Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Gift of Tongues and the Baptism of the Spirit (Christian Testimony, Revisited)

(Trigger warnings? This is, obviously, a Christian post...cut from the Link Log due to length, not religious identity. Since I anticipate posting another long Link Log and probably another full-length post on the day I'm writing it, perhaps this one should be scheduled for Saturday, even though it's more about me than about God.)

I like the Bible study linked below. I highly recommend it to some local lurkers:

http://faithandvictory.com/sermons/the-ultimate-power/

Not just because it could be used to "prove" that I've been Baptized By the Holy Spirit, even though I was physically baptized far from home, in Florida, in standing water, by a Cuban-American who clearly pronounced a name different from mine, and I didn't even hear which of the two possible texts he uttered at the moment of baptism because I was under water...so some of my relatives have been saying, throughout my adult life, that I was baptized "wrong" and need to be baptized all over again, properly, in one local church as opposed to the others, which of course was what my parents hoped to avoid...

But I see the confusion this preacher sees. "The gift of tongues" has sometimes been a real gift that has served God in miraculous ways. Often, however, it's a source of confusion.

Sincere Christians fret because they don't have "the gift of tongues," when for all we can tell they may have received more useful gifts. What about the gift of sobriety, for an addict? The gift of celibacy, for someone who's been sucked into a sex-obsessed subculture and got out before developing AIDS? Are you going to doubt that those are gifts from God? I'm not.

Troubled souls think they have "the gift" when what they really have is the kind of glossolalia that's a symptom of emotional distress. I had that, once--the kind where you're profoundly burdened by something you can't even explain, while trying to pray out loud in public, so you just break into an old traditional prayer in Latin, which you happen to have learned previously...Was that a gift from God? Well, maybe it kept me from divulging other people's secrets to the church, but that's all it did. I think of it as having been strictly an effect of caring too much about someone I couldn't help.

Then there's the kind that's an effect of unconscious learning. At my church college a lot of us spoke Spanish, some with native fluency, some not; the ones who had to work at learning Spanish used to hang around the ones who spoke with native fluency for language practice. Eventually we formed a multiethnic crowd in which bilingual conversations took place, in the school cafeteria. (That was something that had been much discussed, but never before seen, in the history of that school.) A few people who hung out with that crowd didn't speak Spanish at all, so far as they knew...but they heard it. One day I was out at a church mission with a Connecticut Yankee who had never taken a Spanish class. A man came up to us speaking Spanish, and the Yankee unthinkingly blurted out the Spanish phrase that answered the man's question correctly. He thought he might have received a sort of micro-gift of tongues, although he wasn't sure exactly what he'd said and couldn't say anything else in Spanish. Well, maybe that experience was a spiritual blessing for him, but I think of it as having been an effect of overhearing things, the same way a tune that's been used as a commercial jingle might bring a commercial trademark to the mind of someone who's never consciously paid attention to the jingle.

Then there's the kind discussed in this novel, written with empathy by an unbeliever...

What I Really Think of You by [Kerr, M. E.]

...where the preacher's daughter has learned the idea of "speaking in the unknown tongue," which is just basic babytalk, and she can babble as well as anyone else because babbling is what people do in her church. I have no idea how much of the "tongue" speaking heard in some churches is this kind of babbling, as distinct even from real glossolalia. I try not to worry about it, to admit the possibility that if people "speaking in tongues" think they are glorifying God in some way they may be glorifying God. That is not how a lot of it sounds to me, but how do I know what it sounds like to God?

And then there's the kind that I've always felt tempted to do...My brother and I happened to be born with a fascination by, and a talent for, words and languages. We had our own "language" made up of bits of Spanish and French and Latin and German and English and baby-babble; I've written fiction that uses constructed languages based on that. Our parents wanted us to stick to proper French, Spanish, and German, but couldn't give us enough conversation practice to build real multilingual brains. My brother was the one who could converse, in a limited way, in French; I'm the one who can converse, in a limited way, in Spanish. I can puzzle out German, Latin, Italian, Portuguese, with a dictionary. I've picked up odd bits, not enough to do more than figure out what song lyrics mean with a dictionary, of many other languages. It's not a spiritual gift; it's a hobby, like drawing or cultivating flowers or collecting stamps.

Once I prayed fervently, and I think it's possible that God gave me the micro-gift of being able to use what German I know--which isn't much--to comfort a dying woman who was speaking Yiddish. And then again, if she'd lived longer, it might have turned out that my own vanity tricked me into using my German to confuse, deceive, and upset the lady, because I've never known for sure exactly what I said, whether I claimed to be her long-dead granddaughter or something. I know I meant well, in a spiritual way; I know I heard myself using German more fluently, and being understood better, than would have been possible if I'd been consciously speaking German without praying. Only the facts that the old lady obviously had a moment of joy, and died a few days later, have ever allowed me to imagine that that incident was a gift from God. I've known people for whom similar incidents seemed to be gifts from the Evil Principle.

When I've been exposed to people whose "worship" services seemed more like mean little kids imitating younger, foreign, or speech-impaired people, there's always been the temptation to join them in what's always seemed to me like a blasphemous parody of worship. I mean I could do that, convincingly. Without even praying I could walk into a Pentecostal church where nobody knows me, or into a gathering of non-Christians who believe in past lives for that matter, and close my eyes and recite a lovely old song that I memorized because it sounds good, and go all, "Oh, I was praying in a spiritual language," and wait for somebody to scream, "No, you were speaking Gaelic! Fluently! Glory be, it's a miracle," or a past life--whichever. I would know it was neither a miracle nor a past life, and I'd be laughing at those people.

