Spiritual Formation

When Mainline Christians Spoke in Tongues

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I became a Christian during the Charismatic Renewal in the early ‘70s when God poured out his Spirit in a way that we haven’t seen since in the ensuing four plus decades. People from every denomination experienced this outpouring along with manifestations such as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues. Old Testament prophetic scriptures burst into our consciousness and thrilled us with “the” promise:

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
Joel 2:28-29

And it happened! When I walked into Catacombs, a mid-week meeting at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto, a blast of heaven enveloped me as though I had entered a furnace of glory. God had descended. His presence filled the temple. Many hundreds of people all felt it together. During Full Gospel Businessmen’s meetings at the Royal Connaught Hotel in Hamilton two or three thousand people would gently begin to sing spontaneous praises unto God. The volume gradually increased as individual voices blended into one heavenly sound lifting our attention higher and higher–to Jesus, the baptizer with the Holy Spirit. No one wanted to leave. Lives changed forever. 

Gradually, however, darkness began to cloud the light. We seemed to forget the nature of the Spirit we were receiving. People began to focus on power rather than love. External manifestations such as tongues or being “slain in the Spirit” took center stage. Some took delight in the feeling of self-importance gained by prophesying over another. Authoritarian leadership reared its ugly head in many charismatic ministries. Leaders domineered, sometimes going so far as telling people whom they should marry. Somehow we forgot the Spirit’s essence–love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, goodness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). The plight of the poor and vulnerable didn’t get much press.  The glory departed.

The confusing thing about such a time is that what you see is sometimes of God and sometimes merely human. Some people genuinely did fall down under the Spirit’s power and some were pushed by over-zealous pray-ers presumably wanting to be seen as mighty, Spirit-filled men or women. And what about the one who prophesies or speaks in tongues? How does she know if what she’s about to say is of God, self or even the evil one? How do we discern God’s Spirit at all?

Ignatius of Loyola, a great spiritual leader of the past, gives us valuable advice. He suggests a delicate but profound image for what he calls “the discerning of spirits.” God’s Spirit, says Ignatius, comes to us like water dripping on a sponge. He enters quietly and easily through an open door. The evil one comes as water dripping on a stone.  Darkness enters only with clamour and noise because the door is closed to it. The dark power tries to break it down through fear, hurry and intimidation. Such is the case only if our heart’s orientation is toward God. Our experience is exactly the opposite if our heart’s disposition is to self. That is, we experience the darkness as silently entering because the door is open to it. In such a state, God’s presence is noisy and clattering because we have not aligned ourselves to him and hence we are not receptive to what he gives. Like welcomes like. 

The first step in aligning ourselves to God is having a right understanding of God’s nature i.e. good theology. That means coming to Jesus and learning that he is “gentle and humble in heart” and that he produces deep rest in our souls. The teaching he asks us to accept is easy; his burden is light (Mat. 11:28-30)–water gently falling on a sponge. If our God is harsh, we ourselves will tend to be harsh. God’s Spirit will hit our hearts like water on a stone. 

As soon as we talk about the peace and non-violence of Jesus, someone inevitably rushes to tell us about the injustices of the world. We need to be angry, to rise up and do something about them. But again, let’s look to Jesus and specifically what the coming of the Spirit did in his life. 

“Here is my chosen servant! I love him, and he pleases me.
I will give him my Spirit, and he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t shout or yell or call out in the streets.
He won’t break off a bent reed or put out a dying flame,
but he will make sure that justice is done.
All nations will place their hope in him.”
Mat. 12:18:21

Jesus acted decisively to bring about justice, but he did it without clamouring to get attention, demanding his way or trampling on others, especially the weakest and most bruised souls. He tenderly cared for marginalized people whether the leper cast out of Jewish society or the woman considered unclean because of her bleeding. In fact, Jesus didn’t even trample on his enemies.  The term nations, used twice in the passage above, refers to Gentiles, Israel’s enemies, those who are on the outside and are despised by the “good people.” Jesus would rather die for his enemies than show any callousness to even the worst. He is the “social justice warrior” extraordinaire who triumphs absolutely, but he does it God’s way and in God’s Spirit. 

We cannot go through something like the Charismatic Renewal  without longing for more of God’s Spirit. Could it be that we don’t experience him as we would like because we’re opening our heart’s door to a false image of God? Have we created an idol of power or success or pleasure that we’re bowing down to? The Holy Spirit does bring power, but it’s not that we might be mesmerized by supernatural manifestations or exert dominance over others. As scripture tells us the power of the Spirit enabled Jesus to do good and to help those oppressed by the darkness (Acts 10:38). I am persuaded that it will be so for us.

Spiritual Formation

The Coronavirus and the Christian’s Vulnerability

Along with incalculable health and economic suffering, the coronavirus has also brought a reality check. We are not as secure as we imagined. Being well-fed and gadgeted to the max has lulled us into a dream-like state that hides an unpleasant truth–we will eventually lose everything. Beauty will fade, strength will diminish, our senses will grow dim, friends and family members will depart and finally life itself will slip away. Covid-19 slapped us in the face with our own mortality. This should especially sober the individual who has not thought much about what comes next. In this post, however, I want to talk to those of us who look forward to an eternity with Jesus. Have we considered that even after we become Christians the sense of vulnerability the coronavirus has reawakened is vital? Are we aware that without knowing our own weakness, we will not do well in God’s kingdom?

