Monday, May 28, 2012
Labor of Love The Christian church is notorious for taking the holy days of other faith traditions and adapting them to make them their own. And Pentecost, which we celebrate on this day, is no different. While as a Christian church we celebrate the tongues of fire that symbolize the Holy Spirit which danced over the heads of the disciples and which marked the birth of the church, we dare not forget that Pentecost was originally a Jewish holy day. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek for “fiftieth” and it is a day of celebration. Our Jewish ancestors used that day to bless the feast of harvest, the time when the people celebrated the first fruits of their arduous labors. And given the fact that we as a church will celebrate our own “First Fruits” Sunday next week, when we receive our first offerings for the Renewing Peace campaign, there’s something poignant about recognizing this history of Pentecost from a Jewish perspective. There is something powerful about recognizing that our Christian roots run deep, and encompass earlier faith traditions as well. There is something miraculous that our rituals and celebrations mirror those of our earliest faith ancestors even after all these years and all this time. But, hold on a minute, is that all we celebrate today? Isn’t there more mystery afoot? Isn’t there more we can explore? [You know when I ask you these rhetorical questions that I am prepared to spend a few minutes answering them, right?] In the Christian church, Pentecost is the time when we remember that mystical third part of the trinity, the holy spirit. Known as pneuma or “breath,” the Spirit is symbolized as the flame, as the dove, as the wind. The spiritual writer Flora Slosson Wuellner calls the Holy Spirit, “The one who stands by us and calls us forth.” The mystic Hildegard of Bingen names it as, “the greening power of God.” The contemporary writer, Anne Lamott, calls it “like cool compresses for your soul, or soft warm hands.” And Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as our “helper, or our advocate.” The Holy Spirit is that which not only rouses us into action, dangles tongues of flame over us to enflame us, but sidles up to us in the dark night and wraps arms around us. That which enlivens, and that which sustains. As near as our breath. As steady as the rain. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans about this gentleness of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit which “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” I love this image. Sighs too deep for words. This hovering Spirit, the very inhalation and exhalation of my breath, surrounding me and praying for me when I have forgotten how. Eugene Peterson, in his modern translation of the bible, “The Message” speaks of Paul’s words in this way: “Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside, helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. [The Holy Spirit] does our praying in us and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs and aching groans.” My hunch is that each of us can probably name those times when we could not pray. Times when we did not know how. Times when all we had were jagged sighs and hollow groans. Times when the words or the connection did not come. Perhaps it was when we came face to face with the loss of a beloved one. Perhaps it was when we were faced with horror or cruelty in our world—those 9/11 and Pearl Harbor moments. Perhaps it was upon encountering the ravages of an earthquake in Haiti or the tornados that ripped through Southern Indiana last year. Perhaps it was when we faced personal desolation and depression. Perhaps it was when we simply reached a dry spell of faith when for whatever reason even in the routine courses of our lives we found ourselves in a rut and God felt distant and elusive, far away and unreachable. Perhaps it was when we encountered something that was so remarkable we couldn’t put words to our feelings. The Pentecost promise is that in those painful, dark, random, inexplicable encounters we are not alone. For the Holy Spirit intervenes and breathes through us. Calmly and simply, gently and tenderly. We may not understand it, and we may not even feel it. But we are sustained. The Baptist minister and writer Gordon Atkinson tells the story in his book Real Live Preacher about the experience of being a witness to that Pentecost sustenance. He tells of hearing the phone ring in the middle of the night, that call that always makes one’s heart sink, for no good calls come at 2:30 in the morning. And on the other end of the line was John, calling from the hospital to report that his wife had delivered a child. A child born too soon at twenty-two weeks. And that the child had lived for awhile, but that he was now gone. Pastor Atkinson gathered his keys and his wallet and his small New Testament and he wrote this, “When you are the pastor of a church, you are many things. You are an agent of grace and hope, a repository of spiritual and scriptural wisdom, and a gatekeeper at big events like weddings and funerals…And sometimes you are the Black Rider of Death.” And then Atkinson goes on, “I am a keeper of a most sacred truth. It is the incarnation