St. Michaeleans: the Epistle

My last sermon at 1925 Birkdale as the Director of Ministry turned into more of a letter than a sermon, in the style of the good apostle Paul.  Either listen to the audio below or read the text. It was fun to craft, hopefully fun to hear. Enjoy!

Good morning! This is my last Sunday with you at St. Michael, man, where has the time gone? I’m no good at saying good-byes, so there will be none of that today. Instead, I’d like to leave you with a gift, a letter to the congregation. This letter began as a class assignment in seminary two months ago, and looking at it I thought hmm, this could make for a half decent final sermon too.

Show of hands, who here has read one of Paul’s letters in the New Testament?  Biblical scholars tell us Paul wrote between seven and thirteen of the letters found in the New Testament, so odds are you’ve read something of his.

Paul’s letters in the New Testament contain some unique quirks you don’t see in too many other places in the Bible. He likes to ask rhetorical questions, and then answer them. This answer is often translated into English as “by no means.” At times he even makes fun of his own handwriting. Listen for these kinds of things in this letter to you.

Paul’s letters also often follow the same structure, there’s a certain order and style he likes to use in each one. His letters begin with a salutation where he greets the community, often giving thanks for them, lifting up the gifts they possess in a positive way. He then typically challenges the community to show the love of Christ to each other in new ways. Paul’s letters then close with personal greetings and a final blessing. Listen for these pieces.

Paul also likes to send people in his letters. Many times Paul is in a distant land when the letter is read locally. The person that brings the letter is tasked with reading it to the community. Often the person Paul sends is asked to stay with the community for a while, to help build them up. For this particular letter to the people of St. Michael, I ask you to suspend reality, just a bit, and pretend two things. One, that the writer is in some distant land far from here, perhaps in prison. And two, that the reader of this letter is, well, not me. Pick someone else in your mind.

Ok, let’s get on to reading this letter, to you, an Epistle to the St. Michaeleans.

Salutation

Ryan, a Christ-follower and good buds with Paul of Tarsus, and called to be Director of Ministry these past two years among the people of St. Michael, writes to you from afar in St. Paul Minnesota, where he currently resides, a prisoner of the educational system at Luther Seminary. While away in this distant land our Savior has placed the people of St. Michael on my heart yet again, with the Spirit gently nudging me to share many things with you. As I sit here, putting finger to keyboard with mine own hand, while using the Calibri typeset and a font of twelve points, I greet you, above all else, with grace and peace from the Father and our Lord Christ Jesus.

Thanks to the community

Now as you know I have dwelt among you these past five years, first as guest, then member, then seminarian and finally as employed servant. Most importantly I claim a new title for you, beyond guest, member or colleague: I now count you as friends. When I first visited your community, pained from hurt suffered in the church of Boca Raton, you welcomed me, with arms stretched wide, into fellowship among you, to a church that boldly proclaims God’s radical welcome for all.

These years have been a time of healing and spiritual growth as you have modeled to me what a healthy body of Christ can be. Indeed, looking back on previous dark times and also in my prior work in the kingdom of Corporate America, I see now as Paul saw, that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to this purpose. I thank Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior, each and every day of my life, for sending me to you.

All are welcome

Indeed, as brother Paul of Tarsus eloquently states, and you so faithfully follow, you exemplify that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, that all of you are one in Christ Jesus. As the community has active among you Greeks and Jews, males and females, and even goes further with inclusion of the straight and LGBT it is clear you take the oneness in Christ Jesus to heart.

With Pastor Weiss, a female, leading you, you include and welcome many fully that other groups of Christ followers do not embrace. That the people of St. Michael welcome groups that others do not, to not just participate but to lead, without hesitation, it speaks well of you. This boldness shows the Spirit is alive in you, calling you to new places for the sake of the gospel. I give thanks to our Lord Christ Jesus for your role in expanding the kingdom in ways that embrace, empower and celebrate the diversity of all people, both within St. Michael and the town of Wellington.

