For The Someday Book

Archive for June 2014

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 2009, 230 pp.

First PaulI was so excited when this book came out that I ordered the hardback copy right away. (I almost always wait for the paperback to save money.) I had learned so much about Jesus from Borg and Crossan’s work on on the Gospels, I knew that this would be a rich resource for learning about Paul from their perspective. For some reason, though, this made its way onto my way-too-many shelf of books “to be read” and did not manage to come out again until nearly five years later. Still, it was everything I had originally hoped it would be—a critical, radical reassessment of Paul and his writings that will lay the foundation for preaching and interpretation of all the letters attributed to him.

Borg and Crossan begin with some brief observations on the different roles Paul plays in Protestant and Catholic theologies, then name their three foundational statements:

First, not all of the letters attributed to Paul were written by him—there is more than one Paul in the New Testament. Second, it is essential to place his letters in their historical context. Third, his message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul, we will argue, is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic. (13)

Borg and Crossan identify the authentic letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon) as the work of the radical Paul, the disputed letters (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians) as conservative, and the non-Pauline letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) as reactionary. Stories about Paul in the Book of Acts are a fourth Paul, with some parts more reliable than others. Borg and Crossan write predominately about the authentic letters of Paul as a radical follower of the radical Jesus, because he has had a personal life-changing encounter with the mystical Christ on the road to Damascus. Occasionally, they will offer a comparison to the conservative or reactionary Paul on issues like slavery and gender equality.

Taking Philemon as a model, the authors then demonstrate “How to Read a Pauline Letter.” They emphasize that readers must “remember that, when we are reading letters never intended for us, any problems of understanding are ours and not theirs.” (29) We must “turn letter into story,” the original story that would have been known and understood by the original recipients of the letter. In Philemon, that is the story of the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon. The radical Paul argues that equality must not be limited to the spiritual realm, but must exist in the earthly realm as well—that Philemon must release Onesimus from slavery, because it is incompatible with the way of radical love demanded by Christ.

The next chapter is a basic biography, constructed from insights in the authentic letters, the Book of Acts, and other historical sources for context. They talk about his likely education and background in Tarsus (even speculating about chronic malaria as the “thorn in the flesh”), his life as a Pharisaic Jew, his conversion at Damascus, the missionary journeys, and imprisonment. The chapter ends with interesting observations about the cities in which Paul planted churches, portraying them as dense, dirty places filled with tenement-like housing and persons displaced by empire. His churches began among Gentiles who were worshiping in the synagogues, not the Jews. Labeling it “adherent poaching,” Borg and Crossan say,

Our proposal is that Paul went always to the synagogue in each city not to convert his fellow Jews, but to convert the gentile adherents to Christian Judaism. And that proposal explains huge swaths of Pauline data. (88)

Paul’s letters can be interpreted much more clearly by these gentile synagogue-goers than by those who were strict adherents of Judaism.

The final four chapters explore and explain four core theological ideas in the radical Paul: “Jesus Christ is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Justification by Grace Through Faith,” and “Life Together in Christ.” Paul’s insistence on calling Jesus Christ “Lord” is a treasonous claim against the Roman emperor, replacing Rome’s peace through violent victory with Christ’s peace through the nonviolent justice of equality. His proclamation of Christ crucified is not a scriptural account of substitutionary atonement. Instead, it is evidence of the greatness of God’s love for the world, and the entryway to the resurrection. We participate in dying and rising with Christ, born again with a radically new heart for loving the world as God does.

The chapter on “Justification by Grace Through Faith” aims to “get Paul and his letter to the Romans out of the sixteenth century polemical Reformation world and back into the first century imperial Roman world.” (157) Borg and Crossan argue convincingly that Paul sees justification by grace as a message of God’s distributive justice, “that God’s Spirit is distributed freely to each and every one of us to transform God’s world into a place of that same justice.” (160) The argument about faith and works then becomes a concern by Paul for works-without-faith, not faith-without-works.

“Faith” means a grateful submission to the Spirit transplant of God’s own nonviolent distributive justice, which empowers us to will and enables us to work toward a reclamation of this world in collaboration with God. (184)

Paul’s work was always built around communities, creating collectives of new converts to follow life together in Christ, following the non-violent path of justice and peace together, in contrast to the domination system of the world. These communities practiced love for one another, sharing meals and resources, prayers and worship together.

