The Church in my City

Chapter 12 Power for the task

I like the urban legend of the couple from a jungle tribe in Africa who arrived in my city of Kingston. Their sponsor had kindly given them the keys to a free fully furnished and equipped house near the downtown shopping area. They could buy what they needed from Food Basics, and they collected wood for cooking, and used the Hibachi in the garden. The couple had never used electricity, and all went well till it turned cold and dark in October.

Happily a man from their church dropped by one evening to ask if they would buy tickets for a fund raising event. "Has your power failed?" Then he discovered they had never been shown how to turn on the lights. To their astonishment they found they could flick a switch and get light in every room. Then he showed them how to use the thermostat and get heat from the natural gas furnace, and they were delighted.

When the man got home his wife asked him how they cooked. So she came round, and step by step taught her African friends how to use the gas cooker, set the clocks, use the microwave. And the radio and TV. And the vacuum cleaner, and every other appliance in the house. Finally he himself came round and taught them to use the computer and internet.

My impression is that this was the situation for most Christians in my city of Kingston twenty-five years ago. As the Christians in Ephesus said to Paul, "we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:2). Later he concluded his letter to those same Christians with a doxology: "Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).

Good church members will object "Of course we believe in the Holy Spirit. We say so in our creed, and we baptize in the name of the Trinity." They will add that they join in singing "Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire" at ordinations, and conclude their meetings with "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit." The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is an essential part of every denomination's statement of faith.

The problem was that the doctrine was learned in a way that denied its power in the practical needs of life. "The Holy Spirit was given to you in your baptism. The Bishop prayed for you to be empowered by the Holy Spirit in your confirmation. You received the Holy Spirit when you were born again. The Holy Spirit comes when you obey God's law, and by reading the Bible."

Others said the Holy Spirit would only help if you tried hard to resist temptation and sin. Or the Holy Spirit was given when you confessed all your past sin, and made a total commitment to the Lord. Many were convinced that the proof of receiving the Holy Spirit was speaking in tongues or being "slain in the Spirit" (by falling to the ground).

I am not interested in denying any of those doctrines. But I have observed how people have been helped to try out and experience the power of the Holy Spirit in very practical experiential ways. Giving the couple from Africa all the instruction manuals for blenders, cookers, vacuum cleaners, stereos, television programming, VCRs, computers, etc. would not have helped. But applying the analogy to the church here I have watched with increasing excitement how Christians of all denominations have been shown step by step (one appliance at a time) how to enjoy the "the wisdom of God in its rich variety" (Ephesians 3:10).

Jesus said "The Advocate (Greek paraklytos, Latin advocatus, both meaning one called alongside to help), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said" (John 14:26). But this was not one miraculous experience that would give his disciples all they would need to function as members of his Kingdom.

A turning point in the congregation of St. James was when Faye Koshel, David and Jacqui Greer, and David and Margo Ward came back from a conference where they had been shown how to lead a group into worship in the Spirit. When Faye told me they would like to try doing this, I immediately said "You are on Sunday evening." And over the next three years we enjoyed one of the richest experiences of the Holy Spirit that I can remember.

As a result of the Canadian Anglican Book of Alternative Services, there is now a freedom for people to lead the Prayers of the People. When lay people learn how to look to the Spirit to discern what he is doing in the congregation, in our city, and in the world, there is a wonderful enrichment of the service.

When Marilyn Barber of the church in this city was shown how to write words and music for charismatic singing, her first three or four songs were sung by Carol Tennant and produced as a CD. I cannot think of any other "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Ephesians 5:19) which have moved me so much.

In the first prayer groups I attended in this city each person thought they had to pray one by one in rotation for five minutes each. This not only scared away ordinary people, but was very tedious to listen to (for me and I suspect even more so for God). Now people have learned to pray one short prayer that the Holy Spirit has given them, or just mention a name, or express a thanksgiving, and I find this kind of conversational prayer very exciting.

And whereas each evangelical congregation used to have an official prayer group listed in the bulletin, now prayer and fellowship groups have mushroomed all over the city, and nobody seems to care what denomination people come from. Nor are people checked out to see if they believe every item of the confession of faith. Anybody can come in and pray whatever is in their heart.

In hospital visiting I used to carry a Bible and read a passage for the sick person followed by the Lord's prayer. . Now hundreds of visitors have learned to listen to the concerns of the patient, and look to the Spirit to express those needs in a very short prayer to God. And in dealing with the terminally ill and dying, we now realize they don't need a lecture or Bible Study about life after death. We can just be with them, hold their hand, and the Spirit does the rest.

When I first came to this city, healing services were viewed as the money raising activities of American evangelists. Slowly we have learned that every person who is sick or incapacitated has the right to the laying on of hands with prayer for specific healing by the power of the Spirit.

Obviously not everyone is healed, and the first apostles all died, as we must do when our work is done. But I have seen sufficient examples of miraculous healing by the power of the Holy Spirit to know that God blesses the ministry of healing. In each case people receive the healing they need to perform the special work they have to do.

As I saw all this happening, my theology also began to change. Paul wrote "I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith" (Romans 1:16-17). I used to think that this power of God referred to the power of God the Father to forgive us because of the substitutionary death of his Son when he paid for our sins on the cross. (See Romans Commentary).

When I realized that Paul was thinking of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives the meaning of the Epistle to the Romans changed radically. "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:5). And Paul explained how the power of the Spirit can overcome the natural disinclination of our flesh (7:14-8:8). He then went on to explain some of the miraculous changes in our lives by the power of the Spirit (8:9-39). Paul's mission from Jerusalem to Croatia was only possible by the power of the Spirit of God (15:19). In his final doxology he gave thanks that each experience of the Holy Spirit gives us assurance that there is much more to come. "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (15:13).

As more and more Christians in this city have moved on from the experience of a merely legal justification to experiencing the power of the Spirit in all sorts of unexpected ways, here are some more examples of what I have been astonished to see happening.

My wife Mollie failed art at high school and was told that she had no talent in that direction. She never painted or drew anything for fifty years. But when we were in Abu Dhabi Maureen Finney ran an art group, and Mollie began with some pastels. Within a year back in Canada she was looking to the Holy Spirit to produce several dozen oil paintings which have been a great joy to me and our family and many friends.

I wish I could remember and describe what I have seen happening through Alcoholics Anonymous, who meet in the basement of St. Paul's congregation. And through Alpha in dozens of congregations in this city, and Cursillo week-ends, and in many other ways. I will just mention one experience of the Spirit in my life that I could never have imagined till it happened.

When I discovered that Queen University students in the St. James congregation were beginning to work with computers, the Holy Spirit encouraged me to get a computer and learn. As a result, and very much by looking to the Spirit step by step, I have learned to use the Internet to communicate with more people than I ever imagined (right now 500 individuals are coming in to [www.brow.on] every day, seven days a week, every day of the year). I have no doubt that this astonishing outreach into all the world is nothing but the power of the Holy Spirit at work.

For each of these, and hundreds of other ways of being empowered by the Spirit, Christians had to be shown how to draw on that power (as the African friends in the fully equipped house that was given them). There is no sense that "we have got it now" but rather a confidence that the fulness of the Spirit has only just begun. As Jesus told his disciples, "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these" (John 14:12). Faith is not believing certain facts about the Holy Spirit. Rather it is looking with expectation to enjoy one creative experience of the Spirit after another.