A Pentecostal Theater Large Enough for This Marriage

If I dare put it this way, I’m grateful to J. Terry Todd for offering, in “Following Jesus to the Altar: One Pentecostal’s Reflection,” a Pentecostalism large enough for my marriage. This marriage, of a former atheist and semi-former charismatic, has called for a large room–even, in Todd’s language, a theater. And in relation to the Pentecost-related matters Todd addresses, as much my marriage as my Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has set the stage for my experiences and perspectives. The story:

As a teen, I attended a church camp. I had by then decided that adopting atheism was the most ambitious, dramatic way I could declare independence from traumatizing aspects of my Mennonite church community.

Intertwining with classic Anabaptist themes in my church experience were already evangelical and fundamentalist influences. Then yet another stream was added: the charismatic renewal movement. Abruptly all manner of settled ways of praying and worshiping and thinking were unraveled. It could be said that, to echo Todd’s memorable wording, a form of Pentecostalism was making its transgressive appearance.

It had taken over this church camp. So there I was, theoretically atheist. Yet underneath the atheism I was also, as Todd introduces his experience, “bearing the weight of a grief I couldn’t name.”

What happened next could be described almost word for word as Todd does:

Bearing the weight of a grief I couldn’t name, one Sunday I tarried at the altar, a classical Pentecostal phrase that involves praying mightily for a divine encounter with the Holy Spirit.  I stood, along with others, near the front of the worship space, my body enveloped by the band’s percussive rhythms and the praise team’s soaring vocals.  I, I’ve seen God do it, and I know / it’s working out for me. / It’s getting ready to happen. The entire assembly chanted the song’s refrain, again and again: It’s getting ready to happen, it’s getting ready to happen.  I wasn’t kneeling at a structure but standing, walking, rocking on my heels at the “altar,” a space that in most Pentecostal settings encompasses the center front of the church, stage left and stage right as well.

My moments of tarrying, or waiting expectantly, involved both the fervent hope for a divine encounter with the Holy Ghost, and a struggle with my willingness to surrender to the experience. And then it happened . . .

But precisely there our experiences sharply diverge. For me it most definitely did not happen. I felt crushed under the dreams of those praying over me, laying hands on me, issuing ecstatic utterances through which I grasped, though without understanding the words themselves, that they were entreating the Spirit to enter recalcitrant me.

“Just let go,” they pled. “Let your tongue go even if it makes no sense. Say nonsense words and then the Holy Spirit will come to fill them with meaning.”

So I did. And a sort of half feeling of sort of half being filled with something arrived but deep down I knew: I was doing my best to be filled with the Spirit but not managing actually to be filled by other than my own quest to be “good” for those who wanted me to be filled. Still I yielded. Eventually I eked out some nonsense words. Joy erupted. For several days I convinced myself It had happened: I had spoken in tongues; I had been baptized in the Spirit.

Only for a few days. Then as I noted no underlying transformation of my troubled self, I admitted the truth to myself: I had tried but failed to open myself. Whatever had happened had been my effort to go along with the expectations of the crowd.

Years later I was to find paths toward following Jesus and experiencing the Spirit. Part of what it took was concluding that what had befallen me back then was external coercion blending with my inner need. I had experienced true hunger but not necessarily for what I was being offered at that camp.

In mid-pilgrimage I met a woman. She was Joan, still a teenager, in her first year at Eastern Mennonite University, where we met when I was a senior. She had been raised American Baptist. She had found much to treasure in her tradition. But there were hungers not yet met in her teenage self. In her world too the charismatic movement made its transgressive appearance, undoing patterns and spiritualities that had long seemed settled. She was blessed. She still connects with friends from the days she sang in a traveling choir with her charismatic mentors and friends.

Eventually, of course, the former-but-sometimes-still-atheist and the charismatic decided that one thing amid their confusions was clear: They should marry. When they announced this oil-and-water merger to their respective friends, there was no joy in either camp. There was gnashing of teeth, rending of clothes, smearing of ashes on brows. This was a variant of Thelma and Louise rollicking their way off a cliff.

So here we are, forty-some years later. We have survived partly by becoming more like each other. What our friends couldn’t always see–nor actually could we ourselves, who realized we might have lost our minds–was that we would also, hoary though the concept is, complement each other. So I am often enough the skeptic but experience Joan as offering guard rails that keep me from, ultimately, plunging into the ditch of cynical disbelief.

And I think she would testify to the ways we mutually nurtured each other when at moments of severe distress in her circle of loved ones the charismatic word was sometimes a toxic pray harder, trust God more, get out of the Spirit’s way even if that forces you to lie to yourself about what is actually happening here. During one potentially fatal crisis, it was also not her charismatic mentors but that boring old-fashioned leader, an American Baptist pastor, who knew precisely the words of divinely inspired grace and wisdom to offer.

Within that journey we find ongoing blessings as we nurture children and grandchildren in a world turned wilder than many of us might have anticipated even a few years ago. We go to church. We engage Scripture. We do things good Christians and Mennonites do. We take seriously the Mennonite Church USA understandings of the Holy Spirit offered in the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective article 3, which concludes that–

The Holy Spirit enables our life in Christian community, comforts us in suffering, is present with us in time of persecution, intercedes for us in our weakness, guarantees the redemption of our bodies, and assures the future redemption of creation.7

But buffeted by traditions we have long experienced as sources of both strength and shadows, we have not majored in jots and tittles of Holy Spirit doctrine. Nor have we found that the somewhat middle-of-the-road MC USA take on the Spirit exhausts the wildness of the wind and the tongues of fire that blow and alight where they will.

This means I take in Todd’s report more as testimony and inspiration than as theological tome–although I appreciate and affirm the theological nuances he offers us and the many ways they resonate with Joan’s and my lived experience. I particularly am moved by Todd’s ability to show us three things:

First “is the experience of worship as a theater of divine encounter, a space of intense emotion and intimacy where God meets us at the altar.”

Second is “transgressive space”:

As a theater of divine encounter, the Pentecostal (or renewalist) altar can be a “transgressive space,” a term Gastón Espinoza has used to describe the altars at Azusa Street, the 1906 Los Angeles revivals that helped put the Pentecostal movement on the Christian map.

Third is the “freakiness” that this can catalyze and empower. Todd documents an amazing array of Christians and peoples and experiences that can all, in their frequently contradictory ways, fit in the theater. As he describes matters, “The altar where I first experienced the baptism of the Holy Ghost is a transgressive space, which is why I use the provocative language of ‘flying the freak flag’ to unabashedly embrace Pentecostal ideas and (especially?) actions that might puzzle or even repel others.”

That grips my heart. That shows me what it can look like when Christians today behave as those first book-of-Acts Christians did, seemingly drunk but with Spirit not spirit. That fills me with appreciation for ways in our half-blind and fumbling ways Joan and I, one burned by one form of Pentecostalism, one healed by another form of it, then both of us discovering mutual inspiration and healing at the nexus of salvation and shadows, have found each other. And have been found by the Holy Spirit who turned even our marriage into a wing of that theater of divine encounter.

Yes, J. Terry Todd:

That prophecy makes me dance with joy at the altar, as I await this Third Pentecost, grateful for the radically relational pneumatology that undergirds it.

Somebody shout Hallelujah, please.

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