Perhaps you saw the recent headlines about religion in America emanating from a new Pew Research Center survey. Following up on a 2007 study, the center surveyed more than 35,000 people. They discovered that in seven years the percentage of folks who describe themselves as Christian fell from 78% to 70%. Those who identified as religiously unaffiliated grew from 16% to 23%. Non-Christian faiths also grew from 4.7% to 5.9%. While Christianity is still the dominant religion in the United States, its appeal is in decline.
I attend conferences, read books, and follow posts that try to explain what is going on. At one end of the spectrum is the thought that America is in the midst of a sweeping sociological change. More and more, people identify less and less with institutions of all kinds – including churches. At the other end of the spectrum are those who point to how the church has lost touch with people. Its programs and presentation do not connect with how and where people live their lives. Between these two poles – blame it on society and blame it on the church – lies a whole host of other explanations.
Still, there are places where Christianity is finding fresh expression. One such occurance is in Durham, NC where Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and his wife Leah have founded Rutba House. Named after an Iraqi town where members of their Christian peacemaker team were given medical care in a hospital three days after it had been bombed by U.S. forces, Rutba House is a community of people who live out monastic traditions in a contemporary setting. They welcome homeless people to eat, pray, and share life together. They work with neighborhood children and reach out to those in prison.
Jonathan is an author and sought after speaker. He is often interviewed about his work and questioned about religious movements in our country that are transforming the face of Christianity. Listen to his account of one such interview:
Not long ago I was talking with a journalist about religious movements and my hope for the future of faith in North America. “You know,” I said, “the movement that grabs my attention is really pretty small – a dozen or so folks at its core, most of them not spectacular. Only one of them is published. A few of them used to have good reason to kill one another. But somehow they’ve stayed together. And this new life they’ve found with one another is so important to them that they are, to a person, willing to die for it.
A good reporter, ever eager for a good lead, this fellow asked where he could learn more about this movement. “Oh, it’s well known,” I said. “The best-selling book of all times has four accounts of its origins – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove points to something we should never forget and on this Day of Pentecost should celebrate – the amazing transformation that came about in the lives of Jesus’ early followers. The four gospels, and especially the Gospel of Mark which we are reading throughout this year of the Lectionary cycle, portray the disciples as clueless while Jesus is with them. There are times he gets so exasperated with them that you can feel his frustration wafting off the pages of the bible. Then, in his hour of greatest need, they abandon him, deny him, and flee in terror from his side. The gospels give not even a hint of what we find in the Book of Acts and there is absolutely no reason to believe the disciples will ever become a force that will change the world.
In the fifty days following the Resurrection, there seems to be three distinct movements of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of the disciples. The first occurs the evening of the Resurrection when Jesus’ followers are gathered in a room with the doors locked for fear the authorities are looking for them. The Risen Christ appears in their midst and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” With this imparting, the Spirit brings calm and tranquility – even joy – to a group of people who were out of sorts. The Spirit’s work establishes a sense that all is well when moments before it felt as if life was spinning out of control.
We read about the second movement last Sunday. After Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples realize they need to identify someone to take the place of Judas. The Spirit quietly leads the group to identify two candidates. They pray and cast lots. Matthias is chosen. The Spirit enables the disciples to behave like, well, Episcopalians – solving problems and approaching opportunities decently and in good order.
Today we read about the third movement of the Holy Spirit. This time, there is nothing about it that is decent or orderly. The text says there was a “sound like a violent rush of wind.” It was not a gentile, summer breeze. Whatever it was, it was so violent and so loud a large crowd congregates around the house where the disciples are gathered.
Peter addresses the diverse group and becomes the first person in history to tell the story of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. His words are powerful and provocative. They are insightful and insight. They expose what the authorities did to Jesus and explain what God did to transform their act into salvation for all. In this moment a dozen or so folks, most of them not spectacular, a few with good reason to kill one another, find a new life in the Spirit so important to them that, to a person, they are willing to die for it.
You and I, we are now a part of the fourth and on-going movement of the Holy Spirit. Just what does that look like?
A few years ago I was rummaging around the Guild Room and came across an interesting book titled Meditations and Devotions by François de Fénelon. Inside the cover it has a plate that tells me it came from the library of James H. Newsom, Jr. The book’s jacket says Fénelon lived in France from 1651-1715, during the “glittering” and “disastrous” reign of Louis XIV. Of Fénelon, it says,
His life was wholly devoted to God even while he lived at the notoriously frivolous and licentious Court; and when given the choice of worldly power and popularity or disgrace and banishment, he chose the latter rather than betray his loyalty to God.
Listen to what Fénelon writes about this day, known to him as Whitsunday:
Lord, Thou didst begin to perfect Thine apostles by taking away what seemed essential to them – the actual presence of Thy Son, Jesus Christ. Thou doest destroy all to establish all. Everything is taken away that all may be returned a hundredfold. This is Thy method. Thou are pleased to overturn human logic.
Has that ever been your experience; that the moments of greatest personal growth come from the times of greatest personal challenge? Is it the times when you feel most alone that you become acutely aware of how your own personal resources and reserves are absolutely inadequate? What happens then? Fénelon continues:
Then, having withdrawn the presence of Christ, Thou didst send Thy Holy Ghost. It is possible for privation to operate more powerfully than possession.
Learning that our limits are insufficient for what we face has a way of opening the door to what God freely gives us.
Fénelon then describes a second very common experience:
Ah, Lord, where is this spirit that ought to be in my life? It should be the soul of my soul, but where is it? I do not feel it. I cannot discover it. I am conscious only of physical inertia and spiritual dullness. [And can there be a better description of our age than “physical inertia and spiritual dullness”?] My weak will is divided between Thee and a thousand pointless pleasures. Where is Thy Spirit?
He concludes with a prayer and plea: “Come, Holy Ghost, Thou canst find nothing more barren and stricken than my heart. Come and bring it peace.” Have you ever prayed a prayer like this?
Fénelon goes on to describe two things that happen to us when God’s Spirit moves in us:
The Holy Spirit fills the soul with light. Those truths taught be Christ while He was on earth are implanted in the depths of our being… We are made one with Truth; no longer is it something outside ourselves.
These words resonate with my own experience. I sense God’s Truth deep within my soul, not that I always heed it, but I know it is there. I experience God’s will for me as a light, rather than darkness, as clarity rather than confusion. Do you sense this for yourself?
The second thing the Spirit does in us is this:
The Spirit of Love teaches the soul without words; without sound or sign everything is illuminated. Nothing is demanded, and yet the soul is trained in silence for any sacrifice. After experiencing Holy Love we are dissatisfied with any other and we learn to distrust and forget ourselves. What utter joy is ours then without ever having sought it! Love becomes the fountain of life flowing through our hearts.
If you were to ask me if I feel the presence of God’s Spirit in my life, I would nod and say yes. If you were to ask me to tell you about it, I would struggle. It is a Light which happens most often without words to accompany it. But it changes me. It changes what I desire and what I seek. And it creates in me a fountain of joy and love for which I cannot account.
It is the same dynamic that transformed the disciples. It is the same dynamic being expressed, albeit in very different, distinctive, and dynamic ways at Rutba House. It is the same dynamic I see and sense at work in so many of you. And while the Pew Center’s findings are certainly sobering and somewhat discouraging, our prayer is this: “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”