Archives For Pentecost

Holy-Spirit-1024x682This weekend Christians celebrated Pentecost, a climactic Christian holy day rendered bland and uninteresting by the propensity to refer to it as the ‘Church’s Birthday.’

Pentecost marks the promised arrival outpouring of the Holy Spirit who in fact has been active throughout the disciples’ time with Jesus.

 

 

Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and of the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

That’s all the little Latin word, filioque, means ‘…and of the Son.’

A millennia ago the Son’s universal Church split in two (Western, i.e. Catholic and Eastern, i.e. Orthodox) over the rightness of that little Latin word. To this day the Orthodox insist that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father just as the Son whereas Catholics and the Protestants they spawned argue the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son.

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Were it not for this theological impasse the Catholic Church might today have married priests with thick beards and off the charts testosterone.

Celibacy seems a stiff (no pun intended) price to pay so it’s worth wondering: which perspective is the better one?

I use to think the Eastern- which is the original- view was soundest. After all, to confess that the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I and my Eastern brothers and sisters are correct, or rather I wonder if there’s not another worry on the other side, a danger to thinking the Spirit is sent by God the Father alone.

While the danger with the filioque clause is that it can, seemingly, demote the Holy Spirit to function rather than divine person of the Trinity, the danger of believing the Spirit is sent by God the Father and not also the Son is that it can demote the Spirit from the divine person of the Trinity to the idol of our own interior wants and desires.

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I don’t know which version of the Nicene Creed you recite on Sunday, but what the filioque clause aims to prevent is a trespass most of us commit all the time.

We appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source of our individual experience, which becomes but a way of granting authority to our own subjectivity.

Any ‘spirit’ we feel move us can then be chalked up to a movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course as the Old Testament ably and often demonstrates there are many ‘spirits’ in this world which can move us- frequently more powerfully than God- that have nothing to do with God the Holy Spirit (see: calf, golden).

When you do away with the filioque clause, when you untether the Holy Spirit from the Son I think you release the Spirit from the content and character by which our sinful selves can reliably discern a genuine work of the Spirit.

By ‘content and character’ I mean the words and witness of the Word, Jesus Christ.

That little Latin word, I think, gives us 4 Gospels worth of tools with which we can test the spirits to see if any truly of the Holy Spirit.

If the Spirit does NOT proceed from the Son too, then the Spirit’s work today no longer must conform to the Son’s work in the past. God the Son preached ‘Blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich…’ but now the spirit can move us with the belief that God wants all of us to be wealthy and prosperous.

In other words, we’re free to baptize our own subjectivity with divinity regardless of whether or not the work we’re attributing to God bears any resemblance to the God we meet most decisively in Jesus Christ (see: Osteen, Joel).

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That little Latin word, I believe, keeps us- who are always in danger of doing so- from confusing the Spirit of the Father and the Son with the spirit of this world or ‘the human spirit’ whatever that may really mean.

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As Karl Barth wrote when the Holy Spirit becomes “the spirit that obviously lives in us all faith is enlisted in an alien service, that of Mammon and even nationalism.”

By professing that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son, we profess that it’s the Spirit’s charge to make Jesus Christ known in the world today.

And in so professing we remind ourselves that we can know if it’s truly the Son that the Sprit is revealing by checking it against the Son, Jesus Christ, as he’s revealed to us in scripture.

That little word, filioque, makes sure that Jesus Christ is the grammar by which judge our speech about the Holy Spirit.

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My theological muse, Stanley Hauerwas, likes to say that ‘Methodist means mediocre.’ As an example of what might warrant such a woeful aesthetic assessment, one need only thumb through the United Methodist Hymnal.

Though my musical skill stops at appreciating how Ryan (not Bryan) Adams is a songwriter second only to Bob Dylan, even I can point out how many of the ditties on offer in the UMH are cringe-worthy on any number of levels.

For instance, there are the songs that sound, quite simply, crap-in-your-pants frightening to the uninitiated, who could never decipher (much less stomach) their minutiae of biblical allusions. Chief among these, in my estimation, is the communion hymn ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

I remember first hearing this song as a teenager during those initial months when I was forced to attend church against my will. Back then I had no faith and I possessed precious little more of the faith’s story.

Listening to 300 suburbanites sing (with eyes as bright as their polo shirts) about being plunged into a tub of blood, the nascent theologian in me was struck with this crisp, cogent thought: ‘WTF?!’

Not incidentally, I should point out, the author of this Kubrickesque hymn, William Cowper did, at the time of its writing, suffer from, in the euphemism of his day, ‘madness.’ Making all us who persist in singing this ‘praise’ song a little like those vacant-eyed twins in The Shining.

Similar on this score is the hymn ‘O Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,’ a Methodist favorite. Though not as terrifying as ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood’, ‘Fount’ does contain the so-cryptic-as-to-sound-silly verse: ‘…here I raise my Ebenezer…

Despite a 6-figure seminary education which informs me that the object in question is Samuel’s memorial stone between Mizpeh and Shen from 1 Samuel 7, this doesn’t prevent me, whenever I sing ‘Fount,’ from picturing a bearded, square-jawed, performance-enhanced Samson-type bench-pressing an old man who resembles the husband from American Gothic.

