Photo by Nguyen Duc Khoi on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.
The last time I wrote for this column was the week before March 15, an age ago.
I don’t know about you, but that was the week in which the world seemed to turn on a dime for me and my family. A few days after I submitted the column, we went on a two-day trip over our kids’ spring break, a trip in which we didn’t check email or social media. And by the time we got back home and checked email, gatherings and events were being canceled all over the place and our children’s schools told them not to come back from spring break. That trip was the last time we ate in a restaurant and the last time we traveled any distance from home.
Since then, it has been for us, as I’m sure for you, a very strange two and a half months, though not without its gifts (time together, family meals, long walks and bike rides, Zoom calls with extended family, planting a garden, etc.). We are very fortunate to have been relatively untouched personally by the health or economic impacts of COVID-19, at least so far.
Now, as states begin to re-open in various ways, you are no doubt having conversations with your congregational leaders about how and when your congregation can start meeting again. We all long to be together, to take communion together, to sing together. That is perhaps one of the other gifts of this time—horrible as it has been for so many—it reminds us that nothing can replace seeing one another face-to-face. It reminds us of the gift of incarnational presence and community.
Another thing that has become clear during this time of pandemic is that leadership matters. Good leaders—reasoned, intelligent, informed, decisive, empathetic leaders—can be the difference between life and death. And you, Working Preacher, are one of those leaders. The decisions you have made and will make in these weeks will have a significant impact on the lives of your church members. I pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for you as you make those decisions.
You also, of course, more than most, have had the unique privilege and responsibility during this time of making meaning out of this whole situation, of leading your congregation in lament and proclaiming to them a word of hope. Whether you are still preaching into a camera lens or not, know that you continue to play a vital role as you proclaim the Gospel during these days.
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This week, we celebrate Pentecost, when the first believers received the gift of the Holy Spirit and began the mission of being Christ’s witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 2:8). It is a bold mission. But consider where they are when our reading from Acts 2 begins. Having been witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, having been told by Jesus to wait in Jerusalem for the “promise of the Father,” (Acts 1:4), they are gathered together in one house, devoting themselves to prayer, waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.
The future is uncertain. Jesus is no longer with them in the flesh, but they wait and hope and trust. We can relate. We, too, have spent the last couple of months waiting at home, in uncertainty. Waiting for the end of stay-at-home orders, waiting for life to return to some semblance of normality, waiting ultimately for a vaccine to end this pandemic.
And on that Pentecost day, their waiting was rewarded in dramatic fashion: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:2-4).
Fire and wind—these signs of the Holy Spirit—descend on the disciples on Pentecost and push them out to preach to the gathered crowd. Fire and wind are powerful symbols. They have the potential both for creation and for destruction. The ruach (Spirit/wind/breath) of God broods over the face of the primordial waters and God calls forth life (Genesis 1:2). God calls Moses through a bush that burns but is not consumed (Exodus 3), and leads the Israelites with a pillar of fire out of death into life. The Spirit sustains all living creatures, renewing the face of the ground (Psalm 104:30). The Holy Spirit inspires prophets, both men and women, to see visions and to dream dreams (Joel 2:28; see also Acts 2:17).
But fire and wind can also be immensely destructive, as we saw earlier this year when much of Australia burned or earlier this month when typhoons struck the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh.
So perhaps it is entirely appropriate that fire and wind are signs of the Holy Spirit in this well-known Pentecost text. Perhaps they are also particularly appropriate symbols of the work of the Holy Spirit in our time. As we wait in the wreckage of what was, as we wait for the birth of what will be, we are called to see visions and to dream dreams. Thus, we might ask questions such as these:
What of our old lives, personally and communally, needs to be burned away? What needs to be renewed?
There are obvious answers revealed by the pandemic in the U.S.—economic inequality and racial inequities have led to disproportionately more deaths of people of color; mass incarceration and an industrial food system have created hotspots for the pandemic; too many workers considered “essential” are not compensated fairly for their labor; and equal access to health care is not considered a human right.
But we have also seen unprecedented cooperation between scientists and researchers all over the world. We have seen healthcare workers and many others work sacrificially to save people’s lives. We have seen people of faith reaching out to their neighbors in creative and caring ways. And we have also seen the face of the ground (and the sea and the sky) renewed.
So, again, what of our old lives, personally and communally, needs to be burned away? What needs to be renewed? Or, to put it more theologically, of what do we need to repent (Acts 2:37-38)? And in what ways do we need to witness to God’s life-giving work in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:32)?
The answers to those questions, while similar, are going to take different forms for each of you. Perhaps this Pentecost season, your congregation can engage in the work of discerning those answers. Like those first disciples in that house in Jerusalem, you can devote yourselves to prayer, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. What visions and dreams is the Holy Spirit giving to your community? How can you be witnesses to the person and work of Jesus Christ in your particular place and time?
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There is no doubt that it is a strange time, a disconcerting time, but we as the church have been here before, waiting and hoping, praying and trusting. And we are not alone. That same Holy Spirit who showed up in fire and wind to the first disciples calls us, too, to be witnesses to Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, Hoboken and Peoria, St. Louis and Cincinnati, and to the ends of the earth. That same Holy Spirit who endowed the first disciples with the gift of tongues is alive and active today and will give us what we need.
Thank you, Working Preacher, for being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and for encouraging your people to do the same, especially in this time. God grant you wisdom, patience, and joy in the journey.