20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
John 20:20-23 NRSV
This week the Holy Spirit comes up in lectionary. Speaking personally for a moment, I had a view of the Holy Spirit when I was a child. I always saw it as feminine. I can remember I used the feminine pronoun all the time. To me, God was non-gender specific, Jesus was male, and the Spirit was female. This was huge for me, as someone who was raised by a father, and no strong female influences nearby. As a child, congregants at my church would simply inquire, "Why are you saying "she"?" I'd be happy to share my theory, and they added nothing more.
It wasn't until I entered high school, and I came across an overzealous Baptist. He heard I was going into ministry. It didn't matter that my high school self believed that was music ministry, and not pulpit ministry, he was going to soundly put me in my place.
Every time I met him, he came with a bible full of little dog ears. At first I discussed the passages with him, but then I realized he was cherry picking, a word here which means he was pulling a single verse without context. (Sorry, I've been reading A Series of Unfortunate Events to my son.) By that time, I had been using contextual analysis for a couple of years. It was basically the only theological tool I could use at that point.
Then he came with the big guns. You know the ones: Paul and Timothy. That's when I realized he was getting outside help, probably from his minister. Once I started getting outside help, well it was over. Both of us had lost, as the conversation reached the point of absurdity.
Anyway, months after our bible battle had ended he heard me refer to the Spirit as "she".
"What are you doing?" He bluntly asked me.
At first I didn't know what he was talking about. Once he clarified, I told him the same thing I'd been telling congregants.
"You're wrong. How can God be non-gender specific, when we call him Father."
Straight to the heart.
Also, the Holy Spirit is a male, and I have bible verses to back it up.
K.O. He destroyed me in two sentences. This is a great example of how the bible is both a tool and a weapon. When used appropriately it can heal, help, guide, and grow. Used incorrectly it can destroy people. I've been destroyed by the bible before.
I don't think this kid realized what he was doing. He was doing more than getting a fellow sister in Christ on the same biblical page. He was severing a very important spiritual connection. I had no self-esteem. I believed I was worthless. I needed to understand how I was made in the image of God. If God couldn't be female, I must not be crafted in that image. Like I said, he destroyed me.
The point: The spirit comes when we don't expect it. It's form is ambiguous on purpose. In the New Testament alone I can name three very different forms.
Of the Earth: Like a dove that drops down on Jesus at his baptism. (I know, I know. We both know this is a really loose connection, but I loved that title so much I had to use it. Yes, it's probably the exact opposite of Earth.)
Wind: In our scripture for today, Jesus breaths the Spirit on the Disciples.
Fire: The Spirit lights upon the Disciples like flame.
The Spirit comes to each of us outside of our knowledge and biblical know-how. It gives us what we need. A gentle drop of love and acceptance, when coming out of the baptismal waters. A promise of connection, no matter what. A fire to keep us going when all seems lost. A realization that all of us are made in God's image, no matter what.
Perhaps our biggest problem today is not in what we can label, but in letting go in what we can't.
I was born into the church. For years I thought Maundy Thursday was "Monday Thursday." I thought Holy Week begins on Monday, and on Thursday we talk about Jesus one last time before the crucifixion. Then one day, I gave my little definition to a congregant, and she responded, "Melissa, Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, not on Monday."
I mention this story because if I, someone who spent an entire lifetime in the church, didn't realize the realize what Maundy Thursday was, I'm sure I'm not alone.
There is some confusion over the origin of the word, "Maundy." Basically, it's a day to celebrate the first communion, and the mandate Jesus gave us:
34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
John 13:34-35 CEB
Many will also add a foot washing. All three are biblically placed in John 13.
Therefore, if you go to your worships tonight, put political discourse, church infighting, and general drama aside. Today we gather around the table to love one another as Christ loved us.
Palm Sunday always takes place the Sunday before Easter, during the Lenten season. It is during this Sunday we are supposed recall how Jesus rode into Jerusalem just days before his crucifixion. According to scripture, when he rode in, people threw down coats and palms before him. They yelled "Hosanna."
