Our director of music recently asked me “what are we doing for Pentecost?” It was a warranted question. I am, after all, the pastor and she always keeps me on task. But I’m at a loss. I’ve tried everything and I’ve yet to crack Pentecost. This day, like the Holy Spirit, is mysterious and hard to package in a box with a nice bow. I’ve asked folks to wear red, which is cute, and we all look like we’re getting ready to tailgate for an NC State game. I’ve ordered a cake and had the congregation gather out on the lawn to celebrate the ‘birthday of the church.’ But no one really wants to eat a glob of sugar before they’ve had their grilled cheese and tomato soup.
There are many sentimental, even creative, ways to celebrate that quaint day when the Spirit erupted like a volcano spewing fire and chaos. On Hawaii’s Big Island, trees are being uprooted, homes are melting, and the whole topography of the landscape will change. On Pentecost, a group of frightened and ill-equipped followers of a charismatic preacher start proclaiming gospel resurrection in the streets. The shape of the world was altered forever.
So what are we doing for Pentecost, pastor? How do you plan to catch this violent wind that ‘blows wherever it pleases’ trap it in our church? How can we speak with tongues of fire and go out to set the world ablaze? Have you discovered a way to capture that dove and lock it in a cage?
Planning Pentecost is about as useful as trying to force a volcano to erupt and then figure out how to make it stop.
But wait! Here’s a new banner and a video I found on youtube.
It’s an incredible weight to bear—to believe that the Spirit’s presence rests on our shoulders. It’s functional atheism, or maybe responsible grace without the grace. And really, it resembles most of the modern philosophy of church growth that there must be a perfect recipe to woo the Spirit into the church. Here’s some foolproof bait to catch the Spirit: put away the pipe organ and get out the guitars. Hire a young pastor who (preferably) wears skinny jeans. A thirty minute message with a few jokes. That should do the trick.
Come Holy Spirit, come.
Meanwhile, as we’re cajoling the Spirit to show up, grace is erupting in the places we least expect—where folks are most afraid or where the world is most hungry for life. God doesn’t need our permission to show up. But maybe God finds more space to move in places that aren’t as comfortable and cozy as our lives.
I pray for the Spirit to come, even though I know that the better prayer is, “Come Ryan Snider, come.” Sure, our bodies will occupy space in a pew, but we’ll fail to stoke the spark in our hearts. Worse even, we won’t bother to adjust our sails when it starts getting a little windy. We’ll walk out the doors into the same unenchanted world, way too leery to go to places like Judea or Samaria and the ends of the earth.
So happy Pentecost! Any Pentecost plans? I have no idea. I hope that we’ll be expectant and hopeful, with eyes to see and ears to hear. Perhaps, there will be a brush of wind or maybe something will catch fire.
But please—don’t forget to wear red. I’ll hang the streamers in the sanctuary. Maybe we’ll find a way to catch the Spirit this time around. Or, maybe we’ll shoot and miss.
But hey, at least it will look like we tried.
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My first house was at the end of a cul-de-sac on a quiet street that was woken up by big wheels and tackle football. It was the late 80s, just before the term helicopter parenting had been coined. According my (romanticized) memory, our street stretched eternally and we were free to roam while our parents remained indoors drinking coffee. We cast lines into the pond and played Super Mario 3 until the sound of crickets called us home and lulled us to sleep. Those years felt like one endless summer, though I suspect it’s because I hadn’t yet started school.
I learned this about neighborhoods: adults may construct the houses and streets, but the children are the ones who take the pavement and brick and build neighborhoods. The laughter in the streets, bicycle bells ringing, and basketballs pounding against the pavement are the sounds of a street birthing a community. My own kid reminds me of this when she drags me into small-talk and play dates. I think this is why Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to children—they’ve yet to ask the question, “who is my neighbor?” A neighbor is whoever happens to be walking down the street. And if you’re up for a game of hide and seek, then come, let’s be friends.
Fences were curious to me as a child—they were only good as a wall to scale. It's basic psychology, right, that if something is important enough to be enclosed, then it must be significant enough for another to find. These tall wooden planks arranged side by side as soldiers to keep others at bay. It must have been a grown up’s idea. Who cares about property lines, privacy, and protection? The kind of people who read John Locke, that’s who.
