By Bob Litton (except for credited quotations)
NOTE TO READERS: I want to alert you to the fact that the preface in this post is 645 words long, and the post’s body itself contains 4,675 words. With that warning before you, you can better decide whether you want to read it all. I hope you do, and I hope that you benefit from that reading. I guarantee you that it is not an April Fool’s Day joke. Enjoy!!!
Next Sunday is Easter Sunday. I had not paid any attention to that fact of life until today (March 30), when the notion popped into my head to publish a testimony I had delivered on Pentecost Sunday in 1997.
But first I believe it would be fitting to preface the testimony with a brief backstory. At the time of this event, I was much involved in the local United Methodist Church; I was even helping the pastor teach a 34-week Bible study course called Disciple. I discovered then that I was a pretty good teacher; so did the pastor and some of the eleven other class members. (Classes were limited to twelve members to mirror the number of the original disciples.) I think that realization was probably the seed for the “event”.
One day, the pastor asked me if I could substitute for him in the following Sunday’s service; he explained that he needed to be in El Paso (237 miles west) that weekend for his son’s graduation from the university. Then, on Friday, while I was describing my sermon topic to a Dallas friend, she exclaimed, “Why, that’s Pentecost Sunday!” I had not even been aware of that fact, for the liturgical aspects of religion hardly mattered to me. However, this time, my friend’s information struck me “between the eyes”, for Pentecost was the day the Holy Spirit was introduced to the disciples; and the principle topic of my “testimony” was my first conscious contact with what Christians call that mystical being. Other faiths have different titles and descriptions of the same “person”, but their own experiences have been and are largely consonant with those of the historical Christian mystics. That is why, I believe, most mystics have not been much accepted, during their lives, by their religious leaders.
When Sunday came I was surprised to see the pastor in the sanctuary; I have forgotten (if in fact he ever explained) why he was not in El Paso. However, I have since suspected I had been the victim of a ruse; the pastor and one of the Disciple class members had pushed me (metaphorically speaking) into the pulpit. But then, the pastor, having noticed I had some sheets of paper in my hand, introduced me by disparaging the reading of sermons. The problem with his criticism—although I agree unread sermons are generally more effective than read ones—is that I am really weak at thinking and speaking “on my feet”; also, my talk contained several quotations which I needed to read to the congregation.
Before the service started, the pastor stuck a small microphone on my shirt. After I began the testimony—which I prefer to call it because I did not feel qualified or authorized to tell people how to live through a sermon—the microphone malfunctioned, now working fine, now not working. I faced a dilemma: whether to remove the microphone or persevere regardless of what it did. Did the Holy Spirit not want me to read the testimony? Or did the Holy Spirit not want me to share with others our relationship? I persevered to the end, willing to accept any retribution the Holy Spirit deemed satisfactory.
A few months later, after I had returned to Dallas, I gave a copy of the testimony to Bob Cooper, former associate chaplain at Southern Methodist University and an old friend of mine. Soon thereafter Bob Cooper met with me in a coffee shop and critiqued it. He said it contained much interesting and worthwhile content. However, he remarked, “It is too long and has too many long quotations in it.”
“But,” I responded, “I timed myself the day before, and it took only twenty minutes.”
“Then you read too fast.”
Dear readers, see how fast you can read my testimony on the Holy Spirit.
Testimony of a Spiritual Journey
(A sermon delivered at the First United Methodist Church of Alpine, Texas, on Pentecost Sunday, May 18, 1997)
Text: Romans 8:18-27
I consider that the sufferings of this present generation are not worth comparing with the glory that is revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now, hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Good morning! My name is Bob. I am a sinner. Do you wonder why I introduce myself in that way? I hope so, because I intend to tell you. There are three reasons.
The first has to do with my credentials for speaking here today. I know you are sinners. I want to make you feel comfortable by admitting I am a sinner also. We have at least that much in common right from the start.
Secondly, I need to remind myself that I am a sinner. I think you should remind yourselves of that, too. When we attend church every Sunday, contribute to our community through various volunteer programs, and try to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, it is easy for our sense of sin to get crusty—to glaze over—so that we cannot see it without extra effort.
But we are in the world, and—no matter how generally holy we become—we can’t help but slip once in a while. Think of the world as a huge fallow field with all sorts of weeds as well as beneficial grasses in it. You can’t walk through that field without a few grass burrs clinging to your pants legs.