In many Protestant churches, we recall this time by having the children bring in the palms, and placing them at the communion table.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week.
28 After Jesus said this, he continued on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. 30 He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’” 32 Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said.
33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34 They replied, “Its master needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. 36 As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.
37 As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. 38 They said,
“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”
39 Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!”
40 He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”
Luke 19:28-40 CEB
This scripture, and pretty much any scripture telling the Palm Sunday story make me very uncomfortable. This mindset has evolved over the generations.
When I was a child, and had no context for Holy Week, it felt fun and innocent. I was one of the kids who carried palms in, dropping them at the Communion table. Palm Sunday was Cantata day. (Cantata here means a bunch of musical selections, sung by the Church choir.) The kids led the way, and the Choir walked in behind. I always wondered, why was it just the kids? Wouldn't the adults want to drop palms too?
College was the time I was frustrated I wasn't learning anything new, and anxious to get into seminary. I began to show interest in other holy days. I wanted to have the ashen cross put on my forehead during Ash Wednesday. I wanted to participate in a Maundy Thursday service. I yearned to know more, and no one was telling me. This was the first time I saw something confusing in Palm Sunday. I had seen Palm Sunday like the pre-party to the Easter celebration. It made Holy Week confusing. Why are we joyfully putting down palms when we are going to be mourning Jesus' death in just a few days? How odd I thought it was that we spend 30+ days in Lenten Preparation, when Palm Sunday just shows up at the end of it. It didn't make sense.
After ordination I ate up resources. I devoured commentary. Seminary didn't teach me everything, but it gave me tools to find it out for myself. My first Palm Sunday as an ordained minister, I was excited to finally do some real research. Opening up my books, I began to read, and the answer was horrifying. This first level of research delved into the word, "Hosanna." Yes, the people where celebrating, but they were celebrating with a word that historically meant, "Save us!" On top of that, I hadn't considered the very people who were joyfully yelling for salvation, were the same people who would also yell, "crucify him!"
There are a few things here that keeps this event from being a simple celebration. Jesus had asked the Disciples to get him something to ride. Was it a colt, a donkey... both? It only matters in that Jesus riding into Jerusalem really looked like a prophecy coming to fruition. While that might make you go "Woo Hoo!" it was enough to bring the Pharisee's out of their prowling silence. At least in the Gospel account of Luke, they had been silent for some time, but they never left. I believe they were waiting for the perfect moment to catch him in a legal argument.
Instead they saw something unexpected. People throwing coats and palm fronds in the road. Jesus riding in like the preordained King that was going to save the Israelites. While the people might not have realized what "Hosanna" meant, the Pharisee's knew. Then the icing on the cake, the Disciples yelling, "Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” The Pharisee's were waiting for their moment, but this moment must have caught them off guard. They yell to Jesus to tell him to shut the Disciples up.
This is not the happy-go-lucky Palm Sunday I participated in as a child. This is dangerous, and no one except Jesus seems to get it.
The people are screaming something they don't even realize they are screaming.
The Disciples are yelling, probably for that warrior king they still think is coming.
The Pharisees are yelling to Jesus, telling him to tell the Disciples to shut up.
Only Jesus, who hears it all. "The rocks would cry out if everyone else was silent." What would they cry? A lament? A hope? I want to hear the rocks. The rocks must have more sense. On Palm Sunday we are all so blind, and nuts. I wanna hear the rocks.
Over the past month, I've slowly read Seeking Imperfection. It is a book written by an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, Rev. Evan Dolive. This all came into being when he saw a Victoria Secrets campaign focused on a girls self-esteem. This did not sit right to Rev. Dolive. He couldn't see how a pair of underwear was going to enhance a girl's self-esteem. It lead him to write an open letter to the company. Then the letter went viral. Fortunately, people wanted more, and he was able to expand his simple message into a full book.
How does it read?
This is a very pastoral book. It is a shepherd talking to a flock. It's not about "us" verses "them," and I wouldn't support it if it were.. Part of the mission of Fig Tree Christian is stitching the Body of Christ back together. The book starts with a basic premise: We are all created in the image of God, and therefore, we shouldn't be seeking what advertising calls "perfect." I fully endorse that message, and I'd hope you would too.
