Thursday, August 29, 2013

Is Charismatic Renewal for Real? part 13

(Letter to Kerry Zmatick, which continues to drone on and on.)

It seems that there is really no one who can be called the father (or the mother) of modern Pentecostalism. Charles Parham led the Bible College, “Stone’s Folly” where the Pentecostal movement of the 20th century started, but his ministry ended under a cloud. He was suspected of gross immorality and accused of financial irregularity. Rev. William J. Seymour, who took the torch from Parham, was resented by Parham for doing so. Parham and Seymour parted company over theology and different styles of worship. Seymour was never recognized for his pivotal role in the emerging movement, quite probably because of the color of his skin. To look for a founder of the movement is like looking for the founder of a brush fire. There may be one, but after it’s started who really cares?  Just run and hope the wind shifts. The Pentecostalism of the early 20th century was the result of the holiness movements of the 19th century and their dissatisfaction with the dryness of an excessively theological Protestantism. The movement was not about theology. It was about experience. That fact has never stopped anyone from trying to take theological charge of the movement.
Stone's Folly, home of Bethel Bible College

A bit of review: 1901 Stone’s Folly and Charles Parham was where it all started. Then 1905, the Azusa Street Revival and William Seymour is where it really got rolling.  The traditional Protestant denominations thought the whole thing was nuts, and like the pietists before them, the Pentecostals were accused of being too Catholic. After all, Catholics had healing and visions and prophecies. A good Bible believing Protestant had no need of such things. People were thrown out of congregations, threatened and assaulted over the new Pentecost, so.....

In 1914, about 300 Pentecostal “leaders” called a meeting in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to discuss the situation. Having been rejected by American Protestantism, they were moved by the Holy Spirit to form the perfect church, the Assemblies of God. There were some representatives at the gathering of already existing churches that had been Pentecostalized. They heard the Holy Spirit telling them not to form a new church, so they eventually formed the Independent Assemblies of God. There were pressing theological questions to be answered, such as, is one saved if one doesn’t speak in tongues? Theological statements were prepared, disagreed with and voted on, and the movement rolled on trying to define itself theologically. 

Now there are at least twenty-two major Pentecostal denominations in North America with lots more non-denominational churches that make things up as they go along. The former include Church of God of the Original Mountain Assembly and the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church. Personally, I am thinking of starting Fire-Baptized  Mountain Assembly Holiness Church because those are both really cool names.   

The Protestant Pentecostal movement fractured over important questions such as can one go to heaven if one does not speak in tongues or does not dance about with rattlesnakes and drink poison. There are actually churches that believe this. They take Mark 16:18 very seriously:
These signs will accompany those who have believed. In My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues. They will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.
Well, it’s reasonable after all. If you have to speak in tongues to go to heaven, why shouldn’t you also have to dance a fast tango with a cobra? The snake handling wing of the Pentecostal movement was founded in 1910  by George Hensley in the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee. (Not Cleveland Ohio. Not enough rattlesnakes.) He soon quit the Church of God, having decided that all denominational churches were evil, and started his own denomination that required snake handling as evidence of salvation. Hensley eventually died from fatal snakebite in 1955. Oh well. Must not have had enough faith. Personally, I would just rather tithe and go to committee meetings as proof of salvation.

True Pentecostalism is not about theology. It is about spirituality and the very human experience of the Holy Spirit. When the whole thing sprouted up in the Catholic Church we didn’t need a new theology to describe it. We had a perfectly good theology after these 2000 years. That didn’t stop people from trying to take theological control of the movement. 

The first thing was to try to figure out how these things fit into the sacramental structure of the Church. (My opinion is that they don’t. They don’t have to.) Much ink was spilled and much high blood pressure medicine taken over the question; “How does the baptism in the Holy Spirit relate to the sacraments of initiation and how is receiving of the Holy Spirit in Baptism related to the receiving of the Holy Spirit in the Baptism in the Holy Spirit after a Life in the Spirit Seminar?”  

A common explanation was that what happened in the Baptism in the Holy Spirit was what was supposed to happen at Confirmation. I would disagree. What is supposed to happen at Confirmation happens at Confirmation, because Confirmation is a sacrament, a covenant that bestows God’s grace. How grace unfolds is worth a lifetime of discovery. All these questions and the shaky answers rest on assumption and definitions, Protestant assumptions and definitions. The sacraments are the outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace. All these visions and healing and prophecies and experiences are not necessarily the grace of the sacraments. They are something else. They are religious experiences. Nothing more, nothing less. The sacraments are covenants made with the Lord. The charisms are favors from the Lord. We have assumed that the Protestants were right about these things. I don’t think they were. That does not make these things any less real or any less important.

