Navigating Special Times of Refreshing

Navigating Special Times of Refreshing

Navigating Special Times of Refreshing

By Suzanne Nicholson

What do you do when the streams of living water suddenly burst into a flood? The spiritual outpouring that began at Asbury University on February 8, 2023, was spontaneous and unexpected. After an ordinary chapel service, a number of students felt called to linger and praise God. As students responded, the Spirit brought an immense sense of joy and peace. More students came. The Spirit remained, and so did the students. Over the course of two weeks, thousands of Jesus-seekers poured into our small town of Wilmore, Kentucky.

Theological Reflections. The day before the revival began, my Growth of the New Testament Church class was discussing Peter’s speech in Acts 3 after he healed a man in front of the Temple. Peter had described Jesus’ death and resurrection and then challenged the audience: “Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-21). Our class had discussed the beauty of the description, “times of refreshing,” only to experience that refreshing the very next day!

My students had noticed in Acts several places where – after the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost – the disciples had been described as being “filled with the Spirit” (e.g., 4:8, 7:55, 13:9). They wanted to know if Luke was simply reminding his readers that the disciples had been filled with the Spirit previously, or if this was a new filling. At the time I described it as sort of a turbo-charge: there’s always gas in the tank, but sometimes you need an extra burst of power for the task at hand.

In reflection, two other metaphors might be helpful. It’s important to remember that the Spirit who was present at Asbury in early February is the same God who was present three weeks previous and is the same God who is still here now that the crowds have dispersed. The difference is in the level of communion we experienced. God is always feeding us by his Spirit, but some occasions are a bit more special. It’s like sitting down to meals three times a day, but occasionally indulging in a fantastic Thanksgiving feast, enjoying all the special dishes with the best of ingredients, and sharing the overwhelming spread with anyone who shows up to partake.

My favorite image, however, arises from Psalm 1:3. Those who delight in the law of the Lord “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” Believers who regularly commune with the Lord through prayer, Bible study, corporate worship, receiving the Eucharist, and other means of grace are the trees planted by streams of water, receiving their nourishment. But occasionally we need flood waters to spur new growth – not the destructive floods that wipe away homes, but rather the essential spring flooding of the Nile that brought much-needed water and nutrients to agricultural lands in the ancient world.

This is where we found ourselves at Asbury. We are planted by streams of water, but the dry air of secular culture had left us thirsting for more. The thousands of visitors to campus only demonstrated how much spiritual thirst exists right now. These people were desperate for relief, life, and hope, and they were willing to wait in line for hours to enter the place where the veil between heaven and earth was remarkably thin. The Holy Spirit graciously sent gentle flood waters to revive us, reshape us, and empower us for the work ahead. We received a sort of spiritual Miracle-Gro, a nutrient boost to inspire new growth. We drank deeply from this refreshing gift.

Not everyone found it comfortable to explore this movement of the Holy Spirit. Some students said they felt pressured to go and join in the revival; others were skeptical or fearful of what they would encounter. Some students experienced the refreshing of the Spirit as they prayed in their dorm rooms, rather than joining the immense and, for some, intimidating crowd. Some students stayed in Hughes Auditorium for a few minutes at a time, while others remained for hours or even days. These different experiences should remind us that we need to be gentle with one another because what each of us needs from the Holy Spirit may be different. God is gracious enough to meet us where we are, and we are all at varying points in our walk with the Lord.

Yet we should also keep in mind that there is something powerful about being in community and hearing testimonies of how God is working among the body of Christ. When others publicly repent of their sins, we may be moved to do the same. When others praise Jesus in loud voices, we may experience a similar joy in the Lord. When others intercede in prayer for the nations, we may be urged to follow suit. Witnessing together the movement of God, we are strengthened for our own testimony just as we strengthen those who are giving testimony. Ephesians 4:15-16 reminds us of God’s desire for the body of Christ to be knit together in this way: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Some have asked how this outpouring of the Holy Spirit came about. How can it be replicated? The simple answer is that this was a spontaneous act of God, a beautiful act of grace. It was not manufactured. Asbury University simply had another average, ordinary chapel service, and God chose to move. We did nothing ourselves to make this happen.

