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Q. At a friend's Pentecostal church last weekend, I was stunned by people "speaking in tongues." I want to tell my friend that this was just hysteria-induced gibberish. Is this a good idea?
-- K.P., Lexington, Ky.

Few who practice a faith would hold with the idea that their religion is propelled by hysteria. By jumping to such a conclusion, you're limiting your chances of understanding what's special about Pentecostal worship. And you might lose a friend.

For Pentecostals, there are three kinds of "tongues": "praying in tongues" means praying according to God's will without the interference of your natural desires; "praising in tongues," which lets worshipers express their love for God without the inhibitions of their natural language, is considered to be the outward manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit; and "messages in tongues" may be given during the service and then interpreted by the minister or another congregant so as to edify the entire congregation.

Anyone not accustomed to "tongues" will find it alarming, strange, and possibly--as you did--pathological. But it does have great meaning and import to Pentecostals. That's what's important to discuss with your friend, not your off-the-cuff diagnosis of collective hysteria.

Q: I've been exploring Wicca and my Christian parents are freaking out. What should I do?

I'm not surprised your parents are alarmed. Wiccans don't have the best image: They supposedly cast spells, cavort with the devil, turn people into toads, sacrifice babies and animals, and, of course, ride on broomsticks. In reality, they don't believe in Satan, their "spells" are basically prayers and wishes, they couldn't even turn a toad into a frog, they'd faint at a sacrifice, and while they may use broomsticks to represent male and female divinities (the brush is female; the stick is male), they couldn't fly a single inch with them.

If your parents can overcome their fears, it would be helpful for them to attend a Wicca event with you. Before going, brief them about what they'll see at the "circle," as Wicca services are called: the four elements--Earth, air, wind, fire--will be invoked and candles will be lit as a beacon for them; prayers will be recited to spirits or gods (most witches are polytheistic); during a ritual feast, a "libation"--wine or water and cake baked from wheat--will be served. Most circles last half an hour; some continue for two or three hours. The longer circles include ritual dancing and chanting.

Finally, you might also remind your parents what Jesus said after witnessing the deep faith and righteousness of a pagan Roman centurion: "I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel" (Matthew 8:10).

Q. I'm white but very curious about what goes on at an African Methodist Episcopal service. If I attend one, will I be an oddity?
-- C.S., Oakland, Calif.

You won't be an oddity, but you'll definitely be in the minority. There are usually a handful of whites at an AME service. They might be there because a friend who's a congregant invited them, or because, like you, they're curious about what goes on.

Most AME services are more spirited than other Christian services, so be ready for much music, hand clapping, and call and response, which is what happens when the minister poses a simple question to congregants, and they respond with perhaps an "Amen," "Thank you, Jesus," or "Praise Jesus". Or they might encourage their minister during his sermon by shouting out, "Tell it, preacher" or "Speak the truth, Reverend!"

As one AME minister said, AME worship is "a congregation's encounter and communion with God and with one another in God's name," and it's especially through congregants' clapping or their call and response or shouted encouragements to the preacher that they commune with each other. If the spirit moves you, clap, respond, or shout just like the veterans in the church. Don't let your self-consciousness hinder the fullness of your experience.

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