Monday, June 20, 2005

Surprised by the challenge of experience

I blog today with great reservation. I do not write to validate anyone else's experience or even suggest a physical experience is needed for any Christian. I am only writing to testify an experience I had in 1995 appears to continue to bear good fruit. I am writing because I see much criticism of the experiential today that reduces all experience in Christian practice as of the flesh, at best, and demonic activity at worst. What worries me is this criticism is not coming from the mouths of cessationists, rather, from people who otherwise agree the Spirit is capable of operating in great power today. These are people who quote Jonathan Edwards as reason for hope of a pouring out of God's spirit, while backing away from or ignoring the unusual "affections" in people Edwards witnessed in his lifetime.

My experience is related to the "Laughing Revival" or "Holy Laughter" or "Toronto Blessing" or whatever you want to call it. For those not familiar with it, this movement took hold first through charismatic circles and then to some mainline Evangelical denominations. While it was called revival by some, my denonimation insisted on referring to it as "renewal," a move of the Spirit that refreshes Christians and brings the life of the Spirit to Body of Christ. Contrary to some criticisms that people were encouraged to have this experience, in the circles in which I ran it was typically transferred by people who had experienced it and then delivered while preaching their regularly scheduled sermons. While primarily characterized by spats of uncontrollable laughter, signs of the movement were sometimes manifested in other awkward (and often disturbing) bodily responses, audible sounds, and ... sometimes animal noises and barnyard imitiations.

If you are sighing in disappointment right now, allow me to join you. Much of what I believe I saw in the later stages was the flesh reacting to expectations put on the crowd after word got around. However, my experience, a singular moment I have difficult time describing, was not prefaced with expectations. I didn't know anything about it, hadn't heard anything about it, and no one told me something was going to happen. It just did. To better tell it, though, I need to begin this narrative with background and lead up to the story. Trust me, it helps to have perspective to understand why I view it as a work of God, not a work of the flesh or the enemy.

In 1989, at the age of 19, I joined a small church plant of about 25 people. It was sponsored by a very (very!) large non-denominational traditional charismatic church my father helped build years ago. Our sect was not far removed from other Third Wave churches that grew up out of the 70s charismatic scene. Think Calvary Chapel with a more conservative worship methodology.

My pastor, still a young 30-something, returned from a Vineyard leader's conference (as a guest, not a member) in January 1995, and the next Sunday morning could not preach his message about his new vision for our church without breaking down into tears. He was passionate about our call to share the Gospel, to minister in love, and to equip and build the Body. His arm would begin to shake and tremble, but he never would explain what that was about. Realize my pastor was one of the most analytical, well-read, anti-emotional people I knew. His charm was always in his humility, not his charisma. We had become close friends at this point, and it was disturbing to me to see him ... so undone. Yet his message had an authority behind it, a power, that had been missing from his previous scholarly and edifying work.

What followed defies explanation. Some people began to laugh. Some people began to cry. Most of us looked around curiously trying to figure out what we were missing, like some joke had been told in secret, or there was something either hysterically ironic or deeply moving in the message that was escaping our own emotional response. The pastor said nothing about what we were witnessing, had not told anyone what he had experienced, and word of this "renewal" had not reached our doors. Instead, it just unfolded as the pastor spoke, as if the Spirit was being released as the great burden on our pastor's heart left his lips.

We had always been very careful about the experiential in our church leading up to this moment, as was our church's tradition. We had been accused of quenching the Spirit more than once, a charge our pastor would often wear as a badge of honor as he carried out what he believed to be his responsibility to protect us from spiritual harm. While other churches were immersed in the chaos of spiritual warfare trends (an offshoot, I think, of Frank Peretti's fictional novels), we stated we did not look for "demons under every rock." We focused on the practical. "Practical" was literally our charismatic dogma, so intent were we on avoiding the excesses of charismatic practices. We had a theology for the miraculous, but a praxis that did not leave much room for our theology. Experiencing the power of God had always been viewed in the theoretical, not something we expected to ever witness -- or something we honestly hoped to experience -- ourselves. So watching this roll out was a stunning revelation, an affront to the practicality I had been taught.

My first (and second and third) instinct: RUN!

I didn't run. Instead, I practiced passive observance. Who wouldn't be curious at this phenomena at first glance, even if it was a morbid curiosity? As ministry time came, I watched as otherwise respectable, reserved people came unglued as they were prayed for. I never saw anything so extreme as described by witnesses of the Toronto church, but I saw a lot of people doubled over in laughter, and I saw just as many doubled over in tears. In one, I saw what I believe was my first ever sight of deliverance.

Charismatic experience had avoided me up until that point. My father was a charismatic preacher, and my earliest memories from childhood were of people being affected by God. I was both terrified of the thought and craving it at the same time. For a long time I assumed all that experiential stuff was fake, but I came to accept some of it had been real as I saw lives dramatically changed. I didn't want to look like a fool, but whatever magnificent thing God was doing inside those people, that's what I wanted. I wanted God, nothing else. While watching this, though, I was more than satisifed sitting on the sidelines. While I craved a tangible experience with God, I was not going to get involved with this ... weirdness.

