Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Deeper Meaning of Pentecost

"She Is the Holy Spirit To You"

On Thursday, Rebekah and I celebrated our twenty-first wedding anniversary. As I think back over the past twenty-one years, I can’t help but give thanks for all the blessings that God has given us, not least our four wonderful children. But I am also struck by how much I have grown as a person as a direct result of being married to Rebekah.

I have a friend who is a priest, his name is Fr. Jim Clark. And Fr. Jim once told me how he does marriage counseling. He sits the couple down, and offers two pieces of advice. First, he looks at the woman and says, “You have a project on your hands.” And then he turns to the man and says, “She is the Holy Spirit [to you.]” Now when I first heard this, my egalitarian sensibilities were slightly offended. After all, this didn’t seem to be particularly balanced or mutual. But for the most part, I think this is how our marriage has played out. Let me offer just one example.

When we were first married, Rebekah would come home from school or work and begin telling me about her day. If it hadn’t been a particularly good day, and she was feeling bad, I would listen, and then I would do one of two things. I would either explain why she didn’t need to feel so bad, or I would offer suggestions on how to fix the situation. I thought I was being helpful, but my advice and explanations rarely made her feel better, and in actuality they generally had the opposite effect. Rebekah would complain, “I want you to listen.” And I would say, “I am listening.” But I wasn’t listening, not really. I hadn’t learned to listen or empathize. Instead life had taught me to solve problems and fix things, to such a degree that I really didn’t know the difference between listening and giving advice, the difference between empathizing and fixing.

So early on in our marriage, Rebekah gave me John Gray’s book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. I read it. Reluctantly and suspiciously, I read it. And my eyes began to open, ever so slowly. For example, Gray writes:
When a woman is talking about the problems of her day, rather than assuming she is looking for solutions and giving solutions, a man can instead recognize that she is just needing to talk about her day and as a result she will feel better. With this insight, he is free to relax and listen without trying to interrupt with solutions (xxii).
Today, this all sounds like common sense to me, but twenty years ago it was a complete revelation. I found it incredible. How could the simple act of listening help Rebekah feel better? But it did, and it does.

“Mrs. Anderson, I don’t want you to do anything; I just want you to listen.”

A principle at an elementary school tells the following story. “One day I return from lunch to find one of my students sitting dejectedly in my office waiting to see me. I sit down next to Milly, and she says to me, ‘Mrs. Anderson, have you ever had a week when everything you did hurt somebody else, and you never intended to hurt anyone at all?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I think I understand.’ Milly then proceeds to describe her week in detail. But by now I was quite late for a very important meeting, and I was anxious not to keep a room full of people waiting. So I asked, ‘Milly, what can I do for you?’ Milly reached over, took both my shoulders in her hands, looked me straight in the eyes, and said very firmly, ‘Mrs. Anderson, I don’t want you to do anything; I just want you to listen.’[1]

“I don’t want you to do anything; I just want you to listen.” The need for empathy—the need to be heard and understood—is one of our greatest human needs. And it isn’t just women who need empathy, but men need it just as much, as do kids. In this respect, men and women aren’t from two different planets, one being Mars and the other being Venus. We are all of the Earth, and our common need for empathy, for understanding, is part of the dust that we have all been fashioned from.

And so, learning to listen empathetically can be extremely powerful. Because when we listen attentively to another human being, when we make ourselves fully present, we create an opportunity for that person to express themselves; we create the space for them to be heard and understood. And that is what we most need “in this transitory life,” when we are “in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity” (bcp 329).

Quoting again from Rabbi Kushner, whom I quoted in last week’s sermon: “Human beings are God’s language.” That is, 
When we cry out to God in our anguish, God responds by sending us people. Doctors and nurses work tirelessly to make us whole. Friends come and sit with us, hold our hands without speaking, without trying to explain away our suffering or diminish it by telling us of other people who have it worse. And though we did not know it, that is exactly what we need, the reassurance that we are not alone and that we are people worth caring about.
God often answers prayer by sending people, and sometimes we are the people God sends as the answer to someone else’s prayer. And when this happens, God is not asking us to take responsibility for their situation; God is not asking us to offer explanations or solutions. More often than not, God is calling us to be attentive, to listen and to be present with people in their distress.
As Christians, God has given us the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit so that when we are present with people in their distress, they might experience the comforting, consoling presence of God in and through us. That is one of the deeper meanings of Pentecost.

The Deeper Meaning of Pentecost

Today, we generally think of Pentecost as a Christian Holy-day, but in the first century, Pentecost was a Jewish festival. Also known as the Feast of Weeks, it occurred seven weeks after Passover, or fifty days, which is where it gets the name, Pentecost, meaning fiftieth. Originally it was an agricultural festival that marked the end of the barley harvest, but by the time of Jesus, Pentecost was also associated with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai and the covenant between God and his people Israel.

In the first century, Pentecost was one of three pilgrimage festivals. This meant that devout Jews would travel to Jerusalem from all around the Roman Empire and beyond to celebrate it. Just prior to his ascending into heaven, Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high, to wait until they were anointed by the Holy Spirit. So they waited in Jerusalem for ten days, and finally, on the day of the great festival of Pentecost, the Spirit descended as tongues of fire and rested on all the disciples of Jesus; not just on the twelve apostles, mind you, but on each and every one of Jesus’ followers.

According to Peter, God’s indiscriminate giving out of the Holy Spirit was a fulfillment of a word that had been spoken long ago 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.   
It’s remarkable; absolutely remarkable! And not just the speaking in tongues; that’s amazing. But what is truly amazing and unprecedented is the fact that the Spirit of God is now being poured out on all flesh. You see, in the Old Testament, the Spirit was only ever given to a few, select individuals, generally prophets, priests, and kings, people like Moses, King David, and Isaiah. They were anointed with the indwelling Holy Spirit so that they might be equipped to carry out the tasks that God had given them to do. But now because of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is given to all of God’s people, regardless of age, gender, or social status—on sons and daughters, on young men and old men, on male and female slaves. And so, the deeper meaning of Pentecost lies in the fact that all of God’s people are called into service and all of God’s people are empowered and equipped by the Spirit to participate in what God is doing in the world. That is what it means to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. And this is what we are celebrating today with the baptisms of Breslyn and Isley.

The Holy Spirit and the Harvest

In Christian baptism, God gives us his very own Spirit, not because we are deserving or special, but because we are needed. Once Jesus was traveling about Galilee. He was “teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” Crowds and crowds of people were coming to him, and “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  Turning to his disciples, he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:35–38).

The harvest is indeed plentiful. This broken and hurting world is filled with broken and hurting people, people who are ripe with “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, addiction, fear, depression, and all manner of adversity.” And what they need more than anything is the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness. In baptism, we are all given the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit becomes our constant companion. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, the Spirit teaches us to pray, the Spirit comforts us in our times of distress, often by reminding us that we are treasured by God, that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.

But this gift of God’s presence is not for us alone; it is for the whole world. And so the Holy Spirit compels us to seek out people in distress, to give them our undivided attention, to listen and to be present. I know that we often feel inadequate and ill-equipped for this task, but let me say again what I said last week: Don’t underestimate the power of your presence because it is through your presence that God makes his presence known. We are ambassadors of God’s presence in this broken world. And as agents of God’s comfort, it is not we who are providing the comfort, but God is providing his comfort through us.

So this week, let us go and be present with someone in their distress. And let us also, invite someone to be present with us in our distress.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Adapted from Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (2nd ed., pp. 113–114).

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