All are not present

But does St. Michael fully reflect the local community in representing everyone in this area according to their presence? By no means! As you know the Haitian, the Latino and Americans of African descent, reside in our city and the surrounding countryside. Indeed, the apostle Paul exhorts us to contribute to the needs of the saints by showing hospitality to the stranger. Living in America, the land of immigrants, and knowing this can we choose to do otherwise?

Therefore, to reflect the fullness of Christ we must come together and include the neighbor. And to do this we must be intentional, to take the gospel to new places. It is not enough to invite those not present in the community. Instead I encourage you, go to them, both the believer and those with doubt, embrace all you meet with the love of God, where they are, as they are. For we are one body in Christ, and have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. If we are not one body in Christ, and instead do not include the neighbor, how much less are the gifts we share?

Atrocious boom box music

While the people of St. Michael are vibrant and full of love, they are not without disharmony on occasion. During a time of change, where you expanded worship of Christ from the traditional hymn to include more modern musical stylings, some among you grumbled. But the Father beckons us to live into the fullness of Christ in new ways. This can be a particular challenge for those that more readily embrace their own ways of worship, their own style.   Again, the apostle Paul guides us well, encouraging people of faith to sing psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts e. As we seek to embrace newness of life in Christ in more ways, ways that excite some and terrify others, let us not forget why we join together in worship: to make melody, lifted to the Lord, from our hearts.

Sending of Another

You may have heard that I will be leaving you soon. This is true. I have been called to preach the good news of our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus to the people of Holy Spirit Lutheran, in Juno Beach, for my intern year. You may find yourselves asking, who will lead us in Beer and Hymns? How shall the men’s Bible study go on? Will we again come together for family movie nights, dining on pizza and popcorn while wearing pajamas in the sanctuary?

Fear not, fellow Lutherans! While I mourn the loss of our time together, as some of you also mourn, while others surely rejoice, I am sending someone to this fine community to serve as the new Director of Ministry. This person has been vetted with Pastor Weiss and the Staff Support committee, with all involved parties placing great confidence in their abilities.

This person brings gifts I do not possess, namely an intimate knowledge of outreach needs in our local area, and how to partner with organizations already doing good works here. When the time comes to make this announcement, which will be soon, please welcome this person with open arms into this role as they walk humbly alongside you. Help them, to help you, fulfill the St. Michael mission: to be the Hands and Feet of Christ.

Personal Greetings

Greet Pastor Weiss, who has worked hard for the sake of Christ Jesus, and who risked her neck as both an early female clergyperson and outspoken advocate for those in our society treated as less than. Greet Music Director sister Shirley, who has brought new musical life to the congregation and continues to blend worship tastes both old and new. Greet Administrative Assistant sister Deisy, the Catholic, a diligent worker for Christ that brings joy and humor to all she does. Greet Custodian sister Diane, a gentle spirit, who cleans without complaint. Show her the love of Christ in all ways. Greet Nursery Assistant brother Jared, who possesses great gifts in wrangling children and also teaching them in Sunday School. Greet Youth Director brother Tim, and heap extra prayer on this brother as he continues to recover from time spent at the National Youth Gathering and editing video for our recently completed Vacation Bible School. With the efforts of Tim and the youth we model the love of Christ to many, including the people of Detroit and Wellington.

Greet those belonging to the brotherhood of the Dirty Old Men, in all their numbers, as they work toward the never-ending, and dirty task of keeping the church grounds in tip-top shape. Greet the many who had led Vacation Bible School these past several years, including brother Gregg, sister Holly, brother Andy, and sister Kelly. Their vision and leadership continues to bring new life, and new people to experience this special community.