His name, I’ve always assumed, certainly must be Ebenezer.

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In addition to the cryptic, there are those songs that just sound plain creepy, such as my personal favorite, #367 ‘He Touched Me.’

If you haven’t heard it, ‘He Touched Me’ is a hymn which contains so many double entendres you’d be justified in glancing down at the bottom of the page to see if it was written by the artist formerly (and once again) known as Prince.

Though it was once covered by a 54-inch waisted Elvis Presley, who was no stranger to innuendo (‘Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’), and though its allegedly about Jesus and Faith, ‘He Touched Me’ actually sounds, any impartial listener must agree, as though its narrating a slumber party at Jim Bob Duggar’s house:

‘Shackled by a heavy burden/’Neath a load of guilt and shame/His hand touched me,

And now I am no longer the same/He touched me, Oh He touched me,

Something happened and now I know…He touched me…’

We might as well wear Cosby sweaters while we sing it.

In this vein (no double entendre intended), ‘He Touched Me’ is a precursor to that genre of songs that are ubiquitous in Contemporary Christian Music.

I like to call them ‘Jesus-In-My-Pants’ songs.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Draw me close to You/Never let me go

I lay it all down again/To hear You say that I’m Your friend

You are my desire no one else will do/’Cause nothing else could take Your place

To feel the warmth of Your embrace/Help me find the way bring me back to You

You’re all I want/You’re all I’ve ever needed/You’re all I want/Help me know You are near

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Mediocre means, one can surmise, kitsch.

In the UMH there are the cryptic and the creepy songs, and then there are the clumsy ones, songs as shallow and obvious as an AM commercial jingle, hymns so literal and earnestly unsubtle you’re half-surprised when Tang and animal crackers aren’t served after you’re done singing them.

The absolute worst among this latter group is #558 ‘We are the Church.’

Though its second verse sounds like the Democratic Party platform with a treble cleft attached, hymn #558 merely makes the same point Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign:

corporations churches are people too, my friends.

Refrain:

I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!

All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!

1. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.

(Refrain)

2. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colours and all ages, too from all times and places.

The first time I was ever asked to sing #558 I was a new Christian and a newer undergraduate at UVA. I was worshipping at a small United Methodist church near campus. When we did a once-through the sing-songy music (to ‘refamiliarize’ ourselves) I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stepped into Vacation Bible School.

Or ingested drugs.

When the school-marmy music director offered to demonstrate hand motions we could perform along with our singing, I laughed out loud. Guffawed.

I couldn’t stop myself.

And then I spent the rest of my college tenure worshipping at the Episcopal Church down the street where even if they no longer believed in God at least they did it with style.

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Or, on second thought, maybe he doesn’t say it.

Maybe I said it and forgot I did. Maybe I’m just projecting my own smarty pants posture onto him.

One thing I’m sure of- Stanley Hauerwas likes to say

‘Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.’

It is.

‘It’s just a bite here and a nibble there,’ Stanley says, ‘and, before you know it, you’re missing a leg.’

Not long after I became a Christian I disliked #558 for its tweenage verse and meter. Not long after I became a clergyman I objected to it on a deeper level; that is, if it’s possible for hymn, which makes the Spice Girls’Wannabe’ seem profound, to yield something like a second naïveté.

As a minister, I recoiled at what I took to be ‘We are the Church’’s romanticized ideals, for there’s nothing quite like ministry to make you wish, every now and then, that the Church was not the people.

There’s nothing like ministry in Jesus’ name to make you wish that the Church was made up of anything but Jesus’ people.

After all, a brick and mortar building was never known to leave anonymous notes about the pastor’s choice of clothes in the offering plate. A steeple has never drafted a complaint to the bishop nor has a stained glass window ever once challenged its pastor to a fistfight in the fellowship hall on Mother’s Day. That really happened.

An organ has yet to call or conduct a church council- a credit which should make you appreciate traditional music. Church mice might be a nuisance, but when it comes to turds they’ve never once forwarded their pastor emails from their favorite batshit crazy right wing organization.

It’s no secret in the United Methodist Church that every 4 years hymnal committees debate the appropriateness of a hymn like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ given its violence-espousing imagery. But, considering how ministry is like being nibbled to death by (feral) ducks, it’s surprising how every quadrennium a song like ‘We are the Church’ escapes the red pen.

I suppose it’s because, like any song, no matter its musical merit, how you hear it depends on where you are. On your stage of life.

Now that I have cancer I can see how I’ve always hated ‘We are the Church’ not because it’s insipid (it still is) but because it’s sincere.

I’ve mocked and hated hymn #558, and others like it, for reasons that have nothing to do with musicology or theology and everything to do with…me.

With my heart.

I’m what you get when you mix together equal parts DNA, life experience and Gen-Y culture. Until now, I’ve pretended to be cool and detached, always ironic- always- and forever feigning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which are just unofficial adjectives for ‘superiority.’

Me and many others in my generation are like Jane Austen characters.

We’re just keeping up a different pretense: cynicism.

