The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 3, Surprised By God

The first facet of the pentecostal worldview described by James Smith in his book Thinking in Tongues is a radical openness to God, especially God doing something different or new.

Unpacking this James goes on to describe "a deep sense of expectation and an openness to surprise." Pentecostal worship "makes room for the unexpected" where "the surprising comes as no surprise."

Key to this experience is a posture of receptivity. As James says, "pentecostal spirituality is shaped by a fundamental mode of reception." This posture of receptivity creates the potential for surprise. All of which creates the experience of gift.

Again, all this is very much what I've experienced in the charismatic worship at Freedom Fellowship. And it's an important element in my book The Slavery of Death.

In The Slavery of Death, borrowing from David Kelsey, I connect the experience of gift to an eccentric experience of God. By eccentric I mean that God comes to us from "the outside" as it were. We don't own or control God. We can't erect a fence around God. God is not property, a possession of the faith community we must hoard and protect from others.

God is, rather, welcomed and received. Or waited upon. God is experienced as gift.

This is a critical insight in The Slavery of Death, this notion of eccentricity. Eccentricity is the term I use to point to the experience of gift, a posture of receptivity, radical openness to God, and a capacity to be surprised by God. And as I argue it in the book, the eccentric experience of God--and all it entails--plays a vital role in emancipating us from our slavery to the fear of death (Hebrews 2.14-15).

The eccentric experience of God is the experience of grace and gift which roots our identities in a foundation of joy and gratitude rather than fear, anxiety and worry.

And here's my point. I would have never made these connections if I had not experienced the charismatic worship at Freedom.

Prior to my life at Freedom I had God in a box. A rational, logical box. And when you have God in a box you lack the capacity to be surprised by God. And when you lack the capacity to be surprised by God you lack the capacity to experience grace.

And if you lack the capacity to experience grace all you have to rely on, spiritually speaking, is the neurotic junk rattling around in your own head and heart. All the vanity, pride, weakness, jealously, fear, woundedness and shame.

And that's not a pretty picture.

The charismatic worship at Freedom--in its radical openness to God and to being surprised by God--helped me identify and name something that I've come to think is the key to Christian faith and spirituality. The eccentric experience of God.

The experience of gift.

The experience of grace.

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11 thoughts on “The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 3, Surprised By God”

  1. I work in the medical field; and while my job is in the business part, I have ample opportunity to observe the hands on care of the nurses and nursing assistants with the patients. What I have noticed over the years is that a number of the nursing assistants and a few nurses who have worked in our facility were members of Pentecostal churches, some of them of the inner city.

    What has grabbed my attention is the conversations of these nurses and nursing assistants with the patients. Their speech is salted with what I would call, "Looking forward to God making something happen today". And what is so unique about it is that it is not "church talk". Their speech is as natural as the conversation my co-worker and I would have about last night's ball game. It is a natural excitement that says to the patients "You're going to have a wonderful day because that's the way God wants it". And the patients who are cognitive embrace this excitement, regardless of their backgrounds.

    A final note. Not far from my home is a church, a Charismatic community church, whose sign says A COMMUNITY OF DIVERSE RACES AND CULTURES. I have witnessed such entering and leaving the building. Some are conservatively "dressed to the nines", while some are dressed down and "tattooed up". Some arrive in nice cars, while others, entire families, mothers and fathers with children and baby carriages in tow, walk blocks to get there. I have never attended; but it certainly seems to be a place where the unity is genuine and fresh.

  2. Ryan, I agree with you that the Charismatic can, at times, become a bit thin when tested. However, while many jump on the Charismatic train for a good ride, there are others who are, as you say, close to the ground.

    I live in the Northeast and I know of Charismatic churches in the inner cities that are truly, in their love of Christ, reaching out to the poor and the marginalized.

    I am not a Charismatic; but every tradition has it thins spots. And I have seen the thin spots of the Pentecostals. But I cannot ignore those who work in the muck and mire. And there is a big difference between those and someone who is looking for a cure for boredom.

