A Revolutionary Pentecostalism

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A service at Catch the Fire Church, site of the Toronto Blessing

To be Pentecostal is to be political.

Through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we are immersed into a new reality. We see the governments and authorities around us for what they are, and in us begins a longing for the kin-dom Jesus spoke about, breaking in and spilling over. A new politics emerges in our hearts, one that values others as holy and seeks to create a world where love is the name by which all are known. We stumble into a world where the weak reign and the powerful are humbled, where divinity is found in humanity.

This is the kin-dom of God.

We are overcome by a love that drags us down into its deep embrace and shows us who we were made to be, who we really are. We meet mercy as a dear friend – familiar, intimate. Love was always there, staring us in the face, waiting for us to open our eyes. There were moments where we yielded to love without knowing, our eyes shut tight. But in this baptism, we jump in to seize (and be seized by) God’s kin-dom. We are gloriously devastated. And we see in this kin-dom of God – as it touches the world around us and everything bursts into flame – that we are standing on holy ground.

We know it in our bones. We always knew. When we were baptized in the Spirit, did not our bodies tremble? We were transfigured, and we could not help but babble in Spirit language. We were babies with so much to say, but our words were not enough to utter what stirred within us. We stuttered – our tongues undone. The world heard us tripping on syllables, intoxicated, and counted us fools. But here we are with our feet planted firmly in heaven.

We must not lose sight of that baptism. It was a taste, a first opening, a grand and debilitating invitation to the kin-dom within. We must not be satisfied with that taste. We weren’t invited to visit the kin-dom, but to host, to live in, to embody kin-dom come. We are called to feast.

This kin-dom cannot co-exist with our current governments and authorities, the systems, the powers and principalities. There is no place in the kin-dom for domination, no need of coercion.

So it is through baptism that we enter apocalypse, the uncovering of truth. Our eyes are opened, and we see Love. Our eyes are opened, and we see the devastation of empire. Our eyes are opened, and we know that empire’s time has come to an end. It is finished.

But the Church tells us to wait. That reality, that world – that’s in the future. We have no role in its manifestation, we’re told, so we wait – convinced that this waiting is patience, convinced that we are waiting on God. Tragically, we’re waiting on what is already in us while God waits for us to take hold of it. God calls us – agents of kin-dom come – to break in, to dismantle, to sabotage, to subvert, to find those imprisoned and set them free.

I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

God has been waiting for us to break in and bind the powers of empire – capitalism, white supremacy, the carceral state, every injustice, every evil.

God has been waiting for us to break in and loose those in slavery to empire – the poor, the naked, the hungry, those sick and in prison, anyone hungry for Love.

We are called to fight our way into the future we believe in. To create a world where kin-dom can thrive. To bless, nurture, and build movements of liberation. To participate in them, to join the struggle of the oppressed. To manifest the outrageous empathy and compassion that we met on those sweat-soaked church carpets. Freely we have received, and freely we shall give.

To be a Pentecostal is to be a revolutionary.

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

On Being Friends with Jesus

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“Slain in the Spirit”

I came to know Jesus when I was 16 years old. I was swallowed up by a revelation that sticks me with today: Jesus is God. Before that, religion was forms, it was duty. But then, it became a relationship, a person, a new kind of existence.

When I look to Jesus, I look to God. In this human, I can know God. It was through Jesus that I realized that I could be friends with God.

Newly saved, I would be anxious to get home from school, wanting alone time with God. I would read the Bible for hours, wrestling with the text and demanding wisdom, clarification, answers from God, and sometimes I’d be led to something, and other times not. No matter what, I was just happy to be in God’s presence.

I’d sing to God, dance with God. I’d have fits of laughter that would go late into the night. My mom would come into my room to scold me, thinking I was on my laptop screwing around on YouTube. She’d find me sprawled out, being tickled by the Holy Spirit. Her son, a Pentecostal. Relieved, I’m sure, that I wasn’t on the computer, but mostly confused. She didn’t know what to do with me.

The cheesiest pop songs on the radio – God, even Coldplay – began to mean to something to me. That’s how I felt about God. I longed for God. She was beautiful. I couldn’t get her off of my mind. I loved how she wrapped herself around all humanity, all creation. I love how she made her home in me. She was Love itself. And I was in love. I still am.

