Do you remember the Old Testament story of Saul among the prophets (1 Samuel 19)? Poor Saul’s been rejected by God as Israel’s anointed king in favour of the popular hero David, and has begun his descent into madness, badness and dangerous-to-know-ness.
And on this particular occasion, he’s on his way to kill David when he runs into a bunch of prophets who are, well, prophesying. And unexpectedly the Spirit of God comes upon even Bad King Saul, and suddenly he’s prophesying away ecstatically with the best of them for hours on end (and lying naked on the ground into the bargain).
It’s an odd story, and hard to understand. Was God simply protecting David, or was he giving Saul another chance?
The reason I mention it is that just recently I’ve been feeling a tiny bit like Saul among the prophets. Let me explain.
I kind of hope I’m not following Saul’s overall trajectory, though some evangelical friends might see it that way. What’s certainly true is that for a long time I’ve felt like I’m not really a ‘proper’ Christian, and experiences of church have often contributed to that feeling.
Readers of this blog may also have noticed that my theology has gradually become less evangelical, as I’ve started to question and rethink many of the touchstone doctrines of Reformation Christianity – biblical inerrancy, penal substitution, hell, homosexuality, who gets ‘saved’ and what that even means.
And for a long time I’ve felt pretty uncomfortable with this move. I’ve feared that in shaking off the conservative shackles I may simply be backsliding headlong into apostasy and heresy. Not unlike Saul.
But then, just in the last few months, I’ve finally started to feel more settled. Going to Greenbelt festival recently felt like coming home and breathing the free air – a sense of relief at being among people who think and feel as I do.
Yet at almost the same time another movement has been re-starting in my spiritual life, and apparently in a very different direction. While my theology’s becoming more liberal, my worship’s becoming surprisingly charismatic – again.
Charismatic worship and me
Perhaps it isn’t so unexpected. For a long time I’ve been involved in (jargon alert) ‘leading worship’ in the moderately charismatic, fairly open evangelical Anglican church where I re-found faith 20+ years ago. I took a break a couple of years ago, partly because of life circumstances and partly for spiritual reasons, but just recently I’ve returned. And a few weeks ago I led worship again for the first time in a full Sunday morning service.
If you’re not familiar with charismatic Christianity, worship and worship-leading are big things. The often extended times of worship carry an expectation of entering into God’s direct presence through heartfelt singing, perhaps also with singing in ‘tongues’ and occasional outbursts of spontaneous praise. There’s a belief that the Holy Spirit will move upon worshippers, touching hearts and changing lives.
And it was in this worship context that I first found a sense of connection with God years ago, in a way that academic theology or Bible preaching hadn’t been able to achieve (and still haven’t). I love theology, but it’s in sung worship where I feel I most directly and deeply encounter something of God’s presence. And that’s even so when, as now, I’m not sure I can agree with the words of the songs I’m singing, and even sometimes query the whole theological framework of charismatic worship.
Furthermore – odd as it may sound – I’ve long felt that I’ve somehow been gifted, even perhaps called, by God to lead others in sung worship. In doing so I’ve frequently felt caught up in something bigger and better than myself, and often others have responded too, reporting that they’ve experienced something of God’s presence.
I say all this because right now I find it confusing and contradictory. My mind and my theology have become increasingly liberal (cynical even), but somehow my soul still comes alive and sings in worship. And I’m glad of that but also unsettled by it, unsure what to make of it or do with it.
An experience of worship
And so it was this time. Before the service I felt nervous, unsure of whether I could even do this thing any more, at least with any integrity. But as I gave myself to the music, my doubts fell away and I felt that sense of being caught up and carried along on a greater tide. And the response from the congregation was incredibly positive and affirming. Suddenly I was in a very different role and position to my accustomed (largely self-chosen) one of disaffected and disengaged outsider.
Hence Saul among the prophets. Here’s me, seemingly backsliding, cynical and liberal, unsure if I’m even really a Christian, suddenly leading the faithful in praise, and God’s Spirit apparently showing up.
Now it’s not that I’ve felt no sense of God’s presence throughout my supposed ‘backsliding’ phase. But what made this time different was the church context; the head-on collision between the liberal and charismatic parts of my faith.
So do I now simply set aside all my theological questioning and doubts, and plunge back wholeheartedly into charismatic, even evangelical Christianity? Part of me would like to, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple.
For now I probably just need to accept that there’s something of a disconnect or tension between my theology and my worship; between my Christian head and heart. But maybe that can be a creative tension rather than a destructive one. I hope my experiences of worship can stretch and challenge my theology, and my theological questing can inform and deepen my worship.
Of course I may ultimately need to let go of some cherished ideas, or some beloved ways of doing things, if I’m to be true both to myself and to wherever God may be calling me. In the meantime, perhaps I should just re-title this blog ‘The Charismatic Liberal’… or just start peppering my posts with random Hallelujahs… 😉