If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
– Galatians 5:25
The Holy Spirit has always been an elusive character to me. He seemed important, being a member of the Trinity and all, but he took a back seat to the other two.
He (though I wasn’t sure whether to say ‘him’ or ‘it’) was talked about a lot at the charismatic church I grew up in from 1990 to 2003. In high school I bleached my hair, spiked it with glue, got an Ernie Ball bass, and taught myself how to play. I wanted to be M. Herrera (the bassist from MxPx) as much as possible (in looks, anyway). Soon after, I joined the worship band at church.
It was rare on a Sunday morning for worship to not last a full forty-five minutes to an hour. But who was keeping track? We were having fun, and we called it ‘playing in the Spirit.’ I had no clue what that meant, but it gave me a chance to practice with some pretty talented musicians. It was essentially a glorified jam session.
A few guys from the UK once came over to our church for a few weeks to preach and lead worship. They asked me to play the bass with them at one of the youth nights, and I obliged, enjoying whatever opportunity I had to portray the punk rocker.
It was typical at meetings to start and end with worship, and this one was no different. At the end of the sermon, the preacher was leading us into a time of worship, assuming that we had been fired up by his message, and that we had some holy energy to shed. He looked at me and said something along the lines of, “Joseph, I believe God wants you to go up on stage and start playing your bass.” Seeing I was a bit hesitant, he said, “Just play in the Spirit! Whatever comes to your head.” I was not bold enough to say no, so I walked up and started. Soon the drummer joined me, then the guitarists, and before we knew it, we were jamming as loud as we could. In the Spirit, of course.
In those days, youth group felt more like an obligation than anything else. I hated going, but for some reason I persisted, always thinking, “This time it will be better.”
Part of the reason I hated it was because I would be asked to do things that didn’t fit anywhere in my frame of understanding. I didn’t protest too much though, not wanting to risk being thought of as cold hearted or un-spiritual.
One evening, pastor J. had us all line up in front of the stage while the guitarist led worship, telling us to clap, dance, raise our hands and shout. I remember feeling completely obstinate and resentful, attempting a half-hearted clap just to make him leave me alone.
On another night, we all stood in a circle, singing, our voices barely audible. (What could you expect from a bunch of self-conscious, pimply teens?) The worship leader stopped what he was doing. “It doesn’t matter what you do in worship,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if your guitar is out of tune, if you can’t hold a pitch, or if you can’t keep a rhythm,” he at least had the latter two covered. “I could stand up here beating on a cereal box. It wouldn’t matter. If I am playing in the Spirit, it’s worship.” He went on try and encourage us to sing loudly. To dance. To make noise. To press outside of our teenage comfort zones. All in the Spirit, of course.
The Spirit quickly became associated with the strange and eccentric in my mind. There seemed to be some connection between Spirit and spontaneity. The Spirit was just this dude, or thing, that came if you did something that made you feel uncomfortable, or something that seemed spontaneous. Sunday after Sunday the Spirit would ‘move’ in people’s hearts to do things I saw no where else. I remember watching a man run clear across the front of the Sanctuary one Sunday morning, while the music played. When he got to the wall he took a few steps up, then did a back flip. The crowds cheered. The Spirit had moved.
We would dance with streamers, flags and tambourines. We would pray in tongues. The pastor would ‘slay’ us in the Spirit, and we’d fall to the ground, in blissful tranquility, while others covered us with royal, purple sheets.
‘Prophets’ would come from across the sea to tell us our fates and destinies. Wealth would be promised: profits would increase exponentially, homes would be sold, bigger homes bought, and spouses would be found. I avoided eye contact as much as possible, hoping against hope that my future to be left in someone else’s more competent hands.
The Spirit, as I saw him, was no different than me. I was a punk-rocker, and so was he. We sang, we danced, and we spun around in our mosh-pit of holiness, leaving the more important details of life to others.
After leaving for college, I left my Spirit filled theology and life behind, and joined the more conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I had moved, and the Spirit stayed put for all I was concerned. I wanted nothing more to do with him.
After three semesters at Wheaton, I returned East, and began attending a new church (which I am still at). In simplest terms, this was a fusion of both my charismatic background, and the Presbyterian theology that I had been wrestling with.
The Spirit was there, but he looked different. He was tamer, and we only let him wander so far. That is, we gave him space and time to operate in, and he had to work within those confines.
At a small group meeting, for example, we got stuck (and I certainly am guilty of this) in the following pattern: sing a song, then give time for people to be moved to share a word ‘from the Spirit,’ then play another song. There was immense pressure, feeling that Now Is The Time. We’d get our Bibles out, flip to the passage that we had read that morning, (if we even had), read it (while I gently finger-picked at the guitar), then pray.
On Sunday mornings, there was a ‘prophesy mic’, which allowed people to share burdens from the Spirit. (A different sort of ‘prophecy’ than at the charismatic church – no one was promising wealth. The intent was that the prophecy would be based in scripture.) The pattern was the same. Share a scripture, then the impression. Then sing another song.
Every August, the youth would take a retreat for a few days. Since I was in college at the time, I went as a team leader. I thoroughly enjoyed these times, but again, I noticed the same pattern. Friday night (the last night) we’d worship. Then a moving sermon. Then more worship. And we’d dance the night away. There would be prayer, tears, repentance, and hugs. The Spirit had moved.
Then the next year, the same thing happened.
Then the year after, it happened again. The Spirit always waited till Friday night to get going.
Through all of this, I have not been quite sure what to make of him. At the charismatic church, he was an extravagant, eccentric, spontaneous Spirit, at the Orthodox church he had ceased, and at my current church, he was unearthed, but tamed. We seemed to have confined him to the culture of each church.
The underlying assumption seemed to be that the Spirit is something that comes to us, whether planned or unplanned. And why would we not think that? “And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were siting.” (Acts 2:2)
I have lived most of my life with this assumption, and as a result, I kept him in the cracks of my life as long as I could. But I’ve found it’s near impossible to tame the wind. He blows where and when he wants.
About the fall of last year, the following thought popped into my head (or did he put it there?) — All my life I’ve prayed to God, sometimes to Jesus, but rarely to the Spirit for, or about, anything. And I wondered why. Especially in light of John 14, where Jesus says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth,” and later, in John 16, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
All my life, Jesus and God were the go-to guys in the Trinity. But now I was asking myself, “If it was better that Jesus go so that the Spirit, our Helper, would come to us, why have I put him in a box? Why have I tried to tame him?”
There came a sense that the Spirit was not something that I got into, or that happened to me, or to a meeting. But rather, a person that was with me, working in and through me. A person that was speaking to me, but that I could not hear, until I slowed down enough to listen. He was whispering, not “Yelling In My Ear” (like Jesse Michaels). Not specifically about rules and morality, but rather, showing me a path. “This is the way, walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21)