By David F. Watson –
“Okay,” I thought. “I can do this.” A crying woman and her young son stood in front of me. With my limited Spanish, I could make out that she had pain in her head, neck, and chest. He had a problem with his throat. They had come for healing during a worship service at a small church on a farm outside of Havana. When I say we were at a church, I don’t mean to imply there was a building. Instead, there was a group of worshippers gathered on a concrete floor under a roof supported by poles. There was no steeple. There were no stained-glass windows. For that matter, there weren’t even walls. But this group of forty or so believers had come together with a sense of expectation. They believed that God was going to show up.
They believed it, and I hoped it. Prayers for healing weren’t in my repertoire of ministerial skills. It seems odd writing this today. So much has changed in my understanding of the work of God and the life of faith. At the time, however, I felt I was in way over my head.
I prayed, earnestly, with all the faith I could muster. The mom smiled at me. The boy looked at me as you would expect a young kid to look at a strange man praying over him in a strange language. The service concluded with punch and cookies. The worshippers dispersed into the night and our team got on the bus. I had no idea whether or not God had healed the woman and her son. I had my doubts, and a bit of faith – maybe as much as a mustard seed. What I did know was that I could learn a great deal about faith and hope from the Christians who had gathered on the farm that evening.
There is More
I’ve long thought that the title of Randy Clark’s There is More! (Chosen Books, 2013) captures succinctly what many Christians I encounter seem to be missing: there is more to the life of faith than we have been taught to believe. There is more power, more peace, more strength, more purpose, more goodness, more abundance, more wisdom. There is more than all we can ask or imagine through the living presence of Christ in our lives, mediated to us by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Clark is the founder of Global Awakening, a transdenominational ministry, and his book is about the ministry of impartation – the work of God to impart gifts of the Spirit through the laying on of hands. Remember, it was the Apostle Paul who told Timothy to “stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:6-7). Clark’s larger point in the book is that there is more to the life of faith than most of us have ever dared to hope.
I’ve known Dr. Clark for several years now, and last October I had the privilege of traveling with him on a ministry trip to Brazil. He certainly has a gift of healing, and simply by watching him you can see the joy it brings him to pray for healing. He will pray over people until he is utterly exhausted, catch a few hours of sleep, and begin again the next day. Randy is also a teacher, though, and the core of the message that I have heard from him time and again could be summarized thusly: expect more of God. The God revealed to us in Scripture is not an absentee landlord. Rather, this God is present, powerful, and loving. The God of Scripture is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20, NRSV). He has gifted each of us for the work of the kingdom, and that includes the manifestation of signs and wonders.
The Recovery of Wonder
Preaching this message in North America, however, can be an uphill battle. In the 19th and 20th centuries it became popular to attempt to reinterpret the Christian faith according to principles of modernity. We have progressed, so this line of reasoning went, beyond our forebears, who had to rely on myth and superstition to explain the world around them. We now understand the world according to rational, scientific principles, which have liberated us from the shackles of superstition and given us reliable principles according to which we may interpret our experiences. The “miracles” we see in the Bible are the products of an ancient worldview, and we now know that the world simply doesn’t operate in that way. We can no longer take literally many ancient Christian beliefs such as the virginal conception, the divinity of Christ, the atonement effected by his sacrificial death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.
This perspective is best summarized in the words Rudolf Bultmann, who exerted colossal influence upon biblical studies and Christian theology in the twentieth century: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.” Christianity, it was thought, needed to reinvent itself. It needed a new understanding of salvation, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit. All of the basic concepts that had sustained the church through the centuries were now up for reinterpretation. The “miraculous” was now superfluous. It was time for a new way of being Christian.
As James Heidinger points out in his book The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism (Seedbed, 2017), such reinterpretation of Christian faith was far more widespread among clergy than laity. Mainline Protestantism produced generations of clergy who had been taught to reject traditional Christian doctrine in favor of modernist revisions of it. Thus Christian preaching began to focus on the human work of building the kingdom of God on earth, and the notion of God’s direct work in this world faded into the background. What has tended to develop in the pews over time is not so much active disbelief in the miraculous, but a simple lack of expectation that God is going to show up in powerful, undeniable, life-changing ways. In Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed, 2017), I call this “passive disbelief.” It is the domestication of the biblical God by expecting little more of him than the guidance of our consciences and perhaps a secure place in the afterlife.
I have to confess my own passive disbelief for much of my life. Had you asked me if I believed that Jesus had been born of a virgin, healed the sick, and was raised from the dead, I could have readily answered in the affirmative. I was, and continue to be, committed to the orthodox faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Had you asked me what I expected God to do in the here and now, however, I’m not sure how I would have responded. My friends at Aldersgate Renewal Ministries, my engagement with Christians in the developing world, and my affiliation with Randy Clark’s Global Awakening have changed the ways I think about divine action. They have changed my expectations. I have seen things I never thought I would see. I have experienced things that even today are difficult to name. I have recovered a sense of wonder that has been all but lost in my own United Methodist tradition.
