Following Jesus is a Liquid Dance

As we conclude this year-long experiment in respectful conversations, I’m grateful for the ways my faithful beloveds have responded to the post about my adopted tradition, Pentecostalism. Throughout the Following Jesus conversations, I’ve been struck by how many posts have included stories, highlighting the lived experience of our respective traditions. This set of responses was no exception.

My story about the Pentecostal altar evoked your stories, many of them narratives about Holy Spirit encounters of one kind or another. My friend Randall Balmer wrote about a visit he and I made to an Apostolic (Jesus-only) Pentecostal Church in Natchez, Mississippi decades ago, where we met Sister Ramsey. That was the first time I had witnessed a Christian being filled – in that way, in that very moment, and before my eyes! – with the Spirit. (Was it also your first time Randy?)  Raised fundamentalist, I was suspicious of Pentecostal charisms, which God withdrew (or so said my Calvinist elders) after the apostolic era. Balmer calls Sister Ramsey’s spirit-filled moment “a liquid dance.” That’s a fascinating choice of words, and spot-on in describing my experience of the Holy Spirit. Spirit as fire, wind, vibration, breath, yes, yet liquid is also an apt metaphor. After all, the Holy Spirit flows through bodies and spaces, in ways that can be gentle as a brook or fierce like a tsunami.

I wish I had more time to answer Bob Millet’s question regarding my move from Anglican to Pentecostal paths. I have lots of stories about that. Yes, it’s a dramatic departure, yet the conversion itself was slo-mo; it took years, although it began with seeing Sister Ramsey’s fully embodied reception of the Spirit. Over the years, the Holy Spirit’s lure became irresistible, and took me to places I never expected to go. (Maybe surprise is a key element of the Spirit’s MO?)

I was deeply moved by Michael King’s story of Holy Ghost failure.  When a wave of charismatic fervor swept his summer camp, skeptical Michael endured the entreaties of his friends at a prayer meeting – “just let go!” – so that he could receive what Pentecostals call the “evidence” of Spirit’s presence – tongues-speech. Michael managed to blurt out some sound that could pass, but no life transformation ensued.

I’ve experienced incidents like this many times, and in my queer corner of the Pentecostal world we sometimes laugh at the memory of our own earnest entreaties.  But often it’s not funny. Michael analyzes the scene, memorably, as “external coercion blending with my inner need,” echoing the experience of many who’ve left Pentecostal communities to join the ranks of the none or done.  They left because they experienced coercion and manipulation to the point of spiritual abuse at the hands of Pentecostal leaders who arrogantly suppose that they are the guardians of the Spirit’s power.

Michael’s story continues with deeply moving reflections on an enduring marriage with his wife, whose earlier charismatic encounters shaped her own spiritual life. They’ve settled into a loving partnership, and into a quieter relationship with the Holy Spirit that Michael describes through reference to a Mennonite confession of faith, expressing a pneumatology that I can embrace wholeheartedly. No tongues required, no holy dancing, and no running the aisles necessary. Just relationship, just relationship, with God and with each other.

David Gushee relates a story about a moment of prayer with friends. At a time of personal anguish, Gushee writes, their prayers evoked the Spirit’s arrival, touching off moments of weeping for the suffering of others.  In David’s case, “the resentment in my heart toward a boss at work was quite simply and permanently burned out of me.”  That sounds like transformative healing to me, and it is one of the holy effects of worship in the assembly I serve. I’m grateful that you related that personal instance of the Spirit’s manifestation, David. And I appreciate when you say that “… [such] experiences mainly seem frightening to me, in part because being that ‘out of control’ in public is almost the definition of terror to me.”  I’ve felt that terror, too, while witnessing the Spirit work.  Opening to the Spirit requires a degree of naked vulnerability that I can rarely conjure in the presence of others.

Finally, David Ford offers up a story that begins at one of the citadels of American renewalism, Oral Roberts University, where he once studied. Then Ford takes us back to the second century A.D., to the proto-Pentecostal movement known by its critics as Montanism and later condemned by an ecumenical council. Learning about Montanism was crucial to David’s conversion to Orthodoxy. About the prophets Montanus, Priscilla, Maximilia, “I came to understand that there was no way to control such a situation [emphasis mine]; for who knew what they would prophesy next and make obligatory that would be contradictory to the Gospels and the letters of Paul.”

This isn’t the place to review the history of a much maligned and much misunderstood ancient Christian renewal movement. Maybe it’s sufficient to say that the New Prophets, a group that included women as prophets and presbyters and possibly bishops, expressed dire concern about the growing tendency of the (male) episcopacy to arrogate for themselves the Spirit’s power. Whatever their shortcomings, the New Prophets realized the world was groaning in pain under the weight of Roman imperial forces. The prophets called out a growing acquiescence among Christians to intolerable realities and called for repentance and renewal through a Holy Ghost revival. They dared to imagine the Spirit burning through principalities, powers, and a complacent church. No wonder some twentieth-century Pentecostals would come to identify with these ancients.

Ford sees the uncertainties as a frightening: “there was no way to control such a situation. . .” David, you’re exactly right: there is no way to control a situation where the Holy Spirit shows up. And as I see it that’s precisely the point.  As John’s Gospel tells us, “God’s Spirit [wind] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” I’m in awe of the Spirit’s tendency to move in my heart as well as in the assembly, sometimes as a sirocco and sometimes as a sea breeze, to wake me up and blow away my complacencies, certainties, and pretensions.

Bob Millet asks about the mechanics of discernment in the assembly where I worship, how it is that we judge a manifestation is from God or signals something sinister. That’s a crucial question for every community, and especially so for renewalists. The question requires a much longer response, but in shorthand . . . I’ve heard my Bishop answer it with scripture:

From now on, beloveds, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.

The trick is to know what those words mean in the contemporary polis, a question that will inevitability produce lots of argument among Christians.  But that’s another (related) story.

