Crash helmets


When I was in my first attempt at seminary, at Yale, there was a wonderful man who I'll call Bob who did most of the maintenance and ground work at the seminary. He loved the seminarians and the seminary, but he was a little dubious about the quality of prayer that the starry-eyed, seminarians engaged in. The quantity was fine, you understand, but he was relatively certain that there was a certain spirit lacking in our prayer lives. And he had, for many years, undertaken a campaign to correct this lack. He would pick a seminarian coming out of Morning or Evening prayer, a seminarian with a certain look. The look that says, “I'm thinking about the 200 pages of Barth's Dogmatics that have to be navigated by lunchtime”, or “the latest committee to be tackled in the ordination process,” and Bob would say, quite innocently “Have you been praying this morning?” The seminarian would inevitably respond “Yes.”

“You sure you've been praying?”


And then Bob would spring the trap: “How come it doesn't feel like you've been praying?”

There is a certain formality and reserve to worship in the Episcopal Church, especially very high catholic worship which seems too many people to be at odds with the free-flowing coming and movement of the Holy Spirit described in the readings for today. You can see it not only in our worship but in our iconography. In the Lady Chapel, the center panel on the reredos of the altar is a depiction of Pentecost, the descent of the Spirit upon the disciples. As I stand there, week in and week out, I have spent a good deal of time looking at that panel. It seems to me somehow very tame and proper. The disciples are all sitting rather stiffly and demurely, and the Spirit, depicted by a dove is radiating power out into their midst. Perhaps it is the setting or the medium but that depiction of Pentecost always seems a little staid to me, a little too tame. There is, for instance, no sense that you might mistake the disciples for rowdy drunks, as some of the bystanders did.

Some of my favorite modern writing on the Holy Spirit is not from a theologian, but from the writer Annie Dillard, and at one point, writing about formality and the Holy Spirit she says this:

The higher Christian churches come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.

We, certainly would be shocked if the roof was shattered and the Spirit descended. And we do tend to be professional in our approach to God, and we are also certainly uncomfortable with the more visceral expressions of the Spirit's power, that you might see in charismatic church, with speaking in tongues and waving of hands. We much prefer the benign summoning of the Spirit and the quiet expectation that it will somehow descend in a dignified manner during those sacramental moments of baptism, Eucharist and the other rites.

Yet if we know anything, we know that the wind of the Spirit blows where it wills, we know that there is nothing that we can do to predict or restrict the movement of the Spirit, and that God is good, but not safe, and certainly not predictable. The litany of interactions between the human race and God are a litany of surprises, of Damascus roads, of burning bushes and of God choosing to work through flawed, or dubious people to bring about the fulfilling of his purposes.

Which makes our professionalism, our intentional lack of awareness when it comes to the Spirit so amusing. Elsewhere in her writing, Annie Dillard speculates about the manner in which we should approach this Sunday morning hour:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

Wouldn't you think twice about coming in the Fiske Doors if an usher was there, with a crash helmet to hand you. “Sometimes,” the usher might whisper to you, “the Spirit gets a little rowdy in here.”

Wouldn't we be shocked and stunned if our doughty servers suddenly began speaking in tongues, or collapsed around the altar slain in the Spirit?

Wouldn't it be a sobering experience for the priests here at St. Mark's, if, as we were vesting for mass, we also tied on a rope, like the high priests of Israel did before entering the Holy of Holies, just in case we suddenly expired because of our unworthiness or our close proximity to the jealous and dangerous Holy?

What the disciples discovered that first Pentecost, what Annie Dillard is pointing out is a simple truism: it is daylight-madness to expect to interact with the Living God, and get away unscathed.

Despite sauntering through the liturgy, despite all evidence to the contrary, do we indeed believe a word of it? Do we believe a word of this Pentecost story? Do we think that the Spirit will still move in our midst with power, inspiring us to change the world and lose our lives in God? Do we go into each service expecting the Spirit to burst into our midst or are we more likely to wander through the liturgy without thinking about what we are doing and saying, without expecting the explosive out-breaking of the Spirit’s power?

I have a creeping sense that perhaps I am not the only one who feels a sense of entropy, as if the gifts of the Spirit are well nigh spent. There are times when it feels like the power which came upon the first disciples with such force is lost to us, or has slowly, over generations and generations been diluted. Where is the gift of prophesy, I wonder, when governments make immoral decisions and when the Church comes to backbiting and near-blows over what seem to be foolish things? Where are those spiritual gifts, when the Church seems tired, staid, declining? Where is the gift of healing when someone close to me sickens? There are times, and this is just me personally, when I stand at the altar and wonder if ordination is really only a method of ensuring that I’m at the very epicenter of the kill zone, when God wakes up and wonders just who that miserable priest is who is calling the Holy Spirit to descend upon those gifts.

All of which is to say that the Holy Spirit is high mystery, and as much as we would like to, we cannot describe or explain or even ever fully recognize the movement of that Spirit within our lives, our churches or the world.

But the Spirit is moving. Even when we cannot see it, even when it seems as if the power of the Spirit has left us, we know that the Spirit is moving. We know because the hungry are fed and the poor cared for, we know because the Spirit still draws people into our midst, to journey with us as a community, as it did fifty and a hundred years ago.

And we know because there is just somewhere in us the needling little fear that Spirit might indeed disrupt our well-rehearsed worship, our certainties and formalities. That the TNT we’ve been mixing this morning might actually go off. That just at the moments when we are sure that we have figured out God, that we have a theological system to capture and describe the Divine one, when we are sure of our correctness in thinking about God’s actions in the Scriptures, or God’s nature, or God’s likes and dislikes; just at that moment, when we are proud and certain, we know enough reach for our crash helmets, or grab for one of those nice ropes for reserving pews, and begin to lashing ourselves down. We know that the Spirit is moving because we know that in our pride and arrogance, the Spirit will be there, waiting to blow our birettas off, and roll us vestments and all, helter skelter down the aisle, to fetch up at the soup kitchen, or at our mission parish, St. James the Less, or at the ends of the earth. When our eyes have cleared from the explosion, and we have dusted the Damascus road off ourselves, and settled into something resembling composure, that same Spirit will begin to speak in and through us, telling the story of what God has done for us. As the Spirit has done in generations before us, and in the generations yet to come, until the end of the ages.


Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Pentecost, 31 May 2009

Posted on June 2, 2009 .