How can we be on fire when we feel burned out? That might be the question the Church is really asking on this Pentecost Sunday. If this Holy Spirit is supposed to enliven, encourage and embolden the followers of Jesus – where’s she been hiding?!
Surveys by reputable organizations like Gallup and the Pew Research Center affirm what we already know: the Church is in decline in the US. Small congregations are especially feeling the heat. I liken the situation to that of the Marshall Islands, near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, already experiencing rising sea levels due to global warming. Scientists says that if the atmosphere warms by the predicted 2° by the end of the century, the Marshall Islands will be wiped off the map. Not burned out – flooded out.
A place like this is the “canary in the coal mine” of global warning. In the same way, small congregations are on the front line of a massive societal shift in religiosity. And we have to figure out what to do. From the grief of members of churches which have closed because they couldn’t afford to keep going – to the administrative anxiety of pastors wondering how to fill leadership slots while still attending to the spiritual needs of congregational members; from the dilemma of seminaries, training students for full-time calls that may not be there – to the desire of the faithful to still contribute to the well being of the world through the Church, we are in a time of ecclesiastical climate change. And it’s very easy to feel burned out.
But this is Pentecost; this is hardly the appropriate message for the day. I know you want to hear words that will rekindle your spirits, set you ablaze with hope, light a fire under you for action. But I don’t have those words. Those of you who know that this is one of my favorite holy days may find it strange that I actually always have trouble finding words on Pentecost. That’s because Pentecost is such a right brain day. It’s all about creativity, intuition, and imagination. If language is used, it should be the language of poetry. It’s our left brain that likes linear thinking, logic and words. It wants to explain Pentecost: what really happened on that day, how tongues of fire could have landed on the disciples’ heads, how people could have starting speaking in languages not their own. I saw a video once that tried to portray the scene as an actual historical event and frankly it just came across as very silly.
All this isn’t to say that I’ve just given up. I may not have definitive answers for the practical questions facing us as a church today other than try one thing, see if it works; if not, try another. But I do believe that we, as a world and as a religion, are entering into a new time and new way of being. So bear with me a bit as I go into a little linear history.
The Axial Age, from about 800 BCE to 100 CE, is the period in history when new religions emerged throughout the world. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism all came into being, with Judaism providing the basis for the later emergence of Christianity and Islam. Now, as some are declaring, we’re entering a Second Axial Age (axial means turning point). As Brother Wayne Teasdale wrote: “We are at the threshold of a new age, a Second Axial Age, a decisive period that will be characterized by a deep sense of community among the religions – of interspiritual wisdom – and a profound commitment to environmental justice.” He also said, “interspirituality – the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions – is the religion of the third millennium.”
Or as Phyllis Tickle suggests in her book, The Age of the Spirit (based on a 12th century monastic), we’ve had the Age of the Father, which was the Old Testament with its teachings, ways of understanding God, and God’s ways of interacting with Creation. Then came the Age of the Son, marked by the influence of Jesus and the growth of the Church. But after that would come an age when humankind would relate primarily to the Spirit, a time marked by a decreased importance in church structures, sacraments, creeds, and clergy, when all people would begin to relate more directly “as friends” to the Divine.
We just might be there.
According to New Testament professor Matthew Skinner, “Pentecost is an invitation to dream.” But the purpose of dreaming is not daydreaming about how to get back to the “good old days,” or church as “we’ve always done it before.” Dreaming is being open to the creativity, wonder, and frankly the unknown possibilities of the chaotic, unbound, uncontrollable Holy Spirit we celebrate at Pentecost.
I don’t know what the Church of the future will look like. Some predict that it will be more like the house churches of early Christianity. Who can say for sure? And how will we address our grief and ecclesiastical anxieties in the meantime? Simply: we’ll try one thing and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try another.
The bottom-line message of Pentecost is this: by trusting that the nature of the Holy One is Love, how can we not trust that this wild flame-throwing, hurricane whirling, multi-lingual Breath of God is on our side? Burned out as we may feel, frightened by the rising tides of change, what better to do than throw a party! Wear red. Make noise. Sing loudly. Dance, if you’re so inclined. Get into the Spirit. But most of all – dream, and dream big!