Heaven and Earth
Wilmore is a small town in the Kentucky bluegrass halfway between Lexington and Harrodsburg. Asbury University sits across Main Street from Asbury Seminary. Both hail from the holiness, Wesleyan, and Methodist streams of Christian faith and practice. When students remained in the chapel after the regular Wednesday morning service a few days ago no one was surprised. They stayed to pray and sing, in small groups and in one large group. But when it lasted into the night and through the next morning, people began to take notice. It has now been 12 days.
The chapel—called Hughes Auditorium—is full to overflowing around the clock. Three other chapels are now in use. The line to get in routinely demands three hours of waiting, even in the rain. A friend who stood in line Thursday afternoon described to me the families with children, students from schools near and far, and ministers from many other traditions.
It has caught the attention of Christians and their leaders around the country, and also of commentors and critics.
It has caught my attention. It has burst upon the scene while we are reading, preaching, and praying the Prayer of Jesus.
Beginning last fall, we have been thinking about our need for prayer; or better, our need for God. I have encouraged you to find a prayer partner or form prayer groups. I have encouraged you to take this Prayer of Jesus as a guide for praying, as well as for believing and for living. God has brought us, in the form of this student revival, a surprising inspiration.
They sense a need to pray and seek the Living God. Jesus taught us to cry out to God as father, creator, and redeemer, to surrender ourselves to God’s purpose in our lives, and to seek the rule of God in our lives, on earth as it is in heaven.
As I begin to preach today, pray with me these holy and heavenly words, saying:
What is driving this unusual display of religious desire in Wilmore, Kentucky? What is behind this spontaneous outpouring of religious fervor at Asbury University?
To some extent, it is a natural and familiar practice of those in this religious tradition: holiness, Wesleyan, and Methodist. It is even familiar with some of us who were raised in southern revivalism. The revivals of my childhood consisted of guest preachers and musicians, extensive promotion and planning, structured worship services, and emotional appeals for decisions, for walking the aisle, and for professing faith, seeking baptism, and announcing some decision.
I have planned and participated in many such events.
Once, I was the preacher for a small church in Kentucky. Every night I preached from the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. “Come down out of that tree,” Jesus said to the wee little man. On the third night of the revival, one man met me before church beside his truck. “I have my chain saw here,” he said, point to the bed of the truck. “We will get Zacchaeus out of that tree tonight one way or another.”
It was during one revival in Lexington, Kentucky, that I walked the aisle, confessed Jesus as savior (as we say), and requested baptism. It was during another revival like that, when I was 15 and living in Murray, Kentucky, that I walked the aisle during the final hymn—what we call the invitation—and announced my call to the ministry. The church licensed me that very night. Some of you have had experiences like this. It is a normal and unremarkable feature of a certain kind of religion.
We should not be surprised or shocked that people use familiar religious patterns to seek after God. It is a good thing. Even the saints of old, as recorded in the Bible, encouraged us to seek God. “If you seek God with all your heart and soul, you will find God.” So says Deuteronomy 4:29. When Saul the persecutor of those first Christians encountered God on the road to Damascus, he went into the desert to seek God. Jesus often went to isolated places to pray and be in the presence of God. Many of the psalms of David describe his seeking after God: “As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God” (Psalm 42:1).
Life is full of stress and drama. We fail, we falter. We need strength and direction and hope. We need the Living God. We need the joy and hope and contentment that God can bring. Don’t you sense this need in your life? Is this a time—now—that fills you with the desire to know God and experience a fresh sense of the presence of God? Many of the songs we know and love express this intense desire for a fresh experience of the presence of God.
This is what happened in Wilmore, Kentucky. And I understand why. Life is hard, even for middle class white American students. Every day brings news of random gun violence. Many students spend their days engaging not with people but with technology. They watch as institutions and organizations disappoint them. We are living in one of the most contentious and unkind periods of American history. And around the world, children are starving in Somalia, families are fleeing death and danger in Central America, Ukrainians are fighting for the lives, for their country in eastern Europe, and millions are living in abject poverty in the slums of Brazil. All of this is presented to us in vivid color every day on our smart phones.
The students gathered in chapel to pray. The preplanned service of music and sermon is over. The students are not ready to leave. They linger, they speak to friends, they kneel in prayer, they start singing. This is the way it happened.
Many people have written descriptions of what is happening. I have read as much as possible and have watched videos. One short essay especially spoke to me. It was written by a graduate student at Asbury Seminary, across the street from the University. He wrote:
“I find it interesting that God would mark this outpouring with: first, a tangible sense of peace for a generation with unprecedented anxiety; second, a restorative sense of belonging for a generation amidst an epidemic of loneliness; third, an authentic hope for a generation marked by depression; fourth, a leadership emphasizing protective humility in relationship with power for a generation deeply hurt by the abuse of religious power; and fifth, a focus on participatory adoration for an age of digital distraction. It feels as if God is personally meeting young adults in ways meaningful to them.”
I say, “Thanks be to God.”
I honor what is happening in Wilmore, Kentucky, at Asbury University. It is a small event in the long, large history of revivals in American history. Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest of all American theologians and preachers, stirred up Puritan New England toward a passion for God. In 1801, a mere 50 miles from Wilmore, 25,000 people gathered at the tiny Cane Ridge Meetinghouse. It was a spontaneous outpouring of religious fervor that reshaped the Christian landscape of the United States. Out of that weeks-long event, full of singing, and preaching, and healing, and strange things like barking and rolling in the grass, came the Christian churches and churches of Christ.
