BREATHE AND BE FILLED
One great strength of the Mennonite Church is our amazing capacity to organize, plan, administer and deliver stuff and events. Through a denomination and movement as small as we are, God does some amazing things for which we have an alphabet soup of world class professional organizations like Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Mutual Aid, Mennonite Mission Network, so on and so forth. And its all supported by a level of commitment, generosity and skill that’s outstanding for a denomination of our size.
This talent, commitment and generosity were all on display during the recent national convention in Columbus, OH. Next week you’ll get to hear from our youth and children who went there, about the amazing programs and people they had for their age groups. I know personally all about these programs, because I was able to check in back and forth between the different programs, not being an official delegate, like Mary Harder was for us. I also used the time to hear from, and connect with, other Mennonites in urban ministry and in Islamic contexts. There’s a lot of interest in the fact that we are now situated within the largest urban Somali concentration outside of Mogadishu.
But as is so often the case, sometimes our greatest assets are also our greatest weaknesses, our greatest dangers. Our denomination’s amazing talent for organization and administration could easily tempt us into over-reliance on our skills, as though we do not need God, but that God needs us.
I wondered about this on Thursday afternoon of last week, when I was scheduled to give a brief mission report to the delegate body, about our congregation’s emerging contacts and opportunities in the local Somali community. While I was waiting for my turn to speak, I was sitting next to Kim Friesen, who was at the table for the Listening Committee. She showed me the book in which the whole script for all the business of the conference was printed. I was literally listening to the speaker at the podium and reading the same words in the booklet. I found myself wondering why we didn’t just e-mail the booklet to all the delegates. But I know its most important that we gather and meet, face-to-face. I looked ahead in the script and saw my exact words, as I had emailed them to Jim Schrag, the Executive Director of MCUSA, the week before. He had wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t go beyond 200 words or 2 minutes of sharing. And I understand that they need to do that, so that no one, or no agency, or no agenda, monopolizes the meeting at the expense of everyone and everything else. But when I finally got up to the podium, it was all I could do to keep myself from turning over the apple cart by saying a “Knock-Knock” joke. But I stayed on script. Mostly.
Which is not to say that everything went smoothly. I don’t know about the delegate business, but whenever you get so many people together, things are bound to go off script, and a few times they did. I’m not at liberty to talk about everything, but a few times I had to deal with some painful moments between people who were simply doing their best to be their best and who still tripped over each other’s feet, so to speak. And each time we worked it through, it became one of our finest moments, church in reality, not just in theory.
It made me think about authentic Navajo Indian hand-woven rugs. Do you know how to tell a real authentic Navajo hand-woven rug from a mass-production knock-off from Singapore or South Carolina? By the “spirit opening.” By that is meant an intentional imperfection or departure from the otherwise perfect pattern. Navajo rugs are full of beautiful geometric patterns. In the middle there may be a hundred or more black stick figures all identical to each other, let’s say, all with their arms up in the air, except for one figure with one arm down. That one departure is called “the spirit opening.” According to traditional Navajo belief, that one imperfection or anomaly allows the spirit of the rug to go in and out freely. Or perhaps the carpet is bordered by hundreds of red triangles. With the exception of one black one. That, again, is the spirit opening. And no mass-produced machine-made Navajo knock-off rug will will have one, unless they all have the same one, because they can’t stop the looms to make a different little anomaly in each rug.
Now I don’t want any spirits in my carpets. If a carpet starts moving or talking to me, I’m calling an exorcist or a psychiatrist, or both. But I resonate with the idea that sometimes the best things in life are found not in regularity or uniformity or perfection, but in the departures, the errors, the unpredictable, the imperfect and even the broken parts of life. Often that is precisely where the Spirit of God breaks into our lives, through our weaknesses and needs, in the unpredictable and unforeseen, and not in our perfection and preparedness.
That’s why I’m so glad that the Holy Spirit and his work were the focus of the recent MCUSA conference. The theme was “Breathe and Be Filled,” and the key Bible passage was John 20: 19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
When we looked at this passage in advance of the conference, our senior high youth immediately caught the connection between the original act of creation in Genesis 2, when the Lord God formed the first human from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and this second act of creation, when Jesus blew his breath onto the disciples, thereby symbolizing his re-creation of humanity, a new creation through his Spirit, the church. He did so at the very moment when the apostles were like Adam: weak, inert, vulnerable. The words “Spirit” and “breath” are the same words in the New Testament.
