Counting Blue Cars

I knelt in front of the minister, whom I’d sought out for this very purpose: to be anointed with oil and prayed over in order to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. By this I mean that I wanted to speak in tongues. I grew up very anti-charismatic; in the Church of Christ there were three things we definitely weren’t: charismatic, Catholic, or Calvinist. But the theology of my childhood faith seemed flat and sterile compared to those who were experiencing more than just heady assent to doctrine, who were getting some kind of taste of God that I had been denied. I don’t remember if this was before or after my Catholic phase, but it doesn’t matter. In that moment, I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I opened my mouth I could let fly with the language of angels. It was, if I can be forgiven the pun, right on the tip of my tongue. If I just gave things the slightest push, if I tried, maybe I could manifest the sign I was looking for.

In the end, it was that push that did me in. I knew that, on some level, I would be making it happen, that I would be having this experience predicated on the fact that I wanted to have this experience. I really think it was possible, but somehow I also knew it wasn’t going to be the thing that I was looking for, the thing that I now suspect doesn’t exist — not for people like me.

I wanted something that I couldn’t disbelieve, something so overwhelmingly real that it would reorient the rest of my life. Some so real it would make me real. I was, by this time, already starting to doubt my legitimacy as a Christian. I didn’t feel the gushy Jesus stuff other people felt. People would tell me things like “I can just see the power of God on you when you lead worship” but I knew in my heart it was a kind of performance, and one that would obtain whether I was leading worship or playing in a bar. I pour myself into the music that I play, even when I don’t like the music in question, because that’s what we do as musicians. I can couch that in Christianese — I used to joke that “it’s not worship unless you sweat” but I knew it was the music, and this made me feel fake.

The minister reassured me that sometimes it doesn’t happen right away, that later down the road, at some random moment, I might be ravished by the Holy Spirit — that the prayer and the anointing had done their work, and not to worry. I wasn’t worried, but I was pretty sure nothing was going to happen. Emily Dickinson famously refused to go forward during a revival at Holyoke, even though most of her peers were caught up in ecstatic frenzy. Simone Weil, for all practical purposes an atheist, was enamored of the Church but never joined because she felt she belonged outside, if only just. William James, in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience, seems smitten by mystics, recognizing some kind of validity to their experience, which he felt was denied him. Kathleen Norris quotes someone — Levertov, maybe, or Sexton? — who said “I love faith, but I have been denied the gift of faith.”

I recently had a brief exchange with Cheryl Ensom Dack over at Peter Walker’s blog. She too, has been looking for an encounter with God, though she narrates things differently than I do. And with no such encounter forthcoming, she’s moved on. She’s open to God if he decides to show up, but she’s not holding her breath. I’ve always wondered if Simone Weil’s title Waiting for God was an allusion to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which the title character never arrives, but I don’t know. Either way, I relate to these people, those of us begging for scraps at the existential banqueting table.

But that’s not quite right, either. It’s more like we’re watching other people eat sand, and rave about the gourmet dining, knowing that it’s not sand to them, and yet unable to undertake the act of surrender necessary to taste the prime rib ourselves. The wine and bread refuse to transubstantiate, and whether a priest says hoc est corpus meum or a parlor magician says “hocus pocus” it’s not going to change anything.

We’ve got it wrong, our friends say; we want to know so that we might believe but we must, as Augustine said, believe that we might know. We can’t have this experience because we won’t have this experience. We nod and we smile. We say “I know, I know,” and wave our hand dismissively. We might even agree. But we also know that we won’t because we can’t. We can’t will ourselves to believe just so that we might have a particular kind of experience and still believe the experience the way that others do. We’d always know we made it happen. We’d always know we surrendered to the particular conditions necessary to have a certain kind of experience and that’s all it would mean, all it would ever mean.

This is the deal we made, though we didn’t know we were making it. This is our Faustian bargain, but at the end there’s no devil anymore with whom we might negotiate: no backsies, no do-over, no mulligan.

We wanted to know something. Wanted to see something. We had some kind of insatiable curiosity about systems, about meaning, about language, about human thinking. Something to do with the “linguistic turn” and poststructuralism and Heisenberg and semantic structures and science fiction and religion and God knows what else and we don’t even remember when the turning point was, just this never-ending ratchet click, click, click, no turning back we already took the red pill the toothpaste is out of the tube the water is not turning into wine into blood and no, Goddammit you’re not going to speak in tongues because you’d just be making it up and you know it.

It feels, at times, a little like madness.

We’ll sometimes poke fun at the true believers because of their blindness but at the same time we covet what their blindness gives them. We see people raising their hands in worship, and not just for show but out of some depth of spirit, and we wonder what that’s like. We hear people choke up in the middle of a puerile but heartfelt prayer and we wonder what it would take to move us so completely. We hear people talk about their deep, personal relationship with God or Jesus and we think: really? What on earth would that be like? Not just to experience that — it’s not that simple — but to be the kind of person who can?

But we traded off. We chose something different. We can’t go back, and we wouldn’t anyway. We didn’t get cheated, not really. We got exactly what we were looking for. We all do.

Tell me all your thoughts on God.

11 thoughts on “Counting Blue Cars

  1. I can’t tell you how exactly this post expresses how I feel. Once a fundamentalist, I made the charitable mistake of looking at my faith from the outside–surely the arguments for Christianity were so good only a stubborn God-hater could read them and still disbelieve. I was wrong, and now I can’t get back inside the box. I miss it but I’m more glad I’m out.

