The mysteries of the Holy Spirit

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.

Jonah 3:1-3

My family believes in two concepts that are not very common in our modern American parlance. The first is calling. The concept is generally that if you pay attention and are open (and obedient), you may discover a purpose divinely intended for you. You have the choice, in those circumstances, to either embrace the call and follow where it leads, or reject it and follow where you will. (Well, unless you’re Jonah. Then you’re just stuck.) The second thing is related. Christians believe that ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, or paraclete, or spirit, or dove, or tongues of flame, or what you will call it) came to us and landed upon God’s people and changed them. And we believe the Spirit is with us today. It is the Spirit, in our theology, that sends us those calls we may or may not ignore.

In my family, we believe the Holy Spirit is perilous, and that calling is both real and usually profoundly inconvenient. As an example – my parents spent 4 years as missionaries in the Congo in Africa, where I was born. When they came back to the states, my mom went on a speaking circuit talking about the mission and the work. The little old ladies would swoon and tell her, with a three year old me on her hip, that she was so NOBLE. She’d always reply that if she was really noble she’d teach middle school. Well, my mom retired a few years ago from a 20+ year career as a middle school teacher. She’d often advise us children, “Never say what’d you’d do if you were noble!” Inside that joke is a belief – being open to hearing what God asks of you leads to you doing those things, even if you don’t want to. Don’t pray for God’s guidance unless you’re actually willing to take it, or like Jonah you might find yourself in Ninevah, pouting.

My own greatest calling was an anti-call. My junior year of college it occurred to me that I might have to do something for a living after college, and that reading medieval literature was not actually a job. (Even less a job when you don’t read Latin.) I had been given a grant for that summer, $3000, to do a cool internship or something. This was well before internships were the expected route for every college graduate. I’d spent the prior two summers waiting tables and working temporary jobs. I applied to a bunch of internships. I was really excited for NPR (form letter rejection), and also submitted to be a summer volunteer with the PCUSA, applying the hard work I’d done on my Spanish as a missionary. I got a call from the PCUSA asking me, “How’s your Portuguese?” and found myself headed to Mozambique, instead of to South America.

This felt like call. I had been very faithful in service of my small church community. My understanding of faith was only enriched by looking at 2000 years of how differently we’d approached the same God and scriptures. My gifts were so clearly useful to a church: I’m musical, I write well, I speak well, I’m pretty organized I care about people deeply. To me, this was clearly the beginning of a call which would likely end up with me pastoring a church. I prepped my besotted fiancee that this was a possibility. He was behind it all the way. And then I took the (at the time) world’s longest commercial flight from JFK to Johannesburg to start a summer of mission.

My friends, if you believe in call, you must believe in not-call. The complete absence of call, or clarity that this is NOT what God demands of you. Without the not-call, there can be no valid call. And never has anyone been so not-called as I was that summer. It didn’t destroy my faith (or even, I think, harm it that much?) but it was so the opposite of being invited and encouraged to pursue a career in the church that I never even looked at seminary. I focused on my half-hobby of writing web pages, and it’s been 20 years of technology since then.

It’s been a quiet few decades for call as I’ve gone from maiden to matron. The last 20 years, I’ve been a faithful and loving member of a small congregation, giving of what skills and time I have to serve God there. I’ve been a deacon, an elder on session (our governing board) for like 15 years. I taught Sunday School. I co-ran the youth group. I served on worship committee, christian education, hospitality, membership, stewardship, personnel and nominating committees. I’ve run the web presence, and restacked the web site twice. After our beloved pastor retired, I not only took on the Christmas Pageant, I also led the mission study taskforce as our interim pastor died of a brain tumor, and our pastor search after a long time in the wilderness.

My children were baptized in the church. I’ve vowed to other children as they were baptized. My roots there are broad and deep and filled with love.

Grey’s baptism

If you’d asked me, I would have told you that my funeral would be held there.