As a member of the worship team, I was obligated to play during worship during a special meeting haphazardly scheduled that night. Another church, a Vineyard down the street, would be joining us. An extended time of ministry was promised. Nothing else was said about it.

I had been playing Vineyard songs for over a year by then, so I had become accustomed to the sweetness of intimate worship. Maybe we didn't "get up and go" during praise songs, but the deepness of the lyrics, the heartfelt confessions and prayers extrapolated from Scripture, were a welcome departure from my traditional upbringing. Worship that night was a 10-fold increase in the deepness of our worship of God. The people that came brought with them a willingness to surrender, to exalt God, that was reflected by the presence of the Spirit. The physical sensation of the power of the Spirit was palpable. I am unable to express the depth of humility ... a supernatural recognition of how unworthy I was ... that I experienced during that worship time. It was both a burden to have one's own wretchedness revealed and a relief to recognize the power of God to redeem -- to recognize God's desire to redeem. My heart expressed a real thankfulness, maybe for the first time.

That did not melt away my skepticism, though, and I sat down in the back of church with my arms folded. I did not know what to expect. A short sermon was given, although I can't remember what it was about. I hope you will excuse me in light of what I'm about to reveal.

I watched for over 90 minutes as people came forward and got "blasted." These were people I respected, thinkers, people of reputation -- people who were not prone to turn off their brains and act silly in church. Yet there they were, laughing like hyenas, first receiving from others, then turning the "blessing" back on those giving prayers. I watched as all at the front of the church fell as if they'd been shot in the legs. I'd seen enough. I gathered my things to leave, uncertain where I fit in with this congregation.

My pastor was walking down the aisle towards the back of the church as I gathered my things. He seemed to have his emotions together again, and my love and respect for the man superceded my desire to get out of the building. I stopped and smiled at him. He asked me what I thought of all this. I shrugged my shoulders. He asked me if he could pray for me. I shook my head with all the uncertainty of a child whose father had just asked them to jump in the pool for the first time. He asked me again while closing some ground. I turned my back as if to walk away -- to be honest, I wasn't sure what I was doing, I was just reacting.

The first 10 seconds he prayed for me I was frigid, a friend suffering a fool's offering. Then it hit me. I began to hear my close friend's prayer for me, and it was the very longings of my soul. As well as he knew me, he could not have known how deeply this expression in prayer was something I hungered to release. Inside I thought I was going to cry, because his prayer was so powerfully touching me. Instead the laughter came forth. This was not the laughter of hearing a good joke. This was not the laughter of ironic observation. This was a welling up from my soul, as if the whole burden of my whole life was now being brought up in a bellowing howl. It was not mere release of burden, it was total relief of it. Imagine God reaching down into the pit of your stomach and violently pulling up all the junk you'd be carrying around. It's the best I can do to describe what it felt like. I had a difficult time breathing afterwhile, because I could not stop laughing, although all my analytical faculties were intact. I tried to rationalize it away to ease it back, but the more my thoughts drifted towards what God might be doing, the longer it continued.

I hate to cut off the experience here because there were other, lighter, less dramatic experiences that followed. Twice, after being prayed for, I had lightning bolts surge throughout my body. I had a vision that I've learned not to share with anyone -- it was for me, not for the world. My spirit was awakened by His Spirit.

In the proceeding months our church taught those who experienced such things to not attempt to justify them. By that, we were told such experiences are extrabiblical, and if they were from God they would bear God's fruit. We shouldn't look for prooftexts proving they were from God. We should look for evidence in our life for spiritual renewal and transformation. If it was from God, it would show in our increased hunger for the things of God. The experience was a reaction of the flesh, and it was neither here nor there. What was important was the change in us God began and continued to work in us.

By that litmus test, I can affirm it over and over again. I've never been the same since that experience. The fruit of the experience has been an exponential growth in my walk with Christ -- an explosion of growth. Not only did I find more grace for others, more love for others, more of all the things of the fruit of the Spirit, I found a new love for the Word of God. Before, reading the Bible was a task. After, it became a joy, a revelation, a recognized benefit.

Those of you who read this blog don't know me well enough to affirm these things. You don't know where I came from or the road I've traveled to get here. You don't know of my works or my sin. I'm not asking you to accept my experience nor am I asking you to affirm it for me. I'm certainly not suggesting anyone should seek an experience, because I saw many fall into that trap. Instead of reaping the fruit of the Spirit, I saw some people becoming addicted, worshiping the experience rather than God. I can only say I had a powerful experience 10 years ago, and it's a day I can mark a renewal that has benefitted myself, my family, my friends, my church, and (as of over two years ago) my wife. Where I once took from these people, I became a giver of the love of God He poured into me. Where I once benefitted from their ministry, I began to minister to them in big and small ways. I desired to give and give, and there was no burden in it. Take that for whatever it might be worth to you, if it all.

However, before criticizing the experiential, I suggest you reconsider what room your are leaving for the Spirit in your life. If you believe in the power of God active in today's world, how big and powerful does your theology allow for God to be? God rocked my world, my theology, and while I'm still slow to accept experience, there's a lot more room in my theology to accept God is much bigger than I can conceive Him to be.

An experience can do that to a man.

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