When I was younger, I loved Pentecost because everyone was supposed to come to our Presbyterian church wearing red. I would comb through my closet, wanting to be red from head to toe. As we walked into church that morning, I always enjoyed looking for the others who had remembered the memo. Once a year, I felt part of the story, a walking sermon illustration.
During those Pentecost sermons, I always got a big kick out of a specific phrase, which I underlined in my Bible: “these men are not drunk as you suppose.” Peter says this in response to the naysayers who are discounting the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit happening right in front of them.
The Bible I read today chooses gender unspecific language whenever it is a faithful translation. Now when I read “these are not drunk as you suppose,” I place myself in the story, wondering what it would be like to have the Holy Spirit suddenly come upon me, my mouth forming words in a language I don’t know, burning flames all around and a noise like a rushing wind. I would be terrified.
In almost every church I have been a part of, someone has prayed or sung: Holy Spirit, come. When we repeat these words, I am guessing most of us do it without anxiety. We aren’t worried about what the Spirit will do or how it will look or feel. We aren’t concerned that the first time the Holy Spirit came to indwell humanity everyone thought they were drunk.
This isn’t the only time that the effects of the Holy Spirit are compared to drunkenness. Ephesians 5:18 reads, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery…” But every sermon I’ve ever heard on this verse stops there. I’ve never heard anyone talk about the second part: “…but be filled with the Spirit.” This verse isn’t about refusing to lose control, but about choosing the right thing to lose control to.
If we believe that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, fully God, then we must also believe that the Holy Spirit is far more powerful than countless bottles of vodka, absinthe, or Everclear, lined up to the horizon. These so-called spirits dim in comparison with the Spirit. Once the Holy Spirit is inside us, the results are limitless; the Spirit can move in whatever way it wishes.
My earliest church memories are of a Vineyard church in southern California, where my father was a pastor. It was one place where we prayed for the Holy Spirit to come with a bit of trembling. In that place, I learned to listen and watch for signs that our invitation had been accepted. I opened my little-girl mouth wide to drink the Spirit in.
Later, long after we left California and were attending other kinds of churches, I would pray alone in my bed for what my parents called a “prayer language” (distinguished from speaking in tongues by the private nature of the practice, which doesn’t require an interpreter). By then, it was clear that I was a perfectionistic control freak. I spared no opportunity to create order. I worried constantly. I did my best to avoid a single misstep. Night after night, I opened my mouth, hoping that words I didn’t know would suddenly tumble out, a message to God that even I didn’t understand, a deep communication sent by my spirit, or perhaps the Spirit inside me. One night, it happened.
In that moment, time was unimportant, and though I had often prayed slowly, trying to choose the right words that might move the God of Heaven, now the words spilled freely. For once, it wasn’t all up to me. I was out of control, and I wasn’t afraid.
I have seen the excesses of the charismatic movement, the dark sides and the light. Like any other way of doing faith, I don’t think it is always done well or that it is always without value. But I do know that there are times when I cannot find words to pray. A friend loses a child, an illness comes back, I bear witness to a raw, heartrending longing in someone else, or myself. In those moments, it is a relief to take a break from my perceived grasp on control. Sometimes I pray “in the Spirit” as we used to say, and sometimes I just sit, trusting that the Spirit intercedes on my behalf and never stops. Unlike the glass of wine I sometimes drink to encourage myself into celebration, or to take a break from holding up the world, the Spirit is no controlled substance, with power that wanes or wears off after time.
As Pentecost comes again this year, I am thinking about those unsuspecting Jews, in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, fifty orderly days after Passover. My experience with Jewish celebrations leads me to believe that there was plenty of wine flowing. That wine was a known quantity, intended to warm the heart and enhance the feast, but when the Spirit came, suddenly each person heard about God’s deeds of power in a language they could understand. Peter refers back to the words of the prophet Joel for explanation. The last days Joel spoke about had come; salvation was finally at hand.
On Pentecost this year, I will sit in my little Lutheran church, with the blonde wood, and the beautiful stained glass windows. I will try to remember to wear red. I will join with the congregation as we ask the Holy Spirit to come, and as I look for evidence of that presence, I hope that I can open my mouth wide, even if it causes me to tremble and lose control.
Cara Strickland is a freelance writer based in Washington State. You can find more of her work at carastrickland.com.