Utah Pentecostals praise God in 'language of angels'
Pastor Ronald Rice is pacing and sweating, roaring and crying as he warns his west Salt Lake City Pentecostal congregation about what he calls the "dangers of drifting."
"It doesn't take long to get off course," Rice bellows in his broad Southern accent, and a few call out from their blue padded chairs, "Amen."
"Watch for the warning signs," he yells.
More amens and a few claps.
Beware of loss of focus, loss of priorities, loss of passion for God and his Word, loss of discipline and Rice is building a verbal crescendo "loss of commitment."
Come to church, he hollers, "it's a boost for your faith."
Finally, he says ominously, there is loss of emotion.
Now the 100-strong, multiethnic congregation is on its feet, clapping and calling out "Hallelujah."
"I'm seeing some things in some of you that give me worry," says the pastor, originally from Kentucky. "I'm the watchman on the wall."
Rice wipes sweat from his face and tears from his eyes, and then challenges his band of believers to "wake up in time" or else "shipwreck is your destiny."
One by one they come forward to the two-step platform with the large wooden cross leaning on its side against the wall. The pastor screams into his microphone, "Whatever it takes, make a course correction NOW!"
A worshipper stands on the blue carpet, his hands outstretched to heaven. Others fall to their knees, repeating, "Thank you, Lord."
Soon, the oblong sanctuary just off Redwood Road and North Temple is awash in muted sound or, rather, dozens of sounds. The murmur in the room is not a melody, but it has tones. It is not a chorus because each person emits his or her own syllables. It is not a known vocabulary, but, as they say, "the language of angels." It is uncreated and involuntary, they believe, just the Holy Spirit taking over their bodies, minds and mouths. A trancelike ecstasy.
This is "speaking in tongues," which they believe has taken place since the beginning of Christianity and is a hallmark of Pentecostalism.
On Sunday, millions of Christians worldwide will commemorate Pentecost, a holiday that is celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. But not all of them will be "overcome with the Holy Spirit" in the same way.
A mighty wind • According to the Book of Acts in the New Testament, first-century apostles and believers were gathered in a Jerusalem home for the Jewish Pentecost, an agricultural festival 50 days after Passover.
Suddenly, there came a sound from heaven "like a rushing mighty wind,'' the scripture says, followed by "tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them."
Then, the Bible continues, the apostles were "filled with the Holy Ghost." They began to preach the Christian gospel in languages other than their own, and listeners could hear the message in words they could understand.
It was such an unexpected moment that some thought the apostles were drunk.
Peter assured the crowd that they were not it was, after all, only 9 in the morning and instead declared that this was a promised miracle. In response, the book records, some 3,000 people were baptized that day.
To the Rev. Steve Klemz, Pentecost is not mainly about speaking in tongues but rather about receiving "power from on high to live together in forgiveness and to catch God's vision for the world."
In his Sunday sermon, Klemz, of east Salt Lake City's Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, will urge his congregation to become "a more welcoming culture, especially for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] members" and for immigrants.
It is a reminder that God's love transcends political, cultural and linguistic bounds, he says, and that the Holy Spirit helps us "see each other as God sees us."
Utah's Episcopal bishop, Scott Hayashi, echoes that sentiment.
"The Pentecost story is about speaking in a foreign language, not a spontaneous utterance of a stream of syllables that bear no relationship to a recognizable language," Hayashi writes in an email. "And the languages spoken about in the book of Acts, Chapter 2, all proclaimed 'the mighty works of God.' "
What is important to remember, he says, "is that God speaks to all people in all nations, in all languages. God does not differentiate between peoples. And neither should we."
As for that feeling of being so overwhelmed by the Spirit that you seem inebriated? Pentecostals are the ones more likely to embrace and celebrate it.
A new kind of language • In 1906, an African-American preacher named William J. Seymour triggered a revival in an empty Los Angeles warehouse, which included thousands of worshippers healing, singing, shouting and speaking in tongues.
Though denounced as "satanic" by some Christians, the Azusa Street revival has largely been viewed as the birth of Pentecostalism, which now covers the globe and includes churches such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of God in Christ and the Brazil-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
"At least a quarter of the world's 2 billion Christians are thought to be members of these lively, highly personal faiths, which emphasize such spiritually renewing 'gifts of the Holy Spirit' as speaking in tongues, divine healing and prophesying," the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported in 2006. "Even more than other Christians, Pentecostals and other renewalists believe that God, acting through the Holy Spirit, continues to play a direct, active role in everyday life."
They all share a belief in being "baptized by the Spirit," including the experience of "glossolalia," speaking in tongues.
The experience produces "a kind of euphoric feeling but also a sense of calm and peace," says Rachel Esqueda, a member of Rice's congregation. "It refreshes you enough to keep you going day by day."
The Holy Spirit uses speaking in tongues together with the sermon to provide discernment, says Esqueda, a computer contractor for the U.S. Defense Department. "It is a quickening inside of me that helps me make decisions."
It doesn't matter that the syllables are unintelligible to other people, the pastor explains. God understands.
If the tongue is the most "unruly member of the body," Rice says, "submitting it to God, surrendering one's entire self, body and soul, is a miraculous manifestation. It is a personal, intimate, private experience."
And it binds his Pentecostals of Salt Lake who hail from Burundi, Sudan, Liberia, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Germany, Greece, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Spain and the United States to one another much as it did for the early Christian church.
Jesus still "heals, delivers and fills with his Spirit," Rice says on the church's website. "From financial miracles to physical healings, it is God's will to heal and bless the entirety of a person's life."
The church can deliver anyone from the "bondage" of "pornography, homosexuality and infidelity." When the Spirit is flowing, he says, the healings are present.
And the people respond, "Hallelujah."
The Day of Pentecost
"And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
"And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance."
Source: Acts 2:2-4
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