People of the Spirit, worshiping Jesus in all places, at all times

As a Pentecostal, I grew up in a home that emphasized and practiced daily Bible reading–both individually and as a family. I was taught to read and study the Scriptures in a personal “quiet time with God.” Additionally, my mother read to us aloud from the Bible and taught us hymns, some small bits of catechism, and helped us memorize significant and sometimes extensive portions of Scripture. It was life-shaping and it has been effective in my life, as the Holy Spirit prompts remembrance and understanding from that past in my present day-to-day life. Christians are indeed people shaped by the Scriptures that bear witness to Jesus, the Word of God.

But I’ve overheard in various circles–Pentecostal, reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, and others–that the key to discipleship is daily Bible reading. Now, I understand where this comes from. I even understand that Willow Creek’s internal discipleship study some twenty-odd years ago reinforces the importance of the Scriptures in the Christian life. But I want to challenge the idea that it’s private daily Bible reading which is to be credited for deep roots in following Jesus.

First off, to borrow from something adapted from the Rev’d Dr. Amy Schifrin, STS, “Christianity is a deeply personal, but not private, faith.” It’s never been “me and Jesus”. It’s always been a Body, a nation, a community of saints and sinners gathered by the Holy Spirit and united in the blood of Jesus. We experience individual transformation in the midst of that, but we do so together. We cannot be disciples alone, and we are not intended to experience the grace of Christ alone. Even Saul’s conversion cannot happen apart from the Body. Jesus changed everything for this persecutor of the Church, but he sends Ananias to baptize and lay hands on Him–creating a community into which Saul is received.

Second, it’s never been reading. The Scriptures, all through the history of Israel were read aloud in order to be heard by God’s people. That continued in the synagogues, and the Church adopted the same practice in teaching the Old Testament, as well as reading the “memoirs of the apostles” and the apostolic epistles. The Apostle Paul goes so far as to say that faith comes by hearing in Romans 10. For the benefit of faith and the increase of grace, the Church gathers to hear the Word of God proclaimed by the Scriptures being read aloud, preached, and visible displayed in the Sacraments.

I know there’s going to be pushback, but I want you to consider–for 1500 years, before the invention of the printing press, there was little access to the Scriptures for the common Christian. Are we to suggest that the great saints and our forefathers and foremothers in the faith were weak, or malformed as followers of Jesus? Even if we allow that the medieval era had a great deal of this, the fact is that the Gospel spread throughout the world with people who were hearing Scriptures corporately, and deep discipleship came from that formation. The rich were the ones with access to Scriptures, even after the printing press was invented. And while that has shifted over the years, literacy and economics of owning a Bible continue to challenge.

So let’s return to the roots. As the Church, let’s gather together–in homes, in churches, in public–to hear the Scriptures together. Rich or poor, men and women, of every ethnicity, let’s attend to the proclamation of Jesus and hear Him revealed to us in the Scriptures. Let’s not be alone. Let’s not stifle the hope of the poor by telling them to get a Bible and keep it to reading alone. Let’s enter the community of people under the Scriptures, fro all to hear, and be changed as the Spirit stirs our remembrance of who we are as God’s beloved and sets our feet onto the way of Jesus.

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When we say “Spirit” in relationship to Pentecost, there’s a one-track hive mind for that. Of course we’re referring to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Triune Godhead. We’re speaking of the God who pours Herself out on the people of God, loosening their tongues in proclamation, their hearts in love, and their hands in generosity to one another and turning “the Other” into “another.” The Pentecostal Spirit brings forth the Church and reveals the Son of God in her midst.

By contrast, “the Spirit of Christmas” has a delightful ambiguity. Some people mean the core of the celebration: the incarnation of the Son of God. Then there’s those referring to some sense of spirit of generosity, charity, goodwill towards men, yada, yada, yada…and then there’s the lovely tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas (somewhat forgotten in the 21st century), or the three ghosts from A Christmas Carol. The point is, range of meaning here is wild and about as chaotic as your grandmother’s house at Christmas dinner.

But if you pay attention to the appointed readings (and I don’t know a church of any tradition that doesn’t have a liturgical commitment to the Nativity Gospels and the Isaiah predictions of the Son of God’s birth), the Holy Spirit is very much involved in Christmas. We hear the her voice all over the place, inspiring Joseph’s vision and commissioning angelic witnesses. We see the birth of the Son of God, whose conception was accomplished in Mary by the hovering Spirit of God. We see Mary pondering these things that happen in her heart, a gift of the Holy Spirit who causes God’s people to remember His mighty deeds. And, to this day, we see the Spirit of God bringing all these things to our remembrance–to reveal Jesus, to set us to proclaiming, loving, and sharing generously to one another (And making “the Other” into “another”). The Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of Christmas, grounded in the flesh and blood of the Christ child.

