I am about three, sitting in the open bed of a pickup truck. We're barreling down the freeway to Huntington Beach. I'm not scared. I'm excited. With the wind in my hair and the summer Southern California sunset all pink-gold glorious, I know Jesus is coming soon. And I am happy, happy, happy are the people whose God is the Lord! Daddy is preaching the revival tent meeting at the foot of the Huntington Beach Pier. If I am good and sit especially quiet during the meeting, I can eat cookies and drink punch afterwards.
According to a news clipping I have from July 31, 1980, our tent meetings are held at the pier, "situated in the city's decaying downtown area. Across the street are aged buildings housing a liquor store, surfboard shops, and a store specializing in drug paraphernalia. Along with the large beach crowds, the area attracts vagrants and transients and has a high crime rate. It might be the last place one would expect to find evening Christian revivals. But for the second consecutive year, a loosely organized group of Christian fundamentalists from Fullerton is holding nightly gospel meetings in a large tent at the foot of the pier."
Above the tent, a huge banner reads: Jesus is calling still...
Before the tent meeting begins, we go out on the pier inviting people to attend and preaching the Gospel. When I'm about six or seven, I have my gospel message honed to one-minute. Damnation to salvation in 60 seconds flat. Seek and ye shall find! Knock and it shall be opened unto you!
I believe this and repeat it to sinners on the pier. I also use threats like if they die tomorrow and aren't right with God, they will go to Hell. (I learned early on that you can convert more sinners with promises of eternal life and heavenly mansions than you can with threats of eternal torment and Hellfire).
Drunkards and homeless guys, tourists and passerby come under our tent and hear testimonies, gospel singing and gospel preaching. Sinners call on the name of the Lord and are saved. I watch my Mama sing and I hear my Daddy preach.
Sometimes I feel the Holy Spirit, sometimes I wonder if it is just my imagination.
God shows up and people get healed or have sudden, amazing conversions. I listen to their testimonies of quitting drugs, alcohol and fornication. But grandfather always stops things before people get too carried away. Papa isn't interested in wild nights of conversion--he wants to make holy, serious disciples.
We never speak in tongues and whenever a drunkard gets too riled up about Jesus, someone ushers him out of the tent. Emotions, even Holy Ghost emotions, are not to be tamed, not trusted.
Somewhere in the mid-to-late 80's, God sorta disappeared. Strong winter storms repeatedly damaged and closed the pier. We moved our tent meetings from the beach to a park.
When the new pier was re-built, the city of Huntington Beach started developing the downtown area and our tent wasn't up to code. We had to move our revival meetings a few blocks away. Things were never really the same after that.
I don't know if God moved on, but the things that used to work stopped working. Because for all the seeking and praying and knocking and pleading, God sure wasn't easily found. The most I ever got was a fleeting glimpse, a tiny taste of God.
God, like the ocean, was unpredictable and mysterious. You never knew when a great set of waves would give you the perfect ride or when the tide would turn dangerous and smash you into the pier pilings.
Sometimes I think of God as the ocean and the pier as religion. Humans keep trying to tame the ocean or control God. We keep building piers that stretch out into the deep, even though history has shown us time and again that one big storm can wash it all away.
Just when I think I know who and what God is, a huge wave comes along to remind me that He's so much bigger than my ideas about Him. There's no taming the ocean and there's no taming God. God is boundless, untamed, life-giving. But also, God is not safe.
Sometimes I think the only way to catch glimpses of God is to ride the waves. I've never been very good at surfing. Mostly, I get wiped out and tumbled around. One time when I was about 10, I got smashed against the pier pilings.
This past weekend, I watched an old surfer get ready to paddle out on his long board. He said he's been surfing here since 1957. Long before our tent meetings. Long before the new, concrete pier.
"I'm the first one to admit when I'm scared," he said. "Sometimes the pier is your best friend. Sometimes it's your worst enemy."
I watched him surf for awhile. The younger guys caught waves and "shot the pier"--meaning they surfed right between the pilings and shot out the other side. The older guys bailed off the waves before they got too close to the pier. Maybe they've gotten smashed one too many times.
"Ultimately, you gotta respect the ocean," the old surfer told me before he paddled out.
Maybe that's how it is with me and God. If God is the ocean and the pier is religion, I've gotten smashed one too many times. Piers are temporary things, anyway. All of this is temporary. Land shifts. Oceans rise and fall.
All that remains is the memory of love, like a mighty sea sweeping over me. If I stop and listen, I can hear the echoes of that tent meeting hymn we used to sing: Like a mighty sea, comes the love of Jesus sweeping over me! The floods of glory roll, my Savior to extol. Comes the love of Jesus, sweeping o'er my soul.
Sometimes, if I stop and remember, I am 3 years old again and so full of God's love. Everything is pure and clean and we're on our way to glory. Sometimes I wonder why it had to go so wrong.
Sometimes I feel the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I think it's just my imagination.