The epilogue addresses speculations and evidence about Paul’s death, amid ongoing tensions with the Jerusalem community led by James. When I read it, much to my surprise, I felt the same sadness I feel at the end of any good biography with a tragic death. I was sorry that the empire, likely Nero, cut Paul’s life so short. I felt as though I knew and appreciated the man in a deeper way, and I grieved a tiny bit for his death, even 2,000 years later.

I should never have waited five years to read this book. It was excellent from beginning to end. I am a sophisticated, detailed maker of notations in non-fiction books that I read. There are countless stars and underlines here, because Borg and Crossan have such an ability to explain and evidence various aspects of the scriptures in ways I want to remember. Even without the book in hand to review, I walk away with a much better appreciation for Paul’s radical ministry of love, justice and equality. Anyone who grapples with Paul and all the baggage attributed to him should read The First Paul for clarity and hope.


The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth, William B. Eerdmans, 2013, 132 pp.

Spiritual Practice of RememberingMargaret Bendroth is the director of the Congregational Library in Boston, and her job is to collect and curate the historical archives of the Congregational church, which includes helping local congregations reckon with their own historical artifacts, records, stories and more. This book is a beautiful theological reflection on that work, the spirituality of engaging our history, and what it is that we are doing when we interact with our past.

The Spiritual Practice of Remembering opens with the wonderful story of a tricorne hat encased in glass in the entryway of a church. By virtue of its age and connection to a legendary preacher, the hat had become somehow sacred. I think any of us who serve congregations with a long history know about those sacred objects that hover in hallways or display cases or even in sanctuaries. Their original users never intended them to be preserved—they were ordinary practical objects—but their age and connection to the past has endowed them with something akin to holiness.

Bendroth’s book doesn’t just probe the spiritual meaning of churches’ old junk, but invites us into a relationship with the past as a spiritual discipline. Judaism and Christianity have a unique relationship as “religions of remembrance,” who worship a God active in history, defined by events in time. However, modernism in Western culture emphasizes a break from the past, freedom to define one’s own identity apart from history, and a sense of time always marching forward. Our relationship with the past, then, is as tourists—we are “stranded in the present,” with the past as novelty or nostalgia, but no depth of relationship and identification. We have moved from a medieval faith in which the past and the present co-existed all around us, with the past able to break through and impact this current reality, to an understanding of history as progress that makes the past always different, other and inferior to the present. This historicism, also found in biblical criticism that privileges factual history over other forms of biblical truth, costs us a meaningful relationship with the saints of the past. Bendroth writes:

History for grown-ups is complicated. It asks us to balance sympathy and judgment, hero-worship and sharp-eyed criticism. It recognizes and respects differences across time, but also looks for honest points of connection. … Our ancestors have a lot to teach us. This is not because they were wiser or more devout than we are or were “better” Christians, though we can’t rule out such possibilities. It is because they can point us toward what is essential. (50)

Bendroth also tackles the commodification of history as both entertainment and possession. As technology externalizes memory (photos, recordings, even Facebook place memory outside of our own identity and community, into an external place), it has become less valuable. It has also come to rely less on imagination.

There is a thin line between approaching people and events through imagination and assuming that they are in fact imaginary. The first assumes that the past was “real,” with a separate integrity all its own; the second that there is no past at all beyond what we choose to see. (70)

One of the most interesting chapters was about the way American culture is built on letting go of the past, and American religion models this “historyless.” Our emphasis on experience over tradition has helped with a more religiously tolerant society, but it has also cut us off from rich resources that can come from conversation with the past. We need not be traditionalists in order to value tradition.

The Christian tradition itself is a long conversation about the declaration that “Jesus is Lord.” … A truly creative conversation builds on what has been said before, exploring nuances and suggesting different interpretations—but never assuming that the people who began it have nothing more to say and can be safely ignored. The living do not own the conversation any more than those past or those yet to come. (94-95)

The communion of the saints is a theological idea that helps us understand this obligation, the way we the living continue to interact with the dead.

The ancestors live on in different ways, sometimes as a deep undercurrent of sadness or disappointment, sometimes as a tendency toward suspicion of outsiders or resentment of authority. They can work in positive ways too, inuring a centuries-old congregation against panic or despair. (113)

When we recognize ourselves as part of the communion of the saints, we know that “all God’s people—past, present, and future—form a single, interdependent whole.” (115)

Bendroth develops and explores many concepts that I have vaguely and inarticulately carried for a long time. As a student of history, I find much richness in exploring the life world of the past, but I had never connected that to my fascination and spiritual connection to the communion of the saints. I am also someone willing to let go of much tradition in favor of connecting with the present and future, and this book helped me think through how to engage the past in a good and meaningful way. Her mixture of stories and exploration combine for a book that is delightful, provocative, novel and engaging. I recommend The Spiritual Practice of Remembering to anyone considering the way the past can invite us to a richer present as people of faith.





