From 1980 – 85 I served as a pastor of a church in Ferney-Voltaire, France, across the border from Geneva, Switzerland. A woman — let’s call her Sally — had started attending services and visiting our church offices during the week. She didn’t self-describe as a believer but was interested and open and had question after question about the Christian faith.

Sally and I worked through her questions regularly, taking our time. Often an hour session ended and Sally would look at me and say, Yes, that makes sense.” And she’d head off for home. We’ve made progress, I’d say to myself. 

Yet when our next session began, it always seemed we were back at square one. What had appeared so clear to Sally when she left the previous time now seemed foggy and confused. This cycle — clarity, fogginess, clarity, fogginess — continued for six months. I didn’t know what to do.

Then I got a nudge. From the Holy Spirit. In very concrete language. With a high level of specificity. 

Twenty minutes before our next appointment I asked the Lord for a specific word regarding Sally, not sure what to expect. And this is what I heard, not audibly, but still clearly and discernibly. Sally will be coming into the kingdom of God at 2:22 this afternoon.

I thought, My, that’s clear!

Maybe it’s indigestion or the power of suggestion. But my stomach felt fine. And as for suggestion, I had been working with Sally for six months and made no headway. No one had suggested to me that she would come to faith this afternoon. Indeed, I still had a very low expectation that God could speak so clearly and directly. Was God’s message to me real or not? Let’s test this out.

I crossed from my office to that of my colleague, Gary Edmonds. Monds,” I said, either I’m losing my mind or this is what I just heard from God. Sally is coming into the kingdom at 2:22 this afternoon.” Though Gary was also getting interested in the possibility of hearing from God, I think I noticed a slight eye roll, but he responded, Ok. Let me know what happens.”

Within minutes Sally pulled up in the church parking lot for her 2:15 meeting with me. She stepped into my office, we talked for around 5 minutes, and at 2:22 the fog that had surrounded her mind and heart for months lifted. In faith and with a simple, heartfelt prayer Sally entered the kingdom of God. The endless string of questions snapped. Sally humbly gave her life to Christ. At 2:22.

Dipping a Toe in the Charismatic Stream

In my earliest days as a Christian, long before my experience with Sally, I was taught that many gifts of the Spirit — the charismata—had ceased with the death of the last apostle and the closing of the Apostolic Age. Since as a young believer I possessed little knowledge to judge this teaching right or wrong — I later learned it was known as cessationism—I let things lie. Gifts of the Spirit such as tongues, healing, and prophecy made me nervous, and if they had ceased, fine with me. Or at least so I thought.

My cessationist friends argued that many spiritual gifts ended with the closing of the biblical canon. They readily acknowledged that in the times of the apostles Christians spoke in tongues, performed miracles, healed others, and received very direct words from the Lord. Once the authority of the apostolic message was confirmed through these remarkable gifts, the need for further attestation ceased. Authoritative texts — the biblical canon — replaced authoritative signs, with the list of continuing spiritual gifts significantly reduced.

As time went on, I found the theological rationale for the ceasing of some gifts and the continuance of others to be increasingly implausible. Nudges, I think from the Lord, encouraged me to reevaluate my thinking, practices, and expectations. A new openness to the Holy Spirit slowly developed within me.

I pondered cessationist teaching in some depth and asked myself, Why not test what I’ve been taught? So slowly, with some trepidation, I dipped my toe into the charismatic stream.

Was it possible to still hear from God, not simply in a general sense, but with a high level of specificity? Of course,” my non-charismatic friends responded. Read the Bible.” My problem was that the Bible contained story after story of God speaking to people and acting in ways that the non-charismatic paradigm didn’t allow.

For years I had been studying texts that spoke of the power of the gospel manifested in remarkable ways. Now, I was told, because we have these canonical texts which attest to that power we shouldn’t expect the power to continue to manifest itself. This argument seemed highly implausible. What to do?