In other words, me.
How did this happen?
Every morning a Golden Retriever walks straight into our front lawn and takes a squat. Suddenly, privacy has moved to the top of my dream home wish list and I’ve begun googling “BB guns.” I wasn’t always a curmudgeon who complained about the neighborhood dog. Maybe it was hammered up one plank at a time from wood of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as innocence was lost. We so quickly change from happy, naive children into hardened and cynical adults in a mistrusting and fearful world. There is creation. There is fall.
The first wall must have been erected in the bedroom that I shared with my older brother. He took masking tape and planted a line right down the middle of the room. At last, He-Man, Skeletor, and GI Joe were safe from little brother’s hands. Then another: don’t go past the stop sign. My siblings and I were hedged in away from places like 37th and Bulloch or Bolton, Lincoln, and Duffy Streets. Another day, a childhood friend called and told me that he wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore because a drug lord threatened our family. My dad later showed me a picture of said drug lord’s collection of assault rifles lined up against a wall in his house. Yikes. The only gang I knew about rode on big wheels.
New walls emerge, others grow taller—around a house, a heart, and a life—as we become cynical, guarded, paranoid, and fearful. The problem is that once you start building them, you might not feel safe until there’s a big, beautiful wall around your entire life. One can never feel too safe. What would this zoo become without its walls? All of these animals need to be in cages for their own good—and ours, too. Let’s impose some more order here, and some more over there. That's better. Now, I can rest with ease.
With so many walls, who has become the prisoner?
I wonder if these partitions are as effective as we hope, or if they make promises that they can’t always keep. In my first neighborhood one of our neighbors had a wooden fence, and to a six-year old boy it might as well have been the Great Wall of China. But the neighboring dog was a terror and we needed to be protected. One day my cat, Rags, well, she became an afternoon snack. I didn’t learn this until college. At the time, my brother and I were told that Rags had run away. Every evening for a week we went looking for her in thickets and holes in the ground. I came home from school one Christmas and asked about Rags. My dad snorted and then broke the news, “She didn’t run away. It was the neighbor’s dog.”
According to the Scriptures, God isn’t crazy about walls. God even takes a sledgehammer to them, starting with the one between earth and heaven. In Jesus’ own body, the walls of difference are broken down and a new humanity is created. He spent his life sitting at a welcome table shattering boundaries between enemies and friends, Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean. All of this radical hospitality persisted until a group of neighbors turned out to be hostile. He’s put on a cross, enclosed tomb, and the world is protected from subversion. But even the great wall of death was shattered when the stone was rolled away.
It wasn’t the safest way to make a living, but God, as it turns out, isn’t all that worried about ease and protection.
We learn from Jesus that every encounter is potentially harmful—hostility is etymologically built into the word hospitality. You can’t have one without the other. A philosopher, Jacques Derrida, coined the term “hostipitality.” Every encounter with a stranger holds within it potential for hostility. This is true in our lives, in our country, in our hearts. Welcome someone into your house and something might get stolen; let another into your heart and it might get broken. So we hope to strike the right cord between welcome and security, or inclusion and exclusion. But we must decide whether encounters are worth the risk, or whether she are better off closing ourselves off.
Where’s the line?
I follow Jesus because I think he’s the one who might release me from the walls I’ve built and am tempted to construct. He offers forgiveness, which is about tearing down past fences I’ve built—grudges and resentment. Chains are broken and I am free to be the kind of person who sees the other as image of God. He grafts me into the vine and asks me to do the same with my life. Jesus imparts the love that opens up heart and life to create more space at the table for others to take a seat. I’m not sure I’d have the rationale or heart to live this way otherwise.
In the end, Revelation speaks of a holy Jerusalem and its gates will never be shut. People are free to wander in and out of the city, without fear and trepidation. One early theologian said that the end will be like the beginning. I hope he’s talking about the beginning of our lives— that one day we can return to a kind of childhood naïveté. We’ll play all night with no fear of being snatched and the street lights will never flip on because the sun won’t stop shining.
It’s a neighborhood without stop signs and old men telling you to ‘keep off my grass.'
If that's true, it must be heaven.
A new study on loneliness was released yesterday, and now making its rounds on Twitter and Facebook. “Loneliness is widespread in America, with nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes.” But this is only the latest in ever increasing studies that demonstrate we’re all just depressed. Which reminds me, I need to call CVS to get my Zoloft refilled.
It’s what our congregation has been thinking about for three weeks now—people are lonely and the church has a cure, but we’re not sure how to get it out and use it.
The irony, of course, is that we’re more connected than ever with social media, work, opportunities for play, places for connection. It’s all too common to start a diatribe against technology and social media. Social media draws you deeper into the inward life of envy, comparison, and self contempt. Posting a picture and waiting for likes and hearts is not really connecting. But new research shows that social media is more neutral than we once thought. Our choices about how we implement the technology are the catalyst for either greater flourishing or deeper isolation. I met my wife with the help of AOL Instant Messenger. You might meet your forever partner on farmersonly.com.
I'm not convinced that our in-person interactions are much different from our digital ones. The coffee shop, for me, is a placebo community as I scroll through the room judging and comparing and coveting. Or, how about a church that curates a particular profile—wealthy or hipster, progressive or traditional. They subscribe to their own preferences and police belief systems that don’t neatly fit within their echo chamber. And everyone walks out the door without seeing or having been seen.
But social media is to blame for loneliness, of course.
Was there ever a time when we weren't isolated?
It seem much more complex, doesn't it? (Really, read this)
Cigna’s research on our need for relationships is not really new or surprising. Loneliness is not about being alone; it’s about not being known or knowing others in a deep, personal way. Aristotle taught that friendship was an essential component to human flourishing. And the early Jews suspected this prior to the philosophers. Community is inscribed in our biology and become the way we’ve adapted to survive. We’re carried in a mother’s womb, delivered by the hands of another until we’re finally delivered into the ground. In between, attachment affects brain development and deep friendships activate the same parts of our brains as a good meal. We’re hungry for relationships because that's how we were created.
At the beginning of our story God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Wait, us? Who is us? Christians suggest that it might be the Trinity: Father, Son, Spirit. Maybe that’s right. The Trinity, who is always making room, pouring out more for the other, always inviting another to sit at the table. God, who is community, formed Adam and Eve to be companions—to know God and each other completely. Abraham and Sarah were called to parent a new nation, Israel, to be a holy people, to bless the nations. Each of the Ten Commandments are about ones relationship to God and to one another. Jesus calls a group of twelve and spends his time simply being with people. Paul calls the assembly Christ’s body, eyes, ears, mouth, arms and legs. Community--it’s the image of heaven.
If heaven is community, then the inverse might also be true—hell is isolation, the anti-image of God. The flames and the heat sound frightening, but how about being alone, completely separated from God, people, and the dirt from which we were formed? Here’s a helpful image: picture being cast out in outer space. You have everything to keep you alive for eternity, but you’re alone, floating aimlessly in the dark. That’s hell (Donald Miller talked about this in Blue Like Jazz).
The truth is that many people live in hell on earth. Mother Teresa called loneliness the leprosy of the west. We get home from work, close the garage door, and don’t take another step outside. I can’t even ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar, because I don’t know their names. My daughter would love to know no stranger if I would let her. But I tell her not to trust every smiling face in Starbucks. That’s not our way. Because we are guarded humans, who are distrusting and broken.
But we are also a people who are baptized into Christ’s body and whose central act of worship is sitting at a dinner table. The God who pitched his tent among us certainly cares about delivering us from the hell of isolation. But I'm not always sure that the church does.
And what does it say about a church that does not know the names of its neighbors?
One that caters to only a particular subset of people? One that doesn’t challenge the systems that create inequalities? Or spend time visiting or setting up care facilities for the elderly and most vulnerable?
I’ve been challenging our church, and myself, to do better. And to start with our street.
Meeting people is difficult. And awkward. But neighbors, like an elusive four leaf clover, can be found. Every few evenings when the weather is warm, my family goes for walks around the neighborhood. Children are playing basketball, building forts in the woods, jumping on trampolines. Women are walking dogs and men are out for evening jogs. You talk, initiate a personal connection, and you stumble into them another evening. It’s chit chat today, but tomorrow it might be something more--maybe a street will become less lonely. And we'll have done the work of the church.
Here’s something we put together for our congregation to get started on being better neighbors. It was adapted from something I saw from another church:
Four Tips for Being a Better Neighbor
1) Learn Names--Get to know the names of the people who live near you. If you’re like me, then you’ll need to write them down so you won’t forget. I do this on my phone. I have a whole folder this people’s names and things I need to remember about them.
2) Go For Walks--If you’re able, walk through your neighborhood. This doesn’t necessarily require any social engagement. You might pray for the houses on your street. Or, you might bump into new people, develop new relationships, and find common interests.
3) Deliver Baked Goods or Write Letters--No one turns down homemade cookies. Attach a simple note and drop it off. Likewise, handwritten notes are not antiquated. Take one of the prayer cards from the pew and send one to your neighbors. Say, “Thanks for being a good neighbor.” Nothing more. Drop it in their mailbox.
4) Help and Be Helped--When you have a need, to be too shy to interrupt. Let’s start asking our neighbors for sugar again. We’re scared to ask for help, but most people love helping. And also practice the reverse— say, “yes.” Anytime someone interrupts you, be willing to help.
My first real experience with fasting took place in college. I was assigned a three day detox fast as a requirement for yoga. Yes, I took yoga for college credit. College can be a beautiful thing. Don’t judge me. I had tight hamstrings. We had two options for this detox fast: three days only drinking water, mixed with apple cider vinegar, lemon, and cayenne pepper. Or, three days of only eating fruit. It was not a difficult decision. The first option, honestly, sounds disgusting. I went to Piggly Wiggly and cleared out the fruit aisle. For three days, I ate heaping mounds of fruit—baking apples for appetizers and mushing up bananas and freezing them for desert. The point of a detox fast is to clear your system out. The detox worked, well, because of fiber. Fruit has a lot of fiber. I’ve already said too much.
This is something I have never done since. I was generally really hungry. I, like most folks, am much happier when my stomach is sated with ice cream and pork. Bill Clinton says that if someone is acting like a jerk you should ask if they’re hungry. That’s usually the problem. Kids call it being ‘hangry.’ And then, I only thought about bread—sourdough bread. I craved it. When the clock reached 72 hours, I went to straight to Panera. The hard part about fasting is that when you abstain from something, you want it more. That’s psychology 101. And the reason why I always want Chick-Fil-A on Sunday.
Why would anyone want to fast? Why would anyone not immediately satisfy cravings? It goes against every impulse in my body. Most fasts feel that way. I love food. I love eating. I plan my days around when and what I’m going to eat next. If I fast, I get it done in between meals (see what I did there).
We are an anti-fasting people. We live in a culture of immediacy—fast food and google and Amazon Prime. John Ortberg calls it the Cookie Monster philosophy: “See cookie. Want cookie. Eat cookie.” We live in a culture of overconsumption. On the Fourth of July, no one holds a fasting competition. We have hot dog eating competitions. Nothing screams, “America” like fifty hot dogs. When there’s a crisis in my life, or in the country, that worries me, I overindulge. Give me that extra drink, an entire pizza for myself, whatever.
The problem is that Jesus says “when you fast,” not if you fast. Jesus assumes that his followers are going to do this. Turns out that this isn’t something only done by the Catholics. Open your Bibles: Moses fasted. So did David, Elijah, other prophets like Zechariah, Amos. Esther fasted before confronting the King of Persia. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, all Jews fast for twenty five hours from food and drink. That’s just the Old Testament. Paul fasted with the members of the early church. It was a central discipline throughout the Middle Ages. John Wesley, who is the founder of the Methodist movement, fasted at least every Friday and sometimes more often. Hard to find any serious follower of Christ who did not fast.
Every Lent, I faithfully participate for 40 days. One year I swore off coffee. I had to avoid coffee shops at all cost. Know that smell of freshly ground beans? It’s wrong. Other times I’ve given up Facebook or social media. I’ve fasted from food on Fridays with the Catholics and become a vegetarian for forty days. I never enjoy it. Not once. But here’s the thing: when I’m done with the fast, I come out different. Stronger. A better heart. A better Christian.
