Tonight we are staying on the Crocodile River in Kruger National Park, in eastern South Africa. We arrived just before dark, and found our thatched-roof bungalow delightfully near the river. We dumped our backpacks, unpacked our bag of food, then heard a roar, a splash, a growl from the river. Hippos, likely. Maybe a crocodile as well?
(Let me show you, but apologies! These are not Nat Geo photos. These are mostly from my iPhone ‘cause that’s all I’ve got.)
In the hour before, we crawled the earthen roads on another wildlife drive. What would we see today? Ten minutes in, we rounded a corner and STOP! The biggest bull elephant I’ve ever seen was walking the dirt road, just feet in front of us. Was it safe to pass him? I’ve been told multiple stories of marauding bulls who charged cars, even overturning them. We passed, holding our breath, clicking our cameras at his massive head. He flapped his ears at us, lowered his head, and just when I thought he would charge, we were gone.
Minutes later, in the early evening dusk----GIRAFFES! Two of them calmly in the road while I gestured wildly at the boys. (For those who doubt the existence of God, I have a one-word apologetic for you: “Giraffe.”) And how can I tell of the flocks of impala, waterbuck, zebras, white rhinos, on and on? All wild beasts carrying on their untamed lives in more than 7000 square miles of national park land. This is their world, not ours. We are the ones in cages not allowed to get out of our cars, while they roam free. Just as it should be.
I know that feeling of being caged, trapped. I felt it in church last Sunday. Not knowing where to go, we chose the church nearest our B+B. Just as we entered the building, the pastor, in t-shirt and jeans said, with a smile, “I hope you like worship that’s totally free!?”
“Sure,” I smiled back confidently.
Then it began. The fifty congregants, of all colors and ages, stood and swayed and clapped and danced to the worship band’s pulsing beat. The band sounded like they had dropped in from K-Love radio: perfect, professional contemporary Christian music. And so loud I couldn’t hear my own voice.
We joined in enthusiastically. Between songs, the leader began a tiger-like pacing of the platform, exhorting us in the tones and movements of an American televangelist. It got hot. We kept going. One praise chorus about God's love for us lasted for 20 minutes. Another for 15. More than an hour later, we were still singing about how much Jesus loves us.
I realized that every word spoken in those 80 minutes was about us. About Jesus’ love for us. That he could never ever love us any more. His love was unconditional. God didn’t need anything from us so our job was to take from him. (Where is that in the scriptures?) God was there just for us. To pour out his love upon us. . . . .
It was 95 degrees. I had given two keynotes at a Writing Conference just the day before. I had poured it all out. And now, this message and music which was exactly like a church we had visited a few weeks before, whose 3 hours were spent sending people into ecstatic visions . . . I felt cloyed and sick. I sat down.
Suddenly a woman appeared beside me, the well-dressed woman originally from England who had greeted us with a too-hard hug when we first came in. She clapped her hands on my shoulders and began praying, loudly, over the throbbing music. She prayed.
“God, Abba, set your daughter free. Set her free from whatever is holding her back! Demolish whatever strongholds are erected against you. Release her from disappointments. Refresh her with your love. Reach down and cleanse her from whatever is troubling her . ..
And at this point she placed her hand on my stomach and pushed hard as she prayed (she’s so right about my stomach being a stronghold!! I’d love a few pounds of fat to be released in Jesus’ name!).
Then, she moved her hand to my breastbone, pressing and praying again,
“Lord, we pray against Satan. That you would destroy any ground that’s his. That you would tear down anything that stands between you and your daughter. Set her free, Lord Jesus! Set her free!”
I sat there, captured. Helpless for 3-4 minutes. Feeling preyed upon by her prayer. Duncan, who was still standing, was next.
She pressed herself against him, this stranger, putting her hands on his belly, his chest, while Duncan stood frozen as she cried out to God over him. Micah was next. And before the next attack, Abraham decided wisely and conveniently that he needed to go to the bathroom, so he was spared.
We escaped church before the closing song.
I am sure she is a kind woman who truly loves Jesus and wants everyone to experience him as she does. But there’s so much I wanted to say to this wild woman. Jesus has set me free. I may be exhausted right now, with a headache, but I am totally set free. I’ve been freed to worship Jesus with my mind as well as my heart and soul. I am set free for a purpose: not just to dance in the aisle at church, but to serve and love God and our neighbors with all that we are and have. (And when God says “love” he means more than a feeling.)
Maybe that’s what she was trying to do. Maybe I missed it.
And maybe I am making too much of what was intended as love. But I visited another church much like this one a few weeks back. It was a 3 hour service where the pastor urged the congregants, through the music, to find "ecstasy" and to "take from God whatever you need." There was no scripture. There was no sermon.
Listen, I’m worried about us. I’m worried about the Church. I’m worried about our narcissism. I'm worried that we've created a fenced-in fairy godfather god.
The beasts of these African fields remind me who God is, a wild God, a Maker God we cannot tame. We exist for Him; He does not exist for us. And this is real freedom: to be freed from our tiny caged hearts, to be freed from worshipping a small god of our own making.
Lord, truly, set us free! Show us your wildness and your glory!