Reflections on a Journey
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. (John 14:4, NIV)
Article prepared by Margaret M. Poloma (The University of Akron) for Testimonies from the Father’s Blessing (working title)
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When John Arnott asked me to write an article about how God had touched my life through the renewal at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (TACF), I was somewhat ambivalent. During the years I had been doing research on the Renewal, I marveled over the many blessings bestowed through the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’. The sociological surveys conducted in 1995 and again in 1997 demonstrate beyond a doubt that countless people have been refreshed by the river of mercy that flowed through TACF, tributaries of which could be found not only throughout North America but throughout the world. I watched its waters flow through St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in my hometown of Akron, Ohio where I frequently enjoyed spiritual refreshing. When I began to spend more time in Southern California early in 1996, I worshiped regularly at Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, a church that was birthed in revival and quickly became a flagship for the Toronto Blessing in the United States. As part of my research I traveled to Dallas (Texas), Atlanta (Georgia), Melbourne (Florida), Pensacola (Florida), while continuing to make regular trips to TACF, where I experienced still more of the life-giving presence of the Spirit. The fruit that I observed in analyzing the surveys, interviews, and testimonies presented at services as well as in my own spiritual life was without question refreshing and life giving.
As blessed as I was to hear the accounts of others and to share them with interested audiences, however, there were times that I felt like a little girl looking through a glass pane watching a wonderful party. Although I sang, laughed, danced and sometimes wept in the presence of God during worship, felt surges of power go through me as I prayed for others, and regularly did "carpet time" as I personally experienced the overwhelming love of God, paradoxically there was another sense of being a stranger to it all. As a sociologist I knew how to play and to enjoy the role of a voyeur, but there were times I felt I was still missing the party. I had no personal story to tell -- least not one that could compare with the many dramatic accounts I had heard from the lips of others. As I examined my experiences within the context of my 20-plus years of involvement with Charismatic Christianity, I recognized that Toronto had not changed my life as decidedly as my conversion, experience of Spirit baptism, and the many years of spiritual direction received from those within the Catholic Christian community. This awareness resulting in the feeling of being a "stranger" — simultaneously both "inside" and "outside" the Toronto Blessing — led me to prayer as I sought guidance for this article. The word I heard (and continue to hear) as I began to write my account was God saying, "Margaret, this isn’t to be an article about you. It is to be about the larger Christian community and how the renewal fits into ongoing pilgrimage." It took several days of prayer, during which I reread a book that I recalled from some 15 years ago (written as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal was waning), and then processing my prayer thoughts with my little community at Shiloh Church before this personal and reflexive teaching became more focused.
Mine is the story of a pilgrim in progress, not one who has arrived at her destination. The more I reflected on my situation, the more I realized that I was not alone. What I seemed to be hearing was relevant not only for an understanding of my own personal journey but also for a better appreciation of how this Renewal fits into the journey of the larger Christian Church. My story will probably will say little to those who are skeptical about the Renewal. Those who desire more than my subjective experiences and reflections will find the facts and figures in articles and monographs I have written and the book-length manuscript I am currently completing. My prayer is that this personal odyssey may offer a particular word of hope and promise to those who once swam in the river but are now toiling in the fields. I pray also that it may help to further understanding among those who never experienced this renewal, those who were actively involved but who are now involved in other ministries, and those who have been called to tend the glowing coals and fan the flames that continue to rise.
A Paradigm for a Spiritual Journey
During the early 1980s, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement (a movement during which an estimated tens of thousands of Roman Catholics experienced Spirit baptism each year for over a decade) reached a plateau. Seeking to understand what was happening with the thousands who were touched by the Holy Spirit but then seemingly "dropped out" of the movement, Robert A. Wild, a Catholic priest who himself was involved in the ecumenical Charismatic Renewal Movement (CRM), wrote a book entitled The Post-Charismatic Experience: The New Wave of the Spirit. This little-noted book, published in 1984 after the CRM had crested, left little or no impact on me when I first read it, yet it somehow remained on my bookshelf all these years. I picked it up and looked through it as I was reflecting on my Toronto experience, and found Father Wild’s thesis unusually insightful. Here was a paradigm that could help me to both better understand my own spirituality and also to sociologically analyze what had been happening in the current renewal.
