Gunfire at Christmas

The call came early on Christmas morning. Gunmen, enraged over a tribal dispute, had gone into a church and shot worshipers on Christmas morning. My husband was the mission director for the province where the incident occurred and our breakfast guest the head of a mission’s aviation service. Within minutes my husband and guest were out the door headed to the airstrip. I began to make phone calls trying to contact police, who in the country where we worked, took holidays off, so I spent a lot of time with ringing phones and no answers.
As missions is a creative profession, a “Plan B” was hastily pulled together. Doctors, ambulances and police all took the day off, so we got in touch with a network of Christian workers in Morobe Province who dropped their plans, gathered vehicles and headed 40 miles out of town to the airfield to which the wounded would be taken. Hours passed between the time flights took off to pick up the wounded and bring them to a hospital and the time those planes landed in Lae. The area hospital was offering no surgery on Christmas, or Boxing Day so the wounded had only the medical assistance missionary workers could render on board small aircraft and a lot of prayer on their behalf. The transport took several hours and it was 10 hours between the time my husband left home and when he returned.

That made for a very different sort of Christmas. It was a sunny day and in the southern hemisphere, Christmas is a summer time holiday. There are not many “special occasions” but we made Christmas a very important holiday in our home. Gifts were under the tree and a well prepared meal on which we’d splurged a small fortune grew tepid on the counter. I was home alone with our son, and about 3 PM after six hours of patiently waiting for something Christmas-like to happen he asked me, “Mom, is today still Christmas?” I thought a moment and replied, “Yes, son. Today is why we need Christmas”.

Not every disappointing Christmas is marked by gunfire, but it is not uncommon for Christmas to be a hard time of year for many. This is often greater for Christians who feel an added dose of guilt if they are not enjoying every moment of the holiday in the way they feel they should. It’s as if the joy of the day somehow accentuates the sadness they feel inside and they feel sadder for being sad. I had years when I struggled with the same thing but that Christmas marked by gunfire changed my perspective.

If you are feeling sad this Christmas, celebrate the fact that God knows you in your darkness. He came as Light to the World. He cares about the sorrow and willingly is called “The Man of Sorrows”. He sees our sense of hopelessness and declares Himself, “The Hope of Nations”. He feels our loneliness and comes as “Emmanuel” that we remember “God is with Us”.

Joy is not a feeling, it is a perspective. For all who are filled with laughter and happiness and loving all things Christmas, that is a joy that shall not be taken from them. But there will be Christmas days in life when your feelings will not rise to meet your expectations, when sorrow will be palpable and trouble shadow your celebration. Christmas is for you, too. It is your day as well and the perspective you have on the days when life is not so merry reminds you why He came. It’s a worthy way to celebrate and you appreciate the fullness of Christmas for the times that are not so “merry”. Be thankful for these days too. Your perspective is richer for the lean times and more mature for knowing Him in hard times as well. A joyful Christmas to you.

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The Supernatural for the Skeptic

So you label yourself a skeptic? If you believe in the scriptures, and you want to serve Jesus, then I am skeptical of your skepticism. I will challenge that label right now.

Noting that every time the music starts Sister Sally shouts and looks like she’s having an attack of appendicitis, does not make you a skeptic. It means you find distraction, distracting. Another famous Pentecostal, Paul, had no tolerance for people disrupting corporate worship. God is a God of order, not to put a leash on the Spirit but a leash on us so we don’t distract from a spontaneous move of the Spirit.  When the Spirit moves there is reverence, not craziness.

You are not a skeptic if you question whether “Miracle Mike’” is always right when he recounts his daily dealings in the supernatural. Mike’s a great guy with great testimony. He is open to the Lord using him. Good for Mike. Many people miss God working through them because they are totally unavailable to be used at all. But Mike is young in the Lord, and being right some of the time, doesn’t make him right all of the time.  So if your Christian dad is dying of cancer and you can’t reconcile it with Mike’s declaration that anything less than total healing is a sign of apostasy, you are not a skeptic. God is perfect, Mike is not.  People err but the scriptures never set us up for false expectations. The Apostle Paul whose handkerchiefs were used in miracles of healing, (Acts 19:2), was forced to leave Trophimus sick in Miletus. Paul fell ill in Galatia (and planted a church while he was at it), faced hunger, shipwreck, and loss. He even despaired of life (2 Cor. 1:8). I trust no one is going to questions his Pentecostal commitment. To be “Pentecostal” is to believe in and use the gifts of the Spirit as they are recorded in scripture: nothing less and nothing more.  We rely on God’s power to work miracles and we rely on God’s power to preserve us in persecution. We know that deliverance takes the form of signs and wonders and we know deliverance is provided when Jesus says,  “my grace is sufficient for you”. (2 Cor. 12:9)

You are not a skeptic to want something real and biblical.  “Real” looks like the scriptures: all of the scriptures, not just the exciting experiences we all want to have. A real experience includes: power and persecution, deliverance and death, triumph and tarrying. It is a balance experienced.