That’s not entirely correct. People have been praying for revival for years – some, for decades. God delights in these kinds of prayers. God responds in his own timing to the cries of his people. But make no mistake: this is not a “work.” The prayers of the people are a response to what God has done previously. God’s grace comes first, the people respond with prayers for more, and God pours out his grace once again.

What was so stunning about this kind of outpouring is that it was locally focused. We regularly preach the truth that God who created and sustains the universe is accessible anywhere – whether in foxholes or brothels or athletic fields or beaches or homes or churches. God is available to all who cry out to him. And yet there are times when the Spirit appears profoundly in a particular location. When Moses met God, he saw a burning bush that was not consumed, and he was told to remove his sandals because the place on which he was standing was holy (Exodus 3:1-6). When God led the Israelites through the desert, he did so by a cloud of his presence during the day and by fire at night (Exodus 13:21). God’s glory filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38). When the Spirit poured forth at Pentecost, it filled a house in Jerusalem where believers had gathered (Acts 2:1).

These kinds of manifestations of God’s presence have continued through the centuries as God regularly revives his people. Now God chose this season to pour forth abundantly his Spirit at Asbury University. But this does not mean that God is any less accessible in your home church. Pray for the refreshing Spirit of God to bless your community. Be persistent. Wait with longing. Don’t give up hope. And don’t forget that even as you await the flood, you are trees planted by water. Drink deeply of the Spirit who is always present. The flood is no replacement for the daily drinking from the streams of God’s goodness.

A Few Practical Notes. As the Spirit began to move, the campus leaders worked hard to keep the emphasis on Jesus. No one leader emerged, but a large team worked together to make sure the music, the testimonies, the personal narratives, the discussion of Scripture all focused on glorifying God rather than on individuals in the room.

Repentance was a large part of what God prompted among those in attendance. In order for God to revive us, we must confess the ways in which we have followed our own wills rather than the will of God. We must be willing to flee sin and be transformed by a loving God who desires to give us a life of flourishing (2 Chronicles 7:14). We have been called to a life of holiness.

Flexibility is an incredibly important part of responding to the Spirit. Our churches and institutions often have policies and procedures – routines that keep the cogs of progress running smoothly. But when the Spirit suddenly shows up in powerful ways, the rule book may need to go out the window. Our administration at Asbury encouraged professors to be flexible with assignment dates and attendance policies for those who felt called to worship in Hughes Auditorium. Leaders were creative in addressing unforeseen needs – a snack table outside the back door of the auditorium for those who remained for hours, portable toilets outside for those who waited in line to gain entrance to the packed auditorium, a baby changing table placed outside the restrooms (not your typical equipment here!).

In the early church, organization developed over time. At first, the believers simply gathered together and “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Later, in Acts 6, deacons were appointed to distribute food to the Hellenistic widows who had been overlooked in the daily food distribution. Structure was introduced to make sure the needs were met. Similarly, here at Asbury systems were developed quickly to meet pressing needs.

Discernment was one of the greatest needs. How is God moving? How can this gift best be stewarded? Where might people intentionally or unintentionally be leading this community in a different direction than God desires? Constant prayer was an absolute necessity.

Spiritual outpourings today contain an element not foreseen in previous generations: social media. Word about this movement of God spread like wildfire on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. In the past, teams of evangelists needed to travel from town to town to spread the word, but now in a matter of days people on the other side of the planet heard about what was happening in Wilmore, Kentucky. For the first week and a half of this outpouring, Asbury University intentionally chose not to livestream the revival (other than our previously scheduled student chapel services). Some in the crowds, however, were livestreaming non-stop.

We were concerned about the potential for abuse. Those who were unaware they were being filmed but were moved by the Spirit to repent publicly of their sins – even in a room of 1,500 people – were not expecting to later see their testimony spread to millions across the globe (including family far away who may not appreciate the personal revelations) or that their images may have been turned into memes. When we post under these conditions, we should consider posting short snippets of praise and worship so that God may be glorified. But we must be careful not to abuse others in our eagerness to share. Just because we can post intimate personal testimonies to social media does not mean that we should.

