I was eight years-old the first time I spoke in tongues. It was a Sunday night, sometime between Easter and the Day of Pentecost. I remember the chaos of the early part of the prayer time, the altars packed with people shouting and crying. I remember my Sunday School teacher shouting in my left ear “Just hold on!” and a deacon’s wife shouting in my right ear “Just let go!” I remember my mother standing behind me encouraging me to just tell God how much I loved him. I remember getting lost in an incredible sense of God’s presence, a bone deep knowledge of how much he loved me in return that caused me to weep and eventually collapse. The next thing I remember is my mother holding me up as I open my eyes and start speaking the nonsense syllables I’d been hearing in my head. I think my Sunday School teacher was still there, but fortunately she was the only one left, as I started to jump and dance, alternately laughing and exclaiming in my new prayer language. My mother has always insisted I was dancing with an angel.
I still speak in tongues, but not often in church. These days I use my prayer language while I am sitting on my couch having quiet time or driving in bad traffic or washing dishes at the church’s soup kitchen. It is a comforting reminder that God is present and active in each moment, working in and through me. It is a reminder that I am not alone in my joys and sorrows or in the actions that precipitate them.
And on Sundays, I go to a church where there are no mourner’s benches at the front, no altars at which to kneel and pray. Instead, my pastor wears a stole decorated with rainbow-colored commas, symbolizing our denomination’s commitment to the idea that “God is still speaking.” When I first visited here and began researching the UCC, this idea seemed comfortingly familiar. Of course God is still speaking. We Pentecostals believe he never stopped.
I grew up with the unspoken sense that our church had figured out something about God that no one else knew: That God could and did speak to us, directly and indirectly and in many ways that fall somewhere in between. I grew up in a church where it was not uncommon to be approached by someone who felt God had given them “a word” for you and where it was not inappropriate to suggest based on your own understanding of God and of your situation that the person had either misheard or misinterpreted something. In short, I grew up with the idea that I could trust myself to know God’s truth from Satan’s lies (or even just the sinful desires of my own human nature) based on my reading of the Bible and the move of the Holy Spirit in my own life. Because God is always speaking to us.
It was this understanding of my own spiritual discernment that allowed me to accept my sexuality despite the teachings of the church I grew up in. It allowed me to visit the church I now call home for the first time with an open mind and heart. It allowed me to acknowledge that my pastor is a person of genuine, active, abundant faith, even though it significantly complicated my understand of God’s will for my sexuality, because that woman’s love for Jesus and her desire to share that love with others would fit in beautifully in any of the congregations I grew up in, even if her female partner wouldn’t.
I grew up understanding the Pentecostal movement as a place of rebels and dreamers, of misfits and outliers. But finding myself, now, on a different kind of border, I find that there is no longer a place for me at that table, and I wonder why. Why is a fellowship founded on the idea that everyone else had been getting it wrong for so many years so resistant to the idea that there’s something else we’ve been getting wrong?
When I was in high school, my father and I had a talk about the gift of prophecy in which he told me, “The word of the prophet is subject to the prophet.” He explained that this meant that a prophecy is a word from God, but it comes through a human filter. The person God uses perceives the message in a way that is unique to his or her context and makes a choice about what to share and how to share it. I’ve since come to understand that this also means that we only hear from God what we are willing to hear. God is always speaking, but we don’t always hear or hear clearly.
I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in church history or theology, but I know enough about my church to be aware that the Pentecostal movement and the holiness movement went hand in hand. My parents have joked that their youth group motto was “We don’t smoke and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do!” (Or boys, depending on which parent is telling the story.) My grandmother was regularly chastised by their pastor for daring to work in her front garden in pants. My father didn’t allow me to pierce my ears until I was 16, at which point one of his minister friends finally convinced him that he was being ridiculous and old fashioned.
In my childhood and teen years, I could see that my church was in transition, trying to find a way to keep its sense of holiness in a culture that no longer recognized beehive hairdos and long skirts as anything other than weird. I knew families who required their daughters to keep their hair long and didn’t allow their children to go to movie theaters. I also had friends who wore knee high boots and denim mini-skirts to church on Sunday mornings. There was a constant debate about appropriate attire for services at youth camp, and the rules shifted a little year by year. Sometimes we were encouraged to eschew all such forms of ungodliness as books and music that weren’t explicitly about Jesus, but sometimes we were just encouraged to prayerfully consider our entertainment options. My (admittedly moderate) youth pastor would read to us from 1 Corinthians 8 and encourage us to make choices about media based on how they affected our personal walk with Christ and our witness to others rather than any list of specific rules.
My mother recently treated me to a long, rambling lecture on how holiness is a matter of the heart, not a matter of rules. I’m honestly not sure if she was implying that my attraction to women is evidence that my heart is not truly holy or if she is beginning to accept that my sexuality may not be an indicator of moral and spiritual decay, but I can’t help but think that there’s a way forward here. There’s a place for wild-eyed prophets, overflowing with God’s and manifesting his gifts who are also queers or allies. There’s still a place for holiness and fire and God’s ever-active presence in my life. There’s a chance that God is still speaking, and we might just be ready to hear him.