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.


Being Church

I was invited to give the sermon in church this week, as part of our planning and discernment to figure out where our church is going next. I’ve had a lot of thoughts banging around in my head regarding the future of the church, and this is where I landed this week. If you’re after the full experience, here are my scripture & hymn choices too.

NT Lesson: Matthew 18:15-20
NT Lesson 2: Acts 17:22-28

Hymn 1: An Upper Room Did our Lord Prepare
Hymn 2: Come Sing, O Church, in Joy!
Hymn 3: Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples

Jesus started his ministry hip deep in a river. Over the course of his ministry, Jesus taught from temples once or twice. But he mostly preached and worshipped from fields and hilltops, from lakeshores and from the remote mountains. He gave us the Beatitudes sitting on a boat just offshore so that throngs gathered could hear on the beach. You remember the story of the paralytic lowered through the roof of someone’s house. I always felt bad for the homeowner with the hole his roof after that miracle was done. Many of his miracles took place as he walked from place to place, like the healing of the woman who was bleeding. At the end of his ministry, when Jesus gave communion to his disciples that Maundy Thursday, it wasn’t in the temple. Communion started over dinner in a believer’s upstairs spare room. When Jesus went to pray before his betrayal by Judas, he prayed outside in a garden.

The earliest building that we know was dedicated specifically to Christian worship is a house in Dura Europos – an ancient abandoned town in Syria preserved in its third century form by sand and rubble. That first church building was in use in approximately 240 AD – just over 200 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So why, when we talk of the church, do we talk about a building? What exactly is the church?

The first gospel lesson we read today, from Matthew 18, is the only time in all the Gospels Jesus uses a word we would translate to mean church. I asked my pastor brother to help me out with the original Greek in this passage. Where we use the word church, the gospel writer used the word “Ecclesia”. The word means a collection of people, those “called out” – just as Jesus called the disciples. It could also be called a convocation, or congregation. In this passage in Matthew, the church – that gathering of faithful people – listens. And the church speaks back to the Christian. Buildings and organizations don’t speak – people do. Jesus promises in this passage that the barrier for the Holy Spirit to be with God’s people is a very low one. “For where two or three come together in my name; there am I with them.”

I have worshiped with you – my beloved friends – for fifteen years. When I first sat in that pew over there, I was 21 years old and had married for two weeks. We have been together through my entire adult life. It was in this building that I heard you vow to nurture both my sons in God’s love – and you have. I was with you when we went through those sorrowful days when Vicki and Whitey were laid to rest and we sang “Lord of the Dance” through our tears. We’ve eaten countless meals together, and dressed up in our favorite ‘60s outfits. We’ve carved pumpkins and enjoyed coffee hours. I love watching your familiar faces around the circle of communion twice a year. We’ve inscribed crosses of ash on each other’s foreheads in the dark night of Ash Wednesday. You’ve inspired me with a generosity of spirit that is willing to give a kidney or a liver to a brother or sister in Christ. One of the greatest strengths of this church, and we do many things well, is how deeply and sincerely we love each other. And in case you didn’t know it, I love you.

So… when I think about the possibility that this church change, or be different, it’s really hard to imagine. I don’t really want the church I love to change. But when I think about what the future holds, I don’t think we honor God’s calling to us by staying the same. When we kicked off the Mission Study Taskforce, I asked my fellow teammates to think about what the church would be like – not in five years, but in fifty. The world today is very different than it was in the ‘60s when we were founded. And I think that in fifty years, it will be even more profoundly different. When I’m sitting in my rocking chair, and my grandchildren are graduating from college, what will the church look like then? What are the cores of what it is to be a church together that the Spirit will continue to inspire? What of what we do now may fall away as unnecessary?

I’ve thought a lot about what it is I come to church to find – what it is that keeps me getting up on Sunday mornings when I’d rather sleep in. I’ve come up with four things that define the role of the church for me. Your keys might be different, and in the coming weeks I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My four pillars of what I look to the church for are community, worship, teaching and sacraments.

Community is what I’ve been talking about – the way that we love and support each other. Honestly, I think we do a wonderful job of this.

We worship right now. I feel like worship is both a strength and a challenge for us. I’ve heard our sisters and brothers from Ghana talk about how much they love the familiarity of this most-Presbyterian service. I’ve always loved the old hymns and prayers. But how many people miss our worship because they’re teaching Sunday School, are setting up coffee hour, or have outside commitments on Sunday mornings? It’s easy to lose the spirit of worship in the busy tumult of a Sunday morning. It can be hard to keep worship as uplifting and God-focused as we might want when we also need this time to talk about our announcements and handle the business of our church. I miss most of the worship this congregation does together, because I’m teaching our children. I really feel that lack in my life.

