Friday, June 19, 2009

Pentecost 2009
On Sunday, we will celebrate the feast of Pentecost. It is the feast of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and, by extension, us. As the story goes, tongues of fire appeared above the heads of the disciples and they were able to understand all the different languages that were being spoken in their midst and, by extension, all the languages of the world. The fire of God spoke. The fire spoke a Word of love, a Word of understanding, a Word of living with and through the differences of language and custom and time and place and seeing the heart of all of these through the fire of love.
Pentecost, this year, also happens to be my sixty-first birthday. Another step toward or perhaps into geezerhood.
Pentecost is a very heady theme, especially when there is a flame burning on top of it.
Tradition celebrates Pentecost as the birth of the church. Happy Birthday Church, Happy Birthday James. Light the candles. Let the flames burn and let them speak.
Hopefully, I can share with you what I hear.
I was born into the Catholic Church and have seen a lot of changes over the years. I was born into a loving family and have seen a lot of changes there, too. It has been an interesting ride. A Catholic ride with a wonderful family. My grandmother, Julia Rose Preto Behrens, was a Lutheran and she was with us all the years that I was home. Her husband, Henry, died when I was a baby. Gram lived in New Orleans and when Grandpa died she asked my dad if she could stay with us up in Brooklyn for a few weeks and he said sure and drove down to pick her up and she ended up staying with us for more than forty years. What a bright flame she was – I learned more about ecumenism from her than from all the books I ever read on that theme.
I guess I have looked for God all my life. In one way or another, that is nothing special. We all do. Everyone does it. And we do it every day. Even a hard boiled atheist is looking for something that makes sense and has lasting value. The search for God is like looking for the right door, in all its existential variations. A door to goodness, sense, salvation, happiness, freedom from pain and sorrow and, for some of us, the attempt to ease human life of whatever hurts.
I have come to learn, and to try and understand, that there are tongues of fire all over the place. Lots of extensions. The Spirit descended, and, like my grandmother, stayed for good. And, also like my grandmother, there are lasting and wondrously revealed blessings from so long a residence above us, within us, all around us. Everything has something lasting and everything is on fire with God’s love, God’s presence.
Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about one of the basic insights of physics. He was telling me that no matter is ever lost, no matter what its form. Matter and energy have a wondrous relationship. As they interplay with each other, things may look different, even seemingly lost – but in truth there is only a change in form or appearance. Nothing you see or are can be lost – it can only be transformed into something else. Creation was made for and is in the process of transformation. Admittedly, we love to hold onto things as best, as lasting as we can. But the fire at the heart of things has the last word, and that word is change.
When we were kids, we used to wait in the backyard till dusk, when the fireflies or lightning bugs would appear. The fading light of an August day would soon give rise to the night flights of hundreds of lightning bugs, their phosphorescent lights twinkling off and on, making the whole yard look like a big Christmas tree. And we would chase the bugs, catch a few, and place them in Mason jars and watch as tiny creatures glowed with light. Little did I know that I would be chasing after light my whole life, trying to capture its beauty.
I am older now and in this 61st year of my life on this Pentecost day, I am grateful for the life of the church and the life of my years. There have been so many lights, all along the way. I look back and see them, twinkling in the past – lights given off by people of different religious beliefs, people old and young, people soft and hard hearted, people who gave me reason to love, to have faith, and to catch something of the light that they were and are. For I believe that it all still burns in this night of life, for nothing is lost. It just shines in a different yet alive way.
And I wanted to catch so much of that light, and keep it in the jar of my heart, and tighten the lid and keep it. But that was not to be. I moved on and so did those who taught me love by how they lived. On this Pentecost day, I am grateful for each of them, these wondrous lights of my life. And they are in your life, too.
We celebrate the birthday of the church, when the Spirit came and decided to stay. Whether the Spirit resides in a jar, a human heart, a smile or a kind word, the light is the same and it is forever. I may have run to catch it in my youth. I am older now, and will perhaps blow out the candles of the cake, let the lights go, and know that they must, to make room for all that is yet to come.

No comments: