Late last year I started a brief discussion on theology as a prophetic task.
After a very busy and distracting last couple months, I realized I had one last part. One that hits close to home for me, maybe how I got my own start in theology.
I don’t go to a Pentecostal church nowadays, but I consider myself Pentecostal still, in that I went to Foursquare and Assemblies of God churches growing up and in high school. I still hold to their embrace of the broader expressions of the work of the Spirit and value the inclusive participation.
I think my time in a Pentecostal high school group radically shaped my own sense of purpose and renewal in God’s work. The pastors, John and Denise Fehlen , encouraged students to take part and treated us like real people, not targets or objects to be pushed through the system. He took our words seriously and led in teaching and opened for discovery as we sought to find our own way in prayer and response.
After high school, I went off to Wheaton and something changed in me. I tried going to a Vineyard church for a while, but that didn’t stick. Even as I had some very clear epiphanic moments, times in which the world seemed so utterly more real than other times and I felt a profound sense of God’s presence, I also had moments of feeling God’s absence, silence, with this a lot of emptiness and depression.
My emotional and spiritual life was a roller coaster. I couldn’t find words to understand or express what was going on. Deep depression, mixed with a deeply discouraged hope that God truly was, just not for me. Not for me.
How do I pray in light of that? How do I worship who I didn’t feel love, where I didn’t feel comfort, how I didn’t experience life?
God was shaping, molding, excising me. I was truly taxed beyond my measure, a measure of mine but not of God who sought to provide more, with more. First, I needed to be depersonalized, unselfed because my self was oriented in myself even as I sought God to use and fill me. To live is Christ, I prayed to understand. This is what God taught, but I did not know how to respond or how to explain it to others or myself.
That’s what tongues is supposed to express, to be sure, the unutterable groanings, praise or lament, bypassing the intellectual and verbal parts of the brain and tapping into the differently rational, emotions and responses and groanings of life’s mysteries.
I tried to keep up the display, the speaking words I didn’t know, the ecstatic responses, but there was a wall developing between me and those. Not in my faith, in my expressions.
I felt a clear and present impression not to speak in tongues anymore.
Not because I thought that it’s a wrong practice or I lost my faith or moved on to the next stage of ecclesial sophistication. Something different.
It was wrong for me. Tongues is meant to express that which we can’t find words to express. I was being told to find the words.
What words? The words I didn’t have words for? Yes. Find them. Learn them. Use them.
Emotions? Find the words for what you are feeling. Spirituality? Find the words for what you are experiencing. Scripture? Find the words for what you’re finding. Maturing in God? Find the words that pull it all together and use language to say that which may not have been said before. Summarize. Clarify.
I felt that was where God was leading me, so I’ve rarely used tongues since then in my own prayer or worship. God wanted, wants, me to find words that connect the utterable with the unutterable. An impossibility, I thought.
Then I realized who initiated this calling. The work of the Spirit of the Word of God. God speaks the unexisting into being, and so the tools we have been given in our language can point towards the same reality, finding the words rather than succumbing to the groanings.
Translating and putting into words the unutterable groanings, translated tongues, this is what I now see as a task of theology, my hope and goal that I’m still working out. Theology is both a task of discovery and discernment, digging deeply into the sources of those who likewise sought to express God. And with this, discerning how the Spirit is shaping me and thus becoming the kind of person who contributes coherent words.
In the previous posts, I referred to the church bulletin notes from a sermon long ago. Here’s the last section of those:
God Acts to Restore His Own Name
Therefore, God acts to redeem Israel again, but not for their sake but for the sake of his name which he must redeem. He is going to sanctify–or make holy–his name in the world by sanctifying his people.
But when he restores his name by returning his people back to their land, what will keep them from defiling his name all over again?
God is going to do three things:
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you…”
“I will give you a new heart…”
“I will give you my spirit…”
1. In light of this, part of the task of theology is the diligence about God’s name. This requires words because there are people who are doing things and speaking words that distort God’s name.
People who are racist, people who are sexist, people who speak words of salvation in public and words of oppression in private, people who lead others into corruption, people who use the name of God for their own gain, committing violence against others in the process. Theology is in the business of cleaning the church and cleaning the rhetoric, a task of discernment and clarification and, sometimes, confrontation.
Cleaning isn’t just about making sure people have the right beliefs, so too theology isn’t just about orthodoxy.
What are the right inner reality, the emotions and heart, of a person? An angry, bitter, aggressive, dismissive, person is not walking in the fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, longsuffering. So, there must be orthopathy. Calling out vanity, narcissism, arrogance, hate, frenzy, impatience. Otherwise, theology is a noisy gong and a clanging symbol, causing headaches to many.
With it there is also a cleaning of orthopraxy, pointing out wrong actions such as violence, corruption, lawfare, abuse, etc.
Theology must say, “This is wrong!” to people to who are using the name of Christ to build their own authority or hide their evil actions towards others.
We have to say this about our own selves too, the words of God pushing us to abandon our own misbehavior or misconceptions. We are to clean and be cleaned.
2. Theology can’t just be about saying what is wrong. We’re not in the business of nagging or complaining. Theology speaks about God and God rejects the insufficient for the sake of the wholly sufficient, the evil is called out because it is hiding the good and it is the good that we are called to pursue.
What are the right thoughts, the right feelings, the right actions we are to take hold of in our present realities? Who are we to be in light of conflict and terror and frustration and injustice?
How do we respond in a way different from the world, neither accepting the actions or the passivity of the systems as options, but finding the way of Christ in redeeming the past in light of the future in our present?
3. Theology isn’t just about words, it’s about power, and so while there is a task to call out what has gone wrong and point to the Kingdom way forward, there is also a task of empowerment, encouragement, a cheerleading task, a space-making task
We call with and through the name of God in, with, and for others so we together tap into the many-giftings of the Spirit in living out the pattern of the Messianic mission in our contexts.
All this requires words, words that find the way forward, words that clarify missteps and wrong speakers, words that empower others and disempower some.
Theology is, I think, a prophetic gift in searching deeply and persistently for the words that “edifies the church.” Finding the words that may not yet be formed in words, putting into language that which may not have found coherence in expression, speaking to others that which they may know is true but do not know how to say or think or feel or act.
In this, theology goes from an academic enterprise to expression of the Word through the Spirit as a gift, a responsibility and a task to be pursued in the power of the Spirit, only through the power of the Spirit if it is to be truly Christian theology.