Standing by his bed in the hospital, I didn’t know what to say. His skin was melting off him. He looked like a cake that someone had frosted too quick out of the oven. His breathing was labored, and when he talked it sounded as though he were gargling a square yard of gravel. He hated the fact I was there. I was a symbol of everything that pained him in life. I hated the fact I was there too.
I was at that bedside because Charlie brought me. Charlie is a person of deep faith, and he believed that I might say something of value to his alcoholic friend who had drunk himself near to death. I had no idea what to say–and I couldn’t hide my shock when I first saw the man’s wasted body. Still I had to say something, anything. I paused, rubbed my sweaty palms together (the Churches of Christ version of adjusting the clerical collar), and stuttered to the skeleton in front of me. “God loves you.” His weak eyes told me that I could save my God talk for someone who cared to listen. He had heard plenty of God talk in his life, and none of it was pitched in the key of love.
Vermont, like most of the United States of America, is a deeply divided community. On the one hand it is known for its progressive politics and it granola-like subculture. On the other hand it is populated with salt-of-the earth farmers who work rural strips of slow changing farm land, and who cling to the way life is, or perhaps the way life used to be, with steely grips born from the hard work of steadying a plow and swinging and axe. When in the year 2000 the state of Vermont passed a bill allowing civil unions for same sex couples, this dichotomous population could no longer live in harmony. An aggressive counter campaign in reaction to the new civil unions was launched with the slogan “Take Back Vermont.” Signs were printed by the thousands, and they were regular fixtures on farm tractors and barns. The signs were most prominent in Washington County where the little church I ministered to set up shop in an old Grange Hall in the capital city of Montpelier. One farmer, not far from the grange hall, copied the font and the color of the sign and had the entire side of the his two story barn turned into a billboard of protest (billboards are otherwise illegal in the state). The tension was thick. People got into arguments standing in line at the bank, or at the donut shop, or at high school basketball games. The partisan bickering only worsened when the states Governor, Howard Dean, became a major player in the national democratic primaries for the presidential election. The rhetoric on both sides boiled over. Tempers exploded into mass eruptions of ad hominem and vitriol. Families were divided. Friendships were lost. Our little struggling church stood on the sidelines of the quote/unquote “culture wars” with straight faces and our hands in our pockets–we didn’t want anything to do with the highly combustible issue. So we sang songs, took communion, and prayed.
Any of that sound familiar? I haven’t seen any angry billboards this past week since President Obama came out in favor of homosexual marriage. But who needs billboards, we have Facebook.
It wasn’t just the combustible nature of the issue that bothered our church body. We had a little family ‘secret’ that was only mentioned in hushed whispers, and always with the greatest of care. Charlie was that secret.
Charlie was a son of the congregation. His parents were much loved early leaders of the church. They had started a successful small business and as the business grew the family, and the church, reaped the rewards of their hard labor. They were good and responsible citizens and so their earnings were not squandered, and their hearts were bent toward benevolence. Charlie’s father was well respected in the community, he purchased property and became a landlord to many, he was known as a fair and equitable man. Charlie remembered to me one occasion driving with his father in Winter. They happened upon an accident, and a man was lying in the road injured. Charlie’s father removed his new full length winter top coat and gingerly laid it on the hurt and bleeding man, and knelt beside the man shivering until help arrived. He told me the story with tears in his eyes. Charlie’s mother was likewise respected, doing many charitable acts but never flaunting her philanthropy.
Charlie continues his parent’s legacy of kindness and generosity. I have met few people like him. He was dear to my family, and still is. When Manny was an infant and had a seizure on a Sunday morning, but was half a State away being cared for in a distant hospital, it was Charlie who drove me in a blinding snowstorm across the dangerous Orange Heights to reach him. When money was tight for a member in the church, it was Charlie that came to me with an anonymous donation. When someone in the community was ill, like Charlie’s dying friend, it was Charlie that dragged me over to be at their bedside, it was Charlie that cooked and delivered a meal, it was Charlie that shoveled their driveway. Charlie knew what was happening in the lives of everyone in the church and everyone of his tenants. From what my father tells me, since I moved away, nothing has changed. Every person Charlie meets is fully human in his eyes, and worthy, and deserving of human kindness. It means a great deal to me, because when I left Vermont Charlie began caring for my parents like they were his own.
