It really wasn’t the first time I’d spoken up at church. I mean, I’d been reading the Lessons since I was twelve; I’d been on the PCC, which is a rough English translation of Vestry. I’d taught Sunday School, participated in small groups; heck, I’d even led small groups. But this felt different. I was in a new congregation, one I’d known for just a few months. I had no standing, no authority, no reason to rise up from the safely anonymous middle row and address the whole gathered community, except that the Holy Spirit would not let me sit still.
It was the end of the Annual Meeting, my first experience of one in the Episcopal Church. After the usual business was done, the microphone was opened to the floor, and person after person lined up to gripe. They complained about things not being as they used to be – and they were probably right; I wouldn’t know, not having been there when they used to be. They described departmental disagreements in areas of the church I didn’t know existed. They used their opportunity fully to share their opinions on all that was wrong in that church, and I watched the leaders, the clergy and her companions, sit a little straighter, bearing up under greater and heavier heart-weight as the comments continued. At last, it was announced that the time for commentary was closing. I got up anyway, and walked on shaky shanks to the microphone. “Ok, one more, then that’s it,” sighed the presiding priest. I began, “I have heard all that has been said, and I’m sure it’s all valid. But I think that you need to know, too, that my family has not only been welcomed here, but embraced. That Sunday used to be my worst day, after we moved here, because it was the day that I would weep with homesickness, missing my church, missing my people. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137) Sundays were my worst days, until we came here, and from the first time I left this place singing, and from the first time my children came and said, “it’s just like coming home,” I have felt comforted, and I have stopped crying on Sundays, and instead my soul sings.”
That might not have been exactly what I said, but it was something like. And I do know that I told them, “thank you for being here. Thank you for being the church that you are. Thank you for letting us find you.”
And I sat down, my legs still shaking, and the people around me were murmuring amens, even the ones who had complained, because they loved that place, and for good reason; they complained because they cared; but they were also glad to be reminded to rejoice in it, to give thanks for it. Of course, it was also the start of a beautiful friendship with that priest!
That was what I remembered when I read Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances … Do not quench the Spirit!
Someone asked this week, more than one person asked this week, in the wake of another report, another indictment of our use of force, the force used on our behalf, “What are we becoming?” Another colleague, Ann Fontaine, commented that this is not what we are becoming but what we have come from. A nation built on genocide and slavery, she offered, cannot be surprised if racism and violence live there.
This is not what we are meant to become, not what we will become; not if the Spirit has anything to do with it.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances … Do not quench the Spirit. Hold onto what is good, and avoid evil.
What we are becoming has yet to be decided. It depends on what we do with who we are now. Whether we are prepared to test everything, to listen to the prophets, to pray without ceasing, to hold onto whatever is good and to eschew evil.
What we are becoming personally has yet to be decided; many of us stand at the threshold of new beginnings, new ways of being in relationship, new understandings of what it is to be ourselves, in the wake of loss, or change, or joy.
We have something, in the church. We have something to offer those who live in darkness, waiting for the light. We have experience of repentance, and of forgiveness, for a start. We have experience of God’s inexplicable love for us who once thought ourselves unlovely. We have each other. We have the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Do not quench the Spirit.
We have something to offer our friends and our neighbours, our community and our country; something to offer ourselves, the remembrance of rejoicing, the Spirit of thanksgiving, to heal our hearts and soothe our souls.
The prophet describes the anointing of the Spirit, sending him out to preach good news to the afflicted, release to the prisoners, to bind up the brokenhearted, to comfort those who mourn.
It can start small. Sometimes, I know, that it has to start small; I have not forgotten how hard it was to stand on shaky knees simply to tell my church, “thank you.” And look where that got me. I know it’s scary. But we have the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the anointing of the prophet. It is our commission to bind up the brokenhearted, to release those held captive to despair, to lift up the poor and the lonely. It is our commission to offer hope to the hopeless, wherever and whenever we are able. Do not quench that Spirit.
Let them know, your friends and your neighbours, the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captive to cynicism; or let him even know, the stranger in the store who wonders aloud what it is that we are becoming: let them know how you make sense of it all, how you test everything and find the good, eschew evil, by unceasing prayer, and by coming together to rejoice in the mercy that God has already shown us, and hope in the steadfast mercy with which God will continue to love us, and not let us fall away. Do not quench that Spirit.
Maybe it always feels this way in Advent, as the dark nights draw in and we wait for the light. Maybe it always feels, at this time of the year, in this time of our lives, as though we have a decision to make, about what we are becoming. Repentance is a repeatable event. Always, we have that choice to make, to walk towards the light. To lead the way for those struggling to find their way in the dark. Because we have the way. We are anointed by the Spirit to share it.
The first letter of John tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; but it has yet to be seen what we will become.”
Rejoice always. Give thanks in all things. Pray without ceasing. Do not quench the Spirit.