The Temptation to Quench the Spirit
June 9, 2019
Somehow, without me understanding how, the worst thing has happened. I got old. I don’t just mean old as in the chronological way of things. I don’t mean I’ve got wrinkles and rusty joints, that I have to wear glasses and still have to use a size 14 font for my manuscript. I’m not even talking about how I don’t care to go out in social settings so much anymore, prefer to eat bowls of cereal and watch Netflix rather than go out to eat at a fancy restaurant and attend some expensive concert or theater experience. I mean, I’ve gotten old spiritually. I have become the cynical one who sometimes, without really meaning to but still doing it, say to the excited, to the visionary, “yeah, no I don’t think that can work.”
I admit it: few things get me revved up anymore, make me want to stand up and raise my hand and give it an good ole Alleluia. I don’t clap when I hear exciting ideas any more. And I have to say it: If I walked into a sanctuary and heard people all talking in languages I don’t understand and I felt a wind blowing everybody’s hats and scarves off while we’re all inside the building, I’m just as likely as the guy who got quoted on that Day of Pentecost and say, “Good Lord, somebody’s been into the communion wine,” and hightail it out of there.
In essence, I am now tempted to quench the Spirit.
I do not make this confession with glee or pride. I’m not happy about this transition and I’m quite sure it is the wilderness that has made my spirit dried up and old. Going through wildernesses can do that. Having had one or two exciting ideas and then watch them catch wind and sail for a while, look promising and hopeful and filled with new life and animation and all those things we want to be a part of, and then watch them, well, lose air, drift a while and then just fall to the ground, a tired flattened out balloon, well, it makes you old.
And yet, today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church, the celebration of the arrival of the Holy Spirit to bring back to the disciples and followers of Jesus what had been missing since he came and went, the revival, the gift, the certainty of God’s presence and God’s desire for movement. It was just in time for the less than hardy, probably about to give up themselves, Jesus crowd.
This, of course, raises questions for us: When was the last time you spoke a new language? When was the last time you felt the Ru-ach, the breath of God, blow into your spirit, your heart? When have you lost yourself to Spirit?
If you’re anything like me, then it’s likely been a while.
There are seasons, of course. There are times when we are on the mountaintop, when we know God’s presence with us as surely as we know of the presence of each other. There are times when we are confident, stand firmly on the word and the promises of God, when we are slain in the spirit of peace and joy, when we know what it is to be in God’s grace.
And then there is the rest of life. When we struggle to pay the bills, crawl our way through the work week, analyze data, take in new information, try to manage our relationships, try to pay attention to taking care of our health, exercise, eat well, call our mothers or our sons, pay our taxes and our tithes, be good citizens, try to recycle, try to do our part for justice and before we know it years have passed and we haven’t felt a good Ruach, a good Godly breath in decades. And that’s when we hear ourselves say to someone young or joyful or visionary, “yeah, no, you know that’ll never work.” And the language of the spirit, the language of life and joy and movement becomes a language we don’t understand any more.
That is not how we are intended to be. Not us, not the Jesus followers. We are meant to be the ones with the crazy ideas. We are meant to be the ones who have hope when others have no hope. Joy when others have nothing to laugh about. We are the ones who say, let’s try something new!
Christian Century Editor, John Buchanan was looking back on some of the essays he had written during his fifty years of ministry as a Presbyterian pastor and he remembered one particular Sunday service in which he was baptizing a two year old boy. After sprinkling the water on his forehead, Buchanan followed the directions of the Presbyterian handbook and addressed the boy in Trinitarian language. He said, “you are a child of God, sealed by the spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” And then, unexpectantly, the little boy looked up and shocking everyone around, responded loudly by saying, “uh-oh.”
Buchanan goes on to write, “Of course it was amusing to the entire congregation, they all laughed out loud but the little boy’s uh-oh was in fact the appropriate response and a stunning theological affirmation from the mouth of a two year old. He said, ‘uh-oh, which is maybe what we should all say because from that moment on, everything was different. Indeed from a two year old it was understood that his life was changed forever. He did not belong any more just to the family that brought him to church that day but he was born all over again, this time to God’s family and called to live a life of love and self-giving that we see in God and among God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”
We are not meant to be “uh-no” followers, those who are beat up by the wilderness, those who are cynical and disbelieving. We are meant to be “uh-oh” followers, those who know that when we believe, when we open our hearts and say yes, something is going to happen. Wind is going to blow and take us somewhere different than where we are now. Wind is going to give us a new way to speak, a new way to communicate, a new way to love and live in community. But, as hard as that Spirit can blow, as much as that Spirit can inspire and change and create and move, we have the power to say no.