The third reason I announce my sinfulness is that sin, in general, is about as close as “normal people” can get to the gift shared by alcoholics—their disease. That’s right. I said the alcoholics’ problem is a GIFT—or it can be if he or she ever rises above the denial stage.
You see, when an alcoholic realizes his true condition, especially if he’s a hard case who has already lost his family, his job, and maybe even killed someone in an auto accident he gets scared. If he still has a modicum of his wits about him, he searches for help. HIS VERY LIFE IS AT STAKE.
Thus, people in a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, for the most part take their program very seriously. Before each one in a group speaks he introduces himself in this manner: “Hi! My name is John (never a last name); I’m an alcoholic.” They turn to God—even to a God they may not really believe in—as well as to other alcoholics for help. They pray; they diligently work the twelve steps; they make themselves available to other alcoholics going through a crisis at any time of the day or night; they facilitate 12-step meetings in jails and wherever else they might be needed.
I was in AA for two years. It was one of the best, the most growth-filled, experiences of my life. I was an agnostic when I went in—in rebellion against the God of my youth. A year into the program, I was probably the most spiritually-minded person in that group.
However, while spirituality is the foundation upon which a 12-step program such as AA stands, it is not the primary purpose of the program. No, the primary purpose is to stay sober or to give up gluttony or to forgo promiscuous sex or whatever the addiction is. So, the thing to do is to talk about your addiction, not about God—at least not solely about God. (The first three steps are called the God steps.)
After a few months into the program, the spiritual atmosphere of that group began to affect me. I had never really given up my search for God—God as a tangible experience, as something more than a concept in a book written thousands of years ago. I began to have spiritual experiences, charismatic experiences. Some of them were weird. I began to read the classic spiritual writers—St. Augustine, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Jacob Boehme, William Law. I saw that others long before me had experienced the same sort of spiritual gifts I was experiencing. I wanted to talk about these experiences. But AA no longer seemed the appropriate place to discuss spirituality per se.
I returned to the church of my youth—the Methodist Church, or, as it was now called, the UNITED Methodist Church. I hadn’t been inside a church (except for weddings) in 40 years. And I was shocked. There weren’t many people there, and the few who were didn’t seem interested in spirituality as I understood spirituality—at all. As one woman put it, “Half of us come here out of habit, and half to get some social life.”
I began to ponder why. AA was spiritual and the people in the church were for the most part not spiritual. Several possible reasons came to mind, but the one most pertinent to today’s message was that THE CHURCH PEOPLE DIDN’T FEEL ANY THREAT TO THEIR LIVES. The alcoholics had their disease to scare them and to unify them in their search for God. The church people had nothing except possibly a nebulous sense of sin—a sense too vague, honestly, to scare them and only barely strong enough to unite them, after a fashion.
What was I looking for? I was looking for God. During my sojourn in AA—what I call “my term among the Essenes”—God had set some lures, however slight, to attract me to him.
One day, for instance, while on coffee break at an insurance company, I was reading a book about poetry. The author provided by way of example of simile a fragment of verse which read:
……………………….. And music,
Yearning like a god in pain.
I thought I recognized the scrap of verse, but the author didn’t cite the poet. “That looks like something Shelley might have written!” I said to myself. I went home and skimmed an anthology of British poetry. I couldn’t find the line in any of Shelley’s poems. Then I tried Keats. And there was the line in Keats’ “Eve of St. Agnes”.
Then, one day not long afterwards, for some forgotten reason I was reading Jeremiah. In his 31st chapter, verses 18 through 20, I read this poignant dialogue between God and Ephraim. Since this is a dialogue and I don’t want to disturb the poetry by specifying who is speaking when, please take the Revised Standard Version Bible from the rack in front of you and turn to Jeremiah 31:18 and follow along as I read aloud.
I have heard Ephraim bemoaning:
“Thou hast chastened me, and I was
like an untrained calf;
bring me back that I may be restored,
for thou art the Lord my God.
For after I turned away I repented;
and after I was instructed I smote upon my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was confounded,
because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”
Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,” says the Lord.
There was that word again—YEARN—that had such a strange hold on me. Why did it attract me so?
