Sunday, May 27, 2012

Can't Bear It Now?

            One very nice thing about Pentecost is that Hallmark has not yet found out about it.  Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day cards crowd out any possibility that one could find a nice card with doves or flames, touting, "Happy Pentecost!"  One not-so-good thing about Pentecost is that Hallmark has not yet found out about it.  Hallmark and a lot of other people don’t have a clue as to what Pentecost is or means.  Christians, and not nearly all of them, are in churches today saying things like, “The Spirit of God fills the whole earth,” and no one outside hears a thing.  Nothing seems changed from yesterday afternoon. 

            But the point of Pentecost is not how popular it is, but how true it is.  Truth does not have to do with what really happened once upon a time.  Truth has to do with what holds for all time, and thus eternity.  That is something that is at once so simple and so hard for people to grasp, perhaps because we have mostly been brought up to believe that what is true is whatever we can see, measure, demonstrate, validate, prove, corroborate, and so on.  Experience itself teaches us otherwise.  Ask most people in Washington today, for example, what is the most important thing in the world and a good many, if not a majority, will likely answer “love.”  But take the conversation further and ask them what love is and you will quickly run aground, because, although we know love when we feel it or experience it, it is almost impossible to describe except by analogy.  This most important thing in our lives is something that we can barely describe, let alone pin down, and even more remotely measure in any sense.  But we know it when we see it.  We know it when we feel it.  We know it when we receive it.  And yet, love is like quicksilver:  it can deceive, so that what we are most certain is an experience of love might turn out to be a hoax.  Still, such hoaxes and disappointments rarely leave us believing that there is no such thing as love. 

            Pentecost is like that.  It is an affair with the Presence of God.  It does not lend itself to neat quantifications or solid explanations.  Pentecost is neither a fact nor an idea, neither a symbol nor a proposition.  Pentecost happens whenever the reality of God erupts in human experience causing a profound change in human behavior. Pentecost happens when the Presence of God invades ordinary rational boundaries upending set priorities.  Pentecost happens when the Presence of God strikes a blow to human suppositions, as when the weak are empowered, when the frightened are strengthened, when the downtrodden are treated with respect, or when the outcast are invited in. 

            Pentecost, in short, is a celebration of God among us.  That is the whole thing in a nutshell.  The Spirit of God, as distinct from the Creator who is behind all things and as distinct from Jesus, is the God we know in our presence, in our bodies, in our stories, in the multitude of little incidents that comprise our lives.  God present with us.  

            But there is more.  Jesus says to his disciples that it is a good thing that he is going away, because otherwise the Advocate—the Spirit—would not come.  But, since he is going, Jesus will send the Advocate.  Then he says something very interesting.  “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  What things?  We may well wonder.  And yet it is apparent to us, two millennia later, that things which were imponderable in the first century have clearly been the work of the Holy Spirit in the intervening time.  It is the nature of God with us to lead us into all Truth.  The band of disciples that Jesus was talking with in John’s gospel could never have imagined women in places of leadership as they now assume in the Church.  They could not have borne a discussion about table fellowship of Jews and Gentiles, let alone a community inclusive enough to welcome and respect homosexual persons.  They could not have borne to hear many things that even today many people cannot bear to hear and to ponder.  But the Truth is that the Holy Spirit leads us into all Truth.  There will always be some who imagine that the full Truth of everything was apparent right in the beginning, and that any additions or accretions since have been error, not Truth.  But the Spirit will never leave it at that, because the Spirit is God present at work in the world about us, nearer than the air we breathe, exposing the incompleteness of the last generation’s grasp of Truth, leading us to embrace new things, to sing new songs, to speak in new languages that only a short while ago we could not have borne the idea of doing. 

            Wonder of wonders, when we begin to open our minds and our imaginations to the possibilities of God, we begin to see how limited our former notions have been.  It is not unlike looking back at something we painted as a child, or something we wrote as a teenager, or something we wore twenty years ago.  We don’t necessarily reject what we did or wore or were, but we are not infrequently amused, a little embarrassed perhaps that what seemed so fitting (and was!) at one stage, seems to be so outgrown and outworn now.  But that tends only to happen if we are growing, and not busy trying to justify to the rest of the world or to ourselves what we think or believe we know.  For the Holy Spirit to lead us into all Truth, we have to be on some level willing to follow, and almost always that means a willingness on our part to embark on journeys into unfamiliar, sometimes terrifying, territory.  But it is in such places that we find ourselves able to embrace what but a few years ago we could not have borne.

            Over the door of the Bishop Payne Library of Virginia Theological Seminary are the words of Dr. William Sparrow, one of the professors in the 19th century.  “Seek the Truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.” That is the work of the Holy Spirit.  And that is the work cut out for you and me.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012

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