  2. Love this line:

    “God knows what else and we don’t even remember when the turning point was, just this never-ending ratchet click, click, click, no turning back we already took the red pill the toothpaste is out of the tube the water is not turning into wine into blood and no, Goddammit you’re not going to speak in tongues because you’d just be making it up and you know it.”

    I’m sharing this with a friend whose struggling through this very thing. Thanks for articulating these thoughts for us.

  3. Ted,

    I’d really like to meet Her. And ask Her why we’re who we are.

    In some ways, our background is very similar. I have never been comfortable with the “gushy Jesus stuff” of the “true believers” who seem to think God has told them what to order for lunch at Wendy’s. I’ve always asked questions, wanted to know why, and I never take things for granted. And yet my experience has been actually quite opposite yours. When I wasn’t seeking any particular encounter, I had one – powerful, sudden, and overwhelming. It was the night I, to use the hackneyed language, “felt” the “call” to ministry.

    This happened at youth camp. The next year I tried to get God to repeat the fireworks, to no avail. As for speaking in tongues, I had one night in college in which that experience came upon me, also not explicitly invited, and frankly it scared me. Unlike my call experience, I didn’t push for a sequel.

    The call didn’t change my feelings on the gushy stuff. Nor has that first numinous night frozen my thinking, reading and questioning as if a spiritual experience is epistemological grounds for cementing all one’s theological suppositions on the spot. I have changed in many ways since then, and I expect there is more to come. I have doubted, prodded, dissected that evening repeatedly. Perhaps it was a head fake. Perhaps it was the God of Israel. Something happened that remains a mystery and it has defined the direction of my whole life.

    I take seriously the testimony of the mystics that special divine encounters – especially the contemplative communion that is considered the height of experience – are gifts of grace and not the assured results of human effort. Everything I’ve seen suggests that we may do some preparatory work, but that too much seeking is counterproductive as it is a longing for the gift rather than the Giver (to draw upon Augustine in a different way: a disordered desire for something before the the Creator). And, it seems, some of us present ourselves simply receptive before the awesome Mystery only never to receive at all. Why that is the case, I don’t know. Perhaps there is a plan afoot in the communal sharing of stories as some of us bring what we have and some of us bring what we lack.

  4. Chris,

    Thanks for writing. A lot of stories that begin “One night in college” end very differently. :)

    I appreciate the contemplative tradition and those who seek to practice it. I’m definitely not a hater. And I like the tagline of your blog: “Discipleship in the ruins of empire.”

    I guess if I were to attempt a push-back, it would to observe that your caveat applies, mutatis mutandis, to other forms of human practice. Not every musician who practices their scales and submits to the repertoire gets that spark that makes them artists rather than technicians. Not every athlete who undergoes the training regimen has the “stuff.” Not everyone who stills the soul in prayer hears the voice of God. Maybe all of those things, when they happen, should be narrated as grace and as gift.

  5. Ted,

    A fair rejoinder, and perhaps we should speak of such talents as gifts (in fact, many often do). But a major difference between mystical experience and the skill of a musician or athlete is that the latter always requires practice and development. We have ample testimony of the numinous arriving unbidden without hours spent in prayer and meditation. Sometimes the grace is about as grace-full as it can be!

  6. I’m a cellist, and play on the worship team every Sunday. Outside of that I’m a professional musician. I’ve been married for 6 years and I feel as though all my wife wants me to do is return to Jesus. I’ve given up prayer, small groups, worship sessions ect. It’s just really hard to have “faith” in something I can’t tangibly experience. I’ve been waiting on God for way too long. I’m ready for a supernatural vision.

  7. Jesse, your name is familiar from some Facebook context or another, I think, or maybe Thom’s blog. The interwebs all bleed together after awhile.

    Anyway, at the risk of cliche, I feel you. I recently ran across a quote from Milbank in which he takes a postmodern theologian to task for trying to have his cake and eat it too:

    This is exactly the sort of pusillanimous theology of some in the 1960s that we have long sought to escape from. Why? Because it is bad faith. If you are going to be an atheist and nihilist, then be one. Only second-raters repeat secular nostrums in a pious guise.

    And I wonder: is this me, too? Should I give up the pretense? Do I really believe anything? Do I care?

    On the other hand, I’m playing bass in church this Sunday.

  8. Yeah, I’ve seen your name also Ted. I’ll add you. My wife wishes I could either “be strong” or leave the faith. She’s obviously a black and white person. I decided to give church a break for awhile, my wife will be attending alone.

  9. Great post. My “baptism in the holy spirit” is a nigh identical testimony. Concerning speaking in tongues, the pentecostals that surrounded me (not theologically sophisticated) reassured me, “Don’t listen to doubts of the Enemy, just open your mouth and let the syllables come.” I threw ’em a bone and muttered a random syllable or two at max, but that was it.

    I think one issue in this picture is that we live in this post-existential world, where we have to “feel” something for some kind of “authenticity.” But Augustine would counter that love is not a feeling, but an act of the will. That being said, I still appreciate the position that can’t muster the will. Indeed, Augustine would add that the willpower is itself a gift of grace.

  10. I grew up pseudo-Baptist, and always thought speaking in tongues was potentially legit but also weird. I first actually saw people doing it in the documentary film “Jesus Camp” and while they certainly were sincere, I could never bring myself to try (especially not now because I would be “making it up and know it” like ted’s blog post says), but also I think it sounds like the Ewok chatter from Return of the Jedi. Maybe I’ve always been lacking in the reverence department, who knows.

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