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“The Same Spirit”— Bridging Theological Divides

Ben and Chris

Ben Zellmer and Christine Hall

By Christine Hall

RECENT TRAVELS BROUGHT ME FACE TO FACE with people who think and talk about God very differently than me or my little Quaker meeting on Whidbey Island, in Washington State. There were different expressions, songs, and theological emphases, yet I experienced the same Spirit flowing. The Holy One was weaving Goodness in Wisconsin for my nephew’s confirmation in the Lutheran Church.

Someone asked if I was surprised and why. Good question! Fourteen years ago I “stood up” as a Godparent for Ben’s baptism in the same staunchly conservative, male-led congregation. I’d worried I’d be “found out” as some crazy Christian heretic! I was acutely aware of my uneasiness with the spoken creed, the formal ritual, and the weighty the obligations of a hierarchical religious community. Regardless, my dear sister told me, “Chris, I know what kind of Christian you are, and you’re the one I’ve asked to be Ben’s godmother.” She saw the heart of what mattered, when I was worried about the externals.

This year, the old hymns made me teary; I stood with joy and pride in Ben’s commitment to Christ; and I felt much more confidence in my own faithfulness. My experience reminded me of the early disciples during the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2). I’ve always focused on the speakers in the story. The disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.”

But in the past few years I’ve noticed how the outpouring affected the crowd. Some thought the disciples sounded drunk! Some “heard them preaching, each in their own language, about the marvels of God.” I’ve also wondered what made the difference? It seems to me that the story of Christian Pentecost could also be called “a miracle of hearing” or a “miracle of the ear.” The power and Life of the Spirit may have changed the disciples speaking, and the power and life of God can change how we listen and are opened to hear “the marvels of God.” It could be called “listening in tongues.”

My experiences in diverse churches, and with people of varied backgrounds on retreat and in spiritual direction, has been one of being taught to “listen in tongues.” I’m recognizing more of the Life and Power of God in varied language and practice. What might happen in our divisive social-religious “culture wars” if more of us practiced listening in tongues, or prayed for the “miracle of the ear”? The possibility sings of hope!

A little scene at the reception after Ben’s confirmation service nicely illustrates the shift in my perception and new, positive connections across apparent divisions. At the backyard luncheon with sixty or so people I found myself standing next to the pastor who’d offered the morning’s sermon to the confirmands. I expressed thanks for his care for the young people.

In his message during the service, enthusiasm had poured out like a geyser of Love, even when he spoke of sin quite bluntly. He’d been a teacher during one of the confirmands’ three years of preparation classes. The sermon’s theme had been their faithfulness, a topic I care about a lot too. So at the party I said so, and that I enjoyed his metaphors.

The pastor’s most striking image had been of a puppy dog. He had unpacked how energetic and devoted a puppy is to the Master as one picture of the relationship of a faithful person to God. But when the dog came up in our party conversation, I considered retreating. At that point, the limitations of the image were coming into focus. It would have ended with a polite thank you and farewell. Yet I was nudged to share that I too have used the metaphor of a dog, but have turned it upside down. What if God is like the adoring puppy dog? Always waiting at the door, ridiculously happy to see me when I “come home” or whenever anyone turns toward the Divine?

The pastor paused, and said something like, “Wow! You just took the metaphor a couple levels deeper. I might use that! Thanks.”

It was a moment of Spirit-connection, minister to minister-incognito (me). God did a little thing there, a little Holy-alignment across real theological and cultural differences. I sensed the Sweetness in that we serve the same God of Love. The pastor heard a new angle on a God-image, and appreciated what I offered. I was freed to speak what I experience of the Divine. The interaction still has me smiling! It was very affirming of how I’ve grown in my capacity to “listen in tongues.” Thank you, God!

Later, the eloquent words of the early Quaker, Isaac Penington (1681), came to mind as confirmation of what the Gracious Mystery we call God has been teaching me (emphasis mine):

And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is
to the truly spiritual eye
to see several sorts of believers,
several forms of Christians
in the school of Christ,
every one learning their own lesson,
performing their own peculiar service,
and knowing, owning, and loving one another
in their several places
and different performances to their Master
to whom they are to give an account,
and not to quarrel with one another
about their different practices (Rom xiv 4).

For this is the true ground of love and unity,
not that such a man walks and does just as I do,
but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him,
and in that he walks in his rank,
in his order, in his proper way
and place of subjection to that.

And this is far more pleasing to me
than if he walked in just that rank
wherein I walk.

—Isaac Penington