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I've known revival
Or, This is probably not actually about Asbury
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I was a kid, earnest and sincere, at my first experience with revival. Maybe eight? Nine? I can’t quite remember. But I remember the hours spent at a humble church of mostly first-generation believers, the misfits who probably wouldn’t have been welcome at most established churches. Rows of folding chairs in the community centre. The overhead projector centred in the front row, casting easily memorized lyrics onto the wall: “I exalt Thee, I exalt Thee, I exalt Thee, O Lord.” Oh, my deep sense of pride and responsibility because I was the designated kid at the projector, carefully swapping the clear plastic sheets when the songs changed!1
These were the years of Maranatha! on cassette tapes and duelling tambourines in multiple rows of the room. There was no altar, just a space we cleared at the front of the gym for people to pray. And we did. We prayed. People fell out under prayer, laying prostrate on the floor. The church mothers quietly carried cheap yards of fabric to drape over the legs of other ladies while they lay on the floor, preserving modesty for the pantyhose-clad among us. We clapped and hollered. We shouted up when the preaching got good. I spoke in tongues.2 I don’t remember how long it lasted but I remember it felt like an answer to prayer, like a fire we had been working to build finally caught the flame, and then the warmth spread, the light grew. I felt close to God and close to these people.
Of course, I loved it. It ended eventually, I don’t really remember how or when or why but that feeling of a caught fire, of the uselessness of time, the gossamer thin veil between here and heaven, disappeared. For years, we kept trying to build the same fire but it never quite caught in quite the same way.
I was in high school when the Toronto Blessing began.3 It spread like wildfire through Canada and into the United States. At the church of my youth, which met in a downtown movie theatre here in Calgary, we were right in the middle of it. Once again, we sang songs and prayed spontaneously for hours. Every service - one after another, for weeks, then months - we walked the ridgepoles of delight and absurdity, carnival and chaos, repentance and renewal. We experimented and played. Prophesied with mixed results, oh, I did all that, too. People laughed uncontrollably. Fainted. I remember the night folks claimed that gold dust fell from the ceilings. One man insisted, absolutely insisted, that one of his teeth had turned to gold. We worshipped on our faces, laid out on movie theatre carpets and wept into the smell of stale butter. We lined up in the aisles for hours to pray and be prayed for among other, more dangerous, things.4
I remember standing at the front to receive prayer, surrounded by the great ones at the centre of this whole thing, the anointed ones whose prayers clearly were “availing much.” And as I stood there, hands up in surrendered posture, eyes closed, the truest of true believers always, I realized that the person praying for me was gently but resolutely pushing me backwards, a steady attempt to ensure that I would fall back. I stumbled, regained my footing. I began to worry that I was fighting God, not this person, so I obediently fell to the ground and they moved on to pray for the next person in the line but the seed of doubt was there now, taking root.
Maybe it wasn’t a revival, some reasoned, keenly aware that hardly any new converts were being made. Perhaps it was a renewal, a renewal of the Church then. Was this what renewal would look like?
Then I went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, graduating as class of 2001. We had a planned revival every year with mixed results. After all, they told us - often - that this was a school that had been “forged in the fires of healing evangelism.” Our whole birthright was tent revival and physical manifestations of healing, the word of faith set in sawdust and songs. Sometimes it went for hours and it genuinely felt holy and remarkable; other times it felt empty and performative.
That seed of doubt planted years before was growing. I had no idea that the deconstruction coming soon would be my own quiet revival.
In my second book, I remember writing, “When Brian and I get swapping stories of the craziest and weirdest and most abusive stuff we have seen in church, committed in the name of the Spirit, we marvel that any of us stuck around this whole Jesus thing.”5
Still true. Sometimes that’s all the proof for miracles that I need.
I spent almost a decade as part of the Vineyard movement in Canada as an adult; many of our friends or mentors/elders were people who had led during that earlier time. The notion of revivals - and specifically these kinds of revivals - seemed to haunt the movement. I know now that there was a lot happening behind the scenes and at senior levels of leadership. I know that it was complicated and difficult, that it felt out of control to them at times, too. I know that they were deeply sincere and many genuinely witnessed miracles. Some of the kindest and loveliest people I know did the weirdest stuff, too. There are those who completely disavow what happened in those years and others still sort of long for it to happen again.
Whole generations longed for this particular sort of experience with a ferocious yearning. “Remember when we had revival?” they said often, wistfully, “we need to pray for revival again, those were such good days.” I’m pretty sure that was when I preached a few poorly-received sermons against the uselessness of nostalgia for spiritual formation. Oops.
There aren’t too many people in our types of churches who don’t have either trauma or longing - usually both - for those awakenings. Like most of our religious experiences, it’s complicated. It is many seemingly conflicting things all being true at same time.
Was it real? Maybe. I think so? I hope so. Sometimes. Yes.
Did people get healed? I think so.
Did people get saved and set free? Yes, I hope so.
Did some people experience genuine renewal and healing? When they say that they did, I do believe them. (I try to believe them.)
