The Paradox of Pentecost — Presence and Absence

A stranger than strange text for today’s Feast of Pentecost, the day the Church celebrates the coming of the Spirit, the Advocate, reads:

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you…” [Gospel according to John 16:7].

It is Jesus in John’s Gospel who speaks these words to his disciples. They scratch their heads, like confused children being dropped off at camp against their will. They already sense the homesickness that will come. The thought of being abandoned brings anguish, the foreboding of oncoming forlornness.

The experience of absence, endemic to the human condition, is essential to faith. The feeling of anguished forlornness builds courage, and faith, of one sort or another, with or without an advocate.

Enter Jean-Paul Sartre’s reflections on anguish and forlornness. Fully conscious without religious crutches, I experience the anguish of my responsibility for myself and others, and the forlornness that realizes that I am alone in my decision-making. The decisions are mine along. No one but I am responsible.

Like the disciples, we want it to be otherwise. Some of us pray as though the feelings were a hoax, the Devil’s trickery or God’s pre-ordaining, as though our course were charted by another decision-maker disbelieved by Sartre. But regardless of our faith or faith denials, the truth is that to be human is to know this sense of anguish and forlornness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the brilliant theologian imprisoned and executed by the Third Reich, caught the sense of it in a letter he wrote from a prison cell.

“The only way to be honest is to recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do see — before God! So our coming of age forces us to a true recognition of our situation visa a vis God. God is teaching us that we must live as [people] who can get along very well without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). God who makes us live in the world without using him as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we are ever standing. Before God and with him we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, which is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us. Mark 8:17 makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and his suffering.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp 219-220, McMillan Company, 1953, translated from German by Reginald H. Fuller.]

Bonhoeffer’s writing acknowledges the anguish and forlornness that precede the disappearance of the divine usurper of human freedom and responsibility. In place of the bad-faith God who keeps her children in diapers, there comes the advantage of Christ’s going away — the arrival of the Advocate who brings the unexpected joy of coming of age.

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” [Gospel according to John 16:7].

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2015 – Feast of Pentecost.

West Bank Bethlehem

Arab American Christians

Three words not
Usually seen together

Palestinian Christians love
Hearing Acts two
Read on Pentecost

Arabs are listed
Receiving the Spirit

West Bank Bethlehem
Has had Christians
Two thousand years

Lutheran Arabs live
Next to Muslims
In Palestinian towns

The Pope’s prayers
May bring peace
Where three Faiths
Call land Holy

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL June 10, 2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis is a partner church with the Lutheran congregation in Bethlehem. The pastor of the Bethlehem church has spoken to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Once again this year’s General Assembly (national meeting that convenes this Saturday in Detroit) will consider a controversial proposal to divest investments in companies that support the subjugation of the Palestinian people, working against the Church’s commitment to human rights, justice, and peace. Prayers for the General Assembly as its Commissioners deliberate.  – GCS

An Acrostic on Jazz improvisation

Steve Shoemaker sent this today after learning that Ted Godbout, an outstanding jazz pianist, is joining us at Shepherd of the Hill Church in Chaska.

PENTECOST
(TO BE READ ALOUD)
An Acrostic

Perhaps a jazz improvisation says

Exactly what is thinkable about

New life, fresh breath…the Holy Spirit. Has

There ever been a music without doubt

Except jazz? Faith, improvisation cause

Circles of sound to rise and fly throughout

Our cosmos. Tongues of flame are seen on heads

Singing or playing solos. Then without

Time passing–a new language: Jesus! Jazz!

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL

Pentecost Jazz

Whenever I hear Dave Brubeck, I think of Pentecost. Here’s a video of Brubeck and Al Jarreau that came to mind after reading my friend Steve’s poem (below) on Pentecost and jazz as the music of the Spirit.

PENTECOST (acrostic)

In Memory of Charles Reynolds*

(TO BE READ ALOUD )

Perhaps a jazz improvisation says

Exactly what is thinkable about

New life, fresh breath…the Holy Spirit.  Has

There ever been a music without doubt

Except jazz?  Faith, improvisation cause

Circles of sound to rise and fly throughout

Our cosmos.  Tongues of flame are seen on heads

Singing or playing solos.  Then without

Time passing–a new language:  Jesus!  Jazz!

