The Somewhere Free Methodist Church gathers about 30–45 people, mostly white, on Sunday morning in an older neighborhood full of neighbors very different from most church members. The church has a committed pastor whose spouse earns enough to supplement his church salary and allow him to serve full time. Visitors occasionally show up and sometimes stay, at least for a while. Everyone in the church knows each other well, enough to avoid conflict and agree to maintain peace, as a witness to anyone who might be watching.
At Christmastime, the church takes up a special offering for the needy and still hosts a children’s program with member grandchildren supplemented by a few kids from the community. Years ago, the church received an estate gift that continues to subsidize church giving. The church will keep running as it is for the foreseeable future.
But I wonder what would happen if Somewhere Church experienced revival? What if God would draw near and visit clearly and powerfully as seldom or never before in any of its members’ experiences?
Well, it’s not as though it has never happened. Our Scripture story helps us envision what might happen should God break into the routines and practices so central to many churches. Let’s consider some of the marks of “holy visitation.”
To begin though, let’s recall that God is holy, which basically means God is unlike other persons and things that are common to us. God is other and without peer. Yet amazingly, when God calls into being a people, He then commands them to be holy people.
“You shall be holy, just as I am holy,” says the Lord Almighty to chosen, redeemed, gathered, servant-people (see Leviticus 11:45, 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15–16). To be the people of God, and authentically the church, means we relate to this God who is holy, unlike any other, and, thus, we ourselves become holy, a people unlike others. To find out what this “unlikeness” means, let’s see how it fleshes out in the Scripture story by asking: What happens when the God who is truly unlike any other shows up and visits ordinary people?
First, they are surprised. Moses couldn’t believe his eyes when the bush wasn’t burned up and then even more when a voice confirmed he was in Divine Presence. He had just been minding his own business, not engaging in any “spiritual” activity, at least he wouldn’t have thought so. Instead, while tending those sheep out in the wilderness, God suddenly was there (Exodus 3:1–6).
Isaiah’s experience was much the same, though, in his case, he was engaged in “spiritual” work as he performed his duties in the Temple (Isaiah 6:1–8). Likewise, Zechariah won the “lottery” for priestly duty (Luke 1:8–9) — similarly, John the Elder, who was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:9–16). All these were stunned to be visited by God. Whether inside or outside a “sacred” place, such as a church building, or engaging in “spiritual” activities, there is surprise when the Holy One draws near.
I think this tells us something about God and, therefore, something also about how human beings might experience God. God takes the initiative, often in unexpected or unconventional ways, and catches people unawares, off-guard, by surprise. Thus, we might guess that people who have everything figured out or believe that renewal can come only in certain ways are less likely to be in the places where God shows up. It would seem appropriate, therefore, to ask ourselves: Are we ready to be surprised? Are we open to the unexpected?
Second, when God, the Holy One, visits a people, they are humbled. Often they fall to the ground with faces flat in the dirt. Joshua had been named as Moses’ successor, encouraged by God’s promise of presence and heeding God’s call not to be fearful but courageous and bold. That explains why he asked the strange-looking man with drawn sword whether he was friend or foe. But when Joshua learned that this foreigner was Commander in Chief of the Lord God’s army, he fell face down in the dirt and asked what orders the Commander had for him. The Commander’s surprising answer led to Joshua’s response of humble submission — take off your shoes, the ground is holy (Joshua 5:13–15)! It was the same for John the Elder. He saw the Holy One and fell down as though he were dead (Revelation 1:17). Both for the empowered leader of a conquering people and for the survivor of a people cruelly oppressed, it is the same when God visits. Fall to the ground, worship the majesty, and seek the pleasure of the Lord. Are we ready to be humbled?
Third, when God’s holy presence envelops a people, they feel and own their condition as fallen creatures, not at all together but broken and far from the togetherness and wholeness they sense in the Holy One. Isaiah the Prophet’s priestly duties were disturbed by holy visitation, as heavenly beings hailed the enthroned King of all, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). That leads Isaiah to cry out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).
Centuries later, the Lord Jesus arranged for Peter to net a huge haul of fish, after a frustrating night of catching nothing. Suddenly, Peter knew something about his Teacher he hadn’t before and so he fell down at Jesus’ feet, crying out, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:1–8).
When the Holy One visits in splendor and power, the Light exposes our darkness, the Love contrasts with our indifference, and the Truth displays our real selves. We perceive the need that yearns for a help it has not known fully. Are we ready to be exposed and undone?
