40 years ago today, when I was 21, I sat in a back room at the Assembly of God, Lower Hutt, and was coached through the Sinners Prayer by a glittery eyed young man. I was raised a Methodist but from the time I could express my own opinion I was a fervent little atheist. My atheism was my metaphorical way of addressing my father issues, and was therefore keenly held and virulently expressed, but since about the beginning of 1972 , I became less and less certain about my professed worldview. I met some fairly impressive people who held alternative views and who were able to meet, absorb and gently return my materialist certainties. Like many in my generation I had the occasional experiment with chemically altering my consciousness and in the cold light of the day after, these experiences caused me some philosophical doubts: what,  exactly,  was the nature of this sense experience which I ardently argued to be the only source of knowledge? And, crucially,  I had a pivotal conversation with Valerie Underhill, who was later to become my mother in law. 

She arranged to see me. She sat with me in the drawing room of 80 Bealey Ave. She listened while I rehearsed my frayed certainties. Then for an hour she told me of Jesus and how much he loved me. It wasn't apologetics or doctrine. It was the deep confession of someone who knew something and whose life showed that she did. Of course I could not allow myself to believe anything so seriously uncool as Christianity but somewhere deeper than the the little sliding tile puzzle of my own logic, I knew she was telling me the truth.

So, about two months later I was in Wellington seeing her daughter. Clemency took me and my friend Alden to the church she had been attending lately and I was NOT impressed. The service was long and filled with people doing odd things. The sermon was about, and I am not making this up, how classical music was of the devil and if you listen to it you are risking hellfire. At the end of the service the pastor invited those who wanted to give their lives to Christ to come forward, and to my horror both Alden and Clemency went to the front of the church. I stood to go. I intended to leave, catch the ferry and head back home to Christchurch leaving these idiots to their own devices; but when I reached the aisle, instead of turning left for the door and home, I turned right and also went to the front. Someone led me into a back room. I prayed. And my life changed.

I am not, obviously, still part of the Assemblies of God. I moved over a period of years through various Pentecostal churches until I reached a place of equilibrium in the Anglican communion. I have undergone many, many conversions since then and now find it hard to categorise myself, but I suppose I might be called a Progressive or Evolutionary Christian. And today, I have been remembering that night, and signing that little card, which I did at about the same time of the evening on August 5 1973 as I am writing this, 40 years later. Mahatma Gandhi said Faith is not a thing to be grasped, it is a state to grow into and he is right. On that night I didn't, as I imagined at the time, pass from one state of being to another. Rather I underwent, for the first time but certainly not the last, the experience of dying to self. I knew the transitory and fallible nature of all I thought and all I experienced and recognised that I was never as I so fondly imagined, the master of my own destiny. I gave up the pretense and handed the whole sorry bundle of my own being over to whatever it was that the young man was proclaiming; or rather, over to the loving reality of whatever it was that filled Valerie Underhill. And I was met and answered and transformed.

Behind the metaphorical system of Pentecostalism is a deep and eternal truth - the same truth in fact that lies behind the metaphorical system of Progressive or Evolutionary Christianity, which is why I can see and accept the series of  transitions by which I have moved from my then to my now. I'm not sure what the pastor of the AOG would have thought of me if he could have seen me this morning, sitting on my prayer stool in silence with a great black cloak wrapped around me. But I paused for a while and thought of 40 years. It's a good Biblical span. I looked around me at my study. Everything in there is less than 40 years old. A huge percentage of the things that surround me are gifts - including in a way the doctoral certificate and the deed of ordination to the episcopacy hanging on my wall. All has come to me in acts of grace and love. Everything around me has a story, and many of those stories have their genesis in those few minutes spent in the back room of the AOG. I worked into my silence deeply, warmly, profoundly grateful for the path I have walked, and for the one who has unfailingly walked it with me.


Elaine Dent said…
Good memories and reflection. Thank you. The threads of our journeys of faith, woven into something bigger, are such a surprise. How did I get here? we wonder. Mystery. Delightful grace.
Alden Smith said…
Congratulations on your 40th anniversary. I remember those days well and the changes and new directions they wrought. As you have found, I too recognise that "dying to self" is at the very heart of finding any sort of answer to the big questions we ask ourselves.
Indeed the goal of transcending the self is at the heart of all the great religions of the world.

