Saturday, January 10, 2009

Chapter 17: Who's Afraid of the Holy Ghost?

As a kid growing up in the Pentecostal church, I was horrified of the Holy Ghost. Or more precisely. I was very afraid of what might happen to me if I ever blasphemed the Holy Ghost.

In revival meetings and at camp-meetings, a favorite sermon topic of many evangelists was “The Unpardonable Sin.” This is a sin so grievous that once you commit it, you can never ever be forgiven. It’s much worse than lying, stealing, committing adultery or even murder. Pardon can be found for all other sins, but not this one. The sin that can’t be forgiven is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.

I’m not sure why evangelists chose this sermon topic so much. Maybe because it was one of the best hot buttons for getting people into the altar. Or maybe it was the sensational stories they could tell of people who had purportedly committed this heinous sin.

I heard evangelists tell of people who came to a revival altar and prayed with agonizing tears night after night but still God would not forgive them. These doomed souls had crossed God’s line of no return and were irretrievably on their downward spiral toward Hell. They had blasphemed the Holy Ghost.

Exactly how someone went about blaspheming the Holy Ghost was something I was unsure of. More than one evangelist said it was making fun of people who were talking in tongues, but I didn’t think that was right. I personally knew people who had poked fun of Pentecostals, and later became one themselves.

Still I was very concerned about people like Johnny, a young man in our church whose father, like mine, was a Church of God general official. Johnny came to church but he didn’t even claim to be a Christian. Once during a revival when things got to moving in a big way, with people dancing in the Spirit and speaking in tongues, Johnny began mocking the people who were shouting. He laughed and yelled out “Hot Dog for Jesus!”

The evangelist stopped in his tracks. From the pulpit he forcefully pointed his finger at Johnny and shouted into the microphone, “Young man, you there on the back row. I heard that, but more importantly, God heard that. You’d better be very careful, Son. You’re treading on dangerous ground. Don’t blaspheme the Holy Ghost. If you do, you’ll commit the unpardonable sin.”

The evangelist had everyone’s attention now. He told us that if anyone made fun of someone under the influence of the Holy Ghost, that was blasphemy and there was no hope for that person’s soul. From that moment on, no matter how much they repented and plead for forgiveness, they were doomed to the eternal lake of fire.

The one thing in life I most definitely never wanted to do was blaspheme the Holy Ghost.

In our church we believed in the Trinity, which means there is only one God, but He exists in three persons, spiritual personalities: the Father (God), Son (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit. I never understood that three-in-one Trinity business, but I accepted it.

So the Holy Ghost was part of God and I wanted all of God in my life. I desperately wanted to be filled with the Holy Ghost, yet I was horrified that in the very process of seeking to be filled I might somehow blaspheme Him. To me, the Holy Ghost was the part of God that was ultra touchy and also held a grudge. Offend Him once and you were doomed forever. Our church taught that there were three separate and distinct blessings or “works of grace” that were available from God. They were Salvation, Sanctification, and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

The part about being sanctified was always confusing to me. Also, there were differences of opinion, even among the preachers, as to whether sanctification was a one time experience, or something you continued to work on your whole life. The people I respected most said it was “progressive,” – something you kept working at. It was about living a life of Holiness.

When altar calls were given at church there were usually at least two separate appeals. The first one was for lost souls who wanted to be saved, and the second call was for those seeking to be filled with the Holy Ghost. For nine years I went forward every time the second invitation was given.

I never saw anyone get the Holy Ghost quietly. It only happened when the noise level was high and people had prayed themselves into frenzy. The way you knew they received the Holy Ghost is that they began speaking in tongues. I was taught that if you spoke in tongues, you had the Holy Ghost, and if you didn’t speak in tongues, you didn’t have Him. In my mind tongues and the Holy Ghost were almost synonymous. There were more gifts of the Spirit than just tongues.

Tongues was the least of the gifts – the bottom rung of the ladder - and you couldn’t climb any higher in the Spirit until you received that gift.

I went to the altar and sought the baptism of the Holy Ghost literally hundreds of times. People said God wanted to fill every Christian with the Holy Ghost, but at the same time it seemed He had to be coerced into doing it. There was talk about “tarrying” for the Holy Spirit, and we had tarrying services where people stayed on their knees until late into the night, waiting for the Holy Ghost. Sometimes He showed up for other people, but not for me.

People often warned me that when I sought the Holy Ghost I must not speak in tongues on my own. To do so might be blasphemy. I should just wait on God and when the Holy Ghost got ready, He would do the speaking.

This advice was constantly reinforced by the testimonies and sermons I heard. I thought that whenever my time came, and I spoke in tongues, that I would lose all control, and maybe even lose consciousness.

One man at church gave a testimony that was typical of many I heard growing up. He said that when the Holy Ghost hit him, he went out like a light. He had no idea where he was or what he was doing. He said that when he came to, about an hour later, he was laying flat on his back in the aisle of the church and asked what happened. People told him that he had received the Holy Ghost. They said he had shouted, danced, walked the backs of the pews, ran the aisles, and had a regular Holy Ghost hoedown. And all the while he was speaking in tongues. The man vowed and declared that he had no recollection of what he had done while he was under the power of the Holy Ghost, but people told him about it later, and “in the mouths of two or three witnesses” he knew he had received the Holy Ghost.

