Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Practice of Knowing Nothing

This is where it all started, one of those ‘portals’ my friend keeps talking about – places where heaven invades earth. She now keeps company with a hundred foot angel and is regularly transported into God’s throne room when not engaged in astral travel to the Kalahari Desert. She calls it ‘normal’ Christian behavior. “But I don’t see angels,” I tell her, wondering if I belong to a lesser class of Christian.
“You will,” she consoles me.

I’ve driven on Bonnie Brae many times, noticing the handshake exchange of drugs, the shuffling people waiting on corners, but I’ve never come this far down and if I had, I’m sure I wouldn’t have picked out the whitewashed bungalow with a porch and sloping roof from the other small houses.

Our guide arrives in a Toyota Corolla and parks across the street. She is a small Filipina with wiry hair and a square nose. Mama Rice heaves herself out of my passenger seat, leaning heavily on the car door. She is dressed for this expedition in full African garb, including a colorful scarf knotted on her head. I am all in white. My friend (the one with the angel) recommends it, along with fasting. The way I spill food, the combination of the two is probably good advice.

“I’ll just open the door and let you in. Would you mind if I left you alone for a while? I have an errand to run,” says our guide.
Mind? Left alone in the house where the Pentecostal movement began, where the Holy Spirit came down just as in the days of the apostles? Mama Rice and I can’t believe our luck.

We climb the concrete stairs to the small porch - the original one collapsed under the weight of the crowd when William J. Seymour preached to the people gathered in the street below. That was a hundred years ago. Now I only see a few Latino kids playing behind the high metal fence in the yard opposite.

Inside, I immediately feel at home among the small proportions and glowing wooden floor. My British sensibilities relax around history, as if they’ve finally found somewhere to earth themselves in this city of shiny surfaces and beauty that only goes skin-deep. William Seymour’s bible sits in a niche, propped open at the book of Acts. On the wall hangs the monochrome image of a bearded and serious-looking African American in a suit. Mama Rice looks over my shoulder and then at the neighboring picture of Seymour’s wife. When the Holy Spirit finally fell on the small group of believers who’d been praying for revival, Jenny Seymour sprang up and played the piano, even though she’d never taken a lesson in her life. The celebrating and singing spilled over into the street, the believers praying in their new ‘tongues’ – the ‘language of angels.’

Our guide has gone. I run my hand over the small upright piano trying to breath in its memories, then pace around the small sitting room, hoping that the sacredness will seep up from the floor and into my shoes. Mama Rice has started to pray, uttering loud guttural sounds that rise into a rebuke, and stamps her feet on the polished floor. I almost expect to see a tongue of flame on her head, but instead through the open door see the Rehab Center perfectly framed by the porch.

“Come here, Mama Rice!” Her ululations grow even louder as she stands behind me and sees the place where she has been volunteering for the past two years. Recovering drug addicts and the homeless flock to her GED classes where she instills the missing ingredient in their life: hope. It would seem that God is making a connection here, one that is not making a lot of sense to me because Mama Rice and I have wept over some of the things that happen at the Rehab Center – despotic administrators, sexual harassment, the usual mix of phonies and hypocrites who creep into every Christian institution and give it a bad name.

Exhausted by her exertions, Mama Rice has collapsed into a wooden chair. I come over and sit at her feet, laying my head in her lap. “I feel I should apologize to you, repent on behalf of the white people who shut William Seymour’s ministry down.” The first integrated church was bound to attract criticism, although people who lived through the revival don’t blame racism for its downfall, but the fact that William Seymour abandoned his practice of waiting on God with a box over his head. Does that sound silly to you? God uses the things that are foolish to confound the wise. Good thing I remembered that, because just as I am kneeling at Mama Rice’s feet, tears streaming down my face repenting on behalf of white people, two more visitors walk in, followed by our guide.

The tour of the house is brief – just a kitchen, two small bedrooms and a parlor, all empty of furniture. Finding ourselves back in the sitting room, our guide tells us how the house is made available to church groups on Friday nights for all-night prayer meetings. Once she was sent for in the middle of the night because fire trucks had been called to the house; the neighbors reported seeing flames coming from the roof. Of course, there was no fire. She tells us of a miraculous healing that happened right here when she was praying with a group of tourists. I tingle with anticipation, ready for anything, but when we conclude our visit with prayer there are no fiery tongues, no angels, not even an orb of light or a stray feather floating down.

