Saturday, May 26, 2012

Born into Diversity

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability… And at this sound the crowd was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. (Acts 2.4,6)


Not long ago I joined a group of HIV specialists for a diversity and inclusion (D&I) workshop. A group of actors played out a typical meeting scenario, where colleagues felt at ease with one another while discussing business. We were asked to listen closely for “unconscious” signals of inequities and assumptions based on gender, orientation, ethnicity, etc. Some were glaringly inappropriate. But most were extremely subtle and many seemed unintentional. “What we say matters,” the session facilitator told us. “And if we truly want to foster a diverse, inclusive environment, we need to use language that respects differences.” We all nodded in agreement—that’s the perennial moral in D&I training. Yet this session’s emphasis on unconscious breeches left us uneasy. Is never offending possible if one doesn’t always realize his/her language gives offense? As we wrestled with this idea, the gentleman next to me sighed, “Sometimes I think this stuff asks too much. As hard as you try, you can’t get it 100% right.”

Which brings us to Pentecost and why commemorating this major event—often called the “birth of the Church”—is so essential. While the gift of the Holy Spirit is, without question, the greatest miracle ever bestowed on the Body of Christ, it comes in such a way as to remove all doubt that God intends the Church to be a radically diverse and inclusive community. That is the second Pentecostal miracle, and it’s one we should celebrate to the full. When we revisit the extraordinary goings-on in Acts 2.1-21, we see more than fulfillment of Jesus’s promise to provide a Comforter to care for His followers. We witness a definitive declaration that forever throws open the doors of the Church to all people. In a gust of violent wind and fiery flashes, the Holy Spirit blows away every thought of exclusion and burns up any presumption that this great gift belongs to a select few. And how does the Spirit manifest this miracle? It uses languageunconscious language that speaks to everyone, believer and non-believer alike.

Above Their Limitations

Before we get to how this happens, suppose we glance around the Upper Room to see who’s there. We find a group of regular folks with no social or political agenda. We’d be hard-pressed to label them “progressives,” as they have no voice in their culture and what we’ve observed of them in the Gospels reveals decidedly shallow understanding of the world’s ways. What’s more, they’re surrounded by uncertainty. Their Leader has vanished into thin air. His recent execution puts them on the wrong side of history, leaving them vulnerable to persecution and potential death. Once again, they’re behind closed doors, just as they were after the crucifixion, waiting for something—who knows what, exactly—to offer them guidance. They’re afraid. And since fear is the root of bigotry and suspicion, we can safely say the 120 who faithfully anticipate the Holy Spirit’s descent are a diversity train wreck waiting to happen. The barriers discouraging acceptance of outsiders are seemingly insurmountable and if they’re to realize Jesus’s command to reach the entire world, they’ll have to rise above their limitations. So the first thing the Spirit changes is their language.

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability,” Acts 2.4 reports. This phenomenon—glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues”—becomes the Church’s calling card. Verses 6-8 tell us, “At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’” Verse 11 lists 15 different nationalities that are present and hear the Upper Room believers “speaking about God’s deeds of power.” And we should be very clear here. This is not ecstatic gibberish or personal “prayer languages” that the crowd hears. It’s a linguistic miracle that simultaneously confesses and verifies the Holy Spirit’s presence in the disciples’ faith community. It employs transformed speech to tear down cultural walls and overcome every fear that prohibits inclusion. Now the apostolic commission is achievable just as Christ said it would be: “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.” (Acts 1.8) Not only does the Spirit equip Christ’s followers to walk the walk; it empowers them to talk the talk.

Welcoming Witness

In no uncertain terms, Pentecost confirms that the Church is born into diversity. The Holy Spirit’s manifest presence in the Body of Christ erases all borders and rejects any possible excuse for religious rejection. It enjoins us to abandon all conscious reasoning for exclusion so we may speak God’s power to “the ends of the earth.” It makes a welcoming witness available to every believer—a spiritual language that resonates with people of every creed and kind. It is our Mother Tongue and when we revert to insular, exclusionary dialects, we make a mockery of this amazing communication skill that God has entrusted to us.

Pentecost unites us in a language of love that transforms how we view others and what we say to them. It’s the antidote to “unconscious” signals that defeat diversity and inclusion, as it, too, should be unconscious. It should come so naturally to us that we embrace everyone we meet without reservation. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13.1. And in Luke 6.45 Jesus says, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” The inexplicable clamor that ushers in the Holy Spirit isn’t what Pentecost is about. Pentecost is proof of what happens when we yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s enabling power to express God’s all-inclusive, unconditional love to everyone who will listen.

When the astounded foreigners ask, “What does this mean?” (v12) Peter explains that it’s the fulfillment of God’s promise to “pour out My Spirit upon all flesh.” (v17; emphasis added) And he wraps up his explanation by telling those who’ve gathered to find out what’s going on: “The promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls.” (v39) All flesh… you, your children… all who are far away… everyone. Sure sounds like radical D&I to me.

