My dear Brothers and Sisters:
I have been wanting to write this letter for a while now. Perhaps it’s silly to think that it will matter in any meaningful way, but I’m okay with being silly. Remember, we have always loved to sing about how we’ll become “even more undignified than this.” Acting a fool for the Lord is an okay place for me.
Our charismatic roots stretch back over 2,000 years of Christianity but our more modern family history begins with the Pentecostal movement of 1901 moving through to the Charismatic movement of the 1960s and then the Third Wave of the 1980s. That is when I joined our tribe – a skinny kid with a sensitive spirit and a thirsty heart and a mean dance-kick. I have been a charismatic woman for more than 30 years now. Even after a season of my life when I walked far away from our traditions, gathering the greater story of our Church and history to myself, I now find myself corkscrewing back over and over again to the teachings of my childhood, the songs, the practices. For more than one hundred years, we’ve arguably been at the forefront of the emphasis on the Holy Spirit and those gifts in operation for the growth of the Church and the redemption of the world. But perhaps that is the root of our suspicions – we’ve been outsiders for so long that we’ve become convinced that we are, in fact, marginalized. When nothing could be further from the truth. Out of all the movements of Christianity, our tribe of Pentecostalism or charismatic Christians is still the fastest growing in the world. As Harvard theologian Harvey Cox said, pentecostalism is “reshaping religion in the 21st century.” People who want to moan and groan about the waning influence of the Church have forgotten the global story and the bigger story of our little movement.
I think that kind of influence brings a demand for thoughtfulness and care, don’t you?
But over the past few years, as I’ve personally become even more charismatic in my practices and in my theology, I have found myself distancing myself from our broader family of charismatics, particularly our more public voices. I crave thoughtful voices, I crave hope and faith, and even, yes, a prophetic imagination. Even as my theology remains staunchly charismatic, I have found myself distancing from the culture of being a charismatic.
But we’ve all splintered as a movement over the years – which perhaps shouldn’t surprise us. It has happened to every other movement within Christianity, we shouldn’t be so proud as to think we would be exempt from this natural growth and change. It’s inevitable and likely even helpful.
Yet here I am writing to us all now, as a larger family united by the Spirit, wherever we fall on our history and practices, church affiliation or theology.
Family, I believe the Spirit has a word for us: be not afraid.
This message has been central to our history and it is key for our future.
I’ve been particularly grieved by two incidents within our tribe over the past few weeks. First, our brother Michael Gungor, one of the most thoughtful musical artists of our time, has been publicly vilified across Christian media – both traditional, online, and social – for openly discussing his belief in an old earth rather than a young earth. Our tribe has been quick to pounce on him in particular since he is one of our own. Yet he is not alone in this belief, of course, many well respected and orthodox Christians throughout the ages have held to the scientific evidence of the universe while still affirming the creeds and Scripture fully. But instead, many in our tribe have settled with fear-mongering misinformation. Often putting words and beliefs into Michael’s mouth that simply aren’t true, accusing him of everything from heresy to abandoning his faith to pride.
This reaction to Michael’s beliefs has grieved me for several reasons. First the lack of charity for him, the swiftness with which so many have kicked him to the curb, the hateful tones, the way that many in our leadership have simply fanned the flames of fanaticism and fundamentalism rather than engaging in thoughtful and careful care not only for each other’s souls but for the Church.
But second, I have been grieved because of the underlying truth at the heart of these reactions: fear. People talk about Michael and they are AFRAID. Afraid of the slippery slope, afraid of nuance, afraid of anything other than a literal black-and-white reading of Scripture, afraid of the breadth of tradition within orthodox Christianity, afraid of science, afraid of education, afraid of university, afraid of Michael himself even. Fear, fear, fear.
And secondly, there was the article published at Charisma News – once our flagship media empire but sadly now descended into fear-mongering and poorly disguised click-bait to incite emotional reactions. Written by Gary Cass, the article was entitled “Why I Am an Islamaphobic” and then proceeded to not only argue that it is impossible for any Muslims to come to Jesus, but that the only way to “deal with” our Muslim neighbours was to deport them, sterilize them, or take up arms against them. The article was eventually removed after a major public outcry but tellingly, there has been no retraction printed. Charisma has often in the past few years printed articles similar in tone or content, this was not a one-off incident but the latest in a long string of terrible and dangerous editorials. Brian Zahnd had a godly response to the article; in fact, he was the one who brought it to the broader public attention as well.
Like many charismatics, I parted ways with Charisma years ago for a few different reasons but this article went so far beyond ignorant stupidity. It flatly advocated the same tactics, theology, and beliefs that resulted in the WWII Holocaust and the Rwandan holocaust. It stank of evil and murder, genocide and hatred. Nothing could be further from the message of the Jesus who we claim to follow than this. And at the root of that evil and hatred – fear. Fear, fear, fear.
