Posts Tagged ‘holy spirit’

3001809-poster-942-you-are-here-why-location-smartphones-killer-mapThe Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

My reflection this morning will be a little different. Those of you who come here regularly are probably saying to yourself, “So, what’s new?”

Fair enough; on this Pentecost morning, the Spirit will draw us again and again into now as we mark several important events happening in the life of our community, ultimately gathering around the table to break bread and share cup. The gift that the Holy Spirit gives us, one that we are likely to neglect otherwise, is to pay attention to this moment: here…now…reminding us that God is at work for us, in us, and through us.

Most of us tend to avoid the moment before us. And for some of us, that means getting caught up in the past. We let grievances and traumas get the best of us, defining us not as who we are, but as what has happened to us. Or maybe we think that the best approach is to just put those things behind us, to gut them out.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated. Our ability to heal from old wounds can only come when we are willing to seek out those who have the spiritual gift of healing – healing in body, in mind, in spirit. They are the ones God has gifted to strengthen us so that we can face the past, come to terms with it, and even find redemption in it.

In healing our pasts, we would do well to remember the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a fierce seeker of God. It was this fierceness that gave him the limp that he carried the rest of his life. And so, his battle scars ran deep – but his faith ran far, far deeper.

For others of us, the past defines us in ways that seem like misty, near perfection. We reminisce, holding onto precious memories, wishing life could be that way now. The more we learn about memory, however, the more we understand how unreliable it is. This means that we risk becoming captives to nostalgia, to things that never were or, at least, were not the way we choose to remember them.

More importantly, though, as people of faith, it means that we tend to think of God as someone or something that was at work only in the past, as though God has given up on creation, leaving us to our own devices. This idea runs counter to everything we say we believe; and yet, it can take hold of us.

The truth is that God is at much at work in this moment as at any other time behind or before us. Even in those times that it feels like God is away, God is very much here – closer than our own breath.

There are times when we need to be reminded of that truth, of God’s constant presence.

Some of us flee the present moment in exchange for what is yet to come. We get caught up in looking forward, planning ahead, mapping out the road in front of us, that we neglect the beauty of what is happening. It’s as though we are walking along the beach, but remain focused on where the car is back in the parking lot, and never cast our gaze toward the endless horizon.

We can also let anxiety about the unknown future take hold of us. Our financial worries, our medical fears, our relationship uncertainties – all of them can trap us in places where hope gets dampened. And yet, just like we talked about last week, even if we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. In other words, we are going to be OK, no matter what, because God will always be God.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

From our lesson this morning, when Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth about spiritual gifts, this is exactly what he was talking about. God uses our excellence, those things that bring us joy, for the sake of God’s desires. We are, each of us, gifted by God for the working of God’s hopes and joys. The invitation is to move deeper into God so that we might not only find those gifts, but also to discover God’s own self.

And in exploring that faith, we also hope to find ourselves and our unique calling, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that rests on each of us. In other words, faith in Christ ought to be something that speaks to us in its own particular way and, at the same time, knit each of our strands into a wonderful tapestry of shared faith.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

Today we mark that ancient Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit visited the disciples, flames of fire dancing on their heads, sending them out into the streets, gifting them with languages they had never known, giving birth to the Church.

And yet, what made all of that possible was the fact that the disciples first gathered together. Jesus, their teacher and friend, was gone. Unsure what to do, they only knew to do what they had done with Jesus: they came together. They prayed. They sang. And…they ate.

Around the table, that first generation of Jesus’ followers broke bread and shared cup together. And when they did, they found themselves connected across time and space with an infinite number of tables, all different shapes and sizes, that look back and forward at the same time.

As do we.

At the table, we look back to that moment in the upper room when Jesus broke bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me.” We look back to that moment when Jesus took the cup, poured it, and said, “This is the cup of the new covenant, sealed with my blood, shed for you and for many. Do this in remembrance of me.”

At the same time, we look forward with expectation to that heavenly banquet, that moment where all of God’s beloved, former enemies and friends alike, gather in God’s presence and feast together.

And, above all, we are in this moment, now, because God is here! In this sacred space at this sacred time, Jesus is in our midst. After all, this is not our table. It is his. And when we break the bread and share the cup, we are somehow, by the grace of God and God alone, opened to God’s Holy Spirit moving us, shaping us, inviting us to be who it is that God has created us to be!


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What has four wheels and flies?
A garbage truck!

