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June 5, 2009

Religion as Therapy


Photo Credit: DNY59/iStock Photography

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SWF Seeks Church
By Christine Cyr

I vividly remember the morning I quit. I was 17, sitting between my parents in the spare sanctuary of our Foursquare Church on the Oregon coast. Our pastor had just asked for prayer requests when a longtime friend of my dad's, a worship team leader, stood to read a scripture: Proverbs 6:5. "Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the snare of the fowler." Then he bounded into the air and skipped high-kneed around the room, yelling, "I'm a gazelle! I'm free as a gazelle!"

Our church was evangelical Pentecostal. In Protestant terms, that meant that congregants were "spirit-filled," believing that baptism of the Holy Spirit gave some the ability to speak in tongues, cast out demons, and heal through touch. I'd seen this all many times. But lately, crazier things were happening. A phenomenon called "laughing in the spirit" — the Holy Spirit manifesting itself through uncontrollable laughter — had become popular with some congregants. And the worship team, which had once relied on acoustic guitars and a piano to lead the weekly hymns, added electric guitar, drums, and rock-and-roll-inspired songs to their repertoire. Even though our pastor had asked them to tone it down, they continued to amp it up, with one member's wife bringing batons with ribbons on the ends to twirl as she danced down the aisles. It felt crackpot. And as my dad's friend pranced a second lap around the sanctuary, I realized I'd had enough. I told my mother I would not come back.

For the next 10 years, I mostly stayed away from church. I still believed in God, but it was hard to shake the memory of those charismatic services. They embarrassed me the same way dreadlocked-and-patchouli-drenched hippies dancing at concerts in college embarrassed me. Maybe because, in essence, they were so similar. Much of the modern born-again movement came out of the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s, when disenchanted hippies embraced Christianity, re-creating the church experience for their generation. For people like my parents, who were both raised Catholic, became hippies and then born-again Christians, breaking with traditionalism was liberating in the same way that breaking social norms had been for flower children.

Yet, as I struggled through my 20s, I longed for the community of a church. Only I wanted something more moderate, to feel connected to a deeply rooted tradition without worrying about someone wigging out in the pew beside me. But where?

Then, one sticky September Sunday two years ago, my mom called. My grandpa was dying, and while most of my family was at his deathbed in Los Angeles, I was alone on the other side of the country. So I rode my bike to a Presbyterian church (even though I wasn't sure how this denomination differed from others). Sitting by myself in an old sanctuary, with lofty stained-glass windows and the warm smell of oiled wood, I sang staid hymns from the 19th century set to soothing piano. I found it much easier to take in the lyrics, as they weren't competing with guitar riffs or drum solos. And the pastor's sermon about grace quoted texts by Calvin and Augustine. The service felt foreign, but I was comfortable. When the pastor solicited prayer requests, I raised my hand — something I would never have done in my hometown church — and asked him to pray for my grandfather. The congregants bowed their heads, and we prayed. Tears soaked my cheeks, and I felt more peaceful than I had in a long while. My family was 2500 miles away, but I felt connected — and I didn't need to speak in tongues or raise my hands to the heavens to do so. I suppose in that sense, I too felt free as a gazelle.

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