However there were others testified that they didn’t lose consciousness when they were filled with the Holy Ghost. They simply lost control. They would open their mouth and try to say something in English, but it would come out in another language. Try as they may, it was impossible for them to speak in English.

One camp-meeting evangelist had the people standing on there feet and cheering when he told the story the disc jockey from a Tennessee radio station who got the Holy Ghost in one of his revivals. He said that man got such a powerful case of the Holy Ghost that when he was on the air the next day he was still speaking in tongues. He would open his mouth and try to make an announcement in English, but it would come out in tongues. Holy Ghost tongues were going out all over the city. The disc jockey was totally possessed by the Holy Spirit.

I wanted to be possessed like that. Whether I lost all consciousness or simply lost control of my tongue was God’s option. Whatever God’s will might be, I was at His command.

I was 15 and we were in one of the frequent revival meetings at North Cleveland when I decided that this was going to be my night. It was do or die; I was going to get the Holy Ghost that night or die trying. I would prevail before God and not take “No” for an answer.

When the invitation was given I found a good spot at the altar and hunkered down for the long hall. I began by confessing all my sins and asking God to sanctify me anew. Then I asked God to fill me with the Holy Ghost. There were at least half a dozen brothers in the church praying especially for me that night. They were gathered around, yelling in my ear and slapping me on the back, as if to knock the Holy Ghost into me. The evangelist and pastor both came by to pray for me as they worked their way around the altar, praying for all the seekers. The evangelist put both of his big hands on my head and shook it violently while he spoke in tongues over me. I even got a shower of his saliva in the process. I felt sure God would answer this mighty man’s prayer and pour out His Spirit upon me, but He didn’t.

Someone on one side of me said, “Just hold on, Brother Stephen. Hold on!”

I was holding on to God alright. If it took all night, I was determined to get the Holy Ghost that night.

Another brother shouted in my other ear, “Just let go, Brother Stephen. Let go!” I wasn’t sure of what I was supposed to let go of. I’d already confessed all my sins and let them go.

Another prayer warrior yelled, “Let Him speak, Stephen. Just let Him speak.” So maybe that was what letting go meant; I was to loosen my tongue up so the Holy Ghost could grab hold and speak. I stuck my tongue out as far as it would go, and let it hang as loose as it would hang. I shook my head so fast it made me dizzy, trying to get my tongue to loosen up. I wanted the Holy Ghost to have no problems when he decided to take over and start speaking through me.

I’d been praying for well over an hour now and was drenched with sweat. I’d gone through several Kleenexes people had stuck in my hand. I hadn’t opened my eyes, because I didn’t want to be distracted or get my mind off the Lord. This was going to be my Holy Ghost night.

Even though I didn’t look around, I could tell by listening that most of the people had already gone home for the evening. This wasn’t unusual. Many times a seeker would stay in the altar long after everyone else had left except, for a few prayer warriors who felt led to stay and help them pray through.

There weren’t as many hands being laid on me now, but at least two men were still with me. One was holding up my right arm my right arm and the other was holding up my left arm. Both of these brothers were still praying for me as hard as I was praying for myself.

“Just forget about speaking in tongues, Brother Stephen.” I heard one of them say. “Just praise the Lord. He’ll fill you in His time. He’ll speak when He comes.”

I began to say “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus….” I must have spoken His name a thousand times. As I did, I tried to visualize myself in His very presence. Surely Jesus would hear me and send the comforter – the Holy Ghost.

Then I switched over to saying “Glory, glory, glory….,” Next came “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah …..” On and on, faster and faster, I repeated the praises to God until my tongue got twisted, then I took a deep breath and started again. I’d seen others receive the Holy Ghost this way, but it didn’t work for me.

The one thing I absolutely was not going to do was speak out in tongues. I was adamant that the Holy Ghost was going to do the speaking, because I didn’t want to risk blaspheming Him. “Don’t YOU speak in tongues,” I had heard people say all my life. “Let HIM speak.” That’s the only way it could be.

After more than three hours of prayer, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. My arms ached from being lifted so long, even with the help of the brothers who had held them up for me. I was so hoarse I could hardly speak at all, much less in tongues.

I got up and sat on the front pew behind the altar. I saw Bob Crane and Josh Thomas, two of the great prayer warriors of the church sitting on the pew in front of me. I glanced at the clock on the wall and it was a few minutes after midnight. The three of us were the only ones left in the church and all of the lights were already turned out except those directly over the altar.

We started to laugh. I felt such a bond with those men at that moment. It was as if we had been in the trenches together doing battle –which we had. I felt cleaner and closer to God than ever before.

Bob Crane spoke up, “You sure came close tonight, Brother Stephen. You may not have gotten the Holy Ghost tonight, but I believe you got sanctified.”

At least my efforts had not been in vain. I was sanctified, which was at least half way to the Holy Ghost. It felt great.