The Church can’t be the people, I’ve never dared take to its logical conclusion, because I don’t need those people, and that would mean I don’t need the Church.  

Chemotherapy, it turns out, eradicates not only your marrow and all attendant health but pretenses too.

When your eyebrows have gotten as thin as the blue-haired lady that sits pulpit side in the 5th pew and when you passed out last night in the kitchen because your blood has no hemoglobin left in it and when there’s a distinct possibility your life expectancy will be short-changed by a couple of Andrew Jackson’s worth of years-

It’s hard to be cool and detached.

There’s nothing, really, to be ironic about.

And there’s no point in pretending to be self-sufficient. You, it’s obvious, ain’t.

Now that cancer has me back to being ‘just’ a Christian and (for a time anyway) no longer a clergyman, I realize how much, when you’re in ministry, you view Christianity like a referee. And referees aren’t paid to blow the whistle in the middle of play and point out what’s going right.

As a pastor, you’re captured, in a good way, by who the Church could be, what the Church could do, but the shadow side of that vision is to notice only who the Church is not, what the Church is not doing. Before long, you have pastors complaining how ‘their people’ (always a fraught construction) don’t pray enough, don’t give enough, or don’t serve enough.

To no exceptional degree, in one direction or the other, that was me, often wearing black or white on a Sunday but, really, acting as though I’d been ordained to wear both. And carry a whistle.

However occasional or, even, warranted, it’s hard for such complaining not to calcify into cynicism.

That was me.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. I’m not saying I’m a different person now, that cancer’s changed me. I can’t say that. I’m only now nearing the halfway point in my treatment, and if I have any complications- which my doctor tells me are more likely than not- then I’m still somewhere shy of the middle.

So I’m not implying I’m a completely different person; I’m only suggesting that, thanks to cancer and if only for a time, I’ve traded in my collar for my parishioners’ shoes.

I’m just an ordinary Christian. Like them.

And, standing in their shoes, I’ve discovered something like admiration for the people that make up the Church. My church.

Only now do I appreciate, for example, how hard it is- how much trust it requires- to answer truthfully and concretely when someone asks you what are your prayer requests.

Something pastors do all the time. Something I always took for granted before. That anyone does supply a prayer request is, I think now, a small miracle. Or, an act of faith of which I’ve been found wanting.

People outside the Church often criticize, with some justification, that the Church is filled with inauthentic chatter, people always talking about things that don’t mean anything. Of course there is a lot of that in the Church but there’s a good deal less of it, I believe, than there is everywhere else in our lives. Now that I have cancer and I’m no longer busy refereeing other people’s Christianity, I realize:

Church people are among the only people who genuinely want an answer- and wait for it- to the question ‘How are you?’

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the church’s ministry rather than its referee, I’m learning that the hardest part in accepting an offer of help, a gesture of support or an act of compassion is accepting it. Accepting that you need it. Accepting that you (I mean, me) need these people. The church.

All of which gets back to my problem with hymn #558, ‘We are the Church,’ and how my problem with it is really my problem.

Grace, in the jargon of the faith, isn’t just a gift you do not deserve.

It’s a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.

This is why the Gospel stories are all told from the hindsight of the Resurrection and necessarily so.

You don’t know how broken you are until after God’s made you Easter new. Sin has no meaning until after the Risen Jesus speaks ‘Peace’ on Easter morning.

Grace is a gift you didn’t know you needed until after you received it, and, in that sense, I suspect that what I’ve received these past 4 months (4 effing months!) is a gift my church gives to people all the time.

I just didn’t realize it. Or, appreciate it.

The same church about whom I would sometimes grouse for not praying enough or giving enough or serving enough is the same church (and by church, I think we’ve learned by now, I mean people) that texts me several times a week for prayer requests and leaves food at my door and offers to help with the medical bills and doesn’t bat an eye when I barf in their car and throws my boy around in the pool because my chest port cannot get wet and pretends not to notice (so as not to embarrass me) when I tear up  at a bit of bad news.

And that’s just this past week.

I mean-

One woman in my church has sent me handwritten, snail mail cards every day- every day- since I got sick, and another, just for shits and giggles- and giggles if not shits are in short supply these days- has persisted in posting cat pictures on my Facebook Page. I don’t even like cats.

I’ve been at this church for 10 years and I feel like I’m only now seeing who they’ve been all along.

And who they are, in large part, are better Christians than me.

Every year this time of year, the time between Easter and Pentecost, someone who’s recently taken to reading their bible always expresses surprise to me how much the New Testament’s few Easter stories are characterized by doubt and disbelief.

‘…but some (as in, not just Thomas) doubted…’ Matthew and Luke and John all anticlimactically testify.

But it has to be that way.

The Risen Christ’s wounded hands and feet can never be for the disciples proof of the Resurrection because the disciples themselves are the (only) proof of the Resurrection.

Our faith, the truth of it, is corroborated by its end.

By what it becomes in us.

And I suppose that’s a better problem to have with a hymn like #558 because the people do not just comprise the Church. They themselves are the proof of the Church’s faith by what that faith becomes in them.

They are, warts and all and despite my better judgment, the gospel.

