Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What does this mean?

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” Acts 2:12.

The Pentecostal flames and astounding power of the Holy Spirit were absolutely stunning to  those who weren’t expecting it. What does this mean? they shrieked, relying of their beleaguered sphincters to maintain their dignity.

Today we still may ask what this means, but it’s more out of boredom than spiritual orgasm. We conclude the true meaning of the Pentecostal experience is impossible for our sluggish brains to discern and we shrug it off. Or, perhaps, we’ve heard the story of Pentecostal flames and multilingual declarations so often that we can no longer feel excited about it.

For many, bible stories are hackneyed and boring. Real life is colorless and pallid compared with today’s computer generated effects. We have come a long way from the special effects of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 extravaganza The Ten Commandments. We chuckle now at the scenes that thrilled us then. The burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire – all seem retrospectively cartoonish and lame. Even so, I’m sure my Reverend Spouse is not the only pastor whose parishioners challenged the accuracy of Exodus because it left out scenes in DeMille’s epic.

Today, movie house doors are portals to astonishing new experiences. This summer millions of millennials who never go to church will experience deep spiritual excitement at wide-screen, 3D presentations of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Wonder Woman, The Mummy, and Transformers: The Last Knight. 

This is not entirely bad because these are all morality tales of a sort. 

But wait, there’s more. Electronic accoutrements are now capable of placing us at the axis of a 360-degree virtual bubble in which we can experience sights and sounds above us, behind us, and below us. The holodecks of the futuristic Star Ship Enterprise are not far ahead of us. Virtual reality is becoming an elixir to cure the boredom of real life.

Perhaps these cinematic images will make many think of God’s power. But you don’t need an over-exposure to special effects to lose the shock and awe of biblical miracles. All you need is a lifetime of listening to the monotonous repetition of the stories in Sunday school or church. Familiarity doesn’t only breed contempt: it breeds mortal tedium. When we’ve heard the Pentecost story so often we can recite it by heart, when we’ve analyzed it and exegeted it ad infinitum, it loses its power. We no longer find ourselves asking the tantalizing question, “What does this mean?” Our brains have gone numb. We’ve stopped wondering.

Probably no one has captured this ecclesiastical ennui better than Rowan Atkinson, whose deadpan intonations as an Anglican priest remind us of the extent to which we have lost the excitement of our most basic messages.

Standing stiffly and fully vested at the pulpit, Atkinson suffocates the power of a miracle with his dull and droning cadence:

As Atkinson demonstrates, we have, in fact, imparted our miracle stories with such wearisome frequency that they begin to lose their power without a little supplementary imagination.

Pentecost Sunday – the birthday of the church – is a good time to take a refreshing look at those miracles. The supremacy — and awesomeness — of God’s spirit is very much on display at Pentecost.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2:1-4.

As the phenomenon of the spirit flowed into the streets, it began to attract attention.

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” Acts 2:12.

Had we been there on the first Pentecost, we may well have watched with incredulity as the winds blew and tongues of flames descended on the foreheads of Jesus’ disciples and the scores who followed him throughout his earthly ministry. We would have listened, stunned and slack-jawed, as people who could barely speak their own language suddenly unleashed eloquent sermonettes about Jesus in strange languages from the far corners of the world.

That cacophony of tongues must have been amazing to behold. I suspect the psychic impact would exceed anything computers could accomplish. Innocent bystanders in that Jerusalem crowd could not have missed the fact that the multi-linguistic phenomenon – that unintelligible buzz – was not gibberish but an important message with a common theme.

You get a sense of that disconnected commonality at assemblies of the World Council of Churches when thousands of persons from hundreds of nations and languages groups gather for worship. When the Lord’s prayer is said, people are invited to say it in the first language they learned. The result is an indecipherable  rumble of thousands of languages and dialects, all addressing the same thoughts to the same God: Our Father ... Padre Nuestro … Notre Père … Ons Vader … Aming Ama … Vater Unser  … Vår Fader … The highlight of any assembly, I think, was the saying of the Lord’s prayer. It’s as close as we can get to experiencing the first Pentecost. James Cameron and his special effects colleagues can’t duplicate that. That kind of communications break-through is the special purview of the Spirit of God.

But still, we might ask as we consider the drama of the spirit’s visitation, what does this mean?

Happily for us, Jesus explained it to his disciples before he was crucified. After he went away, Jesus, said, he would be replaced by the Advocate – the Holy Spirit. The good news is in the word “advocate.” When the Holy Spirit comes, the Spirit will be on our side.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:7-14.
This is wonderfully reassuring news and it all came to pass on Pentecost. Perhaps our main spiritual exercise on Pentecost is to rid ourselves of the languor that comes from having heard this story too many times.

Jesus ascended to God in heaven, but the Holy Spirit has never gone away.

