Cleveland Park Church
May 19, 2013
The story we have today in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles is, of course, a fascinating story and worthy of our full and undivided attention. But we decided to focus today more on the subject of this story, namely the work of the Holy Spirit, and how the Spirit works with us today. To assist us in that focus I am going to lead you in some brief and easy movements of body and breath. And I am going read you a children’s’ story and tell a rather long personal story. I don’t believe I have ever done that in my sermons here or anywhere else. I learned the art of preaching from people who warned against personal stories from the pulpit. The personality of the preacher is of no interest in the Calvinist tradition. The preacher’s job is just to illuminate the scriptures.
So in a nod to our Calvinist tradition, let me say just a few words about the Book of Acts. Biblical scholars have ripped into the book and concluded that much of it could not have happened the way St. Luke says it did. But we cannot help concluding that something extraordinary obviously happened. Something very important happened to these people whom the Gospels all portray as none too competent and in Paul’s case none too nice. Something happened to these mostly illiterate people to make them fearless public speakers who changed the world some 2,000 years ago and whose preaching and example is still sending out shock waves.
Luke tells us that a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind and it filled all the house where they were sitting, and tongues as of fire appeared and rested upon each of the disciples. Did it happen exactly like this? Does this sort of thing still happen? Does God still intervene in our lives like this? Is there anything we can do to make God intervene?
These are difficult questions to answer, and as we attempt to answer them we are at ground zero of some of the most disputed territory in the history of Christianity.
As a congregational church, we are the direct descendants of some people, Augustine, Luther, Calvin who taught that there is not much we can do about the workings of God and the Holy Spirit. God is sovereign and we people are such flawed creatures that there is really nothing we can do to merit God’s love. The Sovereign deity simply chooses whom to save. All we can do is celebrate the fact of salvation with the singing of hymns and attending to the Word of God.
On the other hand, an equally distinguished group of theologians including Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, St. Ignatius and a contemporary of Augustine named Pelagius asserted to the contrary that people are not completely depraved and are capable of doing at least a few things to make it easier for God to work through us. This has become the more popular tradition in recent years.
Whatever your view of the matter, please know that you are welcome in church this morning. If you’re a Wesleyan, we thank you for choosing to come; if you’re a strict Calvinist, thank God for bringing you here.
And now we’re going to engage in a little Wesleyan experiment. We’re going to do just a little something that may help the Spirit work through us this morning & who knows, perhaps for the rest of the week.
But first, I’m going to read you a story from The House at Pooh Corner. I’m sure you have read it but perhaps you have forgotten that one day Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit went out for a walk on a misty overcast day, got lost and ended up in a sand-pit at the top of the forest. Every time they left the sand-pit in an effort to get home, they somehow ended up back at the sand-pit. While Pooh and Piglet confessed to being hopelessly lost, Rabbit stoutly maintained that he knew where they were and could easily find the way home if only they would try again. So Pooh devised a little test: Rabbit, if you’re so smart, can you leave us and hop away a hundred yards or so into the mist and find your way back?
“If I walked away from this Pit, and then walked back to it, of course I should find it,” said Rabbit.
“Well, I just thought perhaps you wouldn’t,” said Pooh. “I just thought.”
“Try,” said Piglet suddenly. “We’ll wait here for you.”
Rabbit gave a laugh to show how silly Piglet was, and walked into the mist. After he had gone a hundred yards, he turned and walked back again . . . and after Pooh and Piglet had waited twenty minutes for him, Pooh got up.
“I just thought,” said Pooh. “Now then , Piglet, let’s go home.”
But, Pooh,” cried Piglet, all excited, “do you know the way?”
“No,” said Pooh. “But there are twelve pots of honey in my cupboard, and they’ve been calling to me for hours. I couldn’t hear them properly before, because Rabbit would talk, but if nobody says anything except those twelve pots, I think, Piglet, I shall know where they’re calling from. Come on.”
They walked off together; and for a long time Piglet said nothing, so as not to interrupt the pots; and then suddenly he made a squeaky noise . . . and an oo-noise . . . because he now began to know where he was; but he still didn’t dare say so out loud, in case he wasn’t. And just when he was getting so sure of himself that it didn’t matter whether the pots went on calling or not, there was a shout from in front of them, and out of the mist came Christopher Robin.
So you see, the calm, centered self, aka Pooh Bear, can indeed save itself provided, of course, that it banishes the ever-chattering, distracting, multi-tasking, self-deceived self.
Now we’re going to investigate this truth through movement.
I then led the congregation through four movements: Seaweed, Upper Body Twist, Half-Moon and Chair.
People have been moving in imitation of nature for some 100,00 years
Directions: Breathe evenly and deeply. Accept that you are who you are, where you are and how you are & see then if you can bend or twist a little more. Then just maybe the Holy Spirit may come along and give you a little nudge.
And that little nudge might be a lot.
Thank you for your cooperation, for bending, stretching and breathing.
Now remember I promised you another story, a story that partly explains how I got interested in movement, breath and so on and might give us something to think about.