A sermon for Pentecost.

The texts for this Sunday were Genesis 11.1-9 and Acts 2.1-18. You can listen to the sermon below or on the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes if you wish by clicking here.

I studied five years of Latin in high school and four years of German. I can still decline the word for ‘farmer:’ acricola, agricolae, agricolam.

And I can recall enough German to appreciate Indiana Jones on a deeper level.

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     I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, and I still know them well enough to venture into the Old and New Testaments like a treasure hunter armed with a few well-chosen tools.

     But when it comes to speaking, when it comes to listening, I’ve never been very good at languages.

I’ve always heard how languages come easier for babies than they do for adults- their minds are like sponges, so goes the cliche. But, really, I think the difference is that no one hands out little treats when an adult finally gets the right word for ‘potty’ or ‘hungry.’

Despite my relative ambivalence about languages, on my second day of my first semester of college I decided to enroll in French class. My roommate and I were sitting in a boring Intro to English Literature course, listening to a beer-bellied, gray-haired professor recite Beowulf in Old English.

And across the hall, in the classroom opposite ours, we both noticed a twenty-something, red-haired woman standing in front of a chalk board wearing a tight leather skirt, teaching French.

We changed our schedules that afternoon.

The French teacher’s name was Isabelle, but, because of the siren-like spell she cast over my friend and I, to this day my wife refers to her as ‘Jezebel.’

My interest in French more or less began and ended with Isabelle but, once I’d enrolled, the college required me to stick it out for three additional semesters.

The good thing about French is that you can get by by approximating an accented mumble. My own accent slash mumble was a hybrid of Charles Aznavour and Detective Briscoe from Casablanca.

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     I passed the written exams by rote memorization, and I survived the listening comprehension tests by correctly assuming that most French conversations were about Miles Davis or American Imperialism.

After four semesters, I ended up with an A average but the memory of Isabelle lingered longer.

Today I can recall a few French words, but when it comes to understanding, it’s all confusion for me.

And the Lord said, ‘Look, the people all have one language;

this is only the beginning of what they will do.

   I traveled to France a while ago to spend a week at Taize, an ecumenical monastery in the Burgundy countryside. Taize is a destination for thousands of Christian pilgrims from places scattered all over the globe.

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     And ‘pilgrimage’ seems an appropriate descriptor when you consider how long and trying and confusing the journey there can prove.

At the beginning of the pilgrimage I was wandering around CDG airport in Paris, trying to locate my connecting flight. The gate number printed on my boarding pass didn’t match the listings on the terminal television screen.

I made the mistake of walking up to the desk at what should’ve been my gate and asking for help.

‘I’m just wondering if I’m at the right gate’ I said. The frenchman behind the counter stared at me blankly and said ‘Oui.’

Not satisfied he’d understood me, I handed him my boarding pass and decided to speak every traveling American’s second language. I just spoke louder: I’M JUST WONDERING IF I’M AT THE RIGHT GATE.’

Gary-Bembridge

He looked down at my boarding pass without moving his head- sort of like those haunted house portraits where only the eyes move- and again he said ‘Oui’ even though the sign directly behind him said that particular flight would be landing in Budapest.

I sighed, feeling confused, and as I walked away and he said ‘Thank you. Have a nice day’ in rehearsed non-comprehension.

Not trusting his reassurances, I walked up to Air France’s euphemistically titled Customer Service desk and pressed my dilemma to a young frenchwoman who wore her hair in a matronly bun.

‘You’re American?’ she said in textbook English.

‘And you don’t speak French?’

When I said no she said ‘Oh’ like she was a doctor examining my MRI and had found a suspicious mass.

Then she spoke rapid French to her customer service colleagues and set them all to tittering with laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was pretty sure I knew who they were talking about.

Not understanding, I walked away confused.

And God said: Come, let us go down, and confuse their language…

The next leg of my journey was by train.

For what seemed like an eternity, I vainly searched around the train station for a men’s room. When I finally found one, there was an old woman standing in front of the stall doors with a mop, absently wiping at the same spot on the floor.

From the cobwebs of my memory, I pulled some of the French Isabelle had taught me. ‘I need to use the restroom’ I told the old woman.

At least I’d thought that was what I’d said. In hindsight, having later consulted my French book, I think what I actually said was: ‘I need to drive your toilet.’

The old woman with the mop looked confused so I repeated it, louder: ‘I NEED TO DRIVE YOUR TOILET.’

 

And she held out her palm and said: ‘You need to be 25 years old.’

At least, that’s what I thought she’d said.

I nodded and said ‘Don’t worry I’m well past 25’ and I walked over to the bathroom stall. But she kept talking, faster this time, her words lashing at my ankles.

When I turned around to close the stall door, the old woman was standing in the middle of it, holding out her hand and telling me I needed to be 25 years old.

I was about to pull out my passport to prove I was old enough when a tall, blond man with hipster glasses said in a Swedish accent: ‘It costs 25 cents. You need to pay her 25 cents.’

‘Oh’ I said and fished around in my pockets.

