We look back over our lives and divide them into different eras. From childhood to teenage years to adulthood and finally becoming old, life is a dizzying cacophony of memories, both good and bad. Successes and failures pave the way, molding and shaping us into who we will eventually become. We may identify particular life ages with a different feeling that seemed to hang over us at all times.
But in reality, if I could go back in time and relive one day from my past, I would feel nothing. I may be standing in a garden, with a mountain looming in the distance, the blue sky silently surrounding the world, and the only music coming from the singing birds and the scratchy bluegrass spilling out of an old radio far away, and the wind that shakes the trees.
One of my earliest memories is one such environment, sitting in my grandmother’s lap in a swing under an apple tree. I can remember giggling with excitement as she held up my hands and taught me to sing to Jesus.
It was a world that seems now like a bygone era, when everything was bigger and grander, when tastes were stronger and sounds were louder and colors were brighter. And everything was more innocent, yet somehow scarier. It is a world that seems to fade further and further into the fog of memories until it one day may be gone forever.
My mother was the first Pentecostal in a Baptist-raised family. Before I was born, every Sunday she would sneak down to a tiny Assembly of God Church on the corner of the downtown in Stone Mountain, Georgia. It was a new experience for her; she herself put it this way in the comments sections of one of my past blog (Everyone Yielding to the Holy Ghost, Part 1):
“The Holy Ghost is near and dear to my heart. I was raised Baptist until I discovered the Holy Ghost when I was around 12 or 13. I had a longing for a deeper walk with God as I grew up, but I didn't know what it was. When I began experiencing the power of God, I knew this was it…When I received all of this in the early 90's, I remember one of my first thoughts was "WOW, now I know why Christians can stay in church and sit for hours, why they can sing over and over, why they study the Word, why they feel the way they do...etc."
For me, however, despite having been to many Baptist services as a child, the Pentecostal experience stretches far back into my earliest memories. I have always heard people speak in tongues, and have seen so many miracles and healings that I could never write enough books to contain them all.
I remember from an early age having God explained to me. He is invisible, yet He created each and every one of us. We can’t see Him but He sees us and knows everything we’re thinking at all times. He knows about us always, yet we know so little about Him.
If this being described to me as a child brought any skepticism, it was dispelled by the tantalizing idea that He gave us one thing to prove Himself to us. We have in our possession a book that He wrote, where He reveals all of His mysteries, and it’s up to us to study it and know Him better. It contains all of the secrets of the universe, yet the more we read it, the more we are stirred by its mystery. It is a puzzle that can never quite be put together, and yet that’s what draws us to it.
I remember my mother reading me illustrated Bible stories in bed every night, imprinting the stories of the Word in my mind, never to be forgotten. Even before I could read, I would take the big intimidating Holy Book and thumb through its vast pages, only imagining what the words said and the enigmas that awaited me when I was old enough to understand it.
But darkness was coming.
In the first grade, I was diagnosed with a learning disability that prevented me from getting good grades or doing well in most classes. I usually struggled to pay attention and often daydreamed during tests.
I did, however, develop a lifelong love of writing, discovering that composing words was my true gift. I usually excelled in English, literature, and history, but failed miserably in math and science.
On top of this, I had very poor social skills and didn’t fit in well with other kids. I would often approach groups of students and try to make friends, but because of my awkward nature this was usually met with disdain. Sometimes at lunch I would go around from table to table, trying to find people to sit with, but having food thrown at me every time until I would eventually give up and sit alone at an empty table.
It only got worse as I got older. By middle school, I fit the textbook definition of geekiness. I was ugly with over-sized, crooked teeth, severe acne and huge glasses. Years of bullying had made me withdrawn, but by that age, they were merciless. Despite wanting to be left alone, I was a constant victim of cruelty. Almost every day, I was slapped, kicked, beaten, spit on, and had garbage thrown at me. Riding the bus to and from school was like stepping down into Hell as the kids would scream profanities in my ear, call me filthy disgusting names, steal my things, and stab me with pencils. I would gaze up at the puke yellow ceiling, looking at the emergency escape hatch and dreaming that the Lord would return at any moment, leaving my tormentors behind.
School itself was no better, and I can remember very few, if any times that anyone ever came to my defense. The teachers never did anything about it; if anything, some of them (especially sadistic gym coaches) joined in on it.
