Here is another memory. The year is 2002 and I am a sophomore in High School. It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon at the tail end of summer and my mother and I are hanging out in the kitchen of my parent’s old Cape farm house. The radio is on, as it often was, and we’re listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition. A familiar interviewer’s voice is engaging the director of a new documentary film about a very unfamiliar subject: Hell Houses. Neither my mother nor I had ever heard of such things and so we are fascinated as the director talks about his film which chronicles a large Pentecostal church outside Dallas that stages haunted houses based upon scenes from Hell as an evangelistic tool each Halloween. It sounded like a Dante’s Inferno of the Evangelical culture wars and this documentary promised to be our Virgil. So my mother and I raced to the computer, found a showing at a nearby art-house theater, and bought our tickets.
I think we went to the movie planning to diligently play our own part in the culture wars. I think we went expecting a spectacle that we would smirk at and then file away as one more nugget of data on why Massachusetts and her inhabitants are just so much more sophisticated than all those knuckle-draggers in Texas. What we found instead were massive logs in our own eyes. Sure the scenes from the Hell House itself was just as voyeuristically shocking as promised, but the documentary was respectful of its subjects and so we also watched as incredibly passionate youth pastors guided the performers and creators of the Hell House – young high school kids just like me – through the ups and downs of teenage life. The Hell House was the backdrop, teenage faith was the real subject. And the difference between those youth groups and the youth group I was then a part of were astounding. These kids were praying together – and I mean really praying – praying in ways I never even knew people could pray. There were kids who were getting emotional and crying. At the time, I could never imagine actually crying in my own youth group. What would be there to cry about? That you missed out on the pizza? And then it hit me that these kids were experiencing something spiritual, something religious, something that as a kid who at this point was conditioned to be an functional agnostic, I worried I would never get to experience.
I missed God so deeply and so desperately. I missed not just the God of wind and trees who I had felt brush my cheek as a child in the woods. I missed the God of teenage angst and tears and a community of faith that knows all your hopes and fears and holds your sweaty hand in prayer despite all that - or maybe because of all that. I missed that God who shows up when you can’t even find your cabin in the woods and life is just a mess. And the most alone I have ever felt was that night, sobbing in my Mother’s mini van on the way home, sobbing that it was too late. I truly believed that I would never have what those kids had. I thought I would never have God because my upbringing in doubt had erased by capacity for faith. That’s what I thought at least.
In the end I was beautifully wrong. I learned that revelation of God is not a limited window set in childhood – with those who missed it left forever in the shadows. I learned that the doubt I learned growing up can live just as easily alongside faith. I learned that feeling God’s presence though connection with others, emotional vulnerability, and prayer is something that can be cultivated at any age - even by those who have only known God in the quiet and solitude of nature. I learned that I will continue to learn, continue to grow, continue to be amazed at God’s grace and love for me and all His/Her children.