truth that enables minister to walk into the grief storm unafraid. If you come in the name of Christ and stand with people in their grief, you have done the most important thing you can do and the only thing they will remember. You might bring words with you, and they might even be good and helpful ones, but your presence is what matters. If you know this truth, whatever you have will be sufficient. If you do not know this, all that you have will not be enough.” And then that saint of a man, a man who has dealt with his own fair share of darkness and depression in his life approached the mother who sat in that maternity room, cradling her too young son in her arms with her husband seated at her side. And he said, “I went straight to Denise’s bed. She began to tremble a little in anticipation of grief as I approached. I put my arms around her and let my cheek touch the side of her head. I spoke to her in a soft voice, “I come in the name of the Lord who has not forsaken you.” And so it began. A dam burst open with this mother as she howled out her rage and pain, as she cursed at God, as she cursed at her womb. And Atkinson wrote, “It was hard labor, this grief, and it came in howling waves. At times we hung onto the bed like people holding onto a lamppost in a tornado, and our feet would be lifted from the ground. In these moments we lived only in the present. We had no thought for the morrow, but only wondered how we might hang on a little longer.” I believe this is how the Spirit intercedes for us. In those moments when we are storm-tossed and whipped, when we are lost and grief-stricken, there is an abiding Spirit that lingers in the present moment, ushered in as we sigh our deepest sigh and groan our most labored groan. But I think there is more to Paul’s words that we dare not forget. More to this reality of the deep sighs. I think that there are other sighs too, those sighs of relief and gratitude and awe when we are rendered speechless by the grace of the Spirit as well. Moments when there is a catch in our throat, and an overwhelming sense of peace that we do not know how to name. Moments when prayers of gratitude even feel too small. On Thursday night Robert and I went to the end of year showcase that Fort Wayne Ballet presented. It is on this night that all the dancers perform for their adoring audience, mostly parents and grandparents, and demonstrate what they have learned throughout the year. I have grown accustomed to watching our daughters dance. Tess and Brynn have been taking ballet lessons from the moment I became their step-mother when they were six and nine years old, and so I consider myself a seasoned stage parent. These performances are old-hat for me. And while I am always proud of our dancers, I have grown accustomed to their talents. I beam, but I expect I will. But on Thursday night there was a routine that I did not anticipate. Fort Wayne Ballet has a tradition of allowing certain student to choreograph a dance, and Brynn’s best friend Olivia had chosen to do so. Upon the stage danced a young girl, maybe eleven or twelve, who wore a white shirt, her hair tucked into a low pony-tail and I did a double-take, for the girl looked so much like our daughters had at that age. The opening words to the song she danced to were these: “I was a little girl alone in my little world/ I played pretend between the trees and fed my house guests bark and leaves/ and laughed in my pretty bed of green/ I had a dream that I could fly from the highest swing.” And I watched this little one, who was not my own, and remembered all of the times I stood watching our girls playing in the yard, canopied by Cottonwood and Pine trees, draped in English ivy. And then the young dancer was joined on stage by an older version of herself, by an older dancer dressed in the same clothes, with the same low pony-tail and I realized it was Brynn. Our Brynn. And in that instant, as she leaped and danced with the representation of her younger self tears came to my eyes and I found myself so entranced, unable to voice the depth of my gratitude for the gift that is our daughter, and marvel at her life, and hope for her future. But those are all words that came afterward, as I analyzed it, for in that moment all I felt were sighs of wonder, and all I did was blubber tears of awe. And I believe this is the power of the Holy Spirit too, to meet us in those unutterable moments of joy and awe, as well as the moments of pain and terror. And we dare not forget that. On this Pentecost Sunday, when we generally concentrate on the power of that Spirit that descended on the twelve gathered in that room, the twelve who spoke in tongues and all understood one another, the wind that blew through and created a whole new reality. On this Sunday when we drape our churches in red and sing “Happy Birthday to the church” let us also remember that there is another aspect of the Spirit which beckons us. Let us cling to that tender power that breathes new life into us when we are fragile, or awed, or amazed, or forlorn. For the Pentecost Spirit comes alongside us and sighs with us in our emotions too deep for words. And God hears these prayers. And this, my friends, is true Pentecost power and hope. Amen.