The Gospel According to Star Wars: Faith, Hope and the Force by John C. McDowell, Westminster John Knox, 2007, 204 pp.

Gospel Star WarsMay 4th fell on a Sunday this year, and I could not resist the idea of a Star Wars Sunday. I was a child of the Star Wars era, and spent many of my young days waving a stick with the “whooom, whooom” sound of a light saber, building worlds in the yard for my action figures and acting out great scenes from the films. There is a lot of Jedi wisdom that informs my view on the world, and the mythology of the Force had a shaping influence on my development. I know I am not alone, and Star Wars Sunday was an attempt to reach out to those who are enthusiastic about George Lucas but skeptical of Jesus Christ. I ordered this book as an aid to that preparation.

McDowell’s fandom is clear from the beginning. The Gospel According to Star Wars is more of a theo-literary analysis of the Star Wars oeuvre than anything else. McDowell references not just the six films, but the corresponding novels, television series, and multiple deleted scenes. This is not for the novice. I’m an accomplished Star Wars afficiando, and much of this was beyond me–not theologically, but understanding the allusions to the Star Wars galaxy.

Still, I learned some things that were helpful. McDowell’s general approach to bringing together these two mythological worlds paralleled my own. It’s not about arguing that Star Wars is secretly Christian (it’s definitely not), or about finding micro-moments in Star Wars that illustrate Christian principles. The point is to put the two worlds side by side and see what they can teach each other. Christianity might be illumined by the ideas of the Force. One’s understanding of sin and grace might gain new understanding by brushing against the Dark Side.

The first chapter was the most helpful. In it, McDowell traces the body of work on Star Wars and mythology, including Lucas’ own thinking about his mythical world and its morality. Lucas was a deep reader of Joseph Campbell’s work on the mythic hero and his or her quest. In creating the Star Wars universe, he intentionally incorporated ingredients Campbell emphasized as important for meaningful mythology. There is a reason this story sticks with its followers–it deliberately engages in these deep questions about human life and desire for meaning.

McDowell’s chapter on “The Force of the Divine” was also among the most helpful for my purposes, because again he discloses the intentional nature of Lucas’ mythic work. Citing Lucas’ work “On Myth & Men,” McDowell writes:

He (Lucas) claims that he “put the Force in the movie to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system.” Therefore, he intends to encourage a generation of youth that has too little “interest in the mysteries of life” to begin asking questions about their existence. (17)

This affirmed the work I was doing with Star Wars Sunday, validating the experience that Star Wars evoked a spirituality that was not Christian, nor was it mature—and consequently opens the door to deeper conversation between the Force and God.

Star Wars SundayLater in the same chapter, McDowell points toward the morality of the Force and the Jedi way.

Obedience to the will of the Force is not blind acquiescence to a powerful but morally ambiguous god, and certainly is not a giving absolute significance to one’s own desires. On the contrary, it is the journey into becoming responsible for the well-being of the galaxy, or more personally, one’s galactic neighbor. This means the virtues of coresponsibility, compassion and so on, are ultimately the truth of life. (25)

That’ll preach. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The next three chapters grapple with the ways evil operates in the Star Wars universe. This is where the details of the various Star Wars stories became a bit overwhelming to me. Still, I appreciated McDowell’s analysis of the Manichean aspects of the Force versus the Dark Side, of Anakin as a tragic hero whose intentions are often good even when his actions are evil, and of the politics of empire. The final three chapters analyze the turn away from evil: in rebellion (which includes violence), in living a virtuous life as one who follows the will of the force, and in an eschatological hope for the future.

This is not a fun and easy read for theologians or Star Wars fans, but it is a helpful tool to generate ideas and analysis of the Star Wars world in concert with Christian theology. Its academic content is broad and deep enough to be helpful, but it’s not dense or riddled with jargon. Its Star Wars content, however, is deep into geek fan territory. I recommend beefing up on your Star Wars knowledge before diving in.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, The New Press, 2010, 312 pp.