Who is it for?
This book is a minister talking to a congregation, and also a father talking to his future teenage daughter. He writes to both parents and teenagers/tweens. However, I'd focus this book on teenagers specifically. When I was a teenager, I was given I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It did not help my body image. As a girl who was already just fine with waiting for a sexual relationship, Harris' book gave the message that my body was a stumbling block. Why am I bringing this book in comparison to Seeking Imperfection? My generation is lost. The females in particular were raised to be ashamed of their bodies. This book fixes what the 90's did. Doesn't talk about sex, and it doesn't have to. It simply says the reader is beautiful just the way they are. It's a breath of fresh air, and just what today's teenagers need to read.
How to use it?
I strongly consider making this a youth group series. This book is solidly connected to the bible, so there would be weekly connections to scripture. This book solidly understands the current culture outside the church doors, so the youth would be able to connect to it. It's a great book for parents to be reading along with the youth. There are points where Rev. Dolive is directly talking to the parents. Finally, whether it's read by itself or as a group, each chapter ends with reflection questions and a prayer.
I've told this story here before, but for those who were not around the first time, here it is again:
When I was in late elementary school, my grandmother took care of my sister and myself. This means, during the Summer we would go with her to do chores. On one of those days, we were driving home when her car began to smoke. Pulling over into a bus lot, the smoke began to flame. "Quick," she screamed, "run inside and tell them my car is on fire!"
My sister and I walked up to the building, and went in, to see a group of people laughing around a table. I basically said, "My grandma's car is on fire. Please come and help." I said this with little to no inflection.
They laughed at me."Listen, if you can't even tell us seriously, don't even try. Do you want us to call the cops?"
I went back out to my grandma, who was in full panic. "They don't believe me," I told her.
"Well, make them believe you!"
Going back, I stood at the door, and centered myself. Running in this time I emoted, "Help! Help! My grandma's car is on fire, and she needs help!"
Again they laughed. "Are you joking?"
"No. It's really on fire."
"I'll get up and look, but if there is no car, I'm calling the cops."
"Fine!" At this point, I just wanted someone to step outside to see the car that was beginning to flame.
The woman stood up and stepped outside. A second later, she came in, in a panic. "Her Grandma's car is on fire! Quick! Get the fire extinguisher!"
I later found out my uncle had push the cigarette lighter in, and forgot to pull it back out. (For you youngins' out there, the cigarette lighter used to be a standard feature in a car. It's basically where the car charger is now.) It turned out the vehicle was just a little singed. I learned a lesson that day about perception, and the power of language. How we say something is sometimes more important than what we say.
Anyway, I realized something about myself. I've been described, especially recently, as centered and calm. I'm not prone to losing control when trauma hits. This is really good when trauma hits me personally, because I am able to stay rational and calm. This is really not good when it comes to getting others on board with something vitally important. They want to hear fear. They want to hear worry. If others are already feeling those emotions, I can calm them down. If they are not, it is difficult for me to emote the danger ahead.
That's the problem I've been having. Churches are dying. Congregants are getting seriously damaged by these churches. We are becoming a poison when we should be a balm. Those who have personally felt that damage completely understand what I'm saying, but that's because they are personally feeling it. We need to reach those who are unknowingly inflicting that damage. That's where I've failed. The church is really on fire, and it's not the Holy Spirit kind. This kind burns and scars. I need to leave the room, center myself, and come back in:
THE CHURCH NEEDS REVITALIZATION!! THE CHURCH NEEDS HELP!! Please, just do some research. Please, just dig a little. If you have to tell me, you'll call me a loony if I'm wrong, fine! I just need to you leave these doors and see what I see. This doesn't exist because I want to explore the internet frontier. This exists because I felt that pain first hand, and since then I've been hearing of others who have felt the same pain. This is an epidemic! This is serious! Stop playing church, and start healing it. We are running out of time to sit in our ivory towers and laugh it up. (Most of us stopped laughing anyway.) Get up and move, before it's too late!