I decided to test empirically the non-charismatic thesis, not by asking the Lord to give me the gift of speaking in tongues, but simply by speaking to me in concrete, specific ways in response to my prayers. And, to my surprise, God did. First with Sally. Then three years later it happened again. This time in Africa.

Barney Hamady

It was the late 1980s. I had returned from France and was attending graduate school at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. A pastor friend in Southern California had been invited to speak to a group of Kenyan Christians but he wouldn’t be able to make the trip. Could I go in his place?

I had never been to Africa. It sounded like fun. I asked, Who will I be going with?”

There’s another pastor from the Vineyard Fellowship down here who’ll also be going. But you’ll be doing most of the speaking. His name is Barney Hamady.”

Barney Hamady, I thought. That’s an interesting name.

Our conversation ended and I began to make plans for the upcoming trip, some four months away.

While planning for the trip, I prayed for God’s blessing. My prayer was fairly generic. Lord, bless this trip. Even now help me with what I should say.” As the trip drew nearer, I prayed for safety and health. Suddenly, out of the blue, just like my experience with Sally, I heard very specific words: Have Barney Hamady pray for you. These words were more than a sense impression. They were very specific.

It’s a stretch to say I gave deep attention to the words, but thankfully I tucked them in the back of my mind. I continued planning and packing and finally boarded my flight for Nairobi.

My expectation was to teach a seminar with around 250 people attending. I was surprised to discover my first assignment was to speak to 10,000 men in the bush during their spiritual renewal week. The following week 5,000 women would gather and again I was the main speaker.

I would be connecting soon with the Vineyard pastor and I thought I knew what to expect. Over the years I had developed stereotypes of Charismatic believers as loud, naïve, deceived, and ignorant.

Then I met Barney. 

He had an earthy sense of humor, was well-read, and a good listener. His mind was deeply grounded in Christ, biblically informed, and flexible in terms of how and when he expected God to work. The platitudes and plastic Christianity I expected to see and hear never appeared. In my surprise and shock, I forgot the words I had heard so clearly in Vancouver: Have Barney Hamady pray for you.

The day arrived for me to speak to the men’s group in the bush. Some walked fifty miles to attend. The previous evening, I had visited a kind Kenyan pastor and his family who lived in an isolated area. Water for their home was supplied through a borehole.

When we shared dinner and water was served in glasses. I asked if I should not rather drink water from a sealed bottle.

No, no,” the pastor responded. The water in your glass comes from a borehole. It’s very clean. The rock cleans it.”

I took a long drink.

After a night’s rest in a tent outside the pastor’s home, I headed back to the missionary compound where Barney and I were staying. The men’s event was two days away.

How can I put things delicately? On the day I was supposed to speak, I awoke around 6:30 and realized I had a problem that could only be resolved by a sprint to the bathroom — a journey that occurred every five minutes or so for the next two hours. The big D” had arrived.

In two hours I was supposed to speak to 10,000, but the sickness was worsening by the minute. What am I going to do, Barney? I’m supposed to speak in front of all these people and I can’t move more than five from the bathroom or real disaster will strike, for me and everyone else.”

The minutes passed. The time for our departure drew near. We mumbled a handful of prayers and Barney finally said, We need to go.” I grabbed a roll of toilet paper and we climbed in the bed of an old pickup truck, settled down into two rocking chairs, covered ourselves with blankets to protect ourselves from the dust, and off we went. With each bump of the truck my lower half jiggled, but things held firm.

After an hour’s drive, we arrived in a large valley. Seated on the ground waiting for me were 10,000 men. I walked gingerly from the pickup truck to my speaking spot in the center of the valley. A loudspeaker was hanging from a tree. My interpreter handed me a mic and I greeted the crowd. I’m afraid I’m not feeling well today. Will you pray for me as I speak?” Ayee!” the crowd responded in Swahili. Yes!”

