I’m glad to see that so many of you remembered to wear red today. I know it’s not as easy to remember as wearing green for St. Patrick’s Day or red and green for Christmas. Pentecost isn’t one of the big cultural holidays. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, from early times Christians have come up with some pretty wild ways to celebrate Pentecost and remind folks of the fiery tongues and mighty wind that we read about in Acts.
Most of these customs come from medieval Europe when church festivals were the dominant force in daily life. And Pentecost was one of the biggest days on the church’s calendar. So for instance, in some churches when the priest said, “Come, Holy Spirit,” the choir would make whooshing noises in imitation of the wind. Although, in some countries, like France, the effect was achieved by sounding trumpets. In Italy they scattered red rose petals from the ceiling of the church. In Finland there’s a saying that if you don’t have a sweetheart by Pentecost, you won’t have one during the whole summer. In England, there is the charming custom of cheese rolling associated with Pentecost. It’s not clear what the origin of that is, probably originally a Pagan rite, but since the 15th century cheese has been rolled down hills, and people have competed to catch it.
The one I like best, though, is the Holy Ghost hole. It seems that many of the great cathedrals were actually built with Pentecost in mind. Hidden in the domed and vaulted ceilings were trap doors that were used just on Pentecost. During worship, some brave parishioners would climb up onto the roof and at the appropriate moment during the service, they would release live doves through the trap doors, through the painted skies and clouds of the cathedral ceiling. The doves would come swooping down on the congregation as living symbols of the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, the choir would make whooshing and drumming sounds, like a holy windstorm. Then, finally, as the doves were swooping and the wind blowing, the trap doors would open again, and bushels of rose petals showered down upon the congregation, symbolizing tongues of flame.
Even smaller churches had these holes in their roofs. But instead of live doves, a large painted disk portraying a white dove surrounded by golden rays on a blue background was lowered by rope from the Holy Ghost hole as the choir hissed or whooshed or drummed. Then, as the disk hovered over the congregation, rose petals would rain down upon them. In some places lighted straw was tossed down instead of flowers. But, as you can imagine, the danger of setting the congregation on fire led to the eventual demise of this custom.
Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? That tricky Holy Spirit, so difficult to define and explain, inspired those medieval folks to come up with some pretty creative ways to do it. Today, many churches try to keep up the holy chaos by filling their sanctuaries with red balloons or red geraniums, using red paraments and vestments, and inviting members to wear red. If we were able to meet in person and share food together, we might have a Pentecost cake to celebrate the birthday of the church This church festival encourages us to break out of the usual routines, engage our creativity, push the boundaries and sail on the wind of an uncontained Spirit.
Pentecost on Zoom – again?
But here we are in our second Pentecost on Zoom (although Zoom does sound a little rushing-wind-like, doesn’t it?). Still, no balloons, no cake, no red flowers on the altar again this year. It might be hard to enter into the spirit of Pentecost. Although last year was more challenging. Pentecost Sunday came just six days after the murder of George Floyd. And we had the idea of the breath of the Spirit juxtaposed with a man gasping, “I can’t breathe.” This year, while many of our societal ills are as pressing as ever, we are beginning to see a light at the end of the long tunnel of our pandemic isolation. As restrictions are loosened, we might feel as if a fresh breath of air is blowing through our windows.
But we must admit that emerging from isolation is not completely anxiety-free. Even though the CDC announced that we could take off our masks if we’re fully vaccinated, there’s been a lot of confusion and hesitation among some. As we do move toward greater freedom, we must also acknowledge the traumatic time that the past fourteen months has been. And we need to be gentle with ourselves and with others as we all try to navigate the “new normal,” which could be different from one day to the next – at least for a while.
And what about church?
Last week I was part of a video seminar on planning for doing church post-pandemic. One of the best words of advice I heard was: make a plan, have a roadmap for going forward, but be ready at any time to change that plan. Being able to pivot quickly will be crucial. I thought about that advice as I re-read the letter that was supposed to go out to the congregation about our plans for reopening in September. Then the CDC announcement came and there was a flurry of excitement and confusion about what this could mean. Gov. Newsome has said that California will be fully open on June 15. But what does that mean for doing church? The letter we wrote needs to be updated; the plan to send it out was put on hold until we can get better clarification on what guidelines will still have to be followed.
I’ll be honest, it’s been frustrating. Promised updates have not come through. Some protocols are buried in long memos about other venues, businesses, schools, etc. Most of the guidelines are still from the time before most people have been vaccinated. I did get an email last week from the San Francisco Interfaith Council with an update from the SF Department of Public Health. Finally on page four, there was information for church’s about creating fully vaccinated sections. But still not much information about what this means in terms of singing, passing the peace, and receiving Holy Communion. All this is to say that we’re watching closely as the protocols develop. The health and safety of every person is the bottom line, so there will be no rush to return until we’re clear on how to best ensure that.
In the meantime, other plans for our return to the church building are going forward. One of the things that I would say a majority of congregations have learned is that some form of online presence is here to stay. And just as we scrambled to learn how to do Zoom Church last year, our new challenge is to learn how to do hybrid church, that is a combination of both in-person and online opportunities for worship – and other church activities. At our book discussion group last week, I asked two questions (we’re reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together and the first section is all about the church community): how has Zoom Church made being in community better; how has Zoom Church made being in community more difficult? The answers weren’t really surprising, but I think that it will be good for us all to answer those questions for ourselves as we think about returning.
