Every Wednesday morning, I give away donut holes and, more recently, cups of yerba mate in a breezeway at Tulane University that forms a natural wind tunnel. I usually a hang a banner on the front of the table that advertises our NOLA Wesley Methodist campus ministry with a big rainbow flag painted on it. But this winter, the wind has been too rough for the banner. Today, the wind attacked me ferociously. It threw my signup clipboards, my ministry signs, and even my box of donut holes on the ground. It scattered our flyers for Prism, our LGBT ministry, all over the sidewalk. As I was reaching down to pick them up, I said to God, “Why do you hate me so much?” And something said back to me, “The wind is not always God.”
It seems like a metaphor for everything I’ve been doing lately. I feel like I’ve been flying into a fierce headwind that is keeping me from making any forward progress. Doing ministry with millennials feels like building a pathetically small campfire in the midst of a hurricane that keeps snuffing it out. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to harness the wind to make the fire grow. But it’s so incredibly hard to get traction. We get so close to having critical mass, but then somebody I was counting on disappears and the momentum is gone. I get a dozen new signups on our mailing list each week and zero new faces at worship that Sunday.
Same thing with my blog. That wind never blows my blog posts into a wildfire like it does for other bloggers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit publish and thought oh boy, this is going to be the big one. The analytics start to climb a little. But the wind says nah. And within an hour, the fire is gone.
I grew up evangelical. I am still evangelical. What that means is that I’m wired to presume that whenever I’m not getting traction in ministry, it’s because I’m not preaching the real gospel. I’ve got Russell Moore in my head explaining to me that the reason the wind keeps snuffing out my fire is because I’m a disobedient heretic and God is punishing me. But I sure am trying to be obedient to what I believe God has shown me over the past two decades. It’s not the same gospel that I heard growing up, but it’s the best I’ve been able to grasp of the true gospel. It just isn’t compelling enough to draw a crowd. At least not at Tulane University.
My gospel doesn’t create enough urgency, partly because I honestly believe that what God wants me to tell the type A, overextended, stressed-out overachievers I’m surrounded by is not that they suck and deserve to be tortured in hell forever unless they accept Jesus in their hearts, but that God actually delights in them before they achieve anything and wants them to experience this delight so they can be liberated from the pressure to achieve which is already hell. So they can stop performing. They don’t have to triple-major and get a power internship where they save the world every summer. They don’t need to prove themselves to anybody. Because they are already loved immensely. And whenever they do things that hurt themselves and other people, it’s because they haven’t learned to believe in this love and they don’t engage in spiritual practices that put flesh on that belief.
People underestimate how hard it is to actually believe that God loves them. I haven’t figured out how to trust in that love yet, and I’m a pastor! I don’t know what goes through their minds when they say, “Oh cool, I’ll have to check that out,” and never show up. Are they thinking, “Yes, I already know that God loves me, so I’m going to move onto other things?” I want to say no, you don’t know; you can’t know because I don’t know myself and it’s my life’s work to ponder and pray over these things. In any case, my work feels like trying to get the wind to change direction by blowing into it as hard I can. And the evangelical in my head is glibly telling me that if the Holy Spirit were really with me, then every breath would be like tongues of fire.
My amateur sociological analysis says that on a secular liberal campus like Tulane, the 5% of students who are the most conservative circle their wagons by huddling together in conservative evangelical campus ministries. So the conservative campus ministries thrive, while the progressive ones die because nobody with a progressive point of view feels like they can’t speak their views openly in class or with the people around them. Of course, our campus ministry isn’t necessarily progressive; we’re officially United Methodist, which is supposed to be a big tent.
I don’t know why so few of the 30 students who clicked on the online form to say they were United Methodist when they arrived at Tulane have darkened the door of our building. I made sure that they know we’re here. I don’t know why 80% of the ones who came to worship on the first Sunday in the fall have not returned. I’ll never forget one day when I was tabling, a guy came up and asked me if he could buy me a coffee. He felt sorry for me standing out in the cold offering free food and drinks to people who were mostly saying no thank you. He told me when he brought me the coffee that he had grown up United Methodist but he didn’t want to have anything to do with the church. I wonder if that’s what United Methodism raises our youth to be: people who engage in random, beautiful acts of kindness to strangers and don’t want to have anything to do with the church.
But the wind is not always God. Not every megachurch is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s seal of approval. Not every dying mainline church is evidence of God’s complete rejection. I want there to be a different narrative. I want to believe that the true Christianity is the one that isn’t in the earthquake or the hurricane, but the still, small voice behind them that very few people are listening to. I want to believe that the true Christianity is the one that has never stopped being crucified and stampeded over by the imperialistic, worldly megachurch of colonialist white supremacy. I don’t want for the voice of hegemony to be the voice of God. I don’t want for God to be in the pocket of the man with the lapel mic on a stage in front of 5000 people.
So which is Spirit and which is wind? In Hebrew and Greek, the words for wind and spirit are the same: ruach and pneuma. But there is wind that is of the Spirit and wind that is just wind. Sometimes ministries flourish because they scratch the right cultural itch (2 Timothy 4:3) and it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with being in the center of God’s will. Sometimes ministries fail not because they have sold out and perverted the gospel, but because the mission field was impossibly closed off. Sometimes it’s just wind that determines success and failure, and not the Holy Spirit.
In the past year and a half, I have had same amazing moments of connection with God when I knew the Holy Spirit was with me. Sometimes this has even involved being touched by physical wind, like a sacred moment at a monastery last year over spring break. At the same time, it feels like the wind has mostly been against me. I don’t know if it was God who gave me this mantra or not, but I’m going to say it like a prayer. The wind is not always God. So God, if you want me to change direction, please find some other way to tell me than by blowing my fliers all over the sidewalk. Because every time I get snubbed and sabotaged by the wind, I’m going to say it. The wind is not always God.