Every movement produces its charlatans; renewalism has conjured more than its share of fakers and frauds and abusers and those who’ve demonstrated an eagerness to offer incense to Caesar, out of lust for power, a misplaced nostalgia for a vanished world, or some combination of both. We see these tendencies rampant in our own contemporary moment, requiring a sacred pause to test the S/spirits. That’s why, in my original post, I recited from Galatians, Paul’s list of the Spirit’s gifts: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, what Farris Blount in his response calls “the evidence that reveals our commitment to following Jesus.”

Every single tradition represented in our respectful conversations carries shards of divine wisdom passed to us by our forebears, including wisdom about the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Christian life. That wisdom passes to us through imperfect institutions and their imperfect guardians and through butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, computer coders, and the people who clean offices and hotel rooms. Stories like the ones I’ve heard (and the ones I’ve told) throughout this year-long conversation remind me of the embodied and relational nature of Christian faith.

Our stories are also testaments to how we follow Jesus in certain places, in particular moments, and in communion with others whose lives are closely linked with ours, to cop a prayer book phrase. In other words, we live our commitment to following Jesus within communities shaped by circumstances.  As you’ve heard me say several times in the past year, context is crucial and in a sense determinative. While I have a lot in common with the new prophets of the second century and even with their opponents, this is not the second century and there is no recapturing the primitive church.

As embodied souls we are here for a time such as this. Some of the roadblocks to the flourishing of all God’s people are novel – a climate emergency on a global scale, the possibility of nuclear destruction, along with the usual human litany of greed, war, murder, inequality, and exploitation.

How do we sing the Lord’s song in such a strange land?  Well, it’s not all dependent on our singing, thank God since I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Maybe it’s the Spirit that plays and sings through us. Glory! In a prophetic phrase attributed to Montanus, “Behold, the human being is like a lyre, and I [the Spirit] fly over them as a pick.”

Breathe that in, trust, then open yourself to the “liquid dance.”

God, We Need Your Spirit

I appreciated Dr. Todd’s reflection on following Jesus from a Pentecostal perspective primarily because of how he reminds us of the significance of the altar and Holy Spirit in forming us as disciples of Jesus. In a religious culture in which many people avoid practices that might “other” them (i.e. speaking in tongues, expressing themselves as the Spirit encourages them to), Dr. Todd reminds us that responding to the Spirit is a critical component of following Jesus. And in doing so, he helps us realize that although we can experience God anywhere and at any time, there is something unique God does at the altar that shapes us as followers of Jesus.

Dr. Todd’s work reinforced how we must take seriously the move of the Holy Spirit and the role of the altar if we are to follow Jesus. He writes that “the altar is the space where Pentecostals learn what it means to follow Jesus through encountering the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.” We cannot ignore how the Spirit of God shapes us and reveals truths about Jesus that are unknown to us. The biblical narrative is filled with illustrations of how the Holy Spirit was with Jesus as He fulfilled his earthly ministry and how the Spirit assists us as we attempt to lead a life that demonstrates our commitment to Christ. Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, an experience that invites us to examine how to flee from temptation when it surfaces. Furthermore, Paul reminds us in Romans that the Spirit of God makes intercession for us in prayer, even when we don’t know what to pray for. God’s very Spirit goes ahead of us and seeks from God what we need while we are still unaware of that need. Other scriptures outline how the Spirit helps us to remain obedient to God’s commands and gives us the strength to persist in the Lord’s work despite our (sometimes) strong desires to give up. In other words, the Spirit informs us about various aspects of following Jesus that no book, biblical narrative, or sermon can do.

But we must notice where Dr. Todd articulates such an encounter with the Spirit takes place. Using some lyrics from the late Gospel singer LaShun Pace’s song “Is Your All On The Altar” as a reference point, Dr. Todd writes that “the altar is a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes a place of transformation.” There is a reason why the ancient Israelites were instructed to treat the ark of the covenant with the utmost reverence. It was a designed space where people (primarily Moses) could come and commune with their Lord. Yes, God can be experienced in numerous places. But the altar is where we expect to hear from God and experience God’s Spirit. We trust that as we come humbly before God at the altar, God will begin to transform our thoughts and perspectives, reminding us of what God requires from us if we are to be authentic followers of Jesus. If there is any place where we hope to experience God, it is in God’s house (the church) and at God’s altar.

But many followers of Jesus, at an individual and communal level, have strayed away from the potential of the altar and Holy Spirit to form us into more consistent and dedicated followers of Jesus. Over the past few years, I cannot name more than 4-5 church services I’ve been in where the pastor or leadership team created space in the service for an altar call moment. There have been few, if any, opportunities for people to prostrate themselves before God at the altar and wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them, giving them the wisdom or insight they need to fulfill faithfully whatever assignment God has placed before them. I understand that the pandemic has demanded that we rethink some of our congregational protocols, and therefore, it is no longer safe to have large crowds communing around a space together during a worship experience. However, many churches were not even facilitating altar call spaces before Covid-19 with regularity. The worship service has become, for countless churches, a structured program that remains on a strict time limit so that people don’t have to be in church for too long.

The diminishing influence and impact of the Holy Spirit and altar is even seen at an individual level. I don’t know many believers of Jesus who create their own sacred spaces in their homes. Rather, they lean into the very true (but sometimes potentially detrimental) belief that one can talk to God anywhere. Pulling away from all distractions so that one has a designated space to allow the Spirit to speak is growing increasingly more difficult in a society dominated by social media consumption and a culture of overworking and burnout. “Catching the Holy Ghost” has now primarily been defined as an emotional or physical expression at a worship service instead of a conviction that where we are is not where God wants us to be, and the Spirit will assist us as we become more like Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong; sometimes we just need the Holy Spirit to encourage and revive us after we’ve dealt with a long, arduous week. If someone is part of a marginalized or oppressed group, such a reality is even more understandable. Furthermore, it just might be difficult at times to separate ourselves completely from all distractions so that we can hear clearly from God – we all have a lot of irons in the fire! However, Dr. Todd’s response was an urgent call for the body of Christ. If we don’t allow the Spirit of God to work in us, how will we ever grow in our capacity to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit, the evidence that reveals our commitment to following Jesus? If we don’t replicate altar call experiences in our private and communal life, how will we ever develop the discipline needed to quiet our voices so that we can hear from the Holy Spirit? Following Jesus is a difficult task, and we need all resources at our disposal – that includes the promised Holy Spirit that can imbue us with the strength to remain committed to Jesus in a world that by and large continues to reject Him.