New Jim CrowThere is so much to say about this book that I don’t know where to begin. I finished reading it months ago, and the prospect of writing this review was so daunting I got way behind on all my reviews. You just need to go read this book for yourself, because it is a seminal summary of the social mechanism of mass incarceration, and the way it is exercising social control in communities of color in the United States. This can be such a hot topic that I fear people will read this review, react negatively, and begin to respond without actually reading the book—where Alexander has the space to actually make the case. So, let me say again, READ THE BOOK. If you think racism isn’t systemic, read this. If you think we’ve taken care of civil rights issues, read this. If you think prisons are full of “bad” people, read this. If you care about social justice, racism, youth at risk, the war on drugs, voting rights, for-profit prisons, read this.

Alexander begins with a history of social systems that functioned to control and oppress black people in U.S. history and create a racial caste system that preserves white privilege. The first, obviously, was slavery. Slavery replaced indentured servitude and served to create a racial caste system that separated poor whites and blacks by according privileges to whites. When slavery was abolished, Jim Crow segregation took its place, maintaining the racial caste system. After the Civil Rights movement, Alexander details how the rhetoric of “law and order” replaced segregation as a system of racial control. Stereotypes of black “welfare queens” and criminal “predators” proliferated. Massive job loss in inner cities was accompanied by the rise of crack cocaine. The law and order rhetoric responded with the War on Drugs, including mandatory minimum sentencing and exploding budgets for law enforcement and prisons. Mass incarceration is born, and millions of people—with a massive preponderance of men of color–are placed under the jurisdiction of the prison system. It’s not just about the time spent in prison, but about the time spent on probation and the permanent second-class citizenship of a prison record.

And that’s only the first chapter.

Alexander’s next chapter deconstructs the War on Drugs as a mechanism of controlling whole communities by way of stop and frisk, consent searches, pretext stops. She documents the ways that law enforcement agencies prosper by these methods,  the way that they impact communities of color far more than white communities, the lack of legal representation, and their link to ballooning prison populations. After documenting this racial bias in detail, the third chapter tackles the question of how and why the court system does not stop such blatant racially unequal justice. Alexander identifies a series of court decisions that promote a “colorblind” justice system that ban any suits or claims of racial bias. In short, it is a two step process:

The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free rein. … Then, the damning step: close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in a racially discriminatory fashion. Demand that anyone who wants to challenge racial bias in the system offer, in advance, clear proof that the racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discrimination–i.e., the work of a bigot. (103)

Chapter Four, “The Cruel Hand,” moves forward to the enormous loss of rights suffered by those who bear a criminal record, which Alexander has already shown are predominately people of color. The loss of rights and privileges is enormous—access to public housing and public assistance, difficulties in the job market due to the need to disclose a conviction, debts accrued for court and probation fees, the loss of voting rights and the ability to serve on a jury, and general social stigma attached to “ex-con” status. The fifth chapter rounds up the evidence of the other four and paints the full picture of how the system of mass incarceration functions as a massive form of social control along racial lines, with more African American adults today under correctional control than those enslaved in 1850 (180).  In sum:

The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer concerned primarily with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed. (188)

If this seems absurd to you, I have only one reply: go read the book. Then we can talk more about it.

The final chapter, “The Fire This Time,” points some direction for a New Civil Rights movement with overturning the system of mass incarceration as its target. There are many obstacles, including the economic employment of massive numbers of people in the prison-industrial complex, the stigma and belief that those incarcerated are criminals who deserve their fate, and a long line of court cases that refuse to acknowledge the problem. Reading her arguments in the rest of the book, it seems insurmountable—but it is helpful to remember that segregation seemed insurmountable a mere 60 years ago. And doing nothing is unthinkable for anyone who cares about justice.

Michelle Alexander is not the first or only person raising this issue. (My husband reminded me of going to see Angela Davis at a conference on this topic in Berkeley in the lat 1990s.) However, The New Jim Crow makes the argument concisely and convincingly that mass incarceration has replaced segregation as the tool of oppression for communities of color in the post-Civil Rights era. We who care about justice must find new strategies to overcome. READ THIS BOOK.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Houghton Mifflin, 1940, 359 pp.