Fourth, when the Holy One visits a people they discover just how amazing His grace is. They learn that however deeply their need runs, grace reaches deeper still. Isaiah didn’t even ask, but simply lamented his condition, “Woe is me!” And the Holy One offered a hot, healing coal from the altar to meet his need. When John the Elder fell flat on his face as though dead, the Holy One laid His right hand upon him, raised him up and said, “Do not be afraid” (Revelation 1:17).
In the company of light, all darkness flees. In the embrace of love, all fear and hatred must go. In the presence of white-hot purity, there is purging for all that is unclean and unworthy. In the fellowship of the Holy One, there is amazing and abundant grace. That grace is mercy and forgiveness, cleansing and empowering. Grace super-abounds. Are we ready to leave behind what is unworthy of a Holy God, to be put together again, new and whole?
Fifth, when God the Holy One visits, God would like to stay and to be at home. In the beginning, God made the garden as home for humans and God alike. In Israel’s Tabernacle and later Temple, God dwelled in the midst of the people. When God restored a sinful and exiled people, God promised they would at last be His people, and He would be their God. Finally, in the Revelation, a new heaven and earth become the place where God dwells with the people. They are God’s people, and God is their God. Therefore, every “visitation” of God aims at establishing and deepening the indwelling of God in human hearts and the people abiding in God’s presence.
A holy visitation-turned-to-habitation would mark the people in certain ways. Above all, the God who is love, dwelling in a people, would make them a loving people — a people who love God with their all, every fiber and nerve, bone and tissue, talent and gift; a people ordered and centered compellingly around the God who loves. This God loves the other, neighbor and friend, but also the others unknown to and unlike them, even the enemy-others. This God’s love did something, indeed everything, in Jesus. This is the God whose love leads them to acts of love comparable to His own for the sake of all the others — a love that does as Jesus’ love did, that, in some sense, lays down its own life for the other.
And so a people in and among whom the Holy One inhabits will bear the marks or the fruit of the Spirit of such love for all to see, wonder about, experience and embrace. Among them and reaching beyond them will flow not only love but also joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). As a result, at least some of the others will find them or it or whatever beautiful and inviting! Are we ready for the Holy One to renovate our gatherings and fellowship with such holy love?
If God should bring “revival” to the church, therefore, the people of that church would be surprised, humbled, convicted of sin and need, graciously renewed and cleansed, then indwelled, marked and moved by love for God and for others.
Now, again, Somewhere FMC has about 30–45 people, mostly white, on an average Sunday morning in an older neighborhood with lots of folk who are different from most of their members. That’s who they are and where they are when the Holy One would visit. Be careful to note that they have enough, enough to seek God and to hope in a God who visits.
So imagine their faithful and committed pastor leading the people to long for God to visit, surprise, humble and manifest holy light that illumines their human need. Imagine a pastor beginning by leading her or his own self in such pursuit. God calls and seeks a people, and God promises to be found by true seekers. Imagine the pastor remembering or learning what it is to be a true seeker. Imagine the pastor leading self in seeking God, determining to settle for nothing less than whatever happens with fresh, personal holy visitation.
If we can imagine this, it would be hard not to imagine at least a few of the 30–45 becoming fidgety and restless, ill at ease with life as usual and church as usual. It would be hard not to imagine this because it’s not the pastor they see or sense, or not just the pastor, it is God. It is God who has always planned to visit. It is God who has, in fact, surprised and humbled folk nearly to their death, and then breathed grace into their dusty and deadly conditions. It is God.
If we can imagine this far, it would be hard not also to imagine that God would meet some of the fidgety and restless among the people. It would in fact be easy to imagine God reaching toward them, enlivening their search, bringing near circumstances and other people who assist, and, at last, breaking into their lives as never before. This is what God does.
Then, with a few newly God-enlivened, love would come, for God the Spirit is working. This (re)birthing of love deeply satisfies, solidly assures and anxiously unsettles them. The God-enlivened and renewed would begin to see the others that surround the church building, wonder who they are, and they would want to care. Wanting to care, they would pray for them and seek how to care for them. Again, the God who visits would surely answer their prayers because this is what God does. God does care, God offers care, and God does so through a people.
Finally, then, out of such humble beginnings, as Scripture and the stories of many great awakenings attest, we might anticipate other, wilder and more wonderful things. We might see slaves everywhere set free, strongholds of evil pulled down, and enemies of God falling — some to their demise and others into the arms of newly reconciled friends. We might experience loaves being multiplied, untouchables embraced, and strangers welcomed home. Indeed, in Somewhere, USA, there could be places where no needy person goes without help, no capable person fails to contribute, and everyone benefits in some way because God is at home with a people.
BISHOP DAVID KENDALL is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus” (fmchr.ch/dkcall).1