Re-minded to Joy

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 

Acts 2:1-18, 11-13; text for Pentecost, June 9, 2019

Our house backs up to an elementary school playground.  The children file out for recess and stand in line until dismissed to play.  Immediately, then, they run and shriek.  When I am home on a school day, I am amazed at the volume of the sound and the violence of its coming.   There was a set of schoolchildren in tidy rows.  Now — suddenly — there is a chaotic dispersion, pounding across the pavement, scrambling up the climbing equipment, skirmishing for balls.  As I watch, some order emerges — whether the emergence is in their play or my observation, I do not know.  There is one game over here, and another over there, and these few children squatted on their haunches at the edge of the pavement are probably poking at the hole in the blacktop that has been expanded over several school years’ worth of recesses.  The expenditure of energy and the intensity of focus touch my heart.

I watch the children and wonder.  When was the last time I effervesced in such a manner?  

A few times in college, my friend and I went onto the green after dark.  We ran and laughed and collapsed on the grass and all without benefit of alcohol.  Who needs beer, we scoffed, when there is play.  There was something intoxicating about abandoning the appearance of sense, making ourselves ridiculous for joy.  A delight I feel still when singing aloud as I walk through the city.  Tipping back my head and throwing my arms wide as if to embrace the wind on a gusty day.  Grinning with excitement, and rising to tip-toes on the Metro platform when a train rumbles past and blows its horn.  (I do not entirely forget myself, I admit; I do not wave at the train driver, tempted though I am.)

Why am I thinking about play, about being so intensely present as to risk ridiculousness?  As if this text is about intoxication.  Drunkenness is the claim is raised by those who don’t understand, who sneer at what they hear as noise.  Peter rebuts the charge.  Yet Peter’s rebuttal does not entirely dismiss the issue.  Peter does not argue that the scoffers have mischaracterized the behavior but asserts that they have misunderstood its source.

This is not new wine imbibed, Peter asserts.  This is God’s Spirit ‘poured out’ (Acts 2:14-17).  Listen to what is being said and shouted and sung.  Hear the order that emerges.  This seemingly frantic babble, heard and understood in so many tongues, is all about God.  It is praise for the Lord whose ‘word is very near … in your mouth and in your heart’ (Deut 30:14).  It is wonder that they have lived into God’s promised days of visions and dreams (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).  This is not passing gladness.  This is rock-founded.  This is not new wine.  This is joy in the Lord.

Reading Pentecost I wonder.  When was the last time I was that aware of joy?  

Joy as effervescence, burbling forth forth like a spring, foaming over rocks as it tumbles out and down.  Joy welling up as if I am a cup, brimful — I hold a moment quivering still, amazed at its presence, living water in me, joy’s meniscus curved slightly above the edge of my lip — and then I cannot but grin, cannot but wonder, cannot but tell.  Did you see?  Did you hear?  Did you feel?

The Spirit’s spark that Pentecost was not stubborn resolve or impassioned argument or faithful duty.  The Spirit’s spark was joy.  The people flared bright with it, spoke flames with it.  The Spirit lit a fire whose dancing tongues amazed and perplexed and confounded and transformed.

I watch the children.  I read the text.  I need to be reminded of joy.  I need to be re-minded to joy.  Wait and watch, sticks and kindling dutifully arranged in expectation of the spark.  Realize, then, that the tinder is already aglow.  I don’t need to wait for some coming but to see what has already come.  Blow gently and increase the flame.   Sustain it; be sustained by it.  Dip my bucket into the well, trusting to draw it forth brimful and shining. Drink deeply and find myself intoxicated with its urgency.  Catch someone else’s eye.  Grin and gesture to the very well I drew from, look to see joy spark across.

Make myself ridiculous in the expectation.  Make myself ridiculous in the experience.

That’s how it began.  That is how it begins again.

Risk joy.  Pray for it.  Prophesy it.  Live it.  Tell it.