Avoid the Acceptable Error Zone

Unfortunately, the normal response to human error is human error. Frustrated in Pentecostal churches many seek safety by settling in the “evangelically acceptable error zone”.  If you attend a church where the worship music is straight up Hillsong and the preaching is expository, you are safe and can grow in the Lord. Just get comfortable ignoring large portions of scripture that explicitly instruct us regarding the Baptism of the Spirit and the corporate gifts. People can convince themselves this is OK because they’ll tell you, “We’re still open to the gifts”. This is code for, “We’re actually ambivalent toward the gifts but if  a rushing mighty wind sweeps through the building and we burst into glossolalia, we promise to hold a board meeting to consider incorporating gifts into our church culture”. *  Disregarding scripture is wrong no matter what form of error we choose. Chaotic meetings where people draw attention to themselves leaving no room for the Spirit to move are meetings where we’re disregarding scripture.** Ignoring the gifts of the Spirit is also willful disobedience to scripture. Could we consider another alternative, radical though it may be?

A Radical Alternative

“Follow the directions”.

Yeah. You saw it there in black and white. What if we read scripture and follow the directions?

A “real” experience should look like the scriptural model.  A good Pentecostal church is one where the preaching is meaty and the gifts are freely used. Gifts don’t interrupt the service but follow the flow of what the Lord is doing. I know this can happen because the Bible tells us what our gatherings should look like.  I was saved in an environment where the gifts were used properly, people were saved weekly, and the services were beautiful, moving and always in order. (In 8 years of revival, everyone was healed but not a single person was slain in the Spirit).  I was not afraid to bring an unsaved friend to church for fear the service might be crazy.  Anyone who drew attention to themselves was quietly invited to step outside where the deacons gave instruction.  Only once did I bring a friend who refused to return. Her reason: “God was in there and I don’t want God running my life. I want to run it myself”. She could sense God’s powerful presence.

Labeling yourself a critic is destructive to you and the Body of Christ. There is no “opt out” clause from membership in the Body of Christ. The best choice is to choose to become a “full gospel” Christian, where “full gospel” means you commit yourself to actively pursue all God has promised in His Word.  It also means you refuse to ignore any part of  God’s Word just because it stretches your comfort level.  You might not want to “seek the best gifts” but you will because it is a command. (I Cor. 12:31). By choosing to be a “full gospel” Christian, you can bring health to the Body of Christ, and restore joy to your own soul. We can’t afford to ignore anything the Lord said we need.  Lay down that skeptical label, pick up the scriptures and walk the truths of scripture, just as scripture tells us to.

We, God’s people, need revival. Let’s commit to live a New Testament life style, corporately and individually.  If we follow Him on good days and on days when we’re perplexed in the depths of our souls, will will see the glory of God.  The best cure for skepticism, is to follow God’s instructions and encourage others to do the same.

  • * AG churches that do not teach on or encourage the use of the gifts are not Pentecostal.
    ** “Pentecostal” churches that ignore Paul’s teaching on proper use of the gifts are also being unscriptural.

Next: Paying off your college debts   www.vanaria.org

All Do Not Speak In Tongues

In 1 Cor. 12:30 Paul asks a rhetorical question, “Do all speak in tongues?” Remarkably, Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals agree that the answer to that question is “No, they do not”. In the context of Paul’s discussion in I Corinthians 12, where the context is spiritual gifts as they are used in a church setting, everyone agrees that not all speak in tongues. Regardless of your starting point, it’s universally agreed that if everyone speaks in tongues out loud at the same time we have one messy confusing church gathering.

Likewise, as to the context of I Corinthians 12-14, Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals agree: Paul is discussing the use of gifts of the Holy Spirit in a church setting. The areas where people do not agree focus on two major questions: “Did the gifts cease when the canon came into being?” and “Is speaking in tongues in a church setting, the same as speaking in tongues in one’s private prayer life?”

How Important Is This?

Being a planner, I struggled with the issue of tongues and gifts for a long time. Prior to becoming a Pentecostal minister, I struggled with “the initial physical evidence” for a long time. So if you struggle with this, you have company. You have questions that deserve answers and the scriptures have those answers.

