Saturday, May 22, 2010

In the Wait

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place… And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2.1,4; KJV)


While I presently worship with an open and affirming “mainstream” church, I am—and will always be—Pentecostal by birthright. Of course, the key differentiator for Pentecostals is speaking in tongues, a phenomenon many question, but I know from experience to be real. I’ve not abandoned the practice, although my faith journey has taught me it’s not the prime indicator of being filled with the Holy Spirit many believe it to be. Indeed, fairly soon after Pentecost, Paul downplays speaking in tongues and other spiritual phenomena in deference to manifestations of love. In 1 Corinthians 13.8, he writes: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled.” In the end, he says, “these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (v13) Paul confirms Jesus’s definition of what identifies all Christians—including Pentecostals: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.35) Enough said.

Still, I cherish my Pentecostal birthright because it comes to much more than speaking in tongues. The way we sought and received the gift of tongues has borne fruit in every aspect of my life. It’s something I’m convinced all believers should take from the experience reported in Acts and instill in their spiritual psyches. (Since I was taught in the King James Version’s vivid language, for old time’s sake, I’m going to stick with it here, trusting you’ll indulge me.) In my tradition, after a person confesses newfound faith in Christ—“gets saved” in our parlance—he/she is urged to seek “the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues.” The protocol for this is given by Christ in Luke 24.49: “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.”

Everything Else on Hold

For Pentecostals, endowment of the Holy Spirit (Whom we prefer to call “the Holy Ghost” for some reason) isn't a Christian rite of passage or a rarefied gift to a few believers. It's a universal outpouring available to all who are willing to tarry—not “wait,” tarry—until they receive it. Our tendency to take the Bible at face value and push it one step further than most is certainly evident here. Waiting is too passive, whereas “tarrying” implies earnest, active engagement stirred by impatient longing. In our churches, believers who’ve not yet spoken in tongues are encouraged—in some circles, expected—to linger at the altar, imploring the Holy Spirit to come upon them. And it's unthinkable that they should tarry alone. Those who’ve received the Spirit are obliged to tarry with them, on two conditions: willingness to remain with the seeking believer for as long as he/she tarries and ability to block out every distraction in keeping with Acts 2.1: “They were all with one accord in one place.” Those two prerequisites—stamina and unified focus—set “tarrying” apart from “waiting” in our minds. In a nutshell, tarrying puts everything else on hold.

Yes, it’s true, rushing new believers into seeking an inexplicable gift tosses them into the deep end of the pool. Yet it also teaches them perseverance by faith—the art of venturing into deeper spiritual experience without the impediment of human knowledge and understanding. Tarrying for the Holy Spirit trains them how to seek. It also teaches them tenacity, because very seldom does one “receive” the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues on his/her first tarrying attempt. For most, it's lengthy process that tests their patience and commitment. I began praying to receive the Spirit at the age of nine and didn’t experience it until I was 12. Along the way, saints who tarried with me kept saying, “Tim, you have to want the Holy Ghost more than anything. When you do, It will come.” It took three years for my young mind to get past self-imposed pressures and cloudy questions, emotional resistance and fatigue—to get to the point where nothing mattered more than seeking the Holy Spirit. Then it came. I vividly recall rising from the altar and my Sunday school teacher wrapping me in her arms, whispering, “Now, wasn’t it worth the wait?”

Frankly, speaking in tongues felt anti-climactic. There were no flames above my head, like the disciples. The room didn’t shake. I didn’t tremble. None of that. Once I ran out of things to say and my weary mind ceased to interfere, the Holy Spirit—completely without insistence—overflowed me, spilling out in preconscious speech. It came so naturally I was stunned it took so long. It took many more years to grasp why the wait was worth it, however. I came away knowing how to tarry, how to put everything else on hold, how to persevere in my search for godly things, and why tenacity is so important. Above all, the experience taught me God’s promises are true. Seeking their fulfillment means clinging firmly to them, however long it takes.

Removal of Self

The removal of self happens in the wait. That’s why Jesus instructs the disciples to tarry until they’re endowed with the Holy Spirit’s power. To be filled with the Spirit as Acts 2.4 describes implies being rid of every self-imposed, idea, habit, or sin that takes up space. Because we now know precisely when the Holy Spirit descends, we attach a timeline to Jesus’s promise, inserting “until Pentecost." But He doesn’t say that. No timeline exists. He simply tells the disciples to “wait until….” They enter the Upper Room with no idea how long they’ll be or what needs to happen before the Spirit falls. What’s going to happen is unprecedented—unlike anything they’ve seen or experienced. So they wait without preconceptions. They’re shut in together, tarrying for the unknown, venturing into spiritual experience without any knowledge or understanding. They must remove self from the endeavor, because self isn't useful. The only thing they can cling to is Christ’s promise to send the Spirit. And when they eliminate everything to the point they want It more than anything, It comes.

I love the KJV’s rendering of Acts 2.1: “When the day of Pentecost was fully come.” Fullness of time is central to Pentecost, because the Spirit’s power can only be revealed once the disciples have tarried. Pentecostals learn this by replicating Acts 2 to the tee. Yet the lesson is not dependent on this particular practice. It emerges every time we commit to God’s promises and wait until they’re realized in our lives. What they mean and how or when they’ll be manifested are seldom clear. All we’re told is “wait until….” But, without fail, when His promises are revealed, we’re reminded what we discover in the wait can be as miraculous and life-changing as what comes when our wait ends.

The miracle of Pentecost, so evident in its fulfillment, is also hidden in the wait for its promise.

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