The people in the photo are not dead. They have been slain in the spirit. In Pentecostal worship this phenomenon is part of yielding to the Holy Spirit. The evangelist gives the worshippers a push which causes them to fall to the floor (supported by a worship assistant). People slain in this way tell of something like an electric shock and then a heightened awareness of the presence of God.  There is no direct reference to this practice in the Bible. There are references to people falling down, overcome by guilt and some died. Falling down under conviction of guilt happened in some of the gatherings led by John Wesley but the practice of wholesale slaying in the spirit is something new.

I mention this because I want to talk about some of my religious experiences. As a young person, I was never slain in the spirit as it was unknown in the churches I attended. In my youth, I often sought after a religious electric shock. At times I felt the love of God as a warm glow, but the holy bolt of lightning never hit me.

When I was 12, (1949) I was living with my 62-year-old father and my stepmother who were caretakers of a 40-acre property with one grand house and a small cottage. We lived in the cottage. Life for the three of us was an armed truce. My father was distant from his second wife and from me and my stepmother was mentally unstable.

One of my jobs was to periodically check the fences for any breaks. On one tour of inspection, in a spot where the fence ran parallel to the main road, I found a bundle of magazines tied with string.

The magazines were Australian ‘girlie’ publications, ‘Man’ and ‘Man Junior’. These featured racy stories with sexual content and photos and cartoons of girls in various stages of undress. One set of photos I remember was of a young woman beside a waterfall. It was all very arty and demure, similar to what can be seen in art galleries. But, the images stuck in my mind.  I gained the impression that waterfalls prompted young women to take their clothes off.

I hid the magazines away and they became a guilt-inducing secret. As was customary in those times, we had a bonfire from time to time to deal with garden and household refuse. I secretly consigned the books to the flames thinking I would be rid of them.

Not so. Some of the images lingered on. Particularly the waterfall girl.

Over my teen years, I went to many Christian Camps. Teen boys were often required to attend ‘boys-only’ sessions about keeping ourselves ‘pure’. These sessions were tense, and all the boys were very quiet.  I remember one returned missionary telling us of the dangers of department store catalogues and how we should never look at the pages of women’s underwear. He never mentioned girls by waterfalls, but I made the connection. In my heart I knew I was destined to burn in hell. Several times I had dreams of the Devil coming to get me. These dreams were so frightening that for a period I fought to stay awake.

This made me even more fervent to get right with God. In this culture this meant answering ‘appeals’ that were part of every youth gathering. “Come forward and give your heart to Jesus” or, “Come forward to rededicate your life to Christ”. I did this many times.

We were encouraged to memorise set scripture verses and weave them together to create ‘Plans of Salvation’. We could use these verses to lead others to give their hearts to Jesus. Some of my friends became open-air preachers. One close friend preached every Friday night on the corner of the main street in the country town in which he lived. I never did this. I was a camp follower, lustily singing the hymns and choruses. Some of my friends wore little red buttons which read, ‘Jesus Saves’. I could never bring myself to do this.

Much of the Bible study we undertook was aimed at winning arguments. We learnt verses to confound atheists. We learnt how to answer Jehovah Witnesses and sundry other groups.  Our Bible knowledge was our sword with which we could destroy the enemy; that is anyone who had a different opinion to us.

It was all so simple then. We (Baptists, Brethren, Scripture Union readers) were right and bound for heaven the rest of the world was wrong and going to hell. It gave us a kind of superiority over the majority in the human race. We pitied them.

Theological education over six years had a profound influence on me.  It changed my view of the Bible and opened my mind. I came to accept there were Christians in other denominations and yes, there were even some Christians in the Roman Catholic Church.

Just when I thought I had a mature understanding view of Christianity, in 1963 a Pentecostal revival hit the neighboring town of Tongala – a dairy town of around 1600 people. It swept through the town like a wildfire. Talking in tongues, slaying in the spirit and signs and wonders abounded. Cancers were healed, legs lengthened, marriages were saved, men gave up drinking and praise services were always full. A lady from Tongala invited me to be involved with the blessing. She told me, “It’s simple – God always answers every prayer”. “Really! “, I said. She went on, “God has only let me down once.  Recently I had a baby and I asked God for a child with blond hair. But in fact, my child is a redhead. I am disappointed in God, but I still love Him.”

After a couple of years, most of the people in Tongala went back to their old ways. It seems the revival burnt itself out. Over the years my friends changed also. My heroic street-corner preaching friend is no longer sure that he believes in God.

In my youth one of the choruses we often sang went, “I serve a risen Saviour, he’s in the world today”. I still believe that. But what is different now is where in the world he resides. It used to be just in my church, in my group, in people who believe the same things I do. Now I acknowledge I have encountered Jesus in people of other religions and people of no religion. He is in the world, in the universe today. We are in error and we belittle Jesus when we claim he is only in people and places which we nominate.

Women come to my wife Pauline, a Presbyterian minister, with their problems. I overheard one recently ask, “Are all men like this?” “Yes”, said Pauline, “They’re all the same. They are the weaker sex you know”. “Hmm”, I thought to myself, “Perhaps she is right – God knows!”

And as for the girl at the waterfall. All that praying and rededicating hasn’t completely got rid of her. She still lurks in the corners of my mind. Perhaps if I was slain in the spirit that would finish her off? But I won’t be trying this route. Maybe the waterfall girl and her sisters will be always there for me and most of my gender. God knows, and he loves us still!

Stan Stewart

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SUNDAY SERVICE, 28th July 2019