Pentecost: Manna on Fire

Pentecost is this Sunday: some gratitude for the tradition that has claimed its name.

I remember when I learned to step over bodies. I was nine years old. My pentecostal church had been swept in a fantastic revival that appeared in a number of cities in the early 1990s, and people were hitting the floor. Whenever I left children’s church, I made my way back to where my parents had first sat down that evening. The chairs were mostly moved to make room for prayer, and I tip-toed over and around the bodies: some silent, many laughing, others slowly sitting back up.

You never know what might happen, so you mostly stay away from upper bodies. But it’s not just the unpredictability. That tip-toeing was also a quiet move across holy ground. Whether it’s over or around, you should navigate gently. This is not the place to play.

I do not now worship in a pentecostal church, but neither have I turned away from it. From the outside, we all know much to criticize in charismatics, but I maintain that the inner movement of the pentecostal soul is deep and striking. The following are strands that move within this breed of Christian spirituality, discernable I think only from within pentecostal experience and not so much by disinterested analysis. They are deep wells from which I still drink.

1. Prayer is a two-way street.

A great Christian tradition views prayer as a mountain that one must ascend, but distinct from that is the pentecostal path of ready expectation that God is just as ready to speak to me as I am to Him. God is speaking and reaching out to us, and we are simply unaware or unpracticed in receiving it. Prayer may be a great frustration for some, but it can also be a great exhilaration.

2. Man is spiritual, so he has an active role in spiritual things.

Spirituality is not a natural means to supernatural things. It is not a grace distinct from our human natures. No, spiritual life is at our core, and interaction with spiritual things (blessings, demons, struggles, warfare) is a part of Christian life. If there ever was a church militant, it is among these voracious prayer warriors.

3. If there is an eschaton, there is to be expectation.

The most egregious attempts to put the last days on a calendar are now past in recent pentecostalism, but the movement is inconceivable without a continual referent to the finishing work of God. The present is partial, and the overwhelming wonder of God’s coming consummation cannot but tingle our hearts.

4. Worship is ecstatic.

It is ecstatic in the literal sense: standing outside oneself. It includes receiving and interacting with something that is genuinely outside. Subjectivity diminishes as the song seems to move beyond us and into God himself. It is an unaware subjectivity in which we perceive submission to a God who can pray within our prayers, think within our thoughts.

5. Prayer is not just the means but the end.

Pentecostals do not pray for three straight hours because they have that many unsaved friends, or because they are making sure to intercede for each town in sub-Saharan Africa. Prayer continues beyond mere requests because there is nothing greater than to be with God in prayer. Pentecostals devise many prayer tactics (prayer walls or stations, prayer walks, praying the names of God) not as tricks to get into an experience, but as simple contexts that give an excuse to pray and make the entry a little easier. It is simple, and pentecostals’ unending penchant for mixing things up keeps that soil of new prayer ideas continually tilled.

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