Throughout the two years that Chuck and I have attended services at the Church of the Lord Jesus, we have both been struck repeatedly by the congregation’s intense spirituality. I believe that for both of us, studying this church has been more a quest for spiritual connection and understanding than an attempt to dissect and explain away these individuals’ religious encounters.
After attending my first service, I can remember having the feeling that I was really missing out on something. Never had I witnessed such an intimate and expressive form of worship in all of the church services that I attended growing up in suburban Maryland. I realized that I had never even come close to experiencing the Holy Spirit on the same level that these individuals seemed to every week. I thought that I had felt God’s presence on certain special occasions, but I had never felt such a deep a connection to and faith in the divine as these particular church members. As a child and adolescent in my little Lutheran church back home, I was taught the Scripture, had sung the hymns, had taken communion, been confirmed, and had believed that Jesus loved me and died for my sins. But I don’t think that I ever truly experienced my religion. This is the difference between mainstream Protestantism and Mountain Religions – the experience of the Spirit.
“How does one ‘get the Spirit in him’ and what does it feel like?” were questions that I had after first visiting the serpent handling church. It was visibly obvious to me as an on-looker when an individual had “gotten the Spirit” in her, but what did it feel like? A part of me was, and still is, a little bit envious of the serpent handlers because I don’t think that I’ll ever really be able to feel what they feel in the services. I fear that my socialization growing up, more specifically, my need for control, are barriers to my fully understanding what happens when the Spirit “anoints” these church members.
According to Brother Bob, when one is “anointed” and the Holy Spirit enters into that individual’s body, he or she becomes “like Jesus,” who “was a man that the Spirit came into,” for “Jesus was God manifested in the flesh.” When I asked him how one is anointed with the Spirit, he told me, “You just have to have an open mind and really just call on Him, ‘Lord, I’m yours, I’m in your hands, and God, you just do with me what you would have me to do’…and He’ll use you. He will use you.” In mountain religions, one must let go of his or her own self to become a vessel for the Holy Spirit to enter into. Trust is handed over to the Lord, there is no worrying about how one appears to others in the church, no one is embarrassed about singing out of tune or singing too loudly or praising God spontaneously. It is okay to cry in church, to dance in church, to spin around fifty-three times if the Spirit moves upon that person to do so. The more one lets go of his or her inhibitions and reservations, the more easily the Holy Ghost can enter in and bestow its powers upon that person. It is this act of becoming a vessel for God that is a main goal of these church members.
I once asked Brother Bob what it feels like to be anointed by the Spirit, and he responded that “you really can’t express the feeling. The anointing is so deep within you that you really don’t care what comes and goes because you have the joy of the Lord within you.” Moreover, when the Spirit is in you, “you don’t fear.” Another young man whom I interviewed at the Homecoming service on Labor Day weekend told me that being anointed by the Spirit feels a lot like being drunk, “but then you’re not hung over the next day.”
There are many different manifestations of the “anointing.” When one is anointed, it does not mean that he or she will necessarily handle serpents. It could mean speaking in tongues, healing a sick individual, casting out a demon, handling fire, drinking strychnine, preaching, singing, or dancing furiously across the room. But no matter what that person appears to be doing, the church members have repeatedly reminded me that that person is not the one doing it; it is the Lord’s Spirit.
One particularly moving healing captures this concept well. Barbie, one of the church members, who had recently been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, was brought up to the front of the church by her cousin Melissa. People proceeded to surround the woman and lay hands on her in the usual fashion. They were moaning and praying over her as she stood there crying. Melissa was far more animated than the rest. She moved both of her hands up and down Barbie’s body while praying intensely. The music was playing loudly, and there was a great mixture of sounds bouncing off of the church walls. Melissa performed this healing for close to ten minutes. It was an intensely loving and tender act, one that was very touching to witness. This was the first time that we had seen Melissa participate in a healing; she tended to stay in the background playing the organ. But here she took center stage, healing her crying cousin of whatever emotional turmoil she was experiencing.
After the service had ended, when Chuck and I were saying our good-byes and hugging the congregation members, I told Melissa what a beautiful act of love I thought her healing of Barbie had been that night. She quickly corrected me and said, “It wasn’t me who was doing that, it was the Lord.” Trying to amend my oversight I replied, “Well, you were a wonderful vessel then!” She smiled and responded, “I try to live my life so that He’ll find me a worthy vessel for His work.”
© Shannon Bell, 2001