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.

Jim Crow & Jesus Christ

I hope my longtime friend and colleague Terry Todd won’t mind my opening with a story. When Terry and I were filming the PBS version of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory during the summer of 1991, one of our most memorable stops was the True Bibleway Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, in Natchez, Mississippi. There, Pastor Elder Andre Ramsey presided over a congregation of African American Pentecostals who were, to say the least, lively. The service we filmed lasted several hours, punctuated with gospel singing, energetic call-and-response preaching, and ecstatic dancing under the influence of the Holy Spirit. One of those dancing was Sister Ramsey, the pastor’s wife, moving fluidly back and forth in front of the congregation, her eyes lifted rhapsodically toward the heavens.

I was still struggling somewhat to understand Pentecostalism in those days; my father, an evangelical minister, referred to Pentecostals as “holy rollers.” We evangelicals took a dim view of Pentecostals, and his voice reverberated in my head.

Following the service, the entire crew talked about what we had just witnessed. Most of the crew was British, and as you can imagine they were utterly dumbfounded by what they saw. But Terry talked about the beauty of the entire service, especially Sister Ramsey’s liquid dance, and I began to see—and to appreciate—Pentecostalism through new eyes.

And so, I am not entirely surprised to learn that Terry himself has gravitated to Pentecostalism, finding there, in his words, “a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes the place of transformation.”

Transformative, indeed. As a historian of religion in North America, I often cite Pentecostalism as one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. Here you have a movement of contested origins—Acts 2, to be sure, but also Charles Fox Parham’s Bethel Bible College, in Topeka, Kansas, on the first day of the twentieth century, or Chicago, depending on the narrative—that finds its fullest expression in the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, beginning in 1906. This was, as Terry says, a place where Blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asian-American Christians gathered in a movement inspired by an African American hotel waiter, William J. Seymour. Women held leadership positions at Azusa Street. As Frank Bartleman, a contemporary, said about Azusa Street, “the color line was washed away in the blood” of Jesus.

Sadly, as Pentecostalism began to institutionalize, Jim Crow outflanked Jesus Christ in the contestation between the “JC”s. As Pentecostal denominations formed—the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, and others—they stratified along racial lines. That is the great lost opportunity of Pentecostalism—although to be fair, other Christian denominations can similarly be classified by one race or another. What makes the Pentecostal story so poignant is that Pentecostals once were far more inclusive than they were by the end of the twentieth century.

I haven’t had the privilege of witnessing the “renewalists” at Terry’s Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, but I look forward to doing so. No organization is perfect, of course, and as I’ve argued before, institutions are remarkably poor vessels for piety. But the Holy Spirit-inspired inclusion at the heart of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries—on matters of race, ethnicity, and sexuality—may take us closer than ever to a recovery of the promise of early Pentecostalism.

Although Pentecostal enthusiasm is not my worship métier, I join Terry in awaiting the Third Pentecost, “grateful for the radically relational pneumatology that undergirds it.”

Hallelujah, indeed!

An Orthodox Perspective on the Nine Gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8-10)

Dear Dr. Todd,

Thank you very much for your very eloquent and informative contribution to our Conversation.

You may be interested to hear about my own experience regarding Pentecostalism.  In the midst of my involvement in the Charismatic Movement in the 1970s, I entered the Master of Divinity program at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and immediately encountered the history of the Early Church in both my Church History and Systematic Theology courses.  In learning about Montanism, the late second century proto-Pentecostal movement, arising in central Asia Minor under the leadership of Montanus and his two prophetesses, I at first thought the established, hierarchical Church had mistakenly condemned the movement, not truly understanding about the gifts of the Spirit.

But when I learned that for the Montanists, the prophecies of Montanus and the two prophetesses carried more weight than the Gospels and the letters of Paul (as they forbade flight in the time of persecution, and prohibited all possibility of second marriage), I came to understand that there was no way to control such a situation; for who knew what they would prophesy next and make obligatory that would be contradictory to the Gospels and the letters of Paul.  So when the Montanists, after much negotiation with them, refused to stop relying on their prophecies, the established Church had to condemn the movement, in order to protect other Christians from its influence, and to protect both the doctrinal and moral content of the “faith which was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

My accepting the verdict of the Early Church regarding Montanism was the definitive first step for me in eventually becoming an Orthodox Christian, as I came to learn that of all the myriad of Christian groups today, only the Orthodox Church has maintained the spirituality, the worship, the teachings, and the hierarchical structure of the Early Church.  As such, the Orthodox Church has always accepted it as Christ’s own mandate to preserve, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the purity of the doctrinal and moral content of “the faith once delivered to the saints” – which was delivered by Christ Himself to the Apostles and all the faithful, who comprise His Body, the Church, and which has been faithfully passed down (see 2 Tim. 2:2), from generation to generation to the present day.  The Orthodox Church believes, accordingly, that Christ has delivered to His Church, and has overseen their faithful transmission through the centuries, the teachings and moral way of life that He knows are best for human flourishing in this life, leading to entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven on the Last Day.

In later years I continued to reflect on my Charismatic background, through the lens of Orthodoxy.  So as part of my teaching in our America and Orthodoxy course at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary, I developed a hand-out called “An Orthodox Perspective on the Nine Gifts of the Spirit.”  In the hope that there might be some interest in our group in this topic, I’d like to share with you the main part of that hand-out:

Because the danger of spiritual pride and delusion is very real, we see in the Lives of the Saints the very clear general pattern that they are usually granted “supernatural” gifts of healing, clairvoyance, and discerning of spirits after many years of rigorous ascetic effort to overcome and control the passions, and to become grounded in deep humility.  St. John Chrysostom (late fourth century; Antioch and Constantinople) says,

“If we all lived as we ought to live, we would be admired by the children of the heathen more than they would admire workers of miracles.  For miraculous signs often carry with them either a notion of mere fancy, or another such evil suspicion, even though our miracles are genuine.  But a pure life cannot admit of any such reproach; yea, all men’s mouths are stopped by the acquisition of virtue” (Homily 33 on St. Matthew, NPNF 1, vol. X, p. 218).

