Sunday, July 02, 2006

For the Long Haul

from The Witness Magazine
by Thomas B. Woodward
Monday,May 29, 2006

Readings for Pentecost Day, June 4, 2006
  • Acts 2:1-21 OR Ezekiel 37:1-14
  • Psalm 104:25-35, 37
  • Romans 8:22-27 OR Acts 2:1-21
  • John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
I have always been struck by the power of our myths to tame the critical stories of the Bible. To illustrate that, I used to ask people at church gatherings to give a title to a poem by Robert Creeley, from his collection For Love: Poems 1950-1960. As a significant personal challenge, try to guess Creeley's title for this poem:

If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit

for yourself only, in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will likewise all have places.

My first response to the poem (I had failed to read the title before reading the body of the poem) was that it was about heaven. Then "Eternity" came to mind. But Creeley's title suggests that from his perspectives what he describes is far from a celestial vision: he calls the poem "Oh, No."

"Oh, No" is a response to circumstances of boredom or death. What a shock it was to me to get the sense of the poem so very wrong. What is worse is the tragedy that such dynamic, life-filled realities as resurrection and eternity can be so easily transformed by our religion into just their opposites! Hocus pocus: life magically transformed into death, or into boredom.
And if that were not enough, the power and dynamism of Pentecost has been domesticated by our culture. The peculiar power of Pentecost, which had to do with giving visible shape to the prophets' vision of the people of God, now speaks tamer to the church about the warmth and reassurance of individual spiritual reveries. Being "caught up in the power of the Spirit" has in popular parlance more and more devolved into a kind of spiritualized egoism. But when Jesus speaks about the coming of the Comforter in our alternate Gospel reading of John 14, he is not talking about a security blanket.

Whenever I have worked with the scriptures for Pentecost, I have always pondered two things. The first is fear. It is so soon after the resurrection, and the disciples, out of fear, are gathered behind closed or locked doors. They were afraid and in their fear they went for the security blanket of isolation, the closed doors. We're not all that different. We are all tempted to lock our own doors out of one fear or another -- even the relatively new fear that our church doors themselves might be stolen by some dissident jurisdiction!

Jesus walks into the middle of the fear of his disciples and he breathes on them. It was that simple -- he merely breathes on them. He does not change their outward circumstance, but he does transform their fear and their isolation into something quite different -- and that happened in another time or in another telling as the disciples were gathered together in the same or another room and were overcome with a power they could only describe as a rushing wind or as tongues of fire.

Two of the events which prefigured the disciples' experience of Pentecost -- namely the scattering of peoples into different voices and rival communities in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and Ezekiel's story of the resurrection of the bodies of the slain soldiers in the Valley of the Bones (Ezekiel 37) -- help us understand the heart of its meaning: the tearing of human community through confusion or violence will be replaces with the gifts of wholeness and hope.

That vision leads me to the second image that is so important to me in the Pentecost lections: Paul's celebration of the varieties of the gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 12. These gifts are not merely an infusion of personal warmth to get us through the night; they are gifts for the building up of the community, for the overcoming of isolation and fear, and for making our life in the church the kind of experience for others what the disciples had discovered for themselves. Think of the poor and marginalized crying out, "Good God, it is as though they hear and understand us in our own tongue!"

It is clear that the feast of Pentecost is a political as well as a religious feast, as it witnesses to the prophetic vision of a world made whole and a people made whole. After reading the prophets and after standing in the tradition of Pentecost, the crucial question about my life can never again be "How am I doing?" It is "How are we doing?" The "we" may be the rich, if we are poor -- or it may be the poor, if we are rich. The "we" will always be composed of those most different or most isolated from us.

Pentecost challenges us to ask, "How are we doing? How are we connected? How is our life changing, together? How is the face of Jesus Christ reflected in all that?" How about them Mesopotamians and Cappadocians and Phrygians? Have you ever seen anything like it?
Pentecost is a little like reading The Witness on a regular basis: once you've been there, it is nearly impossible to go back. The fears of the present somehow get swallowed up in the hope of what we are privileged to seek -- and the isolation we had experienced dealing with all those difficult differences has given way to learning to speak the common language given us at Pentecost. To paraphrase Robert Creeley:

If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit

in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces

and they will all be just itching
to get out of those chairs and into the streets
laughing and loving and doing whatever it takes ...
for the long haul.

Tom Woodward is a retired priest of the Episcopal Church, now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife, Ann. He is currently completing a book titled The Parables Your Pastor Never Preached: Restoring the Power of Jesus' Teaching. He spent twenty-three years in campus ministry around the country and the last seventeen years as rector of St. Paul's, Salinas, California. He has also had a parallel career as a street performer, as Uncle Billy's Pocket Circus, performing in over 50 States and overseas.

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