On another day soon afterwards I was reading Gilbert Murray’s book on the Greek dramatist Euripides, and I came upon this paragraph where he describes the religious origin of Greek drama, particularly of the chorus:
The word ‘chorus’ means ‘dance’ or ‘dancing ground’. There were such dancing floors on Greek soil before ever the Greeks came there. They have been found in prehistoric Crete and in the islands. We hear in Homer of the ‘houses and dancing grounds’ of the Morning Star. The dance was as old as mankind; only it was a kind of dance that we have forgotten. The ancient dance was not, like our ballets, rooted in sexual emotion. It was religious: It was a form of prayer. It consisted in the use of the whole body, every limb and every muscle, to express somehow that overflow of emotion for which a man has no words. And primitive man had less command of words than we have. When the men were away on the warpath, the women prayed for them with all their bodies. They danced for the men’s safe return. When the tribe’s land was parching for lack of rain the tribesmen danced for the rain to come. The dance did not necessarily imply movement. It might consist in simply maintaining the same rigid attitude, as when Moses held out his arms during the battle with the Amelekites.The dramatist may make his characters express all that they can properly feel; he may put into articulate dialogue all that it will be. But there still remains some residue which no one on the stage can personally feel and which can only express itself as music or YEARNING of the body. This residue finds its instrument in the chorus.
And I read in the writings of the Quaker William Law, an early mentor of John Wesley, the following:
Every man that has any feeling of the weight of his sin, or any true desire to be delivered from it by Christ, has learning and capacity enough to make his own prayer. For prayer is not speaking forth eloquently, but simply, the true desire of the heart….
It is not silence, or a simple petition, or a great variety of outward expressions that alters the nature of prayer, or makes it good or better, but only and solely the reality, steadiness and continuity of the desire; and therefore, whether a man offers this desire to God in the silent LONGING of the heart, or in simple short petitions, or in a great variety of words is of no consequence. But if you would know what I would call a true and great gift of prayer, and what I most of all wish for myself, it is A GOOD HEART THAT STANDS CONTINUALLY INCLINED TOWARDS GOD.
And in St. John of the Cross’s classic work Dark Night of the Soul I read:
…there soon begins to make itself felt a certain YEARNING toward God; and the more this increases, the more is the soul affectioned and enkindled in love toward God, without knowing, or understanding how and whence this love and affection come to it, but from time to time seeing this flame and this enkindling, grow so greatly within it that it desires God with a YEARNING of love……
Finally, as we heard today in the scripture reading from the 8th chapter of Romans, St. Paul said:
The creation waits with eager LONGING for the Revealing of the sons of God…. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies…. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
That “longing” and that “groaning,” (as Paul calls it) is the same as the “yearning” described in the previous passages I read to you, and what I very often feel. That is the Holy Spirit helping us in our wordless, constant prayer.
To try and further convince you that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and working in our lives right now, I will testify to some other aspects of his showing to me. I must first emphasize that these revelations or graces or consolations were not granted me because I deserved them. If I had deserved them they would not have been graces, but rewards. Like Paul, I had rebelled against God until He said, “Enough of this! You’re getting old, Bob, and I have work for you to do. Stop behaving like an untrained calf!”
On at least two occasions I have smelled the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. I did not know what it was when I smelled it. On both occasions I was in parking lots, one near the AA group’s meeting place and the other at my apartment complex. On both occasions I looked about me to discover where the sweet aroma was coming from. There were no flowering plants, no perfumed women in the vicinity, only oak and pecan trees and a whole bunch of concrete. I wondered what could have caused the briefly lingering fragrance, but I didn’t at the time attribute any supernatural cause to it.
In St. John of the Cross I read that such a fragrance is one of the consolations God grants new converts, to further lure them to seek him, a sweet milk of spiritual favor granted before he withdraws it, weaning the convert, much as a mother (in those days) spread bitter aloes over her breast to wean her child and lead him toward a more solid diet.
And in Father John Arintero’s The Mystical Evolution I read:
Now Jesus Christ, in everything that he touched during his mortal life—as poverty, abjection, the cross—left a sweet odour, a delicious savour, but few souls have their senses sufficiently purified to perceive this odour and to taste this savour, which are altogether supernatural. The saints have “run to the odour of these ointments”.
And the Holy Spirit has entered my heart or mind—I know not which, if there is indeed any difference. In most cases these silent communications appeared at first to be simply my own thoughts, yet thoughts I was compelled to utter aloud, even though no one was around to hear me. What I am saying, is that I have prophesied. Curiously, however, in many instances these “prophecies” were what I would consider inconsequential. I will relate here two of the more significant episodes, one from the first of my spiritual journey and the other from near the end of the consolations period.
The first is from my journal entry dated October 5, 1990.
