May 31, 2020
When I was a seminary intern the pastor of the church asked me to preside over the worship service in his place. He would be away on vacation and all I had to do was lead worship and guide us from one part of the service to the next. I didn’t have to worry about the sermon because he had already arranged for a preacher, which suited me just fine. He told me that the visiting preacher served a pentecostal church, which of course meant quite a different style that wasn’t so attached to the constraints of a bulletin or time, for that matter, but it was okay because he had given the preacher clear instructions about the way we did things and how long sermons should last. Well, about 25 minutes into a very animated free-flowing sermon which showed no signs that it was coming anywhere near a conclusion, I had to get up from my seat, thank him for the message and ask him to stop.
I felt terrible doing it, but I could tell from the faces in the congregation that it needed to be done. I was getting a clear “do something” vibe because what was happening was well beyond anything that anyone there was used to. The thing is, I’m sure the preacher’s intentions were good. While no doubt, he had heard the pastor’s instructions about how we did things, I’m pretty sure he heard them all with the obvious caveat – obvious to him, that is – that, of course this is how things are done unless the Holy Spirit directs you do to do something else, which it very well might. He was attempting to do what every good pentecostal is supposed to do, that is, listen to God’s Spirit.
Of course, that’s not just a task for all good pentecostals; it’s a task for all good Christians. It’s just that when we mainline Christians think about pentecostal, or Holy Spirit traditions these are the kinds of images that come to mind: long animated sermons, calling out from the pews, dancing in the aisles, people saying words like, “glory” and “alleluia” a lot. There’s a heightened sense of emotionality that feels weird to us. Maybe there’s even some speaking in tongues, which we don’t really know what to make of. So, we leave the Spirit to other traditions and we tend to focus more on “God” for our encounter with the divine, and “Jesus” for our sense of how to live according to God’s will.
I hope that’s a little bit of an overstatement though. The notion of the Holy Spirit is important because it’s the link between the Jesus of history and our ongoing experience of Jesus now. In a way, the Spirit preserves for us the character of God. Jesus left us not so that we could get an entirely new thing, but in order that he could be present to us in a new and more expansive way. What the church experienced was that Jesus was the living embodiment of a certain kind of God – a God of radical grace, of mercy, of love for the forgotten and marginalized, a God of peaceful strength and redeeming compassion – and while Jesus embodied this God in person the Holy Spirit communicated this same God’s presence now in Spirit. And, because Christ shows us God’s victory over death (and therefore anything that might get in God’s way,) this same Spirit that was poured out at Pentecost is free to be poured out, breathed upon us, blown within us, now. In short, the Spirit makes the risen Christ a reality for us now, which makes that pentecostal task of listening for the Spirit, and being shaped by the Spirit, the central and most important task of all.
When we’re doing that successfully and seeking it intentionally we’re living in what Richard Rohr would call “resurrection.” Rohr was our speaker at Wednesday’s midweek boost. He encouraged us to think of resurrection not so much as an event but as a way of life and a state of being. It’s the way of emptying in order to be filled and the state of actively embracing the joy of the filled and received self. The thing is, as he says, resurrection is not our natural state; joy isn’t easily sustained. You know what is? Resentment, for one. Just think about failure, or criticism, or negativity of most kinds; you could receive all the praise in the world, but what’s the thing you’ll focus on? The criticism, the betrayal, the obnoxious Facebook post! Our natural state often seems to be the negative state, and over time we train ourselves to live comfortably within it. If we want to be good at experiencing resurrection, good at witnessing the Spirit we need to find ways to break out of our natural state.
One way, suggested by the folks who brought us Rohr’s video is a prayer practice called The Examen. It was one of the contemplative practices established by Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. Instead of clearing your mind or offering your requests to God as you might in most prayers, the Examen is a way of reviewing your day with an eye toward God’s presence and activity. Before Wednesday I had never done it the way Ignatius prescribes. First, there’s the invitation where you request God’s presence in your prayer. Then, there’s reflection, where with God you look at and review the events of your day. Then, we’re asked to relish: to celebrate the moments of aliveness and love that you felt. After that, you ponder the moments of disconnection that you perceived. And, lastly, you behold tomorrow, looking upon the coming day with hope and the promises of God.
I have to tell you, it really worked. The Spirit showed up. There were even some tears in the group. For me, I saw my day in a whole new way. As I reviewed some of the conversations I had I found myself feeling a deep appreciation and admiration for those people and for the gifts that they are to our church, to all of us. I relished our little midweek boost gathering not as a class but as a sacred time of community, and I beheld the work of the next day less with a sense of responsibility and more with feelings of inspiration and opportunity.
I’ve found that an element of surprise is usually an indication of an authentic movement of the Spirit. And, I was definitely surprised to have had such a fruitful prayer and to have learned such an effective way of choosing resurrection. That little prayer practice left me keenly more aware of a holy Spirit that was working profoundly through the course of my day, whether I was attentive to it or not. But, I’ll tell you, it felt good to be attentive to it.
What I’m getting at is that I think it’s important that we all be pentecostal. We may not find ourselves speaking in tongues or dancing in the aisles as a matter of course, but as we practice resurrection we will witness the movement of God’s Spirit and we’ll continue to get better at discovering that Spirit – ancient and new – bringing us into the beauty of God in all kinds of ways.
My hope in designing our Confirmation programs is that they become experiences for our young people that help them grow in their ability to perceive a surprising and loving God who is both knowable and always greater than we can fully know. To accomplish that we’ve done a bunch of stuff. We’ve had class time together, learning about worship, and the bible, the sacraments, our denomination, and more. We’ve traveled to other churches to see how God is worshiped and portrayed in different ways with different emphases. The kids had guided conversations with their mentors and lots of opportunities to exchange thoughts. They also watched a Jesus show called, The Chosen, which received grades from our group of 7.0 or higher, so it’s highly recommended. It has been a weird year with the pandemic, but we managed to finish up via Zoom and have some special gatherings that way. As a culmination of the process and a witness to the Spirit’s work throughout it, the Confirmands have written statements of faith which they are brave enough to share with you all.