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You cannot measure the power of the divine spirit that is alive in the world, moving between us broken beautiful humans at amazing speed, wrapping her ever gracious arms around us and binding us together, emerging from our very depths to move us toward transformation, calling communities out of complacency toward justice. This dynamic spirit cannot be quantified.
Numbers, who needs them? After I finished my math requirement my junior year in high school I have not taken notice of those silly things that are not letters. Sure, numbers can be important—balancing a check book. But besides that, what do I really need them for?
No, this is not a time for you mathematicians to weigh in on the importance of math. I am sure there are many reasons to study the subject that I am ignoring, but I am not interested in them today. And just for your information, on a good day I do believe that complex mathematical equations can explain our world as profoundly as poetry. But I don’t care today.
Here’s why: simple numbers will never be able to quantify the spirit. You cannot measure the power of the divine spirit that is alive in the world, moving between us broken beautiful humans at amazing speed, wrapping her ever gracious arms around us and binding us together, emerging from our very depths to move us toward transformation, calling communities out of complacency toward justice. This dynamic spirit cannot be quantified.
As a pastor I am often asked how many people attend my church. The frequency of this question dramatically rose when I became the pastor of an emergent church. My life as pastor and chief evangelist has become all about numbers. Every sacred gathering I wait like a junior high kid at the beginning of her birthday party, wondering who will show up, counting heads and empty seats. And then there is the looming budget. Without outside funding my vocation—my passion—depends greatly on the generosity of others, and finally on a spread sheet. Numbers: go screw yourselves!
So much of my job, in fact the very core of my job, has nothing to do with numbers, even if I wait earnestly week after week to see who will show up. Instead, ministry has everything to do with the mysterious and dynamic spirit that eludes mathematics. How do I create an Excel sheet that captures transformation? Or healing? Or reconciliation? Or hope, deepening awareness, connection with God, engagement with the gospel, commitment to justice?
Here’s the rub. In my old job my numbers were great: every year membership, attendance, Sunday school registration, and the ever holy budget increased. In my new job, it seems every year numbers have either held steady or decreased. Hence a mathematical equation would suggest that my earlier ministry was more successful. Yet in my new ministry the Spirit is palpably present. Like static electricity, the Spirit bounces between those gathered at Grace, regardless if there are four or one hundred filling the room. At Grace, there is a deep engagement with the radical gospel and a profound openness to transformation that I yearned for in previous ministry.
Numbers? I’m not paying attention. If numbers could capture the spirit, I might use them more. Instead, I am going to push relentlessly ahead, following the dynamic spirit, and ignore the spread sheets.
*It would be unwise not to take a moment and thank the best Math teacher there ever was: Mr. David Strachan. He loved numbers. He also appreciated the human spirit. Under his guidance, I finally did enjoy math since he did not think my spirit or intelligence could be calculated. Thank you Mr. Strachan for all the extra time on math tests. I still remember what you taught me about co-signs.
I wonder if the Spirit does not prefer to visit places where there is more chaos, open hearts, and fewer rubrics
Something spirit-filled happened at Grace’s Sunday gathering. I cannot name exactly what it was. I can only describe the events that surrounded it.
Our music director Greg suggested that we begin worship with a common experience and afterwards reflect together upon that experience. Not knowing exactly what we were getting into, Greg and I planned a service completely around the common experience communion. We began the service with a communion litany, shared the bread and cup, sang, reflected together, prayed, and sang again. Simple enough, perhaps, but also highly unorthodox since every faith community I have ever been in serves communion at the end of worship.
Let me set the stage: Grace is a small community filled with lots of exuberant on their best days, noisy on their worst days, children. It is also filled with adults who possess a rare spiritual gift: wide open hearts. These adults can deal with chaos, change, and best of all humanity in all of its diverse beauty. Last Sunday folks rolled in, still bearing the news of the empty tomb on their hearts. There was a buzz in the air. The candles were lit, the music began, we spoke together the projected litany, and then I said the words I have said so many times: He took bread, broke it…. In my usual manner I invited everyone in the community to come forward and receive the simple gifts of bread and cup.
Then it happened: Joy. Unbridled Joy. Children leapt up and unabashedly helped themselves to large hunks of warm bread. A two-year-old snatch the bread right from my hand with his mouth. Adults swayed and danced to the piano music. There was laughter and chatter. My three-year-old sat on her daddy’s shoulders, her eyes twinkling as she observed the scene below her. Each adult was especially vocal after receiving the elements, saying aloud: Amen, Praise God, Be Blessed, Halleluiah. After everyone was served, I broke off pieces of the remaining bread and passed it to the seemingly ravaged children.
And then we sang Gungor’s This is Not the End. It’s a beautiful, powerful song. We sang it with conviction. We sang it loud. We clapped and couldn’t stay still. Some of us raised our hands, others of us closed our eyes. But looking at the footage I have attached does not capture what happened. At that very moment I could feel the Holy Spirit like an electric current jumping from each of us to the other. I am positive I tasted the Spirit that day.
The Holy Spirit moves where it will. It cannot be orchestrated. But I wonder if the Spirit does not prefer to visit places where there is more chaos, open hearts, and fewer rubrics.
At my first call, I got in lots of we’ve-never-done-that-before trouble when I served communion to children. I had not intended to serve children that particular fateful day; I had simply intended to serve. It was during a children’s chapel service. I said the words of institution and then the invitation. Who knows if it was my words, my body language, my obvious love for children, but whatever it was, the children heard it and came forward in streams. For many of the children it was the first time they had ever received communion. I was reprimanded because these children had not been given the proper education. I tried to explain that “education” is not a prerequisite to communion and that we adults were still trying to discern what the bread and cup where all about. It didn't matter. I got in trouble, entire committee meeting trouble.
Looking back ten years later, I now understand the children in that chapel felt the Holy Spirit. They were not boxed in by solemn ritual or congregational traditions. It was for exactly these reasons they were able to perceive the Spirit.
It is time to make room for the Spirit! Phyllis Tickle, an authority on religions in America, claims that we have entered a time of dizzying upheaval. She has aptly referred to this great “emergence” in the Christian church as the Age of the Spirit. I wonder if the Spirit will bypass our established churches where children are not allowed to come forward for communion because they might be too noisy, take too much bread, or worse yet giggle with joy? I wonder if the Spirit will bypass those religious institutions that are certain they have the right boundaries around the Christian faith? I wonder if the Spirit would even bother showing up to a communion service so solemn and so depressing that people are more attentive to how the worship leaders dress than the promise offered?
Greg and I did not, and could not even if we tried, command the Spirit to show up on Sunday. The Spirit just showed up. And I am convinced it showed up because a group of faithful discipleship swayed, voiced praise, and opened their hearts.
Now that I have tasted the Spirit, I’m not sure I can go back.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.