Sunday rolled around again and I was unsure of what to do. I still had not found a place where I belonged. I poked around online to see what churches were in the area and was surprised at how many there seemed to be within a 10-minute drive of our little town. One, however, caught my eye: the “charismatic” church that my old classmate Jasmine’s family attended; the one that my parents didn’t see fit to fellowship with. Something within me tingled and I wondered what it was that my parents found so reprehensible that they would refuse to fellowship with these others who called themselves Christians as well. I had time to make it there for their scheduled service, so I headed down, hopped in the car and drove over.
The church building was a long, narrow box with no markings other than a glass-and-metal sign by the driveway, declaring it to be the Lifespring Church. The symbol was stylized cross made of water springing up. There were quite a few cars in the parking lot and one of the parking attendants directed me to a spot from where I headed up to the two-story building. I was warmly greeted at the entrance by a well-dressed middle-aged man and then again by several others who politely asked my name and told me how excited they were to see me here and how pleased they were that God had brought me. This was quite a different experience from any other churches I’d been to so far and I slowly began to feel at ease. I felt even more so when I glimpsed the tall, distinguished form of Dr. Sage over to one side, talking with a shorter man of middle eastern aspect. For a moment I thought to join him, but then noticed everyone filing through the double doors of the sanctuary. A projection at the front was counting down minutes and there were only a few left so I tried to find myself a spot somewhere at the edge of the middle, in case the realities that I would see would lead me to leave this place quickly.
The service started calmly enough with a band consisting of guitar, bass, keyboard, drum set and two vocalists at the front. They sang songs I did not know, the words of which were projected on a screen above the band. As I looked around the fervor of the congregation seemed real enough. As the first song ended, the guitarist made some introductory statements and launched into another really fast song. People raised their hands, swayed in place. Some had their eyes closed, others wide open. I took my glasses off so I could focus on the words of the song, finding the imagery interesting if the poetry was pedestrian. Phrases were repeated over and over again. The melody shifted several times, making it hard to follow, but in my observation, most people were really into what was happening here. People were now clapping in time to the song. By about the third repetition I was able to figure out the chorus and join in tentatively. At the end of the song there was loud clapping, accompanied by cries of, “Thank you, Jesus,” and “Praise the Lord,” and “God, you’re king!”
Suddenly to my right I heard a sort of babble that I couldn’t understand. A young man beside me had his hands raised, eyes closed, face in ecstasy as unintelligible syllables tumbled from his lips. This was new and I was taken aback. He glowed with Jesus, obviously rapt in worship, but his glow was weak and unsteady, not growing like that of the woman in front of me who also had her hand raised in reverence. That puzzled me.
I looked towards the front and was surprised to see that the glow of the band was fairly weak. Only one of the vocalists blazed forth. The guitarist, who was obviously the leader, was pale and had a wolfish aspect to his face, but now glow. Somehow I was not surprised to find a vaunted leader to be a non-believer. Still, he was an accomplished guitarist and did a good job of leading the congregation through the songs. The band was very tight, as if they’d worked together for a long time and there was a professionalism to the service that was both inviting and irritating. The worship continued in a lively fashion, consisting almost entirely of singing, as songs blended one into another. There was one hymn that I recognized from my childhood, but the melody shifted away and the timing was very different than I was used to. As the singing continued several members of the congregation seemed to work themselves into a frenzy. Others swayed to the music, lost in rapture. A few here and there were glancing around like me, trying to see what was going on, but most everyone was fully engaged in this worship time. It ended with a middle-aged man taking the pulpit. We all sat down and to my delight, this preacher shone brightly. While he was not armor-clad, there was a maturity about him that was expressed in an increase of his brightness as he launched into his teaching. It was rich, clear and practical. He did not skirt the issues or lessen the blows, but poured forth the love and acceptance of God in ways I’d not known a preacher to do. And I knew: this was teaching I could thrive under. The sermon ended with a resounding call to action, but was then heavily muted by the fluffy phrases and churning chords of the final song the band had us sing along to. What an odd juxtaposition this was: a pastor that burned and a band that performed. I sat for a long moment, mulling this over. I would need to talk to Dr. Sage about this one tomorrow evening, I decided, putting my glasses back on.
