Saturday, February 25, 2012

I shall pour out my Spirit on all flesh...

Ash Wednesday is one of those things I didn't know about until I was a teenager. I didn't receive ashes on my forehead until I was leading a service during my final year in seminary. Yet, the service has become one of my favorite worship services during the whole year. Then, there was this year.

This year...this can I begin to write about this year?

I had planned, as I always do. There were stations set up, which I'd never done, to be followed by a traditional service. I had my text, my sermon, my plan, all printed up and placed neatly in a binder. After the call to worship, I took my place in front of the congregation. I opened my binder. I looked out at the congregation.

In an instant, I realized nothing I had planned would work. I looked down at my 12th grade reading level text and out to a congregation where half, maybe even more than half, of the people gathered were between the ages of four and sixteen. It was impossible.

Here is that point where I wish I could say that I thought a prayer, or something to make me sound equally pious. I can't. Instead, I can offer what came next: an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Confessing this makes me uncomfortable. Incredibly uncomfortable. I rationally affirm the presence and action of the Holy Spirit all the time. This was different.

This was standing before a congregation of people, realizing the first step was to offer an explanation of Ash Wednesday. "This service is about saying we're sorry, not just we're sorry to each other, but saying we're sorry to God."

This was standing there as, somehow, the reading of Jesus' teaching about storing up treasures in heaven became a story that children could hear, as did the short homily afterward. It was amazing. The words that flowed from my mouth amazed even me.

But they weren't my words.

I'm serious. I've struggled with the experience. I've struggled with the responses from that service, the "That was a really good service," feedback. Because, you see, it wasn't me.

It wasn't me. Not in an overarching God-called-me-to-this sort of way. Not in a to-God-be-the-Glory kind of way. In a I'm-not-sure-I-ever-could-do-that kind of way.

I have responded, "That was totally God, not me," but I'm still feel as if no one really grasps the fullness of that statement. The experience was surreal, strange, something Other. It left me wanting to grab people just to say, "That was God! Did you hear that?" It made me restless and uneasy and elated. It made me totally unsure of what would happen next.

For other reasons, I had to read the story of Pentecost a couple days later. The mighty rushing wind, tongues of fire, speaking in various languages story of Pentecost. The people must be drunk story of Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit story of Pentecost.

For the first time, I considered those people who spoke in different languages rather than the ones hearing in their language. I realized that was the best means I have to talk about Ash Wednesday. It was sharing the experience of not my words, but God's words, in order that others could receive the Gospel.

Still wondering if this can really be me who is saying this, who is claiming these things, I say to the Church:

God was serious on this one: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy...

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This is God...

So far, I've been asked to do two weddings. One of them didn't happen; the other did, although it was certainly interesting.

However, neither couple had ever had much to do with church. They didn't know anything about Jesus or baptism or communion. They had no idea how a wedding with pastor would be different from a wedding with a judge. Yet, neither struggled to answer my question, "So if you've never been part of a church or considered yourself a Christian before, why do you want a minister to perform the wedding?"

"Because this person is a gift from God." Almost verbatim, all four said just that, with and apart from the other.

Yes, there was a hint of hope of a little mystical help for their future as a couple. More than that, though, it was their deep, deep recognition that the goodness of their relationships had to come from outside them. None of them had anything so good or healing before.

And in that experience of goodness, they came looking for God. They came looking for the place and the people who say, "We know God."

I wonder what they found.

I know what welcome I gave them. Somehow, though, I don't think our churches know what to do with testimony of God that comes from outside Christian faith, or maybe any faith at all. I know the church I serve now doesn't. We still believe that God is present in only the ways God has been made known to us before. We forget that God calls to all sorts of people, even in ways we never expect. We forget that God gives good gifts to all sorts of people.

I had a professor once who said that studying church history was just a means of naming your own heresies. I have to say I've found that endlessly true. Probably the most heretical point of my life was when I owned up to believing that God could become known to humanity in another way, a fourth hypostasis for you theology nerds. Why not?

Truthfully, I don't think any of the folks coming to me, having experienced God, have experienced God in a new way.

Yet, if I believe that God called to Abraham in the desert, why not in small-town Missouri? If I believe that Moses stood before a bush that burned but was not consumed, in the middle of a desert, far away from anyone else, why do good gifts seem so difficult to accept? Jesus called to fisherman, at least one of whom had a non-Israelite name. The man from Ethiopia was reading something he didn't understand. The list goes on and on.

Still, when the young couple comes to the church, saying God brought them together, the first impulse of folks to say, "Oh, you need us!"

I think it should be more like, "Oh, we need you!"