Greet brother Vern, who journeyed with me recently, in mission to Haiti, and also leads your Outreach committee. Vern serves as a man of few words, when he speaks listen well. Greet sister Barb, who works diligently and with passion across so many groups among you including the Fellowship committee, Facilities Utilization, the Crafters, and most recently worked tirelessly with youth and children for VBS. Greet sister Sue, who puts great effort into the Facilities Utilization and Tenant Boards. Sue performs these tasks with both strength and kindness, a rare and valuable combination. Greet sister Mary, who heads up the Finance committee and now serves as the Church council president. Mary knows, more than many, the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for you. Finally, greet all the members of Council, thanking God for sending them to help lead you, the people of St. Michael, in new and exciting ways. Greet all of these people for me, and also others unnamed, with a holy hug.

Final Instructions and Blessing

I urge you, brothers and sisters, lift up each other in all that you do. Continue to embrace all, regardless of their gender or orientation. Work diligently to embrace all, regardless of their race, ethnicity or status as believers. Embrace all musically, including those that find God in worship by hymn and those that find God in worship through more modern musical forms. For to serve our Lord Christ we must not focus on our own appetites, but instead serve joyfully those who may not look the same, or worship in the same ways as do we. In this way we become one Church, unified in common mission to go forth, boldly proclaiming the good news of our Savior. And in this same way we are better equipped to truly serve as the hands and feet of Christ.

Finally, may the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit, soul and body be kept sound and blameless as you look to our Lord Jesus Christ for guidance. The one who calls you is faithful in all things, and will do this, both now and for eternity. Amen.

StMLogo

Smile, Because It Happened

A brief reflection on my time serving as Director of Ministry at St. Michael Lutheran, which is quickly coming to a close.

Do you like Dr. Seuss? My wife and I have read an awful lot of his books over the past five years to our daughter; we’re beginning that same tradition with our toddler son as well.

Dr. Seuss has a way with words, no doubt, gifted at describing the world around us with a sense of childlike wonder, and often wisdom too. Recently I ran across a quote of his that describes my feelings in this particular moment perfectly.

Don’t cry because it’s over.

Smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss

Cat-Hat-Stamp

Our family has worshipped at St. Michael for almost five years. This is an open, inclusive faith community, no easy thing to find, even in 2015. Two years ago I started seminary, in pursuit of becoming an ordained Lutheran pastor.  At the same time I began serving as your Director of Ministry. What an amazing blessing to learn a new craft and be able to apply those learnings with a local faith community.

And now it’s time for my internship year, a full-time role, and a requirement for ordination. My last day at St. Michael is August 9.  Two weeks later I’ll begin a year at Holy Spirit Lutheran in Juno Beach as their intern Pastor.

Am I sad to leave? Absolutely. St. Michael will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s a beautiful community to be part of. But will I cry because it’s over? Heck no.

When I think about delightful conversations with the people of St. Michael, I smile. The outreach trips to Lake Worth, Belle Glade, picking corn and mission work in Haiti? I smile. Time spent with kids and youth for Sunday School, Youth Sundays and Vacation Bible School? I smile. Learning the craft of sermon writing and preaching from that first pulpit? Smiles. Beers? Hymns? Men’s Bible Studies? More smiles.

Why all those smiles? Dr. Seuss said it best. I smile, because it happened. And it was wonderful.

Where Were You?

Today’s sermon is on a tough subject, the beheading of John the Baptist.  The question is then asked for this and other tragic events like JFKs death and 9/11: God, where were you? Either listen to the audio below or read the text.

Today’s reading about the beheading of John the Baptist is a tough, tough story to hear, and pretty tough to talk about too. It got me thinking, maybe it would help to talk about some other tough stories, our own stories, from memorable events in our lifetime. To gather stories I posted a message on facebook, asking people to share their memories from either the day JFK was shot, or from 9-11. Stories came pouring in, and within a day, 36 different people shared their memories from one of these days.  It was so many stories I wasn’t able to include them all.   These stories are good reminder of how tragic events can imprint images in our head and heart. Over time they become part of who we are.

