The grand Season of Pentecost is upon us and I wonder about the mixed messages Christians encounter at this time of year.
On the one hand Pentecost is a time when the church joyously celebrates the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. Having descended upon the first disciples in the form of tongues of fire, they, and those around them, were filled with the Holy Spirit and literally felt God’s life giving breath blowing among them. In our time it is an occasion of celebration as we also remember what some refer to as the Church’s birthday at Pentecost.
On the other hand, it is a time when most of us begin to slow down and revel in the slower rhythms of summer. It is a special time to embrace the longer and languid days, and unlike our agrarian based predecessors, a time to re-create with time off as a part of our personal landscape. Church life takes on a much more relaxed approach.
For me the ambiguity lies in the notion that the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost seems to have energized and emboldened the early church. There is a sense that their hearts were lit with the flame of Pentecost and the gift of enthusiasm which compelled so many to speak in tongues, hundreds to be baptized, and wonders and signs to be accomplished by the apostles. Indeed, in Peter’s case he was gifted to preach with such faith and wisdom that his words live on to this day. So, the first “Season of Pentecost” began the spread of the early church in places far removed from Jerusalem and that in a very short period of time, all of which required a lot of energy.
But in our day Pentecost begins as we anticipate a “down” time for the church: a reduction of services in many parishes, a decrease in the office hours, a significant dip in attendance and financial contributions, and for a lot of parish clergy holiday time. This is where I see the “disconnect.” I am not lamenting this; I merely think that the ambiguity arises only if we equate Pentecost solely with the emerging energy of the early church. What we must also consider is the content and consequences of the early church assuming its complete responsibilities in Jesus’ absence. One might say that the first Pentecost was the moment when God fully empowered the Church to act as Christ’s Body; one might also say that this Body wholly took on the work of Jesus. The work of being Jesus meaning that we are gifted as his followers to act as he did, to embody God’s love as he did, to see to the needs of others as he did, and to reflect God’s compassion as he did.
I speak from personal experience when I say that I know such work to be amazingly rewarding, challenging, heartwarming, humbling, and profoundly exhausting – all rolled into one. I also can speak to the truth that volunteers and staff work very hard from September to June to support the life of the church and look forward to time to relax and re-create, especially in a climate such as ours with precious few weeks of suitable weather to be outdoors comfortably.
But we must also remember that our post modern inclination to see ourselves as “human doings” rather than human beings means that even re-creating can present us with unforeseen challenges. Coupled with an inner guilt associated with taking time off, which I encounter in people’s attitudes and which prompts many to not take time off, a serious issue presents itself. We seem to take pride in being workaholics! This plays further into the ambiguity of Pentecost with which I began.
But there is hope! And that hope I believe also came with the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The best way I can convey this hope is to pass along to you a powerful little story passed on to me by my good friend the Rev. Dr. Edward Kienzle. A story which can help us avoid the trap of our cultural and personal over-attachment to work and remember that the meaning of Pentecost has many life giving facets.
Here it is…
“Anthony, the fourth century desert father, enjoyed playing games in the summer evening. After witnessing this Holy man play game after game with his disciples, one pilgrim gave Anthony a scorching lecture on the wastefulness of such play.
After patiently listening to the man’s tirade Anthony asked the man to place an arrow in a bow and pull the string of the bow as far back as he could. When the man did this Anthony told him to pull it tighter. “No, not enough,” Anthony told him. “Tighter, tighter!” At last the pilgrim shouted, “If I pull it any tighter, the string will snap!!” Anthony walked a few paces away from the man and turned to him and said, “Yes, you have spoken the truth. And so it is for the souls of believers. We will snap if we are pulled tight and never find the time to play and relax.’”
Pentecost is our longest season, stretching out as it does from late May to late November; just as there has been plenty of time to work over the last year, there will be again, and with “enthusiasm.” But I hope we will find this first part of Pentecost as a season to re-create and nurture God’s Spirit, God’s Holy flame, within us. To be wise and gentle in managing the use of our energy and discover the joy of resting, playing, and relaxing with no particular agenda other than the restoration of that gift which resides in us, given by God.
Hopefully once rested, we will come back to the work God has given us and which we are called to enthusiastically share with others in God’s world; God’s Holy Spirit, God’s love, God’s flame alive in our hearts and the church.