What Happens Next? There was a point when police officers had to close access to the main road into Wilmore. The town simply did not have capacity for more visitors.

The crowds were unsettling to some of our students, who found their routines significantly disrupted. Yet I was reminded that the newcomers were standing where we were two weeks previous when we drank deeply from the well of the Spirit – thirsty and desperate for a touch from God.

Our administrators did well to support the public longing for God, but they also recognized that this outpouring was not meant to remain here, but to spread. At one point, President Kevin Brown announced that the services at Asbury for the general public would end on Monday, February 20, although evening services for high school and college students were to be held through February 23. After that, services would need to continue at locations other than Asbury University.

This refreshing Spirit was not for us alone, and there is plenty to go around. Scripture is full of language describing the abundance of God: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

The challenge occurred, however, after the flood waters receded. We must not forget that we are still trees planted by living water. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, even if we experience God in different ways on different days. We cannot forsake the normal means of grace in search of floodwaters alone. Our faith communities must disciple those who have found new life as a result of this outpouring. We need to teach Scripture in depth and provide small-group support and accountability to help people make sense of what they experienced and challenge them toward deeper relationships with Jesus.

This flood was meant to revive us for a purpose – to share the joy and the love of God with those living in a dark world. As the revival occurred, we simultaneously watched tens of thousands of dead being pulled from the rubble after the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. We witnessed several more mass shootings, including one on the campus of Michigan State University. We continue to see famine and poverty, addiction and despair, racism and sexism, abuse and ailments across the world and in our homes.

We needed this refreshing of the Spirit more than ever as a testimony that God has not abandoned this dark world. We tasted and saw that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). This is the hope for a world gone wrong.

Our experience of this hope empowers us to go and preach the good news to the dying and the destitute, not only through our words, but also through our actions. God calls us to perfect love of both God and neighbor. If we keep this refreshing Spirit to ourselves, then we have missed the point. God gave us shalom – wholeness and healing and flourishing – so that we can bring the love of God to others. If we proclaim the love of Jesus but do not demonstrate God’s love by helping the poor and destitute, then we are nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1). God forbid that we turn these songs of praise into nothing more than a noisy interruption.

Suzanne Nicholson is Professor of New Testament at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Dr. Nicholson is an Elder in the Global Methodist Church and serves as Assistant Lead Editor of Firebrand. This essay has been adapted and republished by permission of Firebrand (

Silencing United Methodist Voices

Silencing United Methodist Voices

By Rob Renfroe

I have now been banned in two states. Ok, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Two annual conferences, each covering an individual state, have determined that I may not speak to their churches. Even though I am still a United Methodist elder. Even if I am invited by a United Methodist pastor to speak to his or her congregation.

As a matter of fact, I was recently disinvited to speak at a church. A district superintendent threatened the church’s pastor that my coming would likely result in the conference making it more difficult, if not impossible, for that church to exit the denomination – even though they were also hosting a proponent of staying in the UM Church.

One has to wonder: what are they afraid of? If the United Methodist Church is really a big tent that welcomes all. If the UM Church is still committed to the core doctrines of the Christian faith and our Wesleyan heritage. If it’s still the same church it was when we were all so attracted to its doctrine, polity and mission that we said, “that’s the church for me,” and we promised to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. If nothing has changed, why be afraid of a critic? Bring him in, listen to his misguided presentation, and dismantle his arguments with the truth about the UM Church.

Well, the charge is because I (and others – I’m not the only one who has been banned) spread “misinformation.” I guess the fear of some bishops and district superintendents – and their lawyers – is that people in UM churches will not be intelligent enough to determine what’s true and what’s not if they hear from people like me. In the past, UM leaders trusted the people in the pews to listen to God and determine a congregation’s mission, teach Sunday school classes, disciple children and youth, oversee budgets, and pay the salaries of conference officials. Today, these same conference officials do not trust the people in the pews to listen closely to all points of view, discern truth from error, pray and then make the right decision for how God would have their congregation move forward.