I started speaking. I can’t recall what I said. I do remember that while I was speaking I felt calm, peaceful, and free from nausea that had been plaguing me. After forty-five minutes I ended, the crowd dispersed, and I went home with Barney. By the time we got back to the compound, my health problems had returned and they continued as the week proceeded.

As the day drew near to speak to the 5,000 women, I became weaker. The only thing I could manage to keep down was soda containing glucose. I spent the day before the event in the small living room of a missionary’s home. Walking required Barney Hamady and Jackson, my Kenyan host, to support me on each side. How was I supposed to speak the next day?

Then the words I had heard so clearly in Vancouver drifted back into my memory: Have Barney Hamady pray for you. Yes, I thought to myself. That’s right. How could I have forgotten?

On Friday night, sitting in my bed beside Barney and Jackson, I asked softly, Barney, will you pray for me?” He agreed.

My hands were stretched out in front of me, perhaps to show my willingness to accept whatever the Lord would offer or do. Jackson was there, too. Since he believed that healing had stopped at the close of the first century, I’m not sure what he was expecting, but he seemed to join in willingly.

I expected that when Barney prayed, it would be loud, dramatic, and insistent. Yet the prayer Barney prayed, as far as I can recall, was quiet, direct, and expectant: Lord, Chris has to speak tomorrow. A lot of folks are walking a long way to hear him. And he’s sick. Please heal him.” That was it. And he prayed just once.

To be honest, I had expected more from Barney. Something a little louder perhaps? I do believe Barney expected something to happen and didn’t feel he had to raise his voice for God to respond. There I sat, arms slightly extended, palms open, and a bit disappointed in Barney.

Then it began to happen. Something like an electric current started streaming into my left arm. My arm’s muscles began to flex in response. The same arm began to swing methodically, slowly, back and forth. There was no pain but I did feel a distinct heat. In one of my wiser moments, I decided to accept what was happening rather than resist it, and the current continued for ten to twelve minutes.

Barney offered only one brief prayer while the current streamed into me: More power, Lord.”

In my mind’s eye, while the power continued to flow into my arm, I remember seeing the beauty of God, the beauty of the Trinity manifesting itself to me as a blending of stunning colors. Finally, this too — a vision of some kind? — slowly dissipated. Lastly, I fell back on the bed.

Wow,” I said to my two friends — one who fully expected something like this to happen and one who thought this kind of thing had ceased hundreds of years ago — that was wonderful.”

Yeah,” Barney responded, the Holy Spirit was jumping all over you.” I glanced at Jackson and he was staring at me with an expression of utter surprise. Eventually Jackson went home and Barney and I went to bed.

After his initial comment, Barney said nothing about what had happened. Indeed, he did not seem all that interested. What could be more normal?, he seemed to be thinking. As we drifted off I asked, Barney, do you think I’m healed?” I don’t know,” he mumbled and fell asleep.

Eight hours later I awoke healthy, healed, restored, and energized. My dysentery had disappeared. I was able to speak later that day without hindrance, weakness, or difficulty.

Two or three days after the healing occurred I asked myself whether something really happened. Was there some other explanation? Suddenly a very distinct word came: Don’t you do that. With this direct word came the awareness that my left arm was still sore from the healing current. Don’t doubt what I have done for you.

So, where do we go from here? I have told you two stories, two experiences of hearing from God I offer as we ponder the charismatic stream. Quite evidently, at least based on my own experience and that of many others, God continues to speak to his image-bearers, sometimes with a high level of specificity. Of course, it’s fair to ask, as many of you might well be doing, Well, why hasn’t God spoken to me like that? What makes you so special?

I have no idea. Indeed, I’m reluctant to share these stories, because I don’t want people to walk away disappointed and disillusioned with God or with themselves. Yet I would be lying if I said these things didn’t happen. They did. And I’ve been pondering them for years, am thankful for their occurrence, and sometimes ask why they don’t happen more often. These were gifts from God, words and acts that greatly facilitated what God desired to do through me for the sake of other image-bearers.