All that to say, I love Jesus. God is my friend.

As I’ve come to know Jesus, I’ve come to the humanity of God. The God I met in Christ is the marriage of humanity and divinity. “Fully God” looks like “fully human.”

The life of Jesus is the life of God. And his life wrecks all hierarchies. It dethrones all kings. Even Jesus was dethroned. With a crown of thorns, he took up a cross instead. And he calls us to do the same.

This is what it means to be godly: it is surrender to empathy wherever she leads you. It requires a certain weakness, a humanness, a vulnerability, that makes one take up the pain of others, to join their struggle and lean into solidarity,  fearlessly and shamelessly yielding to the movement of liberation.

By the looks of it, being God is being an accomplice, a comrade in the struggle. If the livelihood and very existence of the oppressed is practically illegal, then we are called to become accomplices. We are called to an existence that rejects and actively combats the false authorities that are imprisoning and murdering God’s image-bearers. Going as far as literally “setting prisoners free.”

Allies are not accomplices. Allies are disconnected from empathy, valuing appearances and gestures over action. Knowing the direction of where justice is calling us to, but limiting their surrender to it. They create no tangible or material change but rhetorically affirm their righteousness. They will not join the struggle of the oppressed but will instead dialogue with the oppressor, believing that they can convince others to be reasonable, compassionate, and perhaps, repentant. Meanwhile, people die.

Their desire for everybody, most importantly the oppressor, to be comfortable is more necessary than the liberation of those suffering. They’re proud to be more progressive and enlightened than others. They believe they see beyond the emotional cloudiness of the oppressed and the ignorant bias of the oppressor. And that they can be friends with both.

But they can’t. When you become a friend of Jesus, you discover he has very real friends, and very real enemies. Ultimately, Christ’s war is against systems and not people, but there are people who enjoy and push forward these systems, and they need to be restrained. These people are not your friends.

When you become a friend of Jesus, you join the struggle of his friends. And his friends are those that bear the Image of God most fully – the oppressed.

In some sense, there is still a hierarchy. We are called to lift up those who have been crushed, to amplify the voices of those pushed out and rejected. They are God’s priority and this is their gospel. In their suffering and denial of power, they know the heart of God. By being willing to do whatever it takes to honor their Incarnation, you become a Christian.

Honoring their Incarnation may call a disciple of Christ to what some may call violent action. We cannot simply dismiss all physical harm done to others for the sake of revolutionary and liberatory purposes as violent, when the ways we are trying to transform society are not working, and people are dying as a result of that.

If your pacifism is merely an ideological value and not a threat to the state and these systems we are called to wage war against, then your pacifism sides with the violence of the state.

The threat of the Alt-Right and the growing number of organized and armed fascists and ultra-nationalists, is a reality the Church is facing and will continue to. Violent political upheaval didn’t climax in Charlottesville, it was simply inaugurated on a larger scale. The original sin of the United States, white supremacy, has become more blatant and spelled out, and as capitalism collapses on society, things in this regard will only get worse.

Such purist perspectives on violence are idolatry. The idea that God is above us and that their instruction is more important than the well-being and lives of God’s children is cruel. This piety is demonic. Any theology that values God above people is false. From experience I can say that as I’ve fallen more in love with God, I’ve fallen more in love with God’s children. Our loyalty to God is found in our loyalty to the suffering. If our loyalty to God leads us to betray or forsake the suffering, then we are deceived idolaters.

Allyship is not enough. The kin-dom of God is not a matter of talk, but power. When God’s love manifests, it turns power upside down. It destroys and creates. It tears down and lifts up. It’s shocking. It makes people angry, scared even. It’s prophetic.

Of course, allies will name the marginalized in their lives as prophets. That is, until they prophesy to them, or their community. When their allyship is attacked, they will shut down these prophets with condescension, with eyes signaling that they’re understanding but words that are really just a drawn out, polite hush. They say, isn’t that a little harsh? Isn’t that taking it a little too far?

