“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” – Acts 2:1-4
Ironically, I was also in an upper room when I spoke in tongues for the first time. For many people, tongues (glossolalia) is a bizarre thing that some kookie Christians practice, but it wasn’t like that for me.
I was born into a Pentecostal family, so I heard tongues all the time. However, I never really understood what speaking in tongues was all about. I occasionally heard my father whispering it under his breath during his morning prayer and frequently heard it shouted out during church services. It was framed as a sort of mystical experience where the divine overtakes one’s capacity for language causing them to shout out in incoherent words and syllables. However, as a kid, I didn’t understand its purpose, and besides, I wasn’t good at channeling the divine anyway.
In 2010, I had an extraordinary experience that caused me to take my faith seriously. The experience wasn’t mystical or supernatural, but it was deeply emotional and spiritual. Afterward, I wanted to explore the Christian faith seriously. I wanted to test Christ’s promises, particularly, his promise of the True Life – Eternal Life- the fullness of life. Ultimately this would land me at Brownsville Assembly of God and to that aforementioned upper room.
In the 90s, Brownsville was the site of a massive Pentecostal revival that drew in millions from around the world. As an intern there in the early 2010s what I saw was a congregation desperate for that old glory, perpetually crying out for a revival of the revival. Personally, I couldn’t care less about that old revival, but I did care about a new one.
In Pensacola, “Christianity” was a tradition. Church was a thing you did and a language that punctuated your conversation. However, no one took Jesus’ promise of a New Life – of a full life – seriously; for most, the old American life was just fine. But for me, the American way wasn’t fine. It was full of empty promises, and its end was despair. As a high school graduate, a Spirit of revolution – a Spirit of life- brooded over my being, and the only way I knew to express it was in fervent prayer for revival.
If you have ever been in a Pentecostal prayer circle, you know that there isn’t much form to it. Believers typically do not pray one at a time, they all pray aloud together – some in their native tongue others in spiritual tongues. One day all of the Brownsville interns, including myself, gathered in a loft above the chapel to pray for revival. Most of them were praying in tongues, but I never “received” that gift so good ol’ English was my go-to.
I don’t remember how the prayer started, but before long, the room was brimming with a sense of heightened energy. This energy produced by pacing, shouting, crying, and tongue babbling also fueled the passion generating my English prayer. We were all feeding off each other’s passion; our collective focus centered on life transformation. It was a strange moment; similar to the disciples, it seemed to me as though we were “of one accord.”
In prayer, my mouth was popping off word after word in unison with my stream of consciousness. Next thing I know, the unexpected happened; I hit a wall – not a literal wall, a verbal wall. I no longer had any words to say; however, my consciousness was still racing, and my passion wasn’t quenched. Without missing a beat, out of my mouth, burst forth a flood of sounds, utterances, and groans that had no direct English meaning. However, I sensed these sounds were perfectly expressing the passion I was feeling. I was speaking in tongues, and I had never felt more free in prayer.
After that day, tongues become a central part of my spirituality and I still think highly of those times. However, since that day, my theology has changed drastically. I no longer envision God as a being who acts and is acted upon; instead for me, God is the grounding of all being, the Power of being. In other words, God is that in which all things live, move, and have their being (Acts 17:28). Similar to God, I don’t imagine Spirit as existing on some ethereal plane of existence acting at the behest of the faithful. Instead, for me, Spirit is woven into the very fabric of life itself. This concept of Spirit pairs well with the Hebrew word Ruach, which is often translated as Spirit but also means wind or breath. I won’t extrapolate upon God or Spirit much more here. However, suffice it to say that if God and Spirit are not agents that act upon us, then I am going to have to rethink the concept of tongues.
After making this theological shift, I mostly forgot about tongues. I didn’t imagine it could fit my world view. However, recently I’ve heard people talking about tongues. These people are typically suspicious about it. To them, it seems spooky, weird, and strange. To them, it seems like something crazy people do. However, some of these people believe in astrology, the enneagram, or the Myers-Briggs. Many of them find value in other mystical practices such as prayer, meditation, mindfulness, or yoga. Everyone seems to be on the spiritual ban-wagon. In fact, even the famous atheist, Sam Harris advocates for healthy spiritual practices.
Hearing all of this, I thought to myself, “with everyone, including atheists, taking up spiritual practices, why are tongues still perceived as kookie?” Is it simply because it is framed as a supernatural gift? What if we removed the supernatural part of it? Beneath the mysticism, could there be a valid spiritual practice on par with meditation or prayer?
This is part one of a series of (at least) two-parts. In my next post, I am going to offer a reconstructive reading of tongues drawing from my own experience. I honestly believe that there is something deep to tongues, something that dives into the very sub-linguistic roots of life. I think tongues is a practice that gets to the heart of the creative mystery we call Ruach – The Spirit/Breath of God – the Wind that hovered over the water – the Breath that made us souls (Genesis 1:2; 2:7).