I remember the day I began to pray in tongues. I was at a conference with Darlene Zshech of Hillsong Worship teaching about worship and prayer. The entire assembly of 10,000 people began praying in tongues together. I did not. I was not raised in a church environment that encouraged praying in tongues, and I had been quite content to dwell in the disdain expressed towards this sort of expressive “stuff”.
But my life had shifted. I had left my childhood religion for atheism… then I left atheism and agreed to and committed to a new life of Jesus-following. And here I stood in an auditorium surrounded by one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard in my life. It was like an Appalachian waterfall, full of mystery, joy, peace and energy unlike I had audibly heard… big and boisterous, soft and fluid… all at the same time. It was Holy. I was a witness to an other-worldly holiness. I was receiving the outpouring voice of the Spirit. I was glimpsing Heaven. My senses were shocked and overwhelmed; it took my breath away.
In a flash, I saw a vision of myself rejecting God’s invitation to travel forward in faith. So I checked my ego and fear and opened my mouth and put air across my vocal chords with timidity and the tiniest (and biggest) trust I could muster. For the last 15 years since, I have prayed in tongues privately and with others when appropriate / agreed upon in order to access this holy power and edify my self and others.
The Holy Spirit is not defined by praying in tongues - oh no. To indicate such a thing is nothing less than blasphemy. The Holy Spirit is the FULLNESS of the incarnation of the Father AND the Son, right HERE and NOW in this ever-fleeting and present moment. As Jesus prepared the Disciples to be left behind his holy journey through death and into eternity, He reassured them of a presence he was sending that would NEVER leave them alone. An Ever-Present Counselor was to come - so holy, so worthy of reverence was this Companion, that Jesus warned to never dare deride the Spirit or speak against it. God in the HERE and NOW must be revered and honored for the present and supernatural work of guiding us messy human beings forward into holiness.
From the beginning, God’s holiness existed outside of the flow of time, creating and resting, largely unseen and unapproachable because we chose at the Fall to seek our own divinity - to be like God rather than walk WITH God... Except for the wild prophets and Holy ones who were able to transcend the human experience of their day to access God in His holiness by rejecting their own claim of being it. But they were few and special, prophets and a couple kings, written and venerated for generations as humanity stumbled through its existence violating every commitment to God’s Way. Then Emmanuel! Jesus enters, God is incarnate, walking side by side with the ones who were alive during his 33 year life on earth. From manger to grave, He taught them, healed them, ministered to them and railed against their unholy, unbelieving habits. Then He submitted to the cross, was laid in the tomb, and 3 days later blew the lid off of the bindings of mortality itself, redeeming forever the Fall into Glory.
With life and death rearranged, the Holy Spirit, the ever-present Counselor began His reign on earth. Not one thing that has occurred to further the Gospel of Jesus has happened outside of the reign and realm of the Holy Spirit. Every prayer, every healing, every tear wiped, every hopeful word spoken, every Biblical word studied, is the act of the Holy Spirit. Every person cultivated through trial and grace into surrender to Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit. You and I have never chosen a single good thing that was not teased forth from us by the Holy Spirit’s guidance, nudges, orchestration of circumstance, and ever-present leadership. And how many times when we choose a lesser or even horrid choice, do we feel that presence within cautioning, warning, beseeching us to reconsider? Truth, goodness, kindness, selflessness, and servanthood are all us bearing witness to the presence of the invisible Holy God Here and Now.
Humans like to think we are the top of the pyramid. We grip tightly to false narratives of normalcy, achievement, health and even holiness itself, patting ourselves on the back when we get a little bit more of anything. Yet we are not even aware enough to recognize the baseness of the elements we elevate. We love flesh, good-feeling chemistry, evidence of wealth, things the Good Word describes as not just vapid, but vaporous. (We have even tried to insist certain versions of English throughout the history of that one, very recent language are more worthy than others to carry the message of Christ!)
