I’ve had the opportunity to share my testimony a number of times over the past year. And the more I tell my story, the clearer in my mind certain details become— in particular, the influence of my charismatic/Pentecostal upbringing. Until I was 18, I attended an Assembly of God church. It was not at all uncommon in my church to see people speak in tongues, raise their hands, dance, pray aloud or even be slain in the Spirit. This was par for the course for all of my childhood and most of my adolescence.
At least three times a week for 18 years I observed and participated in these kinds of things. Every summer, I attended a youth camp with friends from church in majestic Turner Falls, OK. The highlight of camp was an hours-long chapel service in an outdoor tabernacle in sweltering Oklahoma heat. I remember reading in the “What to Pack” brochure that boys were required to wear jeans and collared shirts and girls had to wear dresses. It was absolutely miserable heat. Sadly I don’t have time here to tell stories from Turner Falls about Mud Mountain, the terrifying shallow creek games, the many times I lost my voice, fake-broke a thumb or fake-saved someone’s life.
At the end of every chapel service at camp there were intense periods of time spent in the altar praying. People “came forward” for salvation, to be delivered from some kind of sin or oppression, or to receive various manifestations of the Spirit. When I was a 3rd grader, I responded to the invitation to come forward to receive the gift of speaking in tongues. The Assemblies of God teach that speaking in tongues is the “initial physical evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit,” so obviously, if I didn’t do it yet, it was a skill I felt I needed to acquire. I went forward and was directed to pray with a precious woman that was from my home church. She instructed me to “just start talking” and I understood that somehow I would just get the gift, as they say. At first, I made up some mumbled nonsense that sounded like how I’d heard other people pray in tongues. After I did this for a few minutes, this woman exclaimed “You got it!” Nothing had changed in my mind. I was making up stuff to start with and I continued making it up when she told me I had received the gift. I was a confused, anxious, well-intentioned 9 or 10 year old at the time and this person had provided a temporary source of clarity. She said I’d gotten it, so I supposed I had.
The truth is, in my heart I always knew I had been faking it. But I didn’t have the guts to admit that until I was around 17. I didn’t think it was okay to be honest with stuff like that. I often remember my Pentecostal upbringing as a constant battle of wondering whether I was faking stuff—faking love for God, faking being “slain in the Spirit,” faking tongues, faking at a relationship with Christ. And the worst part was that I didn’t think it was okay to be honest enough to ask hard questions of myself. No one else was asking them of me. Sometimes I wondered whether we were all faking, but didn’t have the courage to ask each other.
At the same time, these were my first experiences with Christ. I have precious memories of forming a little prayer circle with my buddies in kid’s church. It was at Turner Falls at another time that I felt for the first time that God was speaking to me (not something that happens a lot). And I still hold on to those words that I felt were from God to this day. You may already see the struggle here. My early walk with Christ was full of the good and the bad, a mixed bag of experiences that I couldn’t discern properly.
During the latter part of my high school years, I was introduced to a man named Joe Mooberry—a true saint and a friend to this day. Joe spent countless hours with me and several of my classmates, teaching us to read the Scriptures (something I had never really done), to be honest and thoughtful about our faith (imagine my relief!) and to do all of this in the context of community. Joe (and others—good men like Jimmy Doyle and Jason Jackson) set me on a different course in my walk with Christ than I had known existed. After graduating from high school I attended Oral Roberts University where I essentially shut the door on the Holy Spirit in my life. I didn’t want anything to do with the confusion of my childhood or the insanity that I experienced at ORU (which may be another topic for another day).
I’m now three years removed from ORU and am in a place where I can look back on my history with Pentecost, with the Spirit through more objective lenses. I think it’s a really important step for me to reflect on those early experiences and attempt to grab on to what’s worth keeping from my spiritual past. I don’t want to bite the hand that fed me for 18 years (the Assemblies of God) and I especially do not want to become a binitarian (as opposed to Trinitarian, so long Holy Spirit!). So over the new few post I’ll be sifting through my past and highlighting some key ideas that were instilled in me from a young age that I should hold on to and should work hard not to leave behind.
Emily and I started dating when I was 16 and had just gotten my braces off. When we first started talking, I was very much in the middle of being zealous, AG-ish and probably a little too loud. Fast-forward almost 10 years and we are still together. Having seen several different versions of me, Emily has some interesting perspective. She told me once that she hoped that someday I could merge together all of my experiences into a cohesive whole. Both are Jon Odom, she said.
Hopefully this will help get me there.
Did you grow up Charismatic/Pentecostal? Did you have similar struggles? Tell me about it!