Heart is a Lonely HunterSomehow, I made it through an English major with multiple courses and a lifetime devotion to southern literature without reading Carson McCullers. My last trip to the library, I decided to rectify that vacancy in my knowledge. I want to say that I am glad I did, which is true, but The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was full of such pathos and sorrow that it feels ingenuous to associate reading it with anything resembling joy. Beauty, truth, the human spirit, artistry—yes. Gladness, however, is in short supply.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the story about loneliness and isolation, as situated in a small Massachusetts mill town in the Great Depression. The central character is John Singer, a deaf-mute, whose best friend, roommate and fellow deaf-mute has a breakdown and his family sends him to an asylum. Singer loses the only person with whom he can communicate openly, and he is thrust into silence.

The four other characters in the story are equally lonely, but each find their way to Singer and find in him someone who listens to them (he reads lips). Mick Kelly, a young teen girl whose parents run the boarding house, aspires to leave the shabby mill town and see the world. She has a gift for music that goes undeveloped because she had no access to a piano or lessons—only living for the occasional presence of a radio. Doctor Benedict Macy Copeland is the most educated man in town, and black. His education separates him from the African-American community that makes up his patients, and his race separates him from everyone else. His strictly-held political ideas about how to advance the good of his race have even alienated him from his wife and children. Jake Blount is a mechanic with a head full of ideas about Marxism and revolution. He visits with fellow laborers trying to get them to understand, but he presents as a blowhard and his frustration only grows that he cannot find anyone who can understand as he does. Biff Brannon owns the local café where Singer and Blount dine nightly. After the death of his wife, the business begins to fall apart around him, while he stands at the counter and watches other people’s lives and conversations, always apart from relationship with them.

Singer’s silent presence makes them feel as though they are not alone, as though someone listens and understands and cares about them. They begin to visit his room in the boarding house, pouring out their hearts and concerns in his silence. Singer does not find companionship in them, because they cannot read his sign language, but they find solace in him. As the novel unfolds, the reader hopes the four people coming to Singer might find companionship in one another—Blount and Copeland plotting together for revolution, Brannon’s compassion for Mick Kelly opening a way for her to escape her poverty.

Sadly, this story is not hopeful. Its ending is as sad and lonely as its beginning. Perhaps this is the reality of the world, which is regularly cruel and pointless—but I’ll admit to desiring a bit more hope in my novels most of the time, even if it’s only pretend. Sometimes, though, I turn to a novel because I feel sad and need to find a way to dive more deeply into that dark place. McCullers does that just beautifully, presenting the pathos and isolation of this world with grace and subtlety. It’s not a tragedy, but it’s a sorrowful glimpse into the loneliness of the world. It left me with my sadness, but what a beautiful sorrow it is. There is joy in that recognition.

*Side Note: I got behind in writing reviews of what I have been reading, so I caught up by writing these three novel reviews in a row, for All the Living, The Lost Mother and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I realized in doing so that all three of them are stories about people grappling with profound loneliness and isolation. I would not describe myself as lonely right now, but I am certainly contemplating what would draw me to these three books in a three week period.

The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris, Viking, 2005, 274 pp.

Lost MotherI keep going to the library and checking out Mary McGarry Morris books, but never getting around to reading them before they are due. (This is what happens when you are a book addict. I can’t leave a library with less than 10 books at a time. Three weeks isn’t long enough to read that many novels, along with my professional reading.) I’m so grateful to have finally made it into this one, and next time I won’t return them unread.

The Lost Mother is the story of the Talcott children surviving the hardship of the Great Depression in Vermont. When the story begins, Thomas and Margaret are living in a tent in the woods, because they have lost their home to debt. Their father Henry works butchering farm animals, but work is scarce and money even more scarce. The loss of their home, however, is a minor inconvenience compared to the searing loss of their mother, who simply abandoned her family, moved to a mill town, and started a new life. The children initially believe she has left to support them and will return when times improve, but slowly they are forced to confront the truth of her abandonment.

There are a host of other characters in the book who step in to take responsibility for Thomas and Margaret, either by choice or by force. The wealthy, greedy Farleys want to take Margaret and make her their own daughter, separating her from her family forever. Aunt Lena (their mother’s sister) and Uncle Max do not want to take the children in, and their alcoholism makes it an unsafe place for the children to be. Gladys is their father’s lifelong friend. She would step in to care for them, and does what she can, but she is caring for her ailing father, whose abuse for the children makes them unable to stay there.