Did each one have lasting impact on our lives? Oh, yes, just maybe not the kind for which we had hoped.
Were there stories from the margins or the inconvenient that were swept under the rug? Yep.
Can you do a lot of harm from a place of good intention? Yes.
Was it violent against LGBTQ+ folks, women, the disabled, the mentally ill and vulnerable? Oh, hell yes.
For the unaware, Kentucky’s Asbury University has been experiencing a gone-viral revival for the past two weeks. It began at a regular chapel service, primarily led by students of Generation Z, and for 14 days now, they have spontaneously and constantly worshipped together. More than 50,000 people are estimated to have flocked to the revival now. (The leadership has now made the decision to end the chapel revival for many complicated reasons, encouraging people to take the movement to their own churches and towns.)
For me, this probably isn’t really about Asbury.
Clearly, revival - the longing for it, the experiences of it, the pursuit of it, the practice of it, the demand of it - has deeply shaped my early spiritual life. I spent most of my formative years of faith development in revivals6 much like what we’re seeing at Asbury right now.
So like a lot of you, I’ve got a lot of feeeeelings. Many conflicted opinions. I’ve ranted on the couch to my husband and just hours later, I’ve felt convicted and repentant. Then I get mad all over again. Sad. Confused. Hopeful. Awed. Blessed. Angry. Optimistic. Suspicious.
I’ve read three dozen testimonies: the humility and lack of celebrity among the kids leading it, the earnestness, the sweetness, the sincerity, their cooperative nature, and so much more. It’s beautiful, yes? I think so. I’ve also read two dozen more critiques of the event: it’s mostly white kids. Or that they reject LGBTQ+ folks still. Or that it’s just mostly singing for a long time, so does that count as revival/outpouring/renewal/whatever? Where is the care for the disabled and immunocompromised folks? You name the critique, it’s likely already come home to roost from all corners of the Church which is exhausting.7
I’m not sure if this is a revival, no one is. Among many insightful points in her recent posts about this, my friend and colleague Alicia T. Crosby Mack thinks it’s more akin to an experience of spiritual euphoria, which seems right to me. Either way, it’s happening and it’s stirring up a lot in a lot of us. I think that’s worth noticing.
It’s worth remembering our own experiences.
It’s worth interrogating our own biases and yearnings, our nostalgia and histories, our understanding of scripture and our hopes.
It’s worth hope and awe, discernment and prayer, patience and time. It’s worth honouring your lament and doubts.
Let the seeds being planted bear their fruit, let’s see what comes to flower or food.
I have realized one thing over these past two weeks of paying attention to Asbury: I’m not really that interested in revival as I knew it in the early years of my experience, not anymore.
Oh, I get it. I get why people long for revival. I understand the "magic" of it, probably more than most. I get the feeling of ecstasy. I get the longing8 for a major move of God that results in changed lives, in people being set free, in renewed faithfulness. I get the wondrous feeling of knowing you’re in the centre of something special, a once-in-a-generation outpouring. I get the warmth of unity and oneness that comes from singing together in a balance of exhaustion and joy. The singing-and-praying-for-hours sort of revival has a sort of old-fashioned simplicity and beautiful purity to it, I get that.
So I wish these kids so well. Genuinely. I wish them goodness and joy, hope and peace. I pray for this renewal they are experiencing to lead to lasting change in their lives as well as the sort of change that gives good news to the poor and sets captives free and gives joy for mourning.9 I do feel sad that their local experience has gone viral, leading to an unbearable weight of opinions and theological treatise and judgment.
If this revival is of God, I don’t want to fight against it. And if it isn’t, it will fail and come to nothing, perhaps.10
My friend, Sandra Maria Van Opstal wrote, “Worship that doesn’t lead to a life of justice is not true worship.” I have been thinking about that very thing a lot, long and hard.
I do wonder what revival even means now, when thousands are still under the rubble in Türkiye and Syria, when gangs are holding Port-au-Prince hostage, when the temperature drops to minus twenty and the warming centres are filled here, when desperate families in Winnipeg are waiting for the thaw so the authorities can finally, under duress, search the dump for the Indigenous women who are still missing.
I guess I don’t feel much like singing for hours.
Awakenings aren’t just for our personal benefit but for the benefit of the entire people of God and for the reconciliation and redemption of the world. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. See the Spirit breathing among the prophets and the poets, the artists and the disturbers. We’ve been asleep, we’ve been passive. I’d love to see a big awakening, absolutely, but I’ll settle for a few more of us to simply wake up.11
So yes, revivals and/or regrets. I’ve had a few.
But when I look back over the past twenty years since then and these past two weeks in particular, with all that these kids in Asbury have stirred up in me, I’ve realised that I’ve had other, more humble, revivals.
There was the revival that doubt brought to my life. The revival gift of saying, “I don’t know” out loud. It didn’t feel like revival at the time; it felt like death. But it turned out that some things need to die in order to make room for resurrection.
