Friday, June 26, 2009

when icons are destroyed

If you are a preacher, the culture has flooded your reservoir with illustration upon illustration this week. The death of Ed McMahan, then Farrah Fawcett, then Michael Jackson; the separation and impending divorce of Jon and Kate; the political and personal disintegration of John Ensign and Mark Sanford. The abuse of drugs and alcohol, a presenting issue in the case of each celebrity; the personal journey as continual facial reconstruction; the abandoned angel as heroine, the dutiful sidekick cast aside by a series of wives, and depleted by a mountain of alimony payments. The accident waiting to happen, a passive/aggressive and immature male meets a hyper-organized and somewhat dominant female---this can work, perhaps with one or two children, but not eight, but the economic benefits hold it together, at least for a time. And the false persona of two politicians who would judge others and find themselves sliced by the same knives they had wielded.

This has been a bad week for American popular and political culture. The struggle with money, sex and power overtakes the advantaged and the venerated. If these are icons, they are windows into the darker reality: the wealthy entertainer who spends the night unsupervised with the children of other families, the sexual goddess who experiences a painful and public death, the entertainer who runs through the assets before the end of his life. A happy and even religious couple separates before our eyes. Two public officials, standing on the front lines of the culture wars, now find themselves asking for the same compassion they have been so unwilling to extend to others.

"Do not be conformed to the world", the scripture teaches, "but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." Christians participate in the popular and political culture, shaping it to some extent (see the excellent recent work of Andy Crouch), and yet at times we have a bit of unease about it all. And yet a week like the one that has just passed brings us face to face with the reality of self-destruction, and with the corresponding need for redemption, or at least sanity.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

lindsey parr goes to the dominican republic

One of the four areas of ministry focus for the United Methodist Church over these four years (08-12) is to develop principled Christian leaders for the church and the world. I am blessed to serve a congregation that embraces this mandate: we had the experience of celebrating the graduations of three of our members from theological schools in May: Jamie and Holle Wollin, from Asbury Theological Seminary, and Stephanie Wilhoit, from Duke Divinity School. In addition, a mission team traveled to Haiti in May, our third team there since January, and of the twenty persons (who were involved in a school, an orphanage, a clinic, a microcredit and a local church), eleven were between the ages of twenty and thirty, and thirteen were younger than 35!

I want you to know about Lindsey Parr, another of our members, who will be served in the next year in the Dominican Republic with the DREAM project. You can learn more about her here. Lindsey is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and has sensed a call to serve children in the Dominican Republic (she has served previously there and in Haiti). I hope you will keep up with her experience at her blog, and include her in your prayers. I am convinced that she is on the way to becoming a principled Christian leader for the church and for the world.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

psalm 23

A young man was trying to sort out what to do with his life. He did have a sense that God was calling him to do something, and this call had led him from New York City to rural Kentucky, where he found himself living in a monastery. Being in a monastery did not always help him to feel more spiritual, or give him any clarity about his direction in life. The monastery did put in touch with the Psalms, which were read every two weeks. This young man, Thomas Merton, wrote a prayer that expressed something of his search at that time:

“O Lord God, I have not idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire to please you. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear. And you will never leave me to make my journey alone.”

Merton’s prayer has within it echoes of the 23rd Psalm, which begins with the words the Lord is my shepherd. It is an act of trust: who is going to be our guide? It begins as a call to obedience. Whose voice are we going to listen to? The psalm calls for a response in the words of the gospel hymn, to “trust and obey”. And in that trusting and obedience, there is a realization: I shall not want”. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and God provided each day, enough for that day.

To say “I shall not want”, is to say “I have everything I need”, I have “enough”. This is an important word for us, given the experience of our community, our country, our world over the past year. We are prone to hear a different voice, saying “You do not have all that you need”, “there is not enough”. From a human point of view, there is never enough. From a human point of view, we live in perpetual scarcity. But from the psalmist’s perspective, there is perhaps not abundance, but there is enough, it is sufficient, “I shall not want”.

This is a psalm about the basics of life. The images that follow next, about green pastures and still waters, were really about survival, what was necessary: food and drink. The shepherd would supply the need. Years ago the psychologist Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs, and the most basic needs were physiological: food, water, breathing, sleeping. In his pyramid, the next need was safety, then belonging, then self-esteem, then what he called actualization: morality, purpose, creativity. But at the foundation was the question: will I survive?