Leaving my apartment on this clear, cool, clean day, I heard a mockingbird singing in the small oak tree that shades my pickup from the morning sun. At least I believe it was a mockingbird, for I could not see it; it apparently was perched on the other side of the green-leafed branches. Remembering my resolution to try and hear God’s voice through other beings besides humans, I paused by my truck’s door, my hand resting on the door handle. The bird had an impressively inclusive repertory, by which evidence I concluded it was a mockingbird. Yet, willing as I was and trying as I might, I could not distinguish any message for me from God—or even from the bird qua bird. Finally, I smiled, shook my head, and said, “Sorry, God. I guess I’m just not there yet.” I got into my truck and drove away.
Two mornings later, on October 7, before rising from bed, I reached over to pick up a New Yorker magazine I had bought the night before. After scanning the cartoons (always a first priority when it involves the New Yorker) I started reading the poems. One poem, by Lars Gustafson and translated from the Swedish by Yvonne L. Sandstroem, was about an 86-year-old Mexican woman who had recently died. When the doctors examined her they discovered she had been carrying around a dead fetus in her womb for 60 years.
Stuck right in the middle of the lengthy poem were the following lines about a bird who apparently had annoyingly caught the attention of the poet as he was trying to compose his poem. They are an interruption in the poem, yet a part of it:
….. Mockingbird, what do you want?
You have so many voices, and I don’t know which one of them to take seriously.
The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes —
then there’s a kind of clucking,
on certain days in early spring,
when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,
as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.
Mockingbird in the green oak tree!
What’s the secret you sit there trying to
Now for the second incident, which as I said earlier came at the end of my consolation period. I was in a dark and lonely mood as I took my morning walk around a section of White Rock Lake in Dallas. I said to God something to this effect, “Oh Lord, I know you’ve withdrawn your favors from me so that I can become a spiritual adult. But I’m still weak. Please, just one more grace to let me know you’re still with me.”
I was walking up an asphalt road toward a coffee shop. Off to my left I could see a small dark cloud which looked as if it seriously had rain in it, even though it was ridiculously small and there were no other gray clouds up there. Suddenly a gust of wind, the sort you feel just before a rain starts, blew towards me. It stirred up a dust devil from the grit on the street. The grit hit me in the face. I said, “Okay, God, I can take a hint!” I thought that was His comical answer.
The next day I went to my job at a bookstore. I walked into the buying area in back. There alone was one of the other employees, a man named Ernest (name changed in respect of his privacy). He was looking over some used books, pricing them. “Are you wearing perfume?” Ernest asked.
“No,” I replied and kept on going. I punched in my time card and looked at the schedule to see what time my register duty was. Then I thought a moment, came back to Ernest and said, “Ernest, I’ll tell you what you smelled. You exhaled the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. I know because I’ve smelled it before, too.”
I explained that God was simply trying to get his attention and build up his faith. He was calling him to Himself. I told him that he could expect more strange occurrences in the coming days—episodes which many people might try to explain away as coincidences, but he would know better. I showed him a couple of paragraphs in a book of letters of spiritual direction by Louis XIV’s chaplain, Archbishop Francois Fenélon, that I thought might be clearer than my amateur explanation.
“This really speaks to me,” said Ernest, after reading one page. I loaned him the book so he could read the letter at his leisure and ponder its message.
The next day I asked Ernest if he had read the letter, and he replied, “Not yet.”
That astounded me. I mean, if I had been told by someone I thought trustworthy that God was trying to get my attention, I would have eagerly given my attention.
The third day I asked him again, “Well, Ernest, have you read that letter yet?”
“No,” he replied, “but a strange thing happened yesterday. A guy came in to sell some books. As we looked through them, he picked one up and said, ‘What’s this book doing here? That’s not my book!’
“It was Fenélon!” Ernest continued, adding, “I took two steps backward.”
I was just as surprised as Ernest was. Sure, I had prophesied what would happen to him, but I had no idea what particular experience he would have or when. I had simply extrapolated a probability based on my own experience.
A few days later I again asked Ernest if he had read the letter.
In a voice of exasperation, he said, “No, I haven’t, Bob.” Then, looking kind of panicky at me, he said, “Bob, you’re scaring me!”
