People of Presence

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

I was alone in my bedroom the night I decided to follow Jesus. I was sixteen years old, and I was done with religion. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Jesus.

I’d grown up in the Unification Church, and Jesus was barely a part of the cosmic narrative there. Actually, what I knew about Jesus was that – among our very ecumenical pantheon of sages and saints – he was a failure. But there was something about Jesus. His grace. His forgiveness. His sacrifice. Something about Jesus that spoke to my  condition. He was absurd. And beautiful.

Jesus had shaken my faith before that night. In my sophomore year of high school, I attended a Mormon ward for six months, hoping that I might meet Jesus there. But I never received the promised “burning ofthe bosom,” so I gave up.

Later, as I tried to detox from religion and keep my distance from anything “spiritual,” my desire to know Christ kept coming back. I didn’t want to be a Christian. I didn’t want to have to listen to shitty Christian rock music or vote Republican or reject evolution. And more than anything, I didn’t want to be seen as a nutty born-again. But I wanted Jesus.

I needed Jesus.

I paced the floor of my bedroom that night, and I thought about what coming to Jesus might mean. I knew I didn’t get all the implications. I knew it wouldn’t help my relationship with my parents. I suspected the Holy Spirit would push me to do hard things. I was scared. But Jesus seemed worth it.

And then I was on my knees. I didn’t know what to say. I just needed to talk. And as I talked, I felt God’s ear inclined to me, listening, hearing me. I’d been praying my whole life. But this was the first time I’d ever felt as if God heard me. As if God cared.

It was a kind of presence that I now think of as the Spirit. I felt loved, known, adored. I felt hope. Like I could do anything. Like Love herself was in me. I met Jesus that night.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think this kind of encounter is supposed to be rare. I think this is what church was intended to be. The gathering of Christians is more than space for moral encouragement or corporate mindfulness or even religious education. If it’s not first a space where real people come in contact with power, with wisdom, with Love herself, then we fail to be the Body of Christ, and the world stays the same.

God grants us rest, fullness of joy, power – always surrounds us, always with us, present within us. So why don’t we notice? Where is our power? Why is it so hard to believe? Corporate worship should nurture our ability to rest into this presence, to yield together to Love. Wherever hearts are open and pursuing the light of God’s love, whenever we come together.

I’ve experienced such spaces of worship. Places where the presence of God released fresh air of faith, hope, love. We breathed it in. God’s hand was upon us, molding our desire for justice and mercy. There was also honesty – authenticity – that I rarely encounter in any other place. People spoke about their addictions, their shame, their fear, and there was no judgment. We looked into one another’s eyes. There was understanding. There was love.

In college, I used to run a prayer meeting in my dorm room. I was a lot bolder back then, and I’d invite people off the street to come. There was a 30-something single mom who I kept bumping into, at parties, at stores and once at a Christian Reformed church. I invited her to my prayer meeting. One time, she broke down weeping, opening up about her fears and shames, and she begged us for prayer. None of us had seen someone so desperate for prayer, and honestly, several folks were deeply uncomfortable. This was not normal behavior. But it was good, beautiful, and needed. As we prayed and prophesied over her, there was peace, and we couldn’t deny that her honesty, her vulnerability, was a catalyst for the Spirit moving among us.

We learn from the early Church that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit changes everything. This encounter with the living God transformed the 
first Christian community and resulted in the working of miracles, shared meals, communal prayer, radical hospitality. I’m convinced that our inheritance as children of God is so much deeper than sweet sentiments and moral support. We need the very presence and life of God.

This Spirit-led discipleship is what I hoped to find among Friends, but to be honest, I don’t see much of it here. Sometimes I wonder if modern Quaker culture leaves much room for the Holy Spirit, in her sloppiness, in her risk-taking, in her boldness, in her power, in her love. To be fair, this isn’t just a Quaker problem. It’s everywhere in the American church.

We need something new. We need each other. We need to be a people who, though done with religion, just can’t stop thinking about Jesus.

I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

—St. Paul

Political Protest is Spiritual Warfare

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Philadelphia City Hall

When I was a freshman in college, my friends and I were discovering charismatic spirituality together. We often had long prayer sessions, and we always expected to experience and hear God. It was messy, naive, often fueled by fear, but God was somehow in it as we experimented with this bizarre mysticism that was so confident in Christ’s Spirit being within us. Some of us walked through our campus often, quietly praying in tongues, rebuking the spirits among us causing fear, spiritual drought, depression, etc., and declaring a better way for the Church and for the school. We called this spiritual warfare.