As an example, a seminary friend Nancy, remembers the day JFK was shot vividly. She remembers coming down the stairs, seeing her mother had the television on, and that her mom seemed upset and was crying. Nancy says she doesn’t remember any images from the television but she remembers everything about her mother; her shoes, her socks, her dress. Nancy says she could pick out exactly what her mother was wearing if you showed her those clothes today. What’s amazing to me about this memory of the day is Nancy’s age. She was three years old.

For those of you who were also alive in the early 60s, a question: Where were you the day John F Kennedy was shot?

Pat Carney was in South Boston. She describes JFK as a hometown hero. Pat was a Junior at a Catholic high school and remembers the nun teaching US History being called on the school intercom. The nun announced that JFK was shot, then said a quick prayer and dismissed the class. Pat and a few friends then ran over to the church to light a candle & pray. Shortly after a few classmates ran into the church & told them JFK had died. Pat remembers crying in that church alongside her friends, shedding tears for his wife and children.

Our Music Director, Shirley Luttio, was halfway across the world when JFK was shot, in Kujiranami, Japan. Shirley was four years old; she remembers asking her mom if the president went to heaven that day. She was concerned about where he was.

Where were you, on 9/11, 2001?

Gregg Marconi was 30,000 feet in the air, serving as a flight attendant on a plane traveling from Miami to Raleigh. When the flight crew tried to continue onto their next scheduled stop, West Palm Beach, they got an inch away from the gate and stopped. They were told a small private plane had hit the Twin towers, and the airport had been closed. Gregg’s partner was at the dentist at the time, and had no idea what city he was in. When Gregg finally got his phone there were ten voice mail messages from his partner. Gregg was stuck in Raleigh for two days until he was finally able to get a rental car and drive home.

Catherine Turnipseed grew up in New York, so 9/11 was especially hard for her.  She was in college, in Tampa, and remembers getting several calls that day. Every time the phone rang fear rushed through her heart. What disaster would she hear about when she answered? Her father was working at JFK airport that day and called. He told her about watching both planes hit and seeing the buildings collapse from his office on the runway. Catherine tells me her father is Italian, a man’s man, and she could probably count on one hand how many times he’s cried. It wasn’t many. This day was one of them.

A college friend, Heidi, was about 10 miles from O’Hare airport in Chicago, at work teaching grade school children. She remembers hearing about the attacks over the phone, and then turning on the radio to hear more. The most eerie thing she remembers about the day was the silence. Being so close to O’Hare the school was directly under numerous flight paths. On a normal day she had to stop speaking every 15 to 30 seconds as jets screamed overhead during their final descents. That day, the skies were empty except for fighter jets. She says and lack of noise from the planes left a void. It was truly a deafening silence.

Gospel

All this bad news from our lives brings us to the gospel reading today. There is some very bad news for Jesus’ older cousin, John the Baptist. King Herod liked John the Baptist, and knew he was a holy man, a prophet. But John the Baptist was doing what prophets do sometimes, they speak truth to power. And sometimes that has consequences. John knew Herod had married his brother’s wife, and told Herod plainly that was against the law. To keep things quiet Herod put John the Baptist in prison. This arrangement worked for a while, until it was time for Herod’s birthday party.

As part of the birthday festivities Herod’s daughter danced for him. She danced so well for dad and the guests that Herod made her a promise: Ask for anything, daughter, and it’s yours. That sounds like a pretty good party, right?

But then the story turns. The daughter, who scholars tell us was likely 9 or 10 years old, asks her mom for advice. Mom, sensing an opportunity to be done with someone talking trash about her husband, says something shocking. She tells her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. The daughter listens to mom and asks for it. Herod, not wanting to break his promise in front of the guests, orders it to be done, and before you know it there John the Baptist’s head is, sitting on a platter.

The beheading of John the Baptist was pretty big news for many people at the time. Perhaps it was similar to how we view some of our own dark news days like the death of John F Kennedy or the events of Nine Eleven. Imagine asking Herod’s daughter that same question, where were you, the day John the Baptist was beheaded? “Well” she may reply, “I was at a birthday party for dad, and I danced. There was joy, there was clapping. And then things went very, very bad. “

Or imagine asking one of the apostles, where were you, the day you heard Jesus’ cousin was beheaded? “I was out healing the sick, just like Jesus taught us to do” the apostle may say. “Life was wonderful, magical. And then the messenger came and told us the horrible news. I’ll never forget that day.”