Words don’t always mean what we think they mean. That’s why it’s important to maintain a stance of openness. And when our life is suffused with prayer, we are more able to stay open to what God is doing.

Let’s begin with our lesson from the gospel of John. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, visits Jesus under cover of night. Given the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, no wonder he sneaks over. He is convinced that there is something Godly in Jesus and wants to find out more.

Rather than answer him directly, though, Jesus answers him in riddle. It’s as though he wants to bog him down in some kind of quagmire. Our translation this morning attempted to retain some of that confusion in a way that our familiar renderings don’t keep well. In other words, as John portrays Jesus, the Messiah is a fan of puns. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born…” and here, he uses a Greek word, anothen, which has two meanings.

So does Jesus say, “You must be born again,” or “You must be born from above”?

John leaves a hint at what Jesus’ real meaning is in Nicodemus’ response: “How can you be born anothen after being grown? Should you go back into your mother’s womb?” Every time Jesus uses an ambiguous word, and this is one of at least six examples in John’s gospel, his conversation partner always picks the wrong meaning. Nicodemus assumes Jesus’ literal meaning about a physical birth; when the birth Jesus is talking about is an eschatological one, a spiritual one. Jesus, it turns out, is still full of surprises.

This is why a discipline of prayer is so important. It’s how we remain open to God’s possibilities, to the surprises that Jesus holds for us.

Since January, I have been encouraging all of us to spend at least five minutes a day in prayer. If you are just now joining us, the outline of that particular prayer is on the back of the pew card. And throughout this season of Lent, there are many opportunities for you to work on this practice of prayer:

  • The Invitation Team, or iTeam, is gathering at the back of the Sanctuary every Sunday morning at 10:45am to pray for our worship service and all those who will come here.
  • The iTeam is also sharing their reflections on prayer during worship as they lead us in prayer.
  • The iTeam has also made Lenten prayer journals available to everyone who wants one, along with a Lenten devotional with daily reflections.
  • And our centering prayer group continues their weekly meetings for silent prayer on Wednesdays at 5:15pm here at the church.

In other words, there are multiple opportunities to learn how to pray, whether with words or in silence, or perhaps with some quiet guitar music, with a reading to focus or your own thoughts to guide you.

As we continue these practices throughout Lent, I want to give you a simple goal to strive for. By the time we get to Easter on April 20, I want to encourage you to be praying two more days a week than you are now. In other words, if you are currently praying three days a week, by the middle of April, I want you to be at five days a week. If you are at zero, then get to two days a week.

And for those of you overachievers who are already at seven days a week, I want you to add five minutes to each of your daily prayer. If you’re at five, by Easter, I’d love to see you be at ten.

Prayer, in short, is crucial. It is how we open ourselves to God’s incredible possibilities for us.

Back to Nicodemus and Jesus. Jesus drops his second pun of the day. “pneuma blows where it will. So it is with everyone born of pneuma.” Again, there are a multitude of translation possibilities: the wind, breath, and the Spirit. For Jesus, our Spirit-filled births are just as important as our physical births. It’s not about translating things so closely that we miss the meaning, being sure that everyone has their “born again” date, or their “Spirit birth” date or anything like that. I’m not knocking it, though, because I know how important this moment of Spiritual awakening is to some of you. For others, though, it is rarely the split-second conversion that changes our lives; but rather a series of smaller epiphanies that clears away the spiritual cobwebs.

Let me put the question to you this way: have you ever been so convinced that you were right about something until suddenly you had a flash, a moment of inspiration, that made you realize that you had it backwards? Maybe it was an argument with a friend or someone you love. You were sure they misunderstood you, and did it intentionally; then the more you played the conversation back in your mind, the more you realized that what you said was so vague that it would have been easy to misinterpret?

In a sense, that’s what the openness of prayer is all about: having enough self-awareness to realize that we might have missed something in our spiritual lives that God wants us to see differently.

I’m reminded of the story of Wag Dodge. Dodge was a Montana fire jumper. In 1949, he and his crew headed to the Mann Gulch river valley to put out a forest fire. The grass and trees were dry, but the fire was on the other side of the gulch. Suddenly, the blaze leapt across and was speeding toward his team. Every fiber in his being told him to run away; but he soon realized doing so would be in vain. The fire would soon overtake him. In his own recollections, he says that he figured out that his panic was not going to help him.

