It’s Pentecost! That means it’s time to hear the story from Acts 2 about the arrival of the Holy Spirit. From John’s Gospel, we’ve just heard Jesus tell his disciples about the Paraclete, the one Jesus calls the “Spirit of truth.” John sets this bit of explanation in the context of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. He’s just told them he’ll be going away—he’ll be crucified the next day. To this point, if the disciples were ever confused about something Jesus had said or done, they could go to the source and get clarification from Jesus himself.
But what were they going to do when Jesus was no longer around? Who was going to explain things to them when they got confused (which—based on their track record—would be often)? Not to worry, Jesus says. When I go, the Paraclete (aka, the Holy Spirit) will reveal things to you. Things I’ve said in the past that seemed obscure — they will become clear. When new confusions arise, the Spirit will help you understand. When the path becomes murky, spend time with the Paraclete, and the way forward will be revealed.
Today’s passage from John’s Gospel prepares us for the Spirit before the fact. The passage from Acts tells the story of the Spirit’s arrival. And what a scene it is!
The story begins with the 12 disciples gathered together in a home. They’ve just finished selecting a replacement for Judas when “suddenly from heaven there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it fills the entire house. Divided tongues, as of fire, appear among them (get out your lighters or candles), “Divided tongues, as of fire, appear among them, and a tongue rests on each of them. All of them are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in other languages.”
Then all that energy, enthusiasm, and goodwill spill over–like a tidal wave–into the rest of Jerusalem. Suddenly, people are speaking languages they’ve never spoken before. Suddenly, they can understand people who speak in other languages. Suddenly, this disparate group of people becomes one, they become — a community. “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
What does this story mean? What does it mean for us 21st century folks? What does it mean for this time when the number of religiously unaffiliated people is skyrocketing? How is God’s Spirit–the Spirit of Truth–moving in the church and the world today? What is God’s Spirit trying to reveal to us?
As pastor of a Christian community, I keep trying to discern what the changing religious landscape might mean for us. As I said a couple weeks ago, I don’t think the Christian church is dying, as some suggest, but I do think we are in a time of tremendous transition. The church is maturing, it’s growing into something it has never been before. As we grow into this new reality, as we try to gain clarity on the murky path before us, I think Jesus would tell us what he told those disciples in the first century: spend some time with God’s Spirit and all will become clear.
This past Wednesday, the Spirit sent me on a mission at Songwriting Camp. Before I tell you about my mission, though, a word about the camp, or should I say Boot Camp?
What is Songwriting Boot Camp? It’s what happens when 20 people who don’t know any better join a singer-songwriter in the mountains of east Tennessee and write and sing as many songs as they can in three and a half days. It’s pretty fun–in a grueling-put-me-out-of-my- misery kind of way. J
Oh, it’s not so bad. John McCutcheon is the singer-songwriter and the camp is held at the Highlander Center near Knoxville–an area Jimmy Loyless assures me is “God’s Country.”
Highlander is the place where many people were trained in techniques of non-violent resistance during the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks visited Highlander in August of 1955. December 1st of that year, Rosa refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery; December 5th, the Montgomery bus boycott began. Most of the music of Civil Rights Movement was incubated at Highlander; it’s the place where “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the Movement, largely through the work of Highlander’s Music Director, Guy Carawan. (Guy died a couple of weeks ago. His widow, Candie, had supper with us one night. A real honor.)
So, here was my mission last Wednesday. I’ll say it was half-inspired by the Holy Spirit and half by desperation. It was Wednesday afternoon and I hadn’t yet started my sermon. In a rare moment of temporal generosity, John gave us most of Wednesday afternoon off. We were free to write or co-write a song, visit Highlander’s Library, take a nap, or in my case, interview fellow campers for today’s sermon.
I spent the afternoon tracking down each camper and asking him or her two questions: What is your religious affiliation, if any? And, What one thing would you like to say to the Christian Church? Once word got out about what I was doing, it became harder and harder to find people. Odd. 🙂
One interviewee reminded me that my pool of respondents was rather limited. “Have you counted the Priuses in the parking lot?” J Most of the folks at the camp identified themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Nearly all claimed to be spiritual (we were all musicians, after all).