I’d add maybe one more question about that day, a question for God.  God, where were you, the day John the Baptist was beheaded? Because looking at the text for today I don’t see you. It just ends with a head on a platter, and the disciples coming to take his body away to bury it. And that was that, John was dead.

For those of us that were around for the death of JFK or Nine-Eleven we may ask the same question. God, where were you the day JFK was shot? God, where were you the day the Twin Towers fell? Those are hard questions.

Good News – then

But you didn’t come to church this morning to wallow in the news of dead prophets, dead presidents or, terrorist attacks. At least I hope you didn’t. There is good news to share today.

Right before where the gospel reading picks up Jesus sends the twelve apostles out to heal the sick. Word of his ministry was starting to get out. A movement was underway. And right after the beheading the text moves to Jesus feeding the 5,000. So while it’s hard to see God on the day John the Baptist was beheaded it’s really easy to spot God right before, present with Jesus and the apostles as they went about their business healing. And it’s easy to spot God right after, present again with Jesus and the apostles as they participate in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.

Think about those three events together.   First the apostles are sent. Then John the Baptists is killed. Then the miracle of feeding the 5,000. First sending. Then death. Then miracle. Sound familiar? It kind of sounds like the Easter story to me. That even on the darkest of days God is present. Present with Jesus during his death on a cross. Present with the apostles and other followers during their pain. Present with us, in our pain.

Good News – our past

There is good news in our darkest times too, even from a horrific day like Nine Eleven.

Catherine Turnipseed shares her father’s story of 9-11 every year with her students, along with many other personal stories from her family and friends. Where was God that day for Catherine? She says the day taught her something about God’s mysterious ways. She learned that day God makes us all special, and actively shapes our lives, even in times of tragedy. Catherine says she values the chance to pass these lessons about the day, lessons about God, on to her students.

Where was God that day for a friend of mine from seminary? She found God in church, sitting next to her husband.   The two went to their faith community the night of the attacks to seek solace. Their marriage wasn’t in the best place at the time; it had been 13 months since they’d gone to church together. Exactly one year later, on 9/11/2002 the couple welcomed their second child into the world. Looking back on this day she now describes 911 as a crucial moment in healing her marriage. God was present on that day almost fourteen years ago, healing a marriage, and is still present, walking alongside the couple today.

Where was God that day for Becky, a college friend, on 9/11? She was eight months pregnant with her daughter. Becky says she recalls being horrified that she was about to bring an innocent child into such a dark place. But the experience gave her and her husband Bill resolve. She tells me they decided to do everything in their power to raise their child to be loving and kind to everyone she would meet, and reject hate in any form. God was present on that day for Becky, giving her new insight on how to raise her soon-to-be-born child, and teach her in the ways she should go. God continues to be present with Becky and Bill as they raise their daughter, now thirteen years old.

Good news – today

Where is God today, for you? Some days it can be harder to see God then others. Maybe you’re having one of those days. I sure struggle to see God some days, maybe you do too. Perhaps you’ll experience God in the music today. At least some of you will. Shirley has been leading music in churches for a while now, I’m guessing she’d agree. You can’t please everyone, at least all the time, right Shirley?

Or maybe you’ll find God in the sermon today. At least I hope a few of you will. But if you don’t that’s ok. Not everyone finds God in every sermon. It just doesn’t always happen.

One place I find God a lot is right after the service, in the narthex, during coffee hour, talking with many of you. God is present with us in our faith communities, in our conversations. For me it’s easy to find God among God’s people most days. But even then it doesn’t happen every single time.

