Many of us can testify to times of spiritual renewal when the Holy Spirit has brought fresh life and vitality to our faith and transformed the direction of our lives. I can remember during the 1980s how my faith was brought to life through the charismatic renewal enlivening churches and universities. There was an energy and creativity to the worship, the exciting practice of charismatic gifts and the reality of healing and freedom from things that had held us back. In a world of many pressures when energy, creativity and freedom seem squeezed to the fringe we still need the freshness of the Spirit. Yet thinking back there was something more going on that is often forgotten. Behind the fresh results of renewal lay a season of thinking things out alongside others, of struggling to understand the Bible, of sharing pain and loss, reading testimonies and theologies, raising questions and seeking after God in prayer. The way into renewal was a relational one, bringing all of life into conversation with others, never simply an individual one.
There is a temptation to forget this in the seeking after renewal: the temptation to seek simply after the practices that brought good results in the past. Yet over time the practices of worship, prayer, liturgy and service seem to lose some of their life. Maybe people start saying that the Spirit is no longer with our churches and drift away to look for “where the Spirit is now.” Maybe we keep going with the outward practices secretly hoping that the inner reality will reappear but finding it hard to admit that something is wrong. When the pressure to keep generating results has become a way of life it is hard to find space to work out what might be wrong. In reality we may have lost the heart of renewal. We have lost the relational heart, the conversational heart – with God and with others. Looking back, renewal was never simply about similar people agreeing on everything and doing specific activities that guaranteed the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was a journey in which difference was embraced, conversations (and even arguments) entered into, and experimental practices attempted. Renewal does wane but often because the Lord wants to keep us fresh in our conversations with him and others so further renewal can engage the world we face today. Renewal changes its form and practices over time but the relational heart remains.
So do we want a fresh spiritual renewal? Do we want more of the Holy Spirit in our communities? Then who are we talking to who is different to us? Which books are we reading that we disagree with? What experiments are we attempting in worship and mission? How are we trying to relate to those outside church life? How is more of our life being brought before God and others? Over this last year my experience of charismatic renewal within the evangelical tradition met a rather different kind of renewal: monastic renewal in the Roman Catholic church. I vividly remember my alarm going at 3am whilst staying at a monastery so that I could get up for the start of prayers at 3.15am! Not my best time for prayer! It was a very different experience. Yet as I spent a few days in the whole day rhythm of prayer something began to be born again in me: that desire for worship, prayer, Scripture and renewal that is about all of life and not just a part of it. Renewal is transformed as every aspect of our life and each part of our days is brought to God. As I returned so comments were made about my having new energy and ideas. It is hard to see this experience as a world-changing dynamic of renewal – yet it is a personal, relational experience of the Spirit that is slowly changing the life of one person and through them is helping others.
In a world of pressures in which difference seems to drive division and separation, do we not need to relearn ways in which the Lord can use difference to draw us into fresh life? Can we allow our understanding and practice of renewal be transformed through its relational heart? The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. Let us rejoice, be glad and welcome change.