One of the central aspects of “Engaged Pentecostalism” is engagement. Of course, the pandemic caused us to forfeit our interactive engagement in order to save lives. Over the past year, where EP has remained mostly quiet, two things have stood out: mourning and mental health.
The pandemic has taken almost 4 million lives. And although the U.S. numbers are improving, thousands of people continue to die from the virus daily. Clearly no one needs me to take the time to explain how horribly tragic this is. Indeed, by this point, I’d venture to guess that we all know multiple people who have lost their lives to COVID.
Growing up in the Pentecostal church, I witnessed great feats of strength and determination. Regardless of what might happen, the faithful would declare victory through the power of the Spirit. Someone is sick? Proclaim healing! There’s a financial need? Call on the one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills!
(Brief side note: I have always enjoyed this metaphor and its nonchalant use in church. Hey, God isn’t worried about your money problems! God has a thriving cattle conglomerate, spread over one thousand hills. The bad news, of course, is God’s carbon footprint)
And if there is a global problem (i.e., pandemic), rebuke “fear” and keep living your life as normal! This unusual stance and repeated trope cost lives. It also highlights two issues that the Pentecostal church must address. First, where’s the leadership? Whether on the denominational or church level, few “shepherds” chose to protect their flock. Many predominantly white Pentecostal denominations in the U.S. (see Church of God, Assemblies of God, etc.) simply parroted the previous administration’s rhetoric.
So, where was the Spirit? This is the second major issue. If there is a group of people in the world who should have known how horrible the pandemic would be, it should be Spirit-fill Pentecostals. Yet, numerous super spreader events resulted from Pentecostal-Charismatic communities who refused to “fear” the virus.
Where are the prophets? When did prophecy cease in Pentecostalism? What voice replaced the Spirit’s in our churches? And if our leaders and larger community were unable to hear from the Lord about something of this size, why should we ever trust their connection to God?
Ecclesiastes 3:4 begins by saying, “There’s a time for mourning.”
I grew up Pentecostal and remain one today, and the past year has been filled with mourning: mourning those who we’ve lost and mourning the loss of the Spirit. There’s a time for mourning, and that time is now.
With all the boisterous “thus saith the Lords,” we miss the still small voice. What is interesting about the story of Elijah in 1 Kings is that he’s forced into isolation, aware that death loomed outside his cave. Reading our knowledge of mental health into the story, we find Elijah depressed and desperate –– v. 4 And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”
If you grew up Pentecostal or have ever been to a charismatic church service, you know the danger of silence. Keep the music thumping and the people jumping. In fact, if you’re the music minister, don’t even pause between songs. Make worship just one long mix. And you know why? The second there’s stillness, the crowd grows antsy. We’re very comfortable in the noise –– it’s the silence that we’re trying to avoid.
I cannot count how often someone would give a word from God to break up the awkward silence –– somebody better say something! Declare victory already! Actually, some kind of condemnation might also work, assuming it condemns someone who is not me. But for the love of God (literally), someone say something!
God tells Elijah to stand on the mountain and wait for God’s voice. I love the Pentecostal imagery in the following verses.
We hear that a forceful wind blows through first. Glory! It’s God!
Then an earthquake shakes things up. Goodness I love the kick drum in worship, Jesus!
Then FIRE falls. Oh how we love thee, oh fire metaphor!
Stop with the noise. The cacophony is self-created, designed for self-interest and self-soothing. Oddly, we inevitably leave the keyboards and “praise teams,” returning to the quietness of the soul. Now, I’m a big fan of the pageantry, but everything is not pageantry.
Boring alert! God talks to Elijah in a still small voice.
The pandemic unearth issues I’ve successfully drowned out with noise. Many of my earliest memories are from church. I know that my few memories do not encompass the entirety of my childhood experience, but nevertheless, two of my most vivid memories are getting in trouble and subsequently spanked at church, and being repeatedly, persistently, ceaselessly told that I was fundamentally a horrible person who would likely burn in hell for all eternity. The kicker was making it real…
(pastor whoever) “Have you sinned? Well, if you have, you’ll burn. In fact, if you get killed in a car wreck tonight, and you probably will, without coming up for prayer now, the skin-melting fire of hell will torture you forever.”
(8-year old me to myself): “You’re going to die tonight! The minister, who is my only reference for God, seems almost excited about my death sentence. I really am horrible and terrible and hideous and unloveable. I would never have known that if not for church! I’m so lucky.”
I’ve cried a lot over the past year. The still small voice of the Spirit has gentle pulled me back from the howling winds, terrifying earthquakes, and burning fire that mark my childhood, and consequently, my formative years. I’m not too proud to admit that I struggle almost every day with self-hatred.
I need to do more. I need to be more. I must or else.
Mental health data shows that people who were raised in a similar religious environment suffer from a type of PTSD. Traumatic stress is a good description of how I understood religion growing up, and to a degree, how I view it today.
I believe in healing. I believe in “thus saith the Lord.” But I also know that we need more still small voice, whether in our personal moments, in talks with friends, or in professional counseling.
I’ve not been at a place to write, and there’s no guarantee I will continue to write from here. Yet, the Spirit’s still small voice has guided me to mourn as a form of healing. I pray that you too might find healing.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.