Sunday, June 5, 2011

Waiting for Pentecost

Flame, Babbitt, Minnesota Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2003, Tammy and Kevin Gilmore.
     The dove descending breaks the air
     With flame of incandescent terror
     Of which the tongues declare
     The one discharge from sin and error.
     The only hope, or else despair
          Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
          To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday – the day we remember the events of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. In our church, Acts 2:1-21 will be read in a mix of languages, we’ll pause to think about the Holy Spirit coming as wind and fire, we may even wait a minute or two in silence, in honor of the early followers, waiting as instructed for the coming of the Spirit, and then we’ll move on.

We don’t spend much time waiting, really waiting, for the Holy Spirit. Let me rephrase that: most of the people I know, most of the churches I know, don’t spend much time waiting for the Holy Spirit. We’re busy people. We have schedules, agendas, things to do. Silence is way too boring and let’s be honest, there’s something a little unnerving about waiting for something, someone, we can’t see.

And yet, there have been times when the Holy Spirit has intervened without my waiting. It’s happened enough for me to know the difference between my own often-random thoughts and the very clear, firm voice that sometimes interrupts me.

Do this. Go there. Say this. Stop that person and introduce yourself. That’s about the tone of it. It happened when I was walking across the quad at a college I’d never considered, and wasn’t impressed by: This is where I want you to go. Really?

It happened again when I was walking, as a first semester freshman, into the campus center at that same college. I’d been praying about the character of the characters I’d been dating and that calm quiet voice said: “There. That’s the man you should marry.” I wasn’t praying about marrying – I was praying about dating. But we eventually became friends, and on our first date, the topic he brought up was the Holy Spirit. What did I know about the Holy Spirit? He had been thinking about that a lot, and really wanted to know.

We’ve been married now for thirty-four years – today! – and we’re still talking, and praying, about the Holy Spirit.

Reading through Acts, I’m struck by the way the followers of Christ learned to follow the Holy Spirit. Peter, on the way to the temple to pray, accosted by a man who couldn’t walk: where did Peter get the courage to speak to the man the way he did? It’s so familiar we forget how terrifying that would be – to stand there on a public street, look at a man lame from birth, and say, so anyone listening can hear: “I don’t have any money to spare,  but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.”

St. Stephen, Luis de Morales, Spain, late 1500s
Stephen, a few chapters later, confronted by the high priest, could have taken an easy path, said a few nice words, gone his way. How did he have the boldness to say the things the Spirit gave him to say? Read it: Acts 7. You can see the Spirit moving through it, with Stephen’s voice building in strenght and boldness until by verse 51 he’s speaking with the same authority and fearless power Jesus had when speaking to the Pharisees. And then they killed him.

Ananias, not long after, hears a voice telling him to go pray for Saul, notorious zealot on a mission to capture any follower of Christ. He raises objections, but the voice says “Go!” And off he goes. Courageously obedient, setting both risk and doubt aside.

And on it goes. Agendas revised, plans rearranged. As the Holy Spirit reveals gifts of healing, prophecy, teaching, wisdom, the followers of Christ use the gifts boldly, obey tirelessly, head off in frightening new directions with no guarantees of safety or success.

I’ve been going once a month with my friends Joan and Mimoza to pray for a girl struck by lighting three years ago this week. June 10. Pentecost Sunday 2008. I’ve described some of her story on one of my blog pages. It didn’t occur to me until just today that the lightning struck on Pentecost Sunday: fire and wind. I don’t know what to make of that.

I do find that in praying for Emily, I find myself praying as well for the body of Christ.

Emily seems to understand most of what’s said to her, but words seem to be missing, and messages don’t always travel well from brain to hand, from brain to leg. She can walk with help and lots of coaching. She can hold a fork, but it doesn’t always make it to her mouth. She can form words, but the part of her throat that governs sounds seems to be missing. The air comes out, but the consonants don’t.

My friends and I go to pray because we believe the Holy Spirit told us to, and because we believe in the gifts of the Spirit: prophecy, words of wisdom and knowledge, faith, mercy, healing. We go because I believe God told me to pray for complete restoration, and my friends, with greater faith than mine, believe God spoke to me, and wants to stir up gifts of healing. Mimoza has seen several family members healed of cancer, in ways that have doctors wondering. What does the gift of healing look like? We keep asking.

But our arms are often weak, and our voices uncertain. Praying yesterday with my hand on Emily’s arm, I was struck at how very thin her muscles are. She was a strong, sturdy girl, third in an active family of seven. As her mom told us yesterday, she worked on a dairy farm during high school and loved it. But three years of disuse has left her arms as thin as a small child’s. She tries to reach for something inches away, and pulls her arm back again. The simplest motion is still too hard. I feel like that in my attempts to pray. The air comes out, but there’s still something missing.

I have a letter sitting next to my computer from a friend I haven’t seen in years. We led some children’s outreach mission trips together on Jekyll Island, Georgia. My first two mission trips. The teams were Betty, me, and another mom, our combined kids, and some teenagers from Jekyll Island we’d never met. Betty taught me much of what I know about leading mission trips and about ministry to very small children, and together we explored what it might mean to hear the Holy Spirit leading.

The Pentecost Alexander Sadoyan Armenia 2003
She’s just decided to leave a very safe, familiar, comfortable home in Connecticut to join the staff of Adventures in Mission, a mission group committed to teaching youth and young adults how to do missions in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Betty and her kids have had some powerful adventures with AIM, and she’s decided to join them, even though it means moving to Georgia and raising her own financial support. Here’s part of what her letter says:

“Adventure, change and risk – at least for me – are bound together. Fear has largely sidelined them in my life. I feel the restlessness but find it hard to change unless it is forced on me. And yet, while I could find plenty of compassion in scripture for people who experience fear, I could find no permission to stay there. There’s a constant call to ‘Fear not,’ to follow Jesus no matter what or where. 

“The outward look of what I do does not determine this. It’s an internal shift that says I will not let fear put constraints on whether I say ‘yes’ to the Holy Spirit’s nudge, and I will not let complacency set my life’s path.”

I’m excited for my friend. And I’m thankful. Because obedience is a corporate act. We say “yes” as individuals, one by one. But the courage of our brothers and sisters feeds our own courage. And the gifts of our brothers and sisters call forth our own.

I’m longing to see gifts of healing revealed more powerfully in God’s people. My friend Emily is waiting. But the gifts of healing depend on other gifts: obedience in speaking, and doing, the difficult things God gives us to do, the grace to set our own agendas aside, faith to trust, and pray, and wait, when it feels like it’s all an illusion. Our muscles are weak but as we reach out our arms together, we will grow stronger, and God will use us.

I am thankful, beyond thankful, for those faithful friends God has set in my path who have challenged me to press on in obedience to the Spirit’s leading. I am thankful for a husband who prays and waits with me, and who joins me in choosing the sometimes strange and difficult paths the Spirit leads us in. I’m thankful for my prayer partners Joan and Mimoza and Emily’s mother Janet, for Betty’s example in mission, for the many faithful young and not-so-young men and women who have worked with me in ministry, waiting, praying, listening, and choosing the hard road of obedience.

I pray with the prophet Habakkuk:

              Lord, I have heard of your fame;
              I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD.
         Repeat them in our day,
              in our time make them known; 
                                (Habakkuk 3)

I will be having my own "other tongues" experience next Sunday. I'm heading off to France later this week with my husband for some international Scripture Union meetings near Strasbourg, then four days in Paris to celebrate our anniversary. As a result, I won’t be posting for the next two weeks, but will look forward to resuming the conversation on June 19. Your thoughts and experiences, as always, are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.