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The Art of Experiencing the Spirit

[This is adapted from a sermon delivered at St George’s Anglican Church, Paddington in February 2016 by Tanya Riches].

Explaining Pentecostalism to Christians beyond my own movement often feels like an act of public contortionism. Pentecostals tend to live in each moment, more attentive to our bodies and emotions – in other words, we are the church’s feelers and doers rather than its thinkers. So we can get criticized a lot.

Still, there are things we can contribute, including (among other things) our focus upon a life of the Spirit. The scholar Alan Anderson defines Pentecostalism as a diverse movement of Christians “[with] emphasis upon the experience of the power of the Holy Spirit with accompanying manifestations of the immanent presence of God” (2013, p256).

To speak of experience of the Spirit lends itself to the great tradition of testimony.

Testimonials were a huge part of the early Pentecostal movement. When God did something truly amazing, you simply had to tell the church. Your body couldn’t contain it! Your legs wanted to run and your mouth wanted to shout. You had to stand and share with the gathered believers.

So, here I will modulate into a Pentecostal key.

This music metaphor is drawn from Harvey Cox’s famous book Fire From Heaven. He sees Pentecostalism as like jazz, formed in a cultural fusion of poor white Southern American Christianity with an influx of converted African-Americans slaves. The musical result was completely new: complex but free. It was singing inside and outside the lines. Similarly, Cox likens speaking in tongues to singing in “scat”, an experience of being inside but also outside music rules. Most scat is unrecorded and talking about what it does or its function is not entirely useful. To understand scat, you must scat. But rather than busting into tongues here, I will leave the best until last and return to it later. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

My testimony is that I actually became Christian while attending a small charismatic church, which I attended for a year before we moved to Hillsong when I was five.

Apparently, at this church I had a friend named Wilma. Each Sunday we sat out on a bench chatting until mum said it was time to go home. Wilma was seventy, and I was four.

My mother was pretty amused because I was ambivalent about the children’s program. But my conversations with Wilma would go for hours. She’d had a long career as a doctor. And I don’t remember what she said exactly. But I do know that we talked about God and life.

So… I know that I had conversations about the Bible, but I couldn’t actually read it. Later, of course, I could, and I did. But back then, I had to find ways of understanding God in what was available to me. Literally just my five senses.

And I clearly remember my first experiences of God – which were dramatically important to my spiritual formation.

There was one time when I was sitting in the backyard playing, and I realized how beautiful the eucalyptus leaves were on the ground. I realized the Creator made these gum leaves, and I suddenly understood that I was also similarly fearfully and wonderfully made, without having ever read Psalm 139 that states:

You created my inmost being;

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

Then, a number of months later, I was watching an Astro boy manga cartoon. (As you do when you’re four, right?). In this episode Astro boy chooses to die to save his family. And I suddenly understood the crucifixion in an unexpected way. To put it into language, I had a sense, or I suddenly became aware that God was present in that room with me. And, as the storyline continued, I had tears running down my face because I knew that Jesus died for me, a four year old. And, when Astroboy was put back together by the man who had created him - Dr. Tenma- I could not contain my joy. It was ultimate triumph over evil.

The thing is, it might sound absolutely ridiculous that I understood God through a leaf, or a cartoon. But I believe such experiences are attributable to the Holy Spirit who uses the things of this world to communicate with us.

I’m not the type of person who would believe the gospel because someone told me to believe it. I’ve always needed to know for myself. And in this journey the Spirit was beside me, guiding me, revealing truth.

Other Pentecostals may choose to emphasize that we access salvation through faith. And, it’s true of course: also the sentiment of sole fide or “faith alone!” that rang out within that famous Reformation manifesto Martin Luther nailed to the door in Wittenberg in 1517.

But I’ve never had a particularly large dose of the faith gift l