So after searching desperately for a few moments for a solution, he lit the dry brush on the other side of him. It, too, got carried by the wind, cutting a swath of burnt ground next to him. He then took a wet cloth, covered his head, and lay down on the smoldering embers he had just made. The blaze soon caught up with him and was swirling around him…he got burned, but he survived. His quick thinking saved his life. Dodge’s solution is now standard procedure for fire jumpers.

Dodge was a veteran fire jumper at the time. He had encountered numerous forest fires and thought he knew all there was to know. But what saved his life in that critical moment was unlearning all of that. The fire fighter set a fire. And not only did that absurd notion keep him alive, it transformed the whole industry and has saved many lives since.

What about you? Where is your forest fire? What are you running from that you need to face? What is it in your life that has stumped you? What is it that is calling for a new kind of openness, the kind that only being born of God can bring? What is your late night visit to Jesus all about?

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It’s like we threw a party, but nobody got the invitation…

Elizabeth and I moved into a third story walk-up apartment on the Southside of Chicago. We shared the stairwell with five other apartments, but had not met any of the other residents yet. So we decided that we ought to take the lead. A couple of weeks after we moved in, we threw a party, inviting our neighbors to come upstairs. It was scheduled to start at 6pm.

At about 6:30…well, you know that feeling when you’re the only ones at your party? That’s where we were, beginning to realize we were going to eating spinach and artichoke dip three meals a day for about a week.

Fortunately, that’s when a knock came at the door. It was the couple who lived across the hall. Not long after, another knock – the elderly bachelor who lived downstairs. Then the graduate student across the hall from him, and the retired couple from the first floor – all in all, five out of the six apartments were represented. The party was a success!

We lived in that place for seven years. And in that time, we shared lives with those neighbors: relationships came to an end, others started. There were weddings and births and deaths and moves. It was, in short, our little community near the corner of 55th and South Cornell. But that first party was the only time that we were all in the same room together.

Our apartment was nothing special; in fact, it was a cozy little one bedroom. And so, whenever we had a party, we had to pull out extra chairs (or anything resembling chairs, for that matter) so that everyone who wanted to sit could. We had set up our apartment for two people; when more were there, even for just a short period of time – a few hours or a few days – we moved furniture around, borrowed if we had to. In short, we made room.

When I read the Pentecost story, I wonder if God was at work doing something similar with the disciples: making room. After Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, their numbers were down to eleven, and they holed themselves up back in the Upper Room that had become their familiar respite. After the resurrection, when Jesus appeared to them and ate with them and spoke with them and stayed with them for almost a month and a half, they decided that maybe their story wasn’t over. And so, after Jesus left them, they gathered once again in the Upper Room as he had told them to do, and the awaited instructions. While they waited, they decided they needed one more to take Judas’ place, with that honor going to Matthias.

And still they waited…perhaps wondering if anybody else was coming to their party. Then Pentecost happened, and the church was born. Wind burst through the windows; fire lapped on their heads; languages filled the air; and Peter takes the opportunity to give his first sermon to the gathered crowd. Apparently, three thousand people were baptized that day because of what they saw and heard and experienced. This little party of eleven, then twelve, had suddenly outgrown the confines of that Upper Room – the celebration had to be taken to the streets!

I read all of this, and then I look at the state of churches today all over the country. I look around our own Sanctuary here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Unlike the disciples, we’ve got room – plenty of room – too much room. Sure, on Easter we’re overflowing. On Christmas Eve, we’re at capacity. On Preschool Sunday, we’re packed to the gills. But the rest of the year, for the most part, we could all fit in one of our seating sections – tightly, mind you. But we certainly don’t have a problem with space…or is that our problem?

Our attendance records go back fifteen years. And in that time, the trend is downward, year after year after year. Even way back in those heady days of the late 90’s, we were under half-capacity most of the year.

We’re not alone in this challenge, either, by any stretch. It’s the same problem that faces thousands of churches all over the country: a sanctuary built for 800 now seats 80. A worship space that could hold three hundred sees an average attendance of 15 or 16. Both of these examples are actually in Presbyterian churches here in Atlanta; in thriving parts of Atlanta. This situation, sadly, seems to be much more rule than exception. It’s as though we live in a six-bedroom house permanently set up for a party, when a one-bedroom apartment would be more than enough.

So, Happy Pentecost! Nothing like slogging your way to church on a rainy Sunday morning to get a rousing, energizing, feel-good sermon, huh?