His words here can remind us that miraculous signs and wonders, including all ‘supernatural’ manifestations such as the nine gifts listed in I Cor. 12:8-10, while they often are bestowed through the Holy Spirit, they also can be counterfeited by dark, deluding spirits.  Sometimes they can be exhibited sheerly through the mental, psychic, and/or spiritual powers of man, apart from any reference to Jesus Christ or to the Holy Spirit.

            Bearing this in mind, I think we could go on to suggest that most of the specific nine gifts of the Spirit of I Cor. 12:8-10 can be found in the ongoing life of the Orthodox Church:

  1. the word of wisdom – sound spiritual teaching, preaching, pastoral counseling
  1. the word of knowledge – basically the same as the word of wisdom, though perhaps with a more specific, narrow focus; both these gifts are most readily seen in the incisive words of clairvoyant elders, who see/perceive/understand by the Holy Spirit exactly what a certain person needs to hear at a certain moment in his or her life; this could occur as a particularly appropriate insight given in the Sacrament of Confession
  1. the gift of faith – an extraordinarily fervent appeal to Christ for His help, most typically perhaps in an emergency situation; many of the Martyrs probably were granted an “extra measure of faith” to help them endure their tortures
  1. gifts of healing – in the Sacrament of Holy Unction; through prayers to the Saints, who often had such gifts during their earthly lifetimes, and who often continue such wonder-working after death – often through their relics, and through their appearances in dreams and visions
  1. working of miracles – abounding in the Lives of the Saints
  1. prophecy – clairvoyant holy elders have this gift; and historically, we see that the role of the traveling prophets in the first two centuries of the Church was gradually assumed by the bishops (see the Didache 15:1 – “Appoint for yourselves, then bishops and deacons who are worthy of the Lord – men who are unassuming and not greedy, who are honest and have been proved. For they also are performing for you the task of the prophets and teachers”).  Certain Saints, such as St. Nilus, St. Cosmas the Aitolian, and St. John of Kronstadt, have made notable, accurate prophecies concerning future historical events.
  1. discerning of spirits – in the Sacrament of Confession and pastoral counseling; and again, often seen in the work of clairvoyant elders
  1. different kinds of tongues – facility in languages for missionary work; or in exceptional circumstances, the gift of speaking and/or understanding a language not previously known; St. Paisios, on Mt. Athos, for instance, once had a conversation in French with someone, yet he did not know French!

     The private prayer language mentioned by St. Paul in I Cor. 14:2, 4, 14, 15, and 18 (see I Cor. 13:1, Romans 8:26, and Jude 20), basically seems to die out, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by the end of the second century (probably as part of the Church’s condemnation of Montanism); no Saint or Father of the Church has ever espoused speaking in a private prayer language.  The Jesus Prayer has been found by many former Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians to take the place of the private prayer language in a deeply fulfilling way – and with a much more secure feeling, since you know what you are praying!

  1. interpretation of tongues – in missionary work, perhaps specifically for translation work; in regard to the private prayer language, the interpretation of tongues dies out along with speaking in unearthly tongues

A Restorationist Responds to a Renewalist

I am fascinated by Dr. J. Terry Todd’s conversion from Episcopal to Pentecostal. That is a pretty dramatic shift in belief and practice, and I would appreciate knowing more about such a spiritual journey. What led/drew you to Pentecostalism?

I have been fascinated with Pentecostalism for a long time. For many years, my father was the general manager and part owner of a radio station in the Baton Rouge area. A prominent local Pentecostal leader had a radio program on Dad’s station once each week, and so I had a very worthwhile opportunity to witness Pentecostalism (or at least hear Pentecostal preaching) on a regular basis. In addition, one of my cousins on my mother’s side served for a time as an associate pastor to Jimmy Swaggert, whose college campus and sanctuary is only about a twenty-minute drive from where I grew up.

In the Book of Mormon, we find the following: “And their meetings were conducted by the church after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or to exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done.”  In a revelation recorded on 8 March 1831, we read: “Notwithstanding those things which are written [holy scripture], it always has been given to the elders of my church from the beginning, and ever shall be, to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit.” Our 7th article of faith states: “We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.” In other words, the Latter-day Saints believe very strongly in the spiritual gifts promised by Jesus to the early members of the Christian Church (Mark 16:17-18).

Joseph Smith and 19th-century Latter-day Saints had their headquarters in a number of places between 1830 and 1844 (the year of his death)—in Fayette, New York; Kirtland, Ohio; Independence, Missouri; and Nauvoo, Illinois. It was in Kirtland that the Saints built their first temple, which was formally dedicated in several dedicatory sessions during the week of March 27-April 3, 1836. From January to April of 1836 the Saints experienced what we as members call the “Pentecostal Season” of our history. During that time, some members reported that they had enjoyed visitations from Jesus Christ and angels, men and women were filled with the spirit of prophecy and revelation, and large numbers of people spoke in tongues. Here is one account from our History of the Church, under the date of March 27th: “President Brigham Young gave a short address in tongues, and David W. Patten interpreted, and gave a short exhortation in tongues himself, after which I [Joseph Smith] blessed the congregation in the name of the Lord, and the assembly dispersed a little past four o’clock.” (It’s worth noting here that the dedicatory services began that morning at 9:00 am, which means that 900-1000 people sat, for the most part, in very crowded quarters, for seven hours. Now that’s what I would call a protracted meeting!).

