Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecostal Fire, Power, Prayer

Justice for George Floyd, Fibonacci Blue, May 26,2020
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Langston Hughes, poet laureate of Harlem, asked

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—
And then run? . . .

   Maybe it just sags
   like a heavy load.
   Or does it explode?

That poem was written in 1922.

A century later, the question remains; what  happens to a dream deferred?

To me, it has always seemed that a dream deferred smolders, like hot coals, easily blown back to raging fire.

The title of the Malcolm X poem, Burn Baby Burn, written after the 1965 Watts Rebellion, became a catch phrase for racial riots of the following decade:

Sick an' tired
Tired of being

sick an' tired.
Lost in the wilderness

of white America . . .
burn, baby, burn
in time

will learn.

Who is the “he” that will learn?

When? How? How long?

Harold Floyd died last week on a Monday evening, May 23, while police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck. His repeated “I can’t breathe” echoed the last words of Eric Garner, who became unresponsive when held in a chokehold by New York police, then died not long after on July 17, 2014.

Justice for George Floyd, Fibonacci Blue
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That year there were at least 100 unarmed black men, women and children killed by police officers across the country. Mapping Police Violence offers their names, photos, short bios. Tamir Rice was the youngest, a 12 year old playing with a bb gun in a Cleveland, Ohio park. Ernest Satterwhite was the oldest. After a traffic violation, a police officer followed him nine miles to his driveway in North Augusta, South Carolina, then shot him repeatedly through the driver’s side door. The father of four was 68.


Yesterday, looking toward Pentecost Sunday, a friend and I walked our church grounds in prayer, asking for the Holy Spirit to move, act, lead, teach, heal. We prayed for comfort, wisdom, unity, grace. For leaders who love and lead with courage. For healing of racial and partisan divisions. For those like us and those profoundly unlike us: God’s grace, mercy, blessing. We prayed for the power of the Holy Spirit. 

The fire of Pentecost Sunday is a fire of hope, not despair. Of love, not hate. The first fruit of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 2, is a miraculous bridging of ancient divides. Theologian Willie Jennings digs deep into the astonishment of suddenly shared language:

The Spirit creates joining. The followers of Jesus are now being connected in a way that joins them to people in the most intimate space—of voice, memory, sound, body, land, and place. It is language that runs through all these matters. . . .

The gesture of speaking another language is born not of the desire of the disciples but of God, and it signifies all that is essential to learning a language. It bears repeating: this is not what the disciples imagined or hoped would manifest the power of the Holy Spirit.

. . .  Speak a language, speak a people. God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak fluently too. This is the beginning of a revolution that the Spirit performs. Like an artist drawing on all her talent to express a new way to live, God gestures the deepest joining possible, one flesh with God, and desire made one with the Holy One. (from Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (2017), 28-310)

Jesus’ last prayer for his disciples was for unity, that "deepest joining possible": that you will be one, as my father and I am one. Now his Spirit demonstrates a unity far beyond any his followers might have imagined:

Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs, we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.

This unity Jesus prayed for, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is not optional for followers of Christ. It’s the first, most visible witness. It’s the insistent challenge that permeates the life of the early church.

Gentiles? Yes.
Women? Yes.
Slaves? Prostitutes? Roman guards?
Yes. Yes. Yes.

This isn’t a unity of duty, but of love. Supernatural love, that flows out of our own experience of love beyond understanding. As we experience that love we begin to see others through the same lens. The joy or grief of our brother or sister begins to become our own.

That love is at the heart of who we are as Christians, the very foundation of the church of Christ. As Paul insists in Galatians 3: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The joy and challenge of this is that our place of belonging is no longer racial, national, political. As the Holy Spirit moves in and through us, we find walls of separation collapsing.

Yet, division continues.

Rich Vollodas, pastor of a multi-ethnic church in Queens, writes:

The deep trouble the church (in many respects, the white church) finds itself in related to race stems from a bad theology that sees racial justice and reconciliation as optional to the gospel. . . . As long as the gospel is reduced to a personal decision, resulting in private discipleship and a self-centered preoccupation, we will tragically miss the core of the gospel, which is a declaration of Jesus’ Lordship resulting in a new family, called from different places in life.

This fundamental theological perspective has often been “outsourced” to people of color. But we are at a point where a theology of the “new family of Jesus,” or in Dr. King’s words, “The Beloved Community,” can’t be seen as a specialization of theology for people interested in that kind of “secondary” content. The gospel’s application to race must be seen as part of the core content for every Christian.

If reconciliation, unity, "beloved community" are part of the core content for every Christian, how do we get there?

One start would be reading, widely and with humility, from Christians, and non-Christians, of color. Some starting points:
But maybe a better start, this Pentecost Sunday, would be to ask for the Holy Spirit to change our hearts, renew our minds, and draw us deeper into the unity we’re called to.

Then comes the work of listening, lamenting, repenting, inviting change:
Who have we labeled?
When have we seen others as “less than”?
What would it mean to truly grieve with those who grieve?
What practical steps can we take to love our neighbors – ALL neighbors - as ourselves?

Today, I’m back to the Porter’s Gate, reminded that our witness is always dependent on the extent we love each other. Not the “other” of our own church, or race, or partisan tribe, but the other of Acts 2: strangers, travelers, people of different races, different languages, those whose understanding of faith is different from our own, those who have no faith at all.

The power of the Holy Spirit is available to us if we ask, and wait, and open our hearts.
Power to live in unity, to serve in humility, to love with the love of Christ.

Power to be light in a very dark, divided world.

I pray it will be so.