Monday Muse: On Birthdays and Pentecost

First, a confession: I’m not a big fan of my birthday.

Actually that’s not quite accurate. I like my birthday just fine, but as an inherently private person I’m not a big fan of others’ expectations of how I should spend my birthday, so I’m deliberate about keeping the actual date under wraps.

Last year's birthday cake. Guess who's children know her well?

Last year’s birthday cake. Guess whose children know her well?

There’s a whole host of reasons why I resist the norms of birthday celebrations, why “doing something special” doesn’t appeal to me, but ultimately my reasoning is terribly dull and practical: at the end of whatever hoopla people engage in on their birthdays, after twenty-four hours of sucking whatever specialness can be sucked out of the day, what has changed?

Nothing.

You are still you. I am still me. Life is still life.

Perhaps you are a little fuller from eating cake. Perhaps you are a little more tired from partying hard. Perhaps you had a good laugh, maybe a good cry. Likely your wallet’s a little lighter.

But birthdays don’t change anything — or, to use religious language, birthdays aren’t conversion experiences.

Which is why I find myself perplexed this year as I (re)consider the annual “Pentecost is the Church’s birthday” liturgical theme.

Now maybe your church doesn’t celebrate Pentecost as the birth of the Early Church. In fact, Pentecost may not be a significant Sunday in the life of your congregation at all. But I’ve been a part of some churches that sing “Happy Birthday” during worship and even pass out cupcakes during the children’s time on Pentecost Sunday, and this year I’m wondering: “Why?”

Why sing “Happy Birthday” to ourselves as the Church? What impact does it have on our daily & spiritual lives to celebrate the Church’s birthday? Do our modern birthday habits contribute anything to our understanding of Pentecost? And how (if at all) does the Church’s birthday celebration convert us year after year?

The Pentecost story that we celebrate as the birth of the Early Church was a dramatic, wind-rushing, flame-throwing conversion experience:

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 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. (Acts 2:1-4)

On the birth day of the Church, something changed. Those disciples changed: their fears changed to audacity, their tongues flowed with fluency. The community around them changed: it multiplied and bridged divides as the story of Jesus was heard in many languages.

In our Pentecost birthday celebrations this coming Sunday, what do we expect to change?

Anything?

Despite my personal apathy toward birthdays, I think there’s potential value in using the Pentecost birthday theme in worship as a mechanism to love on ourselves a little bit as the Church (especially as we strive to respond to the statistical decline of American Christianity), in order to change & ease the Church’s anxieties and to nurture our joy so that we might dare more brazenly to be Church.

Notice: in order to. In order to inspire change. If we’re celebrating Pentecost-as-birthday, a pastoral & liturgical purpose beyond chocolate cake is worth identifying.

So perhaps Pentecost-as-birthday emboldens the Church toward change. But regardless of cake and candles: What will be different — in our personal living, in our congregational living — because of this year’s Church birthday? How will Pentecost convert us this Sunday? 

  • Will our bones be turned loose and set dancing? (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
  • Will the beauty and glory of God finally undermine our arrogance until we kneel to care for the earth? (Psalm 104)
  • Will we believe at last that the Spirit is boundless in speaking through the young men and women who are protesting in the streets, who are dreaming new dreams via social media — and, believing that the Spirit is at work, will we finally trust & follow the leadership of these new prophets? (Acts 2:1-21)
  • Will Pentecost bring a conversion of the Church to hope, to possibility, to faith? (Romans 8:22-27)

Birthdays may not be days of guaranteed change in our individual lives, but Pentecost celebrates and continues to call the Church to conversion. How will we celebrate and change this year?

Monday Muse: Thursday is Advent, Friday is Christmas

Yesterday, on June 1, my soul gasped and took a breath of fresh air. On June 1, I remembered that life is full of possibility and hope for renewal. On June 1, I knew that I could revel in joy with every minute of the day.

Why? Because June 1 — and not only June 1, but also May 1 and April 1 and the start of every month — is a resurrection day. It’s pay day!

I love the liturgical year, the cycle of seasons and stories of faith, with each Sunday’s worship marking the progression toward and through the holy days, retelling with each year the plot of God’s love affair with the world. Yet over the past year of my new job, I confess I’ve been paying less attention to the liturgical seasons and more attention to the daily seasons of the American work week: the reluctance of Monday, the almost-there-eagerness of Thursday, the rush of the weekend … and the pure relief of payday.

While the Church marks the liturgical year in fifty-two weeks, the corporate work week gives us its own liturgical cycle in seven days! It’s prompted me to look creatively at how the Christian liturgical year might be expressed within the span of a work week.

Though liturgical purists may decry the following rearrangement of holy seasons and holidays, I wonder how an awareness of the seven-day “liturgical” work cycle might inform and encourage our faith with its new perspective on the seasons of our sacred lives.

  • Monday is Lent, the day when humanity feels hard, the season when we confess what has been done and what has been left undone. Monday reminds us that the world is incessant, that God is demanding, and that we are finite. In Lent as on Mondays, we recommit to the work (or we wrestle with guilt for slacking).
  • Tuesday and Wednesday are Ordinary Time, the longest and frankly least dramatic liturgical season (and days). The Gospel readings in Ordinary Time chart the stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry: healing here, teaching there, walking from town to city, doing the dusty everyday work of God, checking emails, writing reports, meeting people, staffing conference calls, chit-chatting in the copier room, and more. Ordinary Time, ordinary days, ordinary work…and the importance of God within it all, no matter how mundane or uneventful.
  • Thursday is Advent. (Stay with me, purists. I know that I’m bucking every fiber of fondness that you hold for these time-honored, sacred rhythms.) Thursday holds all of Advent’s suspense, the anticipation of coming joy, the hope that surges within us while waiting for The Hope, the rekindling of awareness that time is moving toward something promising.

