This week, Chuck Redfern shares his experiences with the Holy Spirit as we continue reading Clive Calver’s Alive in the Spirit together:
Riding On The Wind
The Holy Spirit snuck up on me from behind, kidnapped me, and buckled me and my family into a roller coaster seat in the early 1990’s. I’ve sometimes whined about the thrill-ride, which often jolted me past the theme park’s hawkers, freak shows, and diabolical clowns offering onion-flavored cotton candy. God has sometimes unsnapped the buckle and allowed me to wander in “normal” Christianity again. It is astonishingly dull. I rushed to the roller coaster and breathed a sigh of relief: My empty seat awaited.
Confusion often swirls when we talk of life in the Spirit. Some stress underlying, covert reality while others emphasize their personal experience and God’s overt acts. We talk past one another. Fingers wag. Frustration mounts. We take back our toys and run home. Fact is, the Spirit pervades our existence whether we feel Him or not, so my journey began long before my felt experience. God “breathed” the “breath of life” into our nostrils (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word for “breath,” nismat, is translated as “spirit” in Proverbs 20:27, which means the passage could speak of how God breathed “the spirit of life” into our forebears. Our intimacy with the Holy Spirit was severely marred at the Fall in Genesis 3 but never completely destroyed. Theologians call God’s activity among unbelievers “common grace:” He halted our slide before we slipped into absolute demonism and gave us the ability to choose. Jesus began to restore fuller intimacy when he breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).
Underscore and emphasize: Jesus’s disciples were the forerunners of the “new creation” of which Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 2:17; Galatians 6:15). They were “made new in the attitude of (their) minds” as they donned the “new self,” bearing God’s “true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23-24). We’re harbingers of an alternative creation. We’re “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20), present-day tokens of His future kingdom (see the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-29) for which creation groans “as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22). We bear His fruits (Galatians 5:22-23) and swap society’s culture for God’s.
Such is the underlying reality. God always acts through His Spirit. The Spirit, although a person and not a mere force, can be like the still air, which always sustains us whether we’re know it or not.
And sometimes He stirs overtly. No mistake. This is God.
I felt God’s overt act at the peak of an adolescent crisis in 1973 when I was almost 17. I gave my life and He flooded me with a new sense of purpose. God acted even more dynamically in the summer of 1984. I awoke from a strange dream that illuminated how I’d been worshipping my journalism career. I confessed my sin and felt an energy surge flow into my head and through my torso. God rinsed me. I felt born-again again – and my days in newspapers were over. I unpacked my bags at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary six months later.
Then came the roller coaster. I served an inner-city church and I prayed with a group of pastors. I innocently asked a colleague: “Have you ever read anything by John Wimber?” The late John Wimber spear-headed the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California, from which about 700 churches had been planted. Many told of honest-to-goodness New Testament-style signs and wonders: Cripples walked out of wheel chairs; legs lengthened; the blind were seeing and the deaf were hearing. What’s more, there was none of the dubious theology or eccentric methods found in other sectors.
My friend loaned me Wimber’s Power Evangelism.
I was enthralled. Wimber and other church leaders read of God’s power throughout the Bible and reasoned it should be today’s norm. They began praying for healing and saw no results for about a year. Some even got more sick. Wimber and his elders actually cried out to God: “It’s not fair!” But they persisted in sheer obedience. A healing finally came one morning, soon followed by others. There were visions and words of knowledge. The Holy Spirit even swept through an evening church service in which almost all the young people fell down. The felt the same type of energy I felt on my bed in 1984.
This was key: Vineyard prayer teams never shouted over anyone, nor did they blame those who were not healed (and not all are healed). They often asked people how they were feeling during the prayer sessions, which made sense.
I decided to try the Vineyard method, fully confident I would flop like a rag mat. I prayed for a woman with neck pain and asked her how she felt. “Much better!,” she said. My cool pastoral reply: “WHAT?” Another had a terrible cold; she felt power from my hands. I visited a third person whose dentist had drilled the wrong tooth earlier that day. I gingerly laid my hand on her jaw and, while praying, felt it tingle. She gasped. The pain evaporated. And then there was the woman with back pain in her kitchen. I prayed for her and nothing seemed to happen. She complimented me on my “nice” prayer and we kept chatting, then she cried out: “Oh my God! My back is getting hot!” The pain vanished and the air was thick with God’s presence. She wobbled like a drunk while walking to the refrigerator for a glass of water, shedding new light on Acts 2:15: “These people are not drunk, as you suppose …”
It was a rush. We held prayer meetings in which everyone felt “hot.” I drove to Toronto and witnessed a Pentecost-style renewal. Other churches experienced the same type of renewal in the 1990’s and I traveled to many of them.
But then the roller coaster plummeted: Many in the church were worried that I was trying to make the church “charismatic;” others levelled a variety of accusations and everyone seemed to be yelling at each other. I was constantly tense and biting my nails over the next phone call. I even had to face a panel of church members, one of whom read from a written statement in which she said I was worried that I had joined a cult. I successfully established the Biblical basis of the signs and wonders – and no, I was not making people speak in tongues; and no, I would not impose a guilt trip on those who remained unhealed; and no … and no … and no …
The panel was pleased, but there were more fights and battles and struggles and clashes. Finally, a huge brawl rendered me exhausted. I felt like I had lost all credibility. I resigned and we moved to New Hampshire, where a Pentecostal church was experiencing a Toronto-like renewal. The Spirit moved mightily, but the roller coaster twisted and turned when I took the helm of a dying church. We restored its solvency and trebled its size, but old issues bit back and it crumbled. What’s more, there were odd teachings about how we must fawn before self-designated prophets and apostles. It was so strange, so twisted: God’s renewal had morphed into a freak show with diabolical clowns offering that terrible cotton candy.
