sunday best. The rest of the day was calm, quiet and relaxing. And I saw God enter into our lives more in that meatball sub than I did in communion, and heard the voice of God more though my sister’s laugh and watching my dad hang his tie and my mom take off her earrings than I did in any sermon. In fact, I vividly remember either falling asleep and being woken up by my mom, or my sister pinching me or tickling me as I tried my hardest to pay attention during the 20 minute message.
So by the time I got to high school, my context of church involved Sunday obligations, people who sang in the choir like my mom, people that passed the plate and communion like my dad, those that had something special to contribute, and then me. The rest of us, that didn’t really fit in, but were along for the ride. I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable or out of place, but I definitely didn’t feel at home, which was odd considering the question that was always asked was: “What is your church home?”
When I was a Junior in High School we moved to Colorado and tried to find a new church, but it was rough. We received so many welcome mugs, new cookie baskets, phone calls, all of which had the same effect as Youth Pastor’s Tim email inquiring of my absence: made me not want to go to that church again. There was something about them showing up on our porch and asking questions about my faith that rubbed me the wrong way. Again I was confronted with the question: is the God of the Universe employing these people, who bake cookies and stalk homes of those who came into His House of worship?
Clearly, my church standards really were set by how much people were paying attention to us. In my book, the less the better. There was one church that we liked fairly well, and they didn’t send us one thing when we filled out the Visitor Card, plus my mom and dad didnt make me go to the youth group, so it passed a few of my most important standards. We attended quite frequently until Christmas Eve arrived and we all got into our Christmas best and attended with my sister who was in town from New York City, only to find ourselves smack dab in a sermon that discussed the devil’s role in the birth of Jesus. It was dark, there was an actual human dressed up as a devil lurking around the manger, and we all left crying because we were terrified. I remember my mom having to sit my sister down and console her that night with some egg nog, because no one could really comprehend what happened in that room.
After a few more encounters and sermons that heavily focused on the devil lurking, we finally stopped going to church for a bit. No one called or questioned where we went, which further confused my suspicions: the one church that didn’t come knocking was the same church that owned a devil costume. Coincidence? I thought not.
Alas, skipping church week after week was something that I was pleased about but also found to be refreshingly rebellious of my parents. We had always lived by the book, and so to not attend felt invigorating and terrifying all at once. How many weeks would we live like this before Youth Pastor Tim found out? Would we forever be x-ed from the cookie list that God had made and was updated to His workers, and I began questioning if I should have been paying attention to those devil sermons.
My parents wanted me to be involved with something the resembled church and so I started to attend Young Life and became a Wyldlife leader. After a few camps and mountain top experiences, I was on fire for Christ, and became a version of what felt like Youth Pastor Tim: calling middle school girls when they didn’t show up to Wednesday night “club” and taking them to coffee later in the week. Young Life became my new church and I made friends and community and started actually paying attention during the message that the leader would deliver.
Young Life taught me the importance of going to meet people wherever you find them and to love them first, before anything else. It was so different than our church we grew up at, who wanted attendance, tithing and participation. If anyone called me when I didn’t attend a Monday Young Life meeting, it was to hang out, not to harp on where I had been or what I been doing. Young Life gave me freedom to ask questions, sit out when I felt like it, and most importantly, fit in. My Young Life leader often would say “I love Jesus but I also swear a little.” This was walking the line for me and I could hear Youth Pastor Tim and his goatee and plaid shirts having a fit about the whole thing, but I loved it. It was the first expression of Church that I witnessed that had a sense of freedom about them and I wanted more of it.
So when the time came for me to leave Colorado and choose a college, I deliberately chose not to apply to a Christian University. We had visited a few, and when the issue of curfew and yelling “boy on the floor” came up, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Young Life had given me a taste of freedom that still took communion, sang worship songs, and prayed while teaching everyone to be themselves. The Christian University model that I was introduced to felt like I was going back to the rules of the church I grew up in, where participation was required and expected, and I would get a phone call from a Dean if I had needed a little space, or needed to experience God on a long run instead of a long-winded Chapel.
But making this decision raised so many questions from even my Young Life friends. It wasn’t a question of why I would go to a non-Christian school, it was how did I know that I should. In theology terms, how did I hear the voice of God on this matter? How did I know this is what I was supposed to do? What this my calling, the plan, the path?
I honest to goodness had zero idea. I got the most scholarship from this University, it was by the beach, and on my trip out there I had visited In-N-Out for the first time and became born again with a double-double. Because of my affinity for expiring God outside of Church walls, I went to church when my toes hit the sand and it was sunny the majority of the year. Not to mention, praise hands were raised all over my house when the debt was cut in half.
But there I found myself, in my dorm room, dating a boy that played guitar, there was no curfew, and a dose of reality that I had never experienced before. For me, rebellion had been defined as not attending church, I found out that my definition wasn’t considered “rebellion” at all, it was considered normal. I had joined a Bible study and was the only Christian in the Religion Department and felt like I was doing the Lord’s good work. But from time to time, my adolescent upbringing reared its head and asked the question of “How could I be sure?” Did I ever hear the Lord’s voice in this, and if so, how did I know?
I found myself in the midst of a season that was plagued with uncertainty but not because of any reason except, this much freedom was uncomfortable. I longed for the days where I could just go to church and get a meatball sub on the way home, and my sister and I giggle in the backseat. Church and God were defined by not having to make any choices, and the idea of hearing God’s voice was never even brought up with a definitive answer. At least not by Youth Pastor Tim.
One night, my cell phone rang, and I checked the caller ID to see that it is a friend of mine who I knew form Young Life circles in High School that attended a Christian University about 40 miles north of me. We had seen one another a few times since the school year had begun, and we called one another almost weekly to encourage each other in our faith, ask how evangelism was going, and discuss what it was like to go to a “secular university”. On this particular night, however, he called to tell me that he had a good friend whose mom was a “prophetess” and she had interpreted a dream for him.
“Um, ok, I say.” laughing uncomfortably. “What was your dream?”
Now besides Joseph and his colorful coat, the talk of dreams and God speaking to us through them was about as odd as it got for me. Never had anyone mentioned this in any of the Jesus circles I was a part of in my childhood, and so this, plus this “prophetess” was foreign to me and suddenly I was glad, yet again, that I had chosen the path less taken. The last thing I needed was someone telling me what my dream meant, and then checking up to see if I was actually changing my life accordingly. It was like Youth Pastor emails on crack; only Youth Pastor had been promoted to the holy role of “Prophet”.
Turns out, my friend’s dream was a picture of a cow who had a stomach that was a burning furnace. Because of this furnace smoke was coming out of his head. His friend’s mom had told him that I was the cow (ahem…) and that the furnace in my stomach was two things: 1.) my current boyfriend 2.) my secular university.
The message behind it all, was this: If I did not break up with my boyfriend and transfer to my friend’s Christian University, then it would “put a 2-3 heard hold on God’s plan for salvation for the world.”
Now. I may not have heard too much about God’s voice, nor did I have any inkling as to why I attended this university in the first place, not to mention the on-going battle of dating during a time when Joshua Harris was on the crusade to get everyone to “Kiss Dating Goodbye”, but I knew this: God wasn’t up in heaven freaking out like some guy who put out all his chips on the craps table only to find out that he was out of luck.