I am young. I don’t stand during worship. If I keep quiet, I can color on stapled printer paper or walk Barbie’s pointed feet on my pew’s burgundy cushion and wooden trim. All of the pews are like this, tiered to the ground floor where they slope into the open space of the altar. There, beneath the carpet that is fanned with golden leaves, lies a treasure, a foundation of concrete, which before concealed was marked with words I couldn’t read, cursive prayers.
The adults who wrote them are here, standing, singing, holding their hands in the air, and looking small from my perch in the balcony. Their prayers are even smaller, tiny frozen earthworms caught between cold cement and dancing feet.
Beside me, my mom prays in her language. I don’t understand it. Neither does she. Quiet and earnest, it rolls from her mouth.
I imagine a wind stirring at her feet, twisting up her body, pushing into her stomach, and exiting through her mouth, amplifying the prayer louder than the rippling flags, the chorus of praise, the cheerful claps. I hear it coming. Then others hear. They still. The singers open their eyes and fade their voices out. The drummer pauses. Heads bow. It all disappears, everything except my mom’s prayer, a pleading, breathy sound. Phrases ending on long vowels ring like bells in the quiet.
My head is down but my eyes are open. I glance at my feet, the points of my knees. I wait for it to end, wait for the interpreter to make sense of what has been said, wait for the pastor to say a word about the work of the Holy Spirit, wait for the thankful shouts and claps, wait for the music to begin again before looking around at the changed congregation.
After service, friends and I whine about how embarrassed we feel when our mothers do that. I complain, but I don’t mean it. How can I? The way the sanctuary parted for my mom’s voice, the way the interpreter made English words out of that nonsense, the way the elusive Holy Spirit conducted all of it seems more like a superpower than anything else. In secret, I am proud, though I don’t want it for myself.
“Have you been filled?”
“Are you asking for it?”
A hundred kids will probably speak in tongues for the first time tonight. I will too. I’ll go to the altar and lift my hands and cry, because that happens sometimes during good songs. Then I’ll be baptized.
It’s a misnomer: Holy Spirit Night. Omnipresence and all of that. But tonight at kids camp, the speaker will preach on the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. We know now that we will not have to pray out loud to the whole church. That is a separate gift. But this one, this quiet, intimate conversation between you and God seems like it will solve everything. The preacher spins tale after tale, gripping stories of foreign countries, remarkable boldness, and shocking miracles.
We squirm in our seats. The altar call is coming.
“Are you asking for it?”
“Has she gotten it yet?”
“I don’t know. Maybe last year.”
“What if I don’t get it?”
“It’s okay. Pray for it anyway.”
It’s okay, the speaker says. Some people ask and don’t get the gift. Some people ask and ask and their language comes days or months or years later in the shower or in the car, in the bed or in the kitchen. We don’t know why. We must keep seeking. When the baptism comes, it comes.
I say this to myself. It’s okay.
I begged and received nothing but running mascara, a trembling hand.
I watched another hundred kids speak in tongues last night. Lots of tears and success for Holy Spirit Night at preteen camp.
In morning service, a friend goes forward to pray for her allergies, so our group goes to the crowded altar and forms a circle, laying hands on shoulders and backs. I can’t pray in tongues, but I can pray, and I can pray well. Loads of people have told me that.
I know God can heal. It happens all the time at camp. I’m praying in English saying “allergies,” “bless,” “healing,” and then I am not. Other words appear on my lips. I have not thought them. I just hear them, spilling one after another after another. My stomach twists. My ears burn. English has vanished, but I am sure that this is what needs to be said. These strange sounds are right.
I look up to find the entire altar cleared. Only our small huddle remains. I blink. I could have sworn I had been praying—that way—for just a few seconds. My eyes are wet. When had I cried?
We hear the last bits of prayer from the speaker and walk back to our seats. My mom turns to me and asks, “What was that?” She is smiling.
I shake my head. “I don’t know,” I say. “I think I just prayed in tongues.”
I don’t hear the rest of the message. I hear my own thoughts asking, What now?
My Biblical Literature 1 professor comes to a grim conclusion about me and my lot. She tells a story at the end of class about her sister, the charismatic, who cornered her years ago and told her that she must speak in tongues to earn salvation. She’s still upset about it, I think. I am too, because her sister understands the Holy Spirit in a sad and demanding way. I am glad to know the Holy Spirit like I do, as a gift and a guide. But I am tired. I have nothing compared to this woman and her degrees and knowledge. While my heavenly language never fails, my earthly language always seems to. I will stay silent again.
Sometimes I want to tell people
First their eyes widen. Then they say, “Oh.” A soft exclamation, a substitute, in this situation for, “Whoa.”
What they want to say is,
“Whoa. I never pinned you for that.”
“Whoa. You’re not wearing a skirt.”
“Whoa. I knew a guy who was into that once.”
I say, “Pentecostal,” and watch their eyes widen. It never gets old.
I go to a Christian college and have a Catholic roommate, and we love each other. Sometimes we sit in our beds and talk about what it means to be who we are. Sometimes we wonder what it’s like to walk into churches and not listen to sly and not so sly teaching against our beliefs.
I give tours at school, and I like to say the part about its lack of affiliation to a specific denomination. For instance, I say, My roommate is Catholic and I’m Pentecostal, and we’ve been able to learn a lot from each other and our ways of worship.
The group of visiting families chuckles a bit. A dad in the back gives a mother the look.
I think back to the sanctuary I grew up in. I think back to the concrete, to the prayers hidden beneath the carpet at the altar and realize that God still knows those prayers like He has known all of mine, as intimate treasures, hidden from human perception.
I use my language. For days, for months, for years I have used my language in the shower and in the car, in the bed and in the kitchen. It’s a wonder, the home the Holy Spirit has made of my body, how He has stretched out, filled me to the eyelashes with presence and power.
I only know what I have seen and loved and sought and received. I only know these fragments, these pieces of the Holy Spirit, of God, of Jesus that have composed the most meaningful experiences of my small existence. I only know that they have changed me, that heaven has changed me in a beautiful, permanent, inexplicable way.