“… dwelling on visions…” Colossians 2:18 (NRSV)
Over forty-plus years in ministry you collect a fair number of memories. Let me share just two.
First, a baptismal service early on in my ministerial life. The church involved didn’t have a minister, so they asked me to stand in. I was very happy to do this, of course, though it meant that I didn’t get to know the people being baptised all that well.
Anyway, my most vivid memory is of a married middle-aged woman. Why? Because she had a vision as she came out of the baptismal pool. Streaming with water as I helped her up the steps, she suddenly threw her arms in the air, gazed up at the ceiling in a kind of rapture and shouted “I can see Jesus!” I didn’t really know how to react, so I don’t think I did, not very much anyway.
I’m sure I must have talked with her about it afterwards, but I have no recollection of what we said, and subsequently I rather lost touch as I went back to my own church. But the next thing I heard, perhaps eighteen months later, was that that woman had disappeared from the church and run off with someone else’s husband.
Food for thought there, I thought…
My second memory is of a conversation with an elderly member of my own church. He was one of those people who is loved and respected by everyone, both within and outside the church: “a true Christian gentleman” I heard him called, and that description fitted perfectly. He was quiet, gracious, courteous, generous, kind, hospitable, you name it. He had been in leadership positions in the church; never missed a service or prayer-meeting. I know it’s a rather out of fashion word, but “godly” sums him up well.
But when he came to see me he was troubled. I ought to say that this was in the early 1970s, the time when the charismatic movement was just kicking off, and we were all having to come to terms with these strange new things happening in Christian circles: tongues and prophecy, new songs and hymns, lively, spontaneous worship, the need to be “baptised with the Holy Spirit”.
“Colin,” he said to me, “is there something wrong with me? I’ve been a Christian nearly all my life, but I’ve never experienced anything like what these people are experiencing. It’s really got me worried.”
I assured him that as far as I could see there was nothing wrong with him at all. As long as he was always open to God and to what God might want to do in him – and I had no doubt on that score – he really shouldn’t be troubled.
More food for thought in that conversation…
I don’t share these experiences because I want in any way to rubbish the charismatic movement, or visions and other “supernatural” experiences. Far from it. My whole ministry over all these years has been heavily coloured by this movement, which has radically changed the Christian church of nearly all denominations – and, in my judgment, largely for the better. But they came to mind as I was thinking about these words of Paul from Colossians 2:18.
The precise translation is uncertain, but Paul was obviously unhappy about dubious things happening in the church at Colosse, especially regarding certain people who were, among other things, “dwelling on visions”, as the NRSV puts it. The church was apparently being infiltrated by people who had an unhealthy spirituality, what I can only describe as a slightly odd mix of legalism on the one hand and super-spiritual ecstasy on the other.
Paul himself, of course, was no stranger to visions and various charismatic experiences; indeed, he even tells us (2 Corinthians 12) that on one occasion he was “caught up to the third heaven” and saw and heard things he wouldn’t dare to try and express. So he can hardly be called an enemy of such experiences. But he understood – if I can sum it up at risk of over-simplification – that character outweighs charisma.
That excited lady I baptised certainly had an experience, for what it was worth; but it was that godly man who had the depth, the spiritual stature, the sheer holiness.
I said I would share two experiences from my time as a minister. But perhaps I can add a third.
While still extremely young and inexperienced I became part of a local ministers’ fellowship. We met regularly to talk, pray and enjoy one anothers’ company. On one occasion we were asked the question “What do you really look for most in members of your church? What qualities do you most want to see?”
We went round the circle, everyone chipping in, and came to a Pentecostal minister who had probably the largest and most thriving church in the town. I was very interested to hear how he would answer the question. Would he be looking for visionaries? tongues-speakers? miracle-workers? prophets?
His answer was very simple: “I hope for people who can be relied on.”
Food for thought there?
Father, please help me to be wise in weighing up special and unusual experiences of your Spirit. Help me to be neither sceptical nor gullible. But help me to value most of all the development of a Christ-like character. Amen.