I still believe in the power of spiritual warfare, even if much of our demon-hunting was a bit silly. I’d like to think that Holy Spirit interpreted our prayers the way they needed to be interpreted, and maybe we did push the devil out of our campus a bit. Hopefully. But still, before Friends of Jesus retreats, I often try to spend time in intercession, praying for the outpouring of the Spirit and protection from the enemy, who loves to stir up quarreling among believers and quench the Holy Ghost. I’m still a firm believer that Christ handed an authority to the Church to be declare, prophesy, and shake things on this earth, and in the spirit realm, to realize the reign of God among and within us.

So I still command demons to shut up and back off. I still pray in tongues when I sense something off, which sometimes is a valid spiritual concern, and other times just my social anxiety acting up. That being said, I very much believe these things are helpful, real, and good. I’ve seen God heal dozens of sick people when hands were laid upon them, and the word of God was declared over them: “be healed.” I’ve felt the power of deliverance, having the weight of shame torn off my spirit instantaneously through a prophetic word. I’ve felt shifts in the atmosphere during worship, and then I’d notice somebody quietly praying in tongues, or interceding, and I’d feel that they probably were helping cleanse the environment for God’s presence to be realized.

I think these things are real.

And as we go in the streets to protest, to demonstrate, we are engaging with the enemy: oppressive, abusive, and corrupt systems. We wage war against the spirit of racism as we declare that Black Lives Matter, and as we point out the sins of our country, the sins of our people, and reveal a better way. One of compassion, one of hope, one of generosity, one of love. Even if we are marching with those who do not identify as followers of Christ, they are carrying a mantle and anointing as well to crush the work of the enemy and extend the reality of God’s love.

All that to say: To protest is to rebuke. To protest is to war against the devil. To protest is to prophesy. And as dangerous forms of religious and political fundamentalism continue to grow in all directions, and as the Empire continues to slaughter innocent people all over the world, we need to be loudly warring against these spirits that are strangling the Church and the world, and we need to preach the Good News. We need to be the Good News.

The Church in America, in this mind-boggling and disheartening political climate, needs to speak. We need to call out the systemic sins of the world, including religious institutions, and live and preach a way forward. Your tongue has the power of life and death (Prov. 18:21), and when you choose not to speak out for Life, you are often giving power to death. So speak. Loudly. For the oppressed, for the forgotten, for the lost, for the hurting, and for all God’s children. And in doing this, you bind the enemy and you confess Christ.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” —Ephesians 6:12

 

The Foolishness That Saved My Life

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“Ascention” by Edward Vardanian

I think the closest I have ever felt to God was laying on the bathroom floor in a psychiatric hospital with my shirt soaked in urine and knowing that my life was a mess and finally becoming okay with that.

It was 5 AM or so, I think, and I woke up to a nurse rapidly spewing indecipherable words, and I nodded and nodded and nodded to keep her from talking too much, and she pulled a needle out of her cart and poked me and then left.

As she left, I decided to pee. I got up and felt a bit dizzy but I thought nothing of it until I strained a bit to push out my pee. And as I strained, everything became black and I fell on to the floor, pissing all over the bathroom and myself.

I laid there and I felt no reason to get back up. I just did not have the energy and I took it as an opportunity to figure out how the hell I got into this hospital.

I mean, I knew how I got there—it was after weeks of not eating, not showering, not going to class, ignoring phone calls, and pretending to get better so people would not worry. I became a skinny grease-magnet with little joy or hope. And I was planning out how to kill myself, and had been for awhile, and I finally admitted it to another soul. I was told the responsible decision would be to admit myself to this hospital. Did I really care about being responsible? I don’t think so. But as I confided in my friend and admitted my doubts and hopelessness, he consoled me by saying, “Even if you lack faith, even if you lack hope, I believe God’s promises for you. Don’t worry, I’ll have hope for you.” The way he leaned upon God in that moment relieved me of the pressure to believe, and somehow helped me lean upon God, too. I trusted him, and because of that, I mustered up some trust in God.

So I was sent off to the hospital.

As soon as I filled out all the paperwork, I entered the hospital and was bombarded by fresh fruit, granola, and people who were openly discussing what they were diagnosed and their medications. The guy who led me to my room made me take out the laces from my boat shoes. He was kind. He felt bad that he had to examine me nude. I didn’t really care. Turns out he was Pentecostal, and we bonded over the love of Christ and the power of the Spirit. He encouraged me and then took my laces and other dangerous items I could possibly attempt suicide with.

