I’m checking in from my trip in Italy. On Pentecost Sunday yesterday I took some time to appreciate the places on my pilgrim route where the Spirit touched another person or generation with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit just like happened that first time, reported in Acts 2.
We stopped by “Paul outside the walls,” the site where Paul was allegedly crucified by Nero. This completed last year’s pilgrimage to Greece. Paul had an unlikely “pentecost” that day on the way to Damascus. I’ve been surprised many times by how the Spirit finds me, too.
We made the climb to the top of the famous hill near Naples where Benedict of Nursia planted the monastery that would influence Europe for good for a thousand years and still inspires pilgrims like me. Being welcomed into these islands of faith and learning provided “pentecosts” for thousands of seekers in desperate times, beginning in the 600’s.
Up in Veneto during the 1200’s, Anthony of Padua helped Francis of Assisi train the many new community members their revival movement was attracting. At his shrine we saw his famous tongue, preserved as a memory of his remarkable speaking career and his ongoing influence. On a Saturday, one worship time after another was packed!
Meanwhile our instagrams told of all sorts of moving experiences on Pentecost weekend — from the splash party in the Northwest to blue skies over South Jersey, from intimate times around the piano to the Comfort Retreat. We have bits of Paul, Benedict and Anthony in us. We experience, demonstrate and teach all the “pentecosts” in our own way. It was amazing then and God with us is amazing now. I can’t help but think God will meet us and continue to use us in desperate times. I’m inspired by the past but probably more by our present together.
Let’s consider how God might move us through a dream. Last night I talked a lot about dreaming in honor of Peter’s great outburst of enthusiasm as he quoted the prophet Joel to explain what the Holy Spirit of God had done in the gathered disciples on Pentecost.
No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.’ Acts 2:16-17 (from Joel 2:28)
Prophecy, visions and dreams are being poured out “upon all flesh” as God calls us back into the spiritual intimacy we were created to enjoy.
Scientists measure dreams
This reality is a bit off the grid for many of us. We have been trained to think our dreams, in particular, are a matter of predictable, physical processes we can measure — and it is true, researchers have been watching our dreams for a long time. The invention of the electroencephalograph allowed scientists to study sleep in ways that were not previously possible.
During the 1950s, a graduate student named Eugene Aserinsky (along with others, but long live graduate students!) used this tool to discover what is known today as REM sleep. Further studies demonstrated how sleep progresses through a series of stages in which different brain wave patterns are displayed. We mainly dream during stage four when we experience Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep (also known as active sleep or paradoxical sleep).
During the earliest phases of sleep, we are still relatively awake and alert. The brain produces what are called beta waves, which are small and fast. As the brain begins to relax and slow down, slower waves known as alpha waves are produced. During this time when we are not “fully” asleep, we may experience vivid sensations known as hypnagogic hallucinations. Common examples are feeling like you are falling or hearing someone call your name. Another common event during this period is the myoclonic jerk; your body reacts as if startled.
Fairly recently, experts have named four stages sleep. By stage three, deep, slow brain waves known as delta waves begin to emerge. During this stage, people become less responsive to noises and activity in the environment. It is a transitional period between light sleep and a very deep sleep. Bed-wetting and sleepwalking are most likely to occur at the end of this stage of sleep.
Most dreaming occurs during the fourth stage of sleep, known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is characterized by eye movement under our lids, increased respiration rate and increased brain activity. REM sleep is also referred to as paradoxical sleep because while the brain and other body systems become more active, muscles become more relaxed. When our voluntary muscles go off line our brains enjoy a time to be active.
Sleep moves through these four stages four or five times a night. On average, we enter the REM stage approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first cycle of REM sleep might last only a short amount of time, but each cycle becomes longer. REM sleep can last up to an hour as sleep progresses.
God uses dreams
Understanding how we sleep and sleeping well is a good spiritual discipline. Working with the different levels of how we dream is what deeply spiritual people do. Recalling and pondering what your brain was doing when your muscles were relatively paralyzed during stage four sleep can be very interesting. It tells us a lot about how the automatic scripts of our unconscious act and may give us a lot of information about what we desire and fear, as well as about what we just can’t see in ourselves in the light of day. Keep a pad and pencil by your bed. Talking about our dreams with trusted friends or our therapists and spiritual directors is a good ways to mentalize and become deeper.