When we know this, we have the confidence to move more deeply into the psalm. We have focused on the external---what we have or do not have---now we move to the internal---and we can begin to hear the psalm in a different way. He makes me lie down in green pastures (rest), he leads me beside still waters (recreation), he restores my soul.

This is the great work of God, the personal and spiritual renewal of his children, and as we trust and obey we are guided forward in the journey: he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. A better translation is that he leads us to walk in the right path. To be led down the wrong path is the road to destruction. For a sheep, to take the wrong path was to be separated from the shepherd, to be in danger of predators, and this could be a matter of life or death.

A word here, about this image of the shepherd. The shepherd is one who leads. In the gospel, Jesus is the good shepherd. The sheep hear his voice and they know and follow him.

I love being a pastor, and one of the images, across the centuries, of being a pastor is a shepherd. This week I will attend Annual Conference at Lake Junaluska, along with a number of our staff members and lay delegates. I always attend the ordination service and it is an opportunity for me to reflect again on what I started out to do, what I felt God was calling me to do, as a young man, and what I find myself doing now.

Over the last 26 years the church has become a much more complex institution, serving an infinitely greater variety of needs, having increasingly demanding expectations placed upon it. It helps me to go back to this basic image. The role of the pastors, and I would include all of our clergy and someone like Adam Ward in this definition, is to lead us to sources that not only sustain life but to help life to flourish: biblical teaching that is like solid food and not junk food; great music that inspires; Christian community where forgiveness and growth occur; outreach to others that meets the most basic needs of life: food, shelter, protection, education, faith.

And now we come to our focus for this morning: though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. There is the recognition that we are sometimes in the valley of the shadow of death. These are the dark times, the confusing dilemmas, the despairing moments. The mystics call this the dark night of the soul. The whole biblical tradition had wrestled with the valley of the shadow of death: Abraham, called to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob struggling all night with someone, maybe an angel, maybe God. Jesus agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane and later on the cross.

In the dark times, this psalm is helpful. Time and time again I will be leading in a memorial service, and we have entered the sanctuary and offered words of greeting and prayed and sang a hymn, and then we have read this Psalm, and when those gathered begin to say these words, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me”, something happens.

The effect of these words is calming, healing, almost tranquilizing. They are a response to a powerful reality. The psalmist is correct to name the elephant in the room, and that is fear. We live in a culture of fear. In part this is based on marketing. Marketers know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they know about fear. And so we really need a certain product because of the fear of….our own personal safety, or a catastrophic health incident, or, having sufficient financial resources. Politicians play upon our fears: if the other side gets in office, you will be unsafe, you will be out of work, you will you’re your life and liberties. And religion has made use of fear as well. When I was a little boy, many of the largest churches in our community preached, in essence, a gospel of fear. If you do not change your life, you will burn in hell. I remember those messages even now.

The problem with fear is that it does not motivate us. Over time, it paralyzes us. And in more subtle forms, fear can grip us, fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of losing something that is important to us, our work changes, our children grow up, our health declines. We are sometimes stuck in the valley of the shadow of death, and paralyzed by a fear that we cannot get beyond. The psalm helps. I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. The psalm does not deny that threats that surround us; the psalm simply affirms that we are not alone. God is with us.

This is a brief psalm, only six verses, and for that reason many can recite it from memory. In verse five the imagery shifts, from shepherd and sheep to guest and host, but again, the teaching is simply reinforced: a table with food and drink, the anointing of protection. The host protects the guest, provides for the guest, even in the presence of the threat of enemies.

The psalm concludes with a promise. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The Message actually translates the literal meaning of the Hebrew more accurately: Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. God is not passively keeping a distance from us. God is actively pursuing us, for our good.

The sixth and last verse: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. To dwell in the house of the Lord is to inhabit a different world. The house of the Lord was the temple, of course, and for the Christian this is heaven, but it is also this life, speaking practically for our congregation it is the sanctuary and the atrium, it is wherever God’s people are, wherever the community gathers, it is a confirmation that we are not alone.

We have moved, in the course of the psalm, from the valley of the shadow of death to the house of the Lord. And this is a journey that many of us have made: from an initial crisis, a threat, a fear, a paralysis, to the knowledge that we are not alone, to the reminder that God, and at times through his people, provides for us, to the presence of God, who is our refuge and strength, and his people, who are his dwelling place.

This morning we hear this psalm in the context of a meal, a feast that has been prepared for us. As we receive the bread and cup, we remember that God provides for us, at a most basic level: I shall not want.