You’re Not Listening!

Since the Kenyan experience, I have prayed for many others to be healed. Sometimes I’ve been graced with unwanted responses. My mind is drawn to the life — and death — of my dear friend, Reba Yoder.

I met Reba in the mid-1990s while teaching a class at Eastern University titled Foundations of Christian Spirituality. During a lecture, I touched on the issue of suffering and the role suffering plays in our spiritual formation into the image of Christ. I noticed one older student, perhaps mid-forties, listening intently. At the end of class, she came up and introduced herself: Hi. My name’s Reba Yoder. I liked what you had to say. I’ve got cancer.” This greeting was what I came to know as classic Reba: direct, honest, and open to God and others. Nice to meet you, Reba. I’m so sorry about the cancer.”

Over the next few years, Reba and I became very close friends. We prayed fervently, consistently, imploringly to God that her cancer would be healed. For a while, during a wonderful period filled with joy and expectation, Reba’s cancer went into remission. We thought she may have been healed and hope expanded in our hearts like a balloon. Our spirits soared as the future appeared to open to Reba like a flower stretching its petals to the sun.

Then, at first almost imperceptibly, Reba began to feel tired. Old, worrying symptoms reappeared. Perhaps, we thought, Reba was just working too hard. She decided to take a short vacation to Oregon, hoping the rest and change of scenery would do her good. Then the phone call came, one I will never forget: Hi, Chris. It’s Reba. It’s back.”

My heart sank like a stone. Oh, Reba. I’m so sorry. We won’t give up, though. We just need to pray even harder for your healing. God hasn’t forgotten you.”

I know that,” Reba replied, somewhat curtly. But we’re going to pray differently.”

I didn’t like the direction the conversation was headed. I longed for Reba to be healed. I wanted her around for years to come. I didn’t want to hear anything about praying differently.

What do you mean, praying differently?” I asked, my voice tinged with impatience, anxiety and sadness.

We are going to pray that I die like a Christian,” Reba replied.

No, we aren’t, I said to myself. There’s no way I’m going to pray that prayer. Reba was just discouraged and tired; she wasn’t seeing clearly. She only needed some encouragement.

Reba, I know this is discouraging. But we don’t want to give up. Christ has heard our prayers in the past. This cancer’s not the last word.”

I attempted to convince Reba that we should continue to pray for her physical healing. She listened for a while, I’m sure biting her tongue, but finally she’d reached the end of her patience.

Stop it,” she said angrily. You’re not listening.”

Reba was right. I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t listening because I didn’t want to accept that Reba’s pilgrimage on earth was nearing its end. I wanted her around for a long time. I wanted her there for her children, for her husband. I wanted her to see the birth of her grandchildren.

I wanted to dance a jig with Reba. Instead, Jesus had decided — for reasons of his own he has not shared with me — that our last dance together, one he would join in with us, would be a slow, solemn, sad waltz. Occasionally it would be beautiful beyond words; sometimes unspeakably sorrowful. What strange music Christ sometimes sings to us!

So, over the next few months, Reba listened to Christ and discerned more clearly the words he was speaking to her. Indeed, we both came to believe that Jesus was answering the deeper intent of our earlier prayers for Reba’s healing: a deeper transformation was occurring, one that would continue into the age to come. I still struggled with this deeper healing, because I knew, as did Reba, it would involve partings — if only for a time. And I didn’t want to say good-bye.

As Jesus and I waltzed with Reba, our dance gradually slowed into its last delicate steps. Joe Modica, the chaplain at Eastern, and I promised Reba we would visit her each Friday until her earthly dance with Christ ceased its grace-filled rhythms. And so we did.

On our hour drive to Reba’s home, we pondered together the puzzling ways of God with his precious creatures. We never figured out why God chose to waltz Reba out of this world when she could have done and received so much good; to this day I don’t know why.