Wild’s thesis centered around three interrelated themes that great spiritual masters have identified as "stages" of Christian spirituality. Although some may present the journey as a move from one stage to another, for me it seemed more accurate to consider each as a dialectical "moment" in a pilgrim’s journey. No two journeys are ever identical, but the each of the "stages" of the typology (first identified by the early Church Fathers and developed by later writers on Christian spirituality through the ages) seem to be present (in varying frequencies and intensities) in all personal pilgrimages. As I reflected on the different stages and their relationship to the Toronto Blessing as Wild had done with the CRM, I began to see that the many pilgrims coming to Toronto were not all at the same "stage" and thus many experienced Toronto differently from the testimonies frequently heard at renewal gatherings. Some, like myself, had been through at least one earlier wave of spiritual renewal; others had not previously experienced the CRM (1960s and 1970s) or the earlier Latter Rain/Healing Movement (late 1940s and 1950s). Involvement in other religious renewals and diverse personal life experiences insure that no two pilgrimages to renewal/revival sites are exactly alike.
The seemingly unique spiritual paths of individuals can be discussed, however, using the three-stage model of traditional spirituality outlined by Wild. I would like to briefly describe each of the "stages" and then illustrate how they are reflected in the ongoing renewal that has spread around the globe.
Stage One: Illumination
Our discussion of spiritual pilgrimage will begin with the illuminative stage, one that is characterized by a notable revelation of God. The illuminative stage often has been described as involving light or purification. Moses encountered God in the burning bush; Isaiah saw a vision of God "seated on a throne, high and exalted"; Paul experienced a sudden "light from heaven [that] flashed around him" and he heard a voice; John on the Isle of Patmos was "in the Spirit" when he heard "a loud voice like a trumpet." St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) used the figure of Moses as the biblical framework for his understanding of the spiritual life that began with Moses moving from darkness into the light, marking his separation from false and erroneous ideas about God.
If the Toronto Blessing has a predominant character (and I believe it does), it is that of being a source of illumination about the love of God. The overwhelming majority of those who responded to my surveys (nine out of ten persons) claimed to have come to know the Father’s love in a new way and to be more in love with Jesus than ever before. My personal experiences during years of this renewal have centered around the invitation to experience more deeply the love that God has for me.
My pilgrimage to Toronto began as a call that came through a combination of the ordinary and extraordinary which I have come to recognize as the voice of God in my life. During a therapy session in November, 1994, my counselor asked me a question that took me aback: "Can you say without any reservation that you love yourself?" I attempted to dispute the importance of the question. Loving oneself seemed narcissistic and not something I wished to cultivate. The counselor was a secular professional who was not prone to religious-talk, but she posed a surprising challenge when I requested further clarification. "You seem to be a person of prayer. Take your question to prayer; you will come up with something."
I did take my objections to the Lord -- the same ones I made to the counselor -- about any possible call to love myself. People were sick and homeless, dying prematurely of famine, and suffering the effects of brutal wars! In the midst of human suffering and misery, how could I focus on my inability to love myself? A gentle sense that I have come to recognize as the voice of God seemed to say, "Because you don’t do such a good job of loving others either." After God had my attention, there was a pause — followed by "You have difficulty loving others because you are so hard on yourself." Still another pause. "And you are so hard on yourself because you don’t have a clue about how much I love you." Then silence. That was Wednesday morning.