How silly we are. We can no more contain God within our words and acquisitions than we can capture the roaring force of creation itself in a bottle. The human mind is created in the image of the Holy God… an echo of His nature, yet we insist reality is the inversion! No wonder, no mystery, no circumventing of natural law is outside the purview of God; we certainly can NOT claim the same within our humanity. The capacity of our minds and hearts and spirits is limited only by what God already orchestrated as we were knitted together within our mother’s wombs. Yet the Holy Spirit flows through us, eliminating these limitations and invading the world through our willingness to submit and offer. There is no element of nature that God can not recreate, heal, and speak life into HERE and NOW. We are simply the participating (and limiting) hosts of His Holy Power.
So briefly - back to praying in tongues. I have leaned into the Holy Spirit with the heart of an artist and the mind of a Jesus follower - who admittedly trained up in the sciences. I accept the exceptional and mysterious and still ask and investigate the mystery. So here is my take on praying in tongues:
Praying in tongues is an example of how human capacity limits the divinely unlimited God. Language is one of the hardest filters the activity of the human brain must pass through. Neurologically, speech is a complex process of distilling ideas into known and quantified bundles of words, sound, and expressions. Anyone who struggles with writing, speaking, public speaking, articulating their ideas KNOWS this personally. But what if you simply bypassed the entire paradigm? Could you not express yourself honestly and concisely in groans too deep for words? As a parent of a non-verbal child, I assure you, the essentials of the human experience come through with a rawness words minimize and limit!
And the truth is the ideas we articulate are often far different than what the hearer hears and internalizes! The relationship of interpreter to speaker is complex, social, and fraught with mis-understanding. Imagine landing on the shore of a new country in which your eloquence meant nothing because no one could receive or understand your speech?
This is the experience of God with humanity. God, the Ever-Present Counselor is always speaking - yet who can and will fully interpret the Holy One? Who is listening and feeling and able to filter to the “sounds” of God’s own never-ceasing voice into such a petty thing as an earthly language or human understanding?
Speaking in tongues submits to God’s use of the creation of sound waves into, through and over His creation. And then once those sound waves leave the vocal chords of the prayer, the interpreter of spoken tongues enters that same holy sound space. The sound bypass the hearer’s rational diagnosis of language patterns, again submitting to God’s use of ears and Spirit to interpret. It is the Holy Spirit using the speaker to communicate with the Holy Spirit through the interpreter! Without the encumbrances of the human language filters within the brain, both humans must release self power, and submit to know they only serve as a host to part of the communication that is not OF THEM. It is holy and mystery. It is communication entirely orchestrated by God yet breathed by our own breath.
And when alone, prayer in tongues is a holy communication of deep self yielding both speaking and hearing/ interpreting. No prayer word is ever wasted but is full of power! Each sound already offered by the Holy Spirit, when I pray in tongues I receive the blessing of being prayed over by God Himself. And I can testify to my own experience - no English word holds the emotional and spiritual power of the briefest utterance of my time in prayers in tongues. Because it is the Lord speaking through my body, mind, and spirit to the Lord. And it is POWER.
People often ask, is it an actual language? Well you would have to be quite a student of human lingual expression to know the answer to that! If it was needed by God to clearly speak to those with other languages, as it was after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts, I have no doubt God could and would and has done many times. I have uses the same sounds and “words” since the very first moment I prayed at that conference - and I hear other people who pray in tongues with a distinctive “dialect”. I assume that means something. No, I haven’t a clue WHICH human language it might be - and frankly that is hardly the point because both the creation of sound, and receiving of the sound is entirely dwelling in the moment with the Holy Spirit… so who knows what the natural / atheistic world would see and hear? Possibly nothing at all. But isn’t that the way this entire experience of faith works? Even that with great power appears as folly to those who will not partake of the goodness.
Praying in tongues is nothing to fear, rather a great gift of time and presence and power by, with, and in the Holy Spirit.
ONLY By the Power of the Holy Spirit
The Disciples had followed and watched Jesus transform every life he contacted towards God’s holiness and mercy. Then terrified they fled as he was scorned, tortured, and killed. Full of wonder, they witnessed the mystery and wholly UN-natural resurrected Christ walk among them. But finally He was gone, and all that remained was His PROMISE that Pentecost WOULD come and, “very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate (1.) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
Who was this Advocate? And how could it be BETTER than walking alongside Jesus in the fullness of His Power and Love?