Want to know what my almost-voluntary respondents had to say to the Christian church? I wrote a song, a talking blues, actually. (Can’t We All Be Friends?)
Can’t We All Be Friends?
I had some time the other day
so I asked my friends what they would say
to Christians far and Christians near.
The answers they gave were crystal clear:
If you’re going to quote the Bible, read it first.
If you’re going to follow Jesus, be well-versed
In the parts of the Good Book written in red
Get out of the church and out of your head
Follow Pope Francis, love the earth,
Serve the poor for all your worth,
Love your neighbor as yourself
Put your judgments on the shelf.
One young friend was very wise
He stopped and looked me in the eyes.
What he thought I hadn’t a clue
Until he said: I’ve got a question for you:
Can’t we all be friends?
Can’t we all be friends?
Can’t we all be friends
And help to heal the world?
That friend’s hope was shared by all
That Christians would break down the wall
They’ve built to keep all others out
Here is what I’m talking about:
This idea that God is theirs
And does not hear the heartfelt prayers
Of those who worship differently
My friends all said, This cannot be!
God loves Christians, God loves Jews
Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Druse
God loves folks of every creed
And cares about our every deed.
Are we loving? Are we kind?
Do we in each person find
That of God, humanity
Then they made this urgent plea (Chorus)
And so a Christian I will stay
I’ll follow Jesus every day
But after talking with my friends
I’m ready now to make amends
For trying to do things on my own
For thinking God is mine alone
For seldom reaching out to those
Whose faith is different yet whom God knows.
My friends have shown a better way
For healing all earth’s ills today
It isn’t done by choosing sides
But working together, we’ll change the tide. (Chorus)
Words and Music by Kim Buchanan (c) 2015
I got some great responses from my fellow campers….so great, that I’m going to continue reflecting on them. But here’s my deepest learning from my research: Regardless of how people responded, something profound happened when we started talking together. Many people appreciated being asked about their spirituality. And I quickly began to wish we had time for longer conversations. I was learning so much about each person!
When I thought about it later, I realized the most religious thing about the interviews wasn’t the responses so much as it was the interviews themselves—simply talking with each other, hearing where each person was coming from, “no matter where they are on their life’s journey”…meeting each other where we were, not trying to change each other, just simply being together and sharing from our depths…it was a holy thing.
…which led me to rethink what went on that first Pentecost. So often, we think of all these people gathered around, the Holy Spirit waiting for the audience to arrive, then whooshing in and stirring everything up, making it possible for people to speak and understand languages they had never known before.
But here’s what I’m starting to wonder…I wonder if the order of events might have gotten reversed. Maybe it wasn’t the Spirit’s appearance that made it possible for people to understand each other; maybe it was people working to understand each other that created space for the Spirit to show up. Maybe they worked so hard to connect with each other, that suddenly, foreigners and strangers became human beings, maybe even friends…and in the midst of their sharing, maybe they began to sense a spiritual presence, to feel connected to something bigger than themselves, something good, universal, and life-giving. Maybe that first Pentecost didn’t just happen; maybe it was people working to connect with each other that created the space where it could happen.
Each evening of Songwriting Camp, we gathered in a circle and sang songs for each other. The last two nights of camp, we convened around a campfire. What is it about a campfire that brings people together? Despite the fact that some of the songs were decidedly irreverent, those campfire sing-arounds were holy…I can’t tell you why. I can only say that in our singing and sharing, we tapped into something much bigger than ourselves, something good and universal and life-giving. Something holy.
At one point Tuesday night, I became distracted by a loud blowing sound. I looked for the source and saw one of the campers blowing on the fire, which was in danger of dying. As Jim blew, the flames flickered and came back to life. Everyone cheered.
I’m probably the only person who saw Jim’s action as a Pentecostal metaphor…and, you lucky ducks, I’m now going to share that metaphor with you. J I wonder if Pentecost isn’t so much this fantastical event where some otherworldly power swoops in and brings folks together, as it is something that happens when we create space for it. Without Jim’s breath, the fire would have died. Maybe the fire of Pentecost too will die if we don’t offer our breath—our lives—to keep it going. Maybe God’s Spirit counts on us to keep the fire burning, to continue to create spaces where it CAN swoop in and bring folks together and, just maybe, change the world.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015
(Acts 2:1–21 and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)