“Holy Spirit come with power, breathe into our aching night. We expect You this glad hour, waiting for Your strength and light. We are fearful, we are ailing. We are weak and selfish, too. Break upon Your congregation, give us vigour life anew.” (1)
“If you believe and I believe and we together pray, the Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free. And set God’s people free. And set God’s people free. The Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free.” (2)
“Praise the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light. Praise the One who frees the prisoners, turning blindness into sight. Praise the One who preached the Gospel, healing every dread disease, calming and feeding thousands with the very bread of peace.” (3)
The words to these well-loved Mennonite hymns echoed across the room as we all stood to sing of the Holy Spirit who heals, restores, forgives, and nourishes us. As a congregation we beseech the Holy Spirit to come into our lives empowering us for acts of service and witness to the wider church, to help us rebuild and restore our common humanity. We have no problem believing the Holy Spirit is more than capable to do miracles, but we have a hard time believing that He will do miracles for us. Today. In the 21st century.
As an Anabaptist thinker I grew up being skeptical of such spiritual activity myself. I doubted that God would choose to send angels and other prophetic messengers, and the thought of speaking in tongues seemed prosperous, forget about the idea of raising someone from the dead. I thought that the gifts of healings, casting out demons, and receiving words of wisdom from someone we barely knew were all things of the past. Not at all important or relevant to our society today. However, over time, I have come to believe otherwise.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I began attending Tyndale University College and Seminary, a trans-denominational school in Toronto, Ontario. While there my eyes and heart were opened to a variety of spiritual experiences, and over the years I have been incredibly blessed by God to be able to speak in tongues on a variety of occasions, to give and receive prophetic words, and even once to be able to interpret the tongue of another person. Throughout the last five years, I have also received challenging dreams and visions, have experience both demonic and angelic visitations, and on at least one occasion have experienced supernatural protection despite being in geographic places of profound spiritual darkness and distress.
Now, as someone who once was skeptical of all of these activities myself, I know how easy it is for individuals to just write-off these experiences as fanciful imagination or attribute them to lack of sleep, but now that I have experienced these other-worldly encounters myself I have no reason to believe that they no longer take place. In fact, as I read the Scriptures and discuss theology with seminarians of a more charismatic persuasion, I am drawn to believe that God did indeed grant these spiritual gifts to His people and that He has not stopped doing so. For example, both the Old and New Testaments are replete with examples of Christ’s followers, both before and after His departure, being able to open up the eyes of the blind, to heal dreadful diseases, and even to raise sick individuals from the dead. This is further cemented by Jesus’s rebuke on more than one occasion to His disciples for not having the faith to accomplish miraculous feats. Most importantly, after Jesus’s ascension into Heaven, He promised the Holy Spirit to His children as an advocate and a comforter, although there are numerous statements (both implicit and explicit) before that of the Holy Spirit being a vital part of the Trinity.(4)
This preliminary understanding of my own experience with spiritual gifts, thus serves as a backdrop as I approach Micael Grenholm’s chapter in the new MennoNerds Anthology “A Living Alternative” entitled “Charismatic Anabaptism: Combing Signs and Wonders With Peace and Justice” (if you own the book you can find his chapter on page 247). In his chapter, Grenholm argues that spiritual signs and wonders still occur and that they can indeed be a method of producing peace and justice in our world. At first glance this may seem quite peculiar. Many individuals may wonder how and why signs and wonders are important to the Christian community of faith and how it even applies to peace-making. After all, most Pentecostals are not necessarily pacifists and most pacifists are not necessarily Pentecostal. Nevertheless, as Grenholm traces the historical movements of the Charismatic church, it becomes quite evident that Pentecostalism began as a largely peace-oriented church and through believing in the power of the Holy Spirit has been able to accomplish wonderful and rich evangelism which helps dis-empowered individuals at the same time.
When I first received my copy of “A Living Alternative” I was immediately drawn to reading my own chapter (hey, there’s something special about having your work in print!), but as soon as I finished that, my next stop was to read Grenholm’s chapter. By way of explanation, Grenholm publishes frequently on topics of charismatic gifts and the Holy Spirit and has a blog and YouTube channel called “Holy Spirit Activism” which you can check out here: https://holyspiritactivism.wordpress.com/category/holy-spirit-activism/. A self-proclaimed Anabaptist thinker, Grenholm is one of the few scholars I have met who is able to meld both charismatic and Anabaptist ideals together without keeping them distinct. That’s because throughout my life when I started exhibiting more charismatic experiences many (though certainly not all) Mennonites disagreed with me that such things were possible and many did not want to continue the dialogue at all. Contrarily, on several occasions Grenholm and I have read each other’s literary works, have agreed or disagreed on certain points of theology, and ultimately have furthered dialogue within our individual circles because of it.
