Published at patheos.com/blogs/spiritchatter on January 6, 2014.
A snippet of my latest book, Inspired: the Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith, to whet your appetite for more.
Priscilla and I bought our first house in a sketchy corner of Kansas City, about a mile or two from the seminary where I taught at the time. It was a big old house with a grandiose stone front porch, rich wooden beams, and small crystal chandeliers. We had failed to notice that the electricity was outmoded, the basement walls porous, the roof leaking, a ceiling sagging, and the neighborhood questionable, with a past shrouded in memories of Kansas City mafia. Still, it was a great house for a young couple with lots of energy, and on Wednesday nights we gathered a couple dozen students together, covered the dining room table with chips and dip and pies and brownies, stoked up the fire, sang hymns, and discussed John Wesley’s sermons.
The house had those wonderful old cast-iron hot water radiators, the kind that clinked and belched, the kind you can dry underwear and socks on. One weekday winter morning, I sat on the living room floor and leaned against one of the radiators. I was reading my Bible and praying, and something happened. I felt myself, not quite mumbling and not quite speaking, but falling into some wordless moments. Not speechless exactly. There was speech. But wordless. When I told a friend who had experiences with such things, he was pretty sure I had spoken in tongues. I am still not so sure. I think maybe I just experienced the wordless speech of ecstasy in the presence of God. In the twenty-five years since that morning, I have never had another experience like this, so to this day I don’t know what happened that winter morning.
I do know this experience emblematizes much of my Christian life. I’ve spent much of my life wanting more. Not just more — but new experiences, fresh experiences of the holy spirit. And naturally the experiences for which I have hankered include what most Christians either want or despise: speaking in tongues, prophesying, miraculous healing — what Paul calls, in one of his letters to the Corinthians, gifts of the spirit.
Paul’s letters are not the only books in the Bible that fed my desire for new and fresh experiences of the spirit, especially spectacular ones. The Bible is full of them. Start with the way the spirit rushed upon the judges–Gideon, Samson. I would have been satisfied with a less spectacular experience. Some inspired knowledge would do. A modicum of revealed wisdom would suffice. There is plenty of this, too, in the Bible.
Take Jesus, for example. When he sits to read scripture in his hometown synagogue, he knows that the words of Isaiah — he will proclaim good news to the poor — are his words, his vocation, his purpose. To accomplish this task, to rescue the sinners, the prostitutes, the poor, he needs to be anointed by the spirit. If Jesus needed this spirit to rest upon him, then certainly I did — we do. And so I wanted a fresh influx of the spirit, an anointing, whether to lead or teach or be quiet or bring good news to the poor or speak in tongues or prophesy or heal someone.
This sense of yearning — or is it inadequacy? — for something new, something spectacular, is fueled by passage after passage in the Bible. So, braced by my Bible, which lay splayed on the wood floor as I leaned against the radiator and held my head in my hands, I thought for sure I needed more — some novel experience of the spirit. Yet I received only an ambiguous little trickle on a living room floor in a tattered corner of Kansas City.
Still, that inauspicious moment would blossom over the years, if not into a green tamarisk on a desert horizon, as in Isaiah’s vision of the spirit outpoured (Isa. 44:3), at least into an idea, a possibility no less rooted in scripture than that tamarisk. The idea was this: we do not need to hanker after the spirit, to call our spirituality into question, to beat ourselves up for not experiencing the spectacular gifts of tongues or healing or prophecy, for not delivering inspired speeches, for failing to eradicate poverty and leaving the sick still bedridden.
We do not need to bemoan the absence of an outpouring or a resting or a rush of the spirit because all people — every last one of us — has the spirit-breath of God within us from birth. This too is a tradition, a belief, a conviction in the Bible. It has gone largely unnoticed, overshadowed by spectacular gifts, but it is a strand of scripture nonetheless.
Let me put it this way: it is time to embrace the belief that the power of God’s spirit pulses in every breath we take. This may not be the whole experience of the spirit. There are judges and kings and prophets and apostles and Jesus himself, all of whom received fresh doses of the spirit to accomplish their grand tasks. Yet the place to start lies elsewhere, with the scream and gulps of a newborn baby that let us know she is alive and kicking, or, better yet, with the old and infirm, whose final breaths, when full of integrity, are a testimony to the spirit of God. This realization, too, finds a home in the Bible.