“Unfolding His Story”: blogpastor’s book reflection

“Unfolding His Story” by Georgie Lee and Galven Lee tells the story of the Charismatic movement in Singapore through the flesh and blood of personal accounts and the skeleton of sound historical research. Like a kaleidoscope, the varied mini-narratives in the book form varied patterns and repeated colours from similar materials with the twist of time and circumstances. It is a must read if you want to gain prophetic insight into the times we are living in. You may not agree with the conclusion of the authors regarding the direction that the altars of the past are pointing to, but you cannot ignore this book.

I first met Galven in Dawson Place. He was an NUS history student doing research on the charismatic movement. My Hyundai Matrix was being serviced and he interviewed me to capture an account of the outpouring of the Spirit upon students that I was a part of. People had heard about the “Clock tower revival of ACS” but little was known about the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon students who were fasting and praying at the back of the science laboratories of Dunearn Technical Secondary School. Later I bumped into his father at a Love Singapore Pastors’ Prayer Summit. He was on fire about a school of discipleship that the FGB Gatekeepers have started. I did not know that at that time the idea for this book had already taken form. It was with some anticipation when I held it in my hands.

It is not follow a strict chronological account of the charismatic movement. In keeping with the living throbbing movement it seeks to describe, the best structure seems to be that of the authors weaving together all the testimonies of many witnesses who were called to the stand to recall their stories as accurately as they can remember them. Repetition, differing nuanced viewpoints and bias will inevitably be present in the integration of these stories, like in the synoptic gospels, but the discipline of historical research that forms the spine would keep that to the minimum.

I read the book during my Chinese New Year vacation in Bangkok. It was interesting, a page turner, and it helped me fill in the blanks in my knowledge of what happened, and I gained some insights as I reflected on what I read. Let me share several of the things I gleaned and some understanding of God’s ways I observed.

Firstly, God loves to use the most unlikely of people to glorify his name. Why was the Spirit poured out on secondary school students? Though they have time and energy, they have no power, position nor money to change the rusty machinery called church. Why was the Spirit poured out on Anglican clergy? They were drier than the bones lying in the valley of Ezekiel’s vision. And the two key persons he used: a mild mannered liberal Bishop, and a prickly social gospel minister. Yet the Holy Spirit saw what humans do not see: one was a stabilizer and the other a bulldozer, and both were needed for the spread of the movement. Then there was that multitude of bored, discontented, nominal, mid-life professionals and businessmen of denominational churches. When the breath of God went into them they became an exceeding great army. Finally even foreign talent were unlikely tools in God’s workshop: an Indian healing revivalist by the name of Edgar Webb; the ang mohs Brother Baker, white haired and mono-toned Rev Brian Bailey and long haired Rev Trevor Dearing.  You cannot help but see that it is God at work through these unlikely heroes.

Secondly, Georgie argued that the spiritual development of the church mirrored that of the development of a Singapore in its search of identity as it sought to shake free from colonialism, its rapid development, and its formation of external wings, and now a maturing and plateauing economy. This was a gem and his arguments were quite convincing.

Thirdly, he mentioned the interesting symbiotic and resistive relationship between the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. It was with refreshing honesty that this was raised in the book. I do recall that each group would avoid the events planned by the other group. The Pentecostals tend to look down on the new kids on the block even though it was their faithfulness to the full gospel that was no small factor in the beginnings and the early nurture of the charismatic movement in Singapore. However, like the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the Pentecostals generally stayed away from the charismatic party of fatted calf and joyful music that the undeserving denominational people were sovereignly blessed with.

Fourth, the authors rightly mentioned the three waves that revived God’s people and swept multitudes of Singaporeans into the churches. The first were the Pentecostals. The second wave was the charismatic wave. The third was the Third Wave. You get a better picture of what these are when you read the book. In addition there is a helpful glossary of these and other terms that are placed at the beginning of the book.

Fifth, the fruit of the outpouring of the Spirit can be seen in many new converts in many new small churches begun, in church extensions or plants, and in the rise of several megachurches in Singapore. This is fruit of breadth. The revival also spawned many missionaries and full time workers and pastors. Out of the revival that birthed the church I serve, I can easily count 19 missionaries and pastors and full time ministry staff. Many other clergy and pastors I have met in countless conferences share a similar participation in the charismatic revival. This is fruit of depth.

Sixth, the Full Gospel Businessmen Fellowship International (FGBMFI) was the platform that God used to rapidly spread the message of the baptism of the Spirit and the spiritual gifts for all. This platform was a catalyst for many great blessings. The organization’s incredible success bred its own decline.  As church members were strengthened and equipped by attending FGBMFI events and returned as revived members, their churches became more capable of doing what FGBMI did. Her revitalizing role suffered gradual erosion and she drifted into irrelevancy.

Seventh, the church today mirrors the maturing economy of Singapore. What is needed for the church to get out of the plateau is to make a paradigm shift and think kingdom of God and not merely local church. It has to focus on uniting to transform all the different aspects of society and culture. The FGBMFI has gone through a name change (now FGB Gatekeepers) to reflect their new cutting edge vision of wanting to transform and disciple all realms of society and culture.

What did I like about this book? It is interesting and chockful of facts and bits of history and testimony that helped fit in the missing jig saws in my understanding of what God did during the 1970s to 1990s. What happened at Jedburgh Gardens; and how the charismatic revival came to the Anglicans and Methodists; and who’s who in the leadership of the charismatic movement, were all puzzles that this book solved for me. It helped me connect the dots. It also gave a clue to the future. Connecting the dots of the past gives me a general sense of where the dots are prophetically pointing to. And of course I liked it that one of the many valuable photos in the book showed a younger me.