Step by Step

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying […] ‘I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  Acts 11:1-4, 16-18

full Acts text for Sunday, May 19, 2019, Acts 11:1-18

At the beginning of the week, I came to this text knowing that it is about a key transition in the life of the early Jesus-followers:  the gospel going out to a community (a ‘house’) of non-Jews.  Now at week’s end, I take from the text the realization that it is as much about the process of life unfolding as it is about this particular pleat in God’s plan.

‘Step by step.’  

The text begins with a critical query on a practical aspect of being community — you ate with them? — and ends with all present recalled to the ideal that all peoples shall see the glory of the LORD (Isa 40:4), that ‘God shows no partiality’ (Acts 10:34), that ‘even’ the nations shall receive God’s gift of life (Acts 11:18).  The ending praise sounds as a crescendo after a silence of realization and reflection — Oh, this is what was promised then … seen in our-very now ….   The voices rise, rejoicing for God’s radically inclusive gift.  

Notice the mis-match?  They still haven’t figured out how that gift is to be lived.  Do we eat together?  Whose table do we sit at?  Whose recipes do we use?  That’s going to take longer to figure out.  (See Acts 15, Acts 21, 1 Cor. 8, Gal 2, and so on.).  Yet somehow that’s okay.  For now.  They’ve been recalled not just to praise of God’s plan but to renewed sight of it.

‘Step by step.’ 

This phrase applies not to each of Peter’s movements through the story but to Peter’s explanation of his movements.  ‘Step by step’ is how Peter reviews and reflects upon what had happened.  The prayer.  The vision.  The summons.  The Spirit.  Jesus’ words not just recalled but re-heard.  Peter hadn’t understood them because he hadn’t yet lived them.  Now he did, because he had.  And still there was more to live, and still more to learn.  Peter never saw the path in full — could his imagination have stretched so far?  (Could my own?) 

You ate with them?  Isn’t that the way of it?  We may recite the ideal almost unthinking, but pragmatic aspects of living sharpen the focus — and in revealing the stress points, invite us to look farther on.  Where are we headed?  Where is God guiding us?  And if the answers to these questions do not match, what then?  How can we be re-minded not just of but to the ideal.

’Step by step.’  A call to continually recalibrate our way and reform our imagination.  Maybe it’s walking that makes the way, but it’s telling that lets us see the way we’ve made and the way God calls us to and if or how the ways connect.   Step by step.  Look back to see where we’ve been; look here to see where our feet are planted now; look ahead to see as far as the next turn.  And then, once that stretch is walked, review and reflect and re-tell.  In order to rejoice and walk on ahead, so far as the next turn.

New Life, Again New

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.   At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.  He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Acts 9:36-43; text for Sunday, May 12, 2019

Tabitha is a disciple, the only woman in the New Testament so called.  Other women are described in ways that connect them with discipleship, but only Tabitha is explicitly titled.  She is introduced as ‘disciple’ before she is even introduced by name.  ‘Disciple’ identifies her as one who belongs to the Way (Acts 9:2), who ‘calls upon’ the name of Christ (Acts 9:14).  Before we know anything else about Tabitha, we know the most important thing:  Tabitha is one who lives the claim of resurrection, of new life in Christ.  And Tabitha dies.

Tabitha is dead.  She ‘became ill and died.’  She was washed and laid out.  Her fellow-disciples know she is dead, and they send for Peter.  Maybe they send as if in urgent query — how could death have taken one who claimed life?  Maybe they send in hope of comfort.  Maybe they send for witness — see, this disciple, this life given to good works, is ended.  ‘Attention must be paid.’  And, yes, maybe they send for Peter as if to collect on his proclamation that in Christ death is not the end of life.

By the close of the passage, Tabitha’s life is returned to her.  Peter prays and speaks her to rise, he helps her from her deathbed to her feet.  Peter shows Tabitha alive, and the report of her living spreads beyond the saints and widows to whom first she is shown until many in Joppa believe in the Lord.  

I read the story for Tabitha, as Tabitha.  How do I show myself alive?  How do we, who already claim identity as disciples, show new life?  After all, the story ends in the report that transforms.  If the report of Tabitha’s raising does not transform, perhaps it is because we who tell it need, first, to be waked by it ourselves.  To hear its voice saying, ‘Get up,’ and to open our eyes to its truth in our lives, to take its hand and be lifted to our feet, to realize that our own new life must be repeatedly renewed, so that our own renewed-newness can be the report that is told.

All Tabitha has to do to prove new life is show up alive.  Maybe that’s all that would have been visible:  Tabitha still a disciple and devoted to good works and charity.  But surely even the most ardent disciple would have been transformed by this bodily experience of God’s reviving power.  I imagine wonder leaping morning by morning at the sight of day, and even in the night joy deepening in the realization that nothing, nothing, is beyond God’s reach nor God’s desire to hold.  Tabitha’s new life must have embodied that shock in ways beyond the daily renewal of faithful discipleship, but in expectation of further and otherwise unimaginable transformation.  It may not have looked much different, but it cannot have felt the same, and surely, even subtly, that showed.

How do I live resurrection?  How do I embody not just the daily renewal of faithful discipleship but the conviction of further transformation in ways beyond my imagining?

Partly, perhaps, continuing to practice discipleship as ever:  feed the hungry, comfort the grieving, visit the prisoner, care for the sick.  Bear the name of Christ as if cupping in my hand a precious gift.  But somehow at the same time, expect to be borne by that name into relationship that may discomfit as well as delight, into newness I cannot yet know but only discover.  Or be discovered by.

Bearing the Word

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 9:10-17; Text for Sunday, May 5, 2019

Saul will ‘bring my name’ to many, the Lord tells Ananias, who is reluctant to go to this man who has persecuted many who ‘invoke’ the name of the Lord.  Called upon in vision by that Lord, Ananias is taken aback, wonders if perhaps the Lord needs reminding of who Saul is, based on who Saul has been. 

‘Go,’ the Lord repeats.  ‘For he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people Israel.’  And in faithful duty, Ananias goes.  

Bringing the name.  Usually I read this and think of the work as verbal.  Something Saul is to say.  It is not only that I have in mind Saul’s later career — as he declares and proclaims and instructs and writes letter after letter — it is that speech seems implicated even in this particular passage.  The saints are those who (literally) ‘call upon’ the name of the Lord.  Ananias goes and speaks to Saul of the Lord Jesus, the one who had appeared to each of them.  To bring the name then is to say it, to utter words, or write them on flimsy slips of paper, or even cast them into the ether online.

But Saul is not literally to ‘bring’ Christ’s name. Saul has been chosen to ‘carry’ — bastazw — the name.  As one may ‘carry’ a pair of sandals (Matt 3:11), a jar of water (Mark 14:13), a purse or bag (Luke 10:4), or a cross (Luke 14:27).  

As a womb may carry a child (Luke 11:27).

Saul is not just to tell but to bear the name of the Lord. 

Now I hear the work differently.  It is more than the gusting of windy words — spirit-filled as they may be.  It is a tangible substance, with a palpable weight.  

Sometimes bearing it is a burden.  Shoulders sag; knees bend; back and mind and heart grow weary with the load.  Acknowledge this.  That a call to bear the name is a call to suffering:  the suffering of one who must encounter as brother an erstwhile enemy; the suffering of one who must go among strangers and love them as kin while counting his kin as strangers, leaving them to the care of the Lord.

And then comes the feeling that the weight may not be a chore but a foundation, a sturdy structure on which to stand, even a rod that stiffens the spine and lifts the chin and steadies the gaze.  That to bear the name is not to heft a heavy load but — to borrow the old rabbinic image — to be lifted by a pair of wings.

To bear the name of the Lord is to bear the life of the word within your own body, to give your own and only life to its nurture in the womb and in the world.  To know that life and body together are marked by the encounter with the name.  There was a before when I bore only myself, or so I imagined.  Now I bear the name … and reshaping my life around its substance, I find myself borne.