Many Places At Once Volume 2, Issue #17, “Revelations”
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Last Sunday, I came to know Jesus Christ as my personal savior. After straying for upwards of twelve years, far afield from the path that I was set about as a young man, I’ve been quickened unto the Faith once more, and I’ve rekindled my relationship with Him in a remarkable and wonderful way.
I went into this assignment a lost soul, with a heart full of cold hatred, relying instead on such sinful, prideful concepts as human logic and curiosity as my guide. Throughout the run of this column, you’ve seen me malign the town I grew up in and the birth of our Savior, even at one point breaking bread and finding common ground with those who align with and worship the Devil Himself. I wasn’t always like this: I spent the first eighteen years of my life a devout follower of the Lord Almighty, and have spent these intervening wayward years backsliding horribly.
Fortunately for me, and those others who have found themselves lost once again or rejecting the Word of God, there is a Sanctuary: The Worship @ The Water service at The Florabama, an outreach of Perdido Bay United Methodist Church. Each Sunday morning since summer of 2011, the Florabama, known famously as the last American roadhouse bar, is host to those weary and in need of the restoration of our Holy Father.
The Florabama is more accurately characterized as a den of iniquity, where the most hedonistic of impulses are catered to on a nightly basis. The live music, abundant alcohol, and loose moral standards create the perfect storm of honky-tonkin’ sinfulness. Even before I metaphorically found myself naked and wanting and turned over this new leaf in my life/testimony, it was never my cup of tea. The old Josh would have something smug like, “the clientele is endemic of the drunk, rowdy, ‘Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy’ mentality that makes Orange Beach the cultural backwater that it is.” I would have also complained about the cover bands, the vapidity, and the general lack of self-awareness. But now I see these people for what they are: sinners. And it doesn’t make me angry any more, it only makes me very sad. So much space (I have no idea how many bars or stages are in this behemoth of a compound), so much history… dedicated to behavior that can only be considered regretful, at best.
I’d heard tell of this church service when I moved down here last summer. I initially laughed about it, in complete disbelief that something so inherently contradictory could exist. To a self-imposed outsider, it seemed blatantly hypocritical. I decided early on in this series of stories that I needed to see it for myself, in my clouded judgment seeing it as an opportunity to slander and snicker at the “dumb Christians” that I had convinced myself were completely mistaken (but I guess the joke’s on me now, Lord Forgive Me).
I decided to check out the contrast firsthand, beginning last Friday night. As I said before, the old Josh had a good time, but… despite himself. The curiosity I had going in helped me to pay a little better attention to the scene at hand: disgusting throngs of drunken tourists and locals, locked into this 24-7/365 Mardi Gras-esque revelry of lust and Devil music. Every song was someone’s song, which they made known by animal-like whooping toward the rafters. People were stomping and yelling and dancing and trying to have premarital sex. It was frankly disgusting. I made the best of my time and perhaps drank too much (sorry, Lord), but saw plenty enough to know along with previous experiences what the Florabama was really all about. Considering that secular publications like the smutty Playboy and the Democratic/Communist newsrag The New Yorker have already chronicled the experience of the Florabama, I don’t feel I need to recount anymore of the salacious details.
What the story was really about was the Worship @ The Water service. I saw a sign for it that Friday night, right next to the main stage by the beach, underneath a Bud Light Bikini Contest banner. I laughed at the contrast at the time, but now I’m just embarrassed and ashamed. I came back the next Sunday morning for the service, the first time I’d been in anything resembling a “church” in more than a decade. I was definitely uncomfortable going into it, because guilt manifests itself no matter how badly you wish to deny your beliefs, something I’d done for the duration of my “rational” adult life.
Jane and I arrived and found our way to the main stage area, the very area crowded with Redneck Riviera Revelers that previous Friday. I was expecting to find a smallish crowd of people too hung over or still drunk from the night before who somehow got conned into staying for some lukewarm fellowship of prayer and middling devotion.
What I found instead was a full-on tent-revival of hundreds. A nine-piece band was on stage playing standard hymns with a country flavor. Children played in the sand while their parents stood and sang, clapped, and rejoiced in their brotherhood. People were selling church merch, namely t-shirts with “My Church Is At The Florabama” scrawled across them. At the time, still a skeptic, I characterized it as “youth group for old people,” feeling quite pleased with myself for making such a laconic yet acerbic observation. Most of what I saw was amusing at the time: the “Honky Tonk Hymnals,” the announcement about the return of Stephanie, their “worship bartender,” the fact that these people were worshipping, singing, praying underneath the same Bud Light Bikini Contest banner.
I decided to hit up the worship bartender for a Bloody Mary (another bit of cheek from the old me) and get some food from the worship omelette bar, and set out to view the spectacle as a voyeur. I was just getting settled in when it hit me like a bolt of lightning: the skies went preternaturally dark. It looked as though the tide rolling into the Gulf of Mexico had turned the distinct crimson of blood. I could smell the copper in the air. Even my Bloody Mary had turned to blood; disgusted, I spit it out and threw the rest away. A light parted the clouds and a voice came to me saying, “Joshua, you are my son, just as Jesus. This blood’s for you.” This revelation scared me to the quick. I felt like Saul of Damascus, the arrogant pharisee so blinded by the pride of his intellect, only to be humbled into a complete transformation, turning his life and will over to the Will of God. I knew then that the Holy Ghost had resumed his position in my heart.
It was then that I realized the wisdom of what Worship @ The Water does. Like Jesus Christ, they go out into the world where the sinners dwell and witness to them on their terms. So many people were comfortable worshipping there when they’d likely not be comfortable any place else, and there is nothing wrong with that. At least Jesus found them, like He found me. Of course, He knew where I was all along, and led me there so that I could find Him again.
Josh Beech is an atheist. Hit him up on twitter and ask him about the Lord!