By Sara Isbell
Happy Pentecost, everybody! Happy Birthday, Church!
This morning my congregation back home sang one of my favorite Pentecost praise songs: “Holy Spirit, Rain Down.” I was sorry to miss it, and I missed being with my church family at Chatham. I know they were in good hands, because I made sure they had an excellent preacher this morning – my Dad (Rev. E. Paul Unger)! And, since I have listened to the podcast already, I know he brought the good word with abiding faith, resounding hope, and great joy – as he always does. (Thanks, Dad!) But I did miss my church family, whom I am holding in my heart these two weeks I am in Portland.
While I didn’t get to sing “Holy Spirit, Rain Down” this morning, I did get to sing some other great songs: “I Will Follow Him” (the Sister Act version), “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” (contemporary) “How Great Thou Art”(traditional), and “Happiness” (by the Gaithers) at Rose City Park United Methodist Church in Portland, under the leadership of Rev. Courtney McHill. The music at church was a lively and wonderful mix today, and the preaching was terrific, as well, as Bishop Danny Arichea (Philippines) brought the good news and the story of Pentecost to a responsive and diverse congregation.
Bishop Arichea’s message was about the power of the Holy Spirit “raining down” upon the disciples of every nation and tongue at Pentecost, taking down the walls that divide people by culture and language. Later on, in Galatians, Paul will describe more barriers coming down: the walls between Jew and Greek, male and female. slave and free. CRASH! Bishop Arichea asked us, “is it time for more barriers to come down?” I think he was asking whether the bible story started in Acts 1-2 should continue as the living Word in our day, knocking down the barriers we face in today’s church. He named a few: economic barriers, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so on, and then asked, “what do you think?”
What do I think? I know the United Methodist Church is not all of one mind on some of these issues, and I respect the views of those who see it differently than I do. But to me the answer is found this Pentecost story, where, when the Holy Spirit rained down upon the disciples gathered together, “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (Acts 2.6). Bishop Arichea said the story of Acts 2 (Pentecost) is the answer to the problem of Genesis 11 (the Tower of Babel). The sins of pride and ambition that caused the human community to be divided into factions who couldn’t talk to each other, are undone by the power of the Holy Spirit to reconcile and restore human community. “When we erect new barriers,” Bishop Arichea explained, “Christ knocks them down!”
It was a joyful service and a powerful message. I was still thinking about it this afternoon, when I had the happy occasion to visit the Columbia River Gorge waterfalls, about 30 miles outside Portland. My lovely cousin Julie, who lives near Portland and served as my host and tour guide for the day, took me to see five falls, and I found myself in awe and wonder at the majesty of it all. My favorite was Multnomah Falls – Oregon’s tallest waterfall, which drops from 620 feet. The water comes from above in a powerful curtain of sight, sound, and splash, and when it hits the rocks below, the crash is impressively resounding. In fact, it’s loud enough, human conversation is hard to hear. (Maybe there’s a message there somewhere; when the Holy Spirit rains down, your best plan is to stop talking, and listen!) I was still thinking of Pentecost; the sound of the water like the rush of a mighty wind! The force of the water, propelled by gravity, pushes the flow forward into streams that run fairly quickly over and around the rock-bed. And there’s no stopping the water’s flow. If you did try to stop it, or dam it up, the power of the stream would eventually push or erode the dam away in order to keep the current moving. Breaking down barriers. CRASH!
I long for the power of that Holy Spirit to rain down on the General Conference and break down the barriers that keep us apart, keep us from listening to each other, keep us from seeing each other as children of God. The hardest parts of this week for me have not been votes that didn’t go “my way,” but rather missed opportunities for connection, understanding, empathy and compassion, moments when, instead of listening, we erected barriers against those we didn’t want to hear. Moments when we chose “Babel” over “Pentecost.” I’m as guilty as anyone else; there are no fingers to point here. We are on the clock; we have deadlines to meet; we have so much legislation to get through, and no time for side-conversations. Besides that, it seems risky and impractical to take time out to do nothing more productive than to listen, to share our stories with each other face-to-face and recognize one another as fellow travelers on the journey toward truth. General Conference is set up for legislative process, not for community-building, and to be honest, we don’t really know how to do it differently. Rule 44 might have worked, or it might have proved disastrous. At this point, we’ll never know. I think it’s safe to say that we weren’t ready yet to knock down the protective walls of parliamentary procedure to risk it.
And yet, God might be ready, despite our hesitation. God might be ready, despite our fears. The power of the Holy Spirit may push its way through despite all our doubts and reservations. The obstacles and dams we build for the water to flow may yet be knocked down. I’ve seen it happening in our IGRC delegation. I’ve seen it happen in my legislative subcommittee. I see it happen all over General Conference when people sit down together and look into each other’s faces and smile, or join hands to pray. On a small scale – one relationship at a time – it’s happening now, already. The Spirit has been at work in small groups and intimate conversations. Can it happen to 864 people at the same time?
Well, Luke tells us there were 3,000 people gathered together in one place on the day of Pentecost. And somehow, the power of the Holy Spirit stopped all of them in their tracks, and caused them to listen, caused them to hear, caused them to speak in ways that others could understand. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia… Africans, Americans, Filipinos, Germans and Swedes… Do you hear the barriers coming down? CRASH! CRASH! CRASH!
It’s happened before. Maybe it can happen again. Will you pray with me, that it might?
Holy Spirit, Rain Down. Amen.
(Rev. Sara Isbell is pastor of the Chatham UMC, Sangamon River District, and is a IGRC clergy delegate to General Conference)