The story begins at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, in September of 1974, almost forty years ago. One of the first people I met there was Eugenia Lee Hancock of Bluefield, West Virginia. We met one evening in the makeshift student pub in the basement of the vast complex of gothic towers on 120th and Broadway in New York City. Somehow I found myself in a small group of people, no more than three or four, and Lee was telling us what she had done that summer.
Because of her lifelong activity in youth groups or whatever, she had been part of a rather lengthy series of conversations with various leaders of the Presbyterian Church, elders, presbyters, executive presbyters, ministers, lay people, and a youth delegate on the topic of church renewal; or in terms of our purpose today, how to fill churches with the Holy Spirit. Somehow discussion of the human potential movement came up and these Presbyterians decided that it was worth looking into for its relevance to church renewal, which surely made Luther, Calvin and Augustine, looking down from heaven extremely nervous. The Presbyterians decided that they should look into the matter at the source, namely the Esalen Institute and that they should send someone there to investigate and report back and decided further that the youth delegate should be the one to go, to the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, on the central coast of California, where mountains rise immediately out of the ocean , where hot water gushes out of the ground and is channeled into enormous stone bathtubs that can comfortably fit about a dozen people at a time. There went Eugenia Lee Hancock of Bluefield, West Virginia, 23 years of age, for one month, all expenses paid, take as many workshops as you want and report back.
That evening she was still aglow from the experience. It was obvious that something very important had happened during this month and that this Esalen Institute was someplace I had to go. So as soon as I had a steady job some ten years later as a chaplain at Dartmouth College, I made my first trip to Esalen. I have been back for at least a week or so almost every year since.
So let me give you just a brief account of one of my most moving experiences there, which I interpret very much as an experience of the Holy Spirit. I have no better terms for it.
It was January of 1991 and I was at Esalen for a five-day workshop. We met three times a day for two hours. There were two workshop leaders, Jessica and Scott and fifteen participants. On a winter afternoon it was starting to get dark, about 4 o’clock. This workshop had a format similar to many at Esalen and now elsewhere: over the course of a week everyone had the opportunity to share his or her life story with the group. People shared dreams, talked about their marriages, their jobs, their families. We had been together for a few days, had heard a lot of stories, so we felt comfortable with each other. It was my turn. After I had spoken for a very minutes, Jessica, the leader that afternoon, suggested that I stop talking and just sit quietly, eyes closed, meditate for a moment or two and simply report what I was experiencing.
Understand? Get Rabbit, the conscious mind out of there?
I was not terribly happy with that assignment for I was not then, am not now nor have I ever been very fond of sitting meditation. I squirm a lot. My mind wanders. I fidget. My knees hurt. I want to scratch something. Anyway, I followed directions.
After not very long, I reported the obvious thing to report in such a circumstance: that I felt very nervous and self-conscious and on the spot, etc.
“Mmmm-hmm,” said Jessica and repeated the instructions. “Just keep your eyes closed, breathe and report what is happening.”
That calmed me down and I began to just pay attention.
Of course, for a few moments, nothing was happening. There was nothing to report. I breathed in, and breathed out. It was quiet.
Then I reported that I felt a distinct surge of energy. If that had been all I experienced that afternoon, it would have been remarkable enough. My breathing deepened and I felt like I had never felt before, like something much more powerful than I had just taken over. I was not breathing – I was being breathed.
Then I reported an even more powerful infusion of energy and I felt the center of my forehead pulsing powerfully, unmistakably, in and out. I felt warm, alive, energized.
Nobody said anything. Nobody had said anything about third eyes or somatic responses to meditation. This was certainly remarkable enough.
Then I had to report that I sensed very distinctly in my mind’s eye – or wherever- the presence of beings who were with me in the room, but who did not have a physical presence in the room. However they were – unmistakably – present.
And they were beaming at me, most lovingly beaming at me. Beaming? You mean with faces, smiling? Well, they didn’t exactly have faces.
After just a few moments, I found this love impossible to bear and I burst into tears.
What exactly happened after that I have trouble remembering. It was fully dark by then. I’m sure I got a lot of hugs from group members and we all left for dinner.
Now, what does this experience prove? I’m not sure it proves anything, but it suggests a lot. First of all, experienced meditators don’t find this story very surprising. They have heard about and in some cases experienced levitation and travel to distant galaxies, so this is not all that unusual.
What I notice some twenty years later in the context of church and the Bible is that in Genesis I, the Spirit of God moves upon the waters. In Genesis 2 God breathes the breath of life into the human. The word for breath and spirit is the same. Thus the Holy Spirit has been with us from the beginning and is with us with every breath we take. I really believe that. God is loving us all the time, with every breath, every step of the way.
All I did to get this remarkable experience was pay attention to my breath in the context of community. Although the fifteen or so people with me that afternoon did not say or do anything, they paid attention and that made a huge difference. Thus I suggest the royal road to living a spirit-filled life is to pay attention to your breath and spend time with people who pay attention. Do that and the Spirit will rock your world.