Pentecostals and Charismatics: the main difference

Pentecost: come Holy Spirit
Pentecostals and charismatics carried along by Spirit

“In 2011, there were an estimated 584 million Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians worldwide. They made up 8.5 percent of the world’s population and 27 percent of all Christians. There were 279 million Pentecostals and over 300 million Charismatics. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity is second in size only to the Roman Catholic Church.” (Source: David Barrett, “Christian World Communions: Five Overviews of Global Christianity, AD 1800-2025,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Volume 33, No. 1, January 2009, 31.)

Pentecostals are Christians who believe that the gifts of the Spirit described in the New Testament like the gift of tongues, healing, and casting out demons, are available and expected to be experienced by God’s people today. Our worship is characterized by lively responses to a palpable sense of God’s presence. We are so named after what happened to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost (read Acts 2) and our insistence that the essence of such experiences are to be normative for today.

Charismatics are believers who originally worship in mainline churches such as Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. They had Pentecostal experiences and hold almost similar beliefs and practices as Pentecostals, but continue to attend and serve in their traditional churches.

Admittedly, there is considerable overlap in usage of both terms and such strict definitions have become porous and interchangeable in the recent decade or two. Who cares anyway? Probably the theologian and the researcher.

Reminder: 8 June is Pentecost Sunday.

Speaking in tongues: a personal reflection

And they spake with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance…

Tongues respectable and acceptable

The gift of speaking in tongues is no longer the hot potato subject it was in the 1970’s when the charismatic movement influenced the Anglican and Methodist and Lutheran denominations.  The gift of tongues has become a respectable and an acceptable practice usually encouraged in private devotions, but controlled in public services. Since the outpouring of the Spirit at Azusa Street, Los Angeles in 1906, when God chose the instrument of an one-eyed, unlearned, Afro-American to unleash his floods of blessing upon the world, the Pentecostal Charismatic movement has grown internationally and has to date been embraced by about 600 million people. The setting and circumstances of the birth of this 20th century spiritual movement is so like the way God chose a  manger in Bethlehem and two teenage parents to be the instruments of the incarnation.

Day of Pentecost and community

I celebrated Pentecost on 19 May together with AFCE 2013 leaders/participants from different nationalities, denominations and theological persuasions. We used a liturgy and broke bread together. Babel was the giving of tongues to confuse, separate, disperse, and divide so that the human race would not in unison rebel against God and incur greater wrath. Pentecost was the giving of tongues to unite, rally, and bring together people of every tribe, and tongue, and mind and immerse them into a spiritual unity and relationships that are a sign of the community that is Trinity. It comes not from His wrath but from His sheer grace. Pentecost celebrations should always hint of that breaking down of walls and barriers and barbed wires.

Beautiful language of love

The gift of tongues is a gift often regarded as the lowest of spiritual gifts. Like Paul the apostle, I thank God I speak in tongues, and find in it a wonderful language of praise and worship and prayer. So beautiful is this language and so blessed is the experience, that  I would have to think that Paul wasn’t just hypothetically calling tongues the language of angels, but thought it to be a real possibility. Over the years I have heard and experienced for myself the many benefits of praying or praising in tongues. Some of these have become church legends. So also the horror stories of tongues being of the evil spirits. I have heard a fair share of those stories too. However, being a story teller myself, I know at times exaggeration,  leaving important information out or interpretation of facts because of personal bias, is not an uncommon thing. So I prefer to go with what Paul in 1 Corinthians claimed to be the benefits and purpose of tongues.

  • Tongues is a form of prayer and praise – a love language for us to use in speaking to God. It takes us beyond praying and praising with our understanding into the unfamiliar territory of spirit functions and expressions. “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him, howbeit in spirit he speaketh mysteries”(verse 2). “For if I PRAY in an unknown tongue, my spirit PRAYETH, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will PRAY with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will SING with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else when thou shalt BLESS with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily GIVEST THANKS WELL, but the other is not edified”(verses 15-17 emphases mine).
  • When we pray or praise God in tongues, it edifies (Greek, oikodomeo) builds us up spiritually. “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself…” (verse4).

When I speak in tongues

When I speak in tongues I keep my mind on the Lord since I am speaking to him. As I do so, it heightens my consciousness of his presence with me at the time of prayer. Though I do not understand what I am praying or praising, I trust that I am praying from the heart, the spirit. I am expressing my innermost needs, feelings, and cry.  I trust the Spirit is helping me to express my deepest fears and longings, the feelings of the mystery that is deeply me. Sometimes I have a sense of what is it my prayer in tongues may be, but I cannot be certain. Its a life of faith. I trust that He has heard me and will work all things for His good and glory through my life and situation. This release from always depending on my understanding is restful and gives me an abiding peace. We rely too much on our own understanding and our sense knowledge, on what we see and feel and hear. It is nature’s way. However, God’s way is for us to trust even when we do not understand. To rely more on him and his life and light, and less on our acquired knowledge of good and evil. The gift of tongues introduces us to such a way of life. Father, I trust You even though I don’t understand with my mind. God wants to restore us to the place of child like trust lost by our ancestors Adam and Eve.

The gift of tongues has been a precious, beautiful gift that has helped me greatly in my spiritual journey and my ministry as a pastor. It began in 1973 when Jesus baptized me in his Spirit and I spoke in tongues as the Spirit gave me utterance. What a glorious unforgettable night it was! Its been 40 years and this precious least of all gifts is still a treasure chest that opens to many of his other blessings. Thank you Lord!