I call my friend. She’s just been to a conference to see someone who oozes anointing oil when he preaches. From his feet. Seems like God has gone into show business. The Holy Spirit is supposed to lead us into all truth. Must be that I haven’t received this new, ‘second anointing’ because I don’t know what to believe anymore.


I am invited to give a book reading in Phoenix by my friend, our lady of the angels. She’s gone all Catholic on me. Not that I have anything against Catholics, I was raised one after all, but for a Southern Baptist to be talking about St. Joan of Arc and her spirit guides with reverence is a bit of a departure. In the morning, my friend comes into my room wearing walking shoes. “You want to go to Hummingbird Hill?”

Of course I do! This is where she saw the angels with construction hats and then there was some kind of Tolkien Last Days battle between angels and demons and it gets a bit mixed up in my head after that, but sure! I’m game.

We walk to one of the outcrops of rock that spring up out of the Arizona desert like giant monopoly pieces. She seats me on the ‘throne’ – a broken rock that resembles a seat. From here, she and the ‘prophet’ saw Jesus coming on a wagon. (Actually, that was a bit of linguistic confusion because the prophet is German and she was saying ‘Wagen’ which means ‘chariot.’) We are silent for some time. “Do you see the angel?” my friend asks softly. I squint my eyes at the opposite hill, but see only bare ground and a Wal-Mart at three o’clock.
“What’s its name?” I ask, having learned this much from the revival crew. Todd Bentley had an angel called Emma. She would go off and get him money. Nice! Except that this sounds, well, like God’s retired and everything’s being run by the angels.
“‘Acceptance.’” Then her voice goes all deep: “Do not analyze, do not question, just accept the things I am going to show you this day.” Her voice returns to normal. “Thank you, Jesus.” By this I know it is a ‘word’ for me from God.
“Was the angel lying sideways, with long wings?” I ask, picturing the angels you see on Christmas cards.
“Yes! Yes, you saw the angel! Woo-hoo! Praise you Jesus!”
I’m not entirely convinced, but I’m not willing to give up my first angel sighting if there’s half a chance I am finally seeing into the supernatural realm.


This evening, we are visiting the German prophet and her partner. Apparently, the German prophet detected a need for emotional healing because at the book reading yesterday I teared up remembering the person God created my husband to be, the person he was before he started the trail of self-destruction that ended our marriage… fifteen years ago. Having written and rewritten a memoir about it, I’m feeling pretty purged of any lurking emotional wounds, but it’s hard to argue with a prophet, particularly when she talks like an SS officers in an old war movie.

Seated in the all-white living room of the prophet, I am beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. All eyes are on me.
“Your desires are not God’s desires,” rumbles the prophet’s partner in a deep baritone. His dark eyes lour at me from under bushy eyebrows. He’s a banker from Houston and reminds me of my uncle. But I think my uncle’s nicer.
“God says that you must not look back!” comes the German prophet’s clipped voice. (Ve haf vays of making you speak!) But I’m a memoirist, how am I supposed to give readings and write more books if I am not to look back? “You haf to give up your husband,” (I thought I did when I divorced him thirteen years ago) “… Ah, yes,” she continues, “I am seeing it now: God says you haf to move out of your neighborhood to be healed.”

My neighborhood? Where I have prayed faithfully for the people in my street, even started helping one lady whose husband ran out on her. She saw my faith in God and wanted it for herself. She comes to my church now. But even if there weren’t the evidence of God at work, I love my neighborhood – the mixture of bohemian and barrio. It’s perfect. Where else could I live?

I start to cry. “Look, God,” I say, deciding to go straight to the source. “I give you back my book – again – and my husband,” (I let out a little sob, all this ‘husband’ business is reminding me that I don’t actually have one, haven’t for a long time), “…because he sure isn’t any use to me!”