And then I was called, by the Holy Spirit, to leave. I was, am, deeply confused. Faithfulness is part of who I am. I love my church and congregation deeply. I have sacrificed much for this group of people. I have washed dishes and windows, and watched the children grow. I have preached sermons of encouragement and vulnerability. I do not understand how or why I am called away from the people I love. Like Jonah, I fought it for a long time, not believing that I could possibly be called to do anything as stupid and drastic as breaking up with a beloved congregation. What for? Why was I not being called TO something?

Truly, I don’t know. I can’t even tell you how I know it was being called, other than it seemed to be something outside my own volition and consistent and unmistakable.

I’m not sure why. I have some theories. These last few years I poured an unsustainable amount of me into the work of the church. I knew it was a burnout rate, but I did it anyway in love. But this year, I reached the end of myself. There was no more to give, and I was incapable of resting in pews while I watched my friends overworked. There is the sense of a breaking point reached, and I reached mine. Again, it was not my faith that was destroyed. But rather, how I express my faith HAD to change or it might in fact be sacrificed on the twin altars of duty and habit.

In Bethlehem

So I made a decision. I sat with it. I talked to a few people. (There are remarkably few resources on how to break up with your church with love.) I prayed. I sat some more. I spent months thinking, praying, and wondering if this could be right. And then, after Easter, I shared my decision with session. Since then, I’ve been gradually mailing my bewildered friends notes explaining myself, as best I could. On Pentecost, I hiked a mountain – a place I’ve often found close to God – instead of wearing red and singing hymns of discipleship and the Holy Spirit and tongues of flame.

I don’t know what comes next. I think that rest is a part of it. Part of God’s promise and commandment to us – both – is that we may and must rest. I will pray, and read the Bible, and sing hymns. I will climb mountains. I will visit other congregations and worship as a stranger. (Zoom is actually great for this…) And I will listen for that still small voice, and for it to call me to something, finally.


Sermon: Becoming a Matthew 25 congregation

I was asked to preach the sermon in my church, Burlington Presbyterian, this past week. Since I’m way behind on the blog posts, I figured I’d give you this writing instead!

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Be better. Do better. Be healthier. Waste less. Save more money, time, calories, trees. Just take ten minutes a day for exercise, financial planning, meditation, rinsing your recycling, stretching, dental hygiene or vigorous exercise. Call your elected representatives, write a letter, watch the debate, be informed. Cook more at home, from locally-sourced, sustainable food sources that are healthy and tasty and your whole family will eat. All your kids really need from you is your time and attention. But don’t forget that you need to do your job too – show up on time, work hard, pursue career growth, put in the extra effort. Go the extra mile. And no matter what, make sure you get enough sleep.

I don’t know about you folks, but I’m absolutely exhausted at the end of the day – or sometimes even the beginning – by the list of things I should be doing. It often seems like there’s no aspect of my life where I don’t get constant messages on how I need to improve. It’s hard to know where to focus. Is flossing more important than composting? What if I’m trying to save money, but healthy foods are more expensive? What if being an informed voter makes it hard for me to sustain my mental heath?

When Trina asked me to do the sermon today, I knew I wanted to talk about the verses of the Bible that best describe what I believe God’s people should be doing in the world. Those of you who know me have heard this Matthew 25 passage before. It’s so clear and actionable: see a person suffering and help them. When we do that, we serve God in the purest way. I imagined a sermon where I would lay out Jesus commands here and inspire us all to answer the call of the Presbyterian Church to commit to being a Matthew 25 congregation. You know, to work just a little harder. And then I remembered that you are probably just about as tired as I am.

And this from the Jesus who said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest!”

I would still like for us to respond to our denominational calling to be a Matthew 25 church, but instead of asking you to do more I thought I’d take a moment to talk about what we already do. This group of faithful people you see around you has already dedicated their life, sweat and love to responding to Jesus calling, and here’s how.