When I applied for the ministry position at the West Islip Church of Christ I needed references. Charlie wrote me one. When I sat in my first council meeting it was told me that his reference letter had sent my resume to the top of the stack. I have been here for almost seven years now, I have completed my master’s degree, I have grown leaps and bounds in my understanding of the world around me, and it’s in large part because of Charlie.
Not one person, so far as I know, that Charlie cared for benefited Charlie in some economic way. Indeed, many of his tenants took advantage of his generosity, and ruined his property, causing him more harm than good. But Charlie kept being Charlie, which was why, on that day, I sat at the bedside of the dying alcoholic trying desperately to say something of meaning. But there was too much pain for him to hear me.
The deep heart pain of the dying man was from a lifetime of rejection. The dying man was gay. That’s the reason Charlie knew him. Charlie is gay too. No, Charlie and the dying man were not ‘lovers,’ or ‘partners.’ They were just friends. Friends who held a pain in common, and who understood each other’s wounds and fears. I never did come up with anything good to say. It wouldn’t have mattered. The big sign on the two story barn was all the dying man heard when he thought of God and the church. He’s not alone. In her new book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters Sarah Cunningham reports that when asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was not “loving” or “benevolent” or “forgiving” but “antihomosexual.” This was true for 91 percent of non-Christians and 80 percent of church goers. Charlie was trying to do good in bringing me to the dying man’s bedside, but I never stood a chance.
When we read the first ten chapters of the book of Acts we want to clap. The beginning of Christianity (i.e. ‘the Way’) is a great story. The Spirit is so progressive and daring, and the early Christians are courageous and willing servants. It makes us proud to be a part of a Spirit-led world-changing phenomenon. But should the text of Acts make us proud, or a little nervous?
I need to warn you, be careful how eagerly you applaud the Spirit. It’s a trap. Our historical and cultural distance from the events of the book of Acts makes it too easy for us to bang out palms together in a Holy Spirit pep rally, and we have no idea what we are applauding. The Holy Spirit is out of control and the Spirit is no friend of our ideas and understandings about God and the world. Why? Because those ideas and understandings are imperfect and in need of sanctification. The Spirit is not interested one bit in protecting the way we are. On the contrary, the Spirit is on continuing mission to deconstruct the parts of us that are not like God, and to rebuild us again. The first ten chapters of the book of Acts is the Spirit as wrecking ball. It bursts through the walls of the upper room in Jerusalem, and it spills debris all over the crowded streets of the Holy City of Jerusalem. People begin yelling and screaming, and running for their lives. The Spirit was out of control then, and the Spirit is out of control now.
When the disciples asked the resurrected Christ in Acts 1:6, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus answered, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus then ascended into heaven, the Spirit came slamming into the sides of buildings, and all craziness broke loose.
At first blush it doesn’t sound that drastic. Jews from all over the ancient world, who did not share a common language, gathered at Jerusalem for the Pentecost, and heard the disciples speaking in Spirit-enabled tongues. Peter got up on the day of the promised Spirit’s outpouring to answer a few naysayers and interpreted the event as a fulfillment of Joel’s ancient prophecy, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Good, we say. That’s how it should be–an all-inclusive God who gives liberally. Pour it out God! On everybody! On “all flesh!” Let it be known how great and far reaching is the grace of God!
Really? Are we sure? We do know that all flesh means all flesh, right? We do know it’s the Spirit’s initiative and not ours? We do know that the Spirit is sovereign and what we say is not? We do know the spirit is an out of control wrecking ball?