I continued to seek the Holy Ghost, but after that marathon session in which I was sanctified, I became discouraged more easily. It just seemed so futile. I wanted the Holy Ghost and God knew I did, but I figured maybe it just wasn’t His time.

I talked to Mother about it, and she said I should never give up but just keep seeking God until He answered my prayer.

“But, Mom,” I said, “Sometimes I don’t even feel like seeking the Holy Ghost any more. It’s too difficult. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to pray that hard.”

Mother’s advice was that I go to the altar every time an opportunity is given. “If you feel like seeking the Holy Ghost, then go forward and seek the Holy Ghost.” She said, “And on those times when you don’t feel like seeking the Holy Ghost, that’s when you REALLY need to go to the altar. When you get there, ask God to help you WANT to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Unless you hunger and thirst after righteousness, you’ll never be filled.”

I did exactly what Mama said.

On more than one occasion I was in the altar, not wanting to be there at all, but dutifully praying that God would make me want to be there. Once, when I was in the altar but not in the mood to pray, a group of prayer warriors gathered around and began trying to whoop up the Spirit. I must have had six pairs of hands laying on me, but I was tired of praying and tried to get up. I couldn’t move. All those heavy hands were holding me down. I prayed, under my breath, “Lord, please let these people get discouraged and give up and get their hands off me. I need to go pee.”

Immediately I realized that what I said might not be pleasing God, so I said, “Cancel that prayer God. Thy will be done.” I didn’t want God to think I was being disrespectful.

It would be another year before I finally received the Holy Ghost and spoke in other tongues for the first time. It happened in an altar at church, but I wasn’t even seeking the Holy Ghost that night. I was praying very quietly and no one was praying for me.

It was at a “Youth Witnessing Rally,” led by a group of Lee College students at the Oak Hill Church of God in West Virginia. I was 16 at the time and a sophomore in high school.

The young man who preached that night didn’t even talk about the Holy Ghost. In his message he challenged the Christian young people to dedicate their lives to being soul winners.

When the invitation was given, it was for everyone who wanted to become a soul winner to come forward for prayer. I went up to the front, but instead of standing with all the others in front of the pulpit, I found a corner over on the far right side of the altar and knelt all alone.

I felt terribly frustrated that night, because I had been trying my best to win souls to the Lord for several months, yet without success. I’d told hundreds of people about the Lord, but I had never had a convert. There wasn’t a single notch on my Bible.

I prayed, “Oh God, all these kids up here are telling you they want to become Your witnesses. Well, I have been witnessing for you, Lord, but I’m no good at it. People are going to Hell because I don’t have what it takes to convince them to accept Your salvation.”

I told God that I guessed what I was really asking Him for that night was power to be a better witness. As I prayed very quietly, my head buried beneath my hands, I remembered a scripture I had learned in a soul winning class: “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me….” Acts 1:8.

“So, Lord, when I ask You for power maybe what I’m really doing is praying for the Holy Ghost again.”

Another verse of scripture came to my mind. It might be the most familiar verse in all of the Pentecostal movement: “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Acts 2:4.

In that moment I saw something in that verse I had never noticed before, though I had heard it a thousand times. The subject of the sentence was THEY. The Bible says THEY began to speak with other tongues, not the Holy Ghost began to speak. They did the speaking but the Spirit gave the utterance, or told them what to say.

I decided to do something that I found absolutely horrifying. To me it was far more risky than skydiving or riding a bull in the rodeo. It was more like playing Russian roulette, with only a 50-50 chance of surviving. No matter how high the risk, I was desperate and I was going to take it. I was going to speak in tongues.

If I was wrong, I would blaspheme the Holy Ghost, and burn in Hell forever. But if I was right, I would receive the Holy Ghost and have more power with God than I had ever known before. I would speak in tongues, and take the consequences.

First, I prayed a little longer. “Lord, get ready. I’m about to speak in tongues. Please Lord, please forgive me in advance if what I’m about to do is the unpardonable sin. And God, please judge my heart, and if you find any impurity there, stop me before I blaspheme. Now God, I’m going to ask you one more time to give me the Holy Ghost. Then I’m going to open my mouth and speak forth whatever comes out. It’s up to You to make it come out right. Your job is to give me the utterance.”

I was so scared I thought I might faint. I hoped they wouldn’t find me dead there in the corner after the altar service, struck down like Ananias and Sapphira. Once before I had told the Lord that I wanted the Holy Ghost “do or die.” This time I meant it more than ever.

I took in a deep breath, and prayed: “Lord, I receive the Holy Ghost.” Then I quietly began to speak softly in a language I had never learned before. I was thrilled. I was still breathing and I was talking in tongues. It was just flowing out of me. God and I were doing it together. It was me speaking but He was giving me the words - the utterance – as I spoke.

I prayed in tongues for about ten minutes and then I got up off my knees and stood with the rest of the congregation for the benediction. No one knew what had happened to me. I was filled with the Holy Ghost and I was thrilled all the way down to my toes, but I still didn’t tell anyone until the next morning. First, I wanted to ponder these things for a while in my heart.

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