16 – On Gifts

Soon after we were married, Layne was offered a job at a local church leading worship for the youth and young adult ministries. Being a talented musician and a gifted worship leader, it came as no surprise to me that he found church work so quickly. The position allowed him the flexibility to travel, which meant he would be able to pursue leading worship for camps and conferences—his primary ministry aim at the time. It seemed like an easy decision, so with very little discussion, it was agreed that he would take the job.

So new to church world was I that it never occured to me that a position such as this came with the expectation that our whole family would become a part of the church, complete with membership transfer (which had to be done without an official letter, since I had never joined a church), signing off on church doctrinal statements, being added to the childcare rotation, and a request that I select a women’s Bible study group to begin leading. And so I came to find myself firmly planted in the middle of a very traditional Southern Baptist church, with very little understanding of what it meant to be a ministry leader’s wife, a church member, or a Baptist.

One thing I did pick up on quickly was that my lack of a church background and my testimony on how I came to faith seemed to make my fellow congregants a bit uncomfortable. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had to become discerning about how much and with whom I could share. For Layne’s sake, wanting to ensure that he remained in good standing with the staff and his position was secure, I avoided discussing the many questions I was wrestling through related to doctrine, theology, and Scripture and stuck primarily to pleasantries and inconsequential topics—a very isolating approach. 

Thankfully, Layne made for an excellent sounding board, and being a natural debater, he was always willing to talk through anything and everything with me, patiently and carefully dividing the truth as we sought deeper understanding together. That aspect of our relationship would prove invaluable to me when I began, most unintentionally and unexpectedly, to experience the Lord in ways I knew were well outside the fundamentalist framework of the church home which we were now part.

The first of these experiences came following a wedding I attended, when a tiny but boisterous older woman approached me on my way out the door, loudly informing me that I was to be her ride home. In response to my quizzical stare, she grabbed my arm and dragged me out to the parking lot, stating, “The Lord pointed you out in the crowd and told me, ‘She is your ride home.’” Upon discovering that she lived directly off the route I would be taking, a miracle in itself since the DFW area is vast, and we were more than an hour from our part of town, I reluctantly agreed to drive her.

I regretted the decision before I even started the engine. She immediately reached across to the driver’s side and forcefully placed one hand on my shoulder and the other on my head, claiming that the Lord had directed her to lay hands on me and pray that I would be baptized in the Holy Spirit and receive the gift of tongues. I began to protest, politely telling her that wasn’t necessary, but before I could finish my sentence, she burst into raucous, near frantic prayer over me, trailing off intermittently into a low-toned series of repetitive sounds she identified as her prayer language. Every few minutes, her fervor would relax slightly, and she would check in with me, inquiring, “Have you felt the Spirit come upon you yet?” Then she would forcefully command me, “Speak! Use the tongues of angels you have been given!” But my focus remained fixed on the freeway ahead. So desperate was I to get this lady home and out of my car, that I barely registered when she was speaking directly to me. Exasperated, she would begin praying once more, growing louder and more intense every moment. This lasted the entire drive, and by the time I pulled up to her front door and let her out, I was so shaken and distraught that I erupted into tears before I made it to the end of her street.

Lord, what was that? She claimed it was all due to your leading! If you want to get my attention, you don’t need to do it through someone so unhinged! In the quiet of the car, as I began to calm down and allow the shock to dissipate, I thought back to some of the things Layne had shared with me about his time helping lead worship for a charismatic church in high school. There was much that he took away from the experience, particularly a depth in worship and prayer he could only explain as encounters with the Spirit of the Lord. It was unlike anything he had known in the conservative churches in which he had grown up, and the effect was both intoxicating and transforming. But with the good came some concerning elements that seemed to be out of balance with biblical precedent and guidance, including a hyper-focus on spiritual experiences and a near obsession with the gifts of the Spirit. At some point in almost every service he attended, several people would lay hands on him and pray that he would receive tongues, and since it wasn’t happening, it was implied by some and directly stated by others that the fault was his own—a clear lack of faith. Despite the disheartening aspects of the experience, Layne had witnessed enough to know that there was real value in the charismatic stream of the Christian faith, and he remained open and committed to seeking the gifts of God that the Apostle Paul said should be eagerly desired for building up the church.

With Layne’s account as the only information I had concerning the gift of tongues that my former passenger was so intent on helping me obtain, I decided that my best bet for understanding the craziness I had just endured was to go straight to the source. Lord, that was confusing and terrifying. But that lady claimed that I had not yet received from you something that you have for those who believe in you, the gift of your Spirit. I don’t know if she is right, but if there is more of you that I have yet to experience, if there is more you want to show me, I am open to whatever you are willing to give.

What happened next remains hard to put into words, even after years of reflecting back on it all. Although every window was tightly shut since it was the middle of winter, my car suddenly filled with a brisk wind that whistled and whipped about my head and torso. My heart quickened, and I was filled with a rush of joy and excitement, followed by perfect peace. As I continued down the road, too elated by all that I was experiencing in my spirit to worry much over the inexplicable weather phenomenon swirling around me, I became aware of two extra unusual properties in the wind: although barely perceptible, it seemed to contain both light and color, and the noise it made as it billowed about, while at first sounding just as one would expect a strong breeze to sound in nature, upon closer listening turned out to be a discernible whisper—clear, but in a language I had never heard before. I focused in on the words being spoken, and they grew louder and louder, until I no longer doubted that I was hearing them. At that point, I began experiencing strange sensations in and around my mouth. My jaw grew heavy, and after struggling for a bit to keep it closed, I just allowed it to hang open. My tongue began to feel almost swollen, and my mouth began to water. Words seemed to be trying to form on my lips, although my mind was not conscious of anything I wanted to say, alone as I was, there in my car. So I remained silent, taking it all in, pretty sure that what I was experiencing must be the Holy Spirit, but at the same time feeling some concern that the questionable mental health of the traveler I had recently unloaded just might be contagious.

