I don’t know about you, but I find it increasingly challenging to get people excited about things. My theory is that we Americans have literally had so much for so long that our senses and sensibilities have been numbed. We’re always looking for new ways to be entertained or excited because the things that excited our parents or grandparents seem boring to us.
The most exciting thing recently that I’ve been aware of was the release of the next movie in the Avenger series: Endgame. Being a superhero fan myself, I’m actually anxious to see it. But as I’ve watched and read reports about how anxious and enthusiastic people have been about this movie, willing to stand in long lines waiting to purchase a ticket to see it, it struck me how wonderful it would be if people got that excited about coming to church . . . because, unfortunately, they aren’t.
For many people, the church is nothing more than a remnant of an ancient culture. They look at us the same way they look at the Amish and the Quakers. We’re out of touch with their reality. The church is a dinosaur that just doesn’t have anything relevant to say about their lives. And, if we’re honest about it, we have to say that we’ve contributed more to this problem than we care to admit.
Perhaps in our attempt to make the church more attractive to the un-churched, we’ve tried to explain away the mystical aspects of our faith. We’ve dumbed down every occurrence mentioned in the Bible that appears to be “supernatural” or that runs counter to conventional wisdom about what is possible. And that’s especially true when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is just not something we talk about much because we don’t want people to think we’re religious “freaks.” You know, those religious people who are maybe just a little bit too “enthusiastic” about their faith?
Oh, sure, we know that the Bible talks about the Holy Spirit, and many of the hymns we sing in church make reference to the Spirit. But we just don’t talk about the Holy Spirit actually working in our lives because we wouldn’t want folks to think we’re maybe a little unbalanced.
When we read the Pentecost story, the story of the birth of the church, in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, where people receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit and are transformed from a group of virtual strangers into that power-filled group we think of as “the church,” I have to wonder . . . where do WE fit into the story? I mean, after all, when was the last time you left the church feeling so joyful, so out of control, so bubbly that someone who didn’t know you might have thought you were drunk? That doesn’t happen very often . . . except for maybe last week after that piano concert in Campbell Hall!
But if the church is to communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ to people in this day and age, I think our attitudes toward the mysterious aspects of our faith have just got to change. It’s like The Rev. Thomas Marshfield in John Updike’s novel, A Month of Sundays, when, reflecting on his youthful experience of the church, Rev. Marshfield says, “Churches, for me, have the relation to God that billboards do to Coca-Cola; they promote thirst but do nothing to quench it.”
The Holy Spirit empowers the church to be an agent of change in the world, a counter-cultural entity that quite literally transforms people’s lives. The task of the church is to “breathe in” the Spirit of God and to be inspired by the Spirit to then act on behalf of God. The problem is, the Church has been waiting far too long to exhale. As the Spirit of God flows into us, it also ought to flow from us in the way we treat one another, the way we speak to one another, in the way we serve others in our community, and in the way we live out what we proclaim as a new life with God in Jesus Christ.
In his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party, Tony Campolo tells a story that illustrates how I believe the Church needs begin to live out its witness.
Campolo was attending a Christian writers conference in Honolulu. Since there was a six-hour time difference between Honolulu and his hometown in Pennsylvania, on his first night there Campolo experienced some confusion in his sleep pattern. He woke up about 3 o’clock in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. So, he got up, got dressed, and left the hotel where he was staying, searching for a place to get something to eat. Eventually, he found a tiny coffee shop that was open. Here is his description of what happened there:
“The guy behind the counter came over and asked me what I wanted. I told him I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut. As I sat there eating my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door suddenly opened, swung wide, and to my discomfort in marched 8 or 9 provocatively dressed and rather boisterous prostitutes. It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their speech was garrulous, loud, and crude. I felt completely out of place. I was just about to make my getaway when I heard the woman next to me say, ‘You know, tomorrow is my birthday. I’m going to be 39.’ Her friend responded in a rather nasty tone, ‘So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?’ ‘Come on,’ the woman sitting next to me said, ‘why do you have to be so mean? I’m just telling you that it’s my birthday. Why do you have to put me down? I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?’
Campolo says, “When I heard that, I made a decision.
I sat and waited until the women left, and then I called over to the guy behind the counter and asked him, ‘Do they come in here every night?’ He answered, ‘Yeah.’ ‘The one who was sitting right next to me, does she come in every night?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘that’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in every night. Why do you want to know?’ ‘Because,’ I replied, ‘I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you say we do something special for her? What do you think about throwing a birthday party for her right here in your coffee shop?’ A cute kind of smile crept over the man’s chubby cheeks. ‘That’s a great idea,’ he said. ‘I like it. That’s great. Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind. I don’t think anybody’s ever done anything nice and kind for her.’ ‘Well, look,’ I told him, ‘if it’s okay with you, I’ll be back here tomorrow morning at 2:30. I’ll decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake for her.’ ‘No way!’ he replied. ‘The birthday cake? That’s my thing. I’ll bake the cake myself.’
“At 2:30 the next morning,” Campolo says, “I was back at that coffee shop. I picked up some crepe paper and other decorations at a store, and made a sign of big pieces of cardboard that said ‘Happy Birthday, Agnes!’ I decorated that diner from one end to the other. I had it really looking great. The word must’ve gotten out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in that coffee shop. There was wall-to-wall prostitutes – and me. And at 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend. I had everybody ready.
When they came in we all jumped up and screamed, ‘Happy Birthday, Agnes!” And then we sang to her.
And you know, I’ve never seen a person so flabbergasted, so stunned, so shaken in all my life. Her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, her friend had to offer her arm to steady her, and I noticed she had started to cry. When the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, she just lost it. She started sobbing. Harry, the guy behind the counter, gruffly mumbled, ‘Blow out the candles, Agnes, blow out the candles.’ Then he handed her a knife and said, ‘Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake.’
Agnes looked down at that cake, and without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, ‘Look, Harry, is it okay with you if I, I mean, if I don’t, what I want to ask, is it okay if I keep the cake for a little while? Is it okay if we don’t eat it right away?’ Harry shrugged and answered, ‘Well, sure, Agnes, that’s fine. You want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.’ ‘Oh, could I?’ she asked. Looking at me, Agnes said, ‘I just live down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, okay? I’ll be right back, honest.’ She got off her stool, she picked up that cake, and she carried it out of the diner like it was the Holy Grail. She walked slowly toward the door, and we all just stood there, speechless. When the door closed behind her, there was stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, ‘What do you say we pray together?’ Looking back on it now, it seems more than a little strange that a sociologist from eastern Pennsylvania would be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But I prayed. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her. And when I finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, ‘Hey, you never told me you were a preacher! What kind of preacher are you anyway? What church do you belong to?’ In one of those moments when the Holy Spirit gives you just the right thing to say, I answered him quietly, ‘I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.’ Harry thought for a minute, and then almost sneered as he answered, ‘No you don’t! There is no church like that. In fact,’ he concluded, ‘if there was, I’d join it.’”
Maybe Harry was right. Maybe there is no church that is open enough to the leading of the Holy Spirit to be that kind of church. To throw birthday parties for prostitutes. But if the church is to continue to provide a witness to the world about the unconditional love of God in today’s world, that’s the kind of church we’re going to have to become – a church that dances with the wind, a church that celebrates life, a church that twirls and laughs and parties with everyone the Holy Spirit chooses to drag in here. But you’d better be careful. Because the wind blows where it will. God’s Holy Spirit will NOT be housebroken by us, and your spirit might be set on fire for Christ. Yes, even here in this Mainline Protestant Episcopal church.
Now would I want to see that happen to nice, respectable, folks like us?
You’d better believe I would!