The friends of Peter could have stacked up hundreds of scriptures in protest, one upon another, when Peter went knocking on Cornelius’s door? Are you a fool, Peter? Haven’t you heard that it was said…? In contrast the author of Acts does not once justify the inclusion of Cornelius in the people of God in Acts 10 with an appeal to Old Testament scripture. Why? Because then the naysayers would have sunk the quoted text in a deep interpretative quagmire. The Old Testament is ambiguous at best in its message about the nations. In some texts Israel was to be a blessing to the gentiles, but only as the gentiles were drawn to the Holy mountain Zion. Nobody was going out to Caesarea, named after the Imperial throne, and knocking on Centurion’s doors. Caesarea and its artificial harbor were built by the hated Herod the Great as a magnificent and strategic Greco-Roman city in occupied Judea. Many Jews refused to acknowledge Caesarea as a part of Judea and called it “the daughter of Edom.” It was ludicrous–the Christian mission went to the local symbol of Imperialism to offer the olive branch! Someone was sure to point out that the oppression of God’s people was cause for vindication, retribution, and revenge in the Hebrew scriptures, not for inclusion. God would pay the oppressors back. The prophet Nahum writes to imperial Assyria, “A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger but great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.” This centurion was guilty. He was part of imperial Rome and a leading soldier in their war machine. God would have his head on a spike!
Peter himself can’t believe it. He’s given three looks at the same vision and he’s still scratching his head. After a whirlwind of events brings Peter to Cornelius’s house Peter admits to Cornelius that Peter’s presence at Cornelius’s house goes against Peter’s strongly held religious beliefs, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile…” To the Jews of the second temple period, which the first disciples of Jesus were, Jewish distinctives, privileges, and separatism and the rules associated with them were of divine origin. They could go to book chapter and verse to prove it. And who could blame them for thinking so. How could such a wide sweeping action as the full inclusion of Cornelius and family, that seemed to alter their distinctives, privileges, and separatism be justified?
Peter provided the answer, “…but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” How did Peter come to know this? The wrecking ball brought a fresh vision! The Spirit told him. The Spirit gave him something new in life that led him to reinvestigate and reinterpret all that came before. Even then he never dreamed he’d have to eat with them. Peter had no idea what was happening. He just knew and believed that God was active and alive, and was doing new things in the name of Jesus in his own day. Peter opened the window of opportunity a mere crack, and with that a solid steel wrecking ball demolished the side of his house. The Spirit poured itself out on all flesh, and there was nothing the ancient texts could say about it. Nahum was old wine, and these were new wine skins.
When the Spirit came Peter had two options: deny it, or change. The change came slowly. After his monumental triumph of baptizing Cornelius and his family, Peter still needed to grow in his understanding of all that God had told him. Peter still needed the sanctifying presence of the one ton wrecking ball.
You and I need it too.
I can’t speak for God. I used to think I could. But I know better now. I can read scripture, and I can offer my testimony as a drop of water in a sea of our great tradition as I try to make sense of the divine presence we all feel in our lives. But the Spirit is free to send a wrecking ball through anything I might say or anything I might believe. Peter didn’t get a chance to finish his sermon to Cornelius and family before the Spirit crashed through the ceiling and the gentile Pentecost was in full swing.
I confess I don’t always know what to do with partisan tension and two story billboards. I don’t know what do to with hell holes like Caesarea, and arrogant imperialists like Roman centurions. I don’t know what to say to dying men. Should I say with the apostle Paul in Romans 1:27, you are receiving “the due penalty for [your own] error.” Or should I say, “God loves you.” I confess to you that I believe I chose rightly. I just wish he could have heard.
I confess that I also don’t always know what to do with little church secrets. This I do know. The Spirit is sovereign, and the Spirit is out of my control. I can’t deny the Spirit’s presence, and I can’t gloss over the outpouring of the Spirit’s gifts in someone’s life. And where the wrecking ball is so is the Father and the Son, and as Peter came to know, so are the people of God.