My first two or three years as a Charismatic were marked by a certain enthusiasm. I was convinced that it was the great restoration of the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit that had been slowly all but squandered out of existence by the generations succeeding the Apostles. I believed that anyone who had the gift of the Holy Spirit would grow in grace and wisdom and power and go on from glory to glory to heights unknown since Apostolic times. I figured someone who had had the Holy Ghost for five years was likely a prayer warrior of great power and authority…and someone who had the Holy Ghost 25 years was practically a new Apostle….how could it be otherwise. How could such close contact between man and God be utterly transformative? It made no sense if it wasn’t.
Somewhere around my third or fourth year as a Charismatic I began to encounter intimations that it all might not make as much sense as first thought. One day…I think in 1979 around Christmas I was brewing the religious section of the local Bookland and saw a title that I simple could not process. It read, “I Used to Speak in Tongues”. What an absurdity…you couldn’t speak in tongues unless you had been baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire…and if you had such a dramatic supernatural encounter with God how was it remotely possible to disavow His gift and still consider yourself a Christian? Around this time I also learned of a long time Charismatic pastor caught in an act of marital infidelity, an had a shock of discover that something I thought had a clear witness of the Holy Spirit to me about how I should live my life (I thought I had call to preach) was not remotely discernible to someone who had had the Holy Ghost for at least 25 years….it was crushing and confusing at the same time…The Holy Spirit couldn’t be at odds with Himself, and it was inconceivable that a preacher 25 years in Pentecost, a man reputed to be a prophet among us could not see any sign of a calling to preach on my life…the signs for me had been so clear. If it wasn’t a test of faith for me, I didn’t know what to make of it.
If that wasn’t enough ’79 was a weird year for the Charismatic movement from my perspective because it basically stopped working the way it used to. What I mean is this…it used to be fun to corner a doubting Baptist who seemed to have one arm or leg slightly shorter than the other, then to command the short limb to grow, then to watch it lengthen and shrink and lengthen back again until both feet or arms looked exactly equal. There was a little dose of power they could not deny. I also recall changing the wind on occasion when I was burning trash and the wind was blowing smoke in my face…so I commanded it in Jesus name to blow the other way…and it did for a few minutes. When it changed and blew back in my face I commanded it again….and it changed again. Sometimes I would get this tingly feeling in my hands as we prayed at home meetings and whoever I touched fell over…no catchers…they just flopped over face-up, face-down…didn’t matter. It happened more than a couple of times those first couple of years…but by Christmas of 79 everything except tongues pretty much stopped working…and it wasn’t for just me, it was everywhere, though it didn’t seem others noticed at first,….but was was undeniable what one could do “in the Spirit” just got less and less and less until all that was left were the motions and noises of what used to work. I also note was about the time the Word of Faith/Name it and Claim it/Health and Wealth doctrine began gathering steam.
The music also changed…our choruses used be basically Bible verses set to some little ditty…then we started singing songs about singing songs about faith, my buddy Jesus songs and the like.
In short something died…I had no explanation why or how. I knew that it used to work, should work, and that it all sounded very convincing on paper, or in the mouth of a good speaker. You could still get people their prayer language…tongues, and they could rattle on and get teary-eyed just as in days of yore…but healings, miracles became less frequent, less visual…lots of inner healing no doubt. So I was at a loss. There was no going back for there was too little room in my former faiths (Baptist/Methodist) for what I had come to believe, for what I had seen and experienced myself…but how to go forward was equally obscure…since big hair and big wallets had taken over the Charismatic movement…the form was there, but the power was just gone…or if not gone entirely down to a personally titillating trickle.
By the time I made it through an a attempt to live in a communal situation after graduating college, and later moving to Arkansas to help with a sister ministry I was getting pretty frustrated with my life and starting to get mad at God for making me a bunch of promises, getting me involved, then effectively abandoning me…no good job, no spiritual power beyond the ability rattle on in tongues for hours if I wanted (big whoop…was how I eventually felt), then there was that whole call to the ministry thing that came upon me with such clarity only to never be able to bear any kind of sustainable fruit.