As soon as I reached home, I rushed in to find Layne and relay every bewildering detail of my evening drive. After expressing the appropriate amount of empathy for the unnerving way in which the experience came about, he very calmly and directly said, “Well, it sounds like you received tongues tonight. You should definitely explore it further and learn about how God intends for you to utilize the gift.” He suggested I begin by studying all that Scripture has to say on the subject and then pray through it. I wished in that moment that he could provide more insight to help me wrap my mind around all that had just occurred—confirm my suspicion that the lady was crazy; maybe even dismiss it all by telling me I was crazy. But his advice was sound. I followed it, and, thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long for answers.

A couple of days later, as I sat praying—just general prayers, unrelated to the incident in the car—the physical manifestations returned, and my jaw once again became heavy, my tongue felt strange, and my mouth began to water. I did not hear any words as I had before, but I could sense within my spirit a stirring, like the moment just before you give yourself over to worship, and my lips began once more to try to form words that seemed to be coming from nowhere. “Speak,” the Lord said. And so I opened my mouth, allowing sound to come forth, and began effortlessly to speak at the Spirit’s prompting in a tongue entirely foreign to my ears.

Since it is my intention here to simply testify rather than attempt to further either side of the centuries-old controversy surrounding the gift of tongues—continuation, purpose and usefulness, and practice in congregational worship—I will do my best to just share briefly how I have personally found the gift beneficial to a life of faith and encourage others to seek the Lord on the matter for themselves. 

The woman from the wedding was right when she described it as a prayer language, for as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14, those who speak in a tongue, speak to God, and the individual is edified or enlightened. When I employ the gift of tongues in prayer, the effect is an immediate alignment of my spirit with the Spirit of the Lord. The busyness in my mind is quieted. The emotional commotion of my heart grows still. My soul waits with hopeful expectation as the words flow, and I am better able to discern the Lord’s will and leading. The result is a more intentional, empowered prayer life, and like Paul, I am thankful.

Without any preconceived notion of what all a life in God might entail and with no religious background or instruction, I felt from the beginning that I had no choice other than to approach each new facet of faith that presented itself like the newborn that I was, and the Lord seemed consistently pleased to offer help and guidance along the way. This process made him real and tangible to me, and I was encouraged to continue seeking out all that he had to offer, knowing that he could be trusted to make my path straight. As I mentioned earlier, receiving the gift of tongues was the first in a series of experiences with the Spirit that eventually lead to me privately, and somewhat humorously, labeling myself an “accidental charismatic.” I say privately because at the time, in the ministry circles in which we operated, such things could not be openly discussed. 

Shortly after the incident in the car, while teaching on an unrelated topic, Layne was asked by a girl in the youth group if the gift of tongues was real and still active in the Body. Thinking that his answer was in keeping with the Baptist Faith and Message under which the church operated, he referenced the relevant scriptures and mentioned that he knew of others who had received the gift, including, most recently, his wife. The following week he was called into the church offices and informed that he was no longer allowed to teach any classes, including the off-campus college bible study he had started just a few months earlier. Not wanting his ministry in the church to be relegated to worship leading alone and firmly believing that he had handled the youth’s question carefully and appropriately, he wrote a letter to the pastors, asking them to reconsider and reinstate him in his teaching roles. Looking back, Layne would later admit that the letter, while kind, was too direct and confrontational and smacked a bit of the arrogance of youth. He was fired as a result, and we suddenly found ourselves without a paycheck, a church home, or Christian fellowship. 

For me, the experience was devastating, and it reinforced developing fears over being transparent and sharing my faith journey with others. Over the years, I would discover that beyond the tongues I had learned to utilize in prayer, the Lord had placed in me a variety of spiritual gifts intended to help others find life and healing in Christ. But I remained timid, often refraining from employing these gifts outside of extreme circumstances, acting only when I could no longer ignore the prompting of the Spirit, and then discreetly masking the source of my help. I confess here that I operated in this way for years, undeniably weakening the effectiveness of my faith and ministry. 

It would take the near death experience of a stroke to wake me up and pull me out of my self-protective world, finally coming to the full realization that the joy of the Kingdom is truly before us and is worth any cost. I can no longer allow the fear of rejection to hold me back from testifying to all that God has done for me, no matter how strange the details or disputed the topic, nor can I permit myself to shy away from boldly walking in gifts designed to expand and reveal his Kingdom here on earth. I have an unshakeable assurance that through obedience in these things, the testimony will grow—there will be more stories of his grace and mercy to come.

“Pray in the Spirit at all times, with every kind of prayer and petition…Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, divine utterance may be given me, so that I will boldly make known the mystery of the gospel…Pray that I may proclaim it fearlessly, as I should.”

Ephesians 6:18-20

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”

Romans 1:16

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *