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Pentecostal Courage

UCC Editorial

Written by Gregg Brekke.
May 21, 2010

In the Margins
In the UCC we’ve developed various narratives that invoke courage: Prophetic courage, John Thomas’ call to evangelical courage, courageous activism and so on.

But what about Pentecostal courage? We don’t think about Pentecost in the UCC much except this upcoming weekend. We’re not alone. In most mainline congregations the idea of Pentecost has been condensed into the same non-threatening “birthday of the church” theme.

Well and good for liturgy wonks, but where does that put the rest of church goers who have neither an appreciation of the seasons of the church nor an understanding of their usefulness? When most people hear the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 they realize that something radical happened on that day. So why does the mainline church insist on distilling it into something so benign?

We mainline Protestants are really good at de-mythologizing the message of Pentecost. We can explain away biblical references to speaking in tongues (glossolalia) as either an ancient cultural understanding of interpretation or as the writer’s exaggeration intended to reinforce the power of Christian unity in the Book of Acts.

That whole “rushing of a violent wind” thing, another exaggeration – or possibly a representation of the cacophony of voices raised when thousands were gathered in a public square.

Instead of embracing the power of the rushing wind, mainliners tend to focus on Pentecost as the first large gathering of Jesus’ followers. So much so, that the historic entrée of newly initiated Christians (called catechumenate) has been moved from Easter to Pentecost – now interchangeably called “confirmation Sunday” in many of our churches.

The rationalizations and co-option of receiving the newly initiated are fine if you don’t expect anything extraordinary to happen in the life of the church. (Though some may feel that their children “getting through” confirmation is miraculous…) But that doesn’t mesh with church history and experiences of the Spirit that have been an important part of starting new religious movements, inciting reformation, and, dare I say, hearing the still speaking God.

My dis-ease with explaining away the extraordinary, and that of many younger participants in mainline traditions, may be indicative of a wider philosophical and generational divide happening in culture.

“Meaning” to some is primarily rooted in a cerebral understanding of facts and the digestion of various arguments. This sense of meaning is experienced in the church primarily through the written word and carefully worded sermons. Some say this understanding of meaning is rooted in a “modern” or “literate” culture – reason and writing ruled the day.

But to many others today, meaning is rooted in the connection between word and experience, or head and heart. Often called the post-modern generation, these people are looking for a synthesis of what they know and what they feel or experience. Is it any wonder why post-modern types have such a hard time with church?

On equal levels, post-moderns dismiss mainliners merely talking about God and rationalizing the miraculous, and the dogma that proceeds from a literal/fundamentalist reading of the Bible that doesn’t jibe with their lived experience. What post-modern people crave is the synthesis of understanding God with displays of God’s power – they want to understand AND have something extraordinary happen.

I could relay a few of these extraordinary occurrences, but for the sake of space you’ll have to be satisfied with the analysis of one such event as another pastor and I reflected on it. He said, “that never happens in our churches.” My response was, “that’s because it isn’t printed in the bulletin.”

Pentecost invites us to go “off script” – to put the bulletin aside and listen to the Spirit. It moves us to trust in the voice of the Holy speaking to our hearts in prayer, rather than blank recitation of written prayers – no matter how eloquent – that don’t address our communities’ basic needs.

Pentecost forces us to say “come Holy Spirit” at every turn of our day, rather than only during the communion liturgy. It allows us let go of our rationalizations and have the courage to listen to the Spirit, permitting the deep groanings of our heart to take voice.

The Holy Spirit compels us to be God’s people in the world. To seek a spiritual understanding of the world around us and then do or say something in response There is no disconnect between Pentecostal courage and the concerns of spiritual wellness, ecological wholeness and social justice. In fact, concern for the destitute and those without voice was a primary witness of those swept up by the Azusa Street revival of the early 1900s.

I think most of us want something to happen – to have a spiritual, emotional, physical and even an intellectual assurance that God is moving among us. But barriers exist to mainliners fully embracing Pentecost in this way. I commented in a book review a year ago that it may be easier for a person in the UCC to come out as gay or lesbian than as a Pentecostal.

As with any coming out, it will take courage. Courage to know yourself, courage to defy expectations, and courage to embrace an uncertain future.

May we all have the courage to embrace the original spirit of Pentecost – to raise our expectations of God doing something miraculous and tangible, to speak and pray in languages previously unknown, and to anticipate a movement of the Holy Spirit that arouses action in our lives and in our communities.

The Rev. Gregg Brekke is the UCC’s news director and editor of UCNews and StillSpeaking Magazine.