Reading through Grenholm’s chapter in “A Living Alternative” recently once again produced points of contention and fostered awareness of what the Holy Spirit is indeed capable of. It is hard to do a chapter full of such good scholarship justice in only one blog post; however, I’d like to highlight just a bit of what Grenholm shared in his chapter that I really resonated with.
Firstly, as I already alluded to previously, Grenholm traces the charismatic renewal through the centuries in the first few pages of his chapter. Here he references some of the best known occurrences of Spirit-filled worship including the Azuza Street Revival and the Toronto Blessing. The Toronto Blessing, now manifested in the Airport Christian Fellowship (also known as: Catch the Fire) is a movement that is still going strong in Toronto, Ontario. I have had a few opportunities to attend this church myself, and while I largely do not agree with the theology they espouse or the way they proclaim it, and while I believe that pastors should have more education than what their pastors currently possess, I have, like many others, been quite impressed by the sensationalism of the whole experience. It is hard for me to sort out what is truthful or not because I have never been to any of their healings, but without limiting the Holy Spirit, I do believe that certain occurrences are quite possible. My only caution with attending churches like this is to beware of emotionalism (meaning that belief and theology in healings and miracles must be both emotional and intellectual) and to ensure the testing of all such activities. The Apostle Paul himself warned to “test all things”.(5)
Secondly, I resonate with some of Grenholm’s words of caution on the testing of so-called spiritual experiences. I, personally, have been asked on more than one occasion if I believe that prophetic utterances still exist today. My answer: sure they do! HOWEVER, there are two criteria that I always keep in mind when someone tells me they have a word of the Lord for me personally or for the church. First, prophecy cannot contradict the Scripture (6). As the Bible tells us, no one can say “Jesus is Lord” and at the same time say “Jesus be cursed.” (7) A house divided against itself cannot stand (8). Therefore, everything that is claimed to be prophetic must be in accordance with what Jesus said and with the message of peace and justice that He proclaimed to the world. Secondly, prophecy must come true. The Bible tells us that we will know a prophet based on whether the words take place as he or she espoused or not (9). In certain cases this can be quite difficult to ascertain based on the time frame they give us, but we should always be cautious of accepting all prophecy before it can be faithfully proven to us. We need to be alert and vigilant because many false prophets exist who only provide words of comfort which “tickle people’s ears” but in essence lead them astray. (10)
Finally, I found the personal encounters of the Holy Spirit that Grenholm uses in his chapter to be both encouraging and inspiring. Although it is easy to dismiss these experiences as legitimately happening, they remind us that the Holy Spirit primarily works in personal ways and that He is not confined or limited to our understanding of who He is or what He can do.
Like Grenholm, I truly believe that when we allow the Holy Spirit access into our lives, He truly will do great things through us. I am not of the persuasion that this looks the same for everyone, as I do not believe that every individual has the ability to speak in tongues, to be prophetic, or to do healings (in fact, Paul himself said that tongues was the least important of the gift (11). Nevertheless, I do believe that every believer does possess gifts which they can use to benefit and further God’s Kingdom here on earth in an attempt to bring peace and justice.
A very short anecdote about this would be from my own experience. As someone who grew up in the church and who has thankfully never experienced much hardship, it is easy for me to believe that my testimony is boring, uninspiring, or unable to bring people to Christ. After all, how can street youth, battered women, or deviant adolescents truly connect to a “good little church girl” who did everything she was supposed to do? Yet, a few months ago I started fervently praying allowing the Holy Spirit full permission to use any parts of my personal story that would benefit the church and bring glory to God. Although it did not happen right away, the Holy Spirit took me up on the offer. Soon I was asked to preach and in particular to share parts of my testimony, I was asked to write, and individuals were placed in my path with whom I could discuss and encourage. This may not be as profound as raising someone from the dead, but it did bring my attention to the fact that the Holy Spirit is a powerful force and one we cannot ignore because He is persistent.
I want to thank Grenholm for reminding all of us that the Holy Spirit is alive and active and that He woos each one of us closer to the heart of God. I also want to thank Grenholm for his courage in discussing a topic not always well thought out in the western Anabaptist church and for his honesty and integrity in exploring these concepts further. I hope that if you have the opportunity you will read his chapter in “A Living Alternative” for yourselves. I look forward to further dialogue on this topic with you :).
1) “Holy Spirit Come With Power” (Text: Anne Neufeld Rupp, 1970; Music; attributed to B.F. White; copyright 1970)
2) “If You Believe and I Believe” (Zimbabwe Traditional; copyright 1991 WGRG The Iona Community)
3) “Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness” (Text: Rusty Edwards, Music: American Folk Melody; Copyright 1987)
To purchase a copy of A Living Alternative: http://www.amazon.com/Living-Alternative-Anabaptist-Christianity-Post-Christendom/dp/0989830411/ref=asap_B002BMG086_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417959721&sr=1-9