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.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Higher Learning

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. (John 16.12-13)

Not Ready to Be Taught

My father never really had time or means for the hobby he loved most, restoring cars. Get him going, and he can wax rhapsodic about a ’53 Chevy he once owned or a ‘58 Plymouth he whimsically bought because it had a push-button transmission. Cars fed Dad’s nostalgia much like music feeds mine. When he could, he’d shell out a few hundred bucks for a wheezing relic and gently bring it back to life. Then he’d give it to a needy family or student. He was wise enough to buy his jalopies in early spring, when the weather warmed up sufficiently to park the family car curbside and his latest treasure could rest in the garage. As summer turned to fall, however, my mother got antsy for him to finish his pet project so there would be a dry, warm place to house the car she drove.

One September Saturday, he told me to come out to the garage so he could teach me how to change a flat tire and patch the inner tube on an old car due to leave the garage. I was 14. “I don’t need to know that,” I said, returning to whatever book lay open on my bed. “Of course you do,” Dad said. “Not if I make enough money to hire someone to do it,” I answered. He insisted—and to this day I regret how my lack of enthusiasm killed his joy. Finally, he sent me back to the house. But he warned me, “One day you’ll wish you knew. I don’t care how much money you’ve got.” Flash forward 15 years. I’m on the inside shoulder of Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway, trying to figure out how to change a flat while traffic flies by. At last, a patrol car pulls up. The officer asks if I need help. I tell him I’m fine, as I try to loosen the tire’s lug bolts. “You’re doing it backwards,” he says. “Didn’t anybody teach you ‘lefty-loosey, righty-tighty’?” Totally humiliated, I confess my dad wanted to, but I wasn’t ready to be taught. The officer tells me to step aside so he can show me how it works.

A Pentecostal Experience

I’ve not written this week partly because the rigors of 40 Lenten posts, followed by Easter and the Ascension caught up with me. Every evening found me staring at a blank page. When these times come, I’ve learned to seek refreshment in the silence—to open my heart so God’s Word can speak without the demand of deciphering it. Sometimes His Word and voice simply need to be heard. They need to rest in our beings, almost like a subterranean aquifer that eventually amasses enough force to spring up into wells. So, in preparation for Pentecost, I’ve been reading what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit without contemplation, receiving His words without worries about getting them.

I keep going back to John 16.12-13: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” Reading it again yesterday, I was reminded of my father, the officer, and me. I’d participated in a parable about the Spirit! What Dad wanted to teach me was more than I was able to learn at the time. My comprehension was blocked by poor appreciation of the lesson’s value. When my lack of knowledge later emerged, the officer led me to essential understanding. Changing a flat somehow morphed into a Pentecostal experience because, as Jesus describes it, that’s how the Holy Spirit works. It opens our eyes to things we were too naïve, unwilling, or unable to appreciate earlier in our development. It guides our growth.

Constant—and Constantly Necessary

The Spirit holds many offices, Jesus says. It comforts and counsels us, inspires our words, and empowers our witness, to name a few. But these functions operate on an as-needed basis, whereas the Holy Spirit’s presence as our guide is constant—and constantly necessary. As much as we’ll ever grasp of Christ’s teachings and how their truth applies to our daily lives, there will always be more to know. We never stop growing. Our seasoning as believers—the truth we discover as we follow Jesus—only alerts us to how little we’ve learned. That’s why we return over and over to the same texts and lessons, digging out new wisdom in texts we thought we exhausted yet barely tapped. Life experience and observation sharpen our sensibilities to why something that once seemed unimportant is actually vital. Every time we go back to God’s Word or reexamine our lives, the Holy Spirit hovers beside us, steering us in new directions and inspiring fresh perspectives.

When Jesus promises the Spirit will guide us into “all truth,” He isn’t suggesting with the Holy Spirit’s help we’ll ultimately figure everything out. He means the Spirit has every truth at its disposal. When the proper time comes, understanding we can’t presently process will be available. The Holy Spirit leads us to a richer awareness of God’s will and clearer insights into His ways. Our task is remaining eager to learn—maintaining responsiveness to lessons and experiences the Spirit provides. In a foreshadowing of His Spirit, God speaks in Psalm 32.8-9: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel and watch over you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.” When we’re receptive to the Spirit’s instruction, it directs us back to God. Isn’t that where we want to be? As we enjoy this weekend’s celebrations of Pentecost, we take care not to forget the Holy Spirit is given for our higher learning. Its manifestation in the Upper Room launched a continuous education process for every believer. It leads to truth by instilling in us a bottomless desire to learn. It offers an inexhaustible curriculum taught in a class that will never be dismissed.