In the Old Testament when rulers felt threatened by the message of a critic, he was referred to as a “troubler of Israel.” Today church royalty use the term “dispenser of misinformation” to discredit those who challenge their narrative that all is well in the UM Church. Why? Because that is what privileged leaders who feel threatened do. They attack the messenger instead of critiquing the message.

On numerous occasions I have been charged with providing “misinformation.” My response is always the same: “Please show me what I have stated incorrectly, and I will be happy to apologize.” The response is always how someone felt about what I stated, what he or she inferred from my remarks, or a complete distortion of what I said or wrote. Recently when I was speaking at a church, someone said, “I watched a YouTube rebuttal to your videos about the problems with the UM Church by a leading pastor. He intended to disprove all the misinformation you had given out. When I finished, all he had done was give me more evidence to believe what you had said.”

Of course, the irony is that the same bishops and district superintendents who are silencing certain voices are at the same time selling the “big tent” promise of a future UM Church. Some of these leaders are claiming  there will be room for divergent beliefs and practices and every voice will be respected, all the while shutting down the sources they deem to be troublers of Israel and dispensers of information that challenges what they want you to believe.

We may be able to disagree about the future of the UM Church. But there cannot be any dispute that:

1. Not every United Methodist voice is allowed to speak to UM churches about their future.

2. Not every church that follows and fulfills an annual conference’s rules for exiting the denomination is allowed to do so. Just ask the three churches in Arkansas and the over 200 in North Georgia who did everything required and still were denied disaffiliation.

3. Not every point of view is respected by our leaders. Bishop Will Willimon described those who hold to a traditional understanding of sexuality as having hard hearts. Bishop Robert Hoshibata stated that traditionalists do not have the ability to incorporate reason into their thinking. Bishop Minerva Garza Carcaño wrote that Africans who do not accept homosexual practice need to grow up. Bishop Tom Berlin referred to the current UM position on sexuality as a virus that will make the church sick. Bishop Connie Mitchell Shelton recently described those who do not believe in ordaining practicing gay persons as “those with mean spirited arrogance” and told them it’s time “to move on and quit causing chaos.”

So, one point of view (mine) is that the UM Church will become a more and more hostile home for traditionalists and if you can leave, you need to do so now. Another point of view (held by most UM bishops including those referred to above) is that the UM Church will always be a big tent where every voice is respected and where traditionalists and their views will forever be welcome. One of those views is misinformation. You can decide which one. But one of those views is not allowed by some of our bishops to be stated in some of our UM Churches. At least, not by me and other troublers of Israel.

Oh, that church where I wasn’t allowed to speak? Evidently, they don’t like being threatened and bullied. They voted overwhelmingly to leave the UM Church the following week.

Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News.

Loneliness & Loving Our Neighbor

Loneliness & Loving Our Neighbor

Loneliness & Loving Our Neighbor

By Jennie Lyons

My hometown of Washington, D.C. was recently named the loneliest city in America. Another study found a growing number of Americans have few or no close friends at all. Most of us allow ourselves to get pulled ever deeper into the vortex of our phones, laptops, and television screens. We spend less time outside. Less time sleeping. And less time in intimate conversation. And we wonder why depression rates are sky-rocketing.

Garage doors go up and garage doors go down. We don’t take much time to really know our neighbors, much less love them as ourselves. When we do, it’s often a snap judgment. Is this person worth my time? Friendships are work, after all. But having them reaps all kinds of rewards.

A growing body of research shows intimacy benefits our mental and physical health as much as our eating habits, physical activity, and sleep. And multiplying your friendships expands those benefits. Increasing your number of deep, platonic love relationships reduces the risk of premature death even more than exercise and diet.

As much as I love my husband, he knows that there is something about my female friendships that fill a void that he just can’t. Shared understanding. Shared experience. Shared knowledge of all the joys and struggles and awesomeness of being a woman.

We are literally made for this. To connect deeply in a network of community. To percolate in all the beauty and messiness of our people. So why do we resist it?