God was distant and abstract before Jesus. In the time of Jesus, those 33 years on earth, the incarnation of God was most completely expressed in that one body, that ONE human. AFTER the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the incarnation of God became HERE and NOW, expressed through and guiding the Body of Christ, the church, you and me, and the millions and millions who came before, are now, and will be to come! God is in OUR MIDST RIGHT HERE AND NOW!
Now don’t let that float past you. YOU are not the fullness of the incarnation of God. I am NOT the fullness of the incarnation of God. But WE - the entire Body - in all its variants, colors, flavours, and expressions ARE the FULL incarnation of God HERE and NOW! Missionaries on the front lines of mighty spiritual battles, martyrs who worship unto death, complacent Sunday church goers… WE are the manifestation of God HERE and NOW. Conservatives, Liberals, un-political believers - ALL who believe and seek the holiness of Jesus - together WE are the incarnation of God HERE AND NOW.
Why does this matter so deeply? Because the enemy wants nothing more than to steal kill and destroy the JOY this should create within us! He wants to accuse you… or the guy down the pew from you… that we are “not holy.” He wants to minimize the reality of this Holy Spirit inhabiting the HUGE, TOGETHER “US” by picking us off one at a time. The enemy MUST try to divide the BODY of Christ because together, unified, and loving of one another’s uniqueness?! THERE IS NO FORCE LIKE US. Together, learning and practicing and growing from the Word found planted in each of us IS ALL THE POWER of the incarnate God HERE AND NOW who has already won every victory and broken every chain!
And the hard truth is neither you nor I can grow alone into Christ-likeness if we do not immerse ourselves in this difficult and self-shattering work of loving and learning from the Body as a diverse whole. I love that from the moment He departed, Jesus made certain His Gospel could not be contained within human boundaries - never co-opted by any individuals - those who seek to fracture and exclude and grab the power for themselves or their faction will always fail! The power, the beauty, the fullness of God is ONLY available as we lean into the Holy Spirit - the Living Word through those who are like us AND those who are very, very different - in faith and with love!
Only Jesus, the One, the Logos / Word incarnate, the “Son of Man” - humanity as God intended from the beginning unifies us. We come together because we NEED Him. We have this in common: “I am not the Christ, but I need Him - and I need You ALL because Christ is incarnate, full of Power, Grace, and Truth in His diverse Body HERE AND NOW.”
I hear a lot from folks who are afraid of the ways in which we have seen and experienced life, faith, and humanity differently. Folks are afraid of the differences between us and are waiting for the boundary to be made evident. But friends, you DO NOT need to fear. Jesus has already won the victory and broken EVERY boundary that separates us from Him! So with this unity, led by the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Body IS the VICTORIOUS WAY of Christ! We are living the victorious mess of the Holy Community of faith! Within this messy, beautiful design, even with the differences, is the only place to find ALL God’s holiness, ALL God’s power, ALL God’s strength to forgive and offer grace and care, HERE and NOW and ALIVE! He is the unifying POWER! Lean into Him and your brothers and sisters in Christ and learn. Lay down yourself and grow! Pick up your cross and start walking with one another in love and grace. Share Truth as you have come to understand it, but be willing to lean deeply into Truth that the Holy Spirit has planted in others!
We are each called to be Disciples of Christ (STUDENTS of Christ). But as Students we are called to be taught by God WITH one another! We are called to be broken apart alongside one another! We are called to be subservient to this “Deep calling out to Deep” - the Holy Spirit calling out and answering - from within every member of this Jesus-seeking Body. The Holy Spirit IS in you, advocating FOR you and me and those who have walked before us and those yet to come, proclaiming grace and hope and victory IS NOW AND FOREVERMORE - if we would just seek Him together! Until we lay down our self, recognizing our sin in our own self-importance, we can not live in the fullness of God’s Power and Holiness and Grace HERE and NOW. This Holy Community is diverse and beautiful!. This Holy Body is full of unique experiences and perspectives that God is sharing with we humans who so desperately needs to see and hear right HERE and NOW.