‘Sorry for the confusion’ I muttered to her, but she did not understand a word I spoke.

   tower-of-babelAnd the Lord said: Come, let us confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another…

For the final leg of my journey, I had to take a bus from Macon to Taize.

I had my fare counted out in my sweaty hand. For the entire train ride I’d practiced how to ask for a bus ticket. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the driver, an elderly, tough-looking frenchman.

I laid my euros down on the tray and spit out the one sentence I’d been playing in my head like a broken record: ‘A ticket to Taize, please.’

But then the driver asked me a question and, just like that, it was like my homework had blown away with the wind. I had no idea what he was asking me.

‘Lociento, no seh Francais’ I babbled….in Spanish.

 

The driver clenched his wrinkled jaw and asked his question again, and I just smiled, feeling confused.

‘He is asking if you want the roundtrip ticket’ the skinny man behind me explained with a German accent.

‘Oh, yes. Yes, please’ I said.

The bus driver tore off my receipt and slapped it down in my palm and began shouting at me: ‘SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. YOU COME TO FRANCE…SPEAK FRENCH!’

The skinny German behind me continued his translating duties: ‘He’s saying that when you come to France you should speak French.’

‘Yeah, I got that part. Danke’ I said and sat down, confused and red-faced.

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Therefore the place was called Babel, because there the Lord confusedthe language of all the earth.

The story of Babel belongs to what is known as the Primeval History.

The Primeval History narrates God’s dealings with creation before God ever called Abraham or commissioned Israel to be a light to the nations. The Primeval History is not, like the rest of scripture, a particular history of a chosen People. It’s a general history of all humanity. The Primeval History is Israel’s attempt to project backwards in time and answer some of the questions we still ask:

Where did we come from?

Who made us and how?

Why is there Sin in the world?

Babel is the climax of the Primeval History. But the story isn’t just meant to answer the obvious question:

Why are there so many languages in the world?

      The story of Babel is also the bible’s attempt to pinpoint the origination of:

War

Our Fear of the Stranger and Hatred of the Other

Our Suspicion of

And Hostility towards

and Distrust of

Difference

Because even though the confusing and scattering God does at Babel is meant as a grace to save us from our own hubris, we don’t receive it as gift.

    At Babel God creates tribes with different languages and customs and complexions. Different, diverse tribes.

    And we respond by creating tribalism.

The energies and ingenuities we’d spent on baking bricks and cutting stone we soon turn to making weapons.

     The Sin of Cain and the Sin of Babel mix and, as the Primeval History draws to a close, war is born. taize2

 

For much of the time, my time at the monastery was as confusing as my journey there.

Going through the dinner line one evening and seeing they were serving a gruel that resembled the porridge from Oliver Twist, I said: ‘No thank you, I’ll just have the bread and the apple.’

The volunteer server, a teenage girl who’d colored the Hungarian flag onto her name tag, she just smiled at me and said ‘Yah’ and then plopped a heaping spoonful on my plate.

 

One afternoon I asked another pilgrim for the time- I even gestured to my wrist- but I was instead pointed the way to the bathroom.

In the group bible study, I tried in vain to discuss Paul’s Letter to the Romans with folks for whom English was a second language.

It was confusing all round. And I couldn’t help but think that everything would be so much easier if we all spoke the same language.

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That’s pretty much how I felt the Thursday evening I ventured into the monastery sanctuary for the fixed-hour worship.

I grabbed a wrinkled blue paper songbook at the door and found an empty spot among the couple thousand pilgrims. All of us sat on the sloped cement floor facing a terra cotta altar table, above which hung red-orange sheets of canvas arranged to resemble a fiery dove.

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The worship that Thursday night followed the same pattern as all the other nights. Scripture was read. Prayers were spoken and sung. Silence was stretched out longer than any sermon.

Towards the end of the worship, before we took communion, a song number flashed on the digital screen that hung on either side of the altar.

Everyone flipped in their books, a 12 string guitar struck the right note and we started to sing: ‘Da pacem in diebus.’ Give Peace in our Days. It’s a chant, only a couple of phrases. We sang it maybe two dozen times at first, in Latin. But then I noticed the pilgrims in front of me, a youth group it looked like, they’d started to sing it in German.

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We kept singing and after a few more repetitions I could make out French being sung behind me by a husband and wife and their three little children. And after that I could hear French starting to pop out in the crowd from other places in the sanctuary.

We were still singing the same song; it was the same tune. They’d just started to sing it in their own language.

It took me a few times more through the song before I worked up the courage to sing in English, but when I did I heard British accents joining me.

And to my left I could make out the hard consonants of what sounded like Russian and to my right I could hear Italian that reminded me of my grandparents.

And maybe it’s the tune or the words but together, the thousands of us, all singing each in our own language, it kind of sounded like the roll of an ocean wave.

Or like a mighty rushing wind.

     And even though there were other sounds I couldn’t make out, other languages I couldn’t identify, I understood everyone of them.

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     And after we sang we passed the Peace of Christ and a teenage girl with stonewashed jeans and dyed green hair embraced me and said something in my ear. And I didn’t know what language she was speaking, but I understood.