On Saturday night I decided to attend an evening liturgy at St. Luke’s Church, a charismatic Episcopal church which I had visited on occasion. To my surprise, the two priests conducting the service had just returned from the first Catch the Fire Conference in Toronto. In response to the message they heard, they put the designated liturgical scripture readings for the week aside and focused on Ephesians 6:14-19 (NIV):
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge --that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
The priests stopped after each of three readings of this passage to emphasize that this message of knowing God’s love was the message of Toronto. As the service continued with a heightened emphasis on Paul’s prayer that we might each know the depth of God’s love, I knew beyond a doubt that I was being called to visit Toronto. The following week found me driving to the small church in a strip mall where I stood in line for hours talking with other pilgrims before being admitted into the service. Once the worship time began, joy filled my spirit as I experienced in this corporate setting an intense presence of God, a Presence that had become mostly limited to my personal devotional life since the waning of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal years earlier. In the midst of the strange laughter, physical manifestations and seeming frivolity, God’s presence was awesome. I found myself refreshed by the playfulness of the Spirit moving within and among those gathered in Toronto.
The illuminative stage is perhaps the dominant motif of the Spirit movement, which includes historic Pentecostals, Charismatics, and "Third-Wavers" who believe the charismata or gifts of the Spirit (including tongues, healing, prophecy, miracles, etc.) are for today. Followers not only claim to have a personal relationship with God but teach it is "normal" to experience empowerment through the release of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. The experience of the charismata, whether as a recipient of the gifts or a channel through which they flow, reveals a God who is active in current history and manifest in the personal lives of believers. Worship among Spirit-filled Christians is exuberant, often providing a sense of exhilaration and unity collectively experienced by all gathered. When words were used to describe what was happening at TACF, the message quickly became one of knowing the Father’s love -- a Father who delighted in playing with His children. The "Toronto Blessing" became "The Father’s Blessing," as testimony after testimony illustrated the bountiful love of God being offered both to individuals and to the gathered community.
Stage Two: Purgation
Illumination, however, is not the end of the pilgrim’s path, but rather a kind of dialectical thesis that awaits the development of an antithesis to propel movement toward the goal of unity with God and other people. What it does is offer an intense awakening experience which calls the pilgrim to abide more fully in Jesus the Vine and to be subject to pruning by the Vinedresser. Illumination inevitably gives way to the purgation. Neither purgation nor illumination, however, is the final goal of a spiritual journey. The outcome, according to the spiritual masters, is a greater union of the soul with its Divine Lover -- in renewal metaphor, the marriage of the bride (the soul) to the Bridegroom (Jesus). Spirit-filled Christians have not always recognized the important role purgation plays in this spiritual journey as they often neglect to focus on the pain of Calvary in favor of the triumphant joy of Easter. Or to employ another metaphor, the focus is on the fruit of abiding in the Vine with little attention being given to the ongoing pruning process for the bearing of fruit.
Denying the need for and even denying the reality of purgative stage has been an ever-present temptation in renewal or revival movements where illumination is the dominant experience. Those nurtured by the spiritual exhilaration of the mountaintop are often reluctant to come down into the city. Taken with the fresh lush green growth of intense religious experiences, many are prone to downplay, decry or even deny the reality of struggle and suffering. Like Peter, James, and John at the Mount of Transfiguration, spiritual pilgrims often want to pitch their tents proclaiming that the kingdom has come rather than to move on with the journey. That purgation is the stage of spirituality commonly lost sight of in the Western Spirit movement has caused some British commentators to refer to the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement as "happy- clappy Christianity" and American critics to describe it as a "culture of narcissism."
The temptation to pay only nodding recognition to the importance of Good Friday while focusing on the reality of Easter Sunday was one I fell into during my early involvement with the Charismatic movement. It was not until I went through an extended time of purgation during a crisis in my personal life that I began to accept the reality of ongoing pruning — even for "happy clappy Christians"! This personal purgation was intensified in its overlap with the decline of the Charismatic Renewal Movement. While I once questioned how my spirituality could ever be maintained without the dynamic Wednesday night prayer meetings, I soon found that God did not leave me when the Charismatic Renewal subsided or when personal pain seemed overwhelming. I may have been in the midst of a desert experience, but God was still present (although I was often seeing him through a cloud). It was through this extended time of purgation, however, that I found a new spirit of compassion for those who were suffering.