As I laid down in my puddle of urine and thought about it all, it all seemed ridiculous. My life seemed ridiculous. And I was okay with that. I was at peace with where I was at. The anxieties and fears I clung on to for so long did not disappear but they at least seemed far away enough so that I could finally think clearly.

And I wanted to talk to God—catch up a bit. I had a hard time being real with him for awhile and I felt like there was so much to say. I compartmentalized a lot and tried to keep secrets from God for so long. As my mind found some peace, I began to realize I was hungry for God. In fact, I was starving… but before I could even think of anything to say to him, I knew the Holy Ghost was there. And it was not that She just entered the room at that moment. Really, She never seemed to have left. I was unable to see God’s hand and presence in my life because I was blinded by my illness. But as my medication kicked in, and as I finally put food in my system, I could see the Light in my darkness.

It was there on the floor, as I soaked in my own pee, that I encountered the Father whose palm I could not be plucked out of. This was the Love, the One, I could never be separated from. And perhaps it was absurd that I could affirm the notion that God was good, that God was Love, and that God was close, after experiencing the closest thing I’ve known to hell, but I’ve come to see that most routes in life are quite foolish. Holding on to hope, believing in creative possibility, and reaching for wholeness and reconciliation, are often counted as futile and naive. Yet Jesus reveals that such foolishness is wisdom, and I’m convinced it is the only way forward. It was certainly my only way forward.

“And these signs will accompany those who believe.”

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15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons;they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” 19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.
Mark 15:15-20

As a charismatic believer, I have often seen these verses used to defend the belief that tongues is for all believers and that healing is the desire of God. These verses, though, are not in the earliest of manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) and most bibles make note this fact. For a long time, I did not believe these verses could be used at all to defend this view and even railed against those who used in this in their own apologetics on the charismatic gifts. Though I still agree (admittedly, with some hesitance) with most scholars that these verses were not likely penned by Mark, I still value these verses and recognize that they could hold some significance for Christians today. There is the possibility that they may have ended up in the manuscripts because of either oral tradition or the notes of a scribe. Nevertheless, the fact that they exist means something. I think the Church needs to open to the possibility that their existence indicates that a supernatural culture, one full of the miraculous and providential work of the Spirit, was the norm of the early church.

Post-Constantine Christianity (note: perhaps a problematic term, but a historical shift is undeniable, and Constantine was definitely helpful in that) may have ushered in a spiritual drought as Christianity lost its counter-cultural, subversive nature. The Church became a pillar of the Empire, and though the good news of Jesus continued to nurture and instruct thousands of souls in the ways of righteousness, the political implications of this good news was much-rejected, and the spiritual power of the Church seemed to have been drained as a result. It did not help that the Galatian heresy of mixing Christ’s grace with the Law seemed to also consume the formal doctrine of the Church, and that the role of prophets and prophecy (which continued into the early church, as evidenced by the Didache) vanished as Ignatius instructed the Church to “do nothing without the bishops,” pushing the gift of prophecy to lose its egalitarian nature as it became a gift for bishops alone. (Read “The Decline of Ecstatic Prophecy in the Early Church” by James L. Ash, Jr. for more on this.)

Augustine developed a form of cessationism during this time, arguably because of the lack of charismatic activity in the Church. This experience was quite common throughout the Church of the time. Before this period, the approach to the miraculous was much more earnest and frequent among Christians. In the second century, both Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyon spoke of the charismatic gifts, discussing prophetic ministry, exorcisms, and even the raising of the dead. The practice of jubilation, which seems to be practice of singing in tongues, was even a part of the liturgy, and continued even into the ninth century. By the end of Augustine’s life, he had changed his view as he witnessed a revival of healing, but his cessationism continues to influence many Christians.

All this to say that these extra verses in Mark seem to reflect the early church’s practice of the miraculous.

