Catching People: And I don’t mean fishing

24 January 2018

Sloths and bats hang upside down. Snakes slither along the ground. But the normal human position is to be upright. At ninety degrees to the earth. Vertical.

We walk that way and stand that way. Even when we sit or kneel, our head is the bit of us farthest from the floor. It’s normal.

fallover2From time to time, of course, we adopt a horizontal position. In sleep, for instance. As every overnight air passenger knows, sleeping upright is no fun. When you wake up over Cameroon with a crick in your neck, the thought of getting horizontal is powerfully attractive. Sickness, too, overrides the normal mechanisms that keep people upright. When they faint or collapse they end up horizontal.

And God can cause humans to leave the vertical position. His glory and power are such that even a glimpse can bring the strongest man to the ground. Ezekiel ‘fell face down’.[1]  John ‘fell at his feet as though dead’.[2] To fall prostrate—that is, face down, to hide one’s eyes from his glory—is the common reaction to God’s presence.

Sometimes this seems to be a choice. Just as in Bible times a visitor would deliberately prostrate himself before a king or other dignitary, it was natural to adopt that position before the King of kings. It’s not uncommon today, therefore, to see people prostrate themselves before God in times of worship, at least in churches that allow such freedom of expression.

At other times falling over is involuntary. The power of God touches a person and they go ‘out for the count’, as unconscious as a boxer at the receiving end of an uppercut. Oddly enough, people touched this way usually fall backwards, not forwards.

In recent decades we’ve seen a spate of backwards-falling in meetings as part of various times of ‘refreshing’. When it first began, people would suddenly keel over in their places, scattering chairs and scaring their neighbours. These, when they regained some composure, would make their friends comfortable on the floor, arrange their dress for modesty and stand aside.

Sometimes the leaders would invite folk to come forward for prayer. The lightest of touches on the forehead could have an effect like a bolt of lightning. I’ve seen people literally leave the floor, as if the carpet had been electrified, and crash down backwards in a sprawling heap, unconscious. In spite of hitting their heads hard, none seemed to suffer even a bruise. After a while they would ‘come round’ and stagger to their chairs having enjoyed an unusual sense of God’s presence.

To me, the saddest thing about all this was how church leaders so quickly institutionalised it. What undoubtedly started out as a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit ended up as another item in the church’s repertoire. Before, you could sing, pray, testify, preach, teach, prophesy, speak in a tongue, interpret a tongue, share a vision or bring an exhortation. Now, you could also call people forward to line up and be ‘ministered to’ and they would fall over backwards.

That can’t be right. The work of the Spirit, Jesus said, is like the wind: it ‘blows wherever it pleases…you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.'[3]  But church leaders built themselves a wind-tunnel. ‘The wind,’ they said, ‘will come from the touch of those who pray for the people, and it will blow those people over backwards, preferably within two minutes so that we have time to get round everybody.’

Gradually, the freshness and spontaneity of the Spirit’s work was vanishing. In its place was coming a pattern of learned behaviour, tutored by well-meaning but insensitive leaders.

A woman comes forward with others. She stands, eyes closed, expecting God’s touch. Everyone knows she’s going to fall backwards—that’s the system—so someone ushers her into a position that leaves two metres of clear space behind her. As a leader comes to pray with her, a ‘catcher’ moves in behind, hands lightly touching her waist to reassure her that she can fall safely.

If, after a couple of minutes, she’s still upright, leader and catcher alike become a bit tense. The leader feels he may have ‘lost the anointing’ and is going to lose face in the eyes of the congregation. The catcher, who likes to be kept busy, is willing her to fall over so that he can move on to the next person. The fact that God is sovereign and that she doesn’t have to fall over, or that she might fall forwards, or that it might happen in fifteen minutes rather than two, doesn’t seem to enter the equation.

Measures must be taken to help the Spirit in his work. The wind-speed in the tunnel needs cranking up by mechanical means. The leader begins to push the woman backwards. Sensing this, the man behind her stiffens for the catch. The woman takes a step backwards, a natural reaction to being pushed. That shortens the space behind her to a metre and a half. Now, if she falls, she’s likely to land on somebody else. The catcher frowns. He’s going to have to do a spot of clever manoeuvring here.

The pressure is not just on the leader and the catcher. It’s on the woman, too. Behind her is a congregation that has learnt the procedure. Everyone’s wondering why she’s still standing. The pressure for her to keel over voluntarily is enormous. She gives in. Yielding to the push on the forehead and secure in the knowledge of the catcher’s presence, she falls back, eyes still closed, and is laid out in the available space. The leader smiles. Another success. He moves on to the next person. The catcher smiles. Another one safely down. He too moves on.