When Peter was telling the crowd gathered in Jerusalem about the movement of God’s Spirit in the followers of Jesus, the dreams he predicted were not merely the movement in our brains or the desires of our hearts. He was talking about revelations from God coming from the same places we normally consider unknowable. From out of the dark, God speaks. When our normal muscle control systems are out of the way, we can hear in ways we otherwise can’t. We meditate and pray in various ways so we can put ourselves in a condition in which we are more receptive to connecting with the Holy Spirit. Like the disciples were waiting in Jerusalem for the communion with God Jesus had promised, so we wait. The Lord has provided the forgiveness we need and defeated the powers that want to keep us locked up as their slaves. A new reality (to us, at least) is open for exploration.
The dreams of stage four sleep are often mysterious and downright comical. What we name “dreams” from God, since they arise in the same territory of our brains an electroencephalograph might measure, are much more clear. They resemble what others have experienced, often recorded in the Bible. They often reconfirm things our logic and conviction have led us to believe. They usually lead us to some specific action we can accomplish in the cause of redemption. They give us the pleasure of reassurance that God is with us and we are able to know the Lord. We are not lost in the dark, nor is the darkness full of unknown terrors, nor is our darkness only explored with some machine we invent. God is light in our dark and the future is full of the pleasure of God’s company.
The other day at our pastor’s meeting we were talking about communication and all the different ways we try to hold together and influence the world as a network of cells and congregations in Christ. We are pretty good at holding together and influencing the world, but it is difficult.
In the middle of an elaborate dialogue about how we can best communicate, we had a little “Pentecost.” It centered on Facebook. We started talking about what Facebook makes us do to talk to people: how it restricts us, how it commodifies us, and how it tries to use us to make money. We asked, “Why are we doing this? What monster are we paying to communicate? What rules are we learning for relating?”
Someone said, “Why don’t we just desert it and stop using the medium and focus on being the medium? We already have a great communication system. It is called living in community. Let’s focus on being the media, not on conforming to some other rubric. Let’s be face to face, not Facebook.” It was like a little fire burned through us. I heard Peter preaching “Be saved from this wicked and perverse generation!” in Acts 2. I have been building the Facebook pyramid for a long time. Increasingly, it tells me to produce bricks without straw. Why would I willingly do this with all the people I love best?
The first thing that happened to me yesterday in my experience of the body of Christ was sitting around a table with a devoted team having a phone interview with a great guy who wants to be in Shalom House. It was a wonder.
We made a connection around one of our favorite parts of the Bible: Acts 2. His faith got me going! Look at just a couple of lines of the famous account of Pentecost and we’ll get started.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place….All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
A new community
Christians, in general, put so much emphasis on personal experiences of God that we often miss the fact that the Holy Spirit’s basic work is to form a new community, an alternative culture, a new creation, God’s family business. We are all together and God makes something new happen; that’s how it works.
After the crucifixion and resurrection, the remaining followers of Jesus, the ones who had not scattered never to return, the ones who were not too afraid of the Roman and Jewish opponents to stick with it, were all together waiting for what Jesus had promised. They were praying and hoping for something new. Even though their own families thought they were nuts, they banded together in expectation and faith. The Holy Spirit came upon all of them, as a group, and they all demonstrated the fire.
That’s the blueprint for our church. I know some people are not fired up and are not demonstrating, but that’s all we’ve got. I know some people perpetually live in the house and don’t pay rent, some keep consuming bits of religion instead of owning the store, but they don’t wreck the heart of us. We’re all together, we are filled with the Spirit, our tongues and lives are loosened to demonstrate Jesus or we’re a joke. And we are no joke.
How the Spirit forms the body of Christ
In First Corinthians (well, maybe THAT’S the favorite part of the Bible) the Apostle Paul gives some pretty exhaustive teaching about how the Holy Spirit forms the body of Christ. It all starts with people who are not among the wise in the ways of the world revealing the Spirit’s power, not like slick marketers, but like clay vessels carrying glory. The leaven of the Spirit makes us a particular kind of dough; we are culture where
people are sacred not sex objects
relationships are spiritually discerned, not just adjudicated by laws
real freedom is worked out even while the free are compassionate towards those who can’t handle the radicality
people gain strength to discipline themselves for completing the Lord’s mission
everyone’s individual gifts are honored as part of the new community, an organism that lives out truth and love
we are the resurrected body of Jesus
The Holy Spirit keeps creating a spectacle of grace. I think sometimes when we do our public ceremonies, like sharing in communion or lighting the fifty candles on Pentecost Sunday, we often avert our eyes and let people have a private moment as they eat and drink or light their candle. It is very intimate, and it almost seems embarrassing to have it out there in public. Some people won’t even do it because it makes them afraid to be so noticed. But we should not avert our eyes. We should watch people and pray for them and be one with them as they are doing their acts that symbolize their oneness with us as the body of Christ. We often keep a lot of space to protect people’s autonomy, but I think we should touch each other like we have all been touched by the one Holy Spirit. We are living beyond ourselves. Just like Paul writes to the Corinthian church:
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
The common good
The Spirit of God fills each of us, but it is for the common good. The Spirit works in each of us, but God is doing His work in the world. One of the best demonstrations of the Spirit we can make to the world is by sticking together: we exist, we share, we love, we are self-consciously the body, we don’t go to Circle we are a Circle of Hope in Jesus Christ. From that base we conduct the family business; the world is like our family farm and we are all important to the harvest.
