The forecast calls for storms this afternoon. Since moving to Oklahoma, this is always an event, and sometimes an adventure. I’ve always enjoyed storms and have never been afraid of them, although I do, of course, respect their destructive power. When storms roll in, wisdom instructs us to seek refuge. We are in now in the midst of a global storm. The novel coronavirus has all of us seeking refuge. We seek refuge in relationships, entertainment, distractions of various kinds. I’ve heard alcohol sales are up, and food may be more popular than ever. Social media has become even more wild. Conspiracy theories abound with folks arguing the prudence of social distancing guidelines and parsing the words of the President, which always guarantees an entertaining and energetic response. Like a siren’s song on a tumultuous ocean, desired reconnections, reflections, and regrets can provide ample distraction, when one is alone. Sheltering in a storm, sometimes means that you are forced to be alone with your thoughts. Good and bad thoughts alike. The storm outside finds its way inside. When the storm is inside where should we seek shelter?
In the flat delta land of Arkansas where I grew up, one common feature of the environment was the thunderstorm. These storms were especially welcome on the hot summer days, offering a temporary reprise from the heat. For the most part, my summer afternoons were spent outside, and when these thunderstorms would roll in, it meant that I had to as well. I often sought refuge on the front porch of my grandmother’s small house. It wasn’t a mansion, but in a storm, it was a safe place. It was open so that I could still experience the cool wind the storm produced, yet enclosed so I was shielded from the rain. Open and yet enclosed. Open to the sights and sounds of the world, but protected from the full measure of their impact. This strikes me as an apt description of the life I have lived, and the personality it has produced in the nearly fifty years of my existence. Open and yet enclosed.
There is something about a front porch that still waxes nostalgic for me. It was on my grandmother’s front porch that I first started practicing my own style of religion, influenced greatly by my pedigree. We were Pentecostals. This meant a great deal to the identity of our family. It meant that we would go to church at least three times a week, maybe more. The Bible was the final authority on everything, and lots of our praying wasn’t in English. It was in the heavenly language, sometimes purported to be actual foreign languages, of speaking with other tongues. We sang loudly. We clapped and hollered. There was little time for quiet reflection and my grandmother always had a sermon. And although her gender restricted her from the pulpit, this didn’t stop her from dispensing to anyone in ear shot “Thus saith the Lord!” Growing up I was the lone recipient of a lot of those sermons.
I discovered very early on, through a combination of natural ability and environmental conditioning that the Pentecostal identity for me meant that I would preach. We referred to it as a “calling.” So, quite naturally I needed a church. Ma’s (that’s what we called our grandmother) front porch served nicely as a practice pulpit. I would stand on the edge of that porch preparing to proclaim the Holy Ghost message, but not before gathering every stray animal I could convince to set still long enough to endure my homily. None of them spoke with tongues, at least not as I could tell. They wouldn’t even pray. But they did bark, howl, and meow respectively. Still, not an amen among them. Turns out this was great practice for actual pulpits I would later occupy. But as I improved my craft, the amens did follow, and because we were Pentecostals, there was also occasional barking and howling. We called it “shouting,” a verb that included dancing “in the spirit,” as anything in the flesh was prohibited (I’m still not sure the difference) whooping, running, waving arms and otherwise ecstatic movements of various body parts, most often as the music kept 4/4 time.
Turns out there is something about porches and Pentecostals. Some three thousand miles to the west in 1906, a black preacher, the son of Louisiana slaves, William J. Seymour would launch a worldwide movement from the front porch of a home on Bonnie Brae Street. He was in Los Angeles at the invitation of a church that would later reject him and his message. When these personal storm clouds gathered, he found refuge on the porch of a friend, the humble house on Bonnie Brae. It was here where he would proclaim Pentecost and many of the strays of society would find hope. But unlike my motley crew of domesticated farm animals, the strays in Los Angeles would speak with tongues, shake and roll, under the influence of what they believed was the very Holy Spirit of God. In fact, the crowd at Bonnie Brae would eventually get so big that the front porch was no longer an option. An abandoned stable at 312 Azusa would become the new home. This Azusa Street Revival continues to influence global Christianity to this day.
As I write here in Oklahoma, the clouds are starting to gather. Par for the course on a late afternoon in April. A spring storm is coming. As the storm of a novel virus continues to challenge the world, I sit alone. I can’t help but reflect on those summer afternoons on Ma’s porch. And the better part of a lifetime under a religious shelter that we called “Pentecost.” It was viewed as a source of distinction and protection from the full impact of the harmful elements of the world. Just open enough to get on with life, but never were we to wander too far from the protection of our religion. Doing so, meant sure destruction, certainly in the life to come, and often dysfunction and strife in the here and now. Or so we were taught. It was easy enough to judge others as we set on the porch, watching those that left flailing about against the wind. It never occurred to us that perhaps those folks were just enjoying dancing in the rain.
I do not begrudge my moments spent on that front porch. I am the man that I am today because of those formative experiences. They continue to offer insight and wisdom in a world that often has little of either. But the prohibitions perpetuated in the name of religion tend to focus perspective on what one is missing. It is limiting, and at times restricting. How foolish would I have been to never step off the porch to discover the larger world God has created?
The grace of God that ravishes me now isn’t always protective. Very often it is dangerous. It does not promise me a life without suffering, nor does it guarantee me shelter from every storm. But it does invite me to stand in the wind. To feel deeply what has been repressed. And God’s grace always invites me to dance in the rain.