When I was first exposed to a charismatic worship service, I experienced a bit of sensory overload. The shouting, the lights, the blowing of the shofar, the rapid speaking in tongues, the bodies twisting and falling over… it was all new and, to me, a bit much. Over time I learned to deal with flags, the arms raised and bodies swaying, and I even came to admire it and eventually participate in these forms of worship. That said, there was a long while where I could not help but judge the wackier practices and expressions of faith taking place. In fact, I still probably do judge these things. The “fire prayer” specifically annoyed me a great deal. For those foreign to charismania, this is when somebody lays hands on an individual and repeatedly declares “fire.” I dismissed it as manipulative and a futile attempt at prayer (and spirituality). Yet I saw people fall down, shake, and weep as the chant of “fire, fire, fire” came out of the mouths of those ministering.
Now, the fire tunnel was even more of a joke. If you’re not familiar with fire tunnels, the picture above illustrates what they look like. A train of people go through a tunnel of those offering “ministry,” and hands are briefly laid on people for prophecy and prayer. Often those ministering simply yell “fire!” And again, I would see people very visible affected and moved by this experience. People would come out of the fire tunnel basking in the love of God, sometimes with uncontrollable laughter and other times in quiet tears.
Despite seeing all of this, I still could not help but think that these sincere, good people were obviously imbalanced.
I remember a few nights where I looked across the sanctuary and saw people laughing. I was genuinely disgusted by what I perceived to be irreverent and the result of either a mental illness or of a demon. One day, though, in all my doubt and cynicism, I found myself laughing for over 30 minutes during ministry time, having what old school Pentecostals would call a “glory fit.” I felt consumed by joy and overcome by the love of God.
After many months of worshiping alongside charismatics, I began having more and more emotional, strange, mysterious, and mystical experiences. My judgement towards the phenomena associated with Toronto Blessing and “river churches” started to die down, as I found myself laughing, weeping, shaking, and even struck completely still by God. I kept finding myself humbled by having the value of what I judged proven to me by the Holy Spirit herself.
Though I kept having my concept of discernment obliterated by the Holy Spirit, I still held on to as much cynicism as I could. Yes, I speak in tongues—and I even shake from time to time in prayer—and I have laughed in the Spirit and fell over before—but no, no, no, that ‘fire’ prayer is still ridiculous. As much as I felt so convinced of this, and as silly as the whole fire tunnel thing seemed, I jumped out of my seat when a fire tunnel was forming during one night of worship. Perhaps I was testing God, or perhaps it was a push from the Spirit, or maybe I just wanted to experientially know that this was nonsense—I have no idea, but I joined the train into the tunnel. A few people shouted five to ten word prophecies over me, and some laid hands longer than others to pray something coherent, but then I reached an old sweaty lady and she quickly laid hands and she prayed that goofy prayer: FIRE! As she shouted, immediately my body started getting warm and I began trembling. My knees grew too weak to remain standing so I jumped out and laid on the floor. A modesty cloth was immediately placed on my exposed navel as I twitched away with a heart swollen with love.
I encountered God through an absurd medium. The woman who was praying for me was dripping makeup on me as she passionately cried out to God a simple prayer. More drops of sweat came off her face than words out of her mouth. Perhaps she was authoritatively imparting grace into my life, or perhaps she was interceding on my behalf, but whatever she did worked. I met God in the sweat, in the shouts, in the absurdity.
There is something profoundly incarnational when God peeks through these silly things. These moments are so intensely human and yet, somehow, divine. I would think that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t waste her time on these bizarre attempts to know and experience her, but maybe she does value the wacky ways we approach her. Maybe all our ways of approaching her are kind of wacky. There’s a lot of pretension and arrogance and hard-heartedness in so many of our prayers and maybe she’s just so excited to have some willingness, some yielding, some raw love, that she can handle a little bit of our ridiculousness.
There is something about such clumsy devotion that reveals the Incarnation so clearly. I’ve had similar experiences in the Society of Friends, as Friends so often give vocal ministry that, to me, reflect this union of Humanity and Divinity in Christ. Now, I’m not talking about that thought-provoking, poetic, and polished message that could make an excellent podcast, but I’m talking about that eccentric, sometimes hard to follow, and most definitely goofy message that you cannot deny is from the heart and even the Spirit of God. You may be listening and growing impatient with what seem to be tangents but find yourself at the end of the message with a heavy silence, finding the Seed in you growing, with a few rising queries that you cannot help but lean into.
I cannot help but think of Mary Magdalene’s odd devotion to Christ in John 12, as she poured expensive ointment on his feet and washed them with her hair. How bizarre, how strange, and even irresponsible. Judas Iscariot called out Mary for her irresponsibility, but Christ affirmed Mary’s devotion. He was thankful, even if it was ridiculous. I’m confident that Jesus revealed the heart of God in his acceptance and delight in the oddness of Mary’s lavished love. I would even say that I’m confident that God accepts and delights in our own goofiness.