Our kind of service means that we did not withdraw into a small group and preserve our holiness. We put out a sign on major streets and let people know we’re open for business. We made major financial commitments to buildings, staff, stores, and mission teams. We created maps, plans, disciplines and schedules to keep us pointed in the right direction and relevant to the next person, for whom we exist to touch and incorporate into the body of Christ. A few of us just hang out in what we have built by the fire of the Spirit at work in us. But most of us are manifesting the Spirit for the common good.
The last thing that happened to me in my experience of the body of Christ yesterday was being in a group of men who were asked to share how God was moving them to live as people who claim Jesus as Lord — and they did it. It was a wonder.
Pentecost is one of the main inspirations for my faith. I wish it were more “popular” as a holiday. At Pentecost, the truth, the law, the principles of faith are not just “out there,” in a building or in a book; they are all in me. The faith is not settled and static, it is living and everything is on the road, moving, changing and us with it. On Pentecost faith is real, risen and participative. I see it as the first day of the new creation, the big bang in the little universe of Earth.
Pentecost is still a harvest festival
For the Jews of Jesus’ time Pentecost was more than just the first fruits of summer harvest festival because it was connected to the Exodus. Fifty days after the Passover and the deliverance from Egypt the people were offered to God as “first fruits;” at Sinai their consecration to the Lord as a nation was completed. So the celebration was also tied to the Ten Commandments and the “giving of the Law.” Jews believe that the law was given after exactly fifty days in the wilderness.
Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17 that the Jewish feasts and celebrations (like Shavuot) were a shadow of the things to come through Jesus Christ. A Christian’s celebration of Pentecost is about the reality that followed the promise of Jesus to his disciples that they would be filled with new life and new purpose.
My celebration is about how the prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled. I suppose it is no surprise that the new covenant gets activated with fire on the mountain of Jerusalem like it is a new Sinai. Jeremiah prophesied that a new covenant (or “testament”) was coming. The old covenant was broken. God was planning a new one. See Jeremiah 31.
Pentecost celebrates a great new harvest. The holiday is still a harvest feast. But it is a harvest of people. It celebrates how the law is written on our hearts. It is still a festival about receiving the law. But the laws aren’t written in stone or in a book, they are written on hearts. The stone and book still count, but they are shadows of what the Spirit is making real.
Pentecost is a hard holiday to sell
These days Pentecost is a hard holiday to sell. Especially when it falls on Memorial Day weekend! It is a holy day with no special candy or music associated. There are no notable costumes to wear and people rarely put on plays about it. There is no way to make it cute or sentimental. It is very personal and very practical and spiritual.
The basic material is: the disciples have this great experience, and immediately are sent on mission, and almost as immediately are in trouble with the authorities after 3000 people are received into the church. And we are to follow in their way. That’s so Christian, Christians can hardly stand it!
CS Lewis had a realistic view of the difficulty of getting people to understand the new covenant. He started by acknowledging a body of law that all humankind shares: everyone seems to agree that fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness are good. All the religions have some kind of version of this law. This law obliges us to do the right thing regardless of the pain, danger or difficulty involved. It is a hard law — “as hard as nails” But it is a shadow of the love Jesus is revealing. And the “law” of Jesus is even harder. In a poem Lewis wrote:
Love’s as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
Seeing (what all that is)
Our cross, and His.
In Lewis’s first Chronicle of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the lion Aslan predicts this hardness of God’s love by promising to save Edmund from the results of treachery. He says: “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” When Aslan and the wicked White Witch discuss her claim on Edmund’s life, she refers to the law of that world as the Deep Magic. Aslan would never consider going against the Deep Magic; instead, he gives himself to die in Edmund’s place, and the next morning comes back to life. Aslan explains to Susan that though the Witch knows the Deep Magic, there is a far deeper magic that she does not know. This deeper magic says that when a willing victim is killed in place of a traitor, death itself begins working backwards. The deepest magic works toward life and goodness.