Liturgical Leadership

  • Officiant: Fr. Dave (me)
  • Preacher: Fr. Dennett
  • Music: Fr. Dennett leading a team of 6 (3 vocals, 1 acoustic guitar, 1 electric guitar, 1 drummer)
  • Scripture: Ben (Romans 13:8-14 and Psalm 25), Dcn. Laura (Matthew 21:28-32),

Set List

Songs of Praise

  • Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding
  • Hosanna
  • Be Unto Your Name
  • All Who are Thirsty

Offertory

  • Come as You Are

Communion

  • Here in Your Presence

Dismissal

  • The Lamb Has Overcome

Collect for the Day

Merciful Lord, grant to your faithful people pardon and peace; that by your grace we may be cleansed from all our sins and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

I opened (after the guitar’s accidental open chord gathered everyone’s attention) welcoming everyone and inviting us in to a time to receive from God’s free and abundant grace. We continued with the usual liturgy (Opening Acclamation, Summary of the Law, Confession of Sin and Absolution, and Comfortable Words) before moving into Songs of Praise.

One of the themes that emerged quickly in our worship was the reality of grace and God’s intentions to pardon–and the power of that pardon. Our worship was the expression of the Psalmist’s heart in Psalm 130, “If you, LORD, kept record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” In the midst of that awareness of our weakness, however, what I observed in myself and in the congregation was a confidence in God’s mercy and grace. This was the Lord whose nature is always to have mercy, and we knew it. We have been received by a God whose love and power and grace are extended on our behalf.

After the Songs of Praise, two or three spoke prayers of adoration and praise of God, summarizing what the Holy Spirit was doing in the midst of our worship. We concluded that time with the Collect for the Day. I invited the kids to come to the front to be prayed for. During the school year, they have “Church School” during the Ministry of the Word, and rejoin us at the Eucharist. After last week, where kids were nearly 1/3 of the congregation (and they were a sizable group), it was a bit interesting to have two children come forward (the others were already downstairs, awaiting their teachers).

This is one of two opportunities that priests at Church of the Savior have to bless children. Both the example of my first priest, Fr. Mike, and the explicit exhortation of a mission leader, Fr. Lawrence, challenged me to recognize that one of the highest privileges one has as a presbyter in God’s Church is to pronounce God’s blessing on children. That’s become all too real to me, and I would commend that to you presbyters out there–receive the children Jesus has called to himself and bless them in his Name.

Our seminarian, Ben, read the lesson and led us in praying Psalm 25. Coming from the time of humble adoration as we did, the call to walk in the light from Romans 13 was apt. It was further driven home by the Gospel reading by Deacon Laura, with the parable of the two sons–one who initially rebelled, but repented, and one who gave lip service to his father, but rebelled.

Fr. Dennett’s sermon from Romans 13 began with a telling of Augustine’s conversion (with the big reveal of it being Augustine not coming until later). It was a passionate and fiery sermon, expressing God’s Law and Gospel–that we know and must know and must not forget that we are helpless to achieve the righteousness of God, and that the grace of God has given us this incredible liberty to be the children of God–that we’ve been saved from the penalty and of sin, are being saved from the practices of sin, and will be saved from the presence of sin (an explanation credited to Deacon Laura). Hallelujah.

As we continued worship (Creed, Offering, and Eucharist), the Spirit’s leadership bringing us to humble adoration, led us to be recipients of God’s free grace, to be changed by our encounter with God–knowing full well that as we stand in the presence of God, casting off the works of darkness and putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, that it is HE who has overcome, and will overcome all that stands against him in our lives–sin, sickness, the devil and death itself. And we can walk in the peace of God among us, remaining with us through God’s blessing, as in the daytime, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. Come, Lord Jesus.

One of the practices I have observed in a number of pastors is taking the time to intentionally reflect on the worship experience each Sunday. While I will not do so for every service, it seems to me that corporate worship is where the rubber meets the road for catholic Pentecostalism. So, for services then I officiate, I will endeavor to reflect and report. My hope here is to better understand what the Holy Spirit is doing. I hope others will benefit as well.

Liturgical Leadership

  • Officiant: Fr. Dave (me)
  • Preacher: Fr. Dennett
  • Music: Ben leading a team of 4 (3 vocals, 1 acoustic guitar, 1 electric guitar, 1 drummer)
  • Scripture: Martha (Romans 12:1-8), Dcn. Andrea (Matthew 16:13-20), Dcn. Laura leading J and D (gospel reenactment).