  1. In my name they will drive out demons (a practice described by Ireneaus of Lyon, Origen of Alexandria, Lactantius, Tertullian, among church fathers and early Christians)
  2. …they will speak in new tongues (note: not other tongues but new tongues, which could likely include the practice of “jubilation” as described by Augustine and the mystics)
  3.  …they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all  (not a practice to reproduce, as some fundamentalists do, but a promise of protection; Paul experiences this in Acts 28:3 when bit by a snake)
  4. …they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well (reveals the authority to heal among believers and is talked about by a number of early Christians, including by Augustine in the City of God)

If this Spirit-driven culture of the Church was the norm for early Christians, and they regularly exercised the charismatic gifts and miracles, then I cannot see why it shouldn’t be the norm for the believer and Church today. Throughout Church history, we have seen this apostolic and prophetic power restored and tapped into time after time, among several Anabaptist and Huguenot groups, throughout Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement, as well as the Quakers, especially the first generation of Friends, who regularly saw such manifestations occur.

As Christendom as we know it crumbles before our eyes, the heresies of legalism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, leader-centered/hierarchical models of worship, violence, imperalism, and all our limiting theologies on the work of Christ and the Spirit, are losing their hold on God’s people. I pray that as we move forward in the revelation of Christ, in the pursuit of God’s Kingdom, we would seek the Spirit’s anointing and grow in an imaginative, dynamic faith that welcomes the impossible.

Speaking to my Quaker sisters and brothers, we must not forget that the first generation of Friends were yielded disciples of Jesus Christ. They were truly Pentecostal; united in the experience and life found in the Spirit of Christ. Their actions were often subversive to both the Church and State, and their ministries and fellowship were marked by the life-changing power of the Spirit. They saw miracles daily, just like the Church after Pentecost, and they boldly lived out the political implications of the gospel. All of this was the result of following and submitting to the lead of the Holy Spirit. We have a glorious inheritance in our spiritual lineage, and I am confident that as we discover and yield to the Spirit that sparked our movement, we can walk in the power of early Friends and the apostles, and see the greater things that Christ promised to us (John 14:12).

 

What the Wise Men Can Teach Us About God

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Journey of the Magi; Inquiry of King Herod (Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;  and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’

 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way.

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” Matthew 2:1-12

I’ve been thinking a lot about these Wise Men, often called the Magi or the Three Kings. Over the past 2,000 years, plenty of theories and legends about these men have circulated throughout the Church. In the Western Church, there is a legend that their names were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, and that they were respected scholars. It’s been long-claimed that Melchior was Persian, Caspar was Indian, and Balthazar was Babylonian. Syrian Christians claim the names of the Magi to be Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. Ethiopian tradition calls them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater. Armenians believe their names to be Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Meanwhile, Matthew never tells us their names, the number of these wise men, or their actual vocations. There is just about no indication that they are kings, though the Greek word magi (μάγοι) apparently may indicate that they were of a higher, priestly caste.

So what do we know about these men?

Not much. They were from the East. We don’t know if that means they were Persian, Babylonian, Indian, or something else completely. We don’t even know what religion they were. Many, such as the Swedish religious scholar Anders Hultgård, convincingly argue that these Wise Men were in fact Persian Zoroastrians, but again, that is never mentioned in the text. What seems evident enough is that they were not Jewish. They had to ask Jewish people about the scriptural prophecies on the messiah’s birth. They called this man, this baby, the “King of the Jews.” They even followed a star to find Jesus, which sounds awfully astrological to me.

And yet, these non-Jews, perhaps Zoroastrian, perhaps amateur or even seasoned astrologists, looked for Christ, found him, and worshiped him. They never converted to Judaism, they never articulated that this child was God or even Savior, but they knew they had to honor him. And today we venerate these men, often as saints, despite the fact that they never knew about the atoning sacrifice of Christ and never claimed to worship the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Not that we know of, at least.) And yet God led them to this baby, not to be evangelized to, and not to convince them of some doctrine or perform some saving ritual, but so that they may honor him and, I think, experience his presence.

It seems to me that these men knew God. Matthew tells us that God even spoke to them in a prophetic dream as they left Christ, warning them to not to return to the blood-thirsty Herod. God was pretty serious about talking to these men. Even though their religious practices and beliefs would not be considered orthodox by the Jews of their day or even modern Christians, God was with them, for them, and used them. It seems that God even used their own religious system, which in many ways was incompatible with Judaism, to do this.

This is shocking. And I think it’s part of the gospel.

In fact, it makes a lot of sense that God’s arrival on Earth in Christ would be kicked off with an invitation to these men. It seems to me that this was a glimpse into the heart of God. Paul reveals in 1 Timothy 4:10 that our God “is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” This Savior is the Savior of all people. This good news is good news for all people. I even think this extends to those who do not identify as Christian or even as a Theist.

