When reading interviews with famous missionaries or giants of the Christian world, I’m curious to see what they say about how they became interested in Jesus. The formidable Jackie Pullinger – who famously boarded a boat and prayed God would show her where to get off – said this:
When was the moment where you felt like you had a real encounter with God?
Well, I hadn’t actually met people who looked as if they liked God until I was a music student in London. I had met Christians that backed me into a corner and asked me if I was saved, or washed with the blood, or something. I had no idea what they were talking about and I just wanted to disappear. But towards the end of my time at the Royal College, I met some people who invited me to a coffee party and said they held Bible studies.
Some of the talks were very similar to the Alpha talks. I listened to what was going on in those talks because the people actually looked happy. I hadn’t met anybody that looked happy knowing God before then, so that made the difference, I think.
I decided either Jesus was mad or mistaken, or he really was who he said he was: the only way to the Father. So, I said to him: “Well, I don’t like that you say you’re the only way because I’d rather be broad, but I’ll accept that.” And my life really did change.
(Jackie Pullinger: ‘We’re going to feel stupid for eternity if we waste this life’, Premier Christianity Magazine, January 2019)
I’m so happy to read that Jackie Pullinger was attracted to ‘a coffee party’ and I’m not surprised she was clueless when Christians ‘backed me into a corner and asked me if I was saved, or washed with the blood, or something’. We firmly believe in making friends with people first; then, when it comes into the conversation, talking about Jesus in a natural, straightforward way. It’s not always easy, of course, since the experience we try to put into words is a supernatural one!
I’ve been thinking about how to explain the ‘touched by the Holy Spirit’ phrase that a new friend felt uncomfortable with. I gave only a vague answer when she asked about it over dinner – my instant response was to apologise that ‘Christian language’ can seem weird and even disturbing at first. I went on to say how being ‘touched by the Holy Spirit’ is kind of like the sense you get when you know you need to do something – kind of like your conscience. Already, you’ll be thinking how flawed that explanation was! But that’s as far as I got before the conversation moved on.
This week I’ve started reading about the Holy Spirit to brush up on some possibly better answers to her question.
1. I remembered that the lovely Hebrew word for breath is “Spirit” or “Ruach”. As we read in Genesis, it was this Spirit that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils that set him apart from the rest of creation. God was giving Adam His Spirit, His breath.
2. The story of the Old Testament played out with the Spirit helping individual men and women with specific tasks. But, in the day-to-day, sacrifices and rules were essential to the community relationship the Chosen People had with God. They didn’t have free access to the Spirit in those days.
3. Everything changed when Jesus came to Earth, as He was empowered by the Holy Spirit all the time. Jesus left us His Spirit, His Helper, to live in us and empower us forever.
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, for He lives with you and will be in you.(John 14:15-17)
4. Then came Pentecost – the most well-known Sunday School lesson on the topic, which involves kids returning to the rest of the congregation with scribbly-coloured flames coming out of their heads.
5. It was said of the Apostles that they were “continually filled with the Holy Spirit and joy” (Acts 13:52). These were the few who turned the world upside-down!
6. When you become a Christian, the Holy Spirit comes to live inside you.
7. The Spirit’s touch today brings warmth, joy, fresh understanding of God, healing, and so much more.
How could I have communicated all that to my new friend in one minute? I couldn’t! (Well maybe I could have given a seven-point summary but I wouldn’t have given her any time to speak if I had!) So what can we do?
Jackie Pullinger said, ‘I hadn’t met anybody that looked happy knowing God before then, so that made the difference, I think.’ Whether we can give a good answer or not, just be friendly and smile.
2. ‘Coffee and Bible Studies’
The Holy Spirit is so integral to every part of life and every part of the Bible – maybe the best thing to do would be to go through some of the verses that tell us more about the Holy Spirit. This could be in a different setting, with lots of time available and maybe other friends around to make things more relaxed.
God started with a breath – the “Ruach” breathed into Adam. So who are we to argue?! Take a breath. Don’t rush in with a know-it-all answer. Listen to your friend. Take a breath. If the conversation moves on, quietly continue it with Jesus. Breathe a ‘breath prayer’ and ask the Holy Spirit to help her understand.
It would be great if, next time we talk, my new friend is trying to explain to me what it’s like to be touched by the Holy Spirit!