Jesus was hurled into the wilderness to fast at the start of his ministry. The Spirit, not Satan, violently throws Jesus the wilderness. If I’m going to fast, then the Spirit better hurl me into the wilderness, too. In the larger narrative, Jesus was just baptized. Now, he’s in the desert. It’s not punishment; it’s preparation. Water and wilderness go together. There is something central and irreplaceable about the wilderness for the people of God. God often uses the wilderness to prepare, or reform, or educate his people. That should sound familiar if you’ve spent some time in the Old Testament. Noah’s ark floated on the waters for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites escape Pharaoh through water, only to wander for 40 years. Here’s the point that Matthew is making: Jesus is Israel and God is preparing him for something big.
Satan, which means the enemy or the adversary, is there waiting in the wilderness with three temptations: turn these stones to bread, skydive from the pinnacle of the Temple, worship evil. Today, we’re only going to think about the first. Satan is so easy to caricature. Red suit, pitchfork, horns. But evil doesn’t look like that. The devil is more like the nagging the voice of reason inside your head: “Hey, you’re hungry; that’s ok. Turn the stone into bread. No one will ever know.” Sneak in that sourdough, your teacher will never find out. He’s got a good point. There’s nothing wrong with food. God wants us to enjoy food; we have five or six taste buds that prove it. Jesus multiplies five loaves to feed five thousand and he breaks bread at the table and calls it his body. The Lord teaches us to pray for our daily bread. Fasting doesn’t mean that food is bad.
I’ve heard someone say that this is temptation isn’t about eating. The real temptation is to be full, or to never lack. You’re entitled to that happiness. Get that new car-you've been working so hard. It’s the temptation to be a slave to our bellies and to always have each desire met. When you’re always fully satisfied, you might be fooled into thinking you don’t need any help. This whole story is meant to sound like Eden. Remember Adam and Eve? There they are in the garden and they have everything they need. Then, here comes this serpent that says, “You know what? You can actually have more. There is one thing that God is hiding from you. Go for it. Take a bite. ” We are just a collection of appetites to be satisfied. There’s always more to consume, but we’ll never feel full. It’s like an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Jesus knows this. He cites Deuteronomy, “The human being is not nourished by bread only, but by every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” The truth is that we’ll never be full, unless God becomes our bread. Buying new clothes releases feel-good endorphins in our brains, but it doesn’t satiate our souls. Jesus realizes that if he had bread, he’d be hungry the next day. If he had a beer, he’d be thirsty again. But learning to be satiated with the word of God, learning to feed on the bread of heaven, means he’ll never be hungry again. This harkens forward to something that Jesus will say later in John’ Gospel: “I am the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” This is fasting to feast on God.
Matthew says, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry.” Now this sounds simplistic, but the point of fasting is hunger. What are we hungry for?
Are we hungry for Jesus?
Saint Augustine said it like this: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” Are we giving our hearts to all the wrong things—things that can’t feed us?
In college, that fruit fast was meant to clear me out. I later learned that spiritual fasting does the same thing—it reveals the things that control us. One jewish fasting manual says that fasting works because it actually makes our bodies slow down and our synapses will not click, our brains will not process quite as quickly (Lauren Winner talks about this in Mudhouse Sabbath). We move slower and look at our lives and realize that there is another food that nourishes you. Desires have to be disciplined or they become our gods. You’ll notice your addictions and see whats beneath the surface of your heart. Give up the morning coffee reveals the powerful control of caffeine. Or, giving up meat allows us to realize that you can actually live on plants. And in the process, you might think more about others who are forced to fast, simply because there is not enough food. If you give up Instagram, then you might realize that your worth is not based upon the number of people who ‘like’ a photograph. Your worth is that you are Beloved, created in God’s image.
One last thing: In the first Scripture, Jesus says, “Your Father who sees [your fasting] in secret will reward you.” What’s the reward? Fasting is not meaningless suffering or martyrdom. The reward is a transformed heart. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is not only worried about your actions, what you do, but he’s also concerned about your inner life. The heart is the center of your being. It doesn’t just keep you alive; it’s who you are. What comes out of you proceeds from the heart—all of your actions and intentions are born in your inner life. But we have to clean our hearts and train them to beat to another rhythm. This is the purpose of spiritual disciplines. Put your hearts in rhythm with God’s. Fast. Be more mindful of God’s presence. Mindful of those who are hungry. More grateful for God’s provision. More hungry for God.