Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 (NIV)
Maybe by now you’ve heard about what many are calling a revival at Asbury University, a small Christian college of the Wesleyan tradition in Wilmore, Kentucky. It started at a mandatory Wednesday morning chapel service; the day’s preacher spoke on love in action, from Romans 12. He felt like he “whiffed it,” and texted his wife that it was a “stinker” and that he’d be home soon. No one came forward to respond to the message as a gospel trio closed out the service with a song. Students left — except for 19 or 20, scattered out across Hughes Auditorium. They stayed where they were, praying and singing.
And then it just went on. And on. For hours, days, students kept on coming in. They’d leave to go to class or jobs or sleep, and then they’d come back. They started texting friends, posting on social media, and then more started coming. More students, faculty, but also residents of Wilmore. And then people started showing up from out of town.
Students began leading the singing, leading prayers, speaking to the group. Eventually someone started scheduling people to lead, because something was happening. People who had been away from God came back. Broken relationships were healed.
It went on, non-stop, for two weeks, until the University wound it down. Major media outlets, including the New York Times, reported on it.
At Asbury it even eclipsed Super Bowl Sunday, which is saying something.
I don’t like this about myself, but I tend to be skeptical about reports of revivals like this one. There are a lot of reasons for that, and I doubt I could sort them all out. One reason is that many so-called revivals are intensely personal and individual, and don’t seem to have much of an impact in terms of justice, righteousness, and holiness in communities. Another reason is that it’s easy for people having experiences like the ones at Asbury to be profoundly disillusioned and disappointed when inevitably the high wears off.
I also have to admit, though, that one of the reasons I’m skeptical has to do with the fact that I have spent my life with a version of Christianity that trusts the rational and intelligible over the mystical, emotional, and unexplainable. In the tradition I’m a part of, revival is usually a matter of understanding a Bible verse differently. It can feel a little academic.
But I’ve learned over the years to distrust my initial suspicion about events like the ones at Asbury. I’m not in as big a hurry to dismiss them as I once might have been. I’m more like Gamaliel in the book of Acts: “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Here’s what I do know — I don’t know exactly what’s been happening at Asbury, and neither do you, and neither does any one of the innumerable people who seem to have an opinion about it, most of whom couldn’t find Wilmore, Kentucky, on a map. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know, and I’m pretty sure that many of the people who were there don’t know. I know that in the two weeks of the revival, students have regained lost faith. They’ve repented of sins. They’ve confessed addictions. They’ve been baptized into Christ. They’ve given their lives to serving him. I know that none of us have to know what’s happening, or have to have an opinion.
There’s a really good post at Christianity Today about the events at Asbury. Most of it has to do with the faculty, staff, and volunteers who responded to what was happening in real time, avoiding the extremes of squelching the work of the Spirit on the one hand and exploiting it on the other. They kept away people who seemed to want to use the event to make political statements or gain a hearing for themselves. They started acting as gatekeepers to ministers coming to town asking to “share a word”in the chapel. (Here’s a free tip for preachers: Don’t hop in the car and try to make something like this about you, no matter how much you think God has given you something to say. If he wants you to preach, he’ll make sure they find you.) They have done their best to keep it about the students.
Volunteers provided food, including Chick-fil-a, so maybe it is from God. They kept the building open for the students, answered phones when people started calling the school about what was happening, and acted as support for the thousands of visitors who have come to the little town and school over the last couple of weeks. They quickly came to a consensus that, though they hadn’t started or planned what was happening and weren’t in control of it, they would “create space” for it.
“Create space.” I think that’s a good way to put it. The school’s namesake, Francis Asbury, a Methodist bishop who was associated with revivals throughout the U.S., once wrote, “The work of God is wonderful. But what a rumpus is raised!” Seems to me that, instead of looking at events like what happened in Asbury with suspicion, we should look to create space for whatever rumpus God might be raising. Even if it’s just space in our own hearts and minds for God to work in ways we don’t expect or predict.
In fact, Jesus said we ought to expect God to raise some unexpected rumpuses. He said that the kingdom of God is the work of the Spirit, and that being the case it can surprise mere human beings. He compared it to the wind; you can see its effects, but you can’t control it or direct it or even necessarily predict it. That’s how the Holy Spirit is; it “blows wherever it pleases.” (It helps in reading John 3 to know that the same word is translated “Spirit” and “wind.”)
But controlling, directing, and predicting the Spirit’s work is not our concern. What Jesus says there in John is we can’t enter the kingdom of God unless we’re born of the Spirit. That’s good news, though, because that’s God’s work. He has poured out his Spirit in Jesus. Anyone baptized into Christ has received the Spirit.
But Paul could still tell Christians to “be filled with the Spirit," because maybe we don’t always “make room” for the Spirit in our churches, in our lives, in our hearts. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we think of what God might have been up to the last two weeks in a little Kentucky town. What matters much more is what he might be up to in your heart, in your life, in your church and community.
I was struck by an unnamed theology professor at Asbury mentioned in an article who has been known for years to walk around town holding a sign that says, simply, “Holy Spirit, You are Welcome Here.” I think that’s maybe the best final word: may we be people who welcome the Holy Spirit as he blows around where he pleases, raising a rumpus, breaking our schedules, and where necessary disrupting the careful choreography of our lives. May we, through careful attention to hard, unglamorous work like prayer, worship, service, love, peace, and repentance, be filled with the Holy Spirit. May we create space for the Spirit to give us, our churches, and our communities new birth. That’s the revival God is looking for.