Pentecost as Dreams that Linger in the Air
Images by Marilyn Biles:
Improvisational Healing Spaces
We, in today’s world, are stuck. We all know what it feels like; it’s a universal experience we all encounter at one point or another. It can happen early in life--getting caught in the birth canal, getting stuck between the mattress and the sides of the crib, or being held tightly in place by the hand of a loving adult. It can happen later in life--being stuck in a job we don’t enjoy, in a relationship that seems to have no future, or in the repetitive “you ought to know better” thoughts that flood our own mind. We know what it feels like to lack the momentum of forward motion; we know what it feels like to be stuck.
And in our world today, we as a society, and maybe as individuals, too, are stuck. Everywhere we turn we seem to be at an impasse, locked into a battle with some opposing side. And no matter which side we’re on, we are often so totally focused on this struggle against one another that we lose sight of what lies beyond us both.
To be fair, we naturally fall into this trap; it’s just the way our Western minds work. We understand the world by differentiation. We proceed logically by looking at how “this” is different from “that.” We find it in the Sesame Street song “One of These Things is Not Like the Other,” and we see it in the battle of talking heads on cable news. We often define who and what we are, by articulating who and what we are not. And in the process there develops an “us” and “them” mentality that leaves us stuck so busy battling one another that we can’t see past where we are to a better future.
And this is why we so desperately need the Spirit, today as much as we ever have. There’s a reason we envision the Spirit as breath, fire, water, and oil--things that blow, flow, and spread. The Spirit--like wind, fire, and liquid--has this momentum that carries us along with it. Instead of standing behind us and pushing us into the future, it seems as if the Spirit goes ahead of us and gently pulls us forward, dislodging us from all the small places in which we find ourselves stuck, breaking us free from the narrow perspectives that prevent us from seeing our way to the other side of an impasse.
It’s precisely the Spirit’s propensity to carry us into an unknown future, calling us to surrender the control we find in having everything mapped out, that has scared even the Church throughout the centuries. Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley recently wrote a book titled God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity. And in this book she explores how, in its practice and its iconography, the Church has tended to subordinate the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son, instead of giving it an equal place in both the Trinity and the life of the Church. See, the Spirit’s pull toward an unknown future can be unsettling and destabilizing for us all, even (or maybe especially) for the hierarchy of the institutional church.
Truth be told, there’s really nothing safe about the Spirit, but it is life-giving. I’m reminded of a conversation that takes place in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and the four Pevensie children who have found their way into Narnia. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are talking with excitement about Aslan being on the move in Narnia, but the children don’t understand who Aslan is:
“Is - is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh,” said Susan. “I thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
The Spirit blows where it will--transcending the categories, definitions, and hierarchies we have so carefully laid out, and bringing us to a new way of understanding things. Is it safe? Not if we’re talking about it from the perspective of the status quo, or from a win-lose perspective. But we can trust that the Spirit is good.
I recently attended a conference at which Episcopal priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault was a featured speaker. She argues that it is time to stop identifying ourselves by the inherent differences between one another, and instead to identify ourselves in relation to a greater whole. I think this is precisely what Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to do in today’s epistle reading.
The church at Corinth was fraught with division, just as we are in so much of today’s society. Church members were defining themselves against one another--those who speak in tongues and those who don’t, those who are rich and those who are poor, those who follow Paul and those who follow Cephas, those who have the gift of healing and those who don’t, those who are Jews and those who are not, those who are free and those who are not. And when they weren’t busy defining themselves by categories, they were busy developing a hierarchy for the different identities.
But in today’s reading, Paul tells these members of the church in Corinth not to define themselves against one another; instead, understand who they are by their place in the greater whole. For example, the foot cannot separate itself from hand just because they are different; for as Paul says a few verses after today’s reading: “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” When we look at the big picture, difference doesn’t separate us; it doesn’t negate belonging or unity. What we see is that the Spirit transcends rigid definitions and categories, not by erasing differences, but by weaving them into a beautiful whole.
The Spirit gives us each a unique role to play in the whole. As the Spirit forgives us, purifies us, strengthens us, and builds us up, we don’t become some kind of “generic” Christian. How boring that would be! Who would ever want to be that kind of Christian? It would be like Huckleberry Finn’s take on Miss Watson’s description of heaven: “Miss Watson went on and on about Heaven. She said the only thing people do there is sing and play the harp forever and ever. This didn’t sound so great to me. I didn’t tell her this, though. I asked if she thought Tom Sawyer would go to Heaven, and she said not by a long shot. This made me happy, because I wanted the two of us to be together.” There’s not just one picture of Holy except for God, which is too mysterious and too infinite for us to ever try to copy anyway. The only way for us to be the Body of Christ is to be a beautiful mosaic of tiles of every color and type and pattern.
And what if we expand the picture even larger? Well, maybe the Spirit is also helping the Church find its place among people of all religions, and those who don’t embrace any religion. And maybe the Spirit also crosses the living and non-living divide, helping us find our place in the greater whole that is Earth. With unrest, violence, and environmental crises on all sides, the Spirit’s ability to transcend categories and divisions and to help us see our place within the greater whole is precisely where we find our hope for the future.
So these are the questions (we might call them dreams) that linger in the air on this Feast of Pentecost: In today’s world, a world that so often understands things intellectually by placing them in categories and defining them against one another, can we learn to see beyond all the categories and dualisms? Can we claim our unique Spirit-given place in the world in a way that doesn’t compete with or deny others their place, too? I hope so, because I think that might well be what Pentecost looks like in today’s world.