The following is recorded under the date of March 30th in which Joseph Smith and many of the Church leaders gathered in a kind of leadership meeting. At a certain point, Joseph “left the meeting in the charge of the Twelve [Apostles], and retired about nine o’clock in the evening. The brethren continued exhorting, prophesying, and speaking in tongues until five o’clock in the morning. The Savior made his appearance to some, while angels ministered to others, and it was a Pentecost and an endowment indeed, long to be remembered, for the sound shall go forth from this place into all the world, and the occurrences of this day shall be handed down upon the pages of sacred history, to all generations; as the day of Pentecost, so shall this day be numbered and celebrated as a year of jubilee, and time of rejoicing to the Saints of the Most High God.”

Another way of saying this is, the Latter-day Saints were speaking in tongues some seventy years before the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. Consequently, glossolalia is not as foreign to us as it might be to other Christian groups. The gift of tongues continued to be manifest over the years (mostly in the 19th century), although it is not something that any visitor to a Latter-day Saint worship service would witness today. In all my years I have never witnessed it in any of our Church meetings. There seems to have been a kind of domestication of this gift among us, just as there may have been among some Pentecostal groups in our day. Part of that domestication in my own Church may be traced to Joseph Smith himself. In an editorial published in the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, the Times and Seasons, entitled “Gift of the Holy Ghost” (June 15, 1842), Joseph wrote: “The Lord cannot always be known by the thunder of his voice; by the display of his glory, or by the manifestation of his power; and those that are the most anxious to see these things, are the least prepared to meet [receive] them.” When it came to the gift of tongues, Joseph offered far more cautions that recommendations to his people: to be careful lest they be deceived; it is not necessary for tongues to be taught to the Church; the devil will often take advantage of the innocent and unwary, and so if anything is taught in the Church by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received as doctrine; it is the smallest gift of all but the one most sought after.

There are a few things I would appreciate Terry commenting on. How do members of your church discern what manifestation is from God, from man, or from the devil? Is someone in the congregation charged, assigned, or set apart to do that—individual members or perhaps the pastor? To what extent is the gift of prophecy (meaning specifically, foretelling the future) found in Renewalist worship services? How do Pentecostals interpret the meaning of scriptural passages, and how would false doctrine or heresy be discerned and pointed out (again, by members of the congregation or by the pastor)?

I like the word Renewalists. It connotes to me spiritual freshness, rebirth, conversion, quickening, life on a higher spiritual plain. The Book of Mormon speaks of the need to be “born of God, changed from [our] carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; and thus [we] become new creatures; and unless [we] do this, [we] can in no wise inherit the kingdom of God.”

I appreciate being able to learn more about my Pentecostal brothers and sisters, and especially thank Terry for his most interesting essay.


Can You Only Follow Jesus to the Altar if you Speak in Tongues?

     Terry Todd’s understanding of the Pentecostal altar as “the space where Pentecostals learn what it means to follow Jesus through encountering the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit” reminds me of what Lutherans and other Protestants mean by the Priesthood of All Believers.  In every space and occasion of life, we Christians have opportunities to serve Jesus and experience the Spirit.  Martin Luther claimed that the services we offer in the vocations of life are acts of devotion and worship (The Large Catechism, I.Con.).  Maids milking cows or hired hands hoeing fields can offer acts of service to God, he contended (Luther’s Works, Vol.3, p.321)!  I love the phrase which older, now deceased colleagues have taught me was common in the 19th-century Black church: “Ain’t no difference ‘tween prayin’ and ploughin’.”  Prof. Todd, are we on the same page with these commitments? 

     If the answer to the preceding question is in the affirmative, then the next question is the one found in the title of this response.  I am already aware of the rich theological diversity in the Pentecostal tradition (as I teach at a school instructing students for ministry in the Church of God in Christ).  I have read you, Prof Todd, to be more in line with Two-Step Pentecostal thinking rather than a Three-Step Holiness Pentecostal orientation.  Thus if you can indicate your perspective in responding to the questions which follow and perhaps even offer responses from the perspective of someone else in Pentecostalism operating with a Holiness perspective, it would be most helpful for the overall dialogue among us all.             

     In my own discussion of Lutheranism and in my private correspondence with you, Terry, I have tried to highlight the too-often overlooked emphasis on the Holy Spirit in my tradition.  Luther claims that the Holy Spirit is involved in all aspects of following Jesus (The Small Catechism, II.6).  The Spirit’  s role in the exercise of faith is also endorsed in all the major Protestant denominational traditions (The Thirty-Nine Articles, 10; [Methodist] Articles of Religion, 8; The Westminster Confession, 8; Southern Baptist Convention, Statement of Faith, IV).   Can a Pentecostal then concede that these traditions have the Holy Spirit and in principle at least their heritages can teach it in Biblically authentic ways?   

      Insofar as Neurobiological research indicates that in religious experience our sense of space and time, sense of self, is somewhat suspended as the parietal lobe of the brain is de-activated, it follows that all Christian experience has an ecstatic character, not unlike the Pentecostal experiences you describe (Andrew Newberg et al, “The measurement of religion cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: A preliminary SPECT study,“ Psychiatry: Research Neuroimaging [2006])  This experience is further highlighted in Lutheranism and much Mysticism by the construal of faith as intimacy with Jesus, for intimacy in its culminating stages is always ecstatic in character (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.351ff.).                

     If on the basis of this data you can grant that all the faithful are following Jesus to the altar, filled with the Spirit, then can you grant with your Episcopal and UCC roots (along with mine) the prevenience of grace, that coming to the altar and faith are works of the Holy Spirit?  When you yield to Jesus your body and soul, is that the Spirit’s work too?  If Pentecostals cannot make this step, I fear that fellowship as Christians (though not human and social engagement) is not possible from my end (or from the viewpoint of Protestantism, Catholicism, and perhaps not from the side of the Eastern heritage).   

