Driving through Bemidji this morning and I wanted to stop here. In college days this was one of the churches many, including myself, attended. We were earnest seekers of God like we were earnest seekers of knowledge and degrees in those days and this was one of the “live” churches in town that also had transportation from campus so those of us, most of us, who were carless had somewhere to go on Sunday mornings (A lesson there for people wanting to reach out to people on campus).
It was led by Pastor Ed Korthals, a middle aged and godly man, who, as I remember, had a good heart and truly loved God. Like many Assembly of God parishes the worship was casual and fervently emotional. The sermons were topical and always drawn from a biblical text. The people were friendly and welcoming (Another lesson there for people seeking to minister to college students) the music was upbeat and sometimes interesting. I do remember people bringing their own instruments, including a kazoo, to church.
Alas, I was probably not the best Pentecostal. I was seeking God and I learned much there but I was not good with all the emotional stimuli. There were times when I felt lost in a sea of people singing in tongues and wondering if I was missing something because I was not with them. I enjoyed the emotional power of people who truly were seeking to love and worship God but I needed a quiet place to do that and that may or not have been the case depending on the Sunday. Yet still I came and this church, because of the love they shared, became a home away from home for me and deeply instructive as I applied for seminary in my senior year.
Little did I know, of course, in those days how far I would have to travel and through how many changes I would need to make before arriving where I am. Over thirty years later and the spiritual journey of a lifetime I found myself, this morning, standing on the lawn of this church and asking God’s blessing on them in thanks for how they helped me along the way at a crucial point in my journey.
If Pastor Korthals is still alive I’m not sure what he would say about the path that I’ve traveled. I hope he would understand that the same earnest young man who came to him with questions and was searching for God has kept on the path, although in a way we both probably couldn’t have imagined. And I hope that he and the good people at First Assembly of God, Bemidji, would know that I was, and am, grateful for the gifts they shared with me along the way. Wherever I have traveled being with them was an essential part of the journey.
You see, some people do look down on what they consider the excesses of the Pentecostal experience and faith. Too emotional, they would say. Too susceptible to “fads” cloaking themselves as moves of the Spirit. Sometimes just plain too noisy. Some or all of that may have some substance from time to time but there are things they taught me that have graced all my life and flowed easily as I traveled towards Orthodoxy and are even, dare I say, worth our consideration.
First, it’s okay to love God, to really love God, even with your emotions. Your emotions are part of who you are and yes, they can be unstable sometimes but they can also be used of God and I don’t think it would hurt us as Orthodox if we loved God not just as a formality but also with a sense of feeling.
Second, we need the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and the life of the Church. So often we plan the life of our parishes like a business and forget we are a movement whose goals and methods need to be filled with the reality that the Holy Spirit can accomplish what a purely and perpetually practical outlook would never imagine. We see this, of course, in the lives of our Saints but for the most part I wonder if we’ve forgotten that what we see in the Saints is also for us here and now if we would open our hearts and lives to it. Sometimes we may think the Pentecostals go overboard on this but even if that’s true it doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water. Some times we have so little but the reason for that is because our hearts and lives and resources are closed off to the possibility that the Holy Spirit is waiting to do something amazing through us.
Finally, there is a burden for the lost. Yes, First Assembly of God had a lady who would come with a kazoo sometimes but she was welcome and you could have probably come into that church dirty and smelling like booze and still found a place because the people had a heart for those outside their walls who needed to know Jesus. We Orthodox were like that in the very beginning and there have been some noticeable times and places in our history when this was the case but we could do so much better. There’s a reason there’s an Assembly of God in every reasonably sized town, and a few tiny ones, in the United States. The people believe they need to reach out to people for the sake of Jesus and they’re willing to put the time, energy, and resources into the project. If we who claim to have seen the True Light and found the True Faith actually believe this should we not at least try to share this gift? In fact, aren’t we actually commanded by Jesus to do so? We could learn a thing or two, I think, from the Pentecostals in this regard.
Looking back it’s amazing how far God has taken me in the years that followed those days at First Assembly of God. To the causal observer, I suppose, it would seem like I’m a world away. Yet, I’m grateful for that time and that parish and what God was preparing for me through them. Of course much has changed but there was a fire there that the people sought and tried to keep alive, a fire that was Orthodox in it’s source and longing even if it was sometimes distant in it’s application and that fire has remained. It compelled me to go on from that place but, having been molded and shaped in a more ancient way, still burns inside and for that I am eternally grateful.