Here’s one place you can find God consistently, even in the dark times. It’s in communion. We are given the gift of Christ because God so loved us that God wanted us to know that we are loved. God wanted us to know that God knows what it is like to suffer, to feel pain, to feel hurt. And that God never leaves us because God is an intimate presence in our life.

God gave us Christ to show us the way. To show us that within all the bad news we may experience, we are given the mark of baptism and the bread of communion. God will not fail us. God will not forget us.

In a few moments you will be invited to be a guest at the Lord’s Table and we will hear the words “This is the body of Christ given for you.” Each week we are reminded “this is the blood of Christ shed for you.”

God is part of us. God is with us. The bread we take, the wine we drink, and the cleansing waters of baptism show us no matter what, at all times, we are never forgotten.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

iStock-question-marks

Stewardship: From Environmental to Financial

I originally wrote this article for Luther Seminary’s Center for Stewardship Leaders, it was published in their weekly newsletter on June 9, 2015.  ELCA is short for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; I’ll pastor a church in this denomination in two short years.  Enjoy!

As a second year student at Luther Seminary in the Distributed Learning (DL) program I wear many hats. That’s the beauty of the DL program: it allows you to stay put geographically speaking, offers stability for your family and gives you the ability to continue serving your local church. You get all this, while also pursuing a Master’s in Divinity degree (MDiv) and ordination. What a great gig.

Beyond being a seminarian, my other hats include part-time employment at a local congregation, being a husband, and a parent. It is this role as parent that makes me think about stewardship the most.

Earlier this Spring my wife and our five-year old daughter went to Disneyworld. While there we ran across the movie Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable at Epcot. It’s a story of environmental stewardship that uses characters from the Lion King, told as only Disney can do. One thing Disney weaves into the experience is talk of how the recycling of aluminum cans has changed in the past forty years. In 1972 just 15% of aluminum cans in the US were recycled. By 2012 that number had increased rather dramatically to 67%. What changed so many hearts, minds and behaviors so radically in such a short time?

Part of it purely economic, it’s cheaper for companies to use recycled aluminum. But the more important piece, and what gets people like you and I to separate our recyclables bin by bin, is that the narrative has changed. People now know, through countless efforts from business, government, schools and faith communities that the sustainability of our world depends on it. Leaders of all types play a vital role in educating their organizations, both speaking about environmental stewardship and modeling it for others to see. And when successes happen, like with recycling aluminum cans, we celebrate, knowing we are part of something that will benefit our world for generations to come.

financial_stewardship

I guess I see financial stewardship in our churches in much the same way. People need to know that their giving matters, and is a vital part of God’s restorative plan for all of creation. As current and future faith community leaders we must communicate this stewardship narrative and why it’s important, whether that’s our involvement in a local food pantry or supporting the ELCA Malaria Campaign. Find what God is doing through your congregation, lift that up, and celebrate it.

Another important way leaders can reimagine the financial stewardship narrative is to model it. Before and during seminary can be a great time to get your financial house in order. Be intentional about paying down your existing debt. Be careful about taking on new debt, including seminary debt. Utilize grants and scholarships whenever possible. Reevaluate what you consider wants vs. needs. Consider taking part in a Christian-based course on finances like those offered by Financial Peace University or Crown Financial.  These courses offer practical, biblically-based perspectives on how to tidy up your financial house.

Do you tithe? The average ELCA member gives about 2% of their income through the church, so odds are the answer to that question is no. What we can do is to be intentional about increasing our giving over time, communicating what we give, and just as importantly why we give. At its best a conversation about giving is passionate, highlighting the joy and happiness that comes when giving is done from the heart. The hope is that others see this passion, are inspired by it, and are moved to reflect on their own heart for giving.

The Lion King Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable movie concludes that, “making the world a better place begins in your own back yard.” As faith leaders this quote makes an excellent segue into a conversation about financial stewardship as well. The circle of life, as authored by God, modeled by Christ, and led by the Spirit calls us to action.

shut up and dance

Shut up and Dance

Today’s sermon celebrates Pentecost Sunday as seen through the lens of the song Shut Up and Dance With Me, by the group Walk The Moon.  Once you read or listen to the message fire up the Youtube music video, and see what your dance partner, the Holy Spirit, may be saying to you.   Enjoy!