Being honest, it takes a lot hermeneutic gymnastics to explain away the gifts of the Spirit. That is extremely inconvenient for those of us who like predictable things. While we love to sing that God is alive, we seem rather shocked that He has this plan to to actively participate in church gatherings. However, the Lord deemed the gifts so important that He devoted a great deal of scripture to instructing His people in the proper use of them. None of us want to lay claim to arrogance, but if the Lord God instructs us in the gifts so that His church might be healthy, who are we to say, “We have no need of them”? We cannot read Galatians 3, Romans 12, or these chapters in 1 Corinthians and escape the fact that a “normal church experience” as Christ intended church to be “normal” was meant to include the use of gifts of the Spirit. I can think of nowhere else in all of the New Testament where Christians are so eager to explain away three chapters of scripture.

Being stuck with the truth that “Gee, there’s a lot in there on gifts”, I had to work through the issues. People often enthusiastically point out that tongues are not that important because if we speak with tongues and have not love, we are like an annoying gong. This leads me to ask, “If we don’t speak in tongues and act like a loveless jerk, are we any less annoying?” Chapter 13 does not exist to belittle the gifts but to remind us they do not trump the fruit of the Spirit. By the time we get to I Cor. 13:10, we have to be grasping at straws to take the Greek word for “mature/perfect” and decide for this time and this time only in scripture, it really means “the authoritative canon of scripture”. It takes more faith to come up with that explanation and ignore three chapters of scripture than to simply read the text for what is says.

Unfortunately when I read the text I realize something that requires change on my part. We are living with far less than Jesus offers His church and we are so comfortable living with so little, we find it easier to justify our ease than to seek what we lack. We find church predictable and boring because we are by nature, predictable and boring. We’ve left so little room for God to move, and are terribly afraid of the consequences if He does. Yet we hold in our hands a very clear New Testament model of what a healthy church should look like.

Putting Tongues in Place

My first hurdle, personally, was to determine if Paul spoke about tongues as “a prayer language”  that was distinct from the gift of tongues used to edify the church. In I Cor. 14. Paul explains why speaking in tongues in church without interpretation is counterproductive. He also teaches us the following concerning tongues:

Speaking in tongues is a form of speaking to God, by the power of God and it is a mystery (vs.2) that strengthens the person who is praying (vs. 3)  Paul states his strong desires that everyone speak in tongues (vs. 5)* and boasts that he personally speaks in tongues more than everyone (vs.18). Tongues are a sign for “unbelievers” (vs. 22) and an expected part of church gatherings (vs. 26). The only limit he gives is that no more than two or three messages in tongues with interpretation should occur per meeting, so everyone in the church has a chance to contribute using his or her corporate gift. (vs. 27). Even as Paul reminds the Corinthians of the importance of orderly worship, he says clearly “don’t forbid speaking in tongues” (vs. 39).

The Big “But”

My original question was why anyone would think of tongues as “private prayer language” that was not one and the same as the gift listed in Chapter 12.   (If Paul could have made paragraph breaks, used HTML and inserted emoticons, a lot of things would be easier to understand. Just saying….)  The truth that praying in tongues privately, should not be confused with the gift of tongues spoken in a corporate setting as prompted by the Holy Spirit, is the very reason Paul had to write chapter 14.  He spends so much time explaining the difference, that  I nearly missed the glaringly obvious “but“. Paul’s boasts how much he spoke in tongues, privately,  and the very next phrase is “But in church …”

Right there in front of me Paul made a distinction between speaking in tongues privately and speaking in tongues in church. Oops. In fact, he spent much of the chapter parsing the two that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. So there I was, willing to consider that “mature/perfect” (I Cor. 13:10) might somehow be contorted to mean “the authoritative canon of scripture” yet I was overlooking a conjunction of contrast with an unmistakable meaning: “but”.  Why?  Because like most people I am tempted to harmonize my experience with scripture so I am comfortable with my lack.  The real problem most of us have with scripture surrounding the gifts is they point out our church experience lacks what scripture says should be normative.  That should not cause us to reinterpret scripture. It should cause us to earnestly seek that which we lack.

I had studied myself into a corner:  Paul did indeed distinguish between praying in tongues privately and the gift of tongues as a sign to unbelievers. Like it or not, I had to dig deeper and so this series will continue….

Next Time: I Skinned My Shin on a Honda
*(The words “wish” or “could” are not in Greek, so adding them to English sounds like it would really great if people could speak in tongues but it is not actually possible. If Paul wanted to express wishful thinking,  he would have used the subjunctive. Instead, Paul used the indicative form.  Paul is expressing a strong desire that everyone speak in tongues, not to frustrate people who have not done so, or make them feel bad,  but to encourage them to keep seeking.)