When we labored over Big Life C.C. we articulated three simple points of UNITY that clearly and completely ensure God’s Spirit incarnate could work in fullness of the Body HERE and NOW:
1. Advocate / Helper/ Counselor - Strong’s 3875 paráklētos (from 3844 /pará, "from close-beside" and 2564 /kaléō, "make a call") – properly, a legal advocate who makes the right judgment-call because close enough to the situation. 3875 /paráklētos ("advocate, advisor-helper") is the regular term in NT times of an attorney (lawyer) – i.e. someone giving evidence that stands up in court.
Here’s how history goes:
In the beginning, was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God. And God would interact with his people by speaking to them, giving them his Word, in all kinds of ways – up on top of sacred mountains, through messenger angels and prophets, and of course in burning bushes.
Then the best thing that could ever happen to humanity happened, and Jesus is sent down to earth, made man, incarnate in the body of a human. And now we have a whole other new and more intimate way to receive the Word. The disciples who walked alongside Christ during his ministry not only got to hear the Word directly from the mouth of Christ, they received the mind-blowing gift of being able to interact with it, ask questions, put it to the test.
For those followers, the loss was greatest not when Christ dies – because most of them still have not realized the totality of what they have lost – the loss is greatest after Christ rises, walks among them, proves to any who have doubt that he is indeed who he says he is, and then ascends to heaven. There must have been a profound sense of grief among Christ’s early followers, which we are told number about 120, knowing what they had – God among them, God with whom they could interact, ask questions, and get answers – is now no longer in their presence.
But then something happens.
In Acts chapter 2, it’s written:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all gathered together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability.”
Devout Jews from different nations from all over the ancient middle east were gathered for a holiday called Pentecost, which was a harvest festival – you can think of it as ancient Jewish Thanksgiving with the distant cousins coming into town. And these Jews from all over who speak Greek and Latin and Parthian and Arabic are now suddenly hearing these Galileans – who by all accounts should basically know only Galilean -- proclaiming God’s great deeds in their own languages.
In short, devout God-seekers from all over the known world are now hearing through the Holy Spirit the Word of God in a way that is accessible to them.
That is the age of Pentecost, the age that we have been in ever since. We live in a period of history in which God does not boom at us through burning bushes, and in which we do not have the ability to see and touch and directly talk to and question Jesus, but in which the Word of God is nonetheless present all around us, accessible to anyone who wants to hear.
The less than devout, of course, assumed not that they were hearing the Word of God, but that these Galileans were clearly drunk at nine in the morning. Not everyone is ready to hear the Word of God in their lives.
The amazing thing about living in this moment in history, though, is that precisely because you are surrounded by the Word of God in every moment of your day – because you can feel the Word of God enter you during prayer and meditation, because you can come to church and hear it through an insightful sermon or perfectly relevant song, because you can PICK UP THE BIBLE AND READ IT FOR YOURSELF – you do not get one chance to interact with and to hear from God. You do not walk past a bush on fire and miss your one shot. The Word of God is always there, prodding you, waiting for you to say Yes and invite it into your life.
The downside, of course, to living with the ever-present Word, is that it can be easy to miss. Because it’s not a bush on fire booming instructions at you. It’s not causing mountains to shake. The ever-present Word of God most of the time for most people looks pretty normal.
My best friend Grace is the most self-assured person I know. Grace wears fanny packs because they are useful. Grace is the one person I know who, when it got cold in Chicago one year, actually made good on her threat to pick up and move to Arizona just because of the cold. Grace, the day I asked her to be her maid of honor, looked me straight in the face and told me she’d do it because she loves me but that I shouldn’t get married and damn it all if she wasn’t absolutely right and was the only person who had the guts to say it.
And I’m telling you about Grace because her self-assuredness comes straight from her faith and from her identity in Christ. But it was not always this way.