The revival of standing in a tent city in Haiti, receiving communion beside a little girl in a strawberry-printed gingham dress, realizing that God doesn’t just smell like pines and mountain air, but also like plantains and coal.
The revival of working at the food bank in minus twenty degrees, freezing outside in my snow pants and mittens with a runny nose, to welcome another family, asking if they want for their protein that week.
There was the revival of truly knowing God With Us, Emmanuel. That God wasn’t reserved for heroes and leaders, worship songs and spectacular displays of power, no. That God was just as present in hospital rooms and hillsides, in our sleep and sorrow, in the deep hysterical belly laugh of a baby and the messy supper table covered with crumbs and conversation.
Revival is realizing that the imaginary line we’ve drawn between sacred and secular is drawn in chalk and Holy Spirit is washing that line away with a grin.
Revival has been realizing that God is here, now, and Love has always been our home.
There has been the revival of the wilderness and the wonderings, the wanderings and the exiles. The revival my whole life experienced when I realized, truly when I received the revelation - if I can use that language again, that God is bigger, more beautiful, more welcoming, more inclusive, more wild, more lovely and gentle and true than we could even begin to hope or contain.
The revival of revelation that the centre of God’s kin-dom is actually in the margins.
The revival of learning to lament. Of learning to weep with those who weep. Of releasing expectations and answers in favour of God’s good presence.
The revival of hope, of love, of peace I’ve experienced precisely because of those faithful ones that I was warned to distrust and ostracize and reject. A few years ago, I remember standing in a small room out in the mountains of British Columbia with a tender community of LGBTQ+ believers who had gathered to worship in peace together for a retreat. It was a tremendous privilege to be invited to attend. I remember crying my eyes out in the front row. Why? Because this community of believers, cruelly rejected by the Church and even by their families in many cases, just sang their hearts out about the wideness in God’s mercy. Hands raised, faces up, glory descending. They loved Jesus so much. They sang and prayed, prophesied and rested in the presence of God. If anyone ever had a reason to give up on all this nonsense of Church and religion, oh, they had it in spades and stories, but there they were, stubborn and faithful and holy, an icon of grace. Talk to me about power, power, wonder-working power.
I’ve known revival at our Evolving Faith gatherings. When we flung open the doors for communion and sang “It Is Well With My Soul” as an act of faith and remembered that we all belong at God’s table so we ate and sang and held on.
I’ve known revival while picking up Rice Krispies from the floor and folding laundry, while lighting candles to pray prayers that no one will ever witness and while reading books aloud to kids.
I’ve known resurrection in places I had declared dead, hope renewed in the middle of despair, and the good peace of God while right in the eye of a storm.
I’ve known God’s love best in humble churches and warm kitchens, in banks and funeral homes, in the wilderness and the MRI machine, in ordinary love and quiet faithfulness.
God draws near, over and over and over.
There are so many ways we begin to properly notice that.
I hope I remain open to them all.
Come, Holy Spirit.
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And in case you missed these recent Field Notes:
The questions I haven’t been answering; Or, Pulling Levers (for subscribers)
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The height of my professionalism attained when I added a plain piece of black construction paper and carefully revealed one line after another. The bliss!
I still do.
The Toronto Blessing was inspired by and had roots in similar revivals taking place in the Global South at the time. The pastors of the Toronto Airport Vineyard Fellowship, where the revival began in 1994, had visited those churches in Argentina as well as South Africa, and were inspired to pray or lead in that direction as a direct result. It feels important to name that since the North American and Western Church has a bit of a habit of erasing the Global South especially within charismatic movements.
Should I be honest about the fact that there were exorcisms? usually on women, of course. Oh, yes, deliverance ministry is a long shadow of the charismatic expressions of the church, rife with abuse and manipulation. There were shouted sermons, usually about demons and gay people and abortion and end times. There were testimonies, wild and unedited and probably not fit for the kids in the audience. At one point, people began to vomit, claiming they were vomiting up demons or sin.
In revivals, pursuing revivals, praying for revivals, reminiscing about revivals, planning for revivals, cosplaying revivals etc.… you name it.
Weirdly, some of my strongest reactions have been to the usual suspects of Christian influencers or leaders who have showed up at Asbury to “report from the ground” with live streams and camera crews and breathless Instagram posts. UGH. (Stay home, go home without centring your own need for the spotlight for once, thank you and unfollow.)
Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a beautiful piece on the longing that the Asbury Revival has stirred up in her.
One evening as Brian and I talked about all this, I was reminded of story I’m referencing here in Scripture. In the book of Acts, shortly after Jesus' resurrection and ascension, the apostles were in trouble for their own revival and had been hauled before the religious leaders to questioning and persecution. The leaders were furious at these disciples who refused to stop preaching and healing in the name of Jesus. But one teacher of the law, a man named Gamaliel, stood up and said, "Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” You can read the whole thing in Acts 5:17-42.
This particular paragraph is from Out of Sorts as well, it’s on page 172. That whole chapter is about signs, wonders, faith, the Spirit.