Purgation can take different metaphorical faces in the Scriptures. Jesus’s teaching on the Divine Vinedresser, a metaphor I have been using throughout this article, reflects this stage. The Beloved who wandered the streets and was beaten by the watchmen while searching for her Love in the Song of Solomon is another metaphorical description of purgation. A more common illustration is that of the desert experience, a metaphor that led early monastics to flee the comforts of normal living for life in a desert as they sought closer unity with God. The figure of Moses as a prototype of Jesus and Jesus Himself provide further illustration. Moses’ experience of the burning bush was followed by a long desert experience during which God spoke with him under a cloud. Jesus’s experience of being tempted in the desert during his long fast may be seen as purgation that was followed by an illuminative experience of the Father as he was baptized by John. Good Friday may be seen as Jesus’s final purgative moment, followed by the victory of Easter. Purgation represents a time of seeming darkness when God seems absent, especially after intense illumination.
Good Friday, although undoubtedly the most significant purgative experience of Jesus, was certainly not the only one. Some writers have seen the many years Jesus spent in Nazareth in an ordinary life that prepared him for those few short years of ministry as a period of purgation. Ordinary "humdrum" times when nothing of spiritual significance seems to be occurring, especially if it follows intense illumination or moments of unity, is also a type of purgation. The God who seemed so near, so present, and so active, now seems absent.
Many pilgrims who came to Toronto reported coming from a period of varying degrees and types of purgation. Of those who responded to my 1995 survey, 50 percent said agreed that when they first visited Toronto, they were "experiencing spiritual dryness and great discouragement." Not only were they dry spiritually, but many were carrying emotional, mental, and physical burdens and were hoping for a healing touch from God. Most, judging from my research, did find some degree of healing through the illuminative experiences of Toronto and Toronto-like renewal sites. For at least some, however, purgation continued playing as an unseen program in the background, returning to the primary screen once again after the much-needed respite. I continued to meet people who had been touched by the renewal only to find that those still dancing at the party could not understand them when pain and suffering once again surfaced.
One illustration (of the many anecdotes I have heard) of the process will suffice. Kimberly (whose story I tell with her permission) is a young woman suffering from cerebral palsy, a condition which has visibly impaired her ability to walk. When I first met her in early 1996, she was enthusiastically involved in the renewal on the West Coast. She soon shared her story of illumination and now purgation with me. During the most intense days of the renewal at her church and after a visit to Toronto, she believed she had been healed. For a time she was able to walk normally–even to dance in renewal worship. In response to an early draft of this article, Kimberly wrote:
I’ve been reflecting more on the healing stuff lately, wondering why God has not let my healing be permanent. I do believe my healing has brought overall improvement and every prayer has made a difference in my life. It is was wonderful when I was miraculously healed. People saw me dancing for weeks on end, enjoying it to the fullest! I love being able to walk without a limp, even if it lasts for just a little while. Yes, the healing was for me – to encourage me by giving me a little taste of heaven on earth!
But I also think that God has allowed my healing story sing a song for other purposes. I now think that times of miraculous healing are more for the people around me than for me, to encourage them to pray for their own healing. If they are around to see it disappear, then they have the opportunity to deal with other important issues, including the mystery of suffering and the sovereignty of God. My healing story provides an opportunity for others to see how I live my life after the healing "goes away." Seeing my life is a kind of microcosm of what happens after the music of renewal subsides. God still remains God.
For some time as Kimberly was working out her understanding of the role of purgation in her life, she found that she needed to withdrew from the renewal. The near euphoria of the early renewal was replaced with sickness, unemployment, and an onset of depression. God seemed very absent and wondered what she had "done wrong.". When she queried me, I reminded her of the mystery of suffering found in Job. I had no answers, but I assured her that others who were attempting to give her answers didn’t have them either. A common charismatic practice has been to "blame the victim" as a means of promoting teachings and stirring up faith for healing, a technique that does little to help those in a purgative stage.
