On Speaking in Tongues

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I stumbled into speaking in tongues. At the time, it wasn’t what I wanted.

I was sixteen. I’d only been “born again” for about six months, and I knew I could experience God the same way people in the New Testament did. Paul talked about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians – healing, prophecy – and I believed.

I wanted Jesus to fill me with the Holy Spirit, the same way he did for believers in Acts.

I tend to get loud when I pray, and I needed to pray. I didn’t want to freak out my parents, so I decided to pray at a park near my house. At night. I wanted power. Power to do miracles. Power to heal the sick. Power to raise the dead. I’d wait in silence, but eventually, the prayers came out. I cried out to God, even argued with God. And every time, I felt something: warm waves of love crashed into my chest. I physically trembled. I shook.

I kept it up for over a month. Nightly trips to the park, rain or snow. The good feelings kept coming, but I wasn’t experiencing the power I wanted. I wanted more than a feeling. So I decided to chill out on begging God to Spirit-baptize me. Every once in awhile, I’d mention it in my prayers, but disappointment restrained my expectations.

And then I was troubled. I’d stopped actively seeking my own personal Pentecost, and one night, as I prayed, my words were dry, inauthentic. It annoyed me. I remember pacing through the second floor of our house, ticked off at God, and as I stepped into the bathroom, some words fell out of my mouth. But they weren’t in English. I didn’t recognize them.

Was I speaking in tongues?

I was scared. This wasn’t the gift I wanted. It didn’t make sense. But it felt – good. So good!

I ran to my room and prayed in the most pious position I could think of, with my hands folded on the corner of my bed, back straight, knees bent on the floor. I asked God for wisdom in regard to whatever had just occurred. As a precaution, I cast out any pesky demons trying to deceive me, and I asked God, yet again, to fill me with the Spirit. I felt an urge to open my mouth and there they were, those same mysterious words.

They kept coming. And somehow these words that I didn’t understand felt truer than anything else I’d prayed that night. Somehow the barriers I’d been running up against in prayer were gone.

I was skeptical of this new thing. But I was open to God, to whatever God wanted to do, and the result was that God gave me the goofiest and least powerful of the charismatic gifts: the gift of tongues.

The night I first spoke in tongues, I felt those feelings again – the ones that made me quake. The love rushing over me. Like I was cocooned in the Holy Spirit. After I stopped praying, and as I laid in my bed, the warmth and energy remained hovering over me, covering me; and I was at peace. I felt safe. I felt known.

I was humbled, too.

So many times, the Spirit had crept up on me, and I’d dismissed her. The feelings hadn’t seemed valid because they were just feelings. I’d wanted power. Somehow, God knew I needed comfort. That night, I praised God until I fell asleep. I slept well.

Looking back on that night, I recognize that God welcomed me into what N.T. Wright calls a “private language of love.” It felt intimate and holy. The Bible doesn’t say much about what tongues are or how the gift works (let alone what it’s for), but Paul uses the word “edifying.” Some talk about tongues as a way to receive power, like you’re building up Holy Spirit power in order to shoot out miracles. But that’s not what this gift does for me. It helps me tap into the indwelling presence of God. It’s a way of being, of cooperating, of resting with God. Speaking in tongues is about abiding in Christ.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with prayer. Praying has been awkward and unnatural for me the past few months. I don’t know what to say to God. I’m fighting doubt as I pray, and I get overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness. I’ve been repeating the Lord’s Prayer a lot, and I’ve been praying in tongues. Most of the time, I just don’t know what to pray, and words fail to carry what God is stirring within me, so I lean on the Spirit and let her pray for me. In that place, I find rest. The syllables and noises can be clumsy and strange, but as they roll out (or burst out) I feel my spirit breathing, I feel life pouring in.

This act of holy-foolishness grounds me in Christ’s faithfulness, gives me a way to yield and be faithful in the face of my own confusion. The truth is, I still want power. But God knows what I really need.

Some Non-Theological Thoughts on Singing in Tongues

Jean II Restout, 'Pentecost'

Jean II Restout, ‘Pentecost’

Some people wander into charismatic prayer meetings and worship services startled or distressed by the use of tongues for worship and prayer. They hear it sporadically break into the service by various congregants and all their ears catch are repeated syllables, sometimes sounding like some exotic battle chant and other times like gentle whispers of gibberish. Though I affirm the use of tongues for what is commonly known in charismatic circles as the ‘prayer-language’ and am a tongues-speaker myself, I can understand why some would dismiss this practice as nonsensical. It often sounds like foolish babble.

That being said, there is something about the corporate use of tongues in worship that is powerful. I have even heard this being admitted by some who are quite hesitant to believe the charismatic practice of tongues as an authentic charism, at least the one described by Paul to the Corinthians. Their theology may not much have space for speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, but they still come to admit to there being a heart-drilling beauty in the corporate singing in tongues, or ‘singing in the Spirit’.