I have seen the darker side of humanity. No matter far I’ve come, I’m always acutely aware of how cruel humans can be. I’ve seen the festering underbelly that is the public school system and the sexual torment behind closed doors that the out-of-touch administrators want to pretend doesn’t happen. I’ve been in the bathrooms, having garbage thrown at me from outside the stalls. I’ve stepped outside, only to be grabbed by mobs of bullies who dragged me to a toilet and tried to dunk my head in. I’ve braced myself with my hands on urine-soaked seats, desperately trying to keep myself up while these vile monsters tried to force me in. And my only comfort is in knowing that it wasn’t really them who were tormenting me, but the devil in them.
Many have asked me why I didn’t do anything about it, even going so far as to accusing me of being at fault for my lack of action. My first response is that the first time I ever told on bullies for teasing me, I got in trouble for being a “tattle-tell.” I soon learned that the teachers, or even principals, would never help me no matter how much I pleaded. Bullying by its very nature makes one feel inferior. Like many other children, I didn’t tell on my tormentors for the same reason battered wives defend their abusive husbands; my low sense of self-worth convinced me that “I deserve it” or “It’s not so bad.” Victims of domestic abuse will cover up their spouses’ behavior with “He’s not such a bad person,” still refusing to leave despite the bruises and broken bones they suffer. “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
By the 4th grade, I began showing early signs of my lifelong struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder. Depression and anxiety created voices in my head that would relentlessly force me into self-destructive habits. For breakfast, I would eat my bowl of Trix by separating the colors. I would twist my hair habitually, sometimes to the point where it would rip out and leave bald spots (just leading to more teasing at school). I would pick at my fingers and lips until they bled. These compulsive habits were merely attempts to distract myself from what I felt at all times; a sense of constant, unbearable pain.
And, through very unfortunate circumstances that are no one’s fault, my family was out of church during most of this time. While I was raised strictly Pentecostal (another thing I was ridiculed at school for), the area where we lived had no real Bible-believing churches around. Occasionally, we would find independent so-called holiness churches, but this would usually only last a few weeks before the pastors would preach false doctrine, and we would never grace their doorsteps again.
While strongly believing the Word, these were dark days. There was no church involvement, and I never grew up in any youth group with any Christian support, leaving me to fight my spiritual battles alone. The only small taste of God I would get would be a few times a year, when my family would make long treks out-of-state to attend camp meetings.
This, this was what I knew I was missing in life. I would see crowds gathered to praise God in true worship. I would see miracles and the glory of God shining on the faces of His saints as they sang and prayed. And with that joy unspeakable, we would gather and fellowship at restaurants after late-night services.
Those precious times were so fleeting, and the long voyage home would plunge me back into the suffocating loneliness.
It is quite profound that I would only get to feel the true anointing of God only a few times a year. Like Abraham, who would occasionally encounter God in between years of wondering in a dry wilderness, I yearned for that experience. And now, like the Early Church apostles, I never take that power being poured out in abundance for granted. I am only all-too familiar with how it feels to go long periods of time lacking the presence of God.
Those camp meetings were like candles, a bright burning flame that lasts for a short period of time before being almost snuffed out by the darkness. But God saw to it that my light never went out completely.
Looking back, I never knew it, but through it all, He was there. Even in my worst of times, His Spirit was there. I couldn’t feel Him, but now looking back, I somehow see His invisible hand, guiding me all the way.
My first encounter with salvation was probably around age 13. At a camp meeting years ago, I finally started to grasp the idea that God had sent His only Son to die for our sins, and that His blood was the only thing that could save us. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but this is likely the first time I said the sinner’s prayer, feeling a commitment to change my life and serve Him with a passion. This was also when I first experienced the Baptism of the Holy Ghost. I had sought it for a long time before the first words I uttered under the influence of the Spirit. I was in a vast auditorium, sitting in my seat when it fell and maybe the first time unknown tongues escaped me, my lips began to burn like they were on fire. I wasn’t aware of the Acts 2:4, and had no knowledge of the tongue of fire that I was experiencing. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
This transformation took place over the summer, and when I returned to school for the 8th grade I felt a determination to witness to the people who had been my tormentors. I tried to talk about God and what He’d done for me, but didn’t realize the world of opposition this would bring. I even remember being sent to the principal’s office for “talking about God in public school,” and being warned that this “isn’t the place for it.”
But they couldn’t shut me up, and they still can’t.