Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd A Pentecost May 31, 2020
Pentecost Sunday is all about welcoming the unexpected. The Spirit fell on the first gathering of the new believers—the followers of the Way, as they were called before the term Christian was used. They were on fire with the passion and excitement of a contagious energy that blew through their midst. As they received the Spirit’s breath, they were able to understand one another more deeply than ever before. The Spirit gave them new ears to listen and new tongues to speak in the languages of all who were present.
In the Gospel of John, the risen Christ breathes on the disciples, who are still hiding in fear. In this story, the Spirit doesn’t set them on fire with new knowledge, wisdom and linguistic abilities. Rather, the Spirit eases their fears, and brings them down, not up, in energy to a place of deep peace. God’s Spirit blows where she will, giving us the gifts we need for the time we are in. It could be the energy of empowerment, as described in the reading from Acts, or the quieting of spirit, as described in the Gospel of John.
In our current COVID context we need to be ready for both. That was the case for the Hebrews in our reading from the book of Numbers. Shortly after the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt, they began experiencing tremendous anxiety as they were running out of food and water. They were in crisis, and Moses, their leader, was also in crisis. He cried out to God, asking to die because the burden of leading a people in tears and desperation was too much. God had mercy on Moses and asked him to gather 70 elders who could share in caring for the people. When they consecrated the elders, the Spirit came down on them and they prophesied—which probably means that they spoke words of wisdom and spiritual encouragement.
This story is a wonderful lesson about the vital importance of community and team leadership. Life is just too hard and complicated for any individual to lead alone. Our Christian faith stresses the importance of community over and over. If we try to do it on our own, there is less chance that we will make it. We need to work together as a team. I am incredibly grateful for the privilege of working with such a strong team of volunteers and staff at Westworth.
Our reading from Numbers then tells us that after the consecration of the elders, there were two additional individuals who also began prophesying. It appeared that the Spirit was not only anointing the elected leaders, but also some of the followers. But Moses’ assistant Joshua, also one of the consecrated elders, was afraid of the people turning to these two instead of remaining focussed on the leaders. He went to Moses and said, “You’ve got to silence these two men. They are undermining both your authority and ours.” But Moses, ever the humble leader, replied with wisdom, “Are you jealous? Oh that every person would be filled with the Spirit and speak inspired words of wisdom.”
A leadership coup was avoided. Joshua was put in his place, and Moses demonstrated to all that the spiritual gifts of every person—not just of the elected leaders—were crucial if they were going to survive this crisis. While a leadership plan and structure was needed, so was an openness to where the Spirit was leading each one of them in their wilderness survival.
There is a wildness and unpredictability of Ruach, the feminine Hebrew word for spirit, breath and wind. She does indeed blow where she will and moves whom she chooses. She will guide the leaders in their plans and will also empower others who are not part of the governing structure. In times of crisis, we need to be open to everyone and everything as we search for signs of the Spirit’s presence and guidance. We also need to be open to where the Spirit is calling each one of us, whether we’re leaders or not.
It can be pretty confusing, but I think that these times of instability make most of us more open to the Spirit. Most of us don’t think outside the box very well, but when life’s container begins to crumble; when we’ve lost our footing and our security of normal, we may be more open to creative innovation than ever before.
I’ve just completed an online course with Martha Beck that was designed to help us negotiate and find transformation in this tsunami of COVID-19. She offers exercises that help to reduce our fear, stop fighting what is happening and learn to flow with the tsunami of change. What is happening in the world is so powerful, that if we resist, we will be broken. Instead, Martha asks us to learn to fall forward. It requires the type of fluid intelligence that children have. They take in a tremendous amount of information, while learning, falling and trying again–often in a different way. By the time we are adults, we lose this flexible, adaptable fluid intelligence. It crystalizes into fixed functions and we are no longer as creative, flexible or open. We have a greater fear of failing and develop an aversion to risk.
Thomas Edison was asked how he felt about failing thousands of times as he was trying to invent the light bulb. He replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found thousands of ways that won’t work.” Martha Beck suggests that the difference between someone who has succeeded in life and someone who has seen themselves as a failure is that the one succeeding simply failed more.
Last week, I began virtually visiting the 11 thriving United Churches which I visited in person last summer on my sabbatical. I discovered that every one of them embraced a steep learning curve that entailed plenty of trial and error. They were able to follow the wild, unpredictable breath of God that took them into unfamiliar terrain. This allowed them to move quickly to on-line worship services and on-line platforms so that their children’s ministry, women’s and men’s groups, study groups, and prayer groups have been able to continue. In fact, some of them have increased the number of small groups they are offering. They have been flexible and adaptable and have quickly found creative ways to continue their ministry and offer interactive online support for one another. They moved into fluid intelligence that helps them fall forward, because fall they will. But without falling, they will not move forward.
We have certainly fallen at Westworth as we have tried to figure out on-line technology, and we will continue to fall as our learning curve is not flattening. But in spite of our crashing & bumping—or perhaps because of it—we are slowly making our way in the virtual world. We have a ways to go yet, but we’re not stuck—we’re falling forward into the unknown.
Stephen Hayes, in his book The Liberated Mind, talks about frequent panic attacks he used to have. And then one day he fell into what he describes as a sea of infinite doubt, where no thought was absolutely true. While this might sound terrifying to us, he found that taking a break from needing to know was a gentle, open feeling that eased his panic attacks.
The Black Plague that struck Europe in the 14th century created tremendous social, economic and religious upheaval. It was during this time when a Christian mystic wrote the book called “The Cloud of Unknowing”. Ironically, we do not know who the author of this book is. During this crisis, when the confines of normal were lost, there emerged an openness to unknowing. When there was nothing more to hang onto, the author of this book found solace in simply being with the mystery of God. Instead of defining or questioning God, the author found comfort in the unknowable state of holy mystery. When quieting the inquisitive mind, the author learned to let both fears and hopes fall away, because these both dwell in the future. Instead, the author learned to live fully in present time, welcoming the infilling of divine presence.
This is the deep peace of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised his disciples. This is the calming, comforting presence of Spirit that eases fears and helps us be grounded in the present. As we open to the Spirit, we will then find something else begin to happen. We will find ourselves more open to whatever comes our way—be it positive or negative. We will be better able to welcome, receive and move with all that may come. This is the energizing, creative power of the Spirit at work. Catherine the Great reportedly said, “A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.”
Marth Beck suggests that the way through this COVID tsunami is to ride the wave and go with the flow. To do this, we have to be open, flexible and creative. We can train our mind into this new way of being by trying new things—a new combination of ingredients while cooking, a new rearrangement of furniture, a new walking path, a new hobby.
Marth Beck then recommends that we follow the two rules of improv comedy. The first rule is to never say no. Instead, we need to respond with “Yes, and…” Yes, I’ll consider that and we might also want to consider this. “Yes and” keeps us from shutting down.
The second rule is to have a plan and then be willing to change it. In this time of unknowing, it is tempting to simply stop planning. We can’t know, so why work towards anything? Instead, let’s plan with the information we have at this moment and hold that plan lightly, ready to drop it or change at a moment’s notice.
Last week, I was trying to make plans for worship and every few minutes, it seemed that I was receiving new information that made me change that plan over and over again. It can be crazy-making for everyone. But if we can hold our plans lightly while welcoming the Spirit’s empowering energy, we will emerge from this time stronger, more resilient and more compassionate. We will learn how to stay open to the deep peace of the Spirit grounding us in the moment and the empowering, creative passion of the Spirit carrying us into the unknown. Amen.