But that teaching is such an important part of what our church offers that we can’t do on our own. We teach now, during the sermon. We teach our children during Sunday School. We teach in adult Bible study, and in our Thursday morning women’s group. The teaching is why we have specialists, Teaching Elders like Pastor Mike and my brother, who spend three years in seminary learning what the original Greek of Ecclesia means, and how theologians have interpreted it, along with many other things. The depth and breadth of that learning is one of the things I find most valuable about the Presbyterian Church.

Finally, we have those most sacred moments. There are the weddings and funerals we have been a part of here. There are the baptisms and confirmations. There is that meal that we share of Christ’s body and blood. Perhaps my favorite are the ordinations – with the Pentecost red and laying on of hands.

Those are the four things I look to the church for: community, worship, teaching and sacraments.

Now for the scary part, and I admit I’m nervous talking about this… I find myself really tired by all the things that need to be done to keep this church in business. Our church is funded by donations and run by volunteers. Our expenses are about $180 thousand dollars. We need one full time and two part time staff. We spend thousands of dollars on snow plowing alone. The electricity bill for this building is appalling.

We have three primary boards (session, deacons and trustees), with a total of 25 people, that meet at least once a month for several hours to figure out how to meet the needs of the church. Then there are about seven secondary committees, such as Christian Education, Hospitality and Worship, that carry a heavy workload of organization, planning, and leading. There are Sunday School teachers and choir members. For a Christian, especially for those with a family and job, who called by the Spirit to the church by the time the tithe is given and the church work is done, there can be little money and time left over to do the mission and outreach work God calls us to do. I have the deepest gratitude and admiration for those who work with People Helping People or the Food Bank.

When I think about what Jesus calls us to do, I come back time and again to Matthew 25: 31-46. Jesus says “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. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me.” I judge myself by those things, and honestly – I don’t do a very good job. But so much of the time and money of the faithful members of this church are given to the church, it can be hard to find more to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick and visit the prisoners. To put it very bluntly, does God call me more to serve on session, or find a volunteer opportunity at a food bank? Which one does God want me to donate to more, the needs of this church, or the needs of Syrian refugees? As a church, we’ve always tried to make sure 10% of our budget was directed to mission, but that can get harder and harder if our expenses are greater than our donations. I’m not suggesting that as a church we sell everything we have and give it to the poor.

But the radical question I find myself asking is… is there a way for us to serve those core functions of the church while turning our money and volunteering energy to those tasks Jesus calls us to in Matthew 25? How many of those four pillars I outlined require us to meet the way we do now, in this big old building. Can we be a community without this particular space? Is it possible for us to worship, keeping all the things that make worship precious, in any ways that keep worship special and include everyone? What if we didn’t have as many chores to do in order to keep our church running? Are there ways that we can teach and be taught that are different than the traditional Sunday School template? We’ve already lost many of the most sacred moments. When is the last wedding you attended in this church? I’ve been to exactly one. Do those sacred moments need all infrastructure the last generation so generously gave to us?

I do not have the answers to these questions. They’re big ones. I’ve been thinking about them for months, and I still find them scary to contemplate. I’m not sure anyone knows the answers to these questions. I’m not even 100% sure they’re all the right questions. But I do know these things:

I know that the future will be different than the past. We Christians need to be different too if we want to bring the Good News of the Gospel to people where they are. We need to share God with people who are not interested in a Sunday morning worship service, and who think that Christianity doesn’t want or welcome them.

I know that our church, Burlington Presbyterian, is at a new moment in its life. We are at a wonderful time to start asking these questions about how and what God really wants us to be together.

Finally, I know that the Holy Spirit is with us. The church – that collection of God’s summoned people – is at no risk of being lost. This is an opportunity, not a threat. We may be transformed, but we cannot be destroyed as long as the Holy Spirit is present with us. And the Holy Spirit will be with us wherever two or more of us are gathered in God’s name.

In the next few months, we’ll be asking you to come together in small groups to talk about some of these questions. I know as well as anyone that it’s hard to find the time and energy for extra church meetings. But I’m asking you to start thinking and praying now. What do you long for from this community of God? What is God asking us to do? What seeds can we plant now that will help the church flourish and grow both now, and in the next generation? Let us pray, work and plan together to hear God’s intention for us.

Edit: I’m lucky enough that the sermon was recorded. If you’d like to hear my slight divergences from script, or prefer listening to reading, this is your big chance!