Kimberly is only one of many cases I have seen of persons who have had to (at least temporarily) step had from a charismatic enthusiasm which has failed to integrate the illuminative and purgative stages. Lacking space for the purgative stage, the charismatic grid tends to demonize suffering rather than to see it as a necessary component of mature spirituality. Whether or not it permits dryness, pain and suffering into its paradigm, the purgative will inevitably surface for those in the Spirit movement as it does for those outside it. The renewal music and dancing does stop to fill the soul with a dark silence in which it can find a deeper unity with the One whom it has experienced and with whom it craves union.
Stage Three: Unity and Love
The unitive stage of spirituality can be regarded as a time during which the soul learns to love in darkness. In a sense the outward signs are stilled, the sensual appetites are quieted, and the mind is at rest (at least to some degree) creating a kind of darkness in which God alone is light. It represents a drawing into a mystical or unitive relationship with God that also simultaneously releases a power to love others more deeply. While many have encountered illumination and some purgation during their involvement with renewal, still others have tasted of divine union. Perhaps the outward sign or symbol of this experience is resting in the Spirit (or "doing carpet time," to use renewal idiom), a common experience during the prayer time following the formal meetings. It is well-summarized by a statement from a testimony (to which I will soon return) given by a friend about his first visit to TACF: "I was glued to the carpet and filled with liquid love. My life has not been the same!"
Reverend Robert Wild cites Jean Danielou’s Platonisme et Theologie Mystique, an account of Gregory of Nyssa’s teachings on spirituality, for a simple summary of the transition through the spiritual stages leading to the unitive stage:
The beginning of the spiritual life is present under the double aspect of separation and illumination...illumination of the soul by the burning bush which is the Word Incarnate calling us higher. The crossing of the desert under the cloud situates us in the second way: disaffection from earthly things and accustoming ourselves to live a life of faith. Finally, on the top of Mt. Sinai, the entrance to the darkness draws us into mystical life.
The spiritual journey is not over when the renewal music stops, the manifestations subside, and the crowds disperse. On the contrary, this may be when the soul is able to enter more deeply than ever before into the love of God. Such a person may recognize that unity with God is not a mass expedition, any more than the wedding ceremony and reception represents the high point of marriage for a couple deeply in love. This does not necessarily mean that the person stops coming to renewal services, only that these exuberant services may no longer satisfy the need for a deeper union with the Bridegroom.
I can recall the mounting of my own discomfort with renewal services while at the same time watching them minister to others just as they had once done for me. As I found them increasingly less satisfying, I cried out (with a certain exaggeration that is often part of my most intense prayer) to God saying, "I know you are still working in these services, but they are making me crazy! If you want me to stay with the renewal, please give me a place where I can witness what you are doing while you can do what you need to do within me." The Lord provided such a place in what has come to be known as Shiloh Church, founded by Jeff and Beth Metzger in Canton, Ohio. In Shiloh examples of all three of the "stages" can be found among the small community that gathers for Sunday morning service and for the Thursday night outreach, including the space for entering the bridal chamber.
As with most who came to Toronto, Jeff Metzger was no stranger to the charismatic movement. He was a Spirit-filled minister, working in a secular occupation as well as serving a local charismatic church. It was when his company was asked to assist Warren Marcus with the production of the video "Go Inside the Toronto Blessing" that Jeff first went to Toronto in June, 1996. It was a business venture rather than spiritual hunger that drew him to check out the renewal. While there, however, Jeff had an illuminative experience that led him to the unitive path — one he describes as being "glued to the carpet and filled with liquid love." Jeff’s metaphor of "liquid love" has been used by others who have had intense mystical encounters of God’s love that have taken them to a deeper awareness of the significance of the interrelationship of both parts of the Great Commandment. Love of God and love of neighbor are one.