The story is heart-wrenching, but hopeful. Thomas and Margaret have people who want to care for them, but can’t; people who want to own them, but are thwarted; and people who could care for them, but won’t. The plot unfolds as they spend a full year making their way from one terrible situation to another. As a parent, I wonder what it would be like to know you are unable to provide for your children. No one in the story is demonized for failing the children—it is just the way things are. The narrator most often tells the story from Thomas’ perspective, and we watch him grow from a child’s view to a wizened adult one through the course of the story’s one single year.

The Lost Mother was a fast read, and a great story. It left me pondering the millions of children all over the world who are alone in this world. Thomas and Margaret’s story is not unique. Just this week, there have been multiple news stories of unaccompanied children warehoused in terrible conditions having been picked up crossing the border illegally. What is it like to be a child alone in this harsh world? Morris’ novel imagines it in one time and one place, with sorrow and with hope.


All the Living by C.E. Morgan, Picador, 2009, 199 pp.

All the LivingAll the Living is a novel about two young adults alone in the world. Aloma was orphaned as a young child, and grew up in a mission school in the mountains of Kentucky. Her love is Orren, who grew up on a family farm, working the land passed down through generations. One day, Orren’s family is killed in an auto accident, and he is alone. Aloma moves to the farm with him, and the two endeavor to make a life together. Aloma misses her role as a pianist, longing for the music that completes her. Orren throws himself into the work of the farm, trying to make up for the absence of his family and hold on to their land. They battle their own loneliness by turning on one another instead of toward one another. The central story arc follows Aloma’s decision to stay or go, to make her life with Orren or leave the mountains behind.

This is a novel of tense feelings and clenched fists, of quiet suffering and unspoken grief. It embodies solipsism and our constant human questioning of our own choices. If we go one way in life, we wonder about the other. The story also grapples with the deep power of grief, the meaning of home, and the challenge of intimacy.

Aloma’s search takes her to church, where she finds access to a piano and human connection. She develops a relationship with the farmer-preacher, Bell, and they talk about her search for “the right feeling.” Bell responds:

I don’t think looking inside for a feeling is nearly ever the answer. It’s looking out. … Well, it seems to me the more attention you spend on the folks around you, the more right feelings you have even for your own self. Seems like the opposite might should be true—turn your mind on your own heart to straighten it out—but that ain’t how I see it. (138)

For all my introversion, I have found Bell’s words to be true over and over again. Looking inside and “focusing on myself” is exactly the wrong way to overcome grief, loneliness or just a case of the blues. Re-orienting away from myself and seeing the needs of others returns me to a “right feeling.”

At one point, Aloma and Orren finally begin to talk, and she declares her desire in the most beautiful of ways:

When I have you, … it’s not enough and I still want some more of you. When you say something, I want to hear you say more and when you go someplace, any place, I want you to come back more than anything. That’s pretty much been true for forever. (194)

What a beautiful description of love.

All the Living is a beautifully crafted exploration of an interior journey for Aloma, exploring the tensions between longing and contentment, loneliness and intimacy in the human heart. Even though it’s short, the novel demands to be savored, lingering over phrases and sentences that invite the reader into contemplation.


KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThis past Sunday was Pentecost, the day we commemorate the arrival of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2, a day often called the birthday of the church. It’s one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. The drama of the wind and fire, the many voices speaking the good news of Christ, the power of Peter’s preaching, the crowds moved to follow.

Inspired by this wonderful article by my colleague Rev. Emily C. Heath, I started thinking about what it meant to be a Pentecost Church. I want to be part of a ministry as vibrant and alive with the Holy Spirit as that second chapter of Acts. What happened at Pentecost, and can it happen in our churches today? Can we carry on the spirit of the Spirit? What would be the marks of such a congregation, a Pentecost Church?

(This is not to be confused with a Pentecostal Church, a tradition which traces its roots to the Azusa Street Revival. The marks of a Pentecostal Church include baptism by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.)

Drawing on that original story in Acts, I’ve identified six marks of a Pentecost Church. These are elements of a church alive with the Holy Spirit, and could describe any church that aspired to embody them.

1. A Pentecost Church is touched by the Holy Spirit.

A Pentecost Church actually believes the Holy Spirit is alive and moving among the congregation. They anticipate that God will show up and do something to them and through them that will amaze and inspire.  This seems obvious, but I’ve been in plenty of churches that expect very little of the Holy Spirit in their worship services. Some churches even act as though they are hoping the Spirit in her wildness doesn’t show up, because it might mess with their plans and patterns. By contrast, a Pentecost Church expects the Holy Spirit to surprise  and delight, and also to provoke and disrupt. She may cause a spontaneous outburst of applause, or tears, or laughter, or an “amen” from the depths of the soul. A Pentecost Church gathers with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will join them, and watches with joy when the Spirit blows through.