     And when I filed up through the line and held my hands out to receive the Body of Christ, the dark-skinned monk looked down upon me, smiling and softly spoke a few words. I didn’t know what he’d said, but I’d understood perfectly.

And after the worship service ended and a small crowd of us lingered behind to gather around the Cross, I couldn’t have translated all the whispered prayers I heard but I understood everyone of them.

pentecosti-kosmos

God doesn’t undo what God did at Babel until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon a crowd of thousands of scattered tribes: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, and visitors all the way from Rome.” 

Just as God comes down at Babel to confuse their speech, the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost to fill with them with praise. And though each of them speaks their own language, each of them is understood.

No more confusion.

     God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a common language, but by creating a People.

A people who, despite their differences, despite their diversities, understand one another because they remember what was forgotten at Babel: that you were made to praise God not make towers to the heavens.

     You were made to embody God’s love to the world not wall yourself off from the world.

You were made to serve in God’s name not worry about making a name for yourself.

You were made to point towards God’s future not try to secure your own. .

God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a new language.

God heals the wounds of the world by creating a People who are God’s new language.

You.

 

St Denis 09_15This is from my friend, Janet Laisch:
This Sunday is Pentecost– a feast day as important as Christmas and Easter though less widely celebrated.  It marks the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the birthday of the Church, which means it also celebrates us and our place in the world as icons of the Trinity. The story of Pentecost became a popular image in Christian art starting in the fourth century– as icons, grand refectory and altarpieces. Of these Pentecost paintings, Jean Restout II, a French Baroque painter, captured most energetically and dramatically the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles through use of chiaroscuro or strong contrasts of light and dark.  His Pentecost,an oil on canvas from 1732 now housed in the Louvre in Paris once adorned the refectory or monk’s dining room (see image below)  of the Abbey of Saint-Denis (see image above) just outside Paris. The refectory became one of the most prevalent places to display these images as it duplicated the communal space where the Apostles and Mary received the Holy Spirit on that historical day as told in the book of Acts.
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With its chiaroscuro, exaggerated view from below, grand size, and the extreme perspective of the rows of columns to the left and right, Jean Restout II’s painting is reminiscent of Baroque ceiling paintings.  In this image, columns delineate the space of grand cathedrals and separate holy space from pagan space. Viewing it in person, the medium of oil paint enables actual light to reflect from this painting, so the painted light and cloud representingGod glows as a light source in this painting. The cloud and bright white rays of light descending from the upper third of the painting represent God both through the cloud as mentioned in Exodus and the uncreated light so common in Byzantine icons. Light rays emit the Holy Spirit as flames which hover above the heads of Mary, the Apostles and other believers. Some individuals turn away from the light overwhelmed by it; others kneel and pray while others exit and presumably begin the work of spreading the message of the Church through words and acts. 
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Mary stands majestically following apotheosis iconography paintings of her (see image by Titian below); she appears deified as she lays her hands across her chest in reverence to the one true God. The deification of humanity happens because Jesus came down to us. The Eastern Orthodox belief that “God became man so that man could become god” reigns true in Mary. Mary who stands in the center represents the eventual theosis of humanity. God will restore humanity as icons of the Trinity as originally intended at creation.
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The gestures and actions of the other figures represent our varied places in this story. As stated in Acts, Apostles go out into the world to communicate the message of God– in any foreign language to all the world- —a dramatic overturn of the language barrier that the Tower of Babylon created in the Old Testament.  The Apostles began to speak and preach the Gospel in a multitude of tongues which were the languages of the nations of the earth.
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Unlike earlier static Byzantine icons, Jean Restout’s is kinetic. The painting’s message is the action and emotional reaction of each person to the Holy Spirit’s descent.

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Though the painting has been moved from the refectory at Abbey Saint-Denis to the Louvre, it still imparts a powerful message to each of us: heaven and earth should not be understood as a dichotomy.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is not a prayer that we might escape from the earth, but rather that earth and heaven might come together.  This prayer describes how the Ascension and Pentecost are linked: in the Ascension, part of earth “moves” into the “heavenly sphere” since Christ is no longer visible to us, and at Pentecost, part of heaven — the Holy Spirit — invades the earth. We must not forget: the Holy Spirit resides here permanently. Therefore Pentecost is not only an historical event but a changed world and an invitation to all of God’s people. Pentecost occurs during the Jewish Shevout or harvest festival so we might understand that theanointed disciples are about to harvest the world. We are pulled into this story and have a direct role to play in the work of the church and our relationship with others.

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An icon of the Pentecost helps explain this point.  A standardized Byzantine Pentecost icon (above) represents the Apostles sometimes without Mary seated around a table; one seat, the head of the table is intentionally left empty. This empty seat is Christ “invisible” to humankind though eternal; God is represented as the blue and silver circular mandorla or uncreated light and the Holy Spirit is embodied in the rays of light descending from the uncreated light and the flames hovering above each of the Apostles’ heads.  The semi-circular wooden table is intentionally left open so that viewer can join the group. The table is a direct reference to a meal both Eucharistic –this world and a meal for the end of time–eschatological. “King Cosmos” stands below the table holding a scroll surrounded by the darkness the world must overcome. King Cosmos represents the world, which the anointed disciples are about to harvest, and he and several Apostles hold scrolls intended to represent the word of God translated for all to know.

