“Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;. . .”
In Los Angeles, more than a century ago, when a black preacher/candidate named William Seymour, son of a slave, announced to a committee seeking a pastor for a Holiness church that he’d become convinced speaking in tongues was the true mark the Holy Spirit’s presence, he was at that moment dismissed from candidacy. So he went down the street and starting preaching to a small inter-racial group that soon started growing—and didn’t quit. Today, we call Seymour began “the Azusa Street Revival.”
To say Pentecostalism was born on the streets of LA is silly. Pentecost, when men walked around with little tongues of fire on their heads, was the beginning, the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But those who know more about such things than I do claim Seymour’s enthusiastic preaching on Azusa Street launched the meteoric rise of Pentecostalism, a fellowship that is now a half a billion strong throughout the world.
Pentecostalism—unlike other more traditional forms of Christianity—isn’t so much a system of thought as it is an experience. It’s always dangerous to be so reductionistic, but it’s fair to say that one can’t talk about Lutheranism very long without someone lugging the phrase “justification by faith” into the discussion. Calvinism will always be equated with predestination, I fear.
Just as generally, Pentecostals are all about the experience of the Holy Spirit, the manifestation of his presence, in speaking-in-tongues, in healing, in being baptized anew in the Spirit’s life. There’s no rigid system of thought to Pentecostalism, no doctrinal foundation. Shared spiritual experience creates the community.
For most of her life, my mother sort of envied Pentecostals and was often been anxious about why God almighty didn’t bless her with the gift of tongues. She once told me how a friend of hers, a pastor’s wife, explained that speaking in tongues was really no problem, how if my mother would simply let her mouth fall open, the words—whatever words there were—would simply tumble out. I’ll never forget her telling me that story in intimate detail: her open mouth, her stuttering, her distress—emotional and spiritual—when the gift of tongues simply didn’t arrive.
Most believers long for spiritual experience—me too. I don’t envy the gift of tongues, but we all desire the selflessness at the heart of ecstatic vision. I feel that very desire in the psalmist’s words: “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” Every believer wants to be near unto God.
Regardless of my energy on Sunday mornings, the passion (or lack thereof) of my anticipation for worship, I recognize the thrill that resides in the utterance in this verse from Psalm 84, the writer’s memory of intimacy with God, and how that moment relieved him of the heavy baggage of this life as he was lifted up by the Holy Spirit into the very presence of the Lord.
The heart of this verse—and probably the whole psalm—is rich and abiding religious experience. One comes closest to God only the vivid experience of his presence, by losing oneself in the all-consuming comfort of divine grace.
It’s all any of us know of heaven, I’d say. All we need to, I suppose; and in this vale of tears, all we’ll ever get.
People experience faith in a thousand different ways. It’s patently silly to assign a specific behavior or time or place.
I’m told LA has at least a hundred different ethnic restaurants. That sounds great. But I don’t think I’d find the comfort of grace on Azusa Street.