Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Conviction Versus Tradition or "Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?"

The Azusa Street mission, birthplace of modern Pentecostalism

What do we do when our convictions stand in opposition to our tradition, or are at least sidelined by it?

Do we cut and run? Or do we stay, and speak truth to the power of that tradition, in hopes that we might work towards its redemption?


I come from the tradition of Pentecostalism. If you didn't know this about me, and perhaps especially if this blog is the only interaction you've ever had with me, this might have come as somewhat of a surprise. You could say that I am somewhat atypical in the wide world of Pentecostals. I'll be honest, I've struggled greatly with what it means to be a part of this tradition, but there are some voices out there (Like Jonathan Martin, the pastor of Renovatus Church in Charlottes, who penned this post about being an ecumenical pentecostal last week that was like salve on an open wound) that give me a glimmer of hope.

Now, lots of people are downright freaked out by Pentecostalism, or perhaps more accurately, of Pentecostals.

I get that.

We can be weird.

But don't let that scare you away. I promise I'm astonishingly ordinary (and honestly so are most Pentecostals), so stick with me here.


The sorts of expressions of Divine experience that those outside of Pentecostalism probably see as somewhat unorthodox were the mainstays of my religious upbringing. Tremors, "falling out" under the power of the Spirit, holy laughter (probably my personal favorite), and of course, the mother of all of them, that which we are perhaps most (in?)famous for: speaking in tongues.

For many Pentecostals, speaking in tongues, or "receiving your prayer language" as some called it, is billed as the culmination of all religious experience. In my denomination specifically, our doctrinal beliefs clearly stated that if you did not speak in tongues, you were not filled with the Holy Spirit. (This would be the sticking point that led me to walk away from the ordination process in the denomination, but that's another story for another time.) You can imagine how setting up being filled with the Holy Spirit as the quintessential religious experience, and how using a particular manifestation of that experience as a discriminator could create some undue pressure on Pentecostals to seek out that particular manifestation.

So we had revival and renewal services. We had prayer meetings where the sole purpose was seeking this particular gift. For some reason though, even as a kid, something about the whole dynamic didn't feel right. I'm not even really sure what my thought process was, but it just wasn't something that I ever sought out. I suppose I thought that if I was going to have some experience of the Holy Spirit, I wanted it to be on terms that She and I dictated, rather than some weird church peer pressure.


A friend of mine used to joke that history in the US started with WWII, and that everything that came before was some kind of hazy, mythical pre-history period. The lessons in church history that I got from the denomination about our church's history were no different. All of the history lessons began with Pentecostalism already having been subsumed into the great grey haze of homogenization that was post-war Evangelicalism.

But wouldn't you know it, that wasn't the whole story.

It turns out Pentecostalism, perhaps like many other religious movements, was fairly radical at the outset and cooled over time. Early Pentecostals were inclusive, they flagrantly disregarded racial and gender boundaries, rejected hierarchy and spoke out against economic inequality in their communities. They were proponents of nonviolence. Considering the context (the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries) within which the movement emerged, these folks were revolutionaries.

See, bad eschatology and unorthodox expressions of Divine experience aside, Pentecostalism, then and now, can be reduced to a fairly simple proposition: the Holy Spirit, the immanent presence of the Creator here on earth, is the key to Christian unity. Now that simple proposition may seem to have gotten lost is a sea of self-seeking emotionalism in today's Pentecostalism, but those early radicals knew that justice was the natural extension of this unity. The institution of modern Pentecostalism has lost sight of it, but justice is in our blood.

I can't help but feel like there's something worth holding on to there.


Now don't get me wrong, there have been many times where I've just been ready to walk away, to drop it all, and to forget it. For some reason, I've never been able to go all the way, though. Maybe that makes me a coward, or an intellectual lightweight, or whatever but always, as I'm ready to throw in the towel, the same thought finds its way to the forefront of my mind:

But Jesus...
But justice...

See, I may see a lot of things differently from the way many Pentecostals do. Hell, I see things differently that probably most Christians do, but I still believe that the Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost, is the gift of presence that was meant to unite the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church, and that work continues in the world today.  I still believe that the sort of blind justice, solidarity and shared life that those early Pentecostals displayed is exactly the sort of eschatological unity Jesus had in mind when he talked about the Kingdom of God. And while I've never had the kind of quintessential experience of Pentecost that would make me an official card-carrying member of the club, I feel like I have been given a prayer language, and it is the language of justice, of comfort for those who mourn, of good news for the poor and of freedom for the oppressed.

Maybe that makes me "just" a "small p" pentecostal. Maybe it makes me an odd anachronism in a tradition that has moved on.  But there is a tradition worth redeeming here, that much I know. So I'll stay, as long as they'll have me. I'll sing the songs of justice of those early radicals and hope that maybe just a few might join the chorus.

What about you? Do you now find yourself or have you in the past sat in the tension that comes from your convictions being at odds with your tradition? Do you think that some traditions are beyond saving, or that they all can turn around? Practically speaking, how do you think we can speak out from within our own traditions to lovingly prod them back toward those first principles? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Slivers of Beauty and Prayers of Dedication and Desperation

I'm over at A Deeper Family today talking about the little moments of beauty that carry us through, and the prayers we pray for ourselves and our families as we seem to be just making it from day to day.

But eventually, the moment passed, as it always does. The echoes of that chorus of laughter are then left to sustain us through a raucous bath of endless splashing and the oft-contentious bedtime with the begging for more books or more milk or just a little bit more playtime, even the occasional fit or tantrum. There’s some bargaining, maybe some cajoling, lots of affection, at least eleven good-night’s, and some welcome cuddling, the lights are turned off, the doors closed, and the entire house seems to exhale, like a sigh of both relief and satisfaction at the close of another day, as if to say,

“We made it through, but maybe just barely so.”

There’s a prayer that I’ve been praying in some form or another (even when I didn’t think prayer made a bit of difference) since the oldest first came on the scene. Borne out of my feelings of utter inadequacy to the task of caring for this tiny human, it is the sort of prayer that seems to make some sense of the paradox of power perfected in weakness, equal parts dedication and desperation. This prayer is the breath that escapes my lips as I exhale with the house at night; it is the first thought that rolls around in my sleepy skull as I snooze through my alarms in the morning, and it is the lump that catches in my throat in those moments of beautiful clarity when even at their age, they seem to catch just a glimpse of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God...
Click through to read the rest.

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