But returning to what? I have been realizing more and more how we are about to enter into a time of unknowing in the church such as we have never experienced. I don’t mean unknowing the beliefs of our faith. One of the speakers in the seminar told the story of talking once about the future of the church and changing the church and a man spoke up to say that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And she said, “Yes, but not the church, you know, or maybe yours is, and maybe that’s why you’re losing members.” That is to say that indeed Jesus Christ is the same, but how we communicate that through the church must adapt.
Our dilemma right now is that we’re not yet completely clear on how we will need to adapt. So we’ll keep making a plan, and we’ll hold it lightly enough to modify or change it as needs arise. Michael and I will be attending a three-part seminar on “How to Do Hybrid Church” starting this week. The sessions (out of Luther Seminary, St. Paul) are at 7:00 am our time, so your prayers are definitely welcome. Thankfully we’ll have access to the recordings so we can go back over what I may have dozed off through.
The benefit of being there live is that we’ll meet and talk and share with other worship leaders who are working on these same issues. If there’s one big lesson I’ve learned from this past year it’s that none of us can go it alone, especially these days. So, hopefully we’ll gain a good support network of hybrid church developers.
I’ve learned a lot already. Two things, in particular. One: whenever we do go back into the church building, doing church will not be the same as it was before. It may never be the same as it was before. And two: hybrid worship is not simply setting up a laptop on the altar and logging into Zoom. There is a bigger concern. And that is: how will we be a community in the “new normal”? What will we need to do to maintain and nurture our congregation as a community of faith? How will we invite others into being part of this community?
In the Bonhoeffer book he talks about the need for us to become ‘disillusioned’ about what we think church is. That is, we have to let go of things that are not necessary for being a spiritual community. These might be things we treasure, that have had great meaning for us. But as we adapt and change, our treasures may have to be examined and maybe even relinquished. I can imagine how disconcerting this could be, especially if we have disagreements about what is needful and what is not.
I’ll give you an example of one of my disillusionments. When we first went into lockdown, I had a vision for when we would return to our building. We would have a big ‘Welcome Home’ celebration and invite members, former members, neighbors, community dignitaries to come. Maybe we’d even have my installation. It would be a grand way to begin getting back to normal. But now I’ve come to realize that that vision is not realistic. Our return will be different. I have had to relinquish my idea of what that day should be and be ready to plan accordingly when we know better what will be.
And I’ve come to realize that focusing on the protocols and guidelines is really not the most important thing before us. “When will we return to the building?” – even “How will we return to the building?” are the wrong questions. “Who are we going to be when we return?” is the overriding question.
That might sound intimidating. After all, it’s easier to make decisions about nuts and bolts issues, especially when we finally get good information. The existential questions are not so easy to nail down. But isn’t this just what Pentecost is about?
Matthew L. Skinner, who is a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, wrote this for Pentecost 2011. His words made sense then, but even more so today. He said: “Pentecost observances are more than a celebration of the past. They are not merely an end to Easter or a chance to launch summer programming. They are not opportunities for stoking nostalgia about the church’s supposed glory days. Who needs those? Pentecost is an invitation to dream. For when a community of faith quits dreaming dreams, it has little to offer either its members or the wider world. Like any good dream, these dreams involve adopting a new perspective on what’s possible, rousing our creativity to free us from conventional expectations. They help us see that maybe what we thought was outlandish actually lies within reach.”
There are those who say that the pandemic has forced the church to change in ways that it should have been doing all along. We were already in the midst of a decline. And while some saw that as an opportunity to try new things, others dug in their heels. Now we don’t have a choice. There’s no going back to normal. Now we really do have to rely on the Holy Spirit. And we have to rely on each other. In baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own. We are the community of saints – sinners, too. We’ll need to remember that as we work together to create the new presence of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on the corner of Burlingame and Channing. Will we always agree? Nope. Will we always love and respect one another as beloved children of God. Oh, yes.
The Age of the Spirit
In 2014 the late Phyllis Tickle, who was a leading author and speaker in the progressive Christian movement, wrote a book entitled The Age of the Spirit. Her hypothesis was that we have had the Age of the Father, which was the Old Testament with its teachings, its ways of understanding God, and God’s ways of interacting with Creation. Then came the Age of the Son, marked by the birth of God in human form and the growth of the church. Emerging after that would be the Age of the Spirit, when humankind would relate primarily to the third member of the Trinity. This time would be marked by a decreased importance in church structures, sacraments, creeds, and clergy, when all people would begin to relate more directly to the Divine.
That doesn’t mean we just forget about God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer. But it may be time for the oft-neglected Spirit to come into her own.
We just might be there. Which means every day could be Pentecost. Every day could be an experience of the lively Spirit of God, blowing freely and wherever God wills, God’s gentle and occasionally wild presence, that transforms lives and communities, breaks down barriers, and gives life to weary and uncertain persons and communities. revives the dry bones.
Are we ready for a holy adventure? If so, strap on your seat belt, put on your helmet, and get ready. We just might be in for a wild and exciting ride. Happy Birthday, Church!
When the day of Pentecost arrived, the disciples all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.
Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome – all Jews or converts to Judaism – Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!” All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “People of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it is what the prophet Joel spoke of:
‘In the days to come – it is our God who speaks – I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’”