Set List

Songs of Praise

  • Hosanna (Praise is Rising)
  • 10,000 Reasons
  • Behold our God
  • Be Thou My Vision

Offertory

  • In Christ Alone

Communion

  • Here in Your Presence
  • Revelation Song

Dismissal

  • On Christ the Solid Rock

Collect for the Day

O Lord, we pray that your grace may always both precede and follow after us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

I welcomed people into the service time with a more expanded introduction than usual. I’ve been sensing that it would be beneficial for me as an officiant to encourage people to expect to encounter God, and to know that God is at work in our midst. We followed our usual liturgy with the Opening Acclamation, Summary of the Law, Confession of Sin and Absolution, and Comfortable Words before moving into Songs of Praise.

Encounter became the word for the day. As we moved through our singing, we were proclaiming a God who is present, saving, powerful, and holy. As we waited on the Lord in the silence, the Holy Spirit was ministering to people. No prophetic words or tongues were brought forward–just the gift of silence. Just God in the still small voice.

The Scripture readings continued to express that encounter. The epistle reading highlighted the renewal of our minds by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel story of Peter’s confession was read and acted out by two of the children of the parish. This has been a regular activity for our Gospel readings this summer. While it seems on the surface to be a “cute” way to break the surface up for kids who otherwise have a children’s lesson and activities during the school year, this is actually an essential part of discipleship and knowing Scripture. We see stories of Jesus played out before us, and know how we can tell the stories for others. Reenactment invites us to imagine, to meditate, and to let the stories becomes our own. We all imagined being in Peter’s shoes there: to declare to Jesus “You are the Christ” –and now we can. The sermon, drawing from the Romans passage, further invited us to encounter the Jesus proclaimed by Peter and to be transformed by Him. We were challenged to pursue God’s Word and to have confidence that our encounter with the Word will lead to renewal by the Spirit. “Renewal” follows “new birth.”

The question that came to mind for me, listening to the sermon: What does it look like to make a practice of modeling your life on the example of the age to come instead of the present age?

The answer to that question really was answered by what followed: the Creed, hearing a testimony of the power of God in response to prayer, singing “In Christ Alone”, celebrating and receiving the Lord’s Supper, and finally declaring that “all other ground is sinking sand” with “On Christ the Solid Rock.” One of my greatest joys as a priest is celebrating the Eucharist–leading God’s people in encountering Christ in the feast that He hosts, that He is present in, feeding us. I also get to be an eyewitness to the intimacy of Christ’s encounter with these individual disciples–and to bless those who don’t receive. Following Communion, I was weighed with the awareness of this encounter, so after everyone had received and we finished singing “Revelation Song”, I prayed for us–for more encounter of God’s presence, the revelation of His holiness–and then we prayed the Post-Communion Prayer together.

On the whole, I was moved by where God is taking us. Discipleship is rooted in encounter with God, and as we go forward to disciple others, we know who we are inviting people to follow together with us, to be renewed by the Spirit together with us, so that our whole selves–practices, thoughts, and all–are modeling the age to come, and not the present age.

 

My little sister was baptized on Sunday. A child who has been anointed since before she could form full sentences was united with Christ and joined to the Church in the waters of Baptism. After the service, I had the distinct joy of anointing the sign of the cross with chrism on her forehead and praying the ancient prayer: “Receive the sign of the Cross as a token of your new life in Christ, in which you shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to fight bravely under his banner against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to continue as his faithful servant to the end of your days. Amen.” The chrism oil smells of incense, which received multiple comments. One exchange in particular stands out– at lunch, my dad said she smelled good. Her response was “Yeah. The aroma of Christ is strong.”

It really is. We don’t think about it, but we ought to consider the impact of the sacraments on us in the world–and in relationship to the spiritual forces in the world. For those who receive the increase of grace through Baptism, or the sustaining grace of the Bread and Cup at Communion, do we imagine that those have no impact on our relationship to the rest of creation? The aroma of Christ is strong–and we are commissioned and empowered as His presence in the world, the signs of His Kingdom. Surely, the Holy Spirit at work in the sacraments, is making that presence felt and known and announced to the powers of the world.

Another joy of that day was the sermon by my family’s pastor. He preached from the book of Acts of the ministries of Stephen and Philip, which were ministries in the power of the Holy Spirit–where the witness of martyrdom and baptism were fully present. He made a point, however, that in the early Church–and among Muslims coming to faith in Jesus now–salvation and Baptism were inseparably linked. Specifically, he pointed out that people did not regard themselves as having become part of Christ and the Church apart from Baptism. He’s right–that’s the history, and that’s the experience of our brothers and sisters who are coming to faith out of Islam or Druze or Yazidi religions. Of course God’s grace is greater than the sacrament itself, and can work in its despite, but for us as Christians to embrace and teach the ordinary working of the sacraments: that God is doing some powerful and gracious, life-transforming work through Baptism should be the heart and soul of our Pentecostal preaching and call to discipleship. Jesus is here.The Spirit is here. The Father is here. And by grace, so are we.

