At last year’s Hospitality Night, Richard said something that surprised me. Hyattsville Mennonite Church, he said, is a Spirit-filled congregation. When I think of Spirit-filled churches, I think about pastors with bad hair and worse suits leading their congregations in loud, simplistic music. Here at Hyattsville, in contrast, our pastors have fantastic hair with more style than a Kardashian, and we sing harmonies so complex you need a Ph.D. in math to figure them out.
So, how could we possibly be Spirit-filled?
I think Kaye was as surprised as me since she asked Richard, “Isn’t ‘Spirit-filled’ exactly what our critics say we are not?” Isn’t that why the Conference has us under discipline? What evidence do we have to use in our defense?
Richard’s answer was simple: the Fruit of the Spirit — “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity,” and so on (Galatians 5:22). Jesus said you know what kind of person someone is by the kind of fruit that person produces (Matthew 7:15-20). If our congregational life is marked by the Fruit of the Spirit, what better evidence could there be that our church is inspired?
I thought Richard had a good point. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was at work among us, without our even realizing it. Or maybe I was the only one who hadn’t realized it.
Whether or not we are a Spirit-filled congregation, we are Anabaptists. And that means we like to pour water on people. We would totally dunk them, but we don’t have a baptistery. So, we make do with pouring.
In the lectionary readings for today, however, there is a close connection between water and Spirit. In Genesis 1, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of the unformed earth. In Mark 1, the Spirit descends on Jesus as a result of his baptism in water. And in Acts 19, much the same thing happens to twelve of Jesus’ later followers.
What’s particularly interesting to me, however, is what happens immediately after the Holy Spirit arrives in these three passages. In Acts, the Spirit arrives, and the people begin to speak in tongues and prophesy, which is speaking for God. In Mark, the Spirit shows up, God speaks, and the Spirit “drives” Jesus out into the wilderness where he is tested by Satan, hangs out with animals, and is ministered to by angels. And in Genesis, the Spirit shows up, God speaks, the world is filled with light, and structure begins to appear.
We have a kind of progression, then: water; Spirit; God speaks; crazy things happen.
Now, I would like to ask, “When was the last time we experienced that progression when Cindy baptized someone here?” If our answer is, “Never,” or “not recently,” I would like to ask “Why?”
Perhaps we are like the Christians of Acts 8, who were baptized, but didn’t receive the Holy Spirit till later, when Peter and John arrive to lay hands on them. Maybe our worlds really do start to come together, maybe we really do have spiritual encounters while rock climbing in the wilderness, and maybe we really do speak in tongues and prophesy . . . but it just happens days or years after our baptisms.
But what if it never happens to us? What if Mennonites have historically been so focused on the water half of the deal, that we never get the Spirit half?
Now, at this point, I would hope you would interrupt me and say, “Micah, you’re confusing the Gifts of the Spirit from 1 Corinthians 12, with the Fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5.” Words of wisdom, healing, miracles, prophecy, and tongues, are different from “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and generosity.” And since the Gifts of the Spirit are different from the Fruit of the Spirit, you can have one without the other.
Then, I would hope you would say, “When Paul discusses the Gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12, his entire point is that we should work together as a body, with each person contributing the particular and individual gift they have been given.”
If you were to kindly point these things out to me, I would respond: Okay then, in our congregation, to whom do we go when we need healing? Which of our members has the particular and individual gift of miracles, or prophecy? When someone shows up talking in a language no one speaks, which of our members do we call, knowing they’ll be able to translate a language they’ve never heard before?
Do we have members with these gifts, or do we have to go to some Charismatic congregation down the road when we need them? Maybe that’s what we have to do. But why should we be content with that arrangement? Jesus said, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and . . . will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). And because Jesus was going to the Father, he said he would send the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 16:7). It seems, in other words, like Jesus expected everyone to have the Holy Spirit, and the Gifts of the Spirit as well.
Furthermore, if we go back to Paul, we’ll see that he wanted all the Corinthians to speak in tongues and prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:5), not just a select few. And he never mentions them having to appeal to Thessalonica to fill in their Gift Gaps. So, is Hyattsville is less gifted than Corinth? You know how messed up Corinth was. I think we’ve got more of the Fruit of the Spirit than they did, so where are the Gifts?
Since you’re not allowed to talk till response time, I’ll have to answer my own question. I have a suspicion, you see. My suspicion is that our tongues-speakers and prophets and healers are out there. One of them is probably sitting next to you right now. One of them might even be you — it’s just you don’t know it, or you do know it and you’re hiding. I suspect that we, like the proverbial ostrich, have certain parts of our congregational body stuck in the sand. We’re afraid that all that charismatic stuff is just not appropriate for us intellectual Anabaptists.
At this point I start to feel sorry for Cindy. She goes on sabbatical and I try to stage a charismatic revolution. She’ll be like Moses returning from Mount Sinai, only to find that I’ve convinced Michelle to make a Golden Calf for worship arts. When she gets back, we’ll all be dancing in the aisles and projecting our song lyrics onto screens.
Have no fear. I like our services just the way they are. What I’m hoping instead of changing our style is that we can begin to be open with each other about the spiritual and supernatural aspects of our religious life. What I want is not embarrassing dancing, but more talking about embarrassing things like the Gifts of the Spirit.