RubilevTrinityAt Pentecost, the Trinity has now been revealed to us; thus our theosis and salvation begins now, here on earth because of this revelation. Abraham was given the privilege of seeing a living image of the Triune God as told in Genesis 18: 1-3.  The Byzantine Old Testament Trinity icon (above) captures part of the mystery of the trinity– the relationship between three persons of the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit (above). Made by God in the image of the Trinity, we too are intended to be in relationship to each other–created with the ability and need to love beyond ourselves. Rather than a limited love, the Trinity teaches this love is infinite.  Becoming a Trinity icon means we become fully human. 

 

 

 

 

holy-spirit-the_tThis Sunday is Pentecost, the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ remaining post-Cross disciples. As it’s the Spirit that prays through us whenever we pray- as opposed to being our own action- it seems timely to reflect on prayer.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the Church in the west has capitulated to Enlightenment-bound rationalism and its consequent skepticism is our reluctance to pray. Our neglect of prayer as a central and life-giving discipline reveals the extent to which many self-professed Christians are actually functional atheists. I realize that sounds harsh, but, at the very least, our reticence to pray reveals just how badly the Church has equipped contemporary disciples to practice the one and only thing the first disciples ever asked Jesus how to do.

I think prayer is the most difficult thing we do as Christians, especially given the secular, post-Christian culture in which we live.

Because to the naked eye, prayer is when Christians converse with someone who appears not to be there.

To the skeptic, to the unbeliever, prayer isn’t any different than the crazy guy at Starbucks who talks to himself over a cup of coffee (actually he’s sitting next to me at the bar right now). More so than anything else we do as Christians, prayer- every time we do it- is a blatant, uncompromising test of our faith. Are we willing to appear crazy for this God? Are we willing to be mocked? Are we willing to be written off as quaint or self-deluded?

Prayer challenges us to ante up when it comes to what we say we believe. Do we sufficiently believe in what we cannot see that we’re willing to speak, whisper and plead to what others will only say is not there.

After all, to most people- believers and non- prayer is a waste of time.

They’re right.

It is a waste of time.

Thank God.

Were it not a waste of time, there’d be little reason for us to pray for the god to whom we prayed would not be God, would not be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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Diito from Herbert McCabe:

“…For real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer. I reckon that more than 80 percent of our reluctance to pray consists precisely in our dim recognition of this and our neurotic fear of wasting time, of spending part of our life in something that in the end gets you nowhere, something that is not merely non-productive, non-money-making, but is even non-creative, it doesn’t even have the justification of art and poetry.

It is an absolute waste of time, it is a sharing into the waste of time which is the interior life of the Godhead.

God is not in himself productive or creative. Sure he takes time to throw off a creation, to make something, to achieve something, but the real interior life of the Godhead is not in creation, it is in the life of love which is in the Trinity, the procession of Son from Father and of the Spirit from this exchange.

God is not first of all our creator or any kind of maker, he is love, and his life is not like the life of the worker or artist but of lovers wasting time with each other uselessly.

It is into this worthless activity that we enter in prayer. This, in the end, is what makes sense of it…”

choir_taize_crossUsually people who cop the line ‘I’m a spiritual person but not religious’ mean either ‘I’m too lazy to commit to a community trying to follow Jesus’ or ‘I’m surprised a Messiah who calls sinners would net a community of imperfect, mean and effed up people.’ 

I don’t have much patience for the ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’

For one, Christianity properly understood isn’t a religion at all. The message of grace, classically understood, is the defeat of all human attempts at religion.

For another, Christians aren’t spiritual either- at least when ‘spirituality’ is vaguely and universally conceived.

Christians aren’t spiritual because we believe Spirit to be a very particular person.

This week brings us to the end of Eastertide, to Pentecost, and the promised arrival of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disappointments better known as disciples.

As a preacher- and a Christian- I would judge my biggest deficiency with how infrequently I make reference to the Holy Spirit.

My reluctance, while not intentional, I suspect stems from my frustration with how most Christians/Pastors speak of the Holy Spirit to baptize whatever whim, wish or work they’d already determined to bless (See: Osteen, Joel).

The Holy Spirit too often becomes a theological term for what everyone calls our conscience.

Or our Id.

The Holy Spirit, as ‘she’s’ most often spoken of by Christians is every bit as vague and universal as ‘spirituality.’ Popular misconception treats the Spirit as something no more defined than the ‘force’ in Star Wars. The Spirit gets reduced to a spirit. The Spirit, many assume, is something like our inner-voice, our conscience, the divine spark in us, a little dashboard Jesus whispering in our ear, an emotion, the source of passion.

By way of contrast, it’s a mistake to think the Spirit doesn’t appear on stage until Pentecost. The Spirit is active through out scripture, work which gives the Spirit every bit as much particularity as a Jew from Nazareth.

In our misconceptions we’re tempted to ask: What is the Holy Spirit?

The proper question to ask, however, is: Who is the Holy Spirit?