The juggernaut of theology rolled on in the Catholic Pentecostal movement unhindered.  Pretty soon we weren’t calling ourselves Pentecostals. We were calling ourselves “Charismatics” to make sure that people knew we were Catholic. The TEACHERS vied with one another to prove that they were thoroughly Catholic. Prophecies were pre-approved and the leadership of the prayer meetings got very picky. In our effort to make sure we were Catholic enough so bishops and priests would still let us use the church building for prayer meetings, we squeezed the life right out of the movement. It seemed somewhere in the 1980's that the Holy Spirit went out for a cup of coffee and some fresh air. Remember, I am just recounting my own experience. Yours might be quite different and your prayer group may just glow and shimmer with spontaneity and joy. My experience wasn’t as pleasant. It involved financial stupidity and worse, manipulated elections and endless arguments over things that had nothing to do with the Lord. On to the horror stories.

I remember a series of heated meetings as to whether or not we should sell coffee mugs with the Renewal logo on them at the book table at a conference. That board, on which I served briefly, eventually had the bishop appoint them to indefinite terms of office when it looked like they were going to lose an election. 

Then there was the treasurer of the regional Icelandic steering committee who was arrested for smuggling a gun across the border. He insisted that he was completely unaware of the contents of a package that he was carrying for a friend. He well may have been clueless. He was unaware of a great many things. The crazy-making part is not the gun-running. It is that while he spent months in the slammer in a third world country, he refused to step down as treasurer and would not let anyone else have the books. The president of the steering committee at the time liked to remind people that the pope was elected for life. Shouldn’t the president of the Renewal be elected for life? 

It took me three years of endless meetings, elections and squabbles to remove a board that had used the funds very creatively. After I had convinced them to leave quietly, a new board was elected and its new treasurer, who could barely add, refused to let anyone else see the books. Apparently, not getting to see the books was a long standing tradition. That was about the time I got a phone call from a prominent person in the “leadership” asking for monetary help with her taxes. I said “WHAT!?!?!” She said the old board use to help her out..... 

Oy!  Sorry to rattle on, but I am having a lot of fun getting this out of my system. Let me continue. Another good one. The leadership made decisions about who got to stay at posh hotels free of charge during conventions, and who went on missionary journeys to tropical locations. Of course, the leadership always got rooms and trips taken care of. Once a leading somebody’s cousin offered to save the Renewal a lot of money by having a cousin  cater the meals during a Charismatic convention. We soon had the opposite of a healing service. People were passing out on all sides and the ambulances pulled out just as the bishop pulled up to give his talk. I watched him like a hawk to make sure that no one offered him a box lunch. The catering cousin quickly went for an extended visit to the old country.

So, my next suggestion: Lose the leadership

“Heaven forefend!” I can hear you say. “How can we have a prayer meeting without the leadership?” Remember, you have already dumped the microphones and the teaching. Haven’t you read the Bible? Leadership in the Kingdom of God should be called “waiter-ship.”
Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. (Luke 22:25,26)   
The one who serves is literally the one who deacons, or the one who waits on tables. In one of the many committee meetings that are so important to the life of the church, there was a very grand fellow, who realized his own importance even better than the people around him. He aspired to the diaconate, because to be a deacon was to be a ranking member of the LEADERSHIP and of course it meant that you would be a first string TEACHER. I pointed out to him that the word deacon meant table waiter, or even busboy. He said that the term waiter was a rather pejorative term in his native language. I pointed out that it was a rather pejorative term in ancient Greek, too. Jesus wasn’t a king in the eyes of the world, he was however a table waiter at times. 

You don’t need leaders and teachers in a real prayer meeting You may need someone who will set up the chairs in the hall, unlock and re-lock the doors, make the coffee and set out the cookies. Oh, and to make sure that there is toilet paper in the bathroom and that it’s clean. That’s Christian leadership.  Even the pope makes his own bed these days. I have been personally served breakfast by three archbishops. One of them was actually a pretty good cook. He is a great archbishop.

Next week: How can we possibly do without a leadership to tell us how to feel when we are praying?


  1. Father Fr. Know-It-All, I have a feeling that you are having trouble 'landing this baby'. It is OK. Taketh a deep breath and repeat after me 'Rocky is a nice flying squirrel.... Rocky is a nice flying....

  2. Tather, this could be a book in the making... plans? ;)