James Loder had a transforming moment early in his career as a professor at Princeton Seminary. He spent the rest of his academic career explaining it in biblical and psychological terms.
His moment came on September 2, 1970, while traveling to Canada for a family vacation. He saw a woman standing on the roadside near a disabled car and stopped to help. Just as he had his head under the fender trying to change a tire, the car was hit from behind by a driver who had fallen asleep behind the wheel. Loder explained his reaction in The Transforming Moment.
“As I roused myself from under the car, a steady surge of life was rushing through me. I never felt more conscious of the life that poured through me, nor more aware that this life was not my own. My well-being came from beyond my natural strength. By far, the most significant memorable effect was not the pain, nor the anger, but the gracious nature of the life I was experiencing. My sense was that the power was emanating from the center of Another’s awareness—an awareness that positively, even joyfully intended my well-being.”
James Loder offers a number of observations about such specific experiences. He became conversant with the theories of psychologists about this kind of peak experience. While they can describe and classify various such events, they cannot explain the content. There is no way to validate as truth such an impression of life beyond the ordinary. It is finally the person with such experiences who has to determine it to be authoritative for how he or she lives in the future.
Theological Repression of Spiritual Experiences
Loder writes about the “theological repression” of these convictional experiences. They are too subjective to fit into the rigorous demands of theological thinking and too unique to be coped with by highly generalized theological systems. Academic theology is the wrong place to look. A better source is the story language of the personal convictions of individuals.
Consider Loder’s conclusion: “The effect of this repression is manifested, for example, within the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A., a mainline denomination of which I am a member. It stresses theology, a cognitive, confessional orientation to faith that is basic to academically trained clergy. As a result, it generally appeals to the middle and upper social strata of society. An open conversation about convicting experiences and their significance for life and faith is the exception among Presbyterians.
“Yet a recent survey showed that 80 percent of our clergy and approximately half of our lay constituency have had such experiences. The theological repression of such experiences has generated a deep, untapped, convictional unconscious among Presbyterians and, on the basis of other research, I would suspect among other churches as well.”
What Loder says about Presbyterians I know to be true of Lutherans, based on my own research and on dozens of workshops I have led.
Surely the way forward for withering mainline church bodies is to have participants share their stories of personal conviction and how the work of Christ’s Spirit affects the way they live.
A Story About Storms and Flying Like An Eagle
“I am not sure that I am in the eye of the storm now and will see the storm winds of cancer begin to howl again, or if I am coming out of this storm altogether. We all face storms in our lives, and it is amazing that God uses those storms to bring us closer to him.”
So writes Jeff, a member of our congregation, who fought cancer for four years and is now in remission. He shared his observations on a website for the caring community.
“If you are flying like an eagle, thank God for today and the blessing that it is. If you are in a storm now, understand that God stands with you today to brace against the winds for you and to love you unconditionally, and that now is the time you will become closer to God. Give thanks for that.”
Do you, the reader, find these words encouraging? I do, and I think this is a great example of a Christian fellowship at work. Here is the mutual conversation and encouragement that Martin Luther considered to be so important.
Note Jeff’s twice-made observation that he was drawn closer to God through his personal storm. What does such closeness look and feel like? In other entries over the years, he described his thankfulness for care providers, his heightened appreciation for the gift of life, his renewed sense of love for family and friends, and his sense of peace during the howling storm.
Finding and Telling Current Faith Stories
Fellowship means sharing something with somebody. The Spirit does his work through a community of believers sharing insights from God’s Word. Bible promises are basic. How those promises are experienced by other believers adds persuasiveness. Centuries-old churches have a long tradition of spiritual matters being handled only by the pastor, who typically relies on Bible promises to offer consolation. Concerned with confidentiality, pastors typically don’t tell stories about the personal spiritual experiences and struggles of others. They can, however, ask permission to share highlights. In my experience, most are willing to give this.
Personal faith stories can get long and complicated. The attention span of those hearing or reading such an account is limited. How can a fellowship make the faith-affirming stories of its members easily available to others? Digital technology opens up new possibilities. Such testimonies can be recorded on video and then edited to make the story more succinct. A four-minute story can be shown in a worship service and placed on the church website.
The work of editing and offering succinctly told personal faith stories is time-consuming. Who will do that? Large churches can make this a staff assignment, but that requires a commitment to the priority of sharing God-moments. Pray for a member of the fellowship to catch the vision of committing their personal time to this new form of ministry. Add to the Spirit-gifted ministries of 1 Corinthians 12 that of a videographer.
“Spiritual experience” is a very broad category. I am using it here to mean a person’s experiences of the Holy Spirit at work in his or her life. How do you know if it is truly the divine Spirit or simply reflections of the human spirit on lofty things? The difference is whether the experience points to Christ as the center of a believer’s relationship with God. The Holy Spirit advocates more Christ-like living with more of the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace patience, and other feelings.
Clearly, the focus on feelings can go too far when it loses sight of objective facts that shape who we are. But I see myself addressing a traditional Lutheran church culture that is out of balance toward the objective side. Dale Carnegie’s classic book How the Win Friends and Influence People had a big influence on my younger self. The basic principle to winning friends is to get them to talk about themselves. To offer encouragement, start there. Then work to build that relationship into greater depths of understanding.
The Apostle John warned to test the spirits. Do they glorify Christ? That’s worth hearing about!
Your own experience with the Holy Spirit is significantly impacted by the waterline of your community. How have you personally experienced the Holy Spirit? And how do you know if it is truly the divine Spirit or simply reflections of the human spirit on lofty things?