What Does this Mean?

Nine years ago–almost to the day–I sat in a small meeting room with a committee who would decide yay or nay on my upcoming ordination. It was only mildly stressful; I’d been meeting with this group quarterly for several years…I figured if they hadn’t found issue with me thus far, there was little chance of them flagging me as crazy or unfit at this point. Mostly, it was just a conversation.

So when one of the pastors at the table asked me what I thought really happened at Pentecost, I didn’t hear it as a challenge meant to stump me, or a theological pop quiz for which I’d better have the right answer. It was purely conversational…as in, ‘I know this is on all our minds because it’s what we’re all preaching on Sunday, so tell us what you think.’ A totally non-threatening, innocent question.

And yet–for the daggone LIFE of me–in that moment, I could not think what Pentecost was. I mean, I couldn’t even recall what it was SUPPOSED to be, much less what I thought it might be. I’m talking a blank white screen fell down in front of my eyes, and I thought… that’s the day we wear red,and sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and take down the Easter stuff… But why?? 3+ years of seminary utterly failed me. I had nothing.

One of the other pastors in the room recognized my distress and, God bless him, he re-framed the question in such a way that gave me a subtle reminder of what the day was for. “For instance,” he said… “the Bible says that the Spirit came down, and that the people were speaking in tongues, and yet they all understood each other…and that’s when the church was born. What do YOU think that was all about?”

Oh, THAT. I knew that story. I don’t know that I responded with anything especially profound or prophetic at that point, but I did, at least, articulate a reasonable response for a person about to be ordained, for heaven’s sake. Maybe just barely, but I got there.

First of all, a side note–this is how an ordination process should work. The people in the room for these conversations should be on the side of the candidate; those folks should be looking for places to say’yes,’ more than reaching for opportunities to say ‘no.’ And if they truly find a candidate unfit for ministry, for whatever reason, that should be a painful moment of discernment for everyone involved. But those meetings ought to feel like a conversation, a shared journey, and an opportunity to listen to God’s future calling for the Church–rather than a mess of red tape and drama. (I could name names of denominations–and certain areas within my own–that make it a point to torture their candidates…but that wouldn’t be very pastoral of me…)

ANYway…That said–what really happened at Pentecost?

Of course, stories in the Bible are less about what happened, and more about what it all means. That passage in Acts is one of my favorite stories (now that I know what it is!). It is so full of mystery, joy, and…well, the Holy Spirit. Whatever HAPPENED, there is lots of stuff happening. Each year, about this time, I have a different take on what it all means.

This year, I’m painfully aware of the many points of discord tearing apart our churches, families, and country. And not necessarily in that order. We fight over gun control, healthcare, abortion, the meaning of ‘family,’ and who is entitled to be the boss of what– in every place from ministry to government. I imagine what it might be like if the Holy Spirit descended into the midst of all this human squabbling and somehow made sense of it all–a winged peace and blessing at the center of our chaos–and suddenly, I have a new response to the age-old question, what does this mean?

Most simply–Pentecost is the moment when everybody gets the %*$& over themselves and stops being RIGHT…and what do you know, the Spirit shows up.

Those who were gathered ‘together in one place’ had their own set of squabbles. Who was this Jesus guy, and what really HAPPENED to him when he died, and what did it all mean? What were they supposed to do next, and who was allowed to come with, and what if you didn’t speak the language? Or if you weren’t circumcised, or if you ate the wrong kind of meat, or if your mama was a Gentile? It was making their heads spin, it was making them utterly ineffective, and the din of their conflict drowned out the voice of God calling to them.

So what does God do? God sent the Holy Spirit down among them; wind, fire and song. And suddenly, all that other stuff didn’t matter so much, because the word of God was all anybody could hear. In that moment, something new was born.

What would that look like in our time and place? What would it take for people of faith to all of a sudden get over themselves, let go of being RIGHT, and seek a word from the holy in the midst of our human, political, institutional and spirit-crushing conflict?

If you ask me, it would look like moderation. It would look like the sacred space of that long-lost place we used to call middle ground.  Perhaps, in the language of the Spirit, we might stop chasing the easy answers that polarize us; stop claiming that our political party lines are ‘faith-based;’ and begin to seek a prophetic word in that blessed gray space that lies between all of our certainties. Because really:

-It IS possible to be pro-choice, AND anti-abortion.

-It IS possible to want background checks, and still support the right to carry.

-It IS possible to be for family values; while also working, hoping, and praying for marriage equality.

-It IS possible to want welfare reform and moderation in spending, while also seeking to serve the poorest among us.

-It IS possible to abhor the death penalty, but still want justice for violence.

-It IS possible to seek the Kingdom of God in our own time and place, while believing powerfully in God’s future plan for a new earth

-It IS possible to be both spiritual and religious

-It IS possible to transform the world by bearing the image of Christ; without demanding that everyone else speak OUR language of faith–in school, government, media, and greeting cards.

Want to know what’s NOT possible?

-Being right, all the time.

-Having the world as we know it stay the same.

-Having everyone look just like us.

-Getting our way.

-Did I mention, being right?

Sometimes, we believe a dangerous story–it’s a story of right and wrong answers, polar opposite truths, and a fearful, faceless ‘other’ lurking in around to take what’s ours. It isn’t just the Church telling this story; it’s the world in which we live.

The good news is this: that dangerous story is not of our own creation. It’s been around since the day of Pentecost; since the crucifixion; since the Exodus…possibly since the Garden itself. It’s been around for a long dang time, but so has the power to shut it down. In the midst of our human confusion and conflict, God sends a Spirit of fire and wind to shake us and stir us; to shape us and send us; to make sense of all our frenzied words and compose them into a beautiful song of grace and abundance. The minute we let go of our own fearful story, we can bear witness to that sacred word; we give it wings to fly among us, and suddenly, something new is born.


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  • Philip H. Auten

    Very well written. It gives me a better understanding of Pentecost.

  • I might be mistaken, but it feels as if you are writing from a presupposition that Pentecost happened, and holiness happens, by our choosing to realign our focus, when the true is opposite. A change in our focus is a result of grace being given through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. He acts, and we are affected. We don’t act and then receive.

  • It’s not how, but why . . . That the Holy Spirit happened, happens, will happen, has happened, happens to us, by us or with us, not important. What’s important is how the Holy Spirit purposes us and what we do with it. Thanks Erin!