One of the insights of Daniel Castelo’s book is that Pentecostalism does not offer a tradition of “the dark night of the soul.” It’s just not something we’ve produced. Implicit in that, I think, is probably a call for Pentecostals to do so. So it was with great interest that I read my friend Daniel McGregor’s book, Holy Dark Places: Wilderness and Exile in the Christian Experience. I got to know McGregor while he was writing and preparing for this work at Trinity School for Ministry. Published this year, it’s still a fresh work waiting more exploration.

Holy Dark Places introduces contemporary Christians to the “problem” of spiritual suffering–of the experience of God’s absence in the midst of brokenness. It calls the bluff of the facades and veneers that American Christianity is insistent upon. Instead, McGregor invites us to journey into the biblical metaphors of wilderness and exile. Both of these are deeply rooted in the history of the people of God, but also find expression in their worship (Psalms) and future hopes (prophets).

As we identify more deeply with the ancient people of God in Israel, McGregor sets us up to walk through Church history–Augustine, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, John Newton, and Henri Nouwen. These theologians, mystics, and pastors engaged deeply with the wilderness and exile of God’s people within their own interior lives and in caring for the communities of which they were part. By their example and wisdom, McGregor crafts a way for us to understand our own experience of God’s absence.

On the whole, this is a solid introduction to the exploration of spiritual suffering. McGregor’s biblical rootedness and overview of historic Christian tradition, even up to the modern era will equip a generation of Christians who are otherwise lost in the midst of brokenness to continue pursuing God and receiving His love.

Specifically as a catholic in the Pentecostal tradition, the one place where I part paths with McGregor is in the separation between the individual’s interior journey and the community’s pilgrimage. In his conclusion, there is an acceptance of the separation of the experience of individual and community that Pentecostal tradition, as well as the monastic tradition of the Church catholic, would challenge. A community experience of interior wilderness and exile is not only possible, but was enjoined upon us by the Desert Fathers and Mothers (as Nouwen sketches in The Way of the Heart). That said, the exploration of such is something that would go beyond the parameters of Holy Dark Places itself. It is well worth your careful consideration and engagement, and as Pentecostals seek to articulate more about the “dark night of the soul,” this provides an invaluable beginning point for us.

There’s something in the air in the Pentecostal movement these days–theologians, pastor-scholars, and others, within the classical Pentecostal organizations (Church of God, Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God, and others) and others like myself in other traditions (Anglican, non-denominational, Baptist, and others) are working out the conviction that in birthing the Pentecostal movement, God intended something for the Church catholic. Daniel Castelo’s Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition is yet another fruit of that conviction.

The book is (appropriately) scholarly and technical in its delivery and orientation. Castelo engages current scholarship in Pentecostalism, as well as the historic mystical tradition of Christianity. He also deals with the challenge of Pentecostalism’s relationship to the evangelical movement in both historical and philosophical senses, and the challenges and gifts of that connection (so you’ll read about Charles Hodge and Carl F. H. Henry, in addition to Charles Parham).

But Castelo’s book is not committed to the “problems” of Pentecostalism as much as it is a prophetic call to recognize the gift of our movement. There are resources in the mystical tradition of the Church the we would greatly benefit from (Gregory of Nyssa, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila).* And our doctrine and experience of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit leads us even intuitively towards this direction. But we also have a role in the Church catholic, commending encounter with God in a way that His love is able to transform our community for the sake of the world. Castelo owns that this is a “working proposal” for the Pentecostal movement, but I would take it a step further: this is a path to global encounter with Christ for the whole Church.

In recent weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to engage the monastic tradition, and the ascetically tradition of the Church, and as I’ve talked with Protestant and evangelical friends about their experiences of it together with me, there is an intense desire to translate those experiences and disciplines into the 21st century context. As I look at the timing (kairos and chronos) of the Pentecostal movement, and of the move in our teaching, preaching, and theologizing as a movement, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is answering that desire for the Protestant movement: Pentecostalism provides a path toward present day, contextualized ascetic life in the Spirit. So, for all you would-be monastics, ascetics, and those who hunger for encounter with God, press in to receive the Baptism of the Spirit, to be a community that experiences and hungers for Christ–taste and see that the Lord is good. For Pentecostals, press in to the resources of the Church catholic.

And for those who want to study and consider this issue more intellectually, read this book. I highly recommend it.