Later, the preaching of Charles G. Finney lit religious fires so intense that the whole state of New York was called the burned-out district. Then in 1906, in a store front church in California, on Azuza Street in Los Angeles, the modern Pentecostal movement was born. People were speaking in tongues and testifying to healing and miracles and what we now call words of prophecy.
Some of you remember the Jesus Movement that also swept out of Southern California. It brought with it guitars, communes, and long hair. One man, Arthur Blessitt, carried a large wooden cross as he walked from sea to shining sea. He preached on street curbs, calling people to conversion and a life lived for Jesus. All of that was a religious response to the tumult of the 1960’s filled as it was with civil rights, drugs and sex, rock and roll, and that war in southeast Asia.
There was another piece of that Jesus movement that I remember. In February of 1970, when I was a college sophomore at Georgetown College, a friend said to me on Friday night, “There is a revival down at Asbury. Let’s go.” We jumped in my car, an orange Volkswagen bug, and drove the 30 miles to Wilmore. We sat on the back row of Hughes Auditorium until past midnight watching, listening, singing. Like the women who first visited the empty tomb of Jesus, we hurried back to our people and told them what we had seen and heard. It ignited a spontaneous revival on our campus.
One old college friend of mine wrote this week, “Liz and I went to the Asbury revival today. We stood with thousands of others for three and a half hours in the cold just to get in. It was awesome to see so many young people worshipping and praying without the smoke and lights and hype. They were just telling Jesus that they love Him. They will never be the same. I remember the Asbury revival of 1970. It caused kids to go out all over the world to share the Good News of Jesus. I know it affected me, and I am still telling people about Jesus 50 years later. So we say, ‘More Lord.’”
Some people are criticizing this student event in Wilmore. It is just emotion, they say, as if emotions of love, joy, and hope are to be dismissed. It is just a momentary high, they say, as if outbursts of enthusiasm at a birthday party or a ball game are to be discarded as petty. It is just for the moment, as if the surge of affection that courses between lovers is to be demeaned.
Did you take a shower this morning? It felt good, and made you clean, and prepared you to go out in public, to sit on a pew next to a friend or a stranger. But I need to tell you something: you will need another one tomorrow, or at least by next week. A shower only last for a short time, then you need another one. Same with a meal, same with making love, same with a good laugh.
Same with a revival. You will need another one down the road. It may come with stillness, or it may crash upon you with craziness. God can come to us either way.
Think about this prayer that Jesus gave us to pray. It begins with “Heavenly father, holy be your name.” This is the mood best expressed by the command of holy scripture, “Be still and know that I am God.” This is quietness, and contemplation, and stillness. Jesus went away to a lonely place and prayed, and so must we. We can encounter the everlasting Lord of the Universe when we are alone, and still, and away from the craziness of life.
But notice how this prayer ends. “Yours, O God, is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.” This is the dancing, declaring celebration of true religion. This is the other end of the spiritual spectrum. It is the ecstasy of the psalm which reads, “Clap your hands, all the people. Shout unto God with a voice of triumph” (Psalm 47). This is the religion that brings us together to sing and dance and laugh. This also is genuine religion. This also will bring you into the presence of God.
But notice this: between this call to contemplation and this shout of joy comes these words of prayer: surrender to the purposes of God, answer the plea of those who begging for something to eat today, confess your sins, and forgive your enemies, flee temptation and resist every evil.” These also are true religion and undefiled. These also are the measure of true spirituality. These also are done in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As one person said, I do not care how high you jump with holy ghost religion but I will watch how you walk when you come down. Sadly, not everybody who claims true religion lives true religion. We note that the Southern Revivalism that nurtured me also supported a culture that gave us slavery, segregation, and resistance to education, equality, civil rights and gay rights. Today, it is the epicenter of Trumpism. Something ain't right!
True religion, whether contemplation or celebration, results in living for the Glory of God and the Common Good.
Do you recall the aftermath of that first Pentecost? Yes, the wind came like a tornado, the spirit rested on people like fire, it was a powerful, transformative experience in that upper room. But when they came down, back on the street, returned to life as normal, this is what happened: according to Acts chapter 2, “a deep sense of awe came over everyone. The apostles performed many wonderous works. The believers met together and shared everything. They sold property and gave the money to those who needed it. They worship together in the sanctuary and in homes. They shared meals together with great joy and generosity.”
The United States needs a revival like that, a Pentecostal religion like that. We need an out-pouring of the holy Spirit that interrupts our religious routines. We need an experience of the Risen Jesus that pushes us out of our comfort zones into the ministry zones. We need a revival that will stir our souls and inspire our energies.
We need a revival that will tap down all the meanness of our tribalism. We need a revival that will interrupt the flow of money from the poor to the rich. We need a movement of God that will open our doors to all the desperate refugees of the world. We need an awakening that will call people to the altar of God, to lay down their guns, and study war and killing and violence no more. We need something that will make us community, overlooking race and gender and politics and sexual orientation and all the other things that separate us from one another. We need something that will make us love God, and follow Jesus, and care for one another. We need to be saved from this wicked and perverse generation. We need a revival that empowers us to live in the kingdom of God, here and now, on earth as it is in heaven.