I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.
This might be the most central mission of the Burlington Presbyterian Church, from our smallest to largest moments. At coffee hour, so many Sundays, you will find food prepared for you by loving hands. Next week, we’re looking for volunteers to feed our Presbytery visitors. They love coming here because they know they’ll eat well. All of us know that on Mondays, Farmer Dave uses our playground as a distribution point for the fresh, healthy, sustainable produce he grows. You probably also know that the extras from the farm share go to the Burlington Food Pantry. But did you know that the refrigerators the food pantry uses to store that food were donated by BPC for just that purpose? Not only that, but among our members are those who have dedicated their working and volunteering lives to that pantry, to ensure that our neighbors are not only not hungry, but fed with nourishing food.

When we together stand before God, he will recognize our cooking.

I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.
In our world of seemingly endless, nearly free, perfectly safe tap water, this almost feels like an anachronism. But so much of the world doesn’t get to turn on a tap in the kitchen and get as much clean water as they want. You may recall a year or two ago, our Sunday School classes devoted their year to raising funds for safe and sturdy water jugs for folks who have to walk to get their water for cleaning, cooking and drinking.

We also serve the thirsty in another way. Did you know that our church is home to an Alcoholic Anonymous group? In this case, we welcome those who are thirsty for something that is harming them, and provide them instead with a chance to find living water.

When we see the cup in Jesus hand, it will hold water we have given him.

I was a stranger, and you invited me in.
Almost two years ago, I joined some of our fellow church members at a dinner in Lowell. This was a refugee welcome dinner. We brought food (always!) and then broke bread with people who were coming from terrifying situations around the world. I met a man from my country of birth, Congo, who told of the murder of his family and his panicked flight from that war-torn country, followed by long months alone in a packed and arid refugee camp before coming to this cold, strange place. I’ve kept in touch with Louis since then, and helped him in small ways. We have been growing our relationship with those groups who welcome strangers like him to this, our strange land. We are as much moved and changed by this hospitality as are the people we meet.

When we meet Jesus, we will recognize him because we welcomed him into our homes.

I was naked, and you clothed me.
I checked the bulletin this morning to see if we had started putting in the Wish Tree notifications. Every year, pajamas and underwear make their way to kids through our loving generosity.

When Jesus judges us, he will be wearing socks we have given him.

I was sick, and you looked after me.
Have you ever gotten a casserole or frozen meal when you had surgery, or were laid up? Chances are good if you’ve been here any length of time and let the deacons know you weren’t doing well, you have. I once contemplated whether I could convince the Deniers that my cold was serious enough to merit some of their beef barley soup (food again!). We have also done things like brought communion to folks who were unable to leave their homes, spent time in hospitals waiting and watching, and helped with household chores that were hard on aching joints. Many of these things are done very quietly, with great dignity. We have held blood drives, and opened our veins. Members of this church have even, on a few remarkable occasions, given of their very bodies in organ donation.

Jesus will recognize us from his sickbed.

I was in prison, and you came to visit me.
This is the hardest one for me. It is so in keeping with God’s call that just when you’re feeling good about what you’ve already done, there is one more thing that you still need to do. I have thought a lot about this – about the rules of American prisons that make it almost impossible for people to visit, about the well known dangers and risks of working with incarcerated felons, about how foreign and scary and strange this work is. I’ve also thought about how Jesus does not distinguish that these are innocent, safe people we should visit. I have some ideas on things we might do. But I’ll throw this one back to you. What do we already do? What can we do?

I hope that by the time we stand before our God, we will have served him here, too.

I believe we are, already, a church following Jesus’ calling in Matthew 25. I’m quite sure that I have missed many of our ministries that serve these purposes, and even more that don’t fit comfortably in the bounds of these commissions. I am proud and joyful to be a part of that with you. I would also invite you to go to the link in the resources section at the bottom of the bulletin, and read through what our greater church is thinking about.

In the deepest sense, however, I wanted to tell you that you are beloved, faithful, hardworking servants of God. I know that you make me proud, and I suspect you make him proud too. As the words of our first hymn say, “Well done, well done.”