     The next question is whether actually speaking in tongues is necessary in order to follow Jesus to the altar.  I belong to a branch of Lutheranism which now allows for speaking in tongues as legitimate. (The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and its sister churches do not allow for tongues in their congregations in deference to Luther’s original fear that the Pentecostals he knew were Montanists, failing to test the Spirit [Luther’s Works, Vol.40, pp.83,90].)  But Charismatics are still expected to test the Spirit and not contend that one must speak in tongues or that enjoying the Pentecostal experience makes one a better Christian (Paul Opsahl, ed. The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church).  Are those stipulations agreeable from a Pentecostal point of view?  If so, then we have begun to establish grounds for church fellowship.  If these stipulations are not agreeable, why not?           

          When you experience the Spirit or ecstasy with no tongues, but instead in outward emotional experience (like some segments of the Black church), or with quiet emotions like a feeling of intense love or tears of joy and sadness, or with an inward sense of freedom and happiness like the Lutheran Pietist in me does, or with a stolid firmer conviction of and commitment to one’s duty, are those less authentic or impoverished experiences of the Spirit?  If so, in what way do these experiences of faith give us less than the Pentecostal versions? 

     I can see that one might conclude that the experiences of faith I have been describing seem less wholistic than the Pentecostal experiences you, Professor Todd, describe, for you stress how the whole body is involved in coming to the altar.  I too want a faith which involves the whole body.  I am working on evolving a fresh understanding of religion and Christian faith in particular as dance.  Research undertaken by historian William McNeill (Keeping Together in Time, esp. p.2)  and Psychologist Matt Rossano (Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, esp. pp.144-145) indicates that common movement or dance builds community and enhances the sense of social responsibility we both want faith to offer.  And of course when you are dancing intensely (even with prescribed steps), it is an ecstatic experience in which you lose yourself.   

You describe certain Pentecostal rituals like raising arms, heads tilted toward heaven, weeping, and moaning.  Why not consider liturgical worship in the Eastern, Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran traditions as dance too?  (Even Methodists, Baptists, and most segments of the Black church as well Mormons operate with some liturgical structures.)   Standing, sitting, and kneeling, bowing heads and singing are all part of the dance.  If we taught them that way in these traditions, then would it not follow that no less than characteristic Pentecostal experiences, these exercises too could be equally valid experiences of physically following Jesus to the altar of life and worship?                       

     If these non-Pentecostal expressions of faith still fall short from a Pentecostal perspective, help me and all of us understand how and why they fall short?  I close by addressing your references to your commitment to rejecting demonization of sexual minorities and the possibility of a new Pentecost.  On the latter issue, Lutherans endorse along with Bishop Flunder a Realized Eschatology which challenges status quo (The Small Catechism, III.2 ).   

     Regarding the former issue, I am not sure that any tradition represented in our conversations is guilty in principle of demonizing sexual minorities, and yet it remains valid to discuss whether homosexuality is in tension with Christian faith and in the best interests of society.  I’ve become convinced by Neurobiological research, that homosexuality is natural.  Gays and lesbians have brain configurations that differ from straights (I. Savic and  P. Lindstrom, “PET and MRI show differences in cerebral asymmetry and functional connectivity between homo and heterosexual subjects,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(27), 9403–9408.).  What I am trying to sort out is whether everything that is natural in our fallen world is God’s Will and whether in view of the Human Genome Project and its findings that we are the products of both genetics and society (National Human Genome Research Institute, “About Studying the Environmental Impact”, July 24, 2012), it follows that the normalizing of homosexuality is in the best interests of homo sapiens’ evolution.  Please read me carefully at this point.  I am not implying that homosexuality is a choice.  But the Human Genome Project implies that culture seems to play a role in influencing the actualization of genetic sexual dispositions.  Church and society need further “respectful conversation” on this data and its implications, and I wager we agree that such conversations have not been happening.  Want to try doing it together?  I’ll bet we could have some constructive Christian fun.                                

Making All Things New

This past Sunday morning, worship in the Lutheran church I was visiting opened with a Brazilian hymn. Verse 1 was easy enough: “Oh, sing to the Lord, oh, sing God a new song.” But as we got deeper into the hymn, I wondered what my fellow white Midwestern congregants would have thought if someone had actually started to act out the words we sang: “So dance for our God and blow all the trumpets.” Sure, “David danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam 6:14, KJV), but I’d fall out of my pew in shock if I actually saw someone in any 21st century American church of my acquaintance get up and do likewise. (Or a latter-day Gideon start to play a brass instrument, more loudly and spontaneously than the trombonist who added a quiet, precise countermelody to the hymn.)

But given the rise of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in Brazil, I suspect that the line about dancing was meant no more metaphorically than the one about singing. Or the one in which we “Shout to our God, who gave us the Spirit.” After all, writes Terry Todd in our final lead essay, Pentecostals of all kinds share in common “the experience of worship as a theater of divine encounter, a space of intense emotion and intimacy where God meets us at the altar,” where they “learn what it means to follow Jesus through encountering the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.”

Which makes me wonder if some of the phrases commonly repeated in my Pietist tradition are meant no more literally than I meant the words of that hymn. Like Pentecostals, Pietists emphasize religious experience, but any “intense emotion and intimacy” is found in the private space of personal conversion, not the public space of worship. And while some Pietists have described the Bible as “an altar where we meet the living God,” that encounter is typically — to use Todd’s words — more subtle than the kinetic; most familiar to the Pietist tradition would be Todd’s description of the altar as “a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes the place of transformation.”

If the Pietist experience of encountering God is rarely kinetic, it’s even less commonly another of Todd’s terms: transgressive. Which brings me to the second, more significant way in which I felt Todd’s essay challenging me to rethink the commonplaces of my own tradition.

Pietists think of themselves as heirs to a movement of renewal, participants in God’s work of making all things — including the church itself — new. But as I wrote earlier this week (quoting Covenant historian Zenos Hawkinson), Pietists are generally “mainline in theological conviction”; they “tend to occupy the broadest point of the Protestant mainstream.” I wonder how many Pietists could join enthusiastically in “renewalism” as Todd describes it, by which the church itself becomes a place “where the edge gathers” and the Holy Spirit inspires rethinking — queering? — of what the majority had long assumed.

