My first encounter with the Spirit, as far as I know, happened at St. Nicholas Church. Spiritual songs surrounded me; people spoke in tongues quietly; and one night I joined the spirited cacophony, too.
We gathered across the parking lot in the fellowship hall, trading candles for florescent overhead lighting and a pew-free space to circle up chairs. The Holy Spirit lit our hearts. We kept the fire to ourselves. When we crossed back to the altar we used the same words as everyone else: creeds, prayers, responsive readings. We processed forward together, drank from the same cup, shared the peace.
I started as a Catholic charismatic.
After college, finally on my own, I found a church that clicked. They spoke often about the movement of the Holy Spirit as if they understood all the divine gestures. My community taught me to see the Spirit moving as we prayed for people–“notice the fluttering eye lids, the hot hands, the shaking.” My pastors easily recognized when the Holy Spirit was present in the room; the worship leader knew the Spirit’s preferred playlist. Itinerate preachers came with words of knowledge, holy laughter, and the ability to fell a man the size of a tree with the tap of a finger. I learned to see and speak of the Spirit in these ways.
I spoke about hearing God. I received words of knowledge. I spoke in tongues. My hands gently shook as I prayed – like a holy tremor signaling I was on track. In the context of prayer I’d venture, “I think God is saying…” or “I heard Jesus tell me…” or “…the Spirit just showed me something.” I was utterly earnest. I wanted to be on the information super-highway, where God was always talking and I was always listening and delivering words. (To be fair, sometimes we lightened up a bit and called them “impressions.”) But those were heady days, when we trafficked in the words of the Spirit.
I was, at best, a clumsy charismatic.
This community blessed me as I entered seminary. Alongside exegetical studies and church history I read books by all the current charismatic thinkers. I took classes with well-known practitioners. I watched a man, experienced in exorcism, call a demon out of a student in class and hold a conversation with… it. “What a street fighter,” I mused, watching in amazement at his seasoned skill and courage. In another classroom I learned to hear the Spirit in silence, in fasting, and in the pages of my own journal. My education should have included whiplash insurance, come to think about it.
I grew in confidence that the charismatic way possessed a gravitas other streams missed. I wouldn’t ever say we were superior, but I thanked God I got to worship on the inside track where the Holy Spirit held counsel with the charismatic crowd.
I spoke about the mechanisms and movements of the Holy Spirit with ease now. I spoke about some worship leaders taking us into the throne room of God while others, the praise-singing kind, were antiquated and dull. (Somehow I always retained a reverence for the hymns, the way they resonated deep in me, and I never shunned them.) I felt familiar enough to name where the Holy Spirit was (and was not).
A local pastor began a deliverance ministry in his office after hours and I joined his team. As we met with people, we interceded, named demonic presences and we cast them out. I felt like I was in a street gang of sorts as we left the building on those late nights, talking about heavenly victories as we walked across the parking lot to our lonesome cars.
I was on the ministry team. I led the team of intercessors for the prayer team. I taught about the spiritual gifts and spoke in tongues. Heck, I was an exorcist in training.
I’d become a confident charismatic.
Somewhere in my thirties I stopped. Not all at once and not for any particular reason. I still attended a church chock full with charismatic brothers and sisters. Embracing spontaneity, eschewing structure and longing for the Spirit unleashed was our desire. But for all our sincerity it felt a bit sloppy.
My reading turned to the prophets of old – Isaiah, Amos, Micah. Their signs and wonders felt like an afterthought compared to their incessant concern for the vulnerable within the community. These men spoke of neighborhood restoration, rivers of justice and, my favorite, melting swords and fashioning plowshares. They called out economic exploitation, violence and tribalism that divided. The Spirit energized them to emancipate people from real debt, real slavery, real peril.
These prophetic voices changed what I wanted. I no longer wanted to be on the super-highway of information or a street fighter. I wanted to see people set free from the underside of empires and economies so they could live a viable and vibrant life.
And, like any prophet worth her salt, they scrubbed down my own pretense. In a season that was quite quiet and unremarkable the Spirit recalibrated me. Nothing was lost, but everything was transformed.
My language shifted. Gone were my careless words, my over-familiarity with the divine and casual talk of how the Spirit was at work here or there. I held my tongue more. I watched. I listened. My hunger for justice deepened. I saw the Spirit at work in places I’d missed before, and it broke me and freed me at the same time.
I still speak in tongues. My hand still trembles slightly when I pray. I’ve witnessed God heal a little girl of full blown AIDS and take a community of families into food security for the first time in their lives. I believe the Spirit is alive and on the move in our world more than ever.
But I don’t assume as much as I used to, I don’t say as much either.
Now I am a careful charismatic.
*Photo by Tiago Cassol Schvarstzhaupt, Creative Commons via Flickr.