“So I see your child has your OCD a little bit, eh?”
I laughed at my friend’s comment shrugging it off as a funny quirk, but as I wrestled with this a little more, I began to uncover another remnant of the spiritual abuse I experienced growing up.
There was always a reason. It didn’t matter if a youth died unexpectedly or a minister engaged in an affair or if someone committed suicide, there was always a reason. God always had a plan. God’s will would always be done. Explanations and reasons that brought about an orderly understanding of the unexpectedness you’re bound to encounter if you live in this world long enough.
There was no room for chaos. The unexpected when encountered fit into a nice, neat theological box of certainty. In times of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, I feel myself reverting back; depending on order, not wanting to ride the waves of chaos; clinging desperately to what I was taught rather than leaning into experiencing the Divine.
There have been too many experiences already in my short tenure as a minister where I have encountered people hurting, gasping for breath after the unexpected wave life has thrown at them. As they have looked at me and asked, “Why?” I haven’t been able to offer those boxed answers of certainty; those flimsy, life-preserver reasons that we toss at people to avoid feeling their pain. Instead, I have tried to look at them and say, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, but here’s a warm towel and some cold water and I’ll sit right here with you.”
As we near the raging wind that brought tongues of fires to hover over the followers of Christ, I can’t help but wonder how I can avoid the numerous times chaos, the wilderness, the unknown, the rushing wind is a part and indeed central to the narrative of those who follow God. Perhaps in trying to tame Creator God and the Holy Spirit, we are missing the opportunity to participate in the magical, mystical, unexplainable work of the Divine.
This week was the celebration of Pentecost, a time in the church calendar where we remember God sending God’s Spirt to the apostles after the resurrection of Jesus. Many churches celebrate by wearing red, a symbol of the tongue of fire that rested on each of them when the Spirit came down.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
The tongue as of fire reminds us of the fire that guided the people of God as they wandered in the desert. The rush of the violent wind that filled the entire house reminds us of the wind that swept over the waters in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. And we remember that the Spirit of God is a powerful force, one that has the power of giving of life, but also one that has the power of destruction like the rain of fire on Sodom and Gomorrah and the fire of the Lord that answered Elijah’s prayer and consumed a whole altar licking up all the water surrounding the altar.
This Spirit of God refines us into new creations. We have been invited as co-creators with this powerful Spirit of God, but when we forget that we are new creations, we can use this powerful Spirit of God to harm and hurt rather than to heal and transform, especially those of us who who are called to lead and guide God’s people. We are the ones who are to ask God’s people to look up and see the flame and the cloud walking with us as we journey in the wilderness toward the promise land. We can claim that the Spirit of God rests on us, as it did with the apostles, and ask God’s people to follow us rather than the Spirit of God who is indeed with us. When we do, let us be certain that we are speaking with tongues of flames and not with our own words that seek to self-promote and self-protect. Let us remember that if we speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, we are only resounding cymbals clamoring for attention, missing out on the powerful Spirit of God that is able to do miracles.
I grew up in a baptist church, and I can remember having revivals, not every year, but every couple of years. These revivals were not times for people to come back to the church and catch up with each other, but a time for the church to reignite their faith and mission to the gospel. When I went to Furman, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that not all churches celebrated revivals in the summer. What also became clear was there were other baptist churches that celebrated something called Homecoming.
Having attended two small schools, Homecoming was a big deal, but only if you knew your friends were coming. If your friends weren’t coming, then there was really no point in making the trek. But my perception of Homecoming wasn’t really what Homecoming was in these smaller baptist churches. No, Homecoming was something you made the trek back to your home church for every year. It wasn’t something you missed because it was a time when people who had been a member of the church and who still were members of the church got gathered over good food and caught up.
It’s something I love about pastoring a small church. We have a similar tradition in our anniversary dinner every year. Because of our size, we literally have to reorganize most of our church in order to celebrate our birthday, but the time we spend getting the church ready and getting the food ready all makes it worthwhile as we gather around interconnected tables to eat and catch up.
These traditions that many of us remember from our baptist roots are often disregarded in moderate and progressive baptist congregations. Mentioning the word “revival” or “altar call” or “invitation time” would bring together almost every committee in most of moderate and progressive congregations pretty quickly. I understand the hesitation because so many of us have hurt and pain associated with these times, and yet so many of us would mark these times as one of our first encounters with the gospel. I know that’s true for me.
I just wonder if in our efforts to be open-minded and affirming if at times if we miss opportunities to invite others to be a part of God’s amazing work in the world. To me God is not a God of rationale exposition, but a God of movement and miracles. Would people encounter that aspect of God in our congregations?
I know they would at a Willie Nelson concert:
I didn’t preach this Pentecost.
Instead, my congregation graciously supported my taking a Sunday off, so that we could attend birthday parties and ballet recitals for our girls. At first it was strange not to preach on the culmination of the Eastertide season, but then I thought about the revelation and inspiration that can come when we change our routine and encounter something different.
I don’t think those gathered expected the rush of wind or the fiery flames to come and rest above their heads, nor did they anticipate being able to speak in different languages once things had settled down a bit. No, I think that even though the text tells us that it was the Day of Pentecost, those who were about to experience the Spirit of God coming down had no idea what was about to happen.
Perhaps it is because of my own story of how I entered into ministry that was so unexpected and sudden that I identify so strongly with this unexpected turn of events; or perhaps it’s because for the past three years I was surrounded by classmates who had similar stories. The unexpected twists and turns of the gospel message allow room for anything to happen.
For some, I am sure that’s a scary proposition. One worth hiding from and even running from.
For some, it is the most exciting part of the story. One worth hoping for and striving for.
Pentecost for me is the reminder that the divine is mysterious and powerful and still has the ability to knock the wind out of us and change every word that comes out of our mouths. May the spirit-filled air envelope us all.