2. A Pentecost Church speaks multiple languages.

The miracle of the original Pentecost was the ability to share Christ’s good news in all the languages of the ancient world. A Pentecost Church today must speak in the many languages of the modern world. That doesn’t just mean English, Spanish, Creole, Mandarin and Tagalog. Today’s “many languages” include the language of multiple generations. A Pentecost Church endeavors to deliver the good news to some in traditional worship and bible study, to others via Facebook and Twitter. A Pentecost Church pursues fluency in social media and popular culture, in books and movies and television characters. The church must avoid insider language that is only meaningful to those who already attend (see Rev. Heath’s article for a great explanation of this). While no church can be all things to all people, a Pentecost Church constantly works to translate the good news of Jesus Christ into as many languages as possible, so that everyone can hear it. Their translation breaks down barriers between young and old, rich and poor, in and out, faith and no faith.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA3. A Pentecost Church dreams, visions and prophesies.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon promises that “Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams.” The thing about prophesies, dreams and visions is that they all move forward into the future. A Pentecost Church is not preoccupied with the past—it is captivated by the future. In a Pentecost Church, everybody has dreams and visions for what the church can be and how God will be calling them into bold possibilities. Young people have visions for the church’s future, and they are trusted with the power to execute those visions. Elders do not hold tight to current habits, intent to preserve their way of doing church for themselves. They also dream dreams, foreseeing the church living on without them in ways that are even more beautiful and holy than they could have predicted. By the power of the Holy Spirit, a Pentecost Church faces forward.

4. A Pentecost Church is visible in the community.

Pentecost was the day that the church went public. After the disciples and followers spent time alone with Jesus following the resurrection, the arrival of the Holy Spirit carried them out of their upper room and into the streets. A Pentecost Church understands its life as a public witness, a beacon of hope and a mission outpost for God’s love. Whether it is serving hungry neighbors, giving out clothing, taking a stand for social justice, responding to a natural disaster, marching in the local parade, or showing up at a city council meeting, a Pentecost Church is a visible force, a vehicle for the Spirit’s love in the world. They do not hide from the public eye, but strive to be a force for good in their local community. (Again, Rev. Heath’s article tackles this with greater depth.)

5. A Pentecost Church changes lives.

When the crowd/community witnessed the Pentecost preaching from Peter, the scripture says they were troubled and wondered what to do. Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives.” A Pentecost Church is a church that changes lives—of members, newcomers, visitors and community members. The Holy Spirit comes to disrupt and transform us. A Pentecost Church that expects the Holy Spirit also expects people to be transformed by that encounter. A Pentecost Church anticipates that when people meet the Holy Spirit in worship and fellowship, they will be inspired to greater love, kindness, generosity and faithfulness. They will even be moved to abandon their fears, let go of old wounds, practice forgiveness, overcome addiction, and turn their lives around. A Pentecost Church is full of people who have been changed by grace, and continue to be transformed by love.

pentecost6. A Pentecost Church seems just a little bit crazy.

Changing your life in response to the Holy Spirit, or getting ridiculously happy over seeing someone else’s life changing, or telling people that you have decided to spend your cash and your weekends serving the poor, or spontaneously clapping and rejoicing in worship can seem like strange behavior. That first Pentecost, the crowd declared that the disciples were acting so happy because they had gotten drunk at 9:00 a.m. A Pentecost Church has that kind of joyous intoxication of the Holy Spirit that sparks carefree laughter, unprompted kindness and a willingness to do whatever it takes to share God’s love with the world. Don’t be surprised if a visit to a Pentecost Church leaves you feeling a little high. The Holy Spirit does that.

A Pentecost Church is full of Pentecost People.

This is the most important mark of all. A Pentecost Church is filled with Pentecost people–people who have been touched by the Holy Spirit, people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus Christ, people who see visions and dream dreams, people who venture out of closed church doors and into the community, people who speak both the language of God and the language of the world, people crazy with the joyous love of God. The Pentecost Church creates, supports and sends these Pentecost People into the world, carrying the Holy Spirit with them wherever they go, in love and joy.

What do you think? Is your church a Pentecost Church? Would you like it to be?

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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