Friday, July 30, 2010

Altar Call

What follows is my recollection of an event from when I was young. I look at it with much different eyes these days.

Instead of tying knots and setting up tents, one night the Boy Scout troop meeting left the church building where we always met ~ incidentally, my home congregation, where I heard the stories of G-d and G-d's people almost every Sunday ~ and went to the football field for the evening. Now maybe it isn't such a stretch to go from a church to the football field, since the high school football field in small town Texas is virtually cathedral-like anyway. Not in form or shape or details of activity, but to some extent in communal function. Every Friday night, all across the state, communities would gather religiously in the company of their community to watch the ritual and drama of Texas high school play out.

This one Tuesday night, though, instead of staying at the church building for Boy Scouts, the Boy Scouts went to the football field. See, there was a revival in town. I don't remember much about it, but it must have been a normal revival, complete with singing and preaching and testimonials; complete, with everything planned out and thought out and rehearsed to evoke the maximum emotional manipulation possible.

All I really remember is the altar call. Well, not the actual altar call, but the fact that I got up from the backless wooden bench where I was sitting, walked down the aisle & down the steps & onto the field (much as I would in later years to receive awards for scholastic and extra-curricular achievement). There, someone met me ~ I remember a college-aged woman ~ and we walked across the field together to the visitor's bleachers (shorter, not as nicely painted, and just generally inferior to the home team bleachers), where we must have talked and prayed.

Being Lutheran, and thus unfamiliar with the altar call, I remember being hesitant to go forward. I had seen my scoutmaster get up from his backless wooden seat to respond, so I figured it was okay. But he had done this before, had committed his life to Christ, and so simply had to re-commit. No trip across the field, no conversation with a college student, no uncomfortably intimate prayer for him. I, on the other hand, had the full experience.

After the conversing and the praying and the committing, I met my mom in the gravel parking lot. I'm sure she asked me about the experience; and I'm sure I didn't really have much to say. Mostly, it was not much more than a completely foreign experience that I didn't understand.

All in all it wasn't necessarily a bad experience ~ it's just that nothing really came of it. You might think, "Well, you're a pastor now; surely they're related?" To which I reply that I believe my vocation as pastor was nurtured much less in a football field altar call than it was by participating weekly in hearing the Word and sharing the Meal in the company of faithful Christian community. A place where people knew me and cared about me; where people watched me grow and mature in faith; where I felt safe and loved and embraced by the Body of Christ.

Sure, revivals have their place, and altar calls can be important for some people. But the real work of faith happens in communities where we find support and encouragement, critique and admonishment, comfort and love that is consistent and reliable, and that doesn't pack up & leave the next day.

I wonder where that college student is now, and if she ever thought of me again.

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