Maybe I had sinned too much, compromised my witness in some way, given up during a test…I didn’t know, and God didn’t seem to be talking. At some point I had to get on with my life…do something other than continue waiting for what was apparently not going to happen to happen. So I joined the Navy, and ended spending some time over seas.
Two experiences stand out from my time of Naval service. When our ship made a port call in Alexandria I had a chance to visit the Cathedral of St. Mark and saw the spot where St. Mark the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel bearing his name was laid to rest in a catacomb below the cathedral….well what was left of him. The Venetians had stolen all of his body but for a portion of his skullcap back in the 1400s.
As I left the cathedral I noticed a giant slab of polished stone mounted on one wall. On it was engraved the name of every bishop of Alexandria from the time of St. Mark to the present day. It was amazing to stand there and see the evidence generation by generation for almost 2000 years of continuous Christian community on this very spot. Christians had been worshiping exactly where I stood since the time of St. Mark. I knew as a former Baptist and Methodist, and as a somewhat disaffected Charismatic that we had nothing like this sort of history…no roots like those I was then witnessing.
The second event was when we had shore leave in Athens and I got to go to the Areopagus, Mars Hill and stand on the very spot St. Paul stood as he spoke to the Athenians (it’s marked). Indeed, his whole recorded discourse is contained on a big bronze plaque bolted to the rock of the Areopagus. I was touching history in a way that had never been accessible to me back in the Deep South of the USA. I still didn’t know what to make of it…but it definitely left an impression.
History came round again a few years latter…roughly my tenth year as a Charismatic. It was after I was out the Navy, after a dark year or two while I pursued a graduate degree (never finished it)….I had given up on being a preacher. I figured even if I had once been called I had sinned it all away in my two or three years of sour grapes. In the church I attended I met a new friend and his family who had an interest in early Church fathers as I had begun to develop…more on that latter.
In particular, I remember a conversation we had about music. A group called 2nd Chapter of Acts had recently released an album of old standard hymns which they had given some new instrumentation and a slight contemporary edge.The album stunned me…those hymns were so rich, so deep, so full of experience and wisdom in Christ I as amazed at how blind (and deaf) we early Charismatics had been regarding that old “dead” dusty music. We had all but thrown away the old hymns as irrelevant to the new thing God was doing…but here they were: rich, plump and juicy with the grace that had seemingly taken a vacation from the Charismatic movement as I knew it in the mid to late 80s.
My friend and I discussed these old hymns and noted that for all their richness we had ignored them in our youth and inexperience because we didn’t know how to hear and appreciate them; yet few of those hymns were older than 2 or 3 hundred years. That made me wonder aloud what else might there be out of our sight in plain sight hidden under the dust of Church history which like the old hymns was also rich and had nourished the faith of those Christians of an earlier time. What was there for the taking which we could not appreciate because we didn’t know how to see, hear, or engage it. My friend, a former Episcopalian said, “LIturgy.”
I responded with a “hmmm” and a blank stare. I knew the word but had no concept of what liturgy was, how it worked…how it remotely could be considered worship…at best I considered it some history incrusted habit that continued more by force of inertia than any sort of living faith. My experience with liturgy was very limited; I had once visited a Catholic church with an old college friend, and had once visited a Lutheran church out of curiosity…it both cases it seemed to me liturgy was little more than people in outlandish robes mumbling over dishes and tableware in front of a crowd who mumbled back politely at regular intervals. I did not get liturgy at all…but given that I had once not “gotten” the old hymns that I had once sniffed at, I was willing to put my friend’s opinion upon a shelf for further examination at a later time rather than just dismiss it out of hand.
Liturgy was a blind spot in my experience that took a trip of 8000 miles and five or six more years to get around. But…I did get around it with the help of a little book that entered into my life in 1993.
I’ll talk about that book in a bit, but first I want to revisit why a Charismatic youth would have any interest in the Church fathers.