I pondered the situation a couple of days, trying to figure out what God was up to and why Ernest was reluctant to respond. (Months later memories of one or two startling, even awful, experiences that had happened to me, too, came back to me but they were much heavier than this situation.) Ernest seemed to be running from the Holy Spirit too soon, while I had been complaining that the contact had ended too soon. Finally, I went to Ernest and apologized for scaring him and I told him that perhaps that episode hadn’t been meant for him. Maybe it had been meant for me. I had asked for a consolation, a reassurance that all my own experiences were not figments of my imagination. Perhaps God wasn’t going to grant that prayer directly, but indirectly he would allow me to witness a grace given to someone else.
“Yes,” said Ernest, when I related this to him. “It validates you.”
A remark by Meister Eckhart seems apropos here:
The mind can never rest except in the essential truth which is locked up in it—the truth about everything. Essence alone satisfies, and God keeps on withdrawing, farther and farther away, to arouse the mind’s zeal and lure it on to follow and finally grasp the true good that has no cause. Thus, contented with nothing, the mind clamors for the highest good of all.
The “lure” is a prominent theme in Meister Eckhart’s writings.
Shortly after that, I entered the “dark night of the soul”, the time when God withdraws, just as Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross had described it. Since I had read about the “night” and thus been forewarned, I thought it would be an easier experience for me. But it wasn’t, at least I don’t think it was. The graces—the consolations—ceased. “Too soon,” I thought. “I’m still a child, a novice at this, Oh Lord,” I prayed. “Give me just a little more time!” But that wasn’t the way God works. He decides when a convert has had enough of the manna of his graces.
It was time for me to work toward spiritual maturity. I developed a mental indigestion from my reading of the spiritual classics; I quit reading them. I found it difficult to pray. I was strongly tempted to return to my previous dissipated lifestyle. But something was blocking me from doing that. It seemed like I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward either. I was stuck in neutral.
Even worse, I had a strong sense of my sinfulness. It is a paradox that while I was wallowing in worldliness, I had little to no sense of sin; but as soon as I began to grow spiritually—even very slightly it seemed—I was overwhelmed with a feeling of wickedness. At that time, I couldn’t perceive my condition in the way that Richard Foster describes it in his Celebration of Discipline:
It is true that those in the first flush of faith often are given unusual graces of the Spirit (Foster writes) just like a new baby is cuddled and pampered. It is also true that some of the deepest experiences of alienation and separation from God have come to those who have traveled far into the interior realms of faith.
St. John of the Cross likens this experience of spiritual dryness to the situation of a person in a dark dungeon for many years. There is a window there, but it is grimy with soot and no light gets in, so that the person spends much of his life in darkness. Then, suddenly, a mysterious force starts washing the window. Bright light flows in, blinding the prisoner. When his eyes finally adjust somewhat to the light, he notices all these dark specks—motes—floating around in the air. The motes, so numerous, which he had never seen before, are his sins; and he is overwhelmed with self-depreciation.
Here is what Thomas Keating has to say about the Dark Night in his book, Open Mind, Open Heart: the contemplative dimension of the Gospel:
One of the first effects of contemplative prayer is the release of the unconscious. This process gives rise to two different psychological states:The experience of personal development in the form of spiritual consolation, charismatic gifts or psychic powers; and the experience of human weakness through humiliating self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is the traditional term for the coming to consciousness of the dark side of one’s personality.
The release of these two kinds of unconscious energies needs to be safeguarded by well-established habits of dedication to God and concern for others. Otherwise, if one enjoys some of the spiritual consolation or development one may inflate with pride; or if one feels crushed by the realization of one’s spiritual impoverishment, one may collapse into discouragement or even despair. The cultivation of habits of dedication to God and service to others is the indispensable means of stabilizing the mind in the face of emotionally charged thoughts, whether of self-exaltation or of self-depreciation.
This message, lengthy as it was, is but a brief summary of my spiritual journey to date. I wanted to share it with you.
DEFINITION of “yearn” from Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Vol. XX.
II.6. intr. To be deeply moved; to be moved with compassion; to have tender feelings; to mourn, grieve; to long for.
JEREMIAH, King James Version
31:18 > I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke; turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.
31:19> Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.
31:20> Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he a pleasant child? For since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy on him, saith the Lord.
JEREMIAH, Revised Standard Version (© 1946, 1952)
31:18> I hear Ephraim bemoaning
Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastened,
like an untrained calf;
bring me back that I may be restored,
for thou art the Lord my God.
31:19> For after I turned away I repented;
and after I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was confounded,
because I bore the disgrace of my youth.
31:20> Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
says the Lord.
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