There are many things, I’ve come to believe, we must leave in God’s hands, basing our trust on the strange and wondrous truths revealed in the incarnation, ministry, cross, and resurrection of Jesus. Two thousand years earlier Christ himself had danced the waltz he now stepped gently with Reba. He has never distanced himself from our sufferings. He will never ask his disciples to endure something he has not first undergone himself. He invites us to enter his sufferings with him, just as he does with us (Luke 14:25 – 33; Col. 1:24; Mark 8:31 – 38).

If I chose to judge simply by appearances, Reba’s sickness and death looked to be an act of divine foolishness or indifference as God extravagantly spent Reba’s short gift of years; by all appearances it seemed there was a much better path God could have taken, one of restoration, happiness, joy, healing. Yet Reba discerned, in a manner I didn’t at that time, that God was at work deep down, under the surface of things, fertilizing her roots through the Spirit. Fruit and flowers were blossoming in the garden of her suffering — if only I had eyes to see. But how difficult it is to look and discern beyond appearances and longings.

Christ’s willingness to suffer for her strengthened Reba’s determination to live and die like a Christian.” He had provided the pattern and he asked Reba to imitate it. Her faithful disposition, openness to Christ, and increasing ability to discern how Christ was choosing to work were forged in the fire of pain, loss, trust, and faith. And she was never alone. Christ was present, continually taking the lead.

Reba’s experience with Jesus reflects a broad current in the charismatic stream. She was listening and Christ was speaking. When we limit how God must speak and respond to our prayers by dictating or prematurely determining how charismatic currents must flow or where its streams and eddies lie, we unnecessarily and unwisely muddy its waters.

I’m So Blessed. Thanks Be to God.

One final story. Let me introduce you to someone we’ll call Rachel, a patient at the New Jersey geropsychiatric hospital where I served as director of pastoral care in the late 1980s.

Make no mistake about it, working at a geropsychiatric hospital is very difficult. Not only are patients suffering from a vast host of psychiatric illnesses, they are also suffering from a wide variety of end-of-life issues: frequent illness, loneliness, fear of death, deep remorse over past mistakes that seem beyond repair, and so forth.

One month was particularly difficult. The sheer weight of suffering I encountered daily weighed heavily on me.

I recall, for example, walking into a unit, dressed in clerical garb. A patient down the hallway spotted me as I walked toward her. She was strapped into her chair to keep her steady as she ate her breakfast. Suddenly, she started screaming and banging her head into her breakfast tray. Rev. Hall, Rev. Hall, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” Susie was all alone; she had been an abuser of other people and been abused by them. Her family had written her off. And how she was dying. I rushed up to her, cradled her head in my hands to prevent further injury, and said softly, I know, Susie, I know.”

I had been praying for Susie and others for months and it seemed that God was refusing to listen. I asked and asked and asked for healing and the restoration of hope, and all that appeared to happen was patients grew worse, mentally and physically. Indeed, Susie died a few days after this incident. I buried her; a few family members came, the very people who refused to visit her while she was still living.

A few days after Susie’s death I decided I had seen enough. Another long day at the hospital had passed and things looked the same. Discouraged, sad, and angry, I simply wanted to go home. How quickly I fell into the sin of presumption.

What is presumption? I presumed — based on appearances — that God was not working at the hospital, that patients were not being helped, that my prayers were not being heard, that God didn’t care.

At the end of one workday, I was sitting in my office fuming at God and the circumstances at the hospital. The phone rang. It was my boss. Chris, Rachel has just been admitted into the ICU unit at Easton Hospital. She’s in bad shape. Could you visit her on your way home?”

I’d be glad to,” I lied.

The last thing I wanted to do was to visit a dying schizophrenic. I was sick of suffering, sick of pain, sick of sadness, sick of death.

