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First Words

My mother taught me everything I needed to know to begin my prayer journey. In prayer language, she helped me speak my first words. Many days, coming home from school, I slipped in the back door to the sounds of her spiritual travails pouring down the stairs from her second floor bedroom. Like Daniel in the Old Testament, she muffled her prayers for no one. Sometimes I heard her from the sidewalk as I approached our old, white house on Monroe Street. I wouldn’t say I liked it back then. I felt embarrassed and awkward, especially if I had a friend with me. Often, she would burst forth with a mysterious, disjointed language. She punctuated it with English words that seemed unrelated to anything I knew or understood, except when I heard her call out my name. She wept and laughed, shouted and whispered, spoke with a commanding voice and plead with mournful wails. She paced back and forth, rocked to and fro while on her knees, danced around the room and pounded on the floor. Sometimes, in prayer, her countenance would glow like an angel; other times she looked like a ferocious lion. It seemed scary to me. I would throw my books down, grab a couple of cookies and my ball glove, and run out. It has taken years of living for me to look back now and know that she was deeply engaged in spiritual warfare. Huge battles were fought and won in the upper level of my childhood home.

Theodora Anderson Jordan received the Holy Spirit baptism in 1926 at the tender age of eight, back when the stirrings of the Pentecostal revival had matured beyond Azusa Street and had spread to the Midwest. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, she was raised in a region that was mightily influenced by G. T. Haywood, one of the greatest of oneness Pentecostal pioneers. My mother’s personal Pentecost took place at Oakhill Tabernacle, under Pastor T. C. Davis. That congregation, along with many others at that time, enjoyed a deep prayer tradition, rich with intense and passionate warriors of the altar. They not only believed in the operation of spiritual gifts, they sought after them with resolute sincerity, and they practiced them in their services and prayer meetings. Their generation fully embraced the spiritual aspects of the Christian walk, and they disdained empty, formalistic rhetoric that emphasized human strategies and abilities. They often quoted “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” I Timothy 3:5. To them, God was actively and dynamically in charge of his church.

Mainline denominations of that day were aghast at this wild and wooly practice of visceral Christianity. They thought it ceded far too much control to the emotions. To be sure, those reservations were often justified. Anyone interested in the vibrant history of twentieth century Pentecostalism can trace its somewhat hectic development in numerous accounts available in book form today. But from my personal window on the era, I can affirm that it was real, powerful, and honest. Excesses, for the most part, were curbed by the rule of scripture, and those who did not submit went elsewhere or burned out. The Pentecostal revolution of the last century continues to this day, and observers of religious trends believe that it has nowhere reached its peak. If one measures it in terms of its impact on prayer, little doubt remains that it has fundamentally changed the religious world. And little wonder. Anyone who ever heard my mother pray knows the raw spiritual power that praying in the Spirit generates.

To my mother and the early Pentecostals with whom she associated, prayer meant an experience with God, not just a means of making our requests known to God. In fact, this was the most vital dimension of the believer’s spiritual relationship. Anyone who missed this might as well forget it all. Yet, in spite of this great emphasis on the spiritual, they zealously pursued more wisdom and knowledge about effective praying. They continually exercised their able minds in order to more fully understand it. They were not anti-intellectual, but neither were they exclusively intellectual. Their heart’s desire fell into the same mold as the disciples who asked Jesus to teach them to pray, demonstrating that prayer is something both to learn and do. Let us then, with our heads and our hearts immerse ourselves once again in the captivating realm of prayer.

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