In Acts 17:16-34, Paul preaches in Athens among philosophers and worshipers of various gods, and appears to commend them for their religiosity as something fascinating and respectable. He boldly claims that their altar and worship to an “unknown god” is truly the “God who made the world and everything in it.” The God proclaimed by Paul “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” He goes on to say that God “is not actually far from each of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.”

Jesus was prophesied to be Emanuel (Matt. 1:23)or God with us. The new covenant of Christ, revealed through his incarnation, his ministry, his death and resurrection, and even through Pentecost, make it clear that God is with usall of humanity, all of creation. It was the Church, the followers of Christ, who knew very early on that the Spirit was truly poured out on all people (Acts 2:17).

There is an inextinguishable hope for all people in Christ. 

I am confident that it is through Jesus that we can most perfectly know God and most fully inherit the abundant life he offered (Matt. 11:27, John 1:18, 6:37, 14:9, 2 Cor. 5:19, Col. 3:3). That being said, my pursuit of Quakerism has given me the courage to state something I’ve long known but also been hesitant to say out loud: there truly is that of God in everyone.

I have several friends who have left behind Christianity because of the toxic culture in the Church and their inability to have faith in the Christian God, and often any god. Some of them have turned to Buddhism, others dabble in self-help and New Age books and practices, while others have given up an active pursuit of spirituality. Most of these folks have come out of their de-conversion more fully themselves and I would even say more Christ-like. No longer are they hindered in their ability to love and accept others because of their church’s dogma, no longer are they trapped in a culture of condemnation and a phobia of anything academic, and they have found the freedom to ask hard questions and be true to themselves. I think I can see Jesus in that. I would dare to say it is a move of the Spirit.

After all, the life of Jesus illustrates that God will do anything to redeem all people, even if it requires meeting us where we are at and entering into our mess. If you can believe God is in the mess we call Evangelical Christianity—which so often looks like a rigid moralism rather than a spiritual path and which so often contradicts the message of Christ by advocating for violence, nationalism, and capitalism—then it can’t be too hard to accept that God is even working among those who do not know or believe in Jesus Christ.

It is because I believe in the Lordship of Jesus, the incarnation, and the atonement that I can declare that God is in and with all people.

Not only can I declare it, but I can see it and experience it.

Jesus opened my eyes to his sweet presence everywhere. For so long I was numb to that presence, that air of reverence, that breath of God, outside of the ministry of Christians-that-I-mostly-agreed-with. But the longer I’ve been walking with Jesus, I’ve come to discover how wicked that “us vs. them” version of the gospel was and I came to discover God’s presence outside of worship services and Christocentric settings. I came to know the presence of God as I watched my agnostic brother-in-law holding my nephew, as I delighted in the Hare Krishna devotees chanting on the street, and in long late-night conversations with elderly Moonies. I came to know that God was truly with us; all of us.

Happy Anniversary, Jesus!

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I had this odd connection to Jesus for awhile before I “became a Christian” (whatever that really means, since I very much feel like I’m still becoming one). I remember reading the Bible for the first time in middle school and being shocked by the authority of Christ. He was Lord and it even seemed to me that he was God. Not only that, but with his authority and glory, he chose to expose the cycle of violence, the corrupt religious systems, the empire, and reveal a greater way, through absolute weakness and in complete love. This picture of God, so fully surrendered for the sake of the cosmos, was confrontational.

The ideas of God I was offered seemed inadequate when compared to God in Christ. The way Jesus lived and even the way Jesus died (and rose), revealed God’s desire to completely restore all people. The truth is I didn’t see that in Unificationism. The God of Unificationism may have a broken heart for his fallen creation, but he also held grudges. Forgiveness was earned through man’s suffering and complete restoration was just about impossible.

For a few years I didn’t know what to do with these growing notions about Jesus. I battled them with the Divine Principle’s chapter on Christology and told myself that the divinity of Christ and the Trinity was fundamentalist nonsense. I openly mocked these ideas among Unificationists, but something in me knew there was more to Jesus than what we were told.

Jesus was talked about from time to time, mostly positively, but we were also told he was a failed messiah and that the average Unificationist was spiritually greater than him. To some who grew up in dogmatic Christian traditions, these ideas may have come across as progressive and even liberating, but to me, I often felt revolted by these claims.