As we receive the bread and the cup, we know that we are strengthened not only physically but also spiritually: he restores my soul.

As we walk toward the altar, and then as we walk away from the altar, we are reminded that life is a gift of grace that we receive in order to give. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

As we kneel or stand to receive the bread and the cup, we know that a table has been prepared for us, and even as we become more conscious of our enemies, those with whom we have conflict, we also count our blessings: we know that our cup runneth over.

As we sit in the pew after receiving, we might reflect on the comings and goings of our lives, the straight paths and the wandering diversions, times of nearness to God and others times when God seemed far away, and yet it is true that God has always been following after us, even chasing us: goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

And just to be together, for a moment, to stand at the end of the service, knowing that through the bread and the wine God dwells in us, and that we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

These are the gifts of God for us, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine, a favorite psalm. They sustain us with the basic necessities, they protect us from danger, they guide us in the path. The 23rd Psalm is about everyday life---the necessities---but it is also about crisis, and perhaps then we hear the voice of the good shepherd most clearly and compellingly, when we worry about the basics, when life is threatened, when we are not sure if we are lost, or headed in the right direction. In those moments to pray the 23rd psalm is enough.

Sources: Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude. Scott Bayer-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Clint McCann, Great Psalms of The Bible.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

psalms in the summer: part five

In an essay found in Wisdom from The Monastery, Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S. B., quotes the well-known passage from the Rule of Benedict that "nothing is to be preferred to the work of God". This work, he notes, is chiefly the reading and singing of the psalms, which has formed the core of monastic life for 1600 years. This has importance for protestant and evangelical Christians, however, in that it speaks to our need to read the scriptures in community (for an excellent resource on this subject, see Dennis Okholm's Monk Habits For Everyday People [Brazos Press]).

In the essay, Dumm reflects first on the importance of time, and the prior claim of God upon our time. This is a subject that distresses many parish ministers; not only the joke about a service of worship going five minutes beyond noon, but swimming against the stream in a culture that values other activities above worship. In a Benedictine monastery, such as St. John's in Minnesota, where I spent a week last summer, there are seven distinct periods a day, where the monks and guests drop what they are doing and gather for the reading and hearing of scripture.

It is all about time. Dumm writes:

"Time is one of the most precious gifts that we humans receive from God. It is clear that Benedicts wants his monks (my insertion: that God wants us) to acknowledge this gift by returning choice portions of their time each day to God. In this way, they will practice the most basic form of hospitality, which is to make room in their schedules for the entertainment of God's real but mysterious presence".

He then moves to the place of the psalms in the "work of God", answering, in effect the question "why the Psalms?"

"The constant chanting of the psalms is intended to immerse the monk in a world where God's presence is felt and where God's goodness is praised. The world is made accessible to the monk through personal faith, which finds the gift of God at the center of all reality, in spite of much evil and violence on the surface of human life."

What is the method for such a transformation? The author continues: "For the purpose of achieving this prayerful immersion, Benedict prescribed that his monks should memorize the entire Psalter." At an early stage in my Christian life I was involved in a program of scripture memorization. I found it to be helpful, if sometimes simplistic in its application. In hindsight, however, I now realize that I have the scriptures, because of that very experience. It is ironic that Catholics can teach us something about the memorization of the Word; our stereotypical perspective, that we are often more grounded in scripture, being called into question.

How does one get started in this? "This must have been a daunting task for the younger members of the monastery. But they would have been greatly assisted and encouraged by the older members, for we can well imagine that they were carried along, as it were, on the waves of biblical words provided by the elders. Over the years, the effect would be that the minds and memories of all the monks would be filled more and more with expressions of praise and gratitude."

How might the church be renewed? How might the faith be passed from one generation to the next? Our responses to these questions quickly go to style or method or technique, and we often ignore the matter of content. Could it be that we do not trust the scriptures themselves with the power to transform us, to ignite a new generation, to sustain our traditions of Christianity?

This summer we are reading the psalms, immersing ourselves in the 150 psalms. You are invited to join us here. Could a new generation of Christians be exposed to words that might fill them, more and more, with praise and gratitude? At a deeper level, might they discover, in even one psalm, the gift of God at the very center of all reality? And could they come to believe that God, and the word of God, does indeed have a prior claim upon us, upon our lives, upon our time?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

western north carolina annual conference highlights

A highly personal and subjective reflection on our annual conference:

1. Bishop Goodpaster was efficient and inspiring in his leadership of this, his first conference with us. The trains ran on time. He gave us a vision, 300K members, 30k new worshippers, 3k volunteer in mission teams, 300 remissioned churches, 30 new churches. It is a great vision, and I think, given the right equipping, our conference can reach this goal.