Sermon audio:

Music video:

Sermon text:

Happy Pentecost Sunday!

Pentecost Sunday is the day we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and other earlier followers of Jesus. Today is often referred to as “the birthday of the church.” Maybe we should get some cake and balloons for Pentecost next year, and celebrate that birthday in style during coffee hour.

The text from Acts picks up where the Gospels left off – right after Jesus was raised from the dead, after he’d spent 40 days walking alongside the twelve apostles and other early followers and then ascended into heaven.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like to those earlier followers to experience all that? And then suddenly realize that Jesus was no longer with them? Think about possible questions from the crowd. Where did he go? When will he be back? What should we do now?

Maybe these were the questions the apostles were looking to answer when meeting on that first Pentecost in the upper room. If I were there I think I’d be afraid, not knowing what was coming next.

And what was coming? Scripture refers to what happened in the upper room that day in many ways. Some translations call it the Holy Ghost, others call it the Holy Spirit. Even there we begin to get the sense that what came that day was sacred and otherworldly. What came is also described in Acts 2 as “as strong wind, gale force” and that the Holy Spirit “spread through their ranks, like a wildfire” So the Holy Spirit can be understood as an element like wind or fire, changing the world as it goes.

The understanding of the Spirit as fire is also why we wear red this day. To celebrate the Spirit coming to us in fire.

Other places in scripture refer to the Holy Spirt as Helping Us Along, as an Advocate, a Comforter, and a Friend.

So the Holy Spirit is many things.   My seminary professor, Louis Malcolm summarizes it nicely, saying:

“through the Spirit we are freed. Freed from being hooked by unjust and dysfunctional patterns within and around us.” She continues, noting “As the Spirit transforms us into Christ’s image, we no longer are beholden to any other interests but God’s purposes for us and for the world.”

I rather like that summary, and would perhaps add one thing. With the Holy Spirit you are never alone.

With that in mind here’s just one more way to consider the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the Holy Spirit could be considered your divine dance partner.

Dance Partner

This notion of a divine dance partner came to me a couple of months ago. It started normally enough while driving to a chaplains meeting, listening to the radio.

This encounter with the Holy Spirit was totally unexpected, borne of some music from the secular, FM dial. Sitting there in my car a song played, Shut up and Dance, by the group Walk the Moon. Has anyone else heard this song? It’s pretty popular right now.

I’d heard the song a few times before, and remembered liking it, but something in this particular moment struck me in a new way.

In this song I now heard the Holy Spirit, and understood a major depressive episode I experienced a few years back in a new light. The song hit me hard enough that I sat there, in the car, driving on the Turnpike, and was moved to tears.

It may sound strange, but I’d like to share what I heard. And to share what these lyrics now mean to me. To take this journey into new meaning I’d like you consider a Holy Spirit that is alive and well in 2015. A Holy Spirit calling us away from worldly pursuits and towards a life filled with the love of Christ.   Calling us to new life, to move, to dance with grace.

We’ll go through the lyrics line by line.

In this story the Holy Spirit is feminine. In Hebrew the word for spirit (ruach) which is feminine. Some view the Spirit in masculine terms, or with no gender at all. But in this story, to fit with the song lyrics we’ll consider a female Holy Spirit.

The song begins (lyrics are in bold)Oh don’t you dare look back just keep your eyes on me.  When hearing this I’m reminded of when I was agonizing over whether to keep my job in corporate America. At the time I was absolutely miserable, in a downward spiral of a depressive fog, and needed release. Don’t you dare look back the Spirit beckons, just keep your eyes on me, she says. We’re going somewhere new.

