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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 listed in Romans 12. Maybe that’s why I find it hard to accept people’s words, and why I love research so much.

There is no doubt that the Bible frames our experiences of God, putting words around them. The revelation of Jesus is the means by which we are saved. I value the biblical text very highly. The words of the Bible are infused with the Spirit of God, helping us to discern Him in our everyday lives.

But I think perhaps we forget that the majority of the early church were illiterate, and told their stories verbally. The Spirit of Christ literally led them into all truth.

It continues in Psalm 139 to say,

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

We can read this text and believe God is with us. But we can also secretly feel alone, and embody that alone-ness to others.

We can read the earlier verses I mentioned to comprehend that we are known intimately; that we have been created. And, we can simultaneously admit that we have never felt loved by God.

The mere content is not enough for the psalmists. Their spiritual life is fully, truly, and deeply felt. They lament God’s absence, and are reassured of His presence.

David states that for God, even the darkness we try to hide in is not dark but illuminating. There is no way to hide our true self from God.

And yet we can hide behind the words of the biblical text, allowing it to protect us from having to engage in the deep intimacy God offers. We can, if we choose, resist a relationship with the Spirit of God, because we are intent upon understanding Christianity and its doctrines and truths. This is a very real challenge to seminary students such as me!

But the Spirit still speaks to us today (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

And, the Spirit also speaks through us– compelling our world towards Real Love, and convicting it of evil where necessary (Matt 10:20).

The pursuit of hearing the Spirit’s voice marks the Pentecostal tradition.

I look for the Spirit’s presence in my daily life. I try to be attentive because I know God desires to reveal himself. Through the Bible, but also creation. Through words, senses and groanings that carry a sense of ‘rightness’ for this time and this place. God can use anything, even a donkey (Num 22:28)!

Any conversation includes listening, and waiting. But it also requires expressiveness, a response to what is heard.

This expression could be yelling, as many slaves did, proving that although their bodies were tamed and tied, their souls were free. It could be dancing, moving to the rhythm of a beat from our God up in heaven. It could be lying prostrate on the floor in grief and sensing God’s awe. Perhaps it is babbling in the sounds of unknown languages.

All of these, however, are simply a clanging gong or empty performance, unless led by the Spirit of God to result in greater intimacy with God. Us humans often seek attention and glory for ourselves. But we are built to give glory to God. Worship is our ultimate fulfillment.

Throughout the ages of humanity, the Spirit has spoken to people at various times, to various effects.

One night, the Minister John Wesley reluctantly attended an Aldersgate meeting when someone read aloud Luther's Preface to the Epistle to Romans. At about 8:45 p.m "while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death[1]." This is called “an encounter” by many Pentecostals.

We need to encounter God!

Pentecostalism was a fusion of many things, but as I mentioned, the African contribution was very important. And this is important in demonstrating that the Spirit contributes something more than mere emotion.

In John 14 Jesus says, “I will pray to the Father and he will give you an advocate”.… this word in Greek is Paraklētos, which, in its truest sense means “one who pleads another's case before a judge”. But it is also translated “Helper”.

I once heard the great orator Dr William Parnell refer to the Spirit through the metaphor of “The help” – an ever present, wise companion during the years of segregation and trouble for African Americans.

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, African American theologian James Cone speaks of Mamie Til Bradley, a woman whose son was killed in a lynching ritual in Mississippi. Mrs Bradley was devastated, and prayed in despair, until she heard a voice say to her, “… Mamie, it was ordained since the beginning of time that Emmett Louis Til would die a violent death. You should be grateful to be the mother of a boy who died blameless as Christ. Bo Til will not be forgotten. There is a job for you to do now”

While you and I might see theological issues with this, insightfully, Cone says, “For Mrs. Bradley, the voice she heard was the voice of the resurrected Jesus. It spoke of hope that, although white racists could take her son’s life, they could not deprive his life and death of an ultimate meaning. As in the resurrection of the Crucified One, God could transmute defeat into triumph, and ugliness into beauty, despair into hope, the cross into the resurrection.”

As a woman oppressed and forgotten by society, Mamie needed that encounter.

It would be amiss to forgo the detail of a most significant encounter. Christians have a ritual of water Baptism that marks immersion into the Christian community of faith. In Matthew 3:1 John says, “"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”.

Christians have a baptism of fire that inaugurates the infilling of the Spirit. Evidence of it is heavenly languages. It might sound incredibly strange that God acts upon the human body, moving us to speak in languages we have never studied … or even heard before.

But Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:18 “I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all.”

This suggests that the practice was important to him despite included warnings about the preeminence of love.

The thing is, not all Christians practice speaking in tongues. But many do. It’s not a side tradition of the church. I don’t understand it, but when words are not enough, I turn to tongues. I scat, returning to Harvey Cox’s metaphor.

Perhaps a deeper experience is something you desire. The sensation of the Spirit being not only around you but inside you. Embodied by you.

Surely, desiring the things of the Spirit is wise indeed. And I will be praying that you receive -- but you don’t actually need my prayers… so many of those who received sought and received this at home in their bedroom. The Spirit is able to meet you where you are.

Here I will close with the words of a prayer by Christina Rossetti (AD 1830-1894), an English poet written well before pentecostalism was a movement. The truth is, Pentecostals do not have a monopoly on the Spirit. May we together continue to shine a light to remind the church that we worship Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

O God the Holy Ghost

Who art light unto thine elect

Evermore enlighten us.

Thou who art fire of love

Evermore enkindle us.

Thou who art Lord and Giver of Life,

Evermore live in us.

Thou who bestowest sevenfold grace,

Evermore replenish us.

As the wind is thy symbol,

So forward our goings.

As the dove, so launch us heavenwards.

As water, so purify our spirits.

As a cloud, so abate our temptations.

As dew, so revive our languor.

As fire, so purge our dross.

1 Tanya is a PhD student at Fuller Theological seminary. She published a number of well-known songs through Hillsong Music Australia, including ‘Jesus What A Beautiful Name,’ which reached #6 on Australia’s CCLI worship charts. Her album 'Grace' is available on iTunes. Tanya's website can be found here​

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