Yes, should the Holy Spirit fall here, no one will walk away unchanged. We’ll all recognize ourselves as hopelessly in need of grace, utterly thankful when it falls upon us, and devoid of judgment over the other, knowing that we all stand in the same space. My bet for this Conference? The Holy Spirit will stay far away as the intent to split and to “get my way” resides solidly in the hearts of way too many delegates. We can’t risk the actual presence of God for fear of the changes that will be necessary.
What would happen if the Holy Spirit did indeed fall upon us?
I’ve asked that question (of myself) multiple times since I learned that General Conference 2019 would start with a day of prayer. Could we pray long enough and hard enough so that a new Pentecost might break through here?
The thing is: I’m not sure we’d like it all that much if it did.
I suspect we’d find it very, very discomfiting. It would unquestionably change the nature of the UMC forever.
I based my D.Min. project on the Acts 2 story of Pentecost and Peter’s sermon that came from it. I spent many long months immersed in these words, trying to wrestle from the Scriptures a better understanding of what happened.
A few things come strongly to mind about that day.
First, they had been praying for ten days, not just a few hours. Who among us has ever prayed, earnestly prayed, for ten days?
Our scattered minds don’t help
In these days of exceedingly short attention spans, most of us can’t pray for more than a few minutes without our minds wandering to our latest “to-do” lists or movie we’ve just watched or whether we will actually exercise today and, by the way, I’m not sure what to make for dinner. Maybe I need to go to the grocery store. Oh, sorry, God. Just a bit of distraction there.
But the texts say that they prayed for ten days. Ten days of steeping themselves in a search for direction, for hope when hope seemed to be lost. Their prayers would have been the traditional Jewish prayers, practiced for centuries, known by heart to all.
Because of the nature of Jerusalem streets, those at prayer would have easily been observed by the many passers-by, all speaking in different languages, but in Jerusalem for one of the great feasts of Jewish life. Everything was public.
And then the Spirit did fall. When it happened, the focus of the people immediately moved outward. They didn’t need to talk with each other any longer. They each trusted the other to do what was right.
They headed out to live the mission. Immediately, each spirit-filled pray-er all started speaking a different language, making it possible to reach people in their radically different cultural constructs but who were not conversant in Hebrew or Aramaic.
No one message sounded exactly like anyone else’s message. It never does in contextual translation.
Prayers didn’t work on the day of prayer
Anyway, to get back to the Holy Spirit falling on us, the delegates to GC2019 were yesterday asked to stand or sit praying out loud in the Korean style, which means, if I remember rightly from being forced to experience this at one point, everyone shouts out their prayers as loudly as possible. Does this really make God hear better?
I know there are cultural things going on here and I am probably being insensitive, but the one time I was forced into it while at some clergy function, I decided it was a practice I would never visit again. But if it works for the Koreans, then they should go for it. BUT it’s not my language.
By the way, it didn’t appear that the Holy Spirit fell as they were praying, even though the delegates were explicitly directed to pray for exactly that to happen. There was a smattering of applause after that prayer ended. They’ve also engaged later in silent prayer. Very quiet place. Still no visible massive movement of the Holy Spirit.
Now, as this day ended, they moved into the Sacrament of Holy Communion. After the general confession, the people were instructed to go from place to place, passing the peace, saying this phrase to all they encounter: “If I have done anything intended or unintended to harm you, please forgive me. May the peace of Christ be with you.”
Exceeding well-meaning. But no real repentance needed because no wrong deeds or thoughts were exposed or admitted. That’s not exactly how repentance works.
Do we want that much light?
Again, to get back to the idea of the Holy Spirit falling. What do you think would happen if absolute light and complete goodness showed up in our midst? You want to talk uncomfortable?
Do you know what the light would reveal? My guess some pallid, “Yeah, well, if I did anything wrong, you need to forgive me–I don’t need to verbally admit it or change, do I?” is not in the cards.
OK, let me back off from the edge for a moment, and invite you to think about candlelight and how lovely almost everything looks in that kind of illumination.
Why? Because the gentleness of the light conceals a host of flaws. As a woman of a certain age, I 100% avoid looking at my face in full sunlight–soft candlelight is it for me.
Let’s face it: the full sunlight reveals every single wrinkle, sag, irregularity, age spot and anything else that afflicts my aging skin.
But candlelight! An ooh-la-la from the love of my life!
Now, will the true light function more like a concealing candle and pallid confession or the revealing sunlight, accompanied by a truthful and painful acknowledgment of our wrongs?
Only one appropriate response
Frankly, there will be only one response would be appropriate: the desperate prayer, “Oh God, have mercy upon me. a sinner.”
When we walk into that kind of light, every flaw will see vivid exposure. All our ambitions, our vanities, our dismissal of others, our destructive competitiveness, our hubris, our secret thoughts, our even more secret habits, our gossiping and murmuring, our impatience, our many unkindnesses toward others, and, finally, our habits of passing judgment upon others, thus taking upon ourselves a privilege reserved only for God–all will be visible for us to see.
My guess? We’ll cringe in response. We will finally see ourselves as God sees us–and chooses to reconcile with us nonetheless.
Yes, should the Holy Spirit fall, no one will walk away unchanged. We’ll all recognize ourselves as hopelessly in need of grace, utterly thankful when it falls upon us, and devoid of judgment over the other, knowing that we all stand in the same space.
My bet for this Conference? The Holy Spirit will stay far away as the intent to split and to “get my way” resides solidly in the hearts of way too many delegates. We can’t risk the actual presence of God for fear of the changes that will be necessary.
Photo credits: (c) Christy Thomas, February, 2019