This conversation with the Holy Spirit continues: I said you’re holding back, She said shut up and dance with me!  This is so typical. I want to follow Christ, I want to be led by the Spirit to new and exciting places, but my selfishness, my brokenness still takes the lead. Look, there I go, trying to tell the Holy Spirit how to do her thing. It’s like when Jacob wrestles the angel to get his blessing. I want that blessing, but I want it my way. You’re holding back, I say to the Holy Spirit, give me that blessing! She corrects me, directly, yet elegantly, Shut up and dance! Shut up and dance with me! 

The song moves from conversation to realization: This woman is my destiny, She said oh oh oh, Shut up and dance with me!  We’re being led by the Holy Spirit. Not just to dance with the divine. But to leave our pride, our selfishness, our sense of control. To leave all that, to push it aside, and to dance, letting the Holy Spirit take the lead. That’s no easy thing, we’ll need frequent reminders to drop our perceived need for control. To Shut up. And to be at peace with following, to dance with the Spirit.

The lyrics then take me to another time of personal darkness: We were victims of the night, The chemical, physical, kryptonite Helpless to the bass and faded light. Have you ever found yourself a victim of the night, tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep? Lying awake, not able to find the peace of a full night’s rest?

While in my dark fog of depression I sure had this problem. Sleep was elusive. I felt like a victim, suffering and in mental anguish. I felt alone. But the Holy Spirit suggests otherwise. *We* were victims of the night, she says. WE. We are not alone.

The chemical and physical effects of depression are inescapable. Depression is commonly linked to low levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates mood, memory, appetite and sleep. That’s pretty important stuff. Too little serotonin can’t help but have physical effects, like not being able to sleep and withdrawing from friends and family. At the time this was my world.

The kryptonite reference is a curious one. Kryptonite is the radioactive element that takes away all of Superman’s powers, making him weak and vulnerable. This is not unlike the effects of depression, which for a time took away anything I’d call a semblance of life.

But that all sounds very dark and horrible; and there is more to the story than that. I’m reminded again that *we* were victims of the night. Me and the Holy Spirit. Having some all nighters, hanging out together. Perhaps the chemical effects of depression that drew me away from certain things, were drawing me toward something new. Like this offer to dance.

The lyrics then find fate is in play: Oh we were born to get together, born to get together. We are all born in a fallen, broken state. Separated from God from the beginning. Trying to find our way back into the Garden of Eden, back to relationship with our Creator. But how? Jesus paid that price, covering our brokenness and faulty nature, restoring us to newness of life. What now? We dance. We dance into the world around us with our new dance partner, the Holy Spirit. Why yes, it’s beginning to make some sense to me, we* were* born to get together, each of us, finding new life as we dance with the Spirit.

Perhaps this is the right time to begin, the song suggests: She took my arm, I don’t know how it happened. We took the floor Finally, the dance has begun! It’s the Spirit that reaches out, taking your arm, leading you into the world. Do you know how it happens? I can’t say that I do. I do know this: the more I let her lead, the more adventure there is. The more fulfilling life becomes.

The lyrics then offer a reminder: She said: Oh don’t you dare look back just keep your eyes on me, I said you’re holding back, She said shut up and dance with me! My takeaway from her reminder? There will always, always, ALWAYS be that voice in your head that wants you to take the reins back. To take the lead. To ignore the Holy Spirit and do things your way. But we know, each of us, what happens when we try and play God. Nothing overly good. Shut up, the Holy Spirit says. Dance with me!

The story then ends with a look ahead: Deep in her eyes, I think i see the future. I realize this is my last chance. Dancing with the Sprit is a very intimate, personal thing. And when you do it, your future will change. You will see it differently. You will never be quite the same. And while I don’t think this is my last chance to dance with the Spirit it’s a good chance. And an opportunity I don’t plan to pass up.

But that’s just one story, one person, one dance. What about you? Where have you seen the Spirit active in your life? The next time the Spirit comes and asks you to be her partner will you answer that call? If you do, will you let her lead? Shut up and dance, the Spirit reminds us. Dance with me.

shut up and dance