The Holy Spirit of God is thus that of God which connects with us; indeed, if you believe classical Trinitarian Christianity, the Holy Spirit IS God in the act of connecting with us. As Jesus, the Son, was God present to us over 2,000 years ago, so the Holy Spirit now is Jesus present to us everywhere and in all time.
Some helpful ways to think about the Holy Spirit in relationship to God and us were given by retired Professor June Alliman Yoder and her daughter, Amanda Yoder Schrock, when they preached a sermon together to the combined youth and adult conventions. They listed four ways we often think of the Holy Spirit, in increasing order of helpfulness. The first, most common and probably least helpful way is of the Holy Spirit as our relief pitcher. When our arms are worn out and we’re starting to lose the game, so to speak, unlike any of the Twins’ lineup of pitchers, then and only then do we call in the Holy Spirit, to pick up where our efforts leave off. Like the student who told the campus minister, “Please pray for me at 4 o’clock this afternoon.”
“Why at 4?” the campus minister asked.
“Because I have a big gonzo chemistry test today at 3.”
“Why shouldn’t I pray for you at 3? Or now, for that matter?”
“Because by 4 o’clock I’ll know if I need God’s help or not.”
The second illustration of the Holy Spirit was “the Amish preaching bench.” In the Amish church, the preacher for the day is chosen from all the ordained, recognized preachers on the morning of the service, maybe by prayer or by drawing lots. Then the Bible passage is chosen, maybe by lots or prayer again. So when the preacher starts his message, with obviously no time to prepare or study, its all up to the Holy Spirit. I don’t know how well the Holy Spirit does in those circumstances. I haven’t tried to find out, and I’m not intending to do so any time soon.
Trying to explain the third example will quickly reveal the limits of my knowledge about modern physics. But perhaps there’s an engineer or a physicist among us who understands the EPR Principle. Or is it a theorem? Whatever it is, it says that two particles, by which I think they mean subatomic particles, which are separated at birth, by which I think they mean the Big Bang or the moment of creation, will remain in contact and act identically, whether one is passing in a rain cloud over Pittsburgh, and the other is orbiting around Pluto. Don’t ask me what that means or how they do that or how they know that. But I did understand this: it shows the level of intimacy and engagement and commitment from God to us that no amount of time or distance can affect or erase.
“Where can I go to flee from your Spirit?” David asked, in Psalm 139. According to the EPR Principle, or theorem, or whatever the world it is, nowhere in the whole wide infinite universe can we escape the love and attention of God’s Spirit.
The fourth example I found most helpful: the Holy Spirit as our GPS unit. If you have a GPS unit in your car, you use it to get directions from an orbiting satellite system overhead that tracks you and everyone else with a unit non-stop. So let’s say you’re coming to Emmanuel Mennonite Church one Sunday morning, following the directions of your GPS unit, and let’s say that when you come up Park Avenue and get to 26h Street East, your GPS unit will say, “Prepare to turn right at the next intersection, 25th Street East.” But if you blow right by 25th Street, your GPS unit will not say, “Alright, you clown; if you’re not going to listen to me, see if I ever bother giving you directions again!” and then shut itself off for good. No, it says, “Re-calculating….” And then it will calmly, patiently and wisely give you more direction to get you back on track.
And that’s how the Holy Spirit relates to us. He doesn’t make us do anything. But he guides and encourages us to do and be the will of God. And whenever we get off track, he stays committed to guiding and encouraging us to get us back on track.
