Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Holy Spirit at St. Paul's Church

Friday nights in the fall where I grew up meant one thing: high school football. And at my school, which had a long tradition of not being very good in football, it meant cheering for our award-winning marching band. It was very good musically, but outstanding in marching. Members stepped in unison as they changed from one formation to another and then another through a series of intricate (and sometimes magical) movements and shifts. Fall Saturdays were given to watching Big 10 football on TV and back in the day halftime meant watching the marching bands of both schools compete to out-do one another. In Columbus, then as now, nothing gets the crowd going quite like when the Buckeye Band spells out “Script Ohio.”

Imagine my shock watching a marching band years ago when its members did something completely unexpected. When the performance was over, the drum major gave a signal and rather than marching off the field in dignified, uniform, organized formation, each member was set free to clear out in whatever direction and manner he or she chose. Some dashed for the nearest sideline. A few went in circles. Some jumped. Others hopped. I saw a few do cartwheels. And at least one person tumbled across the field in a zigzag fashion. I had never seen anything quite like it before, nor have I since, but do you know what… I loved it! Yes, there is much to be said for order and precision and planned intricacy, but there is also something to be said for moments of unbridled emotion released from our inner core and spilling out through every pore of our body and fiber of our being.

If there is a day in the liturgical calendar for such a thing as this, surely it is today – the Day of Pentecost. No verse of scripture has had more influence on Anglican worship than I Corinthians 14:1: “Let all things be done decently and in good order.” For fifty-one Sundays a year and Christmas Eve we are all about decency and order. But there was nothing decent about the first Pentecost. The disciples behaved in such an outlandish manner that bystanders thought they were under the influence. And there was nothing orderly about the Holy Spirit moving to and fro like a mighty, rushing wind. This was the liturgical equivalent a marching band running off the field in a free-for-all.

I must tell you that I have been to Episcopal Church services in the charismatic tradition – yes, there is such a thing – and I resisted mightily all the directions to lift up my hands in praise, to shout, and to dance about. Worship, for me, is about moving inward to that deep, quiet place in my soul where God’s Spirit dwells. It is not about moving outward and letting go of all my inhibitions so that I might be “caught up in the Spirit.”

But every now and then something happens to move me spiritually and encourages me to come out of my shell. Such a moment took place right here at St. Paul’s in January when, during a memorial service, we blew up balloons that had inside a piece of paper with our name of in it and batted them around as a way to pass the peace. It was joyous. It was colorful. It had a child-like quality to it. And it released something in each of us that led to a twenty minute peace passing that was filled with hugs and laughter and a sense of the Spirit that I long to experience again.

In his book on beauty John O’Donohue writes this:

“Reverence is not a stiff pious posture which remains frozen and lacks humor and play. To live with a sense of reverence is not to become a prisoner of dull piety. Playfulness, humor and even a sense of the anarchic are companions of reverence because they insist on the proper proportion of the human presence in the light of the eternal.”

I like St. Paul’s tradition of having a cookout after church on Pentecost Sunday. Casual clothes and gathering outside in good weather have a way bringing out our playfulness and humor, accompanied by a dash or two of anarchy. And while we can’t schedule the movement of the Holy Spirit, we can do programming in a way that opens us up to the possibility.

I have been reading Mary Oliver’s new book of poems. One, titled “If I Were”, beautifully captures the connection between movement and spirit:

There are a lot of ways to dance and
to spin, sometimes it just starts my
feet first then my entire body, I am
spinning no one can see it but it is
happening. I am so glad to be alive,
I am so glad to be loving and loved.
Even if I were close to the finish,
even if I were at my final breath, I
would be here to take a stand, bereft
of such astonishments, but for them.

If I were a Sufi for sure I would be
one of the spinning kind.

What makes you spin for joy? How do you experience a sense of profound gladness for the blessings of life? When does the Spirit move in you and flow from you in a way that is anything but decent and orderly? When does a deep sense of reverence manifest itself in you through playfulness?

I think these things happened more naturally and more frequently in my life when I was young; when on a winter day I could not help but drop to the ground and make a snow angel or on a summer afternoon could do none other than climb a tree for the sheer joy of it. Maybe that is why Jesus said the Kingdom of God belongs to children. His gift of the Holy Spirit moves so much more freely through them than through us adults.

The Book of Acts tells the story of the early church. It began on this day – the Day of Pentecost. Our beginning was not decent and it was not orderly. It was a rushing wind and a wild celebration. That feeling and expression did not last forever. The same Spirit of Pentecost Day also imparted a sense of peace and calm. It gave to the church and its members the strength to live life from one day to the next, from one week to the next, from one generation to the next. But as the story of Acts unfolds, from time to time the calming, gentle Spirit of peace and quiet hope moves like a playful wind unleashing something joyous in the people in touches. It is not every day and it does not happen every time the church gathers. But it does happen… from time to time.

I love our worship life at St. Paul’s. I enjoy our decent and in good order. But every once in a while the Spirit moves us in an exhilerating way - the Old James River Jazz Band or Liberian clergy singing and dancing or celebrating the Eucharist in the midst of a brunch or batting baloons around the sancturary. Today I want to name for us these moments as Spirit-filled and Spirit-born. They are tanglible signs of our link to the first Pentecost. The Spirit is alive and present in our midst and we are glad indeed.