I have heard stories of those converted to Christ by walking into a meeting where almost every individual made melodies in tongues. Their eyes, foreign to the work of Christ, could see a people swept up by the Spirit as these songs were poured out of them. Without a theology on glossolalia, those clueless souls knew something beyond them was occurring and the love and grace of God would well up in their hearts.

I have been in places where you hear singing in tongues and it can be a pleasant sound to listen to, but very few times have I heard the whole meeting caught up in singing in the Spirit. This phenomenon was quite common during the days of the Charismatic Renewal but sadly this rarely manifests nowadays in both charismatic and Pentecostal meetings. The few times that I have witnessed and took part in such deep worship, I was shaken up in the most delightful way. The praise band calmed down and the drums went completely silent. Only the guitar would be strummed or the keyboard lightly played. Somehow the whole body of believers knew that words from their mind could no longer be used and just about every individual would let their spirit dive in song. Despite every individual coming before the Lord with their own song, there was still somehow unity and oneness in this worship. The Spirit sowed every song together and birthed a new song.

My eyes danced around trying to capture a full picture of what God was doing among his people during one of those rare moments of singing in the Spirit. It was during an ecumenical retreat centered on teaching about our companion, the Holy Spirit. I saw people of all sorts of backgrounds, ethnically and theologically, united in this new song together. I saw Lutherans, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and all sorts of other streams in the Church flow together in worship. I sensed a freedom bouncing off every person as they enjoyed the barriers of language collapsing in their praise of God. My spirit leaped as I saw the curse of Babel is being done away with.

Just as powerful as those moments caught up in song was the moment following it all. The music completely died down and all the voices faded. A thrilling silence consumed God’s people, in awe of what he had just done. Overwhelmed and incredibly satisfied, some teared up while others had stretched out smiles and glowed with gladness. Though this holy moment probably lasted just a few seconds, time became meaningless and it almost felt like being caught up in eternity.

Such experiences have convinced me that tongues is not the fruit of a shallow spirituality nor is it purely birthed out of emotionalism, as many like to mock. I could go on and on about the theology of glossolalia, defending it as a good and perfect gift from above. I have done that enough in my life, though. What it does to God’s people is a testimony in itself. It may seem odd and even foolish but it is beautifully used by the Holy Spirit, and I have not only seen it transform corporate worship but my own prayer life. Because of that, I can only encourage people to pursue and ask God for this grace in their lives.

A Weekend with Some Friends of Jesus

Last weekend I was able to make my way to Barnesville, Ohio, and attend the Friends of Jesus Fellowship‘s Fall Gathering. Friends of Jesus (FOJ) is a network of Quaker ministries and communities, and they are my spiritual family. I spent this summer interning with FOJ: six weeks in Detroit, Michigan, serving the meeting there as well as volunteering at the Drop-In Center of the Ruth Ellis Center, and two weeks visiting the other FOJ communities in both Philadelphia and D.C. Though I had attended a retreat with FOJ prior to this summer, this summer immersed me into this community, and I discovered how much vision I shared with these Friends. When I found out that this gathering was on the list of QVS-sanctioned Quakerly activities, I was surprised, since we are a small bunch, but ecstatic that I would have such a reunion.

Tyler, Lissa, and I at the Fall Gathering

Tyler, Lissa, and I at the Fall Gathering

When thinking of last weekend, the word ‘reorienting’ keeps coming to mind. Between the Spirit-led messages and conversations, the worship and prayer, and reading “Falling Upward” by Richard Rohr, I felt my mind being renewed and I felt something in me shifting. One thing I was able to sense was the Spirit convicting me of certain sins and leading me into repentance that was more than an “I’m sorry” to Jesus. It seemed to be a change of heart and mind, and a change I am seeing manifest more fully in my life. Overall, I felt redirected, refocused, and refreshed from my time at the fall gathering.

Much of the gathering’s messages were centered on ‘discipleship’, a topic I have felt wary of since culturally detaching from Evangelicalism. It was an intimidating topic, but one I know I needed to hear and think about. We even talked a bit about evangelism as a group, which is even more daunting than discipleship, in my opinion. It was refreshing to talk about sharing the gospel beyond scare tactics, especially since this is ‘good news’. Our conversations were both challenging and inspiring.

The last night of the gathering was incredibly powerful, for myself and for the gathered body there. The worship and prayer felt birthed and carried by the Holy Spirit. Micah Bales, eloquently wrote on his blog:

The only way I knew how to describe it afterwards was to say, It felt like the lid was about to come off. The room was literally shaking with the prayers of those present, our bodies and voices trembling under the power of the Spirit.

The room felt thick with the presence of God. It was evident that the Spirit of Christ was ministering to individuals, as the inspiration and power of the Spirit led people to speak and pray in a manner that I had not seen before among Quakers, including FOJ. As somebody who has been in hundreds of charismatic/Pentecostal meetings, services, and conferences, I have many times heard people claim that the Spirit was uniquely and especially present in such places, but too often these claims were backed by hype and emotionalism. This night was unique; it was anointed and without precedent. It was raw and sincere. And as Micah pointed out, it bore the marks of the Holy Spirit.

