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.”