2. A really astonishing ordination service, and here I am speaking of a spontaneous invitation to those present to come forward and explore the call to full-time Christian service. A significant number of persons came forward and I watched in awe as an African-American woman stood and gave thanks to God for someone in her family who had walked forward. This was clearly an answer to prayer.

3. The Bishop led us in a prayer of repentance for our loss of members. Again, a very fitting act of ministry. I have often felt that we needed to do this, at General Conference, every four years.

4. A very biblical and theological sermon by Edgardo Colon-Emeric of Duke Divinity School, in English and Spanish. I also appreciated Michael Williams, whose sermons were in the story-telling vein. Edgardo was linear, Williams non-linear.

5. Reconnecting with many close friends. I cannot overestimate how important this is to me.

6. The 50th birthday party of a friend, and the commissioning of another friend.

7. Eating with some of our church members at Clyde's and Duvalls. Two places in Waynesville where the locals eat, good food at a good price. And my wife's sugar free "Shoney's" strawberry pie.

8. Walking around the lake (2.5 miles) each day.

9. Beginning to read The Eighth Day of Creation, a gift from my friend Clift Black, an elder in our conference who teaches at Princeton Seminary.

10. Leading a small portion of the presentation of the 32 amendments. I think 8 of them passed in our conference, with the worldwide amendments failing approximately 8-1.

11. An impromptu conversation with the husband of a clergywoman. She is a good friend but I had never met him. They are interesting in a number of respects, among them that their son plays in the NFL.

12. The memorial service; increasingly, these are persons I know quite well. One was the minister of visitation at the Mount Tabor Church, where I served from 1997-2003. He died in September. Another was one of the former senior pastors of Providence. And yet another was the wife of one of my mentors. The inclusion of the elders in this service was also moving.

Twelve seems to be a good place to conclude. Bishop Goodpaster appears to be both missional and evangelical, and that is our need, at the present time. I left Junaluska thankful for the days spent in conference, looking forward to the unfolding of the vision, and also deeply happy to begin a seventh year with the people of Providence UMC.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


Buddy and Julie Miller, Chalk
Lucinda Williams, Crescent City
Sly and The Family Stone, Everybody is a Star
Van Morrison, Quality Street
Donna The Buffalo, Way Back When
Wilco, Impossible Germany
The Band, Baby Don't Do It
Diana Krall, Cry Me A River
Jim Lauderdale, Tales From The Sad Hotel
Darrell Scott, Long Time Gone
Emmylou Harris, Satan's Jewel Crown
James Taylor, Mexico
Solomon Burke, That's How I Got To Memphis
Levon Helm, Atlantic City
Linda Ronstadt, Heart Like A Wheel
Willie Nelson, Songbird
Allman Brothers Band, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Blackbird
Pierce Pettis, God Believes In You
Robert Earl Keen, My Home Ain't In The Hall of Fame
Bruce Cockburn, All The Diamonds In The World
Nanci Griffith, Gulf Coast Highway
Gillian Welch, By The Marks Where The Nails Have Been

Friday, June 05, 2009

psalms in the summer: part four

We are a few days into our summer immersion into the Psalms. Today, June 5, included the reading of Psalms 9 (morning) and 10 (evening). Some of you have joined as followers on twitter, for which we are grateful. We are posting a 140 character response/reflection each morning and evening, and included some of the feedback from followers.

Why the Psalms? I came across this writing from Ellen Davis, in her Getting Involved With God:

"The Psalms model ways of talking to God that are honest, yet not obvious---at least they are not obvious to modern Christians. They may guide our first steps toward deeper involvement with God, because the Psalms give us a new possibility for prayer; they invite full disclosure. They enable us to bring into our conversation with God feelings and thoughts that most of us think we need to get rid of before God will be interested in hearing from us." (5)

What strikes me about this commentary by a very wise biblical theologian is the sense that it is culturally, psychologically and theological accurate. She notes our cultural propensity for self-deception and pride; we avoid God, or come to God in ways that are sometimes not who we are but who we imagine our religious selves to be. This image (false self) is one that is often marketed to us by the industry of Christian publishing and and modeled by the persona of religious celebrity. She is on target psychologically: "full disclosure" is the therapeutic encounter with this false self (think Psalm 51), en route to the true self (this was Thomas Merton's guiding image, powerfully present early in his writings, especially The Sign of Jonas). And she speaks profound theological truth: the psalms are the raw materials of the divine-human relationship, God's revelation and our apprehension of this gift by faith, God's strength and our weakness, God's mystery and our incomprension. Psalms that we know well---Psalm 8, 23, 51, 139--have the capacity to speak to us again and again, and precisely because we are constantly living in the condition that Ellen Davis describes.