Where is the Spirit? You've seen the meme of a glass half-filled with water, inviting the question: is it half full or half empty? The meme creator points out that while the bottom half of the glass is filled with water, the upper half is filled with air. “Technically speaking,” the caption said, “the glass is always full.”

Okay, fine. But a similar rule applies to every part of our lives we see as half-filled or empty: the rooms that are no longer occupied by loved ones, the vacant, lonely times of our day, the emptiness of our hearts when we are lost in anonymous crowds. When Jesus said the Advocate would come to us, he was saying the glasses of our lives will always be full as well.

What is the Advocate like? When we seek the Advocate presence in our lives, what may we expect?

Henri Nouwen offers some clues. The Holy Spirit is like Jesus.
Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness” (Matthew 5:3-10), Nouwen has written. These words offer us a self-portrait of Jesus.  Jesus is the Blessed One.  And the face of the Blessed One shows poverty, gentleness, grief, hunger, and thirst for uprightness, mercy, purity of heart, a desire to make peace, and the signs of persecution. The whole message of the Gospel is this:  Become like Jesus.  We have his self-portrait.  When we keep that in front of our eyes, we will soon learn what it means to follow Jesus and become like him.
Because we have Jesus’ self-portrait, we know what to expect when we encounter God and God’s spirit.

Jesus is called Emmanuel which means “God-with-us” (see Matthew 1: 22-23). Nouwen says.  The great paradox of Jesus’ life is that he, whose words and actions are in no way influenced by human blame or praise but are completely dependent on God's will, is more “with” us than any other human being.

And the way Jesus is “with” us is through the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose entry into the life of the church and into our lives is celebrated at Pentecost.

Say what, now?

When the Spirit enters our lives, the familiar biblical miracles that remind of us computer generated special effects – the dry bones taking on sinews and flesh, the tongues of fire – take on a deeper meaning. Led by the Spirit, we understand beyond doubt that God’s power and miracles are not displayed for our passing amazement or cinematic entertainment.
“When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus told us, “he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:7-14.”
Computer generated special effects have their place, but they don’t always guide us to all the truth, and they will only last as long as the next technological development.

On Pentecost, the tongues of flame remind us: God’s spirit is among us, and will never desert us.

It doesn’t get more awesome  than that. Even at the multiplex.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Introverts and HIPAA Rights

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. (Acts 8:28-31)
The impact of this encounter can hardly be overestimated. With this singular act of witness, the congregation of Jesus Christ – up to now an isolated Jewish sect – became a mission enterprise. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces its origins to this meeting between Philip the Evangelist and the unknown Ethiopian bureaucrat.

The fact that the Ethiopian was a eunuch enhances the story, although today his condition would have been kept private under the provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). But the man’s unfortunate deficit does make him more memorable than other characters in Acts. Professor Barbara Lundblad of Union Theological Seminary once noted that every time she said “eunuch” in a sermon, men in the congregation would cross their legs, uncross their legs, and then cross them again.

The sparse details in scripture enable us to surmise a few things about our Ethiopian friend. He was probably one of thousands of men who were involuntarily castrated in order to fulfill a particular role in government for which a sex drive would have been inconvenient. Perhaps he was a personal valet to the monarch or a security guard for the king’s wives or daughters. The fact that he was in charge of Queen Candace’s treasury suggests he was exceptionally reliable and good with numbers.

As to Candace: we don’t really know who she was. The name – and its derivatives Kandake or Kantake – are generic references to queens or queen mothers in Nubia and Ethiopia. Whoever she was, she was clearly formidable fem.

Just what her treasurer was doing on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, however, is a puzzle. Some scholars believe he was an Ethiopian Jew returning from a pilgrimage to the Great Temple, a speculation supported by the fact that he was reading Hebrew Scripture. That seems logical enough, although Father Peter Elvin, in his blog “Elvin Sermons,” notes that Deuteronomy 23:1 is not devised to make a eunuch feel welcomed to Judaism: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Really.

So if the eunuch wasn’t a Jew, who was he?

Some commentators point out that Luke may not have intended the word “eunuch” to be interpreted literally, and one scholar believes the Ethiopian may have been the first baptized gay Christian.

Other scholars see the color of the Ethiopian’s skin and his country of origin as evidence that the doors of the early church were wide open.

Dr. Jack Rogers, a Presbyterian Bible scholar, writer and seminary professor, wrote the Ethiopian “belonged to a sexual minority who was not fully welcome in the worship community of Israel.” Rogers exulted that “the fact that the first Gentile convert to Christianity is from a sexual minority and a different race, ethnicity and nationality together form a clarion call for inclusiveness, radical grace, and Christian welcome to all who show faith.”