A Hunger for More
Believe it or not, I recovered this sense of wonder while working in a seminary. I’m blessed to have colleagues from whom I continually learn more about the life of faith. A few years ago one of my professors, Peter Bellini, came to me with an idea for an event he wanted to call the Holy Spirit Seminar. We could partner, he said, with Aldersgate Renewal Ministries to offer an event where people could learn about topics that are generally ignored, or even scoffed at, in mainline theological education. Sure, I replied. Why not? If it makes budget and fits within the mission of the school, I’m all for it.
When the day of the event finally arrived, we completely filled the largest meeting space at the seminary. People were lined up along the walls to the back of the room. In subsequent years we would hold this event at nearby Ginghamsburg Church because we could not accommodate on our campus all the people who wanted to attend. What Dr. Bellini saw, which at the time I did not, was the deep hunger that people in our churches have for something more. I learned that first year how deep the yearning is among both clergy and laity, not just to know about God, but to know God personally and intimately.
When we come to know God, to know Jesus Christ as a personal savior as well as the savior of all creation, we are changed by the encounter. I believe that is the only way in which we find true satisfaction. As Augustine wrote at the outset of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Theological education as we have traditionally conceived it – biblical exegesis, church history, systematic theology, Christian ethics, and the practical disciplines – is exceedingly important in the preparation of clergy. These same disciplines are often of interest to Christian laity. I have become increasingly aware, however, of the imperative to teach both clergy and laity about the workings of the Spirit of God through the people of God. The laying on of hands, prophecy, healing, words of knowledge, wisdom, and other practices and gifts of the Spirit have a crucial place in the life of the church. To ignore these is to impoverish the body of Christ. The implication is that, within our seminaries, we need to talk about what it means to minister with expectation. If the power of God really is available to us in the ways in which Scripture teaches us in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, it is imperative that we educate our clergy about the ministries available through these gifts.
Hung up on Labels
As a graduate student I served on the staff of a church in Dallas. One evening I was leading a study group, and together we were reading selections from the fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich. As we began to talk about Julian’s experiences of God, some of the group members were emboldened to talk about their own encounters with the divine. In fact, the majority of the people there spoke of mystical experiences they could not understand, but which they knew were of God. Some of them had not felt comfortable revealing these before, but there is safety in numbers, and one by one they began to disclose these profound mystical experiences. Why, I asked myself, were they so reticent to talk about these experiences in other contexts? Why were these conversations not part and parcel of the everyday life of the church?
The reason, I think, is that they believed that other people would think them fanatical or weird if they disclosed these experiences. In mainline Protestantism, we have become embarrassed by the work of God. We relegate experiences of direct divine action to the “charismatic” world, which we do not understand and often look at as overly emotive and theologically unsophisticated. Unfortunately we often characterize charismatic Christians by their most flamboyant public figures and gross representatives of the “prosperity gospel.” It is unfair, however, to characterize any movement by its most problematic representatives. (After all, every tradition has them.) I know many Christians who would self-identify as charismatic who possess profound theological sophistication and sensitivity. Some of them are on my faculty at United.
I know many people I might call “quiet charismatics” as well. They may seem subdued in public worship, but their experience of God is no less profound than the most elated among the worshipping community. They may have gifts such as prophecy, healing, and tongues, but unless you are close to them you would never know it. Their experiences of God are more contemplative than outwardly expressive. I suspect there are many people in the pews of our churches who fit this description. They do not fit the stereotypes of charismatic Christians, but they are in no way lacking in the profundity of their religious experience.
What is at stake here is not what label we place on ourselves, but our understanding of divine action. What kind of God is our God? Is God distant or intimately present? Does God actively guide the church through prophets and teachers, or are we left to our own devices? Is Christ really present in the Eucharist? Do we really receive Christ spiritually in our bodies? Do we really expect to be changed when we receive the bread and the cup? Does God heal the sick today? If so, how and when should we pray for the sick?
Here’s another way of putting it. For many Christians, it seems that God is simply a construct, an idea that gives heft to the set of claims we want to make about matters of ethics and social justice. God cares about the poor, so we should care about the poor. God cares about racial justice, so we should care about racial justice. These kinds of claims are often true. God does care about the poor – profoundly. God does care about racial justice – profoundly. But there is more to the life of faith than ethical imperatives. There is the life-changing, empowering presence of the living God, who transforms our hearts. This God forms us into the kind of people whose thoughts, words, and deeds are consistent with his will.
Back on the Farm, One Year Later
A year later I was back at the same church outside Havana. It was raining heavily that night, and because the church was out in the country it was difficult for some people to get to worship. I looked for the woman and her son for whom I had prayed, but they weren’t there. After the service I described them to the pastors and asked how they were doing. The pastors knew exactly whom I was talking about and added, “Oh, and they gave a testimony of healing.”
There is more. And my hope is that the people called Methodist will once again know the power of God sweeping through our movement, a power that characterized early Methodism, and which is known by Christians throughout the globe today. Come, Holy Spirit!
David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary. His latest book is Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More than Ever (Seedbed). He blogs at www.davidfwatson.me and is one of the hosts of “Plain Truth: A Holy-Spirited Podcast.”