So, I’ll go first. I have an embarrassing story for you.
Last semester, I discovered that my officemate had already worked through some of the spiritual questions I was still struggling with. She began to suspect that I was supposed to be her ministry project for the semester, and when finals week rolled around, she sat me down to pray for me.
We sat in silence for a while as she tried to figure out what she wanted to say. As I waited, a peaceful and open feeling began to fall slowly through my head and into my chest.
If you want a picture of what it was like, imagine a stream of hot water being poured from a pitcher onto, and into, a block of ice. I can’t recall experiencing that sort of feeling before.
After her prayer was concluded, she said that while we were sitting in silence, a peaceful feeling had moved down through her head as well. I was surprised, and told her I had felt the same thing at the same time. She smiled at me and said, “That was God.”
I suspect many of us have had similar strange experiences, but no one else was there to tell us, “That thing you just experienced? That was God. Like, literally God.” We college-educated, urban Mennonites don’t have a habit of doing that kind of thing. We continue a tradition that emphasizes practical discipleship out there in the world more than spiritual mentorship in here, or in here. Some church traditions may insist on having elders help youngers interpret their spiritual experiences, but I don’t think ours is one.
As a baby, you have to figure out what you are experiencing, and adults are there to help you along. They tell you that this thing is a kitty, and that kitties say “meow meow.” When you point at a dog and say “Kitty!” they tell you, “No, that’s a doggy. Doggies say ‘ruff ruff.'” They help you figure out which things are birds, and which are airplanes. And when you say “birdie!,” but there are no birds or planes around, they tell you you’re just hearing things.
Now, imagine what it would be like if adults didn’t help children identify the color blue, and never thought to mention the color to each other. Since no one ever talked about the color blue, we wouldn’t have a word for it. In fact, if we didn’t talk about blue, or help each other learn to identify it, we wouldn’t even distinguish it from other colors like green and purple. We would be experiencing it, but without realizing it. We would all see it, but if any of us ever actually noticed it, we would think there must be something wrong with our eyes, since no one else ever mentioned having the same experience.
In philosophy, we call this issue “intersubjectivity.” We tend to dismiss our experiences as illusory unless other people share them with us. If other people don’t experience the same thing, we assume the experience was just a quirk of our own nervous system. So, we check in with each other, to find out if other people are seeing, hearing, and feeling the same things we are. We need intersubjective experiences, shared between people, to be able to identify what is objective.
But what if there is a spiritual side to reality that we have to learn as well? And what if we have no one to help us tell which things are visions, which are prophetic dreams, and which are just too much caffeine? Without a common practice of identifying together which things are God-feelings, and which things are Holy-Spirit-speakings, and which things are just weird brain chemistry, we might remain at the infant level, spiritually. We may be experiencing God all the time and never realize it, like a child seeing blue in a blue-free culture, or like a newborn meeting the President. The fact would be there, but we wouldn’t have a clue.
Now, I am a Ph.D. philosopher with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, from a family of psychologists. This makes me a hyperintellectual geek who is hyperaware of mental illnesses and neurotransmitter imbalances. And that means I’m very suspicious of emotions, and feelings, and subjective experiences.
But I’ve realized that my safe religion of the mind is an ultimately abstract and desiccated thing, no matter how fascinating it is. And I think Mennonites have always known this. I think that’s why Mennonite Christianity has always been a concrete religion of the body, work, and social action. But how do I connect my personal Christianity of mind, thought, and principle, to my church’s Christianity of body, activity, and work? What is it that connects mind to hand, thought to deed? In between them, mustn’t there be motivation, inspiration, and fuel? And don’t motivation, inspiration, and fuel, come from emotion and spirit? I need a Christianity not of head, nor of hand, but of heart connecting head and hand.
And I think Hyattsville is just the place for such a Christianity. We have a sister congregation in Sincelejo who might be able to teach us a thing or two about Pentecost. Maybe they have been given to us for just such a time as this. We have an intelligent, educated assistant pastor who does theology through art, and has been trying to help us to do the two together. Maybe we can literally connect with God through arranging pigments on a page or doing improv theater. And we have an intelligent, educated pastor who loves music and always makes herself available for “prayers for healing” during communion. Maybe musical harmony is an actual path to spiritual wholeness, and maybe pastoral prayers achieve more than metaphorical healing.
And besides, isn’t our main concern as Mennonites to follow Jesus, and imitate the life of Christ? If we are going to do this, our lives will need to be as full of the Holy Spirit as his was and is. If you follow Anabaptism to its logical conclusion, in other words, you end up an Anabaptismatic.
So, I think Richard was right. The Holy Spirit is here and at work among us even now. But I suspect that you and I cannot fully live out the life and gifts of the Spirit unless we help each other to see what is really going on — like Richard did for us at one end of the table, last Hospitality Night.
I think we have enough “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and generosity” around here to make it safe to talk about any weird experiences, or ideas, or doubts we may or may not have. I told you my embarrassing story and admitted my worries and hopes. Now I’m hoping you’ll tell me your stories and worries and hopes. I have a lot to learn about the Holy Spirit, and I’m hoping you’ll be willing to help me along. If God the Creator and God the Redeemer are working together through God the Comforter in this congregation, I don’t want to miss it.