For one, Western society is incredibly individualistic. Independence is encouraged and seen as strength. We’re also pushed toward a treadmill of performance that draws us inward. Even if you’re enlightened enough to look past these lies, another huge reason we don’t always pursue friendships is because we’ve been hurt. That makes it hard to trust again, doesn’t it?

We don’t want to be vulnerable. Believe me, I get it. I recently joined an activity where other people involved have known each other for years – more than a decade, in many cases. It’s been both beautiful and hard.

I’m becoming friendly with several people. There is also one specific woman I’d like to be closer to. In my excitement over how much we have in common, I tried pretty hard. Maybe too hard? I’ve felt a bit iced out at times.

Rejection still stings terribly, even in adulthood! It speaks to all my insecurities and leaves me with racing thoughts. Did I say something? Did I do something? And there isn’t always enough relationship capital there to address it.

This throwback to grade school angst renews my empathy for the social world our kids navigate every day.

It also got me reflecting on a beautiful children’s book I was recently introduced to about a boy, a mole, a fox, and a horse – an achingly touching tale about four creatures who find total acceptance and belonging in each other, despite their differences.

Unfortunately, the reality I’ve experienced is that when there is already a boy, mole, and fox, they are an established dynamic. Maybe two of the friends are open to the horse, but the third doesn’t like change. They already have their circle and it’s good. The others in the group will probably go along. Why rock the boat if it makes someone uncomfortable?

Well, that leaves the horse feeling rejected and unlikeable. It also keeps all of us missing the blessing of the wider circle of friendship. It’s terrible! So, why put ourselves through this?

First, even when it hurts, I’m a grown woman. I can pick myself up – knowing my worth is not defined by anyone else’s opinion of me, but far beyond it in the love of God. While rejection could have other explanations, the group not opening themselves up to the blessing is the one I choose to believe. We can chalk it up to human nature and move on. Sad, yes. But not personal.

We also do it because when it works, it’s amazing! Typically, when I put forth the effort, it pays dividends. Those intimate, unconditional friendships where you can tell another anything – no matter how shocking – and know they’ll still love you. There is no expectation or need to agree on everything. In fact, there is a curiosity of how the other reached a different view. In relationships like this, we don’t even fear conflict. Conflict is rare and, when handled well, can deepen intimacy. I am so thankful for the friendships I have like this. The ones where I can tell them I love them and it’s not weird. It’s returned. I cherish them as some of the greatest gifts in my life. And they wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t taken the risk on another.

Finally, we do it because life is literally all about relationships – with the divine and with one another. Jesus says our role is to love each other as he loves us (John 13:34). Every person God places in our path is a choice. How will we approach our neighbor? As an outsider? As someone who must prove themselves or put in their time? Or as a created being of sacred worth welcome into our world with arms wide open? When you meet every person as a reflection of God, it changes every interaction. And opens you up to incredible things.

I’ve learned to be gentle with myself. One of my friends describes me as “all in.” When I decide someone is my people, I commit myself completely and I’m ready to do life with them. Full stop. In processing through this recent rejection, my friend said, “some people might just need a little time to catch up.”

So even though it sometimes hurts, we can still love the things about us that make us, well, us. We also don’t need to turn from the possibilities that may still unfold in the future, even if we must release our expectations of today.

Most importantly, we can choose to open the door to ask, what if? What if you and I decide to live in a way that invites the next friend into our circle? How would the next bit of the book play out if not only the horse – but maybe also the bear who wants to come next – is embraced?

I think it could look a lot like Acts 2:42-46, where believers of different backgrounds break bread together and all are included and have enough. This kind of living gives us a glimpse of what is to come in the next life, which is our call to bring about here and now. What a gift to be a part of that!

Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This sums up all the other laws, Jesus said (Matthew 22:36-40). It’s not some secret that God is hiding. But a gift God offers repeatedly in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament as key to life and life abundant.

Friends, keep letting others in.

Jennie Lyons is a science communicator for the federal government and graduates with her Master of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary in May 2023. She guest preaches in the Washington, DC area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She also partners with a licensed local pastor in leading a dinner church out of her home, as a fresh expression of the United Methodist denomination.