A traveling evangelist always put on a grand finale at his revival meetings. When he was to preach at a church, he would secretly hire a small boy to sit in the ceiling rafters with a dove in a cage. Toward the end of his sermon, the preacher would shout for the Holy Spirit to come down, and the boy in the rafters would dutifully release the dove. At one revival meeting, however, nothing happened when the preacher called for the Holy Spirit to descend. He again raised his arms and exclaimed, “Come down, Holy Spirit!” Still no sign of the dove. After a few moments of silence, the preacher heard the anxious voice of the small boy call down from the rafters: “Sir, a yellow cat just ate the Holy Spirit. Shall I throw down the yellow cat, sir?”
Pentecost celebrates the birth of the Church. There is something both very exciting and at the same time somewhat apprehensive about a birth. Because birth launches a new life out into an unpredictable, at times even foreboding, world.
Several years ago ABC News did a story about a woman flying from Chicago to Denver on a Southwest Airlines flight who joined a whole different kind of mile-high club: she gave birth to a baby boy at about 30,000 feet. Now, I couldn’t find out how often this sort of midflight birthing happens, but apparently it’s relatively rare.
The interesting question, of course, is where does the birth certificate document the location of the birth? And the answer is rather complicated; every nation has a bit different law concerning that occurrence. In fact, the laws even differ, in this country, from state to state. Sometimes it’s based on where the mother took off from, or where the baby first lands upon this earth. If a birth takes place over the ocean, that might mean dual citizenship. And if it happens at 30,000 feet, the law might even consider longitude and latitude at the moment of delivery.
The thing I found out that I really like, though, is what the birth certificate cites as the physical location where the birth occurred (which is typically a hospital in a particular city/county); but in the case of being airborne, the certificate simply documents the event as taking place: “in flight.”
Actually, that would probably be a pretty good description for the birth of the Church, as well. The Church defies allegiance of citizenship with any one particular country or nationality. The Church was delivered in mid-flight by a God who seems at times to function rather haphazardly on a wing and prayer.
A God who then calls upon his own people to follow suit.
“The Lord called me before I was born;” declared Isaiah, “and while I was still in my mother’s womb, He named me” [49:2]. Then the prophet goes right on to say, and “he made me a polished arrow.”
`The Lord drew me out of the safety of the womb’ Isaiah in essence proclaims, `and made me like a polished arrow to be launched into the air.’
The headline, “Corrigan Flies by the Seat of His Pants” first made its way onto the front page of The Edwardsville Intelligencer, on July 19, 1938. A phrase turned by the mechanic who helped Douglas Corrigan get his plane in working order (a plane the mechanic had dubbed, “The Spirit of $69.90”).
`Flying by the seat of your pants’ means going aloft without instrumentation: without radio, altimeter, speedometer, compass, or any other such luxury. `Flying by the seat of your pants’ means using your own initiative, your own intuition and perception, rather than any predetermined plan or mechanical aid. `Flying by the seat of your pants’ is more organic. More serendipitous.
- Hudson Taylor – the nineteenth century British missionary who founded the China Inland Mission and was personally responsible for over 18,000 conversions to Christianity – wrote, “We have given too much attention to methods and to machinery and to resources, and too little to the Source of Power, the filling with the Holy Ghost.”
We are stewards of a wild mystery; one characterized by that “catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears,” which says Fred Buechner, is the deepest intuition of truth that we have (Listening to Your Life, p. 117).
Throughout the ages, the people of the Church have received the wild inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It gave John Milton’s poetic genius flight as he wrote Paradise Lost. It launched John Wesley to found the Methodist movement with open-air preaching, proclaiming that it is the Holy Spirit which alone convicts people’s hearts into knowing that they are children of God.
The Holy Spirit is that force which launched a thousand ships to sail towards unknown territory; the muse which inspired countless works of art; the power that has led untold generations through the darkness of the ages into the light of God’s promises.
The church was born because faith filled people were gathered in worship and prayer in one place (it doesn’t say precisely where) and the Holy Spirit came upon them like a wild wind.
The Church was born on a wing and a prayer, and it has been flying by the seat of its pants ever since.
