The other day as I was driving down Central Avenue in my newly repaired van (that’s another story), I was enjoying immensely the clear skies and the view of the mountains. I had on the blues station and was feeling completely at peace having had a very successful trip to West Virginia raising money and friends for House of Hope – Ohio Valley. Time seemed to stand still with promise and perfection. I was having what my friend Ed Bacon would call a “Glory Attack.”
It’s the experience that can come upon driving through the green hills of West Virginia. John Denver got it right – Almost Heaven. Yes, a “Glory Attack.” That is the sensing of the presence of the Spirit that animates all creation, moving through both it’s beauty and pain, opportunity and challenge. It’s like the Powdermilk Biscuits of Lake Wobegon: “gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.” And like those fabled treats –”Heavens, they’re tasty, and expeditious!”
This same Spirit also energizes a disparate people to become the Gospel Power of the Jesus Movement. Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Today is the birthday of the Church. And with that, all gathered to hear Peter’s sermon, as recounted in the Book of Acts had a massive Glory Attack. Each heard in his or her own language.
When I worked with Progressive Christians Uniting, we had a program, “Swimming Upstream,” to enable small churches to reclaim their mission — in fact, their reason for being.
One morning I received a call from our director Peter asking if I would return the call of a United Methodist Pastor with a question about rejuvenating his church. “It’s out in Riverside. That’s your territory, John. See if we can help him.”
I drove out there and found an old white wooden clapboard structure with a side bell tower. This looked like it was right out of a small prairie town in the Midwest. I had arrived early to have a chance to drive through the neighborhood. Some of the streets were still unpaved. There were all sorts of kids around playing ball and other things.
When I finally met the pastor at the front door, he began immediately telling me about the problems of his congregation. They were old and tired. Most of all, that dwindling band was discouraged. The heart had gone out of them. Definitely NOT a vibrant outpost of the Jesus Movement!
As I went downstairs into the social hall, I took note of an arrangement of photos on the walls on both sides. I said to the pastor, “These folks don’t look that old to me.” He responded, “John, these pictures are almost fifty years old.” Yeah, I guess they were old. Very old.
Most of these people would now be in their seventies and eighties.
As the pastor showed me around their campus, we came to a two-story building which used to house a growing Sunday school in second floor classrooms and the downstairs had a huge basketball court. A regular gymnasium that could also be used for large dinners.
I asked the pastor, with a facility like that, had they considered an after-school program to provide something for all the kids I saw in the neighborhood. No. Nobody had even thought of such a thing. No, nothing for kids. They hadn’t had a Sunday school in years.
Did they hold any English classes at night for adults? Any citizenship classes? I had seen what looked to be many Hispanic children in the neighborhood. No. No classes for the parents.
No Bible study, no prayer circles. No nothing!
No wonder this church had dwindled down to nothing.
I shared with him a couple of things. First, I had gone to seminary with his bishop. Maryann was a good friend. If he would like, I could give her a call and see what resources she might have to allow the hiring of a lay person to begin some activities for the kids. If the person could be bilingual, English and Spanish, so much the better.
Secondly, I could draw up a plan to envision a brighter future, send it to him and he and I could go over it and see where the congregation might wish to begin.
A couple of weeks later I had had an opportunity to talk with Bishop Swenson. Told her that I had received a call from one of her United Methodist pastors and told her of my assessment of the situation.
Yes, she did have a pot of money which could be used for this, and if the congregation was serious about finding its mission and growing, she certainly would want to help. Yes, money was available.
I quickly called the pastor with this good news. He now had some ideas and the beginning of a plan. He had the resources. All the congregation – which claimed it was too old and feeble to do anything at all – had to do was to open the door. Give permission.
Weeks went by and I heard nothing more. Soon months. I began to wonder if the pastor had had a health problem or something. I sent email inquiries to him, wondering what had been the congregation’s response. I offered to come out to one of their board meetings and answer any questions. Nothing.
Finally, after almost half a year I received a very sheepish call from the pastor. Yes, their board had considered the proposal and the ideas for a revived ministry. BUT…they were too old.
Even though nothing much would have been required, they felt they were too decrepit. Actually, too afraid. Even that minimal change was too daunting.
Later, the next year, I heard that they had closed the doors and the property was sold.
Alas, no Glory Attack for this dispirited group.
Was it that the Spirit was not speaking, not prompting? Or was it that fear drowned out the summons? Again, no Glory Attack here.
Unfortunately, my friend’s congregation could not get there. Too far outside their comfort zone.
But we are not left to our own devices. Despite fears and hesitations, the Spirit blows through. Shaking us out of our doldrums, enlivening our imaginations. Bringing new life.
When we consider the gift of the Spirit – this is the way the Bible storyteller has of telling us that the power of Love and Abundant Life we had witnessed in Jesus could not be contained in death. It was now let loose in all the world to prompt, to guide, to encourage. As it always has been.
The Hebrews knew the Spirit as the Breath of God, Ruah. By the way, Ruah is a “she.” She danced before the Mystery of All at the beginning of creation, and at the manger of a babe in Bethlehem. And at the birth of every newborn.
And how do we contemporary followers of the Jesus Movement appropriate that power and grace for living our days? The revelation on the Emmaus Road tells the church everything it needs to know.
In the sharing of the journey of faith over the generations as told in scriptures and appropriated for today, AND in the breaking of the bread and fellowship around the table. That’s where you will meet the Risen Christ. More often than not, as a stranger in your midst. Just as those original travelers on the road to Emmaus knew him not.
That is the beauty of small congregations like the one I serve in San Bernardino, California. We are family to one another. It truly is “Blest Be the Tie that binds our hearts in Christian Love.”
I had the blessing to conduct the service and preach at Christ Church, Episcopal, this past week in Wellsburg, West Virginia. That’s right near where our House of Hope will be located in the Northern Panhandle.
It is where I usually worship when in West Virginia on a Sunday, and I told them and Bishop Cowden that I would certainly be willing to fill in since they had lost their clergy.
Of course, I gave an update on our addiction recovery center, House of Hope, during the coffee time after service. As I was getting my coffee and some munchies there was a little meeting going on off to the side. After I had sat down, a member of the vestry informed me that the parish had decided then and there to become a “partner in recovery,” supporting the work of House of Hope. They had decided to purchase ten copies to share of Sam Quinones book, The Least of These, to learn the scope of the problem of opioids and methamphetamines. A GLORY ATTACK!
At Christ Church, like ours in California, I suspect that most have known one another for years. And with theirs, like ours here in San Bernardino, we ARE NOT TOO OLD.
Right there in Wellsburg – a Glory Attack. Gumption engaged!
A Glory Attack right here in San Bernardino. Gumption engaged!
Sunday after Sunday, week in and week out, we are in fact, Christ to one another. Each precious in the Lord’s sight and each precious in the sight of the others at this communion rail.
The beginning of Pentecost Joy is the knowing that the Power for Life of the Risen Christ is alive in us as gathered community. WE are now the Body of Christ, with all the fortitude and gumption bestowed by Powdermilk Biscuits. Here and everywhere when the prompting of the Spirit is heeded. Amen
St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach
2855 Sterling Avenue, San Bernaridno, CA 92404
May 28, 2023 – Day of Pentecost
“A Glory Attack”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Acts: 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37;
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23