  3. I agree. Keeping social location in mind is key. Pentecostalism in locations of affluence will tend toward consumerism and triumphalism. Pentecostalism is locations of poverty and oppression will be experienced as the life-affirming grace of God in the face of abuse and marginalization.

    I am put in mind here of the charismatic movement in the Third World and in the black church during Jim Crow.

  4. It is a natural excitement that says to the patients "You're going to
    have a wonderful day because that's the way God wants it".

    I appreciate your enthusiasm, John, but well, hmm... Mind, I live not in the US but in the more secularised UK, but I am a Christian (and an American), and if a nurse said that to me, I'd think, "Excuse me? You know I haven't just ordered a Happy Meal."

    And that's even assuming I'm reasonably well, with a good prognosis. If I were seriously sick, in pain, depressed, anxious about surgery, let alone terminally ill, I'd suggest that the nurse spend some time with the book of Job and the Psalms of Lament (which comprise 40% of the psalter). To be sure the psalmist, even at sea, expects something of God - but not "a wonderful day". As Walter Brueggemann observes (in The Message of the Psalms), "a church that goes on singing 'happy songs' in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does."

    In short, a nurse's job isn't just to cheer people up, it's to help them hurt, with or without naming the Name.

  5. Kim, the nursing assistants I speak of are not throwing sugar on the day. These are people who spend eight to ten hours a day with their patients, cleaning them up after they have soiled themselves; spending extra time with those who have no family to visit them. Making sure they are clean and that the ladies have make up on, which is so important to most of them. And most important of all, I have see the NAs sit and hold the hands of the dying, with tears in their eyes, not ignoring it; whispering in their ear that they love them, because they truly do. No, "Have a wonderful day" is not too syrupy at all if the rest of the day is spent making them clean and respectable while soothing the pain.

  6. John, the best communities of vibrant life and love that I know are charismatic in tint and tone. I never meant to suggest that charismatic groups are not all that they suggest. Likewise, I’m fully aware that there are flakes in all communities, and that there are no perfect groups. My comment is just a personal reflection on how the same 5 characteristics that are so good about charismatic circles (in this post the receptiveness to God) can also become the root of their demise.

    The charismatic circles I have seen and attended seem explosive, for good and for bad. These groups don’t tend to last more than a decade or so (or about the time it takes for the freedom from one box to become itself a new box). They’re like supernovas. And out of those explosions come whole new, wonderful things. Brilliant flowers birth out of that manure. (How many musicians in bar bands are burned out worship leaders and pastors of charismatic churches…etc.?!)

    Even at the start of our first charismatic community we somehow knew we were only a fleeting thing. We would often liken it to a MASH unit on the war front. But at the same time we never thought it would or could exhaust itself. By the end people were at each others' throats over things I can’t even remember. I saw this happen over and over again… some endings more peaceful than others.

    Charismatic churches are great when they’re good and scary when they’re not.

  7. If you have ever experienced God's provision through his people, you also come to understand the "eccentric experience of God" which is why those in poverty so often get it while the self-sufficient rich rarely do.

  8. I agree with that!

    In The Slavery of Death and Unclean I talk a lot about Arthur McGill's analysis that because of our fear of death we try to deny and hide our need, from each other and also from ourselves. Instead of being vulnerable, needy human beings who need each other we pretend to be self-sufficient and autonomous. We pretend we are gods--creatures immune to death and need--instead of being mortal human beings. And because of this "denial of death/need/vulnerably" the economy of love--need being replenished and emptied back into need--can never flow.

  9. This is beautiful compared to all of the Radical Theology I've been trying to digest lately. I guess DoG isn't for me :/

    How much theology do you read sir, If I may ask?

  10. That's a really helpful observation, Richard. I'm reminded of a pentecostal church I was fleetingly involved with set up by a privileged few in an area of significant social deprivation. Despite all the commitment and good intentions, there was always a sense of an elephant in the room - and I think this is what you've put your finger on: that the same activities and events were being experienced differently and that it wasn't 'okay' to acknowledge this difference. Sadly, it turned out there was another even bigger elephant in the room (long story) and the church disbanded.

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