That makes the Pentecostal Tradition a challenging but potentially inspiring place to end our conversation. I’m glad that our discussion over the past year was organized around the concept of tradition, which pushes us to understand the context, change and continuity, and particularity that shape all attempts to follow Jesus. But if I can recycle the Jaroslav Pelikan line I used in my first response, there is a difference between tradition (the living faith of the dead) and traditionalism (the dead faith of the living). It’s so easy for any version of the former to decay into the latter if we do not open ourselves to new, often marginalized voices asking better questions of long-settled answers.

Radical Pentecostalism Looks Very Promising to This Baptist

Terry Todd’s riveting post offers a great way to end our Following Jesus colloquy here at Respectful Conversation. The picture of church life he offers is so wildly different from anything else we have engaged, yet there ought to be points of connection and elements of appeal for many of us. I certainly find some of those points of connection and appeal.

Terry tells us about the possibilities of encounter with the Holy Spirit. These possibilities are not only in “altar” experiences of lightning-bolt-like spiritual power. These altar experiences mainly seem frightening to me, in part because being that “out of control” in public is almost the definition of terror to me.

And yet I do remember one time — just one time, in my 42-year spiritual journey — in which the Holy Spirit entered into a room I was in, a room of Christian friends, a room in which I was expressing my tremendous anguish and asking for prayer. The Spirit came that day like a fire.  That is the only or certainly the best image for what it felt like to have my personal anguish over work problems transfigured into weeping prayer for other people’s suffering, and in which the resentment in my heart toward a boss at work was quite simply and permanently burned out of me.

“Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” That is certainly how that room felt on that night. I was always deeply grateful for the Spirit-work that was done in my heart that night, but I will say this — it was terrifying. I have not invited or even hoped for future such encounters because of how terrifying that experience was. So maybe this is one question that Terry’s post leaves me with: Are the rest of us simply terrified by what might happen to us if the Holy Spirit actually were to come our way in power? Maybe we quite prefer an altar that is nice and quiet and under our control??

I want to celebrate the reference to TFAM, Bishop Flunder, and radical inclusion. This is, in fact, another possibility that Pentecostalism/renewalism has always offered and sometimes actualized — a shattering of human boundaries under the power of God’s Spirit. It ought to be the case that when God’s Spirit blazes with holy fire in our messed-up world, our cramped prejudices will be overcome by a much stronger power. The Holy Spirit should be, must be, more powerful than our racism, our sexism, our nationalism, our xenophobia, and yes, our queer-phobia.

But, of course, this is biblical-theological-ethical work, not just experiential work. We need to think our way to radical inclusion, not just feel our way there. My reading of the book of Acts, however, is that sometimes only the radical encounter between us, the Spirit, and the excluded can change our exegeting and theologizing. Peter did not begin Acts 10 ready to think his way to an encounter with Cornelius. The Spirit brokered — and broken open — the possibility.

This Baptist says, thank you to the Pentecostals. This Baptist also says: Come, Holy Spirit, come.

Following Jesus to the Altar: One Pentecostal’s Reflection

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 . . .

When you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, there’s an entire array of possible embodied expressions – raising hands, speaking (or singing) in tongues, shuddering or jerking, holy dancing, weeping, moaning, fainting, or being slain in the Spirit, which can put your body prone. (We sometimes call this, tongue-in-cheek, “floor duty.”) I began to “run the aisles,” as it’s called in Pentecostal practice, sprinting clockwise around the room’s periphery. I was in motion, yet somehow still “at the altar,” within the space of encounter. I wept as I ran, conscious of the Spirit’s presence and nearing the point of surrender:  I’ve seen God do it, and I know . . . it’s working out for me.  My run ended moments later as my body crumpled at the center-front of the worship space, where many others, too, labored under the power of the Spirit.  Some ended up, like me, on the floor, eyes closed, body shuddering, some speaking in tongues, others moaning deeply.

As I returned to waking consciousness, the deacons brought me water, and I sat up to drink it in the afterglow of this divine encounter. Bishop Levi then asked me in a whisper, “You got what you came for?”  He meant not just the emotional catharsis but the meeting of the Holy Spirit.

What, for Pentecostals, does it mean to follow Jesus? And what do expressive embodied encounters like the one I’ve described have to do with following Jesus? What are the ethical implications of such encounters?  Those are crucial questions, but first I want to tackle matters of definition and scope: What do we mean when we speak of Pentecostalism?  What are the boundaries of this confusing category? Who does it include or exclude?

As our year-long conversations have revealed, each of our respective traditions are diverse, even when that internal diversity is overlooked or suppressed.  But the Pentecostal world resembles the nightmare scenarios of Reformation-era popes who fretted about the fragmentation of Christ’s Body due to the anti-Roman revolts across Latin Christendom. Pentecostalism carries the spiritual DNA of sectarian Protestantism, with pronounced tendencies to splinter endlessly across countless vectors – doctrine and biblical interpretation, competing leadership styles, as well as around race, ethnicity, region, and national origin, as well as matters regarding access to wealth and other resources.

Is it even possible to speak of a coherent Pentecostal tradition? Do we mean “classical Pentecostalism,” a category that includes the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., the Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the Church of God in Prophecy, the Apostolic Pentecostal Church, hundreds of smaller groups, and thousands of independent Pentecostal churches? Do we include charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations? What about neo-charismatics? Neo-Pentecostals? What about Christians who belong to churches that fall between these categories?  No wonder some scholars have taken up the umbrella term “renewalist” to describe movements of Christians that emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit.

There are certain common experiences shared by many if not most renewalist Christians– family resemblances within this thicket of diversity. One of these resemblances 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.

I came into Pentecostal faith after decades inside and at the margins of the Episcopal Church where the “altar” is an object made of wood, stone, or other material, set within a designated space called the chancel. In Anglican settings, as in Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, altars are also places of divine encounters, where Christians encounter God in the Eucharist.

