Punctuation Saves Me

Acts 2:1-21 – Pentecost Sunday – for May 27, 2012

“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”

In the meal of ministry, I received leftovers at the first church I served. I was the associate pastor.

Did I preach at Christmas? No, the senior pastor did (though I’d often get the Sunday after Christmas when my “boss” headed outtatown). What about the first Sunday of Lent or Easter? No and no. How ‘bout that moveable Sunday in late August or early September when school started and folks scurried back to church? Nope . . . never on that Sunday.

In those early, youthful halcyon years (I’ve so desired to sneak halcyon into a sentence), there was only one special time of the church year—of the holy ride from Christmas preparation through Easter glory until Advent loomed again—when I was guaranteed to stand at or near the pulpit:  Pentecost Sunday.

Okay, fine, Pentecost typically blazes in on a Sunday in late May or early June. In other words, like a spring storm, it swirls across the calendar when school ends and Memorial Day barbeques are creating a haze of smoke in the ‘burbs. It’s a kind of leftover Sunday. And yet, in the peculiar church pantheon of super-duper days, Pentecost at least gets ranked in the top ten. Let’s say:

  1. Easter Sunday
  2. Christmas Eve/Day
  3. Moveable Sunday in late Aug/Sept
  4. First Sunday of Lent
  5. Pledge Sunday
  6. Super Bowl Sunday
  7. Good Friday
  8. Pentecost
  9. Maundy Thursday
  10. Senior Pastor’s Birthday*

You can re-jigger my list or make your own. But for several formative years, my associate pastor list bumped Pentecost up to the top.

I know Pentecost.

I’ve heard many a layperson stumble on the names of places where “outsiders” heard their language spoken. Oh, for the pleasure of pronouncing Cappadocia or Pamphylia to a congregation of your peers. As the congregants repressed giggles, how grateful they are not to be you while you weave through Pentecost’s scriptural landmines.

I’ve seen many smiles from pew-dwellers when the disciple Peter declared, in the oh-so-serious Pentecost verses, that those filled with God’s Spirit shouldn’t be called drunkards. After all, “it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” Bingo! Which is to say, Jesus’ followers might get bamboozled with new wine in old wineskins at noon or by nightfall, but they’d never hit the sauce this early!

Then there’s the prophet Joel’s prediction of “blood, and fire, and smoky mist.” Those words don’t predict what’ll happen at the picnic later on Sunday afternoon when you grill burgers . . . they were gloom and doom warnings. Nothing like the apocalypse to get minds wandering out in the pews. Instead of hearing how some will be saved and others punished, it’s better to muse if today’s a good day to wash the car or fix that broken sprinkler in the back yard.

I’ve preached on Pentecost. Often. In every church I’ve served, I’ve witnessed grimaces, guffaws and gritted teeth. Truthfully, it’s also hard for me to resist a yawn. How can I find anything new from this scripture I’ve read and interpreted since the (roll eyes, clear throat) halcyon days of my ordained youth?

Punctuation saves me. Yes, God’s love saves me in a traditional religious sense, but there’s also the modest personal salvation found where the writer of Acts juxtaposed a question with a sneer.

At Pentecost, stunning events unfolded. Wind and fire, whether symbolic or literal, filled and thrilled a room of disciples. The spirit inspired those ne’er-do-well Galileans with the ability to speak a host of “foreign tongues.”

The crowd responded. Some sneered, accusing Jesus’ followers of being drunk. Oh how we humans love to sneer, point fingers, enjoy someone else’s slip on a banana, one-up the other, act superior, have the last word and so forth.

But there’s also, in the verse above the sneer, one of the best questions of faith: “What does this mean?” There’s that question mark, that open-ended moment where some, or at least one, in a crowd of finger-pointers and belittlers, wonder about the unexpected movement of the spirit. What does this mean?

Honest questions keep my faith alive; they battle 24/7 non-news, bloggers twisting facts and selective Googling to prove one side is right.

I crave questions. What does this mean? How can I know there is a God? Was Jesus human or divine or both? How can I forgive another who has hurt me? Why can I appear strong in my faith when I write a sentence on the page, but weak when I meet a stranger on the street who’d I rather dismiss or ignore? Why am I afraid of death? Why am I afraid of life?

God’s spirit moves, sometimes so quietly perhaps I merely dreamed a breeze; sometimes so forceful, it’s like a tornado swept my soul. And all of it, the stillness and the storm, gifts me with questions.