My process of leaving the Unification Church had little to do with Jesus, though. I don’t doubt that he was involved in it but I initially began leaving because I realized that the Unification Church was a manipulative and abusive cult. I accepted that Moon failed to meet the Divine Principle’s criteria of a messiah and that he was behind many of the abusive practices of the church. These revelations were the result of reading Nan Sook Hong’s book In the Shadow of the Moons, which left me deeply disturbed and unable to be associated with the Unification Church in good conscience.

I will say, though, that as I was leaving, those feelings about Jesus kept bubbling up. I again, even more aggressively, tried to shut up that voice in me that kept saying “Jesus is Lord” by reading my brother’s copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great and listening hours and hours of anti-theist and “historical Jesus” rhetoric on YouTube. I was done with fundamentalism, I was done with being foolish, I was done with being deceived, and I was done with being used. I didn’t want to jump into another religion, especially with those ignorant, close-minded folks who liked Jesus, too. I knew about creationism and Ken Ham, I knew about speaking in tongues, I knew about youth group games, I knew about Jack Chick tracts, I knew about Christian rock, and I wanted nothing to do with it all.

But as conflicted as I was, in the deepest place in my heart, I wanted Jesus. I wanted that way of peace, I wanted that simplicity, I wanted that unconditional love, and I wanted to know him. I wanted to know the Cosmic Scapegoat, the Lamb who was slain, the God who became man.

One night in my bedroom, in the dark, I paced in anxiety, and even in anger, haunted by this infestation of faith in Christ. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to have anything to do with those wacky Evangelicals, or any religion, for it all had the potential to become something as poisonous as the group I was leaving. I often repeat this Richard Rohr quote, which is frequently applicable and makes sense out of this situation: Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable. 

For some reason, that night, I knew I had to give my life to Jesus. I hated how much I knew the inevitability of this, but also something in me couldn’t wait any longer. I felt the weight of this conviction come upon me suddenly. I fell to my knees and repented, cried out, and called upon Jesus to be my Lord. And I felt free.

Before I realized that I was in a cult, I prayed every day of my life without fail. And yet, it was that night when I prayed to Jesus that I finally felt heard. I felt known by the God of the universe. I don’t say that to deny the experience of those with different spiritual perspectives, because I am confident that God has a relationship with every individual, but I am also confident that I met God that night in prayer, and it was through Christ.

It’s been six years since that night. I cannot say I have always been the most faithful disciple or that I’ve even consistently walked in the Light. In fact, I often deal with shame for the number of mistakes I’ve made despite knowing Jesus. It’s been a hard, sloppy six years and honestly, I haven’t made it easy on God. Very early on, I figured out that one reason why the Holy Spirit is called the comforter is because her peace and consoling were much-needed after her sometimes brutal confrontations. I’ve cleverly found ways to drown out her voice and avoid the Light shining on my sin, but she always finds a way to deal with my stubborn self. Because of that I will never stop testifying to the way God always draws me back into the richness of Christ’s abundant life. I’ve discovered power in weakness, undiscriminating and unceasing love, and a hope and peace that somehow remains when my world is falling apart. God is faithful.

All this to say, thank you, Jesus. And happy anniversary.

Quakerism as a Charismatic Tradition: The Baptism of Love

In my second post of my series “Quakerism as a Charismatic Tradition” (the first being found here), I wanted to explore the Quaker view of baptism and its connections to charismatic spirituality.

Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church

Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church

“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

—Paul, Ephesians 3:18-19

One of the doctrinal distinctives of early Quakerism was the belief that the baptism Christians should receive is Christ’s baptism of the Spirit rather than John’s baptism of water. Robert Barclay, early Quaker apologist and theologian, summed up the Quaker view of baptism with 1 Peter 3:21: “baptism, which [the water] prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Accordingly, John’s water baptism is seen as a ritual that points to a higher and greater baptism, that being Christ’s, which offers “a good conscience, through the resurrection of Christ.” In this baptism, we can experience the grace of Christ.

Charismatic movements throughout Church history have nuanced baptism differently, almost always stressing the importance of water-baptism and often defining the water-baptism as a charismatic experience in itself. That said, a baptism of the Spirit has been vital to such movements, especially in its more modern forms. The charismatic view of this baptism is more so an awakening or activating experience, that stirs up the gift of God within and enables a believer to walk in the power of Christ’s ministry.

Quakerism, on the other hand, has never practiced water-baptism. From the beginning, baptism was seen as an inward work of God rather than an outward rite. The water-baptism was seen as empty ritualism that gave a false sense of spiritual security to those in the corrupt established churches. James Nayler wrote in response to the accusations coming from the established churches, “The saints’ baptism was by one Spirit into one body… but thine is without in carnal water.”