Yet the Pentecostal altar is not just a place but a space within the assembly. To be sure, Pentecostal altars might include material objects such as a table or a prayer railing at the front of the worship space where the faithful kneel, but as an experience, the Pentecostal altar is more than that.  The altar is the space where Pentecostals learn what it means to follow Jesus through encountering the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. As the early Pentecostal leader William J. Seymour taught, the altar is where “the great Shekina of glory is continually burning and filling with heavenly light.”

Renewalist praise music has much to say about the altar as a dynamic space of encounter.  Take, for example, the Elevation Worship neo-charismatic ballad, O Come to the Altar.  The message is one of vulnerability, desire, confession, forgiveness, and the yearning for transformation: “Have you come to the end of yourself? / Do you thirst for a drink from the well? / Jesus is calling,” . . . “O Come to the altar / The Father’s arms are open wide,” “Bow down before him,” “Bear the cross as you wait for the crown.” The ballad is an old-school altar call dressed in new fashions, but God is calling these Christians not to a particular place, not to a table or a railing. Wherever in the assembly they’re standing, arms uplifted in a pose of surrender, they are at the altar, at the space of divine encounter. In a moment like this, the Holy Spirit is present in subtler ways than in my own kinetic experience that I related earlier.  You can see it in the arms gently raised, the flutter of an eyelid, the soft murmur of tongues-speech, the tilt of the head toward heaven, the tapping of the heart with the palm of one’s hand.

In more classical Pentecostal style, the late Gospel singer LaShun Pace sings about the fire of the Holy Spirit in Is Your All on the Altar:  “You can only be blessed and have peace and sweet rest / when you yield to Him your body and soul,” reminding the assembly that the altar is a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes the place of transformation. The Spirit burns away sin and whatever pain and burden we bring to sacrifice upon the altar.  (For Pace in that moment, it was the grief she carried from the recent loss of her daughter.)

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.  As Espinoza argues, Azusa Street’s altar was transgressive for many reasons, not just because of its intensely embodied practices but also because black, white, Latino, and Asian-American Christians gathered there.  Together. Transgressive indeed, this race-mixing in Jim Crow America, and certainly one of the reasons the earliest Pentecostals were despised by the mainline white Protestant establishment. Azusa street represented a fleeting but powerful moment of cross-racial comity, itself a sign of life.

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.  The explosive global growth of renewalist versions of the faith continues unabated, yet I’m under no illusion that most American Christians will soon dance in the aisles, even though that’s exactly what they do at Middle Church, one of the old Dutch Reformed Collegiate congregations in New York City, historically one of the least renewalist places one could imagine.

Neither in my experience nor in my conviction is being “filled with the Spirit” an end unto itself.  It’s nothing short of earth shattering – or should I say ego shattering? –  that the indwelling of the Holy Ghost leads to self-transformation:  God is now within me, or at least within my metaphorical heart!  Personal transformation also holds within it the potential for the transformation of the Christian assembly, and indeed the community beyond.  In other words, spiritual transformation can and should have real-world effects.

In a Pentecostal world of such bewildering variety, it’s not surprising that there are disagreements aplenty about those real-world effects, as our present American moment demonstrates.  Renewalist Christians have been among the most ardent proponents of the prosperity Gospel, and the most fervent supporters of Trumpist attacks on American democracy, racial equality, and gender and sexual justice.

Yet there are other Spirit-filled Christians who preach and practice a version of renewalism that is wildly different in terms of everyday ethics.  For instance, my Pentecostal life is centered in communities affiliated with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM), a network of mostly queer and mostly black Christians described by the anthropologist Ellen Lewin in her recent book, Filled with the Spirit. TFAM has deep roots within the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), in part because our founder, Bishop Yvette Flunder, emerged from that tradition. At the same time, the congregation I serve is also associated with the United Church of Christ (UCC), a mostly white liberal mainline (or oldline?) denomination where some local congregations – surprise! – are increasingly awakening to Spirit-filled worship.

How queer is that context?!

This isn’t the place to recount the history of how TFAM and other queer-positive groups emerged from classical Pentecostalism, but in shorthand:  a Spirit-filled community of people rejected the demonization of gender non-conforming people and sexual minorities. They offered instead a vision of church as a place “where the edge gathers,” as Bishop Flunder puts it, a place of radical inclusivity open to people whose churches had marginalized or expelled them.

Many renewalist Christians would regard the communities where I worship to be a wellspring of satanic rather than sanctified power. They’d be repulsed by doctrinal transgressions, no doubt, but what would likely rankle them most is that we understand gender diversity and sexual difference as God-given, precious, holy.  Our praise and worship are a reversal of the experience of some whom have endured the trauma of exorcisms – out, foul spirits of homosexuality! – and expulsion from churches and families.

Renewalist Christians are a Spirit-loving people, yet as scripture tells us, it’s imperative to test the spirits. What are the everyday ethics of Christians who claim the moniker Pentecostal? What is the fruit of the Holy Spirit?  It’s not running the aisles, speaking in tongues, or exhibiting other charisms at the altar, though these embodied experiences are, for some of us, harbingers of the Spirit’s arrival. But they are certainly not what it means to follow Jesus. Paul’s words to the fractious communities he addressed in Galatians gives us clues about how the apostle understood everyday Christian ethics:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

At the altars of TFAM communities, here in the United States, in Kenya, Uganda, and the U.K., I’ve witnessed my Spirit-anointed Bishop prophesy the coming of a third Pentecost, one more expansive than St. Paul’s wildest dreams, more inclusive and transgressive than the second Pentecost at Azusa Street.  The “fresh wind” of this Third Pentecost, Bishop Flunder says, is an invitation to all of God’s people – everyone – to work together for the spiritual, emotional, and material flourishing of all people.  After all, isn’t that what love is?

Bishop sings it better than I can ever say it, in her sermonic riff on a classic Pentecostal praise song,  I Hear the Sound of Pentecost

I need some people to believe with me . . . that the power of love is stronger than the power of hatred, and the power is peace is stronger than the power of war. And if you believe with me, and trust with me, our voices will connect, one person to another and another . . . God is greater than the power of the enemy.

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.