I got up from my seat intending to go at least greet my friend when I heard a voice beside me.
“Sam? Sam Heiligenthal?” I looked over to see a young woman coming towards me with a bright smile. It took me a long moment to recognize her, but then it hit me.
“Jasmine!” I smiled broadly. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yes, it has,” she replied. Her hair was down and rather shorter than I remembered and she was dressed much less conservatively than I’d seen her before. Her makeup was applied carefully and her glasses were gone, replaced by contact lenses, I surmised. She also was taller than I remembered.
“You look very nice,” I said and she blushed deeply.
“You think so? My boyfriend likes it, so I wear it.” It was an odd statement and I was tempted to look over my glasses to see the glowing girl I’d once known, but refrained at that moment.
“How long have you been back?” I asked instead.
“Oh, a few weeks. I’d never thought to see you at our church. Your parents were always so … conservative.” I wasn’t sure how to answer that one at first, but then decided the truth was in order.
“I only just found Jesus a few weeks ago and I am looking for a place to belong.” I hesitated. “I really liked your preacher’s message.” She smiled again, but the wattage that usually played around the edges of my glasses was missing.
“He’s a good man,” she affirmed and then looked over her shoulder. At that moment I peeked under my glasses, expecting to see the brilliant beauty I remembered so well. Instead, there was merely a feeble glow around her. She had cuts and bruises on her arms, neck and face, some still oozing blood. I tried to compose my face to hide my shock, but I was not quite able to.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, but I was saved from replying by the arrival of the lead guitarist from the band.
“There’s my girl,” he said, possessively putting an arm around Jasmine’s shoulders. There was something about her movement that made me wonder if she was entirely comfortable with it. Then he noticed me.
“Who are you?” he asked coldly.
“Anton, this is Sam,” Jasmine said instead. “He’s an old friend from school.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, extending my hand. Anton shook it perfunctorily.
“How’d you like the service?” he asked. Even through my glasses he was wolflike, a predatory light in his eyes. There was something about him that put me off, especially in the way he was now holding on to Jasmine’s shoulder. What was going on here?
“It was different,” I replied, trying to be polite. “I didn’t know any of the songs, but I really appreciated the message.”
“Ah.” Anton grinned. “You’ll learn ‘em pretty quick. They’re easy.” Then he maneuvered Jasmine to the side.
“It was good to see you … Sam, was it?” he said. “We’ve gotta head out.”
“I’ll see you around, Jasmine,” I said. She just looked at me and smiled, though there was something to it that looked frightened. I glanced over my glasses as they departed and it looked like Anton’s claws were digging deeply into her upper arm. In that instant I wanted to rush up and tell her what he was and what he was doing to her. But how?
Instead I went looking for Dr. Sage. He was standing with that middle eastern man again, who turned out to be Mr. Malik, Jasmine’s father. I’d only seen him once or twice while in high school, so it was not surprising that I’d not recognized him.
I was then approached by another man my age who invited me to go to lunch with some of the other singles. I agreed, as it would be a chance to meet others at the church. As I was waiting for the group to gather, I noticed Anton and Jasmine off to one side, Anton speaking quietly but forcefully to his girlfriend. Suddenly my right eye itched, so I lifted my glasses to scratch it. As I removed my hand and my glasses were tilted I saw a very odd picture: in my supernatural vision, Anton was striking and scratching at Jasmine with his claws, snarling and spitting. She was shrinking down, tears streaking her face, blubbering in anguish. In my natural vision, they were simply standing there, talking. It’s amazing, how much words can hurt. I made up my mind to go over and break up the conversation when my new friend, Mat, arrived with the rest of the group and we departed for dinner. But Anton was still talking to Jasmine and obviously still wounding her on a spiritual level. In that moment I decided that I needed to do something about that.