Early in my Hoosier years, I returned home one day to find a cluster of lilies where none had been the day before. Green foliage had graced the area during Spring a few months earlier. Once it died away, the space was empty – until it wasn’t. Now, several weeks later I was greeted by unexpected bunches of beauty, standing proudly, waiting to be noticed. I soon learned that these were appropriately named “surprise lilies.” In popping up seemingly from nowhere, they are a surprise the first time you notice them.
I have come to look for them each year just beyond our garage. As the green leaves arrived right on schedule this Spring, I caught myself wondering why we continue to call them surprise lilies, since they aren’t really unexpected any more. They were a surprise the first time they appeared; and perhaps also the second time, since we might conclude it was a one-time only phenomenon until their repeat performance. Having lost the element of surprise, they no longer sneak up and catch us off guard. These bursts of color are also called “resurrection lilies,” “spider lilies,” and “naked ladies.” That’s quite a range of appellations. Why not stick with one of those names since the surprise factor is no more?
Sometimes a name change is in order. Jacob became Israel after wrestling with an angel. Saul became Paul after a conversion moment on the road. Little Jimmy became James and Lizzie became Elizabeth for the sake of growing up and being taken seriously. To better describe a person, thing, or moment, or maybe just for the sake of a fresh start, a different identifier can be helpful.
I have been thinking about name changes recently. In particular, I’ve been thinking about renaming “revivals.” It was partially sparked by a conversation with Judi earlier this week. Since her retirement, we visit various churches in the area on Sunday mornings. That flies in the face of the idea of perfect attendance at the house of worship of one’s choice; but so far as I know that is not a requirement to get into heaven and does not earn a person an upgrade, so we’re choosing to be a bit nomadic at the moment. Plus, we enjoy experiencing what is happening in other communities of faith. It was the choice of next week’s location that renewed the name change topic.
The church selected belongs to a tradition known for its hellfire and brimstone theology. However deserved the stereotype is, it is not always an accurate description of a particular congregation. We will soon find out if it applies to this one. Even so, before I could stop myself, my inner smart aleck blurted out, “Guess we better look for our flame-retardant Sunday clothes. Wonder where we put them?”
Whatever humor that comment added to the moment, it served the purpose of pulling me back into contemplation about the use of the name “revival” for a particular type of worship service. A couple of weeks back, I had the opportunity to preach a series of messages in what was billed as a “revival.” It was originally scheduled for 2020, but COVID shut down that plan. Finally, now in 2023, the coast seemed clear enough to proceed with the plans. If you know me, you know that I thoroughly enjoy the craft of preparing and delivering messages. If that makes me a suspect Quaker, then so be it! It is a process that feels like a gift, from start to finish.
More than one friend commented with surprise that I was preaching at a revival. For one thing, they are not as common in our area as they are in other places, so some are surprised to know they still exist. For another, the term is tightly bound with the idea of fiery preaching and altar calls at the end (hence my flame-retardant suit comment). Not all preaching is of the “hellfire and brimstone” variety, but it is a style frequently associated with revivals. That was a common model in the community where I was raised (though not the only one, to be clear). There were even examples of it among some of the evangelical Quaker meetings that populated the area. In fact, it played a role in my own spiritual formation.
Revivals fit easily with a theology that presents God with a judgmental holiness and a thirst for satisfied justice regardless of however loving God is described as being. It also typically includes an expectation that a public show of repentance is necessary to complete the process. It typically threatens listeners with the worst of fates if they do not repent right then and there. In my youth, it was not uncommon to suffer through multiple verses of “Just as I Am” until someone gave in and made their way to the front of the church. Though I would have once been comfortable in that setting, my thoughts about the purpose and methods of preaching have changed. Hence, the surprise among my friends that I was preaching revival.
Revival, at least as I learned of it as a child, was aimed at the lost and the unchurched, seeking to bring them to a moment of decision for Christ. That perspective becomes all the more interesting when one considers who attends most of these revival services held in the local church today – it is mostly the loyal, regular members who are certainly not among the unchurched and probably not to be numbered among the lost. That, it seems to me, at the very least calls us to reconsider its purpose and asks how to make the best use of our time together.
With that in mind and having acknowledged that fact with the group who attended the recent revival services, I said something like the following: “I’m not going to be speaking to you as though you’re lost and clueless, or knowledgeable but stubborn and shameful. If you are, we can talk; but if you’re not, let’s proceed as though we want to be renewed or inspired, deepening our commitment to the faith we profess.” I hope that happened but we won’t know for sure until we’ve traveled a bit further down the road. Two things I do know: one, flame-retardant suits weren’t necessary to attend; and two, a few messages whispered to me by some as they exited after the service gave me hope that the Spirit was at work during our time together.
I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to preach at this revival service even if my style is a little different. I do continue to ponder whether or not revival needs a name change since the audience being addressed has shifted over time, and with that, so has its useful purpose. But word meanings also evolve over time as well. For instance, awful once meant “fearful or terror.” Later it became synonymous with “awesome;” now, it largely carries a negative meaning similar to “terrible.” Perhaps “revival” has or should travel(ed) a similar journey.
What is it we long for when we seek revival? If we broaden the term to mean more than a harvest of the unchurched into the new life offered by Christ, and instead intend a renewal or regaining of vitality and energy within the Church as it pursues its purpose, then perhaps we begin to approach the desire that underlies the search. Perhaps it is a lost zeal or passion that we seek. Or a sense of value and commitment derived from identifying with the faith. For that to occur within a corporate group, chances are it needs to be experienced on an individual level, meaning a personal dimension is still central to a reframed idea of revival.
Beyond that shift, as I interpret the word in light what hopes I hear expressed by those who attend, it includes these facets:
- An innate desire for intimacy with the Creator. We may have once known such a connection, but it can appear to be dulled and dimmed over the everyday course of affairs. A perspective that reinforces our shortcomings and portrays an angry-ish God may encourage a “keep your head down and don’t draw attention” mentality. I recently attended a church in which the communion service included a conditional welcome and a threat to any who were unworthy who tried to participate. What if revival could leave the fear tactics behind and help us view God as a loving Creator who accompanies us.
- A wish to be involved with and used by the Spirit – not just view religion as a spectator sport where we show up and try not to snooze through the service, but one of involvement in work that spreads Good News, promotes common good, and assists personal and social transformation.
- An acknowledgement of frequent weariness that leaves us feeling that we need of a boost if we are to meet the commitments we have made. I learned that valuable piece of the answer from one congregation I served where worship functioned like a trip to the gas station to refuel for the next leg of the trip. It was beautiful and fascinating to watch the kind of community that formed in the process. Worship of a reviving sort re-energizes us for the work ahead.
- A desire for help with the question of how, exactly, does one share faith in a pluralistic world where we understand the importance of the Gospel but also can see the shortcomings of certain evangelistic methods. Some years ago, a colleague introduced me to a book that distinguished between a Roman model (“conquer and subject”) and a Celtic one (“live amongst and demonstrate”). The latter option resonated better with my Quaker leanings, but still, this seems to be an ongoing question where hopes for revival include a wish to know how best to engage with their communities.
Revival is still on the minds of many, and not just as an annual series of services in certain traditions. News headlines recently reported that a spontaneous revival was occurring at Asbury University. An effort is being made in other locations to seed a similar type of experience. It seems somewhat contradictory to try and seed a spontaneous experience, but one never knows when and how the Spirit will blow. Like those lilies out by our garage, perhaps we will be surprised again. Possibly it will be unlike ever before.