But was this the work of God? Did she ‘go down under the power’? Certainly not. She went down under a power, but not the power of God. It was the power of peer pressure, the power of learned behaviour and the power of a push on the forehead. It was the synthetic power of the wind-tunnel. If the Holy Spirit showed up at all, he must surely have shown up grieved. But he is ‘the Spirit of grace’ and may well have dispensed a blessing to the woman simply because he loves to bless. If so, it was in spite of the wind-tunnel arrangements, not because of them.

How dare we toy with the Holy Spirit this way?

Much that has gone on in the name of the Spirit has been little more than sympathetic magic. When the rain comes, the worms rise. So we do a rain dance, performing actions that, by simulating the fall of rain on the ground, cause the worms to rise. But rising worms do not spell rain. When the Spirit comes, certain phenomena—like falling over—commonly occur. So we do a Spirit dance, with forehead-pushing and catchers. People dutifully fall backwards. But such antics don’t spell the presence of the Lord.

Let’s allow God to be his sovereign self. Scrap the wind-tunnel. Let’s just open the windows of our souls and let the wind of God blow where it wills.

And if you’re an official catcher, take my advice: resign.

Footnotes

  1. Ezekiel 1:28
  2. Revelation 1:17
  3. John 3:8
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Brown shins: Scripture and phenomena

11 January 2018

I have learnt two vital loyalties. The first is to be true to the Lord—hold fast to him, rely on him, believe him, trust him. The second is to be true to myself.

This latter needs a bit of explanation. Being true to yourself means accepting your basic personality and not trying to ape someone else. It’s not an issue of character. Character is a moral thing and good character is the degree to which you are like Christ, whose qualities like love, courage, faithfulness, honesty and patience are ones we should all strive to develop. They are the fruit of the Spirit. Personality is something different. It’s the way you were wired from birth. It makes you, for instance, an introvert or an extrovert, chiefly rational or chiefly emotional, a details person or a strategist, a leader or a follower.

Such leanings are, in themselves, neither good nor bad but they can find expression infeet of jesus good or bad ways. For example, I’m an introvert. I’m happy with my own company and think deeply about things. Sometimes that’s good. It means that I can crack on with tasks that require prolonged concentration without being distracted by the urge to go and find human company. But, on the down-side, it means I can sometimes neglect the human company I need if I am to avoid getting too internalised and out of touch. Another example: I’m more rational than emotional. I don’t really do excited. So I keep cool in crises, think things through and reach a studied conclusion, which is good. But I also tend to lack sympathy towards people for whom emotion is more central, which is bad. I’m constantly working to find a sensible balance in these things, but I will never be an emotional extrovert, and don’t want to be. I have to be true to myself as the rational introvert that God wired me to be, accepting that as my fundamental nature and working with it, not against it.

In terms of Christian ministry that makes me more of a teacher than a prophet. I don’t like flying by the seat of my pants. I like my message well-prepared and properly researched, my notes clearly laid out and my PowerPoint presentation synchronised. Because God made me the way I am, he for the most part goes along with these inclinations. But since, being God, he won’t be restricted, he very occasionally kicks my crutches away so that I have to depend on his direction in the moment-by-moment way that I normally find grimly challenging.

A personality like mine was never going to be comfortable with the ‘Toronto blessing’—or, as it was called in my neck of the woods, ‘the refreshing’—which came our way in the mid-1990s. If ever I see people keeling over, laughing hysterically on the floor or staggering around in glassy-eyed euphoria I want to go home right away and read a book. So it was reluctantly that I went to that meeting in 1995, drawn chiefly by a sense of duty to the leaders who had convened it.

It quickly became the scene of chaos that was to become typical. ‘Get me out of here!’ was my unspoken cry. But my rational nature insisted I try to understand what was going on, to analyse it and to reach a conclusion as to whether it was divine intervention or a form of mass hysteria—or maybe an unsettling hybrid. What should I do?

‘Play safe’, I decided. ‘Sit tight and, above all, keep your focus on the Lord rather than on the groaning, laughing and falling about that’s all around you.’ So I continued to speak in tongues under my breath. Speaking in tongues because that is a means of edifying oneself and keeping the Lord in view. Under my breath because, according to Paul, it should not be out loud unless there is to be public interpretation, and that didn’t look likely. I shut my eyes to keep out the unhelpful scenes.