And so I hope you will embark with us in the journey through the Psalms this summer.

Monday, June 01, 2009

when life is a mess (pentecost)

If you want to hear the sound of great laughter, someone has commented, tell God about your plans. We do want order and we want control. And that is good. Graduating from college in four years is a good thing. Planning for retirement is a good thing. I am all for having a plan. But many of us have had the experience of seeing our plans hijacked. We are headed in a certain direction and something or someone comes along and revises our agenda. Maybe a part of our fascination with Jon and Kate and their eight children is that here is a woman who is pretty into order and control, and along come eight children who are pretty intent on destroying the order and wrestling control away from her. Not to mention the more recent developments which you can learn about as you stand in line to buy groceries. It is like waiting and watching for a car crash. Why else would nine million people tune in?

Plans, control, order. We can, of course, transfer all of this to the spiritual life. We plan our lives and along comes an interruption, an intrusion. I have been returning recently to some of the writings of Henri Nouwen, and there is his experience, while he is teaching on the faculty of Harvard Divinity School, a knock on his door, a woman who simply says, I bring you the greetings of Jean Vanier” and how all of this leads to his move to Toronto to care for one young man named Adam with special needs in the L’Arche community, and how disorienting this is, at first, and yet, it is the work of God.

Today we celebrate the gift of the Spirit to us and to the church, on the day of Pentecost. A word about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was present in creation, moving over the face of the waters. The Holy Spirit was present in the lives of the prophets: The spirit of the Lord is upon me”, Isaiah voiced, “and has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives, to announce that this is the year of the Lord”. Jesus read from these words in his very first public sermon, preaching at Capernaum and recording in Luke 4. The Holy Spirit was present in the form of a dove as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. When Jesus began to explain what his departure would mean for the disciples, he told them that he would not really be leaving them, his spirit, the comforter, the advocate, would be present.

This promise finds its greatest fulfillment on the day of Pentecost. Last week we remembered the words of Jesus, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and this becomes a reality today. Pentecost occurred, not accidentally, on Shuvuot, one of the three major festivals of Judaism, which occurred 50 days after the Feast of First Fruits. It was a remembrance of Moses at Mount Sinai, reading the law seven weeks after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. And so it is a celebration of a spring harvest and the giving of the commandments.

According to Jewish law, every male was required to come to Jerusalem with an offering. And so on this day, the faithful were gathered from every nation; the miracle is not that they speak in tongues, but that each one understands in their own native language, languages they have learned while living in exile, after the disintegration of the Kingdom of David and the destruction of the temple.

The spirit, given on Pentecost, is most fully present in profession of faith (1 Cor 12), but prior to this in baptism, and later through participation in the church and the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12-14). The Spirit always comes as a gift (John 3), and is always expressed for the good of others (1 Cor 12), especially for the body of Christ (Ephesians 4).

This is some of the background in understanding the Holy Spirit, and yet it is true that there is a great deal of confusion on this subject. Once we get a sense of what the Holy Spirit actually is, we may wonder how this relates to us, if at all.

We may think people who have the Holy Spirit are folks who seem to embody the fruit of the spirit, loving people, joyous people, peaceful people, patient people. On some days we don’t feel so holy or spiritual in these senses.

Or we may think people have the Holy Spirit if they speak in tongues, in the sense of the charismatic churches, or if there is a demonstrably intense emotional reality. Maybe this does not describe us either. Watching Phil Jackson this week, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, I was reminded of reading his autobiography years ago, as a boy he grew up as the child of two parents who were Pentecostal preachers, and he never had that experience.

Or we may think the Holy Spirit is given to those who are always doing spiritual things, going on retreats, meeting for prayer, using religious language: God helped me to select this gift for a friend, God opened up this parking place for me uptown, God gave me just the right word to say.” And you may think, “this is not me.”

