The Navajo in the Balcony

It happened just as the ushers reached the front of the church with the offering plates. The choir had finished a powerful song called "Peace on Me," and the minister, a maestro of good timing, waited a beat and then another while stillness reclaimed the sanctuary.

He stepped to the microphone, opened his mouth to bless the offering – and a voice called out from the balcony. A man’s voice, measured, somewhat muffled, but forceful and commanding.

The minister bowed his head. The ushers, choir and congregation bowed their heads. The voice continued in a sing-song cadence, biting off the word endings, not one word of it comprehensible, and from the back and to one side of the sprawling sanctuary I think the same thing I think every time I hear it: Navajo.

But it’s not Navajo. It’s glossolalia – speaking in tongues – and this Mt. Paran Church of God in suburban Atlanta, a place where speaking in tongues is regarded with the same reverence as a good altar call and a heartfelt sermon. It’s the fourth time I’ve heard it in my sporadic attendance here, and the next step is the translation by someone in the congregation.

A woman  and a man both begin, but the man is the minister, David Cooper, and he prevails by virtue of stature and the microphone.  I would like to report that Dr. Cooper’s translation is monumental, life-changing, even, but it wasn’t. At least not for me.

Speaking in tongues is so singular and extraordinary in my experience that I expect the message must be, too. But
as best I can recall, Dr. Cooper’s translation was that God was among us here and now, there and always. Which is pretty much what I’d always heard, and I can’t say that it made me any stronger in my belief or more steadfast in faith.

Truth is, I’m still getting the hang of this Church of God thing. I have attended 12 or 15 times in the past few years, and I’m not quite sure where I stand. I’ve been told that the congregation, the choir and Dr. Cooper believe every word of the Bible to be true, a discussion I don’t attend.

On the other hand, Dr. Cooper is a lapsed Presbyterian, like myself. He is smart, droll and passionate, and he’s a member of a rock band. A Christian rock band, to be sure, but who’s drawing the line when the crossovers include Dylan, Morrison and Marley?

The seeker in me is drawn for a couple of other reasons, as well.  One, they’ve got a killer choir – 150 strong, and backed by a fine orchestra. The first time I heard them, they did what I would have sworn was an Earth, Wind & Fire song. At their Christmas concert two years ago, they hit a crescendo on a contemporary Christian song called "Mary, Did You Know?" that surely made the angels weep.

Music is worship here, and I noticed one morning that the congregation truly seemed to understand that they were singing to God, and reveled in it. As many churches as I’ve been to — Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Unity, Catholic — I’d never had that feeling before.  

Further, the congregation also seems to think being in church as something to be cheerful about, and worship a joy. Not only do they speak in tongues, not a few of them  raise their hands in the air when moved and punctuate prayers and preaching with "Amen!," and "Praise the Lord!"

That’s when I know that, like Dorothy, I’m not in Kansas any more. Or, to be more accurate, up north, where you dress up your cool, dry, buttoned-down reserve in a Brooks Brothers suit, not Dockers and a pullover. Admittedly there are times when I look at how some of the men are dressed and think of David Letterman needling Tom Hanks at the Oscars a few years ago: "Would it have killed you to wear a tie?"

But the people are nice and their worship so energetic, who am I to judge? So I keep showing up, never quite sure what to expect. At some level, I suppose I expect that something will drive me off.

Churches of God, after all, are traditionally very conservative. But Mt. Paran is rather liberal, at least by COG standards, and demographically diverse. And at the last service I attended, Dr. Cooper welcomed all newcomers, even those whose beliefs might differ with the church’s.

"Doesn’t matter," he said. "This is God’s house."

As for speaking in tongues – "glossolalia"– well, Maria Muldaur told me several years ago during an interview that she’d gone to a Pentecostal church in Marin City, California, and began speaking in tongues herself. And she seemed rather pleased with her life.

Anne Lamott, a wonderful writer and reformed heroin user, writes vividly in her book "Traveling Mercies" of the fellowship and renewal she found in a charismatic church. Curiously enough, that church, too, is in Marin County.

Finally, I recall that my first spiritual mentor was a saintly part-Hawaiian woman named Hanah Veary (the Hawaii legislature declared her a living treasure) never joined a church. She stayed when the energy was good, and moved on when it faded.  I don’t know how long I’ll stay, but Dr. Cooper says Mt. Paran is "God’s house," and that’s good enough for me.

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