My point, though, is that I don’t think we are all that different from those early disciples. I have heard theory after theory about why the church is on the decline. There are those who want to point theological or political fingers: the church is too conservative, or too liberal. Or they blame worship styles: the music is too stuffy and the language is out of touch, or it’s trying to hard to be “relevant” and ends up abandoning age-old truths…Having been in a church professional for almost twenty years now, I’m convinced that none of those things is much of a factor at all.

And I think Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a perfect example. I really do hope you’ll stick around for lunch afterwards, because the first part of our conversation is to hear the results of the Church Assessment Tool survey we did just a few weeks back. And there is much – much – to celebrate about what God is doing here! And I know I keep returning to this topic, but your support of the Capital Campaign continues to show that this church has a place not just for the present, but on into God’s future as well! That’s not to minimize the challenges that we have, or to deny their existence. They’re there, all right; but we know they’re there. And I know I say this every year, but your session leadership is amazing, gifted, and dedicated to discerning God’s desires as we move forward as a church. It’s almost enough to make me become a Presbyterian!

But this is where my party metaphor starts to come apart. We’ve sent out invitations to the neighbors, but they’re not coming. We want to walk through those pivotal life moments together – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, celebrations, tragedies. And we want the community to know that we are here to walk alongside them in these moments. As any of you who have been there know, it’s what we do best! And yet, the time has come. It’s 6:30, and we sit here, looking at each other, wondering why nobody came.

The truth is that the rules have changed. The word is different. To use a technology analogy, we keep sending invitations through the mail when everyone is checking their inbox for an evite. I think the church’s decline is as simple as this: we are sitting in the Upper Room, waiting for a knock at the door; but really, it’s time to take the celebration to the streets!

For the disciples, it took the storm force of wind, the interruption of fire, and a good dose of linguistic chaos to get them off their be-hinds (as my grandmother would’ve said) and recognize that the Spirit was there so they could pick up where Jesus left off. What’s it gonna take for us to do the same?

I’ve got good news and bad news: the bad news is that we’re probably not gonna get the same kind of signs they did. There will likely be no burning bush, no Red Sea parting, no sky splitting open, no dove descending. But the good news is that the Spirit never left us – God is still here! It never left us! I’m just not sure we’re paying close enough attention, or that we’re able to filter out the stimuli that constantly bombard our senses long enough just to hear the wind blow…

Friends, the truth is: it’s not even our party to begin with! Maybe we have forgotten that, or maybe it happened so long ago that we don’t remember, but the celebration started long before we arrived on the scene. Somebody bothered to include us – our parents, a friend, a beloved pastor – because they knew that it was God’s party all along! Do we know that? Can we stop sending invitations and, instead, become invitations, taking it to the streets? And can we remember what the party was about in the first place – not a building, no; but the host, who meets us where we are!

My prayer today is that God would light a fire – not on our heads, but under our be-hinds, sending us out to be Christ’s deeds of power, living invitations to a world that needs healing, more than it knows. May it be so!

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The service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. But here’s a little special bonus message:

Starfish or spider?

Five years ago, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom published The Starfish and the Spider. In it, the authors compare the biology of starfish and spiders. Both have multiple legs with a central body. But there is one key difference: if you cut off a spider’s head, it will die. The starfish, on the other hand, has no head. If you cut off one of its legs, it will regenerate. And some species can regenerate from just a leg, because the genetic code and the vital organs are all there.

This difference becomes the central point of their book as they compare organizations, especially with the dawn of the 21st century and the explosion of internet technology. Every industry is changing dramatically as a result. If you are working in a business which has not been changed by the internet, please raise your hand.

The most interesting example of this is the music business. As of 2000, it was primarily in the hands of four major record labels. But this four-headed arachnid has since been crippled by internet file-sharing and piracy, a starfish with no centralized organization. The results have been financially devastating. And every time the industry wins a court-case against one form of piracy, another one springs up, each one more anonymous and harder to shut down than the last.

There is bad news in this; but I’m not sure it’s all bad news. The music industry has had a spotty record, at best, in how musicians fare financially from the top-down model. But the argument has always been that record companies, because of their size, can be trusted with the charge of distribution and promotion. And so musicians need them. Otherwise, how else would people know about them?

But as websites like MySpace and YouTube have taken off, musicians have recognized that the old way of doing things is changing.

In 2007, the English band Radiohead released its album In Rainbows. It was posted on their website without a record company present at all. People could pay whatever they wanted. It entered the charts at number one, and within a year had sold three million copies. And even though they offered it as a “pay as you like” download, most fans paid for the record, and the band made a mint.