I finally resigned and, after a break, took on an interim pastorate in New Hampshire in which I had a lot of fun. The Spirit was active like the still air: There were few healings, but He always nurtured me. We moved to Connecticut and I took the helm of another church, which proved to be a mismatch. I then helped two conflict-riddled churches re-establish themselves and I’ve found that deeply satisfying. Miracles and healings did not abound (although I prayed for two people on their deathbeds and they got up the next day), but I re-learned the lesson of savoring the unspectacular. The Spirit is always there and the roller coaster is always moving – perhaps a little slowly this time. I also now see the sense of Mark 1:41-45. Jesus healed a man with skin disease, but then warned him not to tell anyone about it. I love the signs and wonders, but they can be misinterpreted and they can stir a hornet’s nest – especially among veteran believers. Witness the reaction of the teachers and the Pharisees to our Lord: They criticized him for healing on the Sabbath.
Still, I ache for a setting in which the Holy Spirit is allowed to roam free, where both inner and outer healing is welcomed, and where we can continually savor the living water of Christ. Perhaps even some of those hawkers and clowns will quiet down.
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Acts 9:15-16
Sometimes I think we’re a bit more poor than we think we are in the United States’ Church.
It’s easy to look at other places in the world and feel sorry for them, to look at their poverty and feel pity, send money, and think that we’ people with so much money, so much material wealth, so many good things in our lives, are somehow more blessed, that we won the cosmic lottery because we were born in this country. We say: “We are blessed. These people are not blessed.” We draw a line between us and them, and mark ourselves as the givers of mercy, charity, and help.
While I certainly don’t think I’ve got my theology all together, or that I know a whole lot about what the Bible really means or anything, but I cannot help but think this line demarcating the blessed and those who are not blessed is a bit more difficult than this. After all, Jesus did say it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Wealth does not necessarily equal blessing. Material goods do not necessarily equal being in God’s good graces.
This week, during Pentecost, it can be easy to slip into the triumphalist attitude, that as long as we’re with God, as long as we’re following Him, everything will be fine. If we’re doing His will, everything will work itself out, and be smooth sailing. When we follow God, we’ll be happy.
But this only leads to another question: what does it mean to be happy? What does it mean to follow God, to be in Him, and to have Him in my life in a “real” way?
Cognitively, we would say that has nothing to do with shallow blessings, such as cars, clothes, nice homes, a good job, popularity and the support of lots of people around us. And yet, from the way we bemoan the fact that we don’t have those things in our lives and ask God to give them to us, along with security, safety, a comfortable life, means that’s what we believe in our heart of hearts. When we pray and ask for these things, make our prayer life about what God can give to us and not about what God can do in us, we’re equating God’s call with our own comfort and sense of happiness.
When the Spirit of God fell on those people on Pentecost, it did not suddenly erase all their problems and make their lives more comfortable. It instead dismantled the lives of those in the early church, radically turning them upside down, inside out, people who lived in closer community than ever before, people who did not have possessions, people who went to the ends of the earth, speaking in languages that they didn’t even know.
When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul was struck with blindness. And when Ananias was sent to Paul, to deliver God’s message, it was not a message of comfort. The glory of God that Paul preached throughout the world was also the source of his suffering in death. And yet, Paul in the same breath is able to account his suffering as blessing; he finds joy in God, regardless of the fact that he has been deserted by his people, has been sentenced to death, has been stoned. The plan God had for Paul was fulfilled:
Paul was an instrument of God.
Paul suffered (and died) for God’s sake.
When we align ourselves with God, we can expect the same. When we pray for God’s spirit and work in our lives, we are not requesting an easier or more comfortable life that melds with the rest of the world. In many ways, we become failures in the eyes of the world, cursed, the unfortunates, the people who are labeled “crazy,” “dangerous,” or “pitiable.”
Something I’ve been challenged in lately is smudging the border between black and white ways of seeing the world and understanding that a lot of life exists in the gray areas, and this is one of those places. Because we live in a broken world, a lot of the work we do for God, a lot of our efforts to do His will looks a lot like unhappiness and misery, the curse of God. But at the same time, I want to see the beauty in that struggle, the beauty of life pushing through the dirt, stretching out its tendrils and leaves through the refuse, the stifling garbage that’s all around us. We may be scraggly, we may be a bit crooked, a bit broken, but that doesn’t make us an object of scorn, an example of failure. And it doesn’t mean we need to get dug up, transplanted to a place that’s sunnier, prettier, nicer, more comfortable, easier to grow in. Because God sees that scraggly plant as part of something beautiful; he sees beauty even in the refuse.
On Saturday, we celebrated the baptism of one our newest members at St. Paul’s, Tiffany. As a public representation of the inward transformation that has happened in a believer’s life, baptism symbolizes our identification with Jesus’s death and resurrection. Being immersed in the water symbolizes how our old self has been buried with Jesus and being raised from the water symbolizes our new life in Christ.
Baptism is also an opportunity for a church community to formally welcome a believer into the body of Christ. So as we prayed for Tiffany on Saturday, please join us in praying:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon your servants the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised her to the new life of
grace. Sustain Tiffany, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy
and wonder in all your works. Amen.
Thank you for celebrating Tiffany’s baptism with us. If anyone is interested in learning more about baptism or being baptized themselves, please e-mail Vince: firstname.lastname@example.org