According to Luke, Philip pounced on the Ethiopian’s chariot just as the man was reading the passage from Isaiah, 53:7-8.
Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,And a sheep that before its shearers is silent,So he did not open his mouth.By a perversion of justice he was taken away.Who could have imagined his future?For he was cut off from the land of the living,Stricken for the transgression of my people.
Who, the Ethiopian asked, is Isaiah talking about? And Philip “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”

All of us have grown up equating these prophetic Old Testament passages with the coming of Jesus the Messiah. I’ve often wondered if Philip was the first to make this connection in open testimony. No where in Isaiah is Jesus mentioned, and there is a school of thought that the writer was referring to himself in these passages.

But Philip gave the passages a powerful new exegesis that turned this African man into a believing Christian. It was a brilliant interpretation.

And then, just as the Ethiopian decided to begin a new life in Jesus, he looked down from his chariot and saw a puddle. The inexplicable appearance of water in the desert must be one of the more understated miracles in the New Testament, but the Ethiopian took it in stride. “What is to prevent me,” he asked, “from being baptized?”

This story leaves me in awe of Philip’s unhesitating initiative – not just his responsiveness to the direction of the Spirit, but because he overcame his crippling introversion. I surmise he was an introvert because as soon as he baptized the bureaucrat, “the Spirit snatched Philip away; the eunuch did not see him again.” (Acts 8:39).  This is exactly what an introvert does: disappear as soon as possible after the public exposure is over and blame it on the Holy Spirit.

In our family, introversion is common. Among our six offspring, only Katie is gregarious enough to initiate conversations with strangers. Within seconds she will ascertain a person’s name, age, birthday, marital status, basic health history, favorite singer, and the number of relatives they have named Katie. We try to discourage Katie, who is on a particularly loquacious point of the autism spectrum, from talking with strangers on public conveyances, especially airplanes where she is especially attracted to nervous passengers who hold the plane up with their white knuckles. Katie would have been all over the Ethiopian bureaucrat.

Neither Martha nor I have Katie’s outgoing nature. When we preach on Sundays, we don the role of an extrovert just as the Cambridge-trained Hugh Laurie assumed the persona of a gruff Dr. House when the cameras rolled. Role playing can be exhausting, and that’s one reason Martha and I look forward to Sunday afternoon naps. If the Spirit ordered either of us to chase after a eunuch in a chariot, we’d probably drag our feet and wave silently until it disappeared over the horizon.

I’ve always had a secret admiration for door-to-door evangelists, in part because I’m not wired to do it myself. I tell myself I’m too shy, but perhaps the reality is that I just don’t think fast enough on my feet to argue a perfect stranger to faith.

I’ve always regretted this weakness, and as we erstwhile born again Baptists know, nothing is more aggravating to born again Baptists than born again Baptists who can’t knock on doors to invite folks to be born again.

But one’s effectiveness as an evangelist is not determined by where one falls on the Myers-Briggs personality test.  There is a story told by a pastor who hosted Billy Graham to his city for an evangelical crusade. Billy arrived early, and the pastor suggested they stretch their legs in a stroll around the neighborhood.

Billy agreed, and the two men began their walk. As they passed yards and doorways, the pastor had an inspiration.

“Let’s knock on doors!” the pastor said, imagining the look on people’s faces as they saw the great evangelist on their porch. “Let’s hand out tracks and ask people if they know Jesus!”

Billy stopped walking and thrust his hands in his pockets. “Aw,” he said uneasily. “I’m just not very good at that.”

Sensing he had made a faux pas, the pastor changed the subject and the two walked on until it was time to drive to the stadium for the evening crusade.

There may be a lot of reasons Billy Graham was not comfortable knocking on doors and handing out tracks. Probably it’s not easy to do that when you have one of the most famous faces in America. And maybe this man who stood thousands of times in front of a microphone before 75,000 people was shy.

If Billy Graham is not wired to knock on doors to invite unsaved individuals to be born again, that’s fine with me. I don’t think anyone doubts his ability to bring inquiring souls to the hour of decision about where they will spend eternity.

He has his special gifts for witness, and door-to-door evangelists have theirs.

And who’s to say which style of evangelism is more effective – preaching to the multitudes or jumping into a moving chariot to whisper in the ear of an influential official?

According to church tradition, Philip the Evangelist (not to be confused with the Apostle Philip who walked with Jesus) did both. Before he ran into the Ethiopian, Philip was the first to preach the Gospel in Samaria and he continued preaching in coastal cities all the way to Caesarea, where he retired with four unmarried daughters. Twenty-four years later, when the Apostle Paul stayed in Philip’s home at the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 21:8-9) the Gospel of Jesus had taken root around the known world.

Part of that known world extended south to the horn of Africa and beyond. That the Gospel was planted there was due not to Philip’s eloquent preaching but to a quiet conversation he had in a chariot in the desert between Jerusalem and Gaza.

That is powerful news to us introverts.

And a gentle reminder to all of us that when the Spirit says go: Go!