When I first started attending the small gatherings at Jeff and Beth’s home in the summer of 1996, what I saw and experienced reminded me of "early" Toronto. The only props were renewal music playing in the background and the quiet offer of prayer with those who wandered in and out on Thursday nights. While there has been a rotation of people in and out of Shiloh over the years, the intense sweet presence of God has been a constant. Laughing, weeping, shaking, and dancing often accompany this presence (especially for new comers), but that is not its main drawing card. For me Shiloh has been a place where I can experience God in silence and solitude in the midst of the outward charismatic experiences just as I could during the prayer time after the ritual of worship, testimonies, and preaching was completed each night in Toronto. It is a place where I can be still and know in silence that God is God.
It was at Shiloh that I began to appreciate the role of other believers and especially the prayer team as a sign of the two-part Great Commandment. I can pray at home and often experience God’s love just as I did while doing "carpet time" at Toronto or sitting on a sofa at Shiloh. When I allow myself to be prayed with by another in a corporate gathering, however, what I often experience is a kind of "instant unity" with the Lord. The pray-er becomes a midwife whom God uses to bring me deeper into His presence just as God frequently uses me to midwife another soul into divine communion. While this time becomes one of simply "being" with the Lover my soul longs for, it is also a call to community. For me both Toronto and Shiloh have been a reminder that I paradoxically need others to be alone with God. What I pray is that this experience will make me more able to see Jesus in and be more ready to serve all who enter my life.
Although I would describe renewal as primarily a time of fresh illumination — a time of encountering the burning bush through the gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit — pilgrims come at different stages of their own personal journeys. Some may experience a release from a desert experience, others may remain in Nazareth, some may enjoy only a brief respite from purgation, and still others may be in the "cloud of unknowing" that has been used to describe the mysterious unitive stage. Since no one on the journey has yet arrived, it is best not to judge one stage as being better than another. I have found it more helpful to think of illumination and purgation in on-going interaction to bring the soul into a deeper unity with its Creator in a dance that will end only in death.
Through my own personal experiences with and reflections on the moving of the Holy Spirit over the past 20 years, God has slowly but surely moved me away from the kind of elitism that tempted me during my earlier years in the Charismatic Renewal Movement. It is all too easy to think of illumination as being the final goal, causing the same spiritual pride to develop within us that existed in the early Christian gnostics. While the renewal has been an instrument of God to heighten illumination, it has not done as well historically in dealing with purgation. This is true of the purgation symbolized by the wandering in the desert as well as that of the simple time of Nazareth. There is often a seemingly disparaging attitude toward those who are not "in the river," "at the party," "flowing with the spirit" -- or whatever other metaphor may be used for the illumination -- that reflects an inability of many to see the processual nature of the spiritual journey. As a result, many continue to seek more and more illumination without ever moving into a more permanent place of divine union.
I believe that God wants to keep the party of renewal going in North America as He has done in other parts of the world. Many have yet to experience it. Since (in the words of David DuPlessis, perhaps the greatest leader of the Charismatic Renewal Movement of the 1960s and 1970s) "God has no grandchildren," it is important that the flames of renewal continue to burn. I pray that God may raise up many Toronto’s throughout Europe and North America, so that those who have never experienced the illuminative love of God — especially the young — may do so. Those who of us who feel called to keep the coals burning, however, would be wise to remember the renewal is only one thing that God is doing in His larger Church. Many churches and many people who have been touched by this fresh move of the Holy Spirit may have already been called into a post-charismatic experience and have answered this call. Others may be floundering, going from one place to another in search of the latest sighting of fire, wind, or water, not recognizing that the seed — even the seed of illumination — must die in order to bear fruit. I pray that this new millennium will be one in which we all — regardless of the stage of our particular journey — will be moving toward a deeper unity with God. May we all acquire a deeper understanding of the rhythms of the spiritual life for a sustained involvement on our pilgrimage. Finally, may leaders of the renewal be granted greater insight as to how the spirituality of the charismatic movement fits into the spirituality of the larger church to equip the saints for effective ministry.
For me, Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians (6:14-19) is still is the central message of the Toronto Blessing. It continues to remind me of God’s desire to make us one with Him as He fills us with a deeper awareness of His own love. It is through this love that we are given the power to transform the world.