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.


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