*Charles Reynolds was Organist at the McKinley Church at the University of Illinois where Steve was the Senior Minister.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL. Steve’s Sunday evening program “Keepin’ the Faith” can be heard anytime @ www.will.illinois.edu/keepinthefaith, including archive programs, “two of  which,” says Steve, “feature Gordon C. Stewart,my ‘publisher'”.

Ever feel invisible?

Sometimes I feel invisible.  People walk by me on the street or in the mall…and it’s like I’m not there.  People walk by like ghosts talking to ghosts.  They don’t see me.  They’re somewhere else, not really there.  They walk like people.  They talk like people.  They look like people.  But their eyes are somewhere else…in some far off place. Their heads down, reading or writing a text or staring into space, babbling to someone who’s not there.  They don’t see me. I’m invisible.

I have the same experience driving to and from work.  Drivers cut in front of me or run up behind me. They laugh and smile and wildly gesture, but there’s no one else in the car! When their driving puts me in jeopardy, and I honk, they keep talking.  They don’t look and they don’t hear anything but the voice on the other end of the cell phone. Even my Toyota’s invisible; it’s become a non-material world.

It’s nothing new really.  Western spirituality has always been dualistic. It says that we have a body and we have a soul – the physical and the spiritual.  We just have these bodies for a while.  We don’t really die; we just get rid of these bodies and fly away like birds set free from their cages.  It’s an old Greek philosophy that made its way into the writings of St. Paul.  The world of “the flesh” is evil; the world of the spirit is good.

The rudeness on the highways and in the malls, in the coffee shops and even in our homes is but the latest expression of this deprecation of bodily existence.

The voice on the other end of the phone is more important than the person in front of me, and the ones I cannot see or hear or receive a text from are unreal…in Iraq, Afghanistan, and anywhere else I decide to hang up and nuke their worlds into the permanent invisibility of nonexistence or the fires of hell.

I sit quietly at the airport gate, waiting for my flight. Used to be people would at least acknowledge one another’s existence – the bare fact that you were really there and not somewhere else or nowhere – but now they’re on cell phones, babbling away as though the room were empty except for them. Because, I suppose, we’re ancient Greeks with head sets, cell phones, and iPods, seduced by the old idea that we are meant for non-embodied existence. It’s just me and my invisible world, and you with yours, a rude collection of loud mouths and headsets, mouths and ears disembodied from eyes that see, noses that smell, hands that touch and minds that actually think in the silence between our noises.

Touch is a basic need. My dog knows it.  I know it.  Hearing and speaking are important. But the most important communication comes by touch. An animal that goes untouched becomes wild and crazy.  So do we.

To touch and be touched is a vulnerable thing. We crave it. But to touch and be touched is a vulnerable thing. It reminds us of our embodied selves, our mortal selves, our dependent and interdependent selves. The non-material world is safer. Unlike the body, the worlds in our head are invulnerable. In the world of disembodied spirits

The oldest Christian creed says “I believe in the resurrection of the body” because those who developed the creed saw the body – the physical world,  the material world, the world of the five senses as not only “good” but essential to existence itself. There is no human life without a body. The body is not a thing to be shed. It’s a gift that places us squarely in time and space.

Next Sunday is Pentecost, the day the babbling stopped, the day the Spirit transformed their separate worlds. Tore down the barriers of language, class, race, gender, and nationality with the sound of a mighty wind so profound that they all stopping babbling and listened to the Voice that spoke in and through the strangers around them.

It may be hard to comprehend exactly what happened on the Day of Pentecost – tongues of fire descending and resting on each one – but it’s not so hard to make the translation for us in the era of instant communication lonely crowd.

Do you feel the wind and the tongues of fire calling us back into the celebration of embodied existence?  Isn’t it time to see each other again? Talk with people who occupy the same space?  Time we grow up and stop talking to imaginary friends or hanging up on real people who don’t do what we don’t want them to do? Time we recover the spiritual joy of physical community: the recovery of sight, smell and touch.  Time we pay attention to common courtesy. Time to notice that the person on the other end of my cell phone and I are not the only ones in the universe: a Pentecost in disembodied world of the 21st Century.

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