Though Friends do not practice water-baptism, the Friends view of baptism has several dimensions to it, some of which are shared with Charismatics.

Friends on Baptism

Image Credit: Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections

Image Credit: Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections

Isaac Penington wrote of a baptism received upon coming to faith in Jesus, which is the aspect of Spirit-baptism that Evangelicals most deeply explore. He wrote, “The promise of receiving the Spirit is upon believing, and it extendeth to every one that believeth. ‘He that believeth on me,’ as the scripture hath said, ‘out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water;’ but this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive…but every one received so much of the Spirit as to make him a son, and to cry Abba, Father, and to wash him.”

This initial baptism of the Spirit draws Christians into discipleship, but Friends stress that in no way does the experience of the Spirit end there. Both Paul and Peter were recorded to have received multiple fillings of the Spirit, indicating that experiencing the baptism or filling of the Spirit can continually occur. Paul even encouraged believers to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), revealing that believers should continually experience the Spirit’s filling and that one receives the filling in cooperation with, or in yielding to, God.

This baptism is written to be one of “Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11), which is later revealed by the 120 disciples on Pentecost to be a baptism of power. Early Friends testified to the power of their conversion, often counting it as a mystical and at times ecstatic experience that brought them into discipleship under Christ. The baptism of the Spirit grants “power from on high” (Luke 24:49) so disciples may manifest the Kingdom. Not only was this an empowering experience for early Quakers, but also often seen as a crucifixion of false desires and sin. Many spoke of a “baptism of death” and an “inward cross”, revealing the refining, and sometimes painful, aspect of this baptism. Only through this baptism of death can one experience the power of resurrection.

George Fox wrote that this “baptism… plunges down sin and corruption, which hath gotten up by disobedience and transgression.” In other words, this baptism was seen as sanctifying, cleansing people of their crooked ways. Ann Branson, a Quaker minister, was in agreement with Fox, writing in 1833, “We must experience the refining, cleansing operation of his baptism–the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, purging the temple of our hearts from all that his righteous controversy is with, before He will deign to own us before his Father and the holy angels.”

Friends often seemed to see this cleansing from the Spirit as experienced through suffering. Suffering was often embraced as the providential work of God in a believer’s life. Isaac Penington wrote, “The power and Spirit of the Lord, which cleanseth away all this rubbish, will make his truth shine, his church shine, his suffering lambs, that come out of the great tribulation, shine more than ever before.”

19th century Friend Job Scott wrote the following in his journal, revealing the sanctifying suffering seen as baptism:

“Though Jesus has once passed through it all, and trod the wine press alone, he has not thereby exempted us from the like baptisms. On the contrary, he queried with those who seemed desirous to sit with him in his kingdom, ‘Are ye able to drink of the cup that I drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ These are the terms still. It is true, remission of sins that are past, is only through his blood; but as to actual sanctification, it is they only who suffer with him that can reign with him.”

Joseph Gurney may be a controversial Friend, but his words on baptism give a very full definition to the Spirit-baptism.

In his sermon in 1838 at Arch Street Meetinghouse, he describes being baptized in the Spirit as “trembl[ing] under an awful feeling of the power and the holiness of Jehovah.” He went on to explain the sobering and convicting experience found in the baptism, calling it a “living sense of his holiness… an awful remembrance of the doctrine, that God is light, and that in him there is no darkness at all” and that through this baptism “we begin to see our own alienation from him, while we are dead in trespasses and sin; then do we begin to perceive the sinfulness of sin; then are we brought to a trembling sense of the malignity of this worst of all evils.”

In that same sermon, he explained that this baptism of holiness was also one of love:

“And yet, friends, there is a being baptized into a sense, not only of the holiness, but of the love of God. O yes, we may well be melted into tenderness, when we offend the immutable Jehovah, the God of holiness, who condescends to plead with his transgressing children, as a father pleads with his dear son or daughter!”

Early Pentecostals on Spirit-Baptism

Much of how Gurney describes this baptism lines up with historical Pentecostal theology.

In 1833 at Bishopsgate Street Meetinghouse, Gurney spoke of the empowering nature of this baptism of love, as he explained that the apostles “were baptized of the great Baptizer… with the Holy Ghost and with fire; their hearts were indeed warm with the Saviour’s love, they knew the pure flame of his love to burn up the chaff within them, and were constrained by the strongest of motives to turn their backs on a world lying in wickedness, and to take up their cross and follow Jesus.”

