Let’s get fired up!
When you hear the story of Pentecost and the dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit, complete with rushing wind and tongues of fire, everyone hearing in their own language-it sounds both very exciting and-lets be honest-out of control. Onlookers came to the conclusion that this was like a St. Patrick’s Day celebration gone bad, that the disciples were hosting a rave. For those caught up in the moment, it may have been like an ecstatic group experience, like the frenzied crowds at the early Beatles concerts, or being at the Boston Garden cheering as Paul Peirce hits the 3-pointer to demolish the Lakers. Revivalism and Gospel music embodies this joyful, ecstatic Pentecost worship.
I love a good Gospel hymn, and always enjoyed preaching to the Amen Chorus at the Smith Metropolitan AME Zion Church in Poughkeepsie. I once took a confirmation class to a Pentecostal Black Baptist Church, and the pastor called me up to give the morning pastoral prayer. I started in my slow, spacious style, and as the Amens came, I began to speed my cadence and in moments I was shouting prayers, stomping my foot for emphasis, and Jesus had gained a third syllable. The congregation went wild because I was a white boy giving it my best shot. As I returned to my pew, I saw eight confirmands looking like they had just taken a ride in a convertible with the top down. I swear the prayer had messed with their hair. After church I asked if they had any questions, and one girl said, “Yeah, who inhabited your body during the prayer?” Another asked why I didn’t pray like that at our church. I answered that it only would work if they would all say Amen and cheer, but they thought that was too risky.
We don’t all experience the Holy Spirit the same way. I would have had a mixed reaction if I was at Pentecost. I’ve always been a rocker, meaning I love my rocking chair. For me the Holy Spirit moves at 6 AM while I sit alone on the porch, listening to bird songs, pen in my hand, writing my thoughts. These are moment of deep peace and occasionally quiet ecstasy. While I wrote this paragraph a bluebird fluttered up to me, and hovered at the screen just a few feet from my face and looked me in the eye. That’s my way of experiencing the Holy Spirit, it’s very quiet. We are all different.
I imagine someone at Pentecost was thinking, we need some order in the chaos we are really going to need a by-law committee. Before you groan at the by-law makers, we are all creatures of habit. How many of you have a favorite pew? If you have been here twice, you have assigned yourself a seat. We need a few standard operating procedures. In fact, checklists save lives. If you are in the ICU, be glad for a checklist. In 2006, 80,000 people got infections from catheters, and 28,000 died. A few hospitals engaged in a clinical trial of instituting a 5 point checklist, which started with “Wash your hands with soap and water.” Their infection rate dropped from 4 percent to almost zero. Churches and worship also need some standard operating procedures, or creativity and experimentation can become chaos. In fact, the first day of creation, God pushed back the chaos to separate waters from land.
Healthy religion needs a certain amount of emotion, ecstasy and spontaneity; with a balance of guidelines, order and sober reflection. Jonathan Edwards wrote an entire book called “Religious Affections” about this issue. As the First Great Awaking took hold moving from this congregation in Northampton throughout the Connecticut River Valley, and even across the country as George Whitefield preached on town greens, great emotions were stirred. People would break down sobbing in church, some would shriek, others were caught up in ecstatic joy. The sober Puritans in Boston thought the crazy folks out in Northampton had lost their minds (see how few things change in 300 years!) There were excesses, people proclaimed themselves prophets, some thought you had to have a certain kind of ecstatic experience or to be a real Christian, and they even started signing new hymns that were not in the Bay Psalm Book of 1640. (That same book that Old South Church just sold for $22 million because there are only two or three copies left in the world today.)
Into this environment, Edwards defended strong emotion and spiritual affections. The mind and will are in need of positive affections drawing us toward God and stimulating our desire to be spiritual people, to go deeper. Since not every strong emotional outburst was spiritually healthy, Edwards went back to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter five and the fruits of the spirit-love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, self-control, patience and perseverance – if your spiritual experience produced these spiritual fruits, then they are of the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, todays Epistle, also addresses the flow of the Holy Spirit within the church. Everyone in the church is given a manifestation of the spirit; some have wisdom and knowledge, others a healing presence, some are strong in faith and steady in crisis, others prophecy (meaning they speak truth). I don’t think this is meant to be an exclusive list – some teach, others administrate, some serve and welcome and create hospitality- the gifts can be as wide and unique as people bring. The main point is, all of this is a gift from God, a manifestation of the Spirit that is given, not for ourselves, not to impose, but to bring together for the common good.
Recently I experienced this at Leadership Pioneer Valley, a 10 month program with nearly 40 other leaders of diverse backgrounds and experience. Back in September we all took a personality test based on the Enneagram, which defines the styles, strengths and weaknesses of nine different personality types. I was part of a large group of idealists. We are the types who focus on bringing organizations in line with their values and vision. We like things done right. That sounds great, we admire the Nelson Mandelas of the world, but then we discovered that others groups perceived our personalities as bossy. Idealists need to learn to listen and include others. We were then put into smaller project groups who worked for the next 9 months to consult with an organization to achieve something new. One group created a Facebook page with video segments from local historic sites that encourages others to post where they have been. Our group conducted a leadership development retreat for Latino student at Springfield Tech.
Our groups were picked by our Enneagram types to represent different personalities and leadership styles. Those of us who were idealists were glad to have some Enthusiasts who are the cheerleaders and promoters in groups. We also had Innovators who brought creativity into the mix, achievers who will make sure the work gets done, and we were very glad to have peacemakers who could help us through group conflict. In my group, we spent 8 months trying to work with a non-profit agency that was nearing collapse and the Executive Director is leaving, so I project was dead in the water. Fortunately one of our members was an enthusiast, who found another agency with a similar mission and cheered us on to switch, and we were back in business.
Now I want to give this personality inventory to everyone in church, because I am already speculating about each of your types anyway, which could help us affirm each other’s gifts and better understand how to work together. Paul’s point is these different styles and abilities are truly manifestations of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not just moments of dramatic ecstasy, or incredibly charismatic people who outshine everyone else. Rather, God’s spirit most often works through the personalities and experiences of who we are. God is most fully present when we engage together, and weave together our varying gifts. In this way, the Holy Spirit creates and renews the church.
I think this chapter in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is the most important text to keep in mind for the next year in the life of the church. We have a new ministry, Common Ground, that is launching now and will be bringing in new people to both of our worship services, and each person who participates will change the church in some way, bringing their own unique manifestation of the Holy Spirit among us. And First Churches will change them, there is also a unique gift and spirit that comes from 350 years of church community, a cloud of witnesses that makes this church what it is. This is God’s vineyard, and we are poised for the next harvest and making some new wine, while also continuing to enjoy the vintages of our past labors.