Holy surprises are scary sometimes. God’s presence is really scary sometimes. About two months ago my family and I moved to Seattle, WA from Durham, NC. My wife and I graduated from Duke University, I had a great job in a great city, we had a great move across the country. Life was good.
When we got here I quickly realized I wasn’t in Durham anymore, my closest friends and mentors were not here. Our stuff wasn’t here. This was not a terrible situation in the grand scheme of things and I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but there it is. I don’t do change well. But on top of this culture shock our rental welcomed us with a collapsed sewage line that greeted us two successive mornings with someone else’s insides all over our bathroom (toilet, tub, sink, floor – it took Gail three days and two gallons of clorox down the drain before she would take a shower in that tub).
At 5 am on Sunday morning, cleaning up the bathroom I could only think of one thing. I had to go to church. This wasn’t one of those moments of intellectual, disciplined obedience. I was not singing psalms reminding myself that God was my provider. I had to go to the church like I had to eat. I had to go to church like I had not had a drop to drink in weeks. I was parched, starved, desperate in a way I did not know I could be.
So off we went to the only church we only knew anything about and 10 minutes into worship I had nothing left to resist with. I had no semblance of control. I could only weep. Not those nice manly tears that fall slowly down a chiseled and resolute face. No, these were tears mixed with snot and sniffing and more than my one tissue could absorb. In those moments I felt myself a stranger in a strange land and was succumbing to this strangeness, abandoning my presuppositions of control but also being comforted in ways I had not know before.
And then it happened…
I was just singing, or trying to sing between the sniffs and snorts, trying to be subtle (read: not be a total freak) in the midst of folks who I had never met before, when my tongue began to shake and stutter. It started slowly, but then became so pronounced that I had to cover my mouth with my hand to not disturb the nice strangers around me. But I had no energy to resist, no ideas to corral what was happening to me. I could only rest in it, let myself fall into it and utter a language I could not discern but flowed up through me.
In those moments I heard the words that were being sung and felt only what I could describe as God’s presence from within drawing my body into an assurance of God’s abiding presence with me in this moment. I was at once comforted and scared crapless. God was present and that reassured me, but it also overwhelmed me. This was not a moment of triumph for me, but a moment of fear and comfort that I am still trying to understand how to live in to.
In some ways it seems ridiculous that this was the moment of my disarmament. Surely my life was not bad. I was not starving, I had a job when so many were struggling to find one. But in an odd way this also made the moment only more comforting to me. God did not have a critical stage that I had to fall below before I could be ushered into this presence. For whatever reason this was my moment of weakness, the moment when I had nothing left to intellectualize our life, my calling, my place in the world or my position before God. And in that weakness God met me, God welled up within me and as I was poured out I was filled up.
After worship, through the sermon, throughout the next few weeks and now months since that morning I have tried to understand that moment and how to live into it, how to receive it fully. Do I try to speak in tongues every week, do I remain in the closet every morning trying to reproduce that moment from so many weeks ago? Do I simply resist and let God do the work? I knew this meant something not only for that moment, or my prayer life, but for every aspect of my life.
What I have come to realize is that that wonderful and terrifying moment was as much about revelation as it was about comfort. God’s presence, God’s gift at that moment comforted me, but at that moment it also revealed to me the ways I have tried to mediate my service, my life, and my God. As a theologian I was supposed to be an authority, but I had mistaken this authority for sovereignty. I could not think my way to God and I could not think my way for God.
The desperation of that moment in my life was one I realized I had been resisting throughout my life. The hunger to be at church, to hear, to worship was one I had for so long tried to quench in ways that were barely enough, but in my desperation God had filled me. This gift of a strange tongue was not an accomplishment. It was not a mark of pride or something I can declare as an elevation of my spiritual walk or life.
At the very least, it is a reminder to me that God’s presence abides with those whom God loves in moments of desperation and moments of joy. It is a reminder to me of the many ways I resist this presence on a daily basis. But even more it is something that I hope for from day to day, but also something that I hope seeps into my fathering, husbanding (no its not a word, but it works here!), and my teaching. Each of these aspects of my life is pregnant with the possibility of strange speech that both comforts and prophecies.
The point is not completely the strange speech of that moment, but whether that moment reverberates in such a way as to reveal how my life is uttering a language too plainly, too precisely and in a way that only has to do with me. This was not an entrance into an elite club, but the intensification of my service and my calling to my family, my church, and my students. It was God pressing me into a life with God and a life among God’s people more intensely.
That moment has instructed me to no longer fear those moments of desperation, to fear those strange places, those moments of change however small or large. This strange tongue has revealed to me the little ways I have tried to mediate my own faith rather than receive it. I pray I might live into that holy desperation and be comforted in the midst of the fear, and that this would be a moment that is not confined to a few moments on a Sunday morning, but animates my life with God and with the people whom God loves.