Though this night was quite emotional, I cannot say that I walked away from that experience with an intense high (or an intense low, as I returned to everyday life). I didn’t get filled with a frantic zeal nor did I feel like I had somehow become a little more spiritually elevated. I came out of that experience with some more peace, hope, and vision. I felt comforted, assured, and reminded of God’s sweet presence in every moment. I am sure much happened that night that I will not understand for quite some time, if ever, but I am confident that whatever was happening, it was good, it was God, and it was needed.

My Struggle with Silence

Photo © Michael Moran/Otto

Photo © Michael Moran/Otto

I am charismatic, in the theological sense of the word, so I think it goes without saying that I like speaking in tongues. Somehow this gives me peace and directs my thoughts to God and often I receive revelations as I go off in this mysterious language. Tongues is very much a part of my devotions as well as my daily life. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences the past year were when I worked at a grocery store and I would mutter in tongues under my breath while putting the produce out.

There are times, though, where I need to not speak in tongues and embrace silence. Silence can be a bit more challenging.

As soon as I start praying in tongues, I find myself feeling lighter and more ‘spiritual’. Yet silence confronts me in my humanity; to reach out for God in this state is difficult. I have all sorts of thoughts flooding in, often completely random—like scenes from horror movies I watched 5-10 years ago or I start thinking about my friend Tori’s dog, Stella. Perhaps that is why this is a discipline I so desperately need. Thank God I’m a Quaker.

I think from time to time I may use tongues to fill up my spirituality quota for the day, and though I may receive revelations from God as I speak in tongues, it may also be my way of drowning out the voice of God. I am sure it edifies my spirit but the truth is my escapist tendencies creep their way it into my life with the Spirit. I am a bit scared that I may pray in known and unknown languages so often in order to avoid silence.

In silence, I direct myself to God and intentionally wait on him, seeking dialogue and guidance. In silence, I put down my ambitions and say, “you do you, God”, and I slowly receive things to intercede about or things to reflect on or verses to dwell on or words to hold on to. Or I just find stillness and peace; a presence that centers me.

In silence, I get frustrated, bored, and annoyed—but also, I grow in patience, finding greater glory in the small things, sensing and experiencing Christ’s presence even more fully. I can really hate this silence thing, but, my God, it is a gift.

Held in the Light

J. Doyle Penrose's "Presence in the Midst"

J. Doyle Penrose’s “Presence in the Midst”

Something I have come to really appreciate that I have experienced during Quaker meeting is ‘holding someone in the Light’. Towards the end of some meetings, especially among the non-Evangelical variety, there is some time left for those in the meeting to name people that need to be held in the Light (and they often give reasons for why this is needed), and a moment of silence is given to do just that.

Now I cannot tell you what everybody is doing during that silence or how intercessory this practice is for those sharing this moment (especially in a meeting that may have nontheists), but I have heard a few people describe it as a practice of petitioning God by imagining those named consumed by Light.

A powerful aspect of this form of prayer is that you do not get into specifics and you are not trying to push a certain outcome out of God. All you are doing is trusting the Light with the one you love, hoping and believing that Love will have her way. In this way, it reminds me of a lot of the charismatic/Pentecostal practice of praying in tongues, or glossolalia. Those who pray in tongues often speak of not knowing what to say in prayer or having something in their spirit that needs to be spoken, though they are unable to cognitively understand what exactly that may be, so they submit their mouth to the Holy Spirit and allow her to speak forth what needs to be spoken in an unknown tongue.

The major difference is that one of these practices is almost completely imaginative and is a very focused, internal experience, whereas tongues-speaking is vocal and can even lead to a physical experience of the Spirit. That does not mean glossolalia is not at all an enriching experience for one’s interior life, for many who practice this ‘gift of the Spirit’ often incorporate visualization and actually make their devotional tongues a form of contemplative prayer.

As somebody who is charismatically-inclined, I do believe in the value of vocal prayer, both in one’s native tongue and in unknown spiritual languages. Though language is often limiting, it is important, especially if you believe your spiritual life is primarily built upon a relationship with God. Having said that, I admit that holding people in the Light has become a huge part of my own prayer life and has liberated many of my prayers from being fueled by anxiety and fear and taught me to trust even deeper.

Throughout the day I come before God holding people in the Light, placing them in God’s hands, believing that Love will have her way. I even hold myself in the Light throughout the day, receiving the free gift of God’s presence wherever I am, believing that I am embraced and cared for constantly and unconditionally. It’s centering; it helps me see life through the lens of the God who is love, it postures my heart to love more fully, and sanctifies my imagination. I don’t know if I am ‘holding people in the Light’ the right way–afterall, I am an amateur Quaker–but I know I benefit from it greatly and it’s another reason I am thankful for these 11-months of Quaker immersion.