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  • Ah, Friday! Friday is Christmas. Friday is the day when Joy wakes us up in the morning and sustains us even beyond that first cup of coffee. Friday is the day when the flesh feels redeemed and revived, like the beauty of God in the flesh of an infant. Because it is still a work day, Friday is fleeting and like Christmas Day it refuses to linger, yet still it overflows…
  • …into the luxurious surprise of Saturday, the day of Epiphany, the space in the work week when we have the opportunity to be revealed for who we are in God beyond our paychecks: our gifts, our creativities, our passions, our recreations, our families, even our stillness. Every Saturday is an opportunity for new paths of discovery and new stars of revelation that will shape how we live in the work week to come.
  • Sunday is a complicated holy day in the seven-day liturgical cycle, because the usual activity of worship invites us to engage the community spirit of Pentecost … but the impending work week hovers to crush that very spirit. So I would speculate that Sunday is our weekly Ascension Day: that obscure (to some of us Protestants) holiday when we are awed by heaven yet called to tear our eyes away from glory in order to return to work.
  • And as I hinted above, Easter is payday — be it monthly or semi-monthly or weekly. Easter/Payday jumpstarts our weary spirits, inspires a fresh burst of life, and catches our breath with the promise that Life is greater and more powerful than our workweek lives.

Of the major liturgical holidays that I’ve not managed to adapt to this seven-day cycle, Pentecost stands out in its absence: that holy moment of witnessing the Spirit’s whirling rush, of experiencing the unexpected, of participating in community without barriers or fear. It also makes complete sense to me that Pentecost doesn’t fit the schedule: the spiritual experiences of Pentecost are precisely the spiritual needs that lack space in our work weeks. People long for authentic community; we long for a change of pace; we long for inspiration — and we haven’t figured out how to meet those needs within our usual weekly schedules. Thus Pentecost is found in vacation — those days away from work when community and change and inspiration can be experienced fully.

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Blessings to you, as the Church liturgical calendar turns toward Pentecost … and as this weekly liturgical cycle begins again with Lent.

Monday Muse: Priming Pentecost

It’s Memorial Day in the US, but now that the parade has passed me by (literally), I need to plan Pentecost — that great holy day on the Christian liturgical calendar when we try to be surprised by the Spirit (“What??! Tongues of fire?! We haven’t heard of such things…since last year on Pentecost Sunday!”) … just like we try to be surprised by the unconventional form taken by God in Jesus and celebrated at Christmas (“No. Way. God as the out-of-wedlock son of a Jewish couple living under Roman occupation??! I can’t believe that God is being born into such circumstances…again!”).

How to be surprised once again this Pentecost? How to make room in worship for the Spirit to startle us? How to increase our knowledge and understanding of a familiar faith story?

I am tempted, as I reread Acts 2:1-21, to suggest that our Pentecost worship services include disorienting elements to unsettle our Sunday spiritual routines — oscillating fans blowing loudly (“the rush of violent wind” in 2:2), multiple languages spoken in simultaneous cacophony (2:4) — but the liturgiophile within me cannot quite bear the thought of completely chaotic worship.

So instead, as I plan and prepare for several Pentecost services on my own calendar, I am leaning toward to the activities and images of chaos that appear in the Revised Common Lectionary readings themselves:

– the eclipsed sun and the blood-red moon that accompany seasons rich with prophesy and a poured-out Spirit (Acts 2:17-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32), and what may be dissonant to us: that these dire images are signs of good news;

– the less-familiar story of Numbers 11:24-30, and the truer-than-we-admit actions of Joshua who wishes to control the message and the movement of the LORD’s spirit;

– the monsters of the sea, both small and great in Psalm 104:24-35, cavorting through the waters and responding to the Creator like lap dogs who play and whine and rejoice and beg from their companion-owners;

– the manifestation of the Spirit — not just the gifts of the Spirit to make us all feel special, but the full demonstration of the Spirit within each and every one for the sake of the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7) — which compels us into the worst and most complex chaos of all: community.

Somewhere within this jumble of Spirit-inklings and Spirit-stories, I’m praying for a sermon, a liturgical script and some prayers to emerge. How are your Pentecost plans shaping up for Sunday, June 8th?

Pentecost Prayer

Rush upon us.
Overtake and consume us,
O Holy Fire,
until divisions turn to dusty ashes
and walls of pride collapse.

Spill out over us.
Surround and overwhelm us,
O Satisfying Fountain,
until we waste love’s richness
without measuring cost.

Dance among us.
Well up and erupt within us,
O Dynamic Word,
until our tongues know words of peace
and our souls speak reconciliation.

Cross-posted as the Sunday Prayer at RevGalBlogPals

Before Pentecost

Ah, blessed and beautiful Spirit of God!

If you were a flowering azalea,
I would be a butterfly
resting on your petals and savoring your perfume.

If you were an expansive ocean,
I would be a kid on the beach
chasing the tides and dipping my toes in the surf.

If you were a thick novel,
I would be the avid reader
feasting on your words, delighting in your story.

If you were rich brown coffee beans,
I would reach for you daily
loving your strength, eagerly awaiting your rush of energy.

But for now, before Pentecost, you are the absent companion
and I am the meandering, lackluster disciple
needing enthusiasm, longing for your nearness.