Comfortable with this internalised approach, I became strangely peaceful. Yes, I was doing the right thing, giving God alone my attention and, while sceptical of the phenomena, staying open to the possibility that he might somehow bless me in the midst of it all. Then I became so peaceful that my backside began to slide slowly forward on the chair. ‘Mmm. If this continues I’ll end up on the floor,’ I thought. ‘But so what? Most other folk are there anyway.’ Sure enough, I crumpled gently and comfortably to the floor, where, confident that I could slip no further, I continued to praise God in tongues, head on the carpet, eyes still closed, and enjoyed the peace.

Whether I fell asleep and had a dream, I don’t know for sure. It might have been a vision—a waking dream. Either way, my eyes must have been open literally or figuratively because from my worm’s eye view on the floor I became aware of a pair of feet about a metre from my head. They were in brown sandals and I just knew, somehow, that this was Jesus. I looked a bit further up and saw the rough hem of his homespun garment. Between that and the sandals the visible shins were astonishingly brown. ‘Yes, well, of course Jesus wasn’t a white Caucasian; he was olive-skinned, a brown Mediterranean man,’ I thought. ‘So that figures.’

I turned my head some more and looked higher. I saw all of him. He was short-bearded, a bit like me. He was looking directly down at me, with a smile playing around his lips. But what struck me most was the roguish, conspiratorial twinkle in his eye. He didn’t say anything, but spoke so eloquently with the smile and the twinkle that I knew without a doubt what he was saying. In fact he winked at me: ‘I’ve cracked it, Dave. The whole lot—the devil, the curse, sin and death. And I’ve come out on top at the other side of the grave. And I’ll tell you what, Dave: you stick with me and you’ll soon have cracked it, too!’
Nothing there that the theology of the believer’s union with Christ hadn’t already assured me of, but this was a personal confirmation, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, very sweet, very precious.

The vision faded and, very gradually, the sounds in the room began to intrude on my ears again. I opened my eyes. There were still some folk on the carpet, but most were up and beginning to move towards the exit. I heard someone say that soup and rolls were being served in the other room. I got up, rubbed my eyes and, with my wife, joined the soup queue. I felt perfectly normal. Certainly not euphoric or in some altered state. Just warm inside and content with my rendezvous with Jesus. People told me I had been motionless on the floor for an hour and a quarter. In fact one lady, a nurse, had wondered if I’d had a heart attack and had apparently stooped down to check my pulse!

So what was Mr Rational to make of all this?

I look back on the experience with pleasure. That it was of God I haven’t the slightest doubt, and I am grateful that the Lord Jesus took the trouble to address me in such a personal way. In times of stress I remind myself of his words and find in them strength and comfort. It wasn’t a highly-charged emotional experience but a gentle one, leaving my heart, in Wesley’s words, ‘strangely warmed.’ It remains an unobtrusive milestone on the route of my pilgrimage. I say ‘unobtrusive’ because it isn’t painted crimson, just quiet white, like all the rest. But a milestone nonetheless and, as such, important to me.

Ah, but was it ‘biblical’? Of course it was. Scripture is full of instances where the Lord made personal appearances to people, and it nowhere suggests he might have finished. But it was personal to me. I didn’t write a book about it or trumpet it on Christian TV. I didn’t even feel it was something I should urge other people to seek for themselves. The Lord, in his gracious sovereignty, had met me where I was and, in such an acceptable way for me and my personality, had gently but clearly reminded me of his love for me and the hard facts of his resurrection. Brilliant.

Such experiences are cherries on the cake. The cake itself is a much more robust affair. The church’s foundation is solid propositional truths, revealed by God and recorded in Scripture. It consists of people who, responding to that revelation, enjoy a living, personal relationship with him. In such a relationship, of course, anything can happen, so always be open to the Lord’s surprises, but don’t allow your life, or that of your church, to revolve around them.

They tell me that the latest breakout of dramatic phenomena is happening in such-and-such a place. I shan’t be catching a plane or train to visit. If it arrives on my doorstep I’ll take it as it comes, exercising discernment, and encourage the people in my church to do the same. Meanwhile, we’ll crack on with the unchanging task of glorifying God, reaching out to the lost with both words and works, and nurturing the saints with the good food of God’s Word.

Some will say that my personality is my bias—that it inclines me towards these more routine, even humdrum realities of the Christian life and away from the spectacular, the phenomenal and the allegedly mega-prophetic. They are right. But two thousand years of Christian history are with me on this one. Essential Christianity is not oohs and ahs. It is unflinching allegiance to the hard facts of God’s revelation in Christ.

For that reason our priority must always be to keep reading, teaching and practising the Word of God. Phenomena will come and go. The ones that are of God we may embrace; the ones flavoured with learned behaviour and crowd-manipulation we will avoid. The church of Jesus Christ we will love and nurture; the Church Of The Brown Shins we will never found.


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