I don’t know about you, but everything in me recoils at the thought of being weak, poor in spirit or helpless. Furthermore, I feel that my Christian life is not going too badly. Oh I know I could do better, but, hey, “I’m only human.” All in all I’m doing the best I can and should be OK. But this laissez-faire attitude contrasts vividly with that of the apostle Paul as we see from his anguished cry in Rom. 7:14-25. “I do what I shouldn’t do and I don’t do what I should do. I’m helpless in the face of what’s going on inside. My body holds me a prisoner to its desires. Who will deliver me from the fate of this death?” Paul’s status quo disturbed him big time.ConversionStPaul

How can it be that I think I’m doing better than the man who established Christianity all over the ancient world and wrote about half the NT? The answer to that question is actually quite simple. I don’t fix my eyes on Jesus.  I do think of him quite often actually, but not enough to keep the essence of his kingdom–grace, nonviolence, peace, love–firmly set in my mind. From others I know, I take it I’m not alone.

We live with our own version of Christianity and if we set our standards low enough, the Christian life is a breeze. It’s like the story of the man driving in the country who noticed a barn with arrows stuck all over its side with each arrow dead center in the middle of its target. So impressed with what he saw, the man pulled into the driveway to meet such a talented archer. The farmer told him it was really nothing. The secret was to paint the target around the arrow after he’d shot it. In a similar fashion, we construe the goal of the Christian life as being roughly where we already are. O we know in the next life things will be different, but we’re getting through OK until that glorious time. However, that’s not aiming for the target. It’s not earnestly pursuing the kingdom where the Father’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Nowhere is the high nature of the Christian’s calling better displayed than in Jesus’  Sermon on the Mount. Take just a couple of examples: “Rather than hate your enemy like others have said, I say to you, love your enemies” (Mat. 5:43-48). So who is your enemy? a boss who belittles you? a spouse who betrayed you?  a supposed friend who gossips about you? Maybe the terrorists who blow innocent people up in an attempt to destroy our society? The latter would definitely qualify as enemies, but surely God doesn’t expect us to love suicide bombers? That seems to be exactly what Jesus meant. When he spoke about loving one’s enemies, every one of his hearers knew precisely who he was talking about, the Romans. They occupied their Jewish homeland. An enemy every bit as terrorizing as today’s suicide bombers, the Romans often sought to inflict as much pain as possible while executing a condemned individual. They sawed their victims in half, burned them alive and crucified them in a particularly slow, agonizing death. Love your enemies? I feel violated if I don’t immediately get my money back for an internet subscription I’ve cancelled! The kind of love Jesus requires is simply not humanly possible.

He doesn’t stop with talk of enemies, however. What he says about those much closer to us startles us just as much. Being angry with a brother or sister is akin to . . . murder (Mat. 5:21-22)! When we let Jesus’ words sink in, they become a sharp sword that pierces to our core (Heb. 4:12). They illuminate every trace of human anger, the source of so much evil including murder. The motions of my heart stand out in stark contrast to Jesus’ nonviolent kingdom. I get angry when “politically correct” people don’t believe what I believe. I get irritated when I’m interrupted. Anger manifests itself in countless human interactions–sarcastic humour at someone’s expense, gossip, competitiveness to the point of anger if we don’t win, envying such that we wish for another’s loss, excluding someone from our circle, blaming scapegoats for our own problems, trampling others because we’re not getting our way etc. 

We put up with hatred and anger because we’re used to them, but not so Paul. Rather than allowing such emotions to blend into the background of a spiritually sleepy life, he was wide awake and alert to their danger. So strong is their influence, Paul called it a law, that of  of sin in his members (Rom. 7:23).  “When I want to do good,” he laments, “evil is present with me” (Rom. 7:21). So why was Paul so aware of his shortcomings? Did he just have an oversensitive conscience, a melancholic personality? Was Paul a particularly bad person? Maybe he just needed to lighten up a bit? 

No, the reason he had such a crystal clear vision of his own shortcomings is that he also had a crystal clear vision of the love of Jesus. In fact, it had been poured into his heart through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Here’s the great paradox, the closer we get to the Light, the more our darkness shows up and the more potential there is to be bothered by it. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in anguish because his defects and weakness stand out so starkly in Jesus’ presence.

That’s Romans 7. The scene changes dramatically in the next chapter where everything is turned upside down. Despite how wrong things may be in our inner world, Jesus’ goodness is greater than our badness! God lavishes this goodness upon us in the gift of the Spirit of Jesus–that same Spirit we encountered in the Sermon on the Mount which enables us to love even our enemies. The secret Paul tells us repeatedly is to rigorously keep focused on it–to walk after the Spirit (Rom. 8:4), to set our minds on the Spirit (Rom. 8:5-6), to put to death sinful acts by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) and to be led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14).

In conclusion, if we don’t fix our eyes on Jesus and what he has to say, we won’t feel any great shortfall in our walk with God. We will be like the man James talks about who looks into “the perfect law of liberty” and by doing so understands his true nature and calling. However, like a man walking away from a mirror, he goes his way and immediately forgets his higher self (James 1:23-25).

As I’ve mentioned, seeing the higher means seeing the lower as well. There is of necessity anguish as we come close to God and his light shows up what’s inside, but we can take courage. We can admit our weakness, our sins, our vulnerability. This same love, kindness and goodness that we fall so short of is embodied in the Person with whom we have to do and he extends all this grace fully to us. Not only that, he promises to put it right inside!