I've never actually done this; it's always felt like a mean, spiteful, antichristian thing to do. But I've always had the ability to do it. I've known, too, that there are situations when it's exactly what the prophets in the Bible would have done. If I knew for sure that someone "speaking in the unknown tongue" was a charlatan, I reserve the right to be "slain in the spirit" and start hopping around, speaking (my severely limited amount of) Swahili fluently, and smack that person's face just the way "the spirit" told me to.

Friends and fellow believers...I suspect, though I don't positively know, that this kind of conscious play-acting is what goes on in some of your churches, even in some of the very same churches where a worthless drunken brawler received the miraculous gift of sobriety and so on. I have heard stories, told after the people involved were dead and it was possible to see how their lives turned out. One man sincerely repented and prayed and received the gift of sobriety, and everyone was awestruck, yes. (And he was sober for thirty-some years.) And another man came in, "speaking in the unknown tongue," and stole the wife and mother from a local family, and the daughter was so mortified she quit school and let the shame of her mother's seduction ruin her life. And a beautiful girl with almost knee-length Cherokee-black hair spoke and sang in tongues, and pious people felt blessed by the Holy Spirit while listening to her sweet young voice, and impious people were moved by a different sort of spirit, and after certain experiences the details of which will never be known, she went north and became a notorious prostitute. (Eventually she settled down and came back to our town, and my parents always said I had to be extra-polite to the nasty old hag she'd become, too, while at the same time avoiding her as much as possible, because of her horrible, shameful story.) The Spirit of God has been among such churches, but other spirits have been present too.

Even in the apostolic church, at the same time that the gift of tongues was accomplishing miraculous things, the apostles themselves were guided to downplay "speaking in tongues" in the churches--to limit the time the church spent listening to someone "speaking in tongues" to the time during which some other person present could understand and translate what was said. I believe this guideline may need more attention in some churches, and "the unknown tongue" may deserve less. The kind of ordinary emotional glossolalia that happens when someone doesn't want to talk about someone else's sins and blurts out "God have mercy" in some old forgotten language is really best reserved for private prayer at home, as the Bible teaches.

What I believe has been God's special gift to me, some years of spiritual discipline after my physical baptism with water, has been spiritual love, or freedom from hate. The local Trash Class (in which category I most definitely include social workers who enable welfare cheats, along with the cheats themselves) have tested this gift thoroughly in recent years. Yes, of course you can make me despise you, just by acting trashy. If you're determined to convince me that you're not as nice or as clever as any dog I'd be willing to feed, you can certainly do that. Many people have done it. But you can't make me hate you, the way I did as an unenlightened child, or the way some harassed introverts (of whom Hitler was the epitome) do as adults. I may be the only one who can say for sure that the difference exists, while I'm still alive--but it does. Good will toward humankind is a gift from God, and you can't touch it. Even if you died and, for your sins, you were sent back to Earth as a disease germ, you couldn't touch it.

Well, I've spent the last few years in rather peculiar circumstances, what with all this working and not being paid. I'm honest, competent, trained and educated; I've never claimed or wanted to be a genius but I was on the Dean's List at Berea and I did have a successful business of my own, for years, starting while I was too sick to work and continuing while I was fostering a teenager. That "book-smart but life-stupid" label is there for the haters to fall back on as long as I continue not to be rich, and if you want to say that the choice not to acquire money by unethical means is stupid, feel free; the Holy Spirit has never told me not to despise that belief or those who spout it; I suspect the Holy Spirit despises that belief, too.

I've not asked for or received "visions" as most people think of them, ever, but I have received spiritual insights during prayer. One of them is that the reason why I've not been paid what I've earned is that the church is the living Body of Christ, and that Body is like the sick, dying bodies in a hospital, unable to move a finger because so much of its nerve and muscle tissue is dead. (That, of course, being the hypocritical churchgoers in whom the Spirit of Christ never lived, who among other things "have eaten their portions themselves, and the fatherless have not partaken thereof.")

Another is that, although I'm not a saint and not really even the nun I've been living like, I've spent the past decade here as the representative of Christ to the self-proclaimed Christians I know. Youall are showing Jesus what you think of Him by the way you behave toward me. Toward other people, too, whom some of you know better than I know them or than you know me. Toward those who have, after much prayer and struggle, received the gifts of sobriety or celibacy or anger-management or money-management or parental love or truthfulness or some other thing they notoriously lacked in the past... In any case, many of you churchgoing types had better prepare to be lashed.

Whether the "gift of tongues" some of you exhibit in some churches was just the sort of confused babbling that non-Christian writer guessed it to be, or just unconscious learning or emotionality, or deliberate fraud, or perhaps even a foretaste of a real gift God may call you to use some day, I don't know. Likely those of you for whom it was learning, emotionality, or a real gift, don't even know which it is--yet--yourselves.

I was with one of you one day when a TV news channel broadcast an Israeli memorial service, and you said, "What's she saying? She has such a heavy accent"--and my immediate thought was, "Wow, have you studied Hebrew enough to tell one accent from another? I've not...but that's such basic Hebrew!"--and then the translator came on and voiced-over the rest of the service in English. I've never forgotten that day, though. You had not studied Hebrew. I have, a little. You heard that lady say "My father was a man of peace" almost as clearly as I did, and for you it was a gift. Whether it was a spiritual gift or a more mundane gift of learning, who knows.

I suspect, though, that if Jesus visited your church He might say something like, "Youall speak with the tongues of men and angels, yet you have neglected works of mercy and charity. Those you ought to have done, and not left the other undone." And even if He said it in classical Greek, and you were blessed with the ability to understand it in Greek without ever having studied Greek, you'd do better to heed His words in Matthew 23:23 rather than only marvelling at your own gift.