Friends of Jesus are accomplices and realize that loving their neighbor looks like something. It looks like solidarity, it looks like mutual aid, it looks like reparations, and, frankly, it looks like revolution. They realize that sometimes loving their neighbor looks like keeping their neighbor from oppressing others. They realize that love for others can put their reputations and lives at risk. They realize that the systems that dictate our lives cannot be reformed or transformed, but need to be abolished. And they act on it. They live it.

God’s kin-dom demands more than allyship – it demands revolutionaries. To be a friend of Jesus is to know him not as a great leader or mighty king, but as a comrade. To be his friend requires becoming an accomplice to the oppressed, to join their struggle. As he was an outlaw for the sake of the oppressed, so will be his followers. He will walk with us, hand in hand, to tear down Empire, and to welcome our kin-dom. It’s in our midst, he says. We just need to be willing to let love unravel in our lives. It’s a daunting task. The systems of the world are built against you, and they will fight you from all sides. Do not fear, though, for he is with us, to the end of the age. Love is on our side.

Seeking a People

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I used to call myself a Quaker. I never joined a meeting, and honestly, I had suspicions from the beginning that it just wasn’t going to work. But I was desperate for people, and I really wanted the Quakerism I’d read about.

I couldn’t find it, though, and now I’m not sure it exists.

In the meantime, I’ve been talking, and writing, and a number of Friends say my critical observations about Quaker institutions and culture are illegitimate, either because of my lack of membership or because of my newness. I don’t have a right to point out classism and white supremacy, they say.

It’s been hard finding my place and voice in the Religious Society of Friends. And honestly, I’ve given up. I don’t see the point.

When I read what early Friends wrote, I’m drawn to their vision. Friends lived out of step with the world. Their yielding to Christ demanded deep listening, joy in suffering for the truth, abandonment to the movement of Love. They declared the end of days and rejected the idolatry of nationalism. They were living into a new Society of Friends.

George Fox wrote about the Kingdom of God breaking into this world – and it came from within – this was the gospel I knew, the gospel I needed. Quakers were holy fools, apocalyptic evangelists, soldiers of prophecy. They were about liberation and creating the age-to-come. That was the Spirit I knew. This was the church I longed for.

Then I found Quakers. They weren’t exactly what I’d read about, and it was kind of confusing. But I decided to stick around for a while. After all, maybe God could use existing Quaker institutions to renew the Society of Friends. I believed and hoped that some of these institutions might lead Friends of all branches into convergence, and then that the Spirit might dissolve our dependence on institutions. I thought that as we yielded to the Spirit, she would return us to that apostolic and anarchic ecclesiology of early Friends.

What I’ve found, instead, is that Friends have converged on a shared history and a handful of practices.

But if the Society of Friends is to ever again carry the anointing of early Quakers, if it is to ever embody the vision of Margaret Fell, going “hand in hand in the unity and fellowship of this eternal Spirit,” it must do more than embrace a convoluted historical connection and some shared practices.

If we are converging on history and practice, we are missing the point. If we are depending on institutions to create a new society or usher in the Kingdom, then we are deceived. These will not bring the radically egalitarian and Spirit-filled communities that God fostered among early Friends. These are forms, and Friends must follow the Spirit.

I’ve met others who need a Spirit-led Society. We share this vision, and we share the disappointment of being drowned out in meeting by classism, ageism, and racism. Some of us wonder if Quakerism isn’t all that different from the rest of liberal religion. From what we’ve seen, it isn’t apocalyptic. It isn’t radical. It doesn’t sound like Fox or look like Jesus. It works at incremental transformation while simultaneously shushing those who need the system overthrown.

I’ve moved on.

But even as I’ve stopped attending meeting – even as institutional Quakerism has, for the most part, become irrelevant to me – I cannot deny that I am a Friend. Quaker conceptions of Christ’s gospel have led me closer to Jesus and it’s integral to what I believe and how I live. At the end of the day, though, if tables aren’t being turned, if people aren’t being healed and set free, if the prophets aren’t marching naked, I’ll have to follow Jesus elsewhere.

I hear early Friend Sarah Blackwell’s words ringing in my heart: “Christ is trying to make a dwelling place within you but he is left rejected and homeless.”

Jesus is still seeking his people, people who see the Spirit of God in the suffering and offer refuge. I’m seeking those people, too.