In the course of the conference, we sang many songs and prayed many prayers around this theme of “breathe and be filled” with the Spirit of God. But for all the prayers and songs requesting God’s Spirit to fill us, I have to confess, I never came away feeling all full of the Holy Spirit. I’ve never, in all my years as a Christian, felt as though I was sure that I was full of the Holy Spirit, as though I were full of 4 gallons of water sloshing around inside me, with a little bit of the Holy Spirit leaking out when I said an angry word or another bit leaking out when I had a bad thought. At times I have felt and seen the work and the evidence of the Holy Spirit in my life and ministry. But I have never felt as though I received some static quantity of the Spirit that filled me the way you might fill a bucket with water. And that’s not what I see in the scriptures either, for all the times that they speak of being filled with the Holy Spirit. It all depends on what kind of full and filling we’re talking about.
For example, when Jesus said to the disciples, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit,” that was just after he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” That’s only one time out of all the others that the filling of the Holy Spirit is associated with ministry and the sharing of God’s Word. On that day of Pentecost, when the first apostles spoke in other languages to the pilgrims in Jerusalem, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, again, in order to share the word and the Spirit with their fellow Jews. We read of Stephen, also filled with the Holy Spirit, but when he was testifying before the Jewish Sanhedrin at risk of his life, just before being stoned to death. And when we read about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the writings of Paul and Peter, they too are always associated with ministry and the sharing of God’s word. So to refine my definition earlier, the Holy Spirit is that of God which connects with us, in order to connect us with others, in ministry, witness, work and service that looks like Jesus.
Whenever we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are filled not in the way that you might fill a sink or a bathtub with water, with the stopper in the drain, but in the same way that faucets or hoses are filled with water, only as the water flows through them, only when there is something or someone else to fill too. Or think of an electric current running through the wires that connect one light with another, like on a Christmas tree. And that is how I have experienced and seen the Holy spirit at work, not filling me just for my own sake, but flowing through me for the sake of others as well as myself. We could tell how the Spirit was flowing through us to unite each other, by the tears, the laughter, the insight and conviction, by the love, faith and hope we experienced and shared.
And often this filling and flowing happen in those moments when we are caught otherwise unprepared, with our weaknesses and our incompleteness showing. And those can be our finest moments. Like one of the best moments for me in the conference. It was when the scheduled speakers at a seminar failed to show up at all.
It was supposed to be an hour-long seminar on How to Disengage the Church from Complicity in War and Empire. I joined the group in the room when it was already packed full of 100 or more people. Up front was a guy passing out papers. But he was not the resource person, he said. He was simply passing out information about disturbing new developments in robotic, computer-aided warfare that was killing more civilians than combatants in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Every time someone came into the room, he would ask, as he passed out his papers and told us about the website, “Are you the speaker for this session?” At which the person would either vehemently say, “Who me? No way!” or would beat a hasty retreat back out the door.
After ten or fifteen minutes of him talking about his concern and the website and scaring the daylights out of late-comers, we finally decided to just get on with the subject. So we voted him the convener and secretary, to write down our questions about the subject, and to moderate our discussion and input in the matter. After we had generated about 10 questions on the matter, he asked us what we thought and knew about each of these questions. It was amazing what all came out of the audience by way of experience and passion and insight on the topic of war, empire and Christian complicity or resistance to the same. I stopped feeling peeved with the resource people for not showing up and started feeling bad for them, that they were missing out on all this passion and wisdom and experience around the question. I still have no idea whatever became of them.
One of our questions was, “How does the New Testament address the human empires and imperialism of its time?” I had something burning on my heart to say. But when I stood up to share, I noticed that one of the people in the room was my main professor of New Testament when I was at seminary. Oops. So I began by saying, “I’m a little scared to say what I’m about to say on the New Testament, now that I see that my former New Testament prof from the Mennonite seminary, Dr. Jake Elias, is in the room, but I’ll forge ahead anyway. And Jake, you can correct anything I say, as you have had to do in the past.” Then the words poured forth. And I felt the Spirit connecting me with the other attendees.
Then Dr. Elias spoke, shared a few supplemental thoughts, and said, “By the way, Mathew, you just flunked.” He was kidding, of course. I think. But the point of all this is to say that the Spirit fills us, individually and together, as a church, for our ministries, and through our ministries, not only to connect us with God, but with each other and the world. And more often than not, He does this not just through our strengths and talents, but also through our imperfections and our weaknesses, through our needs, our vulnerabilities, and our broken parts, and as I hope he is doing even as I speak.