All of this may be true, to an extent, and yet the Holy Spirit cannot be defined or contained by any of these experiences. The Holy Spirit breaks beyond all of our constraints and boundaries. The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity that constantly refuses our definitions and resists our control. If God cannot be placed in a box, this is most true with respect to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is wild, it is passion, it is energy, it is intensity, it is wind and fire and flood, but it is also silence and a still, small voice, and a peace that surpasses human understanding. The Holy Spirit is all of this.

In summary, the Holy Spirit is a mess. And sometimes we want to avoid that mess. This has been true of the mainline churches and to a degree the United Methodist Church. We love order, predictability and rationality. And so we have almost said, at times, and I exaggerate a little, to the Pentecostal churches, “You can have the Holy Spirit”, we will take God and Jesus.” And so we are big on Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, but Pentecost is like the ignored stepchild in the family.

And yet, this is a turning point in the whole history of God’s relationship with us. On the day of Pentecost, on Shuvuot, in Jerusalem, they are all together in one place. I have been to Jerusalem several times and one of those happened to be on Pentecost. We had visited the Upper Room, where Jesus had told the disciples to gather. We walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the burial site of Jesus. It was Sunday morning, about 10 o’clock. It was the intersection of holy time and holy space.

Churches across the centuries have contested their right to this holy ground. Now we can all be territorial about our spaces, and that might be your favorite chair at home or your Sunday School classroom, but these folks have the territorial instinct down to a sacred art. And so along comes a processional choir singing Russian music, followed by a monk dressed in his habit, with the longest flowing beard I have ever seen. Then a group of Ethiopian Christians, their beautiful black faces in contrast, just behind them, dancing with joy. As they are entering, a group or Roman Catholics is departing, chanting the liturgy in Latin. Waiting in the wings, oblivious to all of these other groups, are the Coptic Christians, who actually think they have the true claim to this space.

It was truly multi-sensory---the smell of incense, the brightness of colors, the roar of sounds, all of these different languages, none of which I understood. On one level, it was chaos. And yet, underneath it all I got it, completely. The spirit was undeniably present in the power and mystery and messiness of the moment. That day I became a Pentecostal!

On this, the day of Pentecost, we are all together in one place. Outwardly, it might seem that everything is in good order. But inwardly, because we are human beings, because we have struggles, because we have questions, because God is not finished with us, inwardly there is often disorder and confusion. Outwardly, all appears to be well. Inwardly, it might indeed be a mess. And at first the disconnect between what is on the outside and what is on the inside, between the appearance and the reality, might trouble us. But the dissonance is actually the work of God, the labor pains of a new birth, the groaning of a new creation.

God is at work in us, in you, and the instrument that God is using to push us, to poke at us, to shock us and to nudge us, is the Holy Spirit. It is the gift we did not anticipate, like the unexpected child, and yet we probably cannot imagine life without it. In the 4th century the church elders got together and reflected on what this faith meant, and they sensed a greater need to define the Holy Spirit. Now, in a way that is humorous, and perhaps God sat in the heavens and laughed. But they worked at it, and one of the sentences from the creed, in Nicea, stands out. “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life”.

The giver of life. The spirit present at the beginning of the world, billions of years ago, moving over the face of the waters. The spirit present in the lives of Elizabeth and Mary, and the children they would bear, John the Baptist and Jesus. The spirit present in the form of a dove that would descend on Jesus at his baptism. The spirit there in the, how else can you describe them, in the “messed up” churches of Corinth and Galatia and Ephesus. John, on an island off the coast of Turkey, caught up in the spirit and given a vision, a revelation of the present and the future. The spirit was always there, giving life.

The good news, brothers and sisters, is that this same spirit, God’s spirit, is with us, now, intruding into our personal space, erasing the neat formulas that we write across the blackboards of our lives, the spirit is the unexpected child, the uninvited guest, but also the second wind, the “aha” moment of wisdom and insight, the voice of one who encourages us and the embrace of one who stands beside us and embraces us.

If you think your life is a mess, this might indeed be the spirit’s entry now. On the Day of Pentecost, this is a sign that God is with us, in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, just as he had promised.

Let us pray: Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.

Holy Spirit, reveal yourself to us.

Surprise us with your presence,

showing up where and when we do not expect you,

speaking to us when we are not listening,

pushing us into places we have no intention of going on our own.

We believe that you have placed your Holy Spirit

your breath within each of us, and given us life.

We want to be a part of your relentless work in the world.

Do something good for others through us. Melt us, mold us, fill us.

Go ahead, despite our great limitations,

and apart from the messiness of our lives, use us. Amen.

Sources: Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality. Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Direction. The prayer (substantially revised) is by William Willimon.