The prophet springs out of her chair. “Yes, God, do your healing work,” she croons as she puts her arm around me. I wait for more tears, but the little sob was all I could produce. I’m in danger of becoming a grave disappointment.

When they realize that it’s all over, I excuse myself and go splash cold water on my face in the white tiled bathroom. I sink down onto the white mat and stare randomly at the white scales. I am feeling all the old anger and rebellion that got me thrown out of the missionary society… and the Skid Row mission… and one or two churches. The anger is against the feeling of being manipulated and forced to believe an Alice in Wonderland scenario where God, the being I know as God, is stuffed into a teapot and poured out by the Mad Hatter.


“I don’t know, Lou-Lou,” says my British friend, “I’m not one to say because I’ve got a fag in one hand and a drink in the other, but I think if God’s telling you anything it’s “Don’t follow people.”” Her voice – husky and slightly slurred – confirms the picture she paints at the other end of the telephone. But when Jesus ate with Republicans and sinners, er, publicans and sinners, I doubt all of them were entirely sober as they listened to the man who called himself the Son of God.

“I just don’t know what to believe anymore,” I wail. “All those things we took on because they sounded spiritual, covenants and fasts, formulas for prayer… and the stories of God moving supernaturally, raising people from the dead – I don’t know what’s true and isn’t!” I go back to the Bonnie Brae house and my repentance on the part of white people. Was that just hocus-pocus too?

“Look, Lou, you’re worried sick about your friend and the whacky things going on in the church,” she says, drawing on her cigarette, “But it’s not your responsibility. God can handle it. He knows what he’s doing.”

Maybe she’s right; it’s not my responsibility to figure it all out. Maybe God keeps pulling me up short and allowing me to see the inadequacy of my understanding so that I don’t put my trust in formulas, movements, man… Maybe he allows the church to be flawed, deluded even, so that I have to keep coming back to him. He shatters my religion and replaces it with live, real-time relationship with the eternal and unfathomable I AM. And the humbling recognition that I understand nothing.

© Copyright 2009 Louise Godbold


Anonymous said...

Now you got it. You don't understand anything. If you have faith that's all that matters. God is. You don't need to see Angels or speak tongues. Just believe.

Harry said...

Hi Lou
Just keep your eyes on the Lord and His word. If it is not in the Bible run from it do not even go to thier meetings. It is all new age stuff they are bringing into the church.

alanhirsch said...

sounds like the via negativa :)

Well written reflections Lou. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Needless to say Lou, we realy do have an aweful lot in common. Not so much in terms of places etc, but definately many similarities in terms of expereinces etc...

I liked what "anonymous" actually typed...God is, i believe that. The more i seem to have studied and searched... the more i simply know that i trust in authencity. and that authenticity for me looks, smells and functions like Jesus.

I see Jesus doing some very practical, and real hands on things. helping people break down barriers, misconceptions, predudices and in helping them see the relaity that GOD truly exists... Agreed some of the things Jesus did were definatley in the miraculous catergory (demons removed from people and lazerus rising from the dead, people genuinely healed from sicknesses, food multiplying etc...) But it was for the reasons I just mentioned, to break through predudice.

Some of the stuff that feels odd, well probably is just that "odd"... to say that someone has a "rebelious spirit" because they question the norm, really shows strength and courage by that individula ... it aught not be squashed, but nurtured...Didn't that happen with David?

The more i look, the more real jesus becomes, and does not laden me down with emmense responsibility, rather encourages me to see people as created incredible beings who are beautiful and ridiculous all intertwined.If i stop enough to dare to see anothers view, that surely would aid in us creating a place of peace and understanding... and along the way there is an assurance that God helps, because there are too many wonderfully unexplained things that happen, have happened, and hopefully will continue to happen, that make this life so, well, not so ordinary... isn't that faith?

it's super late where I am, plus I cross countried skiied for the first time and the jubilation that accompanied that has left me quite exhilarated.

let me know what you thought of my "offereing"... see you in 2010

Lou said...

What wise commentators I have. I especially love Inge-Lise's comment: "The more I seem to have studied and searched, the more I simply know that I trust in authenticity, and that authenticity for me looks, smells and functions like Jesus."