Do you recall a story from the gospels, early in Jesus’ ministry in which he had just raised the daughter of a synagogue leader named Jairus (JI rus). This man had found Jesus just as Jesus had just gotten out of the boat after healing a man of his demons and sending those demons in the herd of swine that consequently rushed down the bank and drowned in the sea and which in turn caused the people to politely ask Jesus to leave the neighborhood. And he crosses the sea and then encounters this guy and he goes with him to see the sick girl; but he’s late and he doesn’t just heal the man’s daughter, he raises her from the dead. Let’s just say, Jesus was on fire. He was working his messiah magic.
And then in the gospel of Mark the strangest thing happens; and it’s maybe because the magic is working, the fire is blazing but Jesus decides to go to his hometown, of all places, and surely his intentions are to keep doing the great things he can do only to do them there among the people he loves most, among his family and all his friends, wants them to have some of this good magic. But in the sixth chapter and the fifth verse of Mark after the people start talking about where he grew up and what family he came from and how he just couldn’t, absolutely could not be the Messiah no matter how fantastic is the magic, we read, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.”
Can you believe it? The unbelief, the doubt of those hometown folks actually halted the work of the Spirit, squelched the miracles of Jesus. That cynicism, that refusal to accept the possibility that Jesus might actually have a gift, kept him from doing any deed of power. That’s what happens when we quench the spirit.
The former pastor of a church where I served, Dora Atlas, told me a story I have never forgotten. She told me that when she served there she had been given a vision that the church, a predominantly African-American church was chosen by God to be the first integrated church in that city. She knew the vision was from God and she was excited about it, believed in it, and she immediately called a meeting of the church board and told them what God had made known to her. “Well,” the church leaders responded without any of the enthusiasm she had. “I guess that means a building project.” And before Rev. Atlas knew what had happened, they had created a task force to nominate a committee to begin looking into a new church building. Almost a year later, the committee made the recommendation that they not build a new sanctuary or even a new fellowship hall, instead, as they interpreted this new vision, it was meant for them to add on a couple of bathrooms and a slightly larger kitchen.
“It was,” Rev. Atlas said sadly, not the response I, as their pastor, or I imagine God was hoping for. Five years later, she told me, with their new bathrooms and slightly larger kitchen nothing changed for them, they were exactly the same as they were without the new toilets and refrigerator, but the oddest thing happened in the neighborhood. A new church started less than a mile from that church, a new church start that was the first and continues to this day to be an integrated congregation.
Rev. Atlas is convinced that because her church did not respond in faithfulness to the vision and instead broke it down to adding bathrooms and did not pray about it or believe it was possible and merely quenched the movement of the Spirit, God took that vision and gave it to a group of people who were willing to believe in and act upon it.
I think it’s a viable theory. I even think that the Biblical heroes whose stories we love to tell, heroes like Abraham and Sarah, King David, prophet Elijah, Mary and Joseph, I wonder if they may not have actually been the first one God called with the vision, sent the angel to, they just happened to be the ones who said, “I think that could happen,” or even, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!”
Perhaps there are even stories God wanted to tell but nobody was willing to listen.
And so, the message for this day Beloveds, is that we are not called to be curmudgeons. We are not anointed to be stick in the muds and party poopers. We are not meant to squelch the possibilities that God has in mind for us and the world and especially our children. We are given the Holy Spirit, touched by the very breath of God to dream dreams and have visions, to see life in an empty tomb, joy in the face of sorrow, hope in times of despair. We are the ones who speak a different language, a language of hope and encouragement and celebration of new ideas and creative expressions of faith. We are called to speak the language of Love. We must not allow the temptation that comes from wilderness fatigue cause us to become spirit quenchers. We are people of the Spirit.
Stephen Dunn writes in a poem about the day he felt the Spirit blow across his dusty soul. It’s entitled
At The Smithfield Methodist Church.
At The Smithfield Methodist Church.
It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the 'Jesus Saves' button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.
She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren't
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?
Jesus had been a good man,
and putting faith in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.
OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing 'Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,' it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus
doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad?
We sent her back without a word.
It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus as our nemesis and friend,
that we thought he was sufficiently dead,
that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief
to a child, only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story
nearly as good.
On parents' night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out like appetizers.
Then we took our seats in the church
and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and one in which they had to jump up and down
I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what's comic, what's serious.
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child
'Evolution loves you.'
The story stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries.
I didn't have a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs, occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, sing along in silence.
Do not let the temptation that comes from disbelief and cynicism and sadness and all the other things that steal our joy, take away our hopes and dreams, stifle our desire to speak in a new way, and quench the Spirit. It is not, nor has it ever been who we are called to be. Amen