For the hundredth or thousandth time I read about Pentecost. I laugh. I cry. I grimace. I yawn. I even sneer. But I can’t avoid the punctuation shouting from the end of a sentence.

At this stage of life and faith, the high and holy days don’t matter like they once did. Keeping score or making lists seems silly. Pentecost is less a leftover day describing how God’s spirit worked long ago and more a Holy here-and-now nudge posing questions that keep my faith alive.


*Really, this is a joke! Darrell Thomas, the first senior pastor I worked with, became a gifted mentor for me. He would’ve never called attention to himself or his birthday! Though other senior pastors I’ve heard second-hand comments about . . . well, I’m sure they were only groundless rumors.

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  1. 2:8 Comment se fait-il alors que chacun de nous les entende parle dans sa langue Maternelle? 9 Parmi nous, il y en a qui viennet du pays des Parthes, de Medie et d’Elam. Il y a des habitants de Mesopotamie, de Judee et de Cappadoce, da pont et de la province d Asie,…

    Oh how I love reading the Lectionary during the service, and Pentecost gives me an extra special chance to read the Pentecostal scene from Acts in French! All those names roll off the tongue like they were spoken in a Bordello, to go along with the presumption of wine in the AM. I was crestfallen when I was told our church did that only once every other year, because people get bored of the same thing every year. We usually had it read in three or four languages. Unfortunately, the one I know best, German, is very common among the congregants in darkest Pennsylvania, settled largely by German and Slavic coal, steel, and cement workers. I would have liked to do it in Greek, but I have since left that church (not for that reason) and my new community does not do that. More’s the pity. I guess I’ll have to do that during my Lectionary class.

    Somewhere back in the darker, less likable corners of my psyche is the need to show off, which I do whenever people start talking about speaking in tongues. There are really two types of “speaking in tongues.” The kind of speech we hear about in the second chapter of Acts is called Xenoglossia, speaking in a language you do not know, but others can recognize. The kind of speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians is what people usually think of as speaking in tongues, called glossolalia. We know that is different, because Paul says there is a special talent needed to interpret it.

    It just occurred to me to ask why both types of speaking in tongues became important to Christianity, since it is a talent which is not presented in any other major religion that I know of. But religious inspiration is present in all religions, and some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism probably have a better handle on the nature of the discipline needed to evoke inspiration. And, I have discovered what may be the very best phenomenological description of religious inspiration… in Friedrich Nietzsche’s section of Ecce Homo (his “Biography”) in which he discusses his writing of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. It’s too long to repeat here. Buy the book. Amazon has it on Kindle, in English, German, and Spanish. I recommend Walter Kaufmann’s translation: http://www.amazon.com/Genealogy-Morals-Ecce-Homo-ebook/dp/B003E8AJYM/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1337104155&sr=1-3

    1. Bruce: a little dash of French, eh? Once I also could toss out a bit of coherent German…but now I can only remember how to count to ten and say (maybe) six of the seven days of the week. But, in any language, thanks for your comments!

        1. What? Copied?! I’ll have to slash your grade on that comment from an A- to a C+! And that’s only because I like you…!

  2. From a guy who is serving as his church’s youth minister, I immediately identified with your “associate pastor” role. In the hierarchy of church roles – in my former law enforcement career, we called this the chain of command – I think youth minister is found on an organizational chart somewhere off to the side, under the assistant to the associate.
    And yet (sorry, couldn’t help it), I serve.
    Perhaps I serve because I’m reassured by folks like you that what we do matters; that what I talk about, while seemingly a different language to the pastor, board members, elders and even parents, makes sense in some way to those who need to hear it.
    Thank you, Larry, for the gentle nudge and reminder that the question mark really does mean something.

    And on the advice of counsel, I’m pleading the fifth on any wine at the 9:00 hour…

  3. Love this blog, thanks Larry – as always; thought-provoking and helpful.

    re preaching, I usually manage to land Trinity, as the newbie being too inexperienced to plan myself at a beach on that particular Sunday like all the proper, qualified preachers and ministers do. No-one seems to like preaching on the Trinity (it’s hard). Transfiguration seems to be another ‘avoid’ Sunday.

    Bruce, I love the idea of reading the Bible in French! It reminds me of services at Taize where the text is given in very many different languages.
    Bless you all –

    1. Ruth…thanks for your comments! Yeah, I’ve loved worship experiences where a variety of languages are used for reading the Bible. And by way, put a day on the beach on your calendar right now!

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