I drove to Easton, parked in the hospital parking lot and steeled myself for more agony. The nurses at the ICU unit smiled and nodded as I walked past. I had no expectations that God was at work here or anywhere else. I was tired, discouraged, angry, frightened. I just wanted out. I can distinctly remember thinking, first in my office and later as I entered Rachel’s room, that God was not working. You’re not working. You don’t care,” I grumbled internally. God had not listened to my prayers. God didn’t care about these suffering people. I wanted out, plain and simple.

When I entered Rachel’s ICU room things were just as I expected. My last vestige of faith slipped away. The scene was horrifying. Rachel was strapped to her bed with pieces of linen cloth. Both her arms had been tied loosely to her bed frame because in her confusion she kept pulling out her IVs. A respirator had been inserted in Rachel’s throat because she couldn’t breathe on her own. Her eyes were swollen and distended, seemingly in terror. I glanced at the monitor listing her vital signs and realized that Rachel’s life was ending. Her body was shutting down. She was beginning to flatline. What help could I possibly offer to a dying schizophrenic?

I walked over to Rachel’s bed and she looked up at me with enlarged, frightened eyes that begged me to help her. I reached out for her left hand. Rachel, can I say a prayer for you?” She frantically nodded yes. As I prayed the expression on her face never changed; her distended eyes — frantic, frightened, seemingly despairing — communicated horror, not hope.

And what did I have to offer her? The short, sad, prayer of a faithless chaplain. Lord, please help Rachel in her time of need. Touch her body. Touch her spirit. Relieve her suffering. Be with her throughout the night. Amen.” I squeezed her hand and turned to leave. I didn’t want to see any more suffering, any more dying.

Rachel’s left hand caught my sleeve. I turned and she stared at me with the same frightened eyes. She began to raise and lower her left hand, signaling to me that she had something she wanted to say to me. Her hand, though restrained, had about a foot of wiggle room. I placed a piece of paper on a hospital clipboard, slipped a pencil into Rachel’s hand, and held the clipboard in front of her.

She wrote slowly for about five minutes, struggling to form every letter. Her expression never changed. By all appearances she was still a terrified, lonely, dying schizophrenic. I thought to myself, You should have known better. She could tell you were lying and didn’t care about her. She knew you were just going through the motions. You deserve to get chewed out. And that’s just what I thought Rachel wanted to do as she wrote minute after minute.

Finally, she stopped writing. I took the pencil from her hand and lifted the clipboard to read her message. Rachel had managed to write five sentences in what looked like stilted print. I still have the message she wrote me some thirty-three years ago.

First line: I love my Jesus.

Second line: Thanks for visit.

You shouldn’t be thanking me, I thought to myself. If you only knew what I was thinking as I was praying. I just wanted out.

Third line: Your Jesus loves you too.

This was the line that both broke my heart and filled me with wonder. Had Rachel sensed my struggle, my discouragement, my anger over so many prayers that by all appearances had been unanswered?

Suddenly, the room was densely filled with the presence of God — not visibly present, but tangibly present. I turned to see if someone was standing behind me. An angel, perhaps. No. The only people present in the room were Rachel, a faithless chaplain, and God. Jesus had lovingly borrowed the mind and body of a dying schizophrenic to remind me, I’m working at the hospital. I’m working in and through you. I love Rachel. She’s going to be fine. Stop judging by appearances. Trust me.

Fourth line: I’m blessed.

Blessed? You look so frightened, so alone, so discouraged. Don’t you realize you’re dying?

Fifth line: Thanks be to God.

Jesus’ message to me seemed to me to be this, also a major emphasis of the charismatic stream:

Thank me, Chris, for those things you do understand. Thank me for the forgiveness of your sins. Thank me for the beauty of my creation. Thank me for all the gifts I have sprinkled into your life: your family, your friends, your vocation, your health, and the times I speak very clearly to you. I have spoken to you in the past and I will do so in the future. But please, stop trying to figure out matters that I have not chosen to explain to you. Trust me.

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Text First Published March 2020