I suppose it’s appropriate to begin blogging about the practice of ministry development as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Both are, after all, about the action of the Holy Spirit. But rather than begin with a statement about church or ministry or get on a soapbox about how we continue to ask the wrong questions of ourselves in this age of financial anxiety (believe me, those will be forthcoming), I’d like to start off this blog by recalling my first semester in seminary and how my professor, advisor, and friend, Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski helped me to understand something very significant about the Holy Spirit.
It was the study of Christology and all those ancient councils combined with Dan’s ability to hold an incredibly gracious space for questions, critical thought, and discussion that helped me realize just how important it is that we claim a Triune God. It was the proverbial A-ha Moment – the moment where I realized, “How can we take seriously any theology that discusses Jesus’ relationship with God UNLESS we are also talking about the action of the Holy Spirit?” The actual question was a little less articulate as it was proclaimed with defiance in the midst of my new friends, in front of my new teacher, and in a moment of frustration over the seemingly endless bickering amongst dead men resulting centuries of debate, schism, death, and judgment. I blurted, “Where’s the Holy Spirit?”
Now, I’m not prepared to yell “Anathema!” at all of Christology, but I find it very curious and intensely maddening that the amount of ink and blood spilled in articulating, defining, defending, and otherwise desperately seeking the very specific nature of Jesus’ relationship to God is the constant torrent of Niagara Falls compared to the wadi that is our collective writings about the Holy Spirit.
As Christians, on the whole, we lean on the Jesus thing. I would argue, we do this to our own folly. We hold Jesus to be God and we’ve made his cross into a pedestal complete with rays of clip-art light shining from behind his crucified body as if it’s our own special trophy in a showcase. Occasionally, we take it out to polish it up and make sure no one else has put their fingerprints on it. Snarky? Yes. But my point is that Jesus the Christ is not the entirety of this human project called Christianity. We claim a Triune God – Three in One. Now, I know that next Sunday is Trinity Sunday so perhaps this is a week early for some of you. But the Feast of Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit – a part of our Trinity. It’s important to start with the Trinity.
I remember watching a documentary called Jesus Camp. It is about the Pentecostal church in the Southeast US. And I remember that a young girl, who had been intensely inculcated by her family and community, remarked that she didn’t think those dead people who sat in those churches really worshipped God (please forgive the failure to offer the actual quote, but I’m not really interested in combing through the movie on Netflix just to locate that line… this is a blog, not an academic paper). And a part of me agreed with her then and still does. Stay with me here.
I worship with the community of St Alban’s in Albany, CA. They have 2 unique features in their worship that I have not yet encountered with any other group of Episcopalians, which is not to say there are not more expressions like this out there. But this is what I encounter at St Alban’s:
First, when we offer the Prayers of the People and we all begin to offer intercessions, after each intercession, the congregation says, “Amen.” Now, this is not for the faint-of-heart who need a tight liturgy because it’s terribly messy. People overlap their intercessions, amens start and end sloppily, many people mutter something inaudible, and it can go on for a bit. But it’s a real expression of how this community worships God, understanding its inspired baptismal birthright to beseech God’s sustenance and bless God’s favor.
Second, when the gifts are brought forward to the Table and we sing the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”) approximately half of the people (sometimes more) actually raise their hands in praise. AND at the 8 o’clock service, this is the only part we sing. The people in both worship experiences claim this place in the liturgy very explicitly, embodying their felt presence of the Holy Spirit without prompting from any worship leader.
Now, putting my ethnographic hat on (thank you, Susanna Singer), here are some more observations from this same parish:
- For these people, church is not a spectator sport. They “get” the maxim “Many hands make light work” because I’ve seen nearly every person take their turn at some form of communal meal service. Coffee does not come out of the woman-only kitchen in a baroque silver urn accompanied by tea cakes while everyone else stops by for a chat and then disappears. Instead, all manner of things appear on the table and people stay when they can to help put the tables and chairs away while a varied crew of people does the dishes.
- Regular announcements are made about the pastoral care needs in the community and pastoral care is done by the entire community. Whether in the form of signing cards or actual visits, people give what they can of themselves to care for one another. And they don’t forget people who have moved away, always remembering that their circle of friends-in-Christ goes well beyond the time-space continuum.
- The deacons, Barbara Hill and Kathleen VanSickle are leaders in reminding us about the work we are called to do to care for those in our midst. Julie Wakelee, the rector (and her assisting priests) preaches social justice while the people sitting in the pews actively nod in agreement. People continue discussions about the week’s message with one another after worship and then take it a step further, sometimes asking for copies of sermons so they can share with/evangelize to their friends.
- The parish serves the community around it. It is said that one of the questions a parish needs to ask itself is, “If this parish went away, who would miss it?” The answer for St Alban’s is, the community of Albany would. From sponsoring little league teams, to asking area school choirs to perform, to holding a space for a monthly open mic, to regular local music concerts, to offering a polling place, to actively sponsoring local businesses, to hosting festive community events, to hiring local help when replacing a gas line, to advocating for justice… St Alban’s is a positively recognized part of its community.
I could go on. At great length.
I guess what I’m saying is this: I see a connection between the Pentecostal-ish acts that these people embody during worship and the action in their lives as the priesthood of all the baptized. Because I believe it’s the Holy Spirit that inspires both. What I see is a group of people willing to open themselves up to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit as an act of worship so that they embody it and they take that embodiment out into their lives beyond the walls of their church building, beyond the walls of Sunday morning.
This, for me, is what defines church. Church is not a building, a structure, an icon, or a clip-art image. Church is the Body of Christ that is so defined because it understands the Triune God – called by God’s Love to embody Christ and enable others to embody Christ by following the pull of the Holy Spirit into connection with one another. Knowing that there is no human who can control or withhold God’s Love. No human who can pass God’s judgment. No human who owns the Holy Spirit.
And this goes beyond conceptualization, this knowing. This is something that is felt and practiced in the (B)body because it is the (B)body that puts us here with other bodies in this place we call “the world.” Like practicing anything, we practice the embodiment of the Holy Spirit when we come together to worship God so that when we are “in the world” this bodily knowing kicks in and leads us beyond ourselves.
Now, perhaps it’s because I’m a kinesthetic learner, and perhaps it’s because I see evidence of it so readily in the life of my beloved St Alban’s, or perhaps it’s because I have had my share of ecstatic experiences and understand how they have helped me move beyond my own immature world view…
But the part of me that agrees with the little girl in the Jesus Camp movie, asks you to take a chance. I invite you to raise your hands in praise this Sunday during our Feast of Pentecost. Try actively embodying a little Holy Spirit and ignore the voice in your head that says, “This is silly.” or “I feel stupid.” Get a little crazy. See what happens when you invite the ecstatic experience into your B(b)ody of Christ.
Where is the Holy Spirit? Indeed.
Let’s get a little pentecostal.