Frank Bartleman, an early Pentecostal leader, wrote in his account of Azusa Street that the Spirit manifested most clearly in this revival through love.

“Divine love was wonderfully manifest in the meetings. They would not even allow an unkind word said against their opposers or the churches.  The message was ‘the love of God.’ It was a sort of ‘first love’ of the early church returned. The ‘baptism,’ as we received it in the beginning, did not allow us to think, speak or hear evil of any man. The Spirit was very sensitive, tender as a dove.

According to Gurney and early Pentecostals like Bartleman, the love of God imparted through the baptism fueled the work of the Church.

Modern Pentecostal theologian Frank D. Macchia wrote in his book “Baptized in the Spirit: A Global Pentecostal Theology“:

“The Spirit who mediated the love between the Father and the Son is now poured out so as to draw humanity into the koinonia of God and to gift and empower the church to participate in the mission of God in the world.”

Like Agnes Ozman, Pandita Ramabai, William Seymour, and other early Pentecostals, Macchia believes the “Spirit baptism is a baptism into divine love” and the greatest evidence of this baptism being unselfish love. Though many early Pentecostals believed that tongues was the initial evidence of the baptism, there was a consensus that love was the primary and greatest result of this baptism.

Macchia argues that “if Spirit baptism is ever to reconnect to sanctification and the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, it will do so with the help of Spirit baptism conceived as a participation in the love of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This Pentecostal vision of Spirit-baptism includes growing in holiness, being supernaturally empowered, but at the heart of it is love.

Testimonies of receiving the Spirit of Love in the Spirit-baptism was and is common in modern charismatic movements. J. Rodman Williams shares the account of Lutheran Renewal pastor Erwin Prange in “Renewal Theology“:

“How could a man think he was passing out the bread of life every Sunday and still remain so utterly hungry himself? I was empty, and I knew it. This was the end of the line.” So writes Prange about his situation as a Lutheran pastor in his first parish. Then “all at once a voice seemed to come from nowhere and everything… The gift is already yours. Reach out and take it.” As Prange then stretched out his hands toward the altar, palms up, jaws tightening, and mouth open, “in an instant, there was a sudden shift of dimensions, and God became real. A spirit of pure love pervaded the church and drenched me like rain. He was beating in my heart, flowing through my blood, breathing in my lungs, and thinking in my brain. Every cell in my body, every nerve end, tingled with the fire of His presence.

This seems similar to the accounts of some Friends, like Job Scott, who wrote in his journal of a baptism that was experienced as overwhelming love.

“Ninth month, 1st, the Lord, the God of my life, was graciously pleased to fill my soul with the overflowing of Divine love, and inshinings of Divine light, which continued with me until late in the night, and wherein I have been much instructed. And, O Lord, my God! I humbly crave of thee to enable me, rightly to settle, or to have and know through thy help rightly settled in my mind, every rule, limit, and regulation of life; and that thou wouldest steadily hold my hand, and guide my feet in ways that will please thee, until every such rule and limitation, receive the sanction in my heart of a divine law, that is not to be broken against forever; yea, until a confirmed and habitual observance of them, shall have conformed my whole life thereunto; and therein to thy Divine will, and heavenly image. Amen!”

This recorded “divine visitation” of Scott reveals the variety of baptisms experiences among Friends. Not every baptism was one of suffering and tribulation, but some were pure ecstasies. That is not to say that such experiences were normative. What ties all these baptisms together was the love of God. As Paul put it, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) To know the Cross of Christ or to experience the perfecting work of the inward Teacher through baptism is to know and experience the love of God. Even if baptisms may be refining in the most painful sense, Hebrews 12:6 explains that this too is out of love, “because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Though traditional Quaker theology tends to see the Spirit-baptism in terms of the progressive saving work of the Spirit, there remains a charismatic element to this baptism, as it is often seen as experiential and empowering for ministry. What binds the theology of baptism among both Charismatics and Quakers is that it fills one with love and the fruit of it is love. Perhaps both baptisms could qualify as what sociologist Margaret Poloma calls “godly love”, which is the experience of God’s love driving people to work towards justice and live out of love for their fellow child of God. If these baptisms are continual and at the core of the Christian experience, as Friends preached, then theologian Karl Barth was right in saying that “the Christian life begins with love [and] it also ends with love.”