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.