Have you ever seen an eagle soaring on the wind?
To truly soar, an eagle has to face into the wind to experience lift.
The currents flow over and under its uniquely formed wings, creating an air pressure difference. As the higher pressure below tries to equalize the lower pressure above, the gliding bird is lifted up. In order to stay aloft, the eagle must be assisted by warm updrafts or an increasingly powerful wind.
But, did you know that eagles are not born with the instinct to fly? They are, however, born with the ability to imprint – much like human babies. They learn to fly by watching their parents fly to and fro from the nest. And the first venture out of the aerie – their lofty sanctuary – is inevitably fraught with risk. Approximately 40% of eaglets do not survive their first attempt at flight. And yet, something – some bestowed spirit, some inherited yearning to fly – beckons them to launch forth out of the nest.
When my good friend Julie was closing out her business Exotic Pets – a business she’d been in for many years – she simply told me that she felt God was nudging her in a different direction.
“Oh, what direction is that?” I asked.
“I have absolutely no idea,” she answered.
Then, as Julie was busy selling off the remaining critters and liquidating all her pet supplies, I happened to stop by the shop to see how things were going.
“So how does it feel to finally be almost done with it?” I asked her.
She thought a moment then said, “It’s kind of like the one time I went skydiving. I’d gotten my training and was all ready to go, and then, as I stood in the open doorway of the airplane looking down at the ground far below, I suddenly realized what I was about to do. Scared me to death.”
“Oh, oh. And what happened?” I asked, frankly thinking that she probably back out at that point – I know that I certainly would have (actually if I thought I had to wear a parachute for some reason, I’d have never gone up in that plane in the first place).
But Julie’s answer was surprisingly matter of fact: “I jumped.”
“I love the thing about faith,” William Sloane Coffin wrote, “That first you leap, and then you learn to fly.”
Anne Lamott observed, “the Holy Spirit very rarely respects one’s comfort zones.” But I believe it’s much worse even than that, however (and I hate to break this to some of you) but my observation is that the Holy Spirit’s main concern for us is not necessarily safety and security at all.
The Spirit tends to take supreme risks of us for the Kingdom’s sake.
In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard says that we Christians conduct ourselves as if we did not really understand the implications of following a living, present, active God.
She writes that, “On the whole, I do not find Christians sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense.”
And if not crash helmets, at the very least, I would suggest, we should all have parachutes.
The thing is – in presuming to seek God’s will for our lives in Jesus Christ – if we knew where the Spirit of God might actually lead us, we might never get onto the plane in the first place. Or come into the church, for that matter. We’d just stay on the ground curled up around our neatly packed parachute, looking up with fear and foreboding.
And, perhaps, that’s just what some of us do, anyway.
In what ways, I wonder, do so many of us pray for the power of the wind to blow in our lives, and then refuse to spread our wings? Refuse to `take the leap.’
I grew up in Kansas; known for its windy days. But, since I’ve been here, I’ve noticed that the wind blows in New York as well.
How many of you have flown a kite in the New York wind?
How many of you have lost a kite to the New York wind?
I remember more than a few times, as a kid, on glorious summer afternoons when that old southwest wind would lift up my paper flier, drawing out more and more of the string at the end of my tenuous grip until finally, one last powerful gust would `break the surely bonds of earth’ to send my kite forever heavenward. And I remember running down the street after my kite wishing, rather, that I could fly with it.
That is still my wish today – for all of us.
So, if we are all feeling safe and secure sitting here upon these old familiar perches on this seemingly quiet Sunday morning, I would simply proclaim to you: Beware. For we are more exposed and vulnerable to the untamed wind of God’s Spirit than we might suspect.
And if we pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives in new ways, then be forewarned; it means being carried wherever the current of the Spirit takes you. Even when that means liquidating a comfortable business, or heading off filled with doubts to seminary, or starting an entirely new, untried ministry, or just launching out into the unknown without the foggiest idea of where you’ll land.
For we’ve been formed by God, redeemed by Jesus Christ, and bestowed with a Spirit to become polished arrows for the Kingdom’s sake.