Be afraid, the world tells us. And now, sadly, it seems many of our charismatic/Pentecostal media outlets and leaders are telling us the same thing. Be afraid. Be afraid of money, be afraid of losing “the fire”, be afraid of education, be afraid of theology, be afraid of growth and change, be afraid of gay and lesbian people, be afraid of art and science, be afraid of television, be afraid of artists, be afraid of reading books, be afraid of the news, be afraid of Islam, be afraid of the President, be afraid of the UN, be afraid of immigrant children, be afraid of other churches, be afraid of the Pope, be afraid of socialism, be afraid of the government, be afraid of the world, be afraid be afraid be afraid.
We’ve taught the message that “everyone is out to get us” and “be afraid” for so long that perhaps it is no wonder that we have become fear-filled, defensive, close-minded anti-Christs. I grieve for our witness. Is this the activity and experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Surely not.
We are living out of our worst fears instead of our best hopes. We are teaching and preaching, we are writing, we are leading, we are praying out of crippling fear instead of the hope of Christ.
This saddens me because it is so far from our historical roots as charismatic/pentecostals. And it is also so antithetical to the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit of the Lord will never look and smell and speak fear. The Spirit of the Lord will not bring division and disunity. The Spirit of the Lord will not move us toward hatred, ignorance, fear, and evil actions.
In some ways, I am still very simple and childlike: Jesus is still my teacher, still the one I want to follow to the ends of the earth. And if someone’s teaching or leadership is leading me away from the teachings of our Jesus, let alone away from cultivating the fruit of the Spirit’s operation in my life - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – then I have to wonder if that teaching has anything to do with the Spirit to begin with…..?
I think this is why it’s wise to be test and weigh the words of those who influence our own spirits and minds: are they leading us towards greater freedom and hope and joy? or are they weighing us down with the shackles of fear and torment?
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
When I remember the early days of my faith, I remember our joy. I do. I remember that even though we were a motley collection of stories and failures, we had been born again in every way possible. Speaking in tongues, prophetic words from the Lord for one another, laying on hands in the belief that God would and could heal, all of it. I remember our songs and our hope, I remember our steady commitment to memorizing Scripture and how we were foolish enough to simply believe that it was true.
I remember how fear was an enemy to be routed and cast out of our hearts, not a pet to stroke and coddle, let alone a tactic for financial gain at the expense of each other.
So these two incidents happened. And I remembered what you all have taught me, family. You were the ones who taught me to cast fear away from my heart. What has happened to us? What has happened to our boldness and courage? I’ll tell you – we traded it for fear.
Our tribe is the one that taught me to wrap myself in the truth of Scripture: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
The Lord is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:17).
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18).
I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)
These were our songs, remember? These were our anthems. These were the verses we memorized out of our brand-new never-read-before Bibles and then wrote out on index cards to tape to our mirrors. These were the words in our mouths. These were the prayers we prayed over our histories and our families, over our own minds and our hearts, over our children while they slept.
Fear is not our motivator. Fear is not our address. Fear is not our ruler. We are not a people of fear. We are a people of faith and hope and love. We are the people of Scripture. We are the people of the Holy Spirit’s active movement and intimate involvement in our lives.
When we reject fear and embrace faith, I believe our lives become more open, more generous, more loving, more kind, more gentle, more patient. We are slow to anger and quick to forgive, we are a people of radical hope and forgiveness.
We are a movement with tremendous influence in the world today. What will our legacy be? One of fear? with his children hatred, ignorance, narrow-mindedness, evil, and even murder? Or will our legacy be born of the Spirit? with her children of hope and love and joy, wisdom and imagination, courage and thoughtfulness?
We have lead the Church so beautifully in so many ways, let’s lead well again.
How sad that we have opened the door of our heart, not to Christ and his hope and abundance, but instead to the insidious spread of fear. Fear will choke out the life of the Spirit in us. Fear will poison the fruit of the Spirit in your life. Fear is truly a tool of the enemy, it will destroy not only you and your life but the hope of Christ that you carry within for the rescue, renewal, and restoration of the world, too.
Dear brothers and sisters of the Holy Spirit, remember your first love. Remember that fear is our enemy, not our friend. Remember the words of Scripture and cling tightly to them, hold fast to the hope of Christ. Remember your roots in faith and hope, not fear.
Be not afraid.
Jesus has saved and will save and is saving the world. What can man do to us?
As so many of our brothers and sisters around the world face real persecution and torment, now is not the time for us to become lazy in doing good or to give ourselves over to fear. In fact, I believe that now, more than ever, we are all called to stand in faith, as prophetic outposts for God’s way of life, as glimpses of the ways of life in Christ.
Remember, “praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:3-6).
Be filled with the Spirit.
I leave you with the words of our brother Paul as recorded in Romans 15:13: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.