The second miracle of Pentecost is manifest when the Holy Spirit transforms the disciples’ speech so that diversity and inclusion barriers fall at the moment of the Church’s birth.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 4.6)

Pinnacle of Hope

An extraordinary passage of Scripture surfaces in today’s lectionary readings—no doubt chosen for its relevance in the run-up to this weekend’s Feast of Pentecost. It comes from Zechariah, a complex record of divine messages and visions given to the prophet as the Jews come home after 70 years in Babylonian exile. Much of Zechariah finds scholars scratching their heads, trying to sort out the historical, political, and theological layers tightly compressed in God’s promise to resurrect the nation after its long night of sorrow and loss. Yet ever so often a thrilling shaft of light breaks through, the most famous in Zechariah 4.6: “Not by might, nor by power, but my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” The allusion to God’s Spirit—which operates in a way that transcends might and power—makes the text a timely precursor to Pentecost’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit. “Don’t look for this thing to happen like anything you’ve known or seen,” it says. Then, when we take a moment or two to discover what “this thing” is, it knocks our socks off.

The message is forwarded through Zechariah to Zerubbabel, a prince appointed to reestablish the Jewish nation and, most important, rebuild the Temple the Babylonians destroyed while sacking Jerusalem. The original Temple sat atop Mt. Zion, the city’s highest peak. Prior to the Babylonian conquest, it shone as the Jews’ pinnacle of hope—hard proof of God’s faithfulness to them. After centuries of looking to the Temple to inspire future hope, all that remains on Mt. Zion is the rubble of dashed dreams. So great is the people’s attachment to the Temple that Psalm 137 says the Babylonian exiles wept when they remembered Zion. Now that the Jews are returning home, reconstructing the Temple is the first order of business. More than that, refuting lost hope is of vital importance.

Ten Soft-Spoken Words

Perhaps the best way to tap into the epic emotions riding on this enormous project is comparing it to the devastation we felt on 9/11, as well as our urgency to replace the World Trade Center with something more magnificent and richer in meaning. Anything less would mean the terrorists won, we said. The same drive to surpass the glory of Solomon’s Temple weighs heavily on Zerubabbel and the Jews. And given their primitive circumstances, I don’t believe we can begin to comprehend how overwhelmed Zerubabbel and the people must feel. Their entire land has been decimated. Their financial means and skill sets are woefully inadequate. What’s more, the young people Zerubabbel must rely on to do the hard labor never saw the first Temple. To a one, they were born after its destruction and it’s very possible that the will to see its resurrection through isn’t there.

To give us an idea of how long 70 years is, consider this: seven decades ago we were in the throes of World War Two. Now imagine we’d lost that war and spent 70 years under Nazi oppression. Could we possibly marshal our energy to restore our former glory? That’s what Zerubbabel is up against—with the added challenge of rebuilding the demolished Temple by hand. He feels powerless, totally incapable of the job he’s been given. And God’s answer to his long list of questions comes in ten soft-spoken words: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit.” If we were in Zerubabbel’s position, how would we respond? My best would be, “Okay… if You say so…”

Zechariah doesn’t chronicle Zerubabbel’s direct response to God’s message. But this we know. He and those working with him make astonishing progress in the Temple project. Although it takes many generations, glory returns to Mt. Zion. The second Temple becomes something far greater than the first: it’s a testament to God’s Spirit—not political might or human power. And it is this Temple where Jesus preaches, heals, and declares the New Order of God’s grace for all of humanity.

Our Life’s Work

To source timeless truth in biblical prophecy, we first liberate the text from its historical import so we can apply its principles to our lives and times. So we read Zechariah with eyes wide open for a word God would have us know today. To be sure, this text speaks broadly to all believers, promising eternal sustenance and restoration through God’s Spirit. But I would also encourage us to ponder it in the context of spiritual exile and reconstructing a Temple worthy of Isaiah 56—another post-Babylonian prophecy, which promises a place of welcome for outcasts and foreigners: “These I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer… for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (v7; emphasis added) Thus, this prophecy comes to everyone who’s been forced into exile by exclusionary doctrine, to those alienated by false doctrines of fear and condemnation, to every child of God who’s lost hope and weeps when recalling the towering promise of grace that once secured their trust in God’s Word. And it’s especially relevant to all of us who’ve heard God’s voice convene a great homecoming for every faith exile. The task of rebuilding a Church in ruins, a people ravaged by the deceit of sexism and homophobia and legalistic bullying, seems too enormous to undertake. Our first impulse leads us to assert power and amass force to complete the task. But God would say to us, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit.”

Reconstructing a Church that shines forth as hard proof of God’s faithfulness and the Spirit’s renewal will take a long, long time—in all probability, longer than any of us will live. Many of the returning exiles know nothing of the Church’s true significance as a homeland for their souls. To them, it’s just a fabled institution that’s fallen to corrupt powers. They look to Zion and all they see are crumbling reminders of broken ideals. We must speak this word to them—telling them that God’s Spirit transcends might and power, and God’s promises are eternally true. We are in the first stages of an historic homecoming that will triumph in the building of a House of Prayer for All Peoples. Every gender, orientation, ethnicity, class, and personal circumstance will be welcome. We who hear God’s voice and trust God’s Word must make this effort our life’s work. Progress will be slow, but providence will prevail. This is God’s promise to us. And it is true.

Though the task of rebuilding the Church into a House of Prayer for All Peoples is enormous, God promises we will succeed—not by might nor power, but by God’s Spirit.