As I’m reading this book, I’m thinking to myself: what about the church? Are we more spider, or starfish?

We Presbyterians love to talk about God’s sovereignty, the idea that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, that God is, simply put, in control. And when we talk about the church as the Body of Christ, we are always sure to make it clear that Jesus is the head of that body. That sounds like all spider to me.

Think of the Godhead at work in Genesis, forming stars and planets and grass and trees, and animals and fish and birds, and male and female. There is a center out of which everything emanates, and everything owes its life to that center. It’s a top-down hierarchy. God makes, things are made.

Or what about the “Great Commission” that comes at the end of Matthew? Jesus, the early church’s CEO, gives the disciples their mission: go and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And so they go, following orders from the head of the organization.

We are inheritors of this Scripture, and so it is not surprising that churches would be spider-like with a centralized organization, such as a Session, or a Presbytery, or, in the case of the ancient churches, Patriarch or Pope. We are spiders in a world full of starfish.

And that, perhaps more than anything else, is why the mainline churches are struggling. We struggle financially and numerically as we work to sustain, transform, maintain, evolve our forms of worship and governance and physical plant. And our evangelism approach seems to be borrowed from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Spiders seem to be going extinct. Is that our fate, too?

But before we go too far down this road, let’s be clear about one thing: we are, indeed, inheritors of Scripture; and we are, indeed, inheritors of the church. But we are also heirs to much, much more. We are influenced by culture and language and philosophy and biology and worldview which are outside (and in some cases even trump) the influence of Scripture, of theology, of ecclesial DNA. Which is which? And how can we possibly know?

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the one day we set aside to deal with the complicated and confusing doctrine of God as three-in-one, one-in-three.

This is my sixth Trinity Sunday as your pastor. And with this Sunday approaching, I went back and looked at the Trinity Sunday sermons I’ve preached since my arrival. And so, let me sum up the sermon I’ve preached every year in a couple of sentences:

The Trinity is the doctrine the early church created to explain the confusion of Scripture where God, Jesus, and Spirit are all described as divine. What it teaches us, ultimately, is that God is mysterious and that God exists in relationship.

But I wonder if there is more to it than that. I wonder if the Trinity can actually shed light on our starfish-spider debate…

For starters, there is no hierarchy in Trinity. Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. There is no “head”.

Look at the creation story. At first glance, it is God – the Creator, the Father – who is at work, fashioning and shaping. And yet, there is this curious pronoun at the creation of humanity: “Let us create…” Not singular, but plural. Who else is there?

Well, let’s jump back to the very beginning of Genesis. Before anything else happens, there is wind, breath, spirit, moving over the face of the waters. The Spirit is there.

And in order for there to be creation of something out of nothing, there must be Word: “And God said…” And that word of God, Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelt among us. Creation can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.

And as we look at the end of Matthew, where Jesus is once again with his disciples after the resurrection, he gives them the Great Commission, sending them out to baptize. But while Jesus is the divine mouthpiece, all of divinity is present. Don’t baptize in the name of God, or in the name of Jesus, but in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The church can only happen, it seems, when the fullness of God is at work.

The Trinity, the very nature of God, is actually far more starfish than spider. But it’s not about the curiosity of chopping off body parts; it’s about part of God containing the fullness of God.

And that’s the gift to the church. We, whether female or male, are created in the image of all of God, that weird first person plural that pops up in Genesis. And the church is baptized in the name of all of God, not just one part. And we, the church, and individually members of it, have that divine genetic code within us.

The question that lingers with us today is, “What do we do with this?” What do we do in a world that is becoming more starfish and less spider?

I think the truth is that we Presbyterians are in a good position to adapt. We have always been suspicious of too much power being vested in one person, whether that be pastor or elder or treasurer or staff. And I think we’ve been sadly vindicated by the evidence we see in church scandals. We are not immune from the headlines, but we are fortunate that the essence of our structure is one of both support and accountability.

When we celebrate communion, we must have at least three people present: someone to receive, an elder (representing this congregation), and a pastor (representing the wider church).

When I go to visit one of our members in the hospital, or to a community gathering, wherever I go, I take the name of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. See, it’s not just me that goes; it’s all of you. And you have given me the trust to carry all of that, the fullness of God’s OPC DNA, with me.

But the same is true with you; each of you. When you leave this worship service today, when you leave the physical confines of our physical plant, you have not left God behind. You carry the divine imprint within you. At work, at home, as a parent, a neighbor, a student, a teacher, wherever you go, you remain part of the starfish.

