This past weekend was on the last section of the Nicene Creed: We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
That’s a motherboard of theological hot-circuits: baptism, resurrection, judgment and the big apocalyptic finish.
At the uptempo close of our worship in the 11:40 celebration, someone suddenly spoke out in tongues for what felt like a lengthy time, though probably a minute. It was quite emotional and fairly loud. I was in a back room getting ready to go on when I heard it. Our worship leader, Charlie Hines, paused for a few moments and then closed in prayer, though the woman was still speaking. She slowed down to a finish and then Charlie did what we always do—have people say ‘hello’ to someone before you sit down. The vibe in the room was a little uneasy.
Brad was backstage getting ready to do the transition and said, “Should I say something?” I told him no and that I would talk about it. It really was a pastoring-moment.
Before I walked out, Brad asked, “What are you going to say?”
“I don’t know. I’ll shoot from the hip.” (I think that’s an old cowboy term for not taking time to aim with the gunsight. It ain’t accurate but it’s fast…)
Of course, depending on your church background, this is either a mystery, a big deal or a non-issue. The charismatics were probably thinking, “Finally! Now let’s get the interpretation…”. The evangelicals were wondering, “I knew it! I thought there was something suspicious about this place…”. And the clueless were thinking, “What the…? Is she having a nervous breakdown?”
Even more interesting to me was the “emotional field”, in psychologist Rollo May’s language, that rippled out. There was a palpable uneasiness. I think it was not only the fact it’s a rare occurrence (I can’t remember the last time in a large corporate setting like that), but accompanied with serious emotion. Imagine being at a family reunion in a local restaurant, everyone’s eating and laughing and telling stories and suddenly Uncle Frank breaks into a very emotional, passionate diatribe…in Latin. Suddenly, the emotional field shifts radically.
Speaking in tongues is an important piece of the Christian experience. But it’s not without difficulties in practice; just look at the various theological viewpoints, not to mention the methodologies. I won’t go into that here…that’s a month’s worth of blogs; Paul devotes three whole chapters to addressing its use, abuse and context in the Corinthian church.
Let me just preface this by saying I speak in tongues myself; it’s personal and a critical part of my prayer life. But how it’s used corporately is debated, even among charismatics. And in our post-modern, dechurched and yet weirdly religious American culture, it’s even more strange when your weekend gatherings are designed to have a user-friendly attractional element.
But that’s not the point of this post. I just wanted to let you inside a communicator’s head (as if you were interested…) from a pastoral perspective.
For instance, my first thought was: “Uh-oh…we have some ‘splaining to do.” Thought number two: “Oh. That’s me.” Third thought: “Dang. I’m giving a hefty message today about judgment. Plus, this?” Fourth: “If I brought someone for the first time today, what would I be thinking?” Fifth thought: “Do this in two minutes, change the vibe in the room…and move on.” Thought number six: “Wow, this is actually cool—an opportunity to teach on how to handle this.” Seventh thought: “Am I spiritually discerning anything about this expression of tongues?”
My intuition was that this was more of a personal release from someone who was emotionally troubled, and was giving personal expression to God from that…not a corporate message.
Anyway, after setting up the message, I mentioned how I needed to take a moment and ‘pastor’ what just happen. It was the classic elephant in the room. I briefly explained how we have a theology open to the gifts of the Spirit, but that the gifts work best in the right context and that it’s not a normal custom for us to use the gift of tongues in the weekend setting. I relayed that we believe the ideal place to learn and practice spiritual gifts is in your small group where there is relationship and accountability and that in a large gathering like this with people all over the map in their spiritual journeys and backgrounds, anyone can walk in off the street and say they have a message from God; it can quickly get confusing and disorienting. As leaders, we have to carefully shepherd the mission God has clearly given us.
Leaders have a responsibility to navigate and interpret. It isn’t always pretty, it isn’t always simple and you’ll never please everybody. I have been in charismatic and word-of-faith circles in just about every imaginable shape and size for thirty-five years. I think I’ve seen the best and worst; I’ve embraced some and jettisoned equal amounts of teaching.
And then I went on with a message on baptism, resurrection, and judgment. Sheesh.
Interesting postscript, though. Today a friend called me who was on the prayer team Sunday. He said a woman came to them for prayer afterwards and said, “Uh, I’m the one who spoke in tongues.” He smiled and said, “It’s okay. What can we pray for you about?” She wept as she told them she was a struggling single mom, pregnant, and with news that her baby has serious physical difficulties and will not live after birth. She was in deep, deep pain. I have no doubts that she was crying out from that place.
And the truth is, most of us regularly project messages from God through our own lenses.
At the same time the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we don’t know how to pray for what we need. But the Spirit intercedes along with our groans that cannot be expressed in words. The one who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit has in mind. The Spirit intercedes for God’s people the way God wants him to. (Romans 8:26-27 God’s Word Translation)