The Holy Spirit guides a continuous education process for every believer who’s eager to learn.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Entering the Priesthood

Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. (Hebrews 4.14)

The Missing Icon

“Icon” came into usage to set Christian paintings apart from portraiture of Greco-Roman gods and Old Testament heroes. While the term now covers everything from movie stars to computer widgets, its initially provided “snap shots” of Christ, first and foremost, but also Mary, the disciples, and later saints. Googling “Christ” and “icon” turns up innumerable versions of one image: Jesus holding an open text in one hand while gesturing with the other. This is Christ the Teacher. After it, a smattering of other icons follows: The Miracle Worker, The Crucified Christ, The Risen Christ, The Ascendant Christ, Christ the King, etc. Still, the Teacher dominates the field, since, in life, Jesus was a rabbi.

Yet casting Jesus as such troubled Early Church theologians. Judaism was stocked with great rabbis—Hillel, for example, whose writings in the generation before Jesus were revered as nearly sacred. There were also dozens of prophets and miracle workers in the lore. All of these figures, like Jesus, rose on the strength of their callings. To categorize Christ among them would reinforce His ordinariness, planting questions about His divinity and doubts about the meaning of His death and resurrection. There was, however, one vocation unlike any other: the priesthood. Priestly titles were inherited and confined to one tribe of Israel, the Levites. Priests were bred, not called.

Only one known exception to this rule predates Jesus, a man named Melchizedek, who—not coincidentally—also predates the Levites. He briefly surfaces in Genesis as a priest who serves Abraham, the great-grandfather of Levi. After that, other than an oblique mention in Psalm 110, no reference to Melchizedek is made until the Hebrews writer uses him to redefine Jesus as our high priest by calling. Not fitting the Levite mold, Jesus broke it, Hebrews says, enabling Him to be more than our Teacher. He’s our Confessor and Intercessor, the Advocate pleading our case before God. This is a seismic shift in the affairs of God and humanity, an irreversible improvement on an unparalleled scale. And Hebrews insists we grasp it. Do we? Judging by the iconography, it’s doubtful. Christ the Teacher is everywhere; Christ the Priest is nowhere. It’s the missing icon.

A Big Deal

Throughout Christendom, today is Ascension Sunday, commemorating Christ’s return to Heaven. The mysteries baked into this event—the physics of it, if nothing else—incline us to observe it without quite rejoicing in it. We’re apt to think of it as no big deal, the last stop before next Sunday’s really big blow-out: Pentecost. But if I read Hebrews correctly, the writer would take us to task for not recognizing the Ascension is a big deal—an event every bit as essential and joyful as Easter and Pentecost. It’s the day we celebrate Jesus’s priesthood. And knowing we now have a Priest in Christ is worth celebrating. Hebrews 4.14 puts it like this: “Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” With the Ascension, Jesus effectively becomes the Agent that fixes our faith. The Cross provides atonement for sins. The Resurrection delivers us from death. Without a Priest to facilitate our repentance, though, they’re just historical events. Had Jesus not ascended, we’d be as lost as we were before He died and rose again.

This is what Hebrews is all about—knowing by faith we have a High Priest. The writer follows up the allusion to the Ascension with one of the most thrilling passages in the epistles: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (v15-16) The whole point in a living Savior is knowing He’s there when we need Him. Jesus ascends out of physical reach to remain forever in human reach. He knows and understands our frailties, and no matter where or when we need Him, we approach Him confidently, certain we’ll receive mercy and find grace. This makes the Ascension a big deal indeed, one to be celebrated on par with the highest holy days.

What’s Happening to Him?

One imagines the Hebrews author would be outraged that many of us limit our view of the Ascension to how it affects the disciples (and, by extension, us). “Look at Jesus,” we hear him/her say. “Don’t you see what’s happening to Him?” Now that we’ve opened our minds to the Ascension’s meaning, we watch Christ leave the planet in utter amazement. Transformation occurs before our very eyes. Unlike the Incarnation and Resurrection, which happen off-stage, we actually observe Christ’s ministerial transition from Rabbi to Priest. We see Him literally entering the priesthood. And while we assess what’s happening to Him, we also gauge what’s happening to us. We’re shaking off the last vestiges of condemnation, fear, and hopelessness. What never was, and never will be, possible for us is now reality through our High Priest.

In The Revelation, John of Patmos is lifted into Heaven and meets the Ascended Christ. The transformation is stunning. He describes Christ’s hair as white wool, His eyes a blazing fire, and His feet molten bronze. Jesus doesn’t even sound the same: “His voice was like the sound of rushing waters.” (Revelation 1.15) Christ dictates seven letters regarding strengths or weaknesses that affect His service on our behalf. In one, He says, “I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (3.8) If Christmas celebrates God’s gift of love, Easter His gift of life, and Pentecost His gift of power, the Ascension celebrates His gift of freedom. With Christ as our High Priest, forbidding rules of engagement are revoked, eternally replaced by unfettered access. Perhaps there’s no icon of Christ the Priest because no artist can capture what John describes. But on this holiest of days, we rejoice because our Priest opens the door to us—all of us—a door no manmade power can close. Maybe that’s the most fitting Ascension icon of all, an open door.

In the Ascension we observe Christ’s transition from Rabbi to Priest. As our Teacher He opens our minds, as our Priest He opens the door to God’s grace.