If you’ve bothered to read this far, I want you to do something. Click on this link. Print it out. It’s made up of three cards (appropriate for Trinity Sunday). In the next few days, give them to someone. Hand it to a friend, someone you meet at the coffee shop. Tack it to a bulletin board at the restaurant where you have lunch, the grocery store where you shop. Mail it to a family member. Put it in a neighbor’s mailbox. And as you do, may it remind you of your Godly DNA, that you are part of the body of Christ: now and forever!


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The Holy Ghost has been replaced by the Holy Spirit. Oh, there are remnants of that dear old spook in some of our traditional liturgies: the Doxology’s “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”…or the Apostle’s Creed’s “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church”…But for the most part, our Trinitarian theology has become the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Why is that?

Well, if you’re looking for a theological answer, or something that would give credence to the notion that change is something that happens only to irritate us, then I’m afraid I have to disappoint. The answer has more to do with language.

We English speakers might have been more comfortable at Pentecost than we think; English is a mutt language. When it comes to categorizing English, it’s a Germanic language. Our grammar looks a lot like the grammar of the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedes. And our simpler words tend to come from the Germans: “hand” is “hand”; “hat” is “hut”; “foot” is füß”.

But we have also adapted and adopted words from just about every language under the sun. “Rodeo” comes from Spanish; “pajamas” comes from Urdu; “velcro” comes from French; “Chattahoochee” comes from the Muskogean.

And the question about Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit reflects our special breeding, and how our language simply changes over the years. “Ghost” is from German, “geist”. “Spirit” is from Latin, “spiritus”. And both are equally accurate translations of what the Greek says in the New Testament: “pneuma”.

The difference is this: when the Doxology and the Gloria Patri and the Apostle’s Creed were being translated into English, our use of language was very different. The word “spirit” was used to describe those things that haunt graveyards and visit Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas time. “Ghost”, at that same time, meant something far more civilized and elegant.

Over the centuries, the meaning has flipped. For us, a “ghost” is Caspar; it’s what Charlie Brown dressed up as for Halloween; it’s what Scooby and Shaggy ran from; it’s what Haley Joel Osment saw in The Sixth Sense. And “spirit” means something akin to the vital source within us, our soul, our essence.

So in short, in the 21st century, to refer to God as “ghost” seems like an insult; “spirit” works much better.

And that’s all we have time for on The Writer’s Almanac today. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

But maybe there is something more to this than just linguistic nuance. Maybe it says something about who we are as a people of God.

The ghost is something that haunts us; we often talk about the “ghosts” or even “demons” from our past that surprise and spook us from time to time. And the spirit, well, we live in a world where more and more people talk about themselves as “spiritual but not religious”; spirit is something that’s hard to pin down, define, contain. And the disciples, on that ancient Pentecost day, found themselves wrestling with both.

Ten days ago, Jesus ascended into heaven, leaving them back on Earth at the Mount of Olives to figure it out. Not knowing what to do, they went back to that upper room. It was where they last shared a meal with Jesus before his betrayal. It was where they hid after the crucifixion fearing for their lives. It was also the place where Jesus burst in, daring Thomas to touch his hands and sides. It was what they knew; it was comfortable.

And then suddenly, as they pray and seek comfort, everything changes. They are driven from their seats as a violent wind bursts in and tongues of fire appear on their heads. They are forced out into the streets, where this chaos and confusion of multiple languages and inexplicable comprehension takes over. At a moment’s notice, there is no more hiding out; their faith becomes a matter of public knowledge, and Peter finds himself in a place we never would have imagined after his denial of Christ; he becomes the first Christian street preacher. And as a result, we learn, hundreds are welcomed into this new community of faith.

As we read this story again today, I wonder if Pentecost is all about the disciples’ journey from “ghost” to “spirit”…They were in the upper room, haunted by what that place had meant. And they also had no idea what to do next. Jesus had become the ghost; they were waiting on him to make a move so that they would know how to react.

But then everything is suddenly in motion. They cannot sit still. What was once a quiet scene of contemplation becomes almost impossible to understand, as these country bumpkin Galileans suddenly have a working knowledge of every language under heaven. Spirit takes over where ghost once held the day.

Following Christ is no longer about being haunted by what came before; it is now about being moved into what’s coming next.

Could we say the same thing about the church in 2011?

