Discernment Update from Anna Strickland

This week’s Discernment Update comes from Sunday’s sermon by Anna Strickland. 

Well, I have officially finished my second year of seminary! …And I start back tomorrow with, appropriately, a class on the Holy Spirit and its traditions throughout Christian history. I have really enjoyed my history classes in seminary so far. I’ve taken one each of the past two quarters, and what I love about them is learning just how far from perfect those first Christians were.

We have this idyllic image of the early church as having it all together and knowing what they’re doing. It’s a popular trend these days to claim that we’re trying to get back to the church in the book of Acts, because we imagine them sitting around singing and praying with no confusion, no disagreement, perfect harmony. But this image is whitewashed in more ways than one.

The first few hundred years were just as rife with confusion and disagreement as today’s church. I mean, it doesn’t help that Jesus chose the most screwed up rock on which to build his church. Peter never got it right a day in his life. And Paul was 100% all in with anything, jumping off the cliff before he looked at what was at the bottom. These people aren’t exactly the type of people we try to emulate, but it turns out we usually do anyway. Christ still builds his church on pig-headed, impatient, overzealous screw-ups like us, thanks be to God.

So instead of this “with it” group of people sitting still in matching robes, the apostles we encounter at the beginning of Acts look more like a painting by Hans Suess von Kulmbach called The Ascension of Christ. Here the apostles are, staring up at Jesus’ feet, not really knowing what comes next. Not exactly the calm, cool, and collected bunch we picture. But we have to cut them some slack.

They have seen the man they’ve followed for three years, their Rabbi, their Messiah, brutally executed, put into the grave, and while they were still mourning, the women had the audacity to come claiming that he is not there. He must have risen from the dead. And not only does he walk right out of the tomb, he walks through their very walls to come and show them the wounds in his hands and his sides. He eats with them, breaks bread with them, walks with them, calls to them from the shoreline. They have him back. But not for long. Before they know it, he disappears in a cloud with a promise that someone will be right back. Talk about an emotional roller coaster!

It’s not unlike the emotional roller coaster we’ve been on. A pastor of thirty years retires, an interim comes for just a couple months and is gone again, leaving deep wounds in the church. After months of holding it together and more staff turnover, another interim pastor arrives. A year later here we are, examining old wounds and looking up at the feet in the sky and wondering what’s next.

Those apostles, like us, were standing around, gaping at their past ascending through the clouds, waiting for God to send them that leader they were promised. And preferably not a carpenter’s son born out of wedlock in a barn this time. Jesus had promised before he left to send them an Advocate. And so they are staring up at the heavens that just swallowed their Messiah praying, “Come back soon because we can’t do it alone! We await the establishment of your kingdom on earth, just please… don’t make us do the work.”

But God doesn’t send kings, God sends chaos. Now, I love chaos. I love it for the potential it holds, the way soil becomes tomatoes and charcoal becomes art and mess becomes beauty. Daniel used a phrase a couple months ago in a sermon that I immediately wrote down on my bulletin because it was just too perfect for me. He said something along the lines of, “Unless you’re naturally predisposed to chaos…” That’s me. Naturally predisposed to chaos. Some of this proclivity for chaos might be my father’s doing.

In case you didn’t know, my father, Paul Taylor, has a Ph.D. in English, and his dissertation was titled “Computer Conferencing and Chaos: A study in fractal discourse.” As a child, he read it to me, and though I don’t remember any of it, I like to think that some of it sank in. If nothing else, the fractals stayed with me. We had framed images of fractals hanging in our house, and I’ve always loved their organic shapes and the bright colors they always seem to be rendered in. Fractals, these mathematical patterns that are created from repeated iterations, are beautiful and captivating visual symbols of chaos theory.

Because chaos theory isn’t really about chaos, it’s about order. Chaos theory says, if something looks random and chaotic to us, it’s just because we’re working with a small sample or we’re zoomed in too close or we can’t perceive of all the variables at play. But if we were to have a God’s eye view, patterns would begin to emerge.

The Spirit is masterful at playing with this line between chaos and order. In the beginning, she pulls from the deep, rippling ocean… shorelines, mountains, canyons, whose jagged lines may seem random to us, but we don’t have a God’s eye view.

I like to think this same chaotic Spirit was heavily involved in the Tower of Babel incident. People with their planning committees and their good intentions and their well thought out designs, gather state of the art technology to build the tallest skyscraper the world has ever seen. They’re organized. They’re orderly. They have a plan, and they know where they’re headed. But you know what they say about the best laid plans.

God, who sees the powerful potential of their unity and knows the importance of failure and limitations to the human experience, sets out to foil their plans and says, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So God sends the Spirit. Whoosh. Chaos.

It’s within this linguistic chaos that we find the disciples gathered for the festival of Pentecost, or Shavuot, in Acts chapter 2, a celebration of the wheat harvest and the commemoration of God’s gift of the Torah (the ultimate order) to Moses and the Israelites. Devout Jews had come to Jerusalem from all over the ancient world, like Times Square with less people. It was a chaotic experience where people from every corner of the earth have descended on this one place and are speaking languages that are not only unintelligible to each other, but also unidentifiable.

Then, whoosh. Order. Suddenly, for just a moment, the veil is lifted and these people from all over can understand one another’s speech. We’re back to the beginning, before the language was confused, before we divided ourselves into different tribes and nations. For just a moment, we see humanity in unity again. But that unity ends up becoming chaotic.

I’m thinking of those movies where someone magically understands animal speech or becomes telepathic, and all of the sudden they start understanding people they had previously ignored. “What? What was that? What did you say?” We’re not used to understanding everybody, and we’ve gotten so talented at tuning out the speech of people we don’t understand. It is a chaotic experience to have such order and unity.

It gets to the point that Peter has to stand up and say, “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No,” he says, “This, this is what the prophet Joel was talking about. Your sons and your daughters and your non-binary children shall prophesy. The young shall see visions and the old shall dream dreams. Even the people you don’t consider people will prophesy, because I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.”

This wild, indiscriminate Spirit, the same spirit that moved across the face of the deep at creation, of whom the Psalmist sings, who creates order from chaos and chaos from order, doesn’t descend on Peter, or John, or James. She descends on the gathered community. It is there, in the gathering that Christ had promised to be present. And it is there, in the gathering, that the Spirit arrives. It doesn’t matter if the people gathered aren’t speaking the same language. The Spirit has a workaround for that. When our hearts and minds and ears can’t understand each other, She bridges the gap, provided we have not already tuned one another out.

The Spirit wraps around our hearts, animates us, sustains us, pulls us forward, binds us to one another with an unbreakable bond, and allows us to see a vision, God’s vision. Our best laid plans don’t mean a whole lot, but vision does. And “God, by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Kindred in Christ, we may not understand one another. We may not be on the same page or have it all figured out. We may not see the vision yet. It may look more like a mess than a beautiful fractal. But the Spirit is moving as she has from the beginning of time. So don’t be surprised if you suddenly perceive… Whoosh. Chaos. Order. Vision. Amen.

Anna Strickland
Discernment Committee Member

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