I believe in the Resurrection

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Somewhere near Bergamo

I never got to know my brother Kento. He was already dying and in a hospital when we first met in person. Just a few days later, he died. He was unable to speak or move, but he was there. I got to touch him. To see him. Finally.

Before that, there had been too much distance. I remember when I first learned of his existence. Then I found him on Facebook, and when he accepted my friend request, it felt like a miracle. I could see pictures of him, read his statuses, see all the people who loved him. I wanted to be able to love him, too.

I only ever knew Kento’s hesitance behind a keyboard. I only ever knew his inability to deal with me.

I hoped he might make peace with us, his birth family, that he might decide to meet us. I told myself to not be anxious, that life would inevitably bring us together. And it did. In a hospital in Italy. In a bed in that hospital. Surrounded by machines.

Then he was gone.

His childhood pastor eulogized Kento’s desire to meet us and know us. Said that he was finally ready. That he wanted to know his brothers and sisters, his nephews. It’s a mythology I want to believe. Even while I know it could be little more than a cleverly revised report of what was actually the case, which breaks my heart. And just for a moment I’m entertaining the idea that this pastor made the whole thing up. To console us. And I know that’s a fucked up idea of consolation. But also, even if it’s true, I could never be mad at Kento. He could have lived a full life, and in that life he might still not have chosen to know us, and I would get that.

But I need to believe.

Or maybe I have to believe. Because I can’t live with the possibility that Kento didn’t want to know me, and I feel pathetic and stupid for how much I’ve longed to know him, and maybe I simply can’t face the fact that I never got to. I’m mourning Kento, the brother I never had.

But I feel him. I hate to spiritualize these sorts of things where complete devastation feels like the only way to honor the tragedy of a person dying. But I feel Kento in my mind, his essence – a burst of warmth, a glimpse of hope.

Here’s what I know: Kento was an anarchist.

We both grew up in the Unification Church, a fringe cult that created our complex family dynamic, but we were different. We were both second generation Moonies. Workshops were the rhythm of our lives.

That was where our lives made sense. Except Kento was considered a bad kid.

Flirting was deemed a serious offense. Our whole theology was built upon properly performing while simultaneously resisting sex. Avoidance of the opposite sex was not just seen as noble, it was required.

Kento didn’t care. He talked to girls, he kissed girls, and worst of all, according to workshop leaders, was how Kento could be such a good friend, even to girls, while being so obviously a bad kid.

He was designated a bad kid even before they had some religious reason to call him a bad kid. Because he saw through our religious leaders, and he knew they had no real authority.

I like to think his anti-authoritarianism was rooted in him being a good friend. The best kind of friend.

The present, goofy, do whatever it takes to make you feel good, alive kind of friend.

I met his friends. They talked about how different he was, both separate and warm, tender. They talked a lot about his tenderness, about his heart for people and for life. He was fearless. He was so alive.

That’s how I want to live. In this world, but not of it. Refusing and resisting illegitimate, oppressive authority. Defined by love. Full of joy in the midst of chaos.

I say all this, but I never really knew Kento. He was barely alive when we got there. There were moments where he seemed to be getting better, and we hoped for a miracle. Toward the end, especially, he was fighting so hard, trying to hold onto life. His heartbeat was fast, his body was swollen. He was sweating and unable to keep his eyes still. Then, just hours later, he was gone.

I was with him at his weakest. But I felt his power bursting through in those last moments. I felt him fighting.

I’m not going to act like Kento was perfect. I know his life wasn’t easy. I also know, so thoroughly, that there was something profoundly and exceptionally good about Kento. I want that. I think of him often, I sense his closeness, maybe even his aid, as I try to live a holy life.

I don’t know exactly how the afterlife works. But my brother lived into a peculiar pattern shaped by an open heart, and I believe he continues. As a result, I find myself believing in the resurrection in a way I never have before. And I think this is why. In resurrection, Kento finally gets his way. Full emancipation.

Freedom. Even from death.

The Kingdom is Waiting

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Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter

I remember falling in love with Jesus my junior year of high school. God received me, embraced me, didn’t ask questions. God loved me.

And then I started getting to know Christians.

I went to an end-times Bible study most Saturday mornings my senior year of high school. We listened to recordings of teachings from Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer – Kansas City, a charismatic ministry with a mission of praying and worshiping 24/7.