This past week, I heard a speaker give a presentation on the topic “Things I couldn’t tell you if I was your pastor.” It was one of the most jarring, challenging, honest conversations I’ve heard about church in a long time. And as I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder if the purpose of it was to move us from a people of the Holy Ghost, haunted by the church of years past, to a people of the Holy Spirit, unsure – and yet excited – about what’s to come. And I want to share with you just three of the things he said.

The first was “There is more to living a Christian life than just being a good church member.” We all know this, of course; when Sunday worship is over, that’s when the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Being a Christian isn’t something we can do for only an hour a week. But there’s more to it than that: in the church, he said, our “pews are filled with people who are committed to their church, but not their faith.” And we in the pastorate end up perpetuating that by confusing the two. We convince ourselves that discipleship can only happen within the physical bounds of the church, that we are most Christian when we usher or sing in the choir.

The truth is that our work within a congregation is a part of our faith. It should not be separate from it, but neither should it be the totality of it. Discipleship is a 24-7 job. That doesn’t mean that we become obnoxious evangelists, incapable of having a benign conversation at work without mentioning Jesus. But it does mean that being Christian infuses everything we do and every relationship we have. It influences how we behave in the checkout line and what we do in traffic and how we raise our kids and love our spouses and spend our time.

There is more to living a Christian life than just being a good church member.

The second piece is this: “Church is not supposed to be comfortable.” We have used the word “challenge” here at OPC from time to time – yes, God meets us where we are, and in our brokenness and moments of heartache, there is comfort. At the same time, the calling of faith nudges us. It takes us from where we are on our journeys and moves us on down the road. It challenges us, because we don’t have all the answers.

Annie Dillard, the American writer, talks about the life-changing power of the gospel this way:

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? It is madness to wear…velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Church is not supposed to be comfortable.

And finally, he dropped this little challenging nugget: “We need a whole new way of doing church.” He spoke of a mission trip he took to Jamaica. The group went up into theBlue Mountains, where they visited a church in middle of the rainforest. They were welcomed and had a wonderful worship service together. Afterwards, the pastor took them on a tour of the church. He pointed out their pipe organ, which the colonial missionaries had brought over at great expense. “We don’t use it at all these days,” the pastor said. “It’s just too hard to keep it in tune.”

Those early European missionaries could not imagine church without a pipe organ. But to build a pipe organ, an instrument which is sensitive to every nuance of weather, in the rainforest? That is nothing short of madness. The world of Atlanta in 2011 is as different from the world of Atlanta in 1980 as the Jamaican rainforest was from colonial Europe.

We need a whole new way of doing church.

There were other points in the talk, and even out of the three I mentioned, there is enough to spend weeks and months in discussion; perhaps we will do just that in the years to come. But at the very least, I want you to be left with this thought: how much time and energy and resource do we spend as a church on the worship of ghosts, trying to recreate something that once was in a world that was very different, or struggling to make sense of the things that haunt us? And how much do we spend making room for the Spirit, moving us into unknown places and unknown ministries?

The truth is that, here at OPC, we do a little bit of both. But on this Pentecost day, let’s get out those crash helmets. It’s time to move!


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The disciples do wonders for my self-esteem.

Jesus hand-picked the twelve as he wandered through the Galilee preaching and teaching. For three years they have followed him through thick and thin. About two months before our morning’s passage they went with him to Jerusalem, watched him arrested, tried, and executed. They betrayed, they denied, they fled. Then the miracle comes. He rises from the dead, and they spend the next forty days with him.

It’s like getting the DVD of your favorite movie so that you can listen to the director’s commentary. To me, that’s a feeble parallel with what’s going on here. You may have thought that, as a fan, you caught everything; but you’ll never see it the same way once the director explains to you what they were trying to get across.

Back to the disciples: you would think that, with all of this exposure that they would start getting it. They were “this close” to Jesus. Of course they could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was merely a political king – that’s what everyone else thought the Messiah was supposed to be. And of course they should be forgiven for their fear around the crucifixion – the game changes when lives are on the line.

Then again, they get this second chance! The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

How many of us get such an opportunity? We all have those moments where we’d like another shot. Have you ever been lying in bed when suddenly you think of that perfect comeback to the conversation you had that morning? Or what about that loved one you miss: do you have a scrolling list in your head of the questions you’d ask them, if only given the chance?

The disciples had been handed a gift: forty days of intensive review with the Messiah. And as he stands on the Mount of Olives ready to ascend, that’s when they ask him: “OK, just to be sure we’ve got this: Are you going to take over Herod’s throne now?” They’re still not getting it…It’s almost absurd!

