Wednesday, July 13, 2011

William Seymour and God's Glory

I walked on the very spot where modern day Pentecostalism began. It's not much today. Cement covers the ground where the Apostolic Faith Mission once stood. A Japanese Cultural Center owns the property now. It looks like a typical downtown location you would find in any major city.

However, in 1906, a black pastor by the name of William Seymour led a full blown revival from this unassuming location that has impacted over 600,000,000 lives. Today, only a plaque commemorates the location of God's greatest revival in the history of mankind since Pentecost. It became the cradle of Pentecostalism and of revivals throughout South America, Africa, and Asia. It served as a catalyst to trigger continual revival for the last century. In other words, the Azusa St. outpouring  kicked butt!  

As one can see, the fires that began one hundred and five years ago still burn brightly throughout the present world. This is testament to God's ability to carry out his will despite man's frailties. I just finished reading two books about William Seymour and a book about the Azusa Street revival (thank you Bob Aisawa) and one theme stood out: God likes to use the weak and the foolish to accomplish the great (1 Cor 1).

History repeats itself over and over again. It gives us a perspective on things so we don't get too high and mighty about our importance, so we don't worship the wrong things. Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Joseph, the disciples, and every leadership team throughout history had their weaknesses so that God got the glory, not man. He shines out amidst our foolishness. The Bible glorifies God and puts man in his place.

Yes, there is Psalm 8 which proclaims we were made just a little lower than God, but higher than all other created beings, even angels. We are important to God. We are special. We are made in the image of God. I'm just making the point that God's purposes still blaze forth despite our propensity to screw things up. 

William Seymour was a son of former slaves. He came from the heart of segregationist Louisiana, a place brimming with white hooded racists, still smarting from their defeat by the Yankees, still taking out their frustrations by lynching and oppressing the black population. As you can see, It was not a great place to live if you were an African American. In other words, it wouldn't be high up on one of those Parade magazine quality of life surveys. I just couldn't picture how a burning cross on the front lawn would increase curb appeal. The Louisiana of the 1870s was not a pleasant place to live.

As one could surmise, he and his family still lived in a form of slavery despite the Emancipation Proclamation. The Jim Crow laws reigned. The blacks were still considered lower than dogs. A white person could could kill a black person for just about anything, even suspicion for a crime. From this oppressive locale he moved to the Midwest (just as racist) and then finally to Texas to study Bible under the leader of the Topeka outpouring, William Parham.

Parham was known to have led a bible college that experienced an outpouring of the gift of tongues. Some consider him the father of modern day Pentecostalism because of this, but his extreme racist views and accusations of sodomy somewhat tarnished that position of honor. He died in obscurity.  Whatever the case, Seymour chose to study under this white supremist because he preached a third experience Christianity; the experience of speaking in tongues as a sign of being baptized and saved by the Holy Spirit. 

Seymour submitted to further humiliation by sitting outside the classroom on the back porch because he was not allowed to study with white students in the same room. Parham left the door open half way so William could take part in the lecture. He was such a nice guy. Actually, God used these humbling experiences to shape and form his servant for the role of a lifetime, the role of a revivalist.

It was said that Seymour memorized every sermon and teaching of Parham. He was hungry for God. He humbled himself to learn. After making the most of his time in Texas he finally received a call to serve in Los Angeles, California.

He wanted to pastor, but the church that called him locked him out of the sanctuary because they disagreed with his extreme holiness theology; primarily his views on sanctification and tongues. They even put a pad lock on the door. God continued to crush this man so the pure oil of life would flow. 

With no church to call his home, he did the second best thing: pray with other crazy people. They met on Bonnie Brae street in a semi-big house and sought the Lord together for hours on end. Seymour prayed for five hours a day for three years prior to moving to LA and then upped the ante by consuming seven hours a day before the mighty outpouring in 1906. The guy couldn't get enough of God. He wanted the pure stuff. The rest were also very hungry for God's presence and the gift of tongues.

Seymour preached the third experience despite the fact he did not speak in tongues. Maybe this was why he prayed so much and sought God. Being a man of integrity and faith, he cried out for the gift everyday for years. The dude had perseverance!  

Then during one prayer meeting God decided to open the flood gates and inundate his people. The rest is history because major healings, deliverances, other supernatural occurrences, and movements have since spawned off from this initial outpouring. The world has never been the same.

William Seymour was an extremely humble, soft spoken, unassuming man. His preaching was not that great, almost inaudible because of his quiet demeanor. The guy also put a box on his head for hours until he felt the presence of God moving in the service. He would then take it off and pronounce major healings in-sync with God's initiatives. Limbs grew out, tumors disappeared, eyes opened, ears unstopped, and a white glory cloud of his presence filled the humble church building. It must have been mind blowing to experience such an outpouring.

He also preached a pretty whacked-out theology. For instance, he believed in baptizing people only in the name of Jesus, complete physical sanctification, speaking in tongues as the sign of salvation, and a host of other oddities. The rest of the teachers were also pretty extreme. Did God care? Did it stymie His attempts to carry out His will? Did it stop Him from reaching 600,000,000 lives? No, no, and absolutely no.

I'm not saying theology is unimportant, but in comparison to having the right heart, it pales. God looks at the heart (1 Sam 16:7, 1 Chron 16:9). He draws near to humility. God can work out the kinks of theology, but character takes time and perseverance. This is the gold refined in fire (Revelations 3).

The Azusa leadership had this at the beginning. They walked in sweet unity by worshipping together as blacks, whites, Asians, and other ethnic groups. Racism was thrown out the window. They worshipped as one. God commanded the blessing (Psalm 133).

This blessed unity didn't last very long. After about a year, things started to unravel, and in about fourteen years, William Seymour and his wife, Jennie, were scrounging for funds and rejected by their former friends  and associates. Yes, he still preached to a congregation of 24, but was basically shunned by the leadership of Los Angeles. Racism, legalism, the religious spirit, division, and other ills reentered the picture. He died in 1922 praising his Lord and Savior with these words, "Oh, I love my Jesus so." He wasn't bitter, only thankful to his God for the opportunity to serve.

The old building was finally condemned and razed in 1931 due to its dilapidated condition and potential as a fire hazard. Today, the Japanese cultural center of Los Angeles sits on the once hallowed ground of Azusa. Only a plaque, a sign, and a grapefruit tree from that era remain. The rest has been covered over by asphalt and cement.

What were some lessons I learned from William Seymour? God will do what he wants to do despite our weaknesses; God blesses humility and the right heart, not theologies; God blesses people, not buildings; God just blesses; God is not into man-made monuments; God doesn't rest in past glory; God doesn't share his glory; God likes to use weak vessels; God is God.

There are other lessons, but these are the few I gleaned. History has a way of making you less uptight as a person. God shines amidst our sinfulness and weaknesses. From the garden until now, man is not that impressive – God is. We can now step off the pedestal and remove others off the place that rightly belongs to Him. If anything, Azusa has taught me this truth: All glory and honor belongs to Him.     

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