The further reflections of Pentecost Sunday, courtesy of their authors, each of whom served as a confirmation mentor for one of our youth. Paired with last week’s entry, this completes the presentations from our Pentecost service. Many thanks to our contributors!
I will with God’s help.
I remember driving home from a Godspell rehearsal with Miriam, Anita, and Anna last year. Godspell is full of parables, and I’d like to tell you that we were discussing the theological meaning of the parable of the sower or the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. But, we weren’t. We were talking about a silly line in the middle of “Turn Back, O Man”.
“Jesus, take the wheel.”
We talked about the Carrie Underwood song, how it tells the story of a single mom driving on a snowy Christmas Eve with a baby in the backseat. She hits a patch of black ice, causing her to lose control of her car. She panics, takes her hands off the steering wheel, and cries out to Jesus. It is this cry for help that saves her from danger; she and her baby are safe in the end.
Even though I generally like country music when sung by women, and I’m a sucker for a good story song, this song had always struck me as being kind of trite. And, as a parent of teenagers, I can’t advocate for removing our hands from the steering wheel when the driving gets scary. But, when one of the kids in my car asked if Jesus could really take control of a moving vehicle, I had to accept the gift of being asked a faith question by my kids and set aside my liberal theological background for a minute. “Yes, kids. Jesus can take the wheel.” Viewed through a less country-fried lens, yes, kids, God can help, and you need to know that. God can help when you feel frightened or inadequate or weak or out of place or hard to love. So, we will with God’s help, and God’s help is no small thing.
When I was in confirmation class many decades ago at Swarthmore Presbyterian Church in PA, I got stuck on this question: “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” What did it mean to call someone a Lord? What was a savior, and what did I need to be saved from?
I struggled with the language of faith, and that year, I chose not to join the church. I wasn’t ready. But I kept coming back and listening and pondering, and a few years later, I got to a place where I said, YES to church. I said YES to resonating with the story of Jesus and especially with the parables. I love the way Jesus rarely offered easy answers. He’d say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” Or “two men were in a field.” Or he’d turn one question into a new one: “Who is your neighbor?”
The people of the Bible wanted this Jesus to be a Messiah—a savior—and in so many words, he told them: if you want a savior, go spend time with someone who’s lonely. Go rock a newborn baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. Go identify the systemic wrongs in your community and seek out ways to right those wrongs. Stop looking for salvation in all the wrong directions.
For me, faith means saying YES to engaging with a whole bunch of people who are also listening and seeking and searching. Being part of a church gives me a deep sense of gratitude for those who are on the journey with me, and for all who have journeyed before me.
So… welcome to the church community, and welcome to the journey.
“Dearly beloved” is not a phrase that comes to my mind very often. All the movie priests say it – “Dearly beloved we have gathered here this day” to . . . whatever – celebrate or mourn something. I never say those exact words. But I did hear them one day. I was sitting beside a river that day, and feeling sad. I don’t remember exactly why I felt so sad.
But my family will tell you, the river is where I go when I’m sad or overwhelmed or just want to feel better about life. I go to the river or a lake or the ocean, or really any body of water. This particular day I remember: I needed to hear something. I didn’t know what, until I heard it. That I am dearly beloved is what I heard.
I think that’s what God is always telling us – that we are dearly beloved. It can be hard to hear God say that, because other voices are so much louder – voices telling us we’ve done something wrong, or that we need to be smarter or kinder or braver or more unique or more like everybody else. Those voices can make it hard to believe that God loves us, plain and simple, before we’re good or smart or kind or brave . . . and even when we’re bad and stupid and mean and cowardly. God always loves us, dearly.
We often emphasize the adult-responsibility-aspects of confirmation; you’re choosing for yourself what someone earlier chose for you. And that’s real; our young people’s choice today matters. But there’s also a way in which anyone choosing to be confirmed or baptized is just receiving what God has done, and what God has chosen. I hope you’ll feel that today, too: the gift of love that surrounds you even on the days your aren’t dressed up and ready and able to choose God back.
Carla Pratt Keyes
When my youngest daughter was one month old, she died. Up until that point in my life, the only other person I loved who had died was my 97 year old grandmother. When we gathered for her memorial service, we spoke with gratitude about her rich and full life. When Joanna died, I was not grateful. In fact, I was angry..the kind of angry that makes you want to throw something, or even hit someone – hard. I think I decided that who I wanted to hit was God. So as we were preparing to go to Joanna’s memorial service, I was actually hitting my dresser over and over and saying, “I cannot go to this service and repeat all those words of hope and promise we’re going to say.” My mother stepped close, wrapped her arms around my frantic and flailing ones, and said, “That’s okay. You don’t have to say them today. We’ll say them for you.”
That’s what being a part of the church has been for me. In whatever congregation I have found myself, the Spirit has spoken through the words and actions of those who share faith with me. Sometimes those words comfort me. Sometimes they challenge me to not think about myself so much and open myself to others. Sometimes they encourage me to serve God by doing something that feels uncomfortable. Sometimes they offer forgiveness. Sometimes they say we’ll speak God’s promises to you and for you when your faith needs some shoulders to stand on.
The Spirit at Pentecost came to a group of people – not just one person – and it is in shared life with those who gather and call themselves the church that the Spirit most often speaks words of comfort, challenge, encouragement, love and forgiveness. I can’t “do” faith without church, and my prayer for you as you continue to grow in your faith is that you always find a church community that can share the gifts of the Spirit with you.
Thanks to Marcia Perry, who contributed the photos that appear in this series.