They call it speaking in tongues. And it is no longer just for wild-eyed, tambourine-waving Pentecostals who gather in storefront churches in poor neighborhoods. This unusual form of Christian prayer--which sounds like mindless babbling--is upwardly mobile.
It happened to me in 1976 when I was an 18-year-old Southern Baptist. I'd never heard anyone from my tradition describe the experience, although a few preachers had suggested that tongues was "from the devil."
But then I read a book by an Episcopal priest named Dennis Bennett, who described being "baptized in the Holy Spirit" and telling his staid California congregation that he had spoken in tongues. He was given the boot, but his subsequent book "The Holy Spirit and You" introduced millions of Christians (including me) to this astounding new experience.
I decided to ask God to fill me with the Holy Spirit's power and give me the ability to pray in an unknown language. I wanted it because, in the Book of Acts, people often spoke in tongues when they initially received the Spirit.
And so, one hot summer evening in Atlanta, I sat on a concrete bench near a volleyball court and asked Jesus to perform this minor miracle. No fireworks went off, but I began to hear some simple phrases in my head. It seemed natural to say them, but I was hesitant.
Then I uttered a phrase something like this: "Keil ama tondo ramala indiksia."
I had no clue what I was saying. It sounded stupid.
"Ilia tondi lamatra silia contira sa ma."
Knowing that intelligent people don't sit around muttering to themselves in a strange language, I struggled with doubts. It felt foolish on one hand, yet at the same time there was a sense of inexplicable peace as the phrases poured out of me without any effort. It was almost like stepping out of a boat and walking on water. That was the beginning. Since then, I've spoken in tongues many times: in the shower, in the car, sitting at my desk. Usually I have my eyes closed, but sometimes they're open. Wherever I am, when I'm speaking in tongues it feels like it's coming from the deepest part of my being. I am not out of control, and afterward I sometimes I feel a deep sense of satisfaction, as if I know God has heard me and He has answered.
I've been speaking in tongues for 27 years now. I've never done it on television, and don't ever plan to, because for me it's a very personal experience. Normally I pray this way when I am alone, though I will join in during prayer meetings where several people gather and speak in tongues.
The gift of tongues has provided me with a mystical sense of inner strength that comes from the indwelling Christ. I know it doesn't make any sense, but that's the beauty of this spiritual language. In order to speak it, you have to let go of natural reasoning. You must acknowledge that you are not in control. And you have to let God take over.
About the same time I was exploring this gift, others were, too. In the late 1960s, Catholic bishops got in on the act, and before too long thousands of priests, nuns and Catholic laypeople were calling themselves "charismatics" because they, too, learned to use what they called a "spiritual gift." Even entertainer Pat Boone learned to pray in a heavenly language, and his 1970 book A New Song helped tongues go mainstream-even in Hollywood.
It wasn't always this way. Although Acts 2:4 records Jesus' earliest followers receiving the gift of tongues on the Day of Pentecost, and though Christians throughout history have spoken in tongues, it was not until the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900s that the practice became popular. Even then, it was usually sidelined in tent meetings and rural churches, and many people were afraid of it. Traditional Christians derided it as fanaticism, while some fundamentalists--who don't like Pentecostals--condemned it as heresy. Meanwhile, unchurched people who heard it referred to as glossolalia (the Greek word for "unknown tongues") probably figured it was some kind of disease.
But because Pentecostalism has become a dominant religious movement during the past 40 years, tongues speaking is no longer something to ignore or ridicule. With more than 535 million Pentecostal or "charismatic" Christians on the planet, chances are everybody will get a chance to hear this unusual form of prayer before too long. I know Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Messianic Jews and even a Greek Orthodox priest who speak in tongues. Most of them feel more comfortable doing it in a church service if it is with others who also do it.
Speaking in tongues may help us physically, as well as spiritually. Medical doctors (some of whom speak in tongues, too) now are finding that glossolalia can relieve stress and make a person healthier. One expert, Christian pyschiatrist Carl R. Peterson, says those who speak in tongues for extended periods of time benefit from a release of brain hormones--which in turn boosts the body's general immunity.
However much we study it, I'm not sure we'll ever fully "get" it, this gift received by Jesus' frightened followers when the Holy Spirit first descended on the early church. Paul the Apostle writes that speaking in tongues is a unique type of prayer in which the believer speaks "mysteries" to God and at the same time "edifies himself" (1 Cor. 14:2,4). What's mysterious to us can still teach us.
I don't understand it. All I know is that what seems like nonsense to me must be beautiful music to God's ears.