Pentecost is about the deepest magic working toward life and goodness. We dare not get stuck practicing the “deep magic” that any person can know. As we see, Jesus says, “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” As we immediately see from the history in Acts, it is harder than one might think to be alive with the Spirit in a dying world:
to be the presence of the future,
to have one’s own love that is hard as nails,
to be personally responsible for carrying life and not just let the priest or church take care of it,
to have a living faith and not just live a legacy of being a Christian as part of your culture or family.
Pentecost is more than the deep magic
Most religion is just natural law — love the baby in the manger, justify yourself as not guilty by doing what others think is right. I think the world can sell all sorts of religion based on the “deep magic” that everyone already has an inkling of and that cultures preserve in their laws. But that law is not being the baby, or receiving forgiveness, or speaking out love and forgiveness. It is not receiving the power to work the deepest magic like Jesus.
I like Pentecost because I want to follow Jesus. I don’t want to profess to follow Jesus unless I am working with more than the “deep magic.”
I need the law written on my heart. Being a good person is not enough. I need to be forgiven, to be written on. I need God to write my itinerary and determine my value.
I need to harvest. Attending holy day meetings is not enough. I need to praise God in public like those enthused disciples. I need to form community and include people in it like the first church. I need to come up against the “powers that be” equipped with the truth about Jesus and little more. That’s what happened at Pentecost and what happens still.
1) Memorial Day is a hard one. It really means something significant and is sad on so many levels.
It is sad that we ignore it as we go to the beach.
It is sad that it is “religious” and the dead are made sacred sacrifices to American “freedom.”
It is sad that Christians have no more voice in a heavily Christian country. Or that they have used their influence to justify the war machine instead of advocating “love your neighbor as yourself,” much less, “love your enemy.” I wrote a poem.
Some parts of the Bible are just more important than others. Acts 2 is one of those parts. It so splendidly captures the wild, generative, upending work of the Holy Spirit.
On this day after Pentecost, I am again reminded that the Lord is going to build his church with people who are moved by the Spirit. I offer you my top ten list of what God wants to move us to do, based on Acts 2. Each item is, basically, number one. So I did not try to create an order. I don’t think God orders them either:
Speak up.(They “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”)
It is kind to be “another voice” at the table. It is OK to be socially “pluralized.” But in our hearts we know we have something to say about Jesus that is not just another “belief.”
Forget being qualified. (“Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?”)
Acting in the name of Jesus does not mean we are smarter than everyone else or that we have a recognizable right to offer what we offer. Coming in the name of Jesus is qualification enough.
Think big.(“Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, our old men will dream dreams.”)
Whatever you think is the boundary that restricts your purpose – it probably doesn’t. Test the limits of your unbelief.
Act on your spiritual urges.(“They were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”)
You have something from the Holy Spirit happening in you right now that is just a valid as whatever happened on the first Pentecost. Move with it. The promise is for you, too.
Tell the truth.(“He warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’”)
Jesus is the truth. No amount of accommodation to the society or “religifying” of the message is going to make it any easier to swallow. Don’t play people.
Create a counterculture.(They “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”)
Let’s not lose track of the old culture, the birth family, the old relationships. But within them, let’s create what is new and be serious about it. We don’t have one foot here and another there; we are a circle in many circles.
Share.(“All the believers were together and had everything in common.”)
It is not about making donations. Sharing is about mutual ownership. Sharing is being a responsible slave managing God’s stuff.
Care for people in need. (“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”)
This starts in the body of Christ, but if it does not get outside its walls, we’re not expansive enough. Self-giving love is so hard, we probably can’t do it unless we “sell out” in regard to being as rich as we might otherwise be.
Form daily relationships. (“Every day they continued to meet together.”)
There is going to be a contest for the schedule. Again, it is not about making donations of our time, either. There is always a new person to include and a new task to start (in the sense that summer follows spring, and so on) . It takes relating and working together.
Expand the circle. (“The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”)
The church exists for those yet to join. The basic work of the Holy Spirit in the world is redemption of people and restoration of creation. It’s a restart. If there is no expansion, it might be time to work out the rest of the list.
In the acrostic of the year
the “P” for Pentecost
is mainly for patience,
or persevering in the practice
of being “empty, open, choiceless
as a beach waiting
for a gift from the sea.”
The waves beat, “Patience…patience.”
But I seem to have dug up sand
and acquired treasure,
or it has been delivered to my door
to make me full, fenced, fretful
as a wedding planner waiting
for the bride to arrive.
In the history of God’s gifting,
the patience is primary;
the fretting follows,
or apostles would have only written
stories of retreating, listening, staying,
and Jesus would not set his face
like flint toward Jerusalem.
It is the digging that can stop.
And most deliveries
can be refused,
lest the gifts become grandiosity:
looking to be affirmed, notable, effective,
and the lovely spring day of Pentecost
is no beach day at all.