My first—and only—experience of a pentecostal prayer service occurred when I was 12 and went with my best friend to the Wednesday night service at her church. She ushered me into a large daylight basement room filled with several dozen people. Some of them were kneeling, some standing, some rocking back and forth with their hands raised, some lying face down on the floor. All of them were praying in various decibels of out loud, from murmurs to near shouts, and most of the words they were saying were not English.
My friend and I scooted into padded seats about halfway down the center aisle. I sat there trying to keep my wide eyes from staring too boldly, utterly uncertain what to do. When I looked to my friend for cues, she was no longer sitting beside me. I looked around, but I didn’t see her. Suddenly this room full of strangers speaking strange tongues seemed frightening, and the longer I sat there and the louder they prayed, the scareder I got. Finally, after what felt like an hour but was probably only five minutes, I fled from the room in something akin to panic.
I never went back. And in the nearly 30 years since, I’ve never again been to a pentecostal prayer service.
You see, I’m a cradle Presbyterian, and we believe that everything—and we do mean everything—is to be done decently and in order. This appeals to my control-loving, chaos-hating nature. It appeals to my preference to know what to expect and when and where. It appeals to my highly-sensitive and easily overwhelmed senses. For all these reasons and more besides, I prefer things decently and in order. And that prayer service was anything but.
I suppose that prayer service was my introduction to the Holy Spirit, so it’s hardly any wonder that the high holy day I most struggle to enter is Pentecost.
The feast of Pentecost was originally a Jewish feast called Shavuoth. Fifty days earlier, on Easter, the barley harvest began, celebrated with the feast of first fruits. Jesus, the first fruit of the new creation and of the resurrection from the dead, was raised to life on the feast of first fruits!
Fast forward fifty days to Shavuoth, which celebrated the beginning of the wheat harvest and also the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The gift of the law was the inaugural event of the nation of Israel. On this same day came the gift of the Holy Spirit, the inaugural event of the church. Pentecost.
Pentecost, the day the Father and the Son sent the Spirit to the disciples in the upper room, the day the church was born because of the coming of the Spirit. Pentecost, the day that tongues of flame settled on the heads of the disciples and loosened the tongues of their mouths to speak in languages they had never learned.
In His death and resurrection, Jesus reversed the curse that Adam had brought upon the human race, drawing all people to Himself because sin was no longer a barrier. In His descent on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit reversed the curse of Babel, drawing all people together because language was no longer a barrier. All the things that separate us from God and from one another are eradicated by the work of Jesus on the cross and the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds and lives.
When I say it like that, the Holy Spirit doesn’t scare me so much. I see Him at work in my own life, and it’s not frightening at all. It’s transformative and joyful.
But there was that first impression, back when I was 12. It lingers still. Chaos. Noise. Confusion. Nothing decently and in order. I imagine the first Pentecost was probably a lot more like that prayer service than like the liturgical services I love. I still have a lot of growing to do before I become comfortable with the wild freedom of the Spirit that bloweth where it listeth. I may never become wholly comfortable. The wild freedom of the Spirit may always make control-freak me squirm a bit. Or a lot. Even that is a gift of the Spirit to keep me learning and growing and living.
The Spirit may be wild, but He is good. Like the Father and the Son, He is love. And as I live more concretely and consciously in that love, I enter more fully the kingdom of God, which is “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
What helped form you and your early understandings of the Holy Spirit? How has living overseas challenged, informed, or added to what you know and experience of that part of our Triune God?
P.S. Reading plan for June