My parents grew up in the guilt era, when appearances were assumed to be an accurate barometer of your standing with God, and of course, most people felt they were equipped to read them. The minutia—from the length of your skirt to the cut of your hair—were meticulously monitored by the leaders of the community, armed with Ellen White quotes and a steaming portion of disapproval. I grew up in the era of experience. Ellen White was out of vogue, ‘religion’ had become a dirty word, and instead we were told to focus on our ‘spiritual walk,’ ‘building faith,’ and having ‘a personal relationship with Jesus.’
“It’s not about anyone else,” our youth leaders told us, “It’s not even about other Christians. You have to experience God for yourself.” This speech, delivered thousands of times throughout my adolescence, was a both a backlash against the externally focused, voyeuristic faith of our parents’ generation, and (in acknowledgement that our parents still led the church we were to inherit) a polite way of saying, “Don’t let the old church folk get you down.”
Every Sabbath we sang our praise songs (which spoke of knowing god on a suspiciously sensual level), and talked about what god had done for us that week. Eventually the doctrine of experience took on new meaning. We slipped unwittingly into the quantitative habits of our parents, only instead of the skirt inches our Christianity was measured in feelings and emotions to point where some of us would do anything to experience the spiritual high that would affirm our good standing in the eyes of god and community.
There was always a slightly desperate frenzy to Week of Prayer at my academy. The music was better, the speaker (we were told) acclaimed in older circles, and, almost inevitably, there would be an alter call. Alter call was always the most nerve-wracking moment for me. I would sit paralyzed in my chair as the musicians played aimless chord progressions. The speaker’s voice would grow louder and more emotive, appealing to god to touch our hearts. I wanted to be touched. I didn’t know what god’s touch would feel like, but I wanted it. The only problem was I couldn’t move.
“Eyes closed, hearts open,” the speaker would say, but I always peeked. I could never keep my eyes closed, though I suspected the closed eyes (and lowered lights) had more to do with providing a sense of privacy for those too embarrassed to stand while others watched. The silence and stillness would stretch for minutes. Then, at the precise moment when it was becoming awkward for the speaker, one student would stand. The room would murmur with our collective exhalation, and like an army behind its commander we all rose up behind him. We’d stream down the aisles, quiet and entranced (those who spoke and giggled received stern looks). Once we had all crowded to the front of the auditorium, we’d all put our arms around each other and the speaker would pray.
After the prayer some students milled around the auditorium. Others stayed close to the speaker to unload their hearts or ask pressing questions. Some left immediately, crying with emotional excess or beaming with joy. There was a palpable energy, a buzz that seemed to evidence the touch of God on dozens of hearts, and for the next week everyone would be just a little kinder. I made my way to the front three times while I was in academy. I never felt god’s touch. Not once. Not at the altar.
That didn’t keep me or anyone else from sharing our ‘experiences’ from Week of Prayer. Over time it became clear that the ‘good’ kids—the ones with ‘healthy spiritual lives’—were the ones most willing to talk of their experiences.
In college I find myself still fighting against the social requirement that I indulge in spiritual nudism to prove my standing with god. My last vivid Week of Prayer memory is from my junior year. I was sitting next to my best friend, about two-thirds away from the front. When the alter call came I remained in my seat. ♦