In the Nicene Creed we name the Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of Life.”

With that brief phrase, Christians claim the Spirit to be the fullness of God. As much as the Son is divine so is the Spirit. The Spirit’s home is in the Trinity just as much as the Son belongs to the Father.  

By naming the Spirit as the ‘giver of life’ the creed quite explicitly ties the Holy Spirit revealed in the New Testament to the manifestations of God’s Spirit in the Hebrew Bible. Christians can mistakenly presume that the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a new development in God’s revelation or that the way in which the Spirit works with the believing community is distinct from how the Spirit worked through Israel.

 In fact the attributes which mark the Spirit’s work in the New Testament find former echoes in the Spirit’s appearances in the Old Testament.

     The Spirit in the Old Testament too is the giver of life. In Hebrew, the word for ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ are the same: ruah. So in Genesis 1 when the breath of God sweeps across the formless void and brings forth life, it’s the Holy Spirit giving life.

The Spirit is the source of Israel’s fruit and gifts. The Spirit gives gifts of wisdom and skill to the wandering Israelites in the Book of Exodus (31).

For Israel, the Spirit is a source  of comfort. David sings of the assurance of forgiveness provided to him by God’s Spirit (Psalm 51).

The Spirit is an advocate on Israel’s behalf, giving courage to the downtrodden (Haggai 2).

In the Spirit there is a new creation according to Ezekiel, who attributes new life from death to the Spirit (37).

The Spirit restores hope to God’s people (Joel 2).

Most significantly, perhaps, is the role the Spirit plays for Israel in commissioning servants to speak out for and restore justice when the poor and the weak find themselves oppressed by the wealthy or the powerful (Isaiah 11).

Far from making its first appearance at Pentecost after Jesus has ascended to heaven, the Spirit appears and works throughout the Israel’s history. And what the Spirit does through the Church is what the Spirit has already been doing with Israel. These parallel attributes between the testaments allows Christians to ‘see’ Jesus in the narrative of the Old Testament. If the Son is eternal in the Trinity and the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus then what the Spirit does is what the Son does.

     Just as its incorrect to think the Spirit appears for the first time in the New Testament, it’s wrong to think the Spirit does not reveal itself in the New Testament until after Jesus departs following the fifty days of Easter. One, good way to read the Gospels is to read it as a narrative of the work of the Son and Spirit.

     The Spirit, after all, by is what empowers the nativity story itself by empowering Mary’s conception. Just as the Spirit creates from nothing in Genesis, the Spirit creates from nothing in Mary’s womb.

The Spirit empowers not just Jesus’ birth but Jesus’ ministry too. It’s the Spirit, in the form of a dove, that rests upon Jesus at his baptism by John in the Jordan River. It’s the Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tested for forty days following his baptism. Having returned from the wilderness, it’s the Spirit that anoints Jesus, in his first sermon, to preach and fulfill Isaiah 65 and bring gospel to the poor (Luke 4).

The Spirit is the giver of life in the New Testament. In Acts, the Spirit comes down, as promised by Jesus, like breath, wind and fire to create the Church. Luke’s account in Acts is a deliberate echo of the Genesis story. In the Church’s birth we are to see yet another creation story. In the understanding amidst many languages that takes place at Pentecost, Luke intends us to see the undoing of Babel, where God looked upon a prideful humanity and confused their speech. The Spirit not only gave life to the Church it never stops giving life. It’s the Spirit that convicts us and gives us the grace necessary for us to be born all over again; so that, like Peter or Paul before us the Spirit can begin a new, good work in sinners like us.

The Spirit is the giver of fruit and gifts according to Paul (1 Corinthians 12-14). Such gifts, just as they were for the Israelites while they journeyed towards the promised land, serve for us as a foretaste of the New Creation we will enjoy fully at the End.

The Spirit is an advocate and comforter to us, making present the past benefits of Christ’s work (John 14).

The Spirit is the Spirit of freedom and truth (Galatians 5). As Paul makes clear, the Spirit does not simply create new life in individual believers. The Spirit is about bigger things. The Spirit makes new and all of creation and history is the Spirit’s canvas. The Spirit doesn’t just make Paul new; the Spirit makes Paul’s world- his society, his assumptions, his prejudices, his conventions- new.

The Spirit makes it possible that no longer do the divisions and distinctions of our world (Jew/Greek, Slave/Free, Male/Female) matter. The Spirit sets us free from those categories to create a community which transcends them. The story of Peter and Cornelius is but another illustration of Paul’s point (Acts 10). It’s the Spirit’s work among Peter and a Gentile, Roman named Cornelius that breaks down the taboos that otherwise would have held them apart.

The Spirit moves ahead of God’s People in the world, anticipates the Church’s work and sends the Church in to the world (Acts 8). The story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 show the Spirit to be at work in places and in people well before the Church, Phillip in this case, arrive. Acts 8 caution the Church from every constraining our imagination or vision, and it forbids us from thinking God only works through God’s People. Very often the Spirit uses people, outcasts and sinners like the eunuch, to stretch, convert and transform God’s People.

 So next time someone tries to tell you they’re ‘spiritual not religious’ try laying all that on them.