Grace grew up in a church that took the gift of Pentecost seriously. In Grace’s church, when the Holy Spirit rained down upon the room, you knew it. You knew it because it manifested in ways that many of us would think of as supernatural, perhaps even unbelievable. The Spirit brought gifts of healing, of miraculous powers, and yes, also the gift of speaking in tongues, a gift that, in Grace’s church, was taken to be not just proof that you were a Spirit-filled Christian, but the absence of which was taken as evidence that you were not.
Grace, herself the only child in her family named for a Bible verse, Grace who had spent her high school years with me being the good kid, the voice of conscious I so often ignored, wanted this gift more than anything. It happened for everyone around her. But it never happened for her.
Most of us have our original wounds stemming from early church experiences. Churches are wonderful, messy places, filled with wonderful, messy people, who usually try their best, but very often fail. And because of these human failings, lots of us at one point in our early experiences with faith were given the message that there was something wrong with us. That we weren’t being good enough. That we weren’t praying hard enough. That we didn’t believe the exact right thing. That something about who we were just wasn’t right and if we could make it right only then could we inhabit this amazing Spirit-filled destiny that God has laid out for us.
But the truth is that God invites us into a relationship with him all day, every day through the Holy Spirit, and He is speaking our language. And that looks different for different people.
Maybe you’ve experienced the Spirit in your life by actually hearing the words that God is speaking to you. A word, or a phrase, or a command – a straight up booming voice that calls you by name and tells you what to do next. Maybe that voice for you is not clearly booming, earth-shaking voice of authority. Maybe it sounds like your own voice, speaking in third person at you – an unsettling feeling because it leaves you in doubt over whether you heard God or yourself. Maybe you don’t hear any voice at all. Maybe when the Spirit is moving in you it’s more of a vague feeling, a notion, as subtle as a scent in the breeze stirring something within you. Maybe you experience the Holy Spirit in a particular moment, or in a particular person, because we know it’s written that when two or three gather in my name there I am with them.
If you want to be in the presence of God, if you want His guidance for your life, your task is only to say yes to opening yourself up to Him, to commit to really listening for Him, and to actively eliminate the background noise, the noise of the world and its demands, the noise of people who would tell you the specifics of what your relationship with God must look like, the noise of those would tell you that you must be a specific way to have that relationship.
If you need a prompt to make this happen, start by taking a moment out of your day today to be silent and to listen. Sit in silence, maybe at the start of your day before everyone else is awake, close your eyes, steady your breath, and listen. Let the endless stream of thoughts and tasks and worries enter through one ear and exit the other, releasing the background noise that stands between you and the whispers of your Creator. Do it daily. Then add these moments into your day. A walking meditation. A long awkward pause in a conversation.
God wants you to hear him, because he wants all his children to hear and to be in relationship with him. I cannot promise that you will someday as a result of this practice become so filled with the Spirit that you start speaking Greek and can heal with your touch -- it never did happen for Grace, who left the church of her childhood only to grow more in Christ. But I can say with confidence that the Spirit is available to you, and that learning to listen for it and recognize it is a skill you can cultivate in yourself.
The Pentecost – this age that we live in in which the Holy Spirit is in us and all around us – means that God is speaking our language. As we enter this season, reflect, and ask yourself: How do I interact with the Spirit? What does it look like when I am Spirit-filled? When have I seen the Spirit move in my life?
Jenette Sturges is the girl who sits in the front row at Big Life C.C. and talks too much* (*Marissa disagrees... but it's her bio, so...). She’s a servant leader, has been at Big Life since December 2014, and is currently working on a spiritual memoir on her Big Life experience and diverse Christian practices. Jenette has a B.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Illinois, an M.A. in Liberal Studies (which she swears is a real thing) from North Central College, a Certificate of Commendation (which may not be a real thing) from Hanoi Pedagogical University No. 2, and has worked in local journalism and municipal government for the past decade. When she’s not at the church, she’s explaining to Oswego residents the intricacies of municipal sewer infrastructure and tax policy, doing yoga, or working on her old house and garden in Aurora with her tiny dog and murderous cat.