I have experienced something else over the years that is beyond mere words (as most certainly most people have) that also provides an answer of sorts. It is the sense of great wonder that pervades our human experience (high stars, sailing, music, poetry, big trees too huge to hug properly and love.)

A couple of weeks ago I held in my arms our first grandchild, a boy, a common human experience that goes beyond words - in that moment I felt I was holding 'meaning' itself.

Good luck my dear friend for the next 40 years. If we both make it we will be able to compare our respective congratulatory letters from good King George.

Anonymous said…
born again.
It is indeed as Merv says: awe-some.
Kelvin, it is a blessing to be able to share some of that journey with you.
God bless, Stu.

now turn that classical music off.
Anonymous said…
"Behind the metaphorical system of Pentecostalism is a deep and eternal truth - the same truth in fact that lies behind the metaphorical system of Progressive or Evolutionary Christianity"

I went to an Assembly of God church 40 years ago as well before I ended up (rather more quickly) in Anglicanism, via the Baptists, and I do not think then or now they would called themselves 'a metaphorical system' nor would they have much in common, beyond some of the language, with 'Progressive or Evolutionary Christianity'. We knew all about Lloyd Geering and Ewing Stevens then, and both Pentecostalists and orthodox Anglicans were well aware that such people could use orthodox language but mean something entirely different. The AoG people I knew did not think the Virgin Birth, Resurrection of Christ, Ascension and Second Coming were anything but literal facts. They may have been cultural clodhoppers, but they knew the difference between Christ and Buddha. Christianity is disappearing from the lives of most New Zealanders, and perhaps most of the institutional churches will have succumbed to necrosis in the next 20 years, but authentic orthodox faith will still exist.
Kelvin Wright said…
Indeed, the Pentecostal churches I attended thought Noah's flood and the Garden of Eden were literal facts, and that the pages of Daniel referred to Henry Kissinger. These were believed with as much fervour as the resurrection and the second coming. The rapture was not only an accepted fact, but intensely argued schools existed, divided on the certainties of when where and how it was going to occur. Some doctrines, such as that all music in a minor key was of the devil, or that barcodes were the mark of the beast, or that owls and peacocks were evil, or that to make the sign of the cross was to invoke the spirit of transubstantiation (all taught to me at some stage or other) were sort of optional.

My trouble then, was that the people I was surrounded with were trapped in their literalism. They could see one type of truth and one only, and were therefore stuck in the same cognitive bind as atheists.People couldn't, as Karen Armstrong has analysed it, distinguish Logos from Mythos, and I simply could't stay there.

Language is by its very nature metaphorical. Which means that all knowledge communicated in language is, in the final analysis metaphorical - including of course all religious knowledge. The problems with the sorts of church I left is a complete inability to understand that the metaphor and the thing referred to by the metaphor are quite different and that some of the realities towards which we grope with our theological language will forever lie outside of our ability to grasp and understand them. To "use orthodox language but mean something entirely different" is of course inevitable. We, all of us, ALL of us do precisely that, only most of us don't notice that we're doing it and deeply resent the questions that might show that we do - hence the deep suspicion in fundamentalist circles of academic theology.

What the future of the church is is anybody's guess and I couldn't share your certainty as to what "orthodox" Christianity will look like in a couple of decades

I've never, incidentally met anyone who confused Christ with the Buddha in my current Church or my old one. I suspect that I might know more than the average punter, and certainly more than most Pentecostals exactly what the differences are.
Susan Slaughter said…
Congratulations and thanks for sharing this Kelvin. We never know where God is leading us. Do we turn left or do we turn right. God's will is stronger than anything in this world, especially stronger than us. Our relationship with Christ is based on trust and faith, to listen, to see and for us to hand our lives over for his service. Our God has a plan for all of us as individuals and we need to trust God with this. Thanks again Kelvin for your words.