Or is it?

Author Rita Mae Brown once wrote that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” Are the disciples the only crazy ones? Or have we, too, been known to lose our mental mooring from time to time?

A few weeks ago, through a strange set of circumstances, I ended up meeting a street preacher who lives in Chamblee – you know: the perfect place for pedestrian traffic. In any case, he needed some help with the yard at the house he was renting so that the city wouldn’t fine him. I found myself at his place, bringing a lawn mower and a circular saw which I was using to chop up the tree that had fallen in front of the house (those of you who know something about saws have probably already diagnosed my insanity here).

Actually, things were going quite well, and I had finished about half of the tree. Until…(you saw that coming, didn’t you?)…after one cut, I put the saw down on the ground and heard a “POP”; when I looked down, the electrical cord had been cut in two. I stood there, dumbfounded – both by my own stupidity as well as my good fortune that I hadn’t electrocuted myself.

The street preacher came over and saw what happened, and said, “I’ve got the same kind of saw inside. I’ll be right back.” Ya’ll can write the rest of the story for me, can’t you? On the very next cut, I did the exact same thing. POP!

The next day I found myself at the hardware store asking about fixing the electrical cord. When they directed me to the guy who would do it, of course, the question came up: “How did this happen?” And I had to admit my stupidity. “That’s not very smart,” he said in about as understated a way as possible. And then, I had to swallow my pride and admit that there was not just one, but two saws in my trunk in need of repair.

It was one of those moments where I could practically see the hand of God: “If you’re going to be stupid enough to keep doing this, then I’ll make sure and stop you” – that was the grace of the first pop – “I said, ‘I’ll make sure and stop you’” – that was the grace of the second. Apparently, I still wasn’t getting it…But fortune/luck/grace wasn’t giving up, either…

Which brings us back to the lesson from Acts.

No sooner have the disciples demonstrated their ignorance yet again that Jesus ascends out of sight. There they stand, mouths agape, staring skyward. Angels appear, telling them to get going. They do, yet even then, they just head back to what they know, that upper room in Jerusalem where they had their last meal together and hid out after Jesus’ arrest, and they pray.

We know what happens next: Pentecost. God’s persistent grace continues to be at work, despite the overwhelming evidence of insanity. They pray and pray and pray until finally the Holy Spirit forces them out onto the streets, and Peter finds himself doing the very thing that Jesus said he would, witnessing to the power of God in Christ right there in Jerusalem, just around the corner from where he had denied ever knowing him.

But that’s a story for another day.

What about you? Where is your insanity? What is it that fortune/luck/grace keeps bringing to your attention over and over and over again, yet you insist that things ought to work the way that you want them to work? Is it a relationship that needs attention, that you think will just “work itself out” but really needs intervention, divine or otherwise, more than you’re willing to admit? Is it a habit which has become all-consuming, that hides itself in the shadows right now, but you know will ultimately, sooner or later, drag you into the shaming light?

Is it something we have to face as a community, as a nation, that we choose to ignore to our own detriment? Is it the way we treat those who are unlike us with un-Christlike contempt? Is it our continuing sense of entitlement to the consumption of resources or “stuff” or debt that is nothing short of irresponsible stewardship?

Is it an inward focus that borders on selfishness and denies the cross that is at the center of all we say we believe as Christians? Or is it a dogged stubbornness to our own way of doing things while God weeps for us to open our eyes and ears and hearts to what it is that God desires?

We may not like it, or we may choose benign neglect, but what our faith requires of us is unmitigated love, boundless generosity, sacrificial selflessness, willing humility. It was no less true for the disciples than it is for us.

And this same faith requires it of us whether we are talking about it as individuals or as a church. And the tough thing about this all is that it leads us not to answers, but to a question: what does it all mean?

But therein lies the good news: God knows! God knows. And it is that same God whose grace and generosity pursue us to the ends of the earth, pursue us relentlessly despite our shortcomings and all of the evidence that points to the fact that we are nuts. Even if we hole ourselves up in places of familiarity and comfort, the Holy Spirit knows where we are, knows how to find us, and knows how to get us moving again.

Will we recognize it when it comes? Will we be willing to let go of how we want things to work so that God can be at work in us? Can we open ourselves up so that God can shape and reshape, mold and remold us as witnesses to Christ to the ends of the earth?

May it be so…


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