It was a small Bible study. Usually there were just three or four of us. We ate bagels, sat in fold-out chairs in a circle, often huddled around a space heater. We listened to Bickle describe the dreadful days that were coming, and every so often one of us would exclaim “Wow!” or “Amen!”

But there was this one moment. I looked around the room. Nobody had their eyes open. They were concentrating on Bickle, trying to soak up every word. It dawned on me that they really believed the end times were approaching, that the day was near. I didn’t know if I believed that.

I felt bad.

Bickle talked about riots, literal battles between the righteous and unrighteous. It didn’t remind me of Jesus.

That’s how it’s been for me. I want to be orthodox, to be right, to fit in. More than anything, I want to be in a community of people who know the God I know, who know what it is to be loved with abandon. But this weird thing happens where for some reason I have to choose between Christ and community. And every time I’ve conformed myself to the expectations of a faith community, I’ve had to resist the love I first met in Jesus.

I think that’s toxic. I think it’s abuse. It took me a long time to see that.

Much of what we know as Evangelicalism doesn’t look or sound like Jesus.

But there’s another side to the story. Sitting in that circle, realizing that maybe I didn’t belong, I noticed a change in the words we were hearing. Bickle began talking about the Church being used to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth by embodying the Sermon on the Mount, by trusting Jesus.

And I knew.

That’s why I’m here. That’s a message I can believe in. But what is it exactly? Bickle’s eschatological narrative calls for us to convert people, pointing to a kingdom that is somewhere else and for another time.

But in Jesus, that kingdom is already here, among us, waiting for us to notice. Waiting for us with love.

This Has Always Been the Cost

We’re only 12 days in. Not even two weeks. And this presidency is already devastating.

Donald Trump is waging war against the American people.

Six journalists were charged with felony rioting for covering protests at the presidential inauguration. It’s now illegal to protest on the floor of Congress, or to live-stream a protest on the House floor. Resisting arrest is now considered a hate crime in Louisiana. A new bill was introduced in North Dakota that allowed motorists to “unintentionally” run over any protestors obstructing a highway.

History has a name for what America is becoming. And it’s not “representative democracy.”

Opposition is illegal. Yet we must oppose. Every vile thing coming out of this White House must be opposed.

A mark of Christian discipleship is a willingness to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Jesus invites his followers to take up their own crosses, to be willing to let Love lead us into dangerous, painful, even life-threatening territory. Jesus teaches us that “there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Do we taste that love among us? In our fellowship? In our worship? Are we willing to die for one another? For the liberation of the oppressed? For Jesus? Are we willing to be tortured because of our deepest convictions? Are we willing to face unjust imprisonment?

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Convicted of blasphemy, James Nayler was branded with a “B” on his forehead and his tongue was pierced with a hot iron

Which reminds me. It was once illegal for Quakers to gather. For 25 years in Britain, the mere act of worshipping together landed thousands of Friends in jail. Whole meetings were sent to prison. And yet Friends kept meeting. They also stirred up trouble. They did prophetic acts, such as “going naked as a sign” or wearing sackcloth and ashes. They publicly argued with priests and condemned the established church. They refused to tithe and pay taxes that fed the violence of empire.

Friends did not avoid trouble. They ran toward it.

British prisons were filled with Friends. Within a year of the passing of the 1664 Conventicle Act – an act created to stamp out independent, nonconformist religious groups – 2,100 Friends from five London meetings were arrested. It has been estimated that 1 in 3 Quakers experienced state-sanctioned persecution in the first 35 years or so of the Religious Society’s founding.

Friends were holy trouble-makers.

This was their battle: the Lamb’s War. Being meek did not require subservience. Nothing about Quakers was passive or defensive. They created trouble. They were willing to deal with the repercussions of revealing the way of the Kingdom, of establishing a truer Society, even if it meant they might be publicly shamed, tortured, and imprisoned.

Today, as news keeps rolling in of injustices committed by our own government, I find myself wondering whether I might be willing – truly willing – to follow Christ anywhere. Even into prison. Even unto death. It seems that this has always been the cost of being a Friend of Jesus, a disciple of Christ.

Tomorrow is Day 13. I don’t know what it will bring. But I think I’m ready.

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.