On that Jewish festival of Pentecost, or First Fruits of the harvest, the disciples and followers of Jesus who gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem were faithful Jews waiting for a Jewish messiah. (Mark Suriano, cited by Kate Huey in Weekly Seeds, 5/27/12) With the arrival of the Holy Spirit, like a mighty rushing wind, appearing to be tongues of fire alighting upon each person’s head, these backwater Galileans became “ambassadors of a more universal experience of God,” (Suriano, op cit.) able to speak in the languages of all the people who had gathered in the city for the holy days. On that day, which we often call “the birthday of the church,” that handful of faithful followers of “the Way” were transformed themselves for the transformation of the world. It was, in the words of one preacher, “a monumental, paradigm-changing event.” (Gary V. Simpson, The African American Lectionary, 5/31/09)
We gather today as well, perhaps in the scheme of things a “handful of faithful followers of the Way,” but I wonder if we have any expectation of transformation, let alone “the power from on high,” which those first disciples awaited. The thing is, the story of Pentecost tells us that the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential for the existence of the church. Without it, we have no right to call ourselves by that name.
As Gary V. Simpson, an African American preacher and teacher, reminds us, gathering together in one place doesn’t give us power. What we need is “synchronized energy,” or “synergy”; and, he says, the Holy Spirit is not just “raw spiritual energy,” but “divinity with personality…It is not merely a power source but God willing to be in radical relationship with believers to affect the power structures of the world.” (Ibid.) And that power is totally out of our control–”And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” Luke tells us, “and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
“Pentecost,” Simpson says, “is not simply a day to remember the birth of the church, but it is also a way of remembering our commitment to open ourselves, to change the world and be changed by the world with the aid of the Holy Spirit.” To change the world and be changed by the world with the aid of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not only Comforter, Intercessor, as we heard in the passage from Romans, but also Disturber, World-changer, Life-changer. Do we really want that? Do we know what we’re saying when we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit”? More often in the church, we hear, “We’ve always done it that way,” which really means, “That’s the way I’ve gotten used to it’s being done.” (David Lose, Working Preacher.com, 5/27/12)
It is sometimes said that Pentecost reverses the confusion of languages that God put into human beings in the story of the Tower of Babel. You remember that primordial story of human beings deciding together to build a tower up to heaven (It’s hard to even imagine human beings actually agreeing on something, isn’t it?), and to prevent that hubris, or that attempt to displace God, God is said to have given them all different languages, so they couldn’t understand one another and complete their task.
In the story of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus are given different languages but everyone can understand in their native tongue, and what they are given ability to communicate is the “powerful deeds of God,” an invitation to enter into radical relationship with this God to transform the power structures of the world. The Word of God has that strange ability. As the great African American preacher Gardner Taylor pointed out, the masters taught the gospel to their slaves in the hopes that they would hear, “Slaves, obey your masters.” But what the slaves heard was, “The ones I have set free are free indeed!” (Cited by Simpson, op cit.)
“The Gospel story has no portability or power [Simpson writes] if it gets trapped in the language and capacity or ability of the witnesses alone. We are called by the circumstances of the Church’s birth [–this Pentecost story–] to wrestle with the language we use to communicate the gospel so that our experiences are more than mere personal jubilation.” The church doesn’t exist just for us and our comfort and happiness. It exists for the transformation of everyone, of the whole world, and we need to communicate that.
It takes courage and creativity to be that church. (David Lose, op cit.) It’s going to take more than wearing our t-shirts around this summer. We do need to think about what we’ll do if somebody actually asks us what they’re about, let alone what we’ll do should they take us up on our offer to join us some Sunday morning. The traditional language of the church, as I wrote in my piece for the most recent Open Door, is no longer the “native tongue” of very many people, particularly younger folk. So we need to learn other languages as well if we are to communicate this life-giving, life-changing, “good news.” I’m hoping to learn more of the language of Positive Psychology through the course I’ll be taking this year. Another language we might learn from is the language of one of the most successful businesses on the planet–Apple.
In a fascinating article called, “10 Things the Church Can Learn from the Apple Store,” Lutheran professor and pastor David Lose offers some translations for the church from an article by a friend of his, (Gary Kawasaki), who worked for Apple for years. Kawasaki laid out these “10 Things You Can Learn from the Apple Store” —
1. Stop selling stuff. Apple employees are taught to ask, rather, “How do we enrich people’s lives?” Lose’s translation for the church is: “Stop worrying about membership and whether people will join the church,” which is our equivalent of “selling stuff.” “Instead,” he says, “ask people why they’re here, why they’ve come, what they’re looking for, and how this congregation can aid them in their walk with God.”
2. Enrich lives. These are the first two words on a wallet-sized credo card Apple employees are encouraged to carry. The translation for the church is: “Strengthen faith.” We might also translate it: Build trust in God. What if “every aspect of our lives as a congregation–our worship, our meetings, our educational opportunities, our facilities, our newsletter, and all that were intended to help people strengthen their faith and grow in their lives as disciples?
3. Hire for smiles. Apple values magnetic personality as much as, if not more so, than technical proficiency. It cares less about what you know than it cares about how much you love people. Translation for us: “Hire” for smiles! Statistics show that visitors make up their minds about a church in the first 2 minutes. Are they greeted with genuine smiles and welcome? Can they find their way around? You get it.
4. Celebrate diversity. “Mohawks, tattoos, piercings are all accepted among Apple Store employees” because that reflects the diversity of their customers. The translation for us is obvious, and pointed–Do we really welcome all people of faith or in search of faith, without regard to age, race, sex, economic condition, disability, or sexual orientation? Look around. Do we reflect the diversity we say we welcome?
5. Unleash inner genius. “Teach your customers something they never knew they could do before, and they’ll reward you with their loyalty.” Translation for the church is: Everyone here has something of value to offer. We must recognize, help them discern that gift if they don’t recognize it themselves, celebrate these gifts, challenge folks to develop and strengthen their gifts, and train folks so that they can experience satisfaction and confidence in what they offer.
6. Empower employees. Apple employees are non-commissioned sales people. They don’t get paid for selling more products. They are there because they contribute to everyone’s success, and their initiative and creativity are encouraged. Translation for the church: Lose writes, “If it matters, don’t let the pastor do it!” Create a permission-giving culture in which folks try things that energize them, and then, if necessary, they can ask for forgiveness later.
7. Sell the benefit. Apple employees are taught to sell the benefit of their products–how this will enrich your life and that of your children, how can we customize this so that it will actually fit your life and not make you fit into it. The translation for the church is: Practice talking about what we love about this congregation–why we come here Sunday mornings, that sort of thing. We hope to do that more in the weeks to come.
8. Follow the Steps of Service. The 5 steps of service for Apple employees follow the letters in Apple–A-approach with a warm greeting, p-Probe politely to understand the customer’s needs. P-Present a solution the customer can take home today. L–Listen for and address unresolved questions. E–End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return. Translation for us: Take hospitality seriously. Practice it.
9. Create multisensory experiences–Apple stores are set up so people can touch, hold, see, hear the products. Translation for the church, Lose says, is: Keep worship simple, clean, and richly multi-sensorial, inviting a faith that goes deeper than our brains to reach the whole person.
And finally, 10. Appeal to the “buying brain.”[More helpful for us is, Learn from brain research.] Clutter forces the brain to consume energy, we know. Apple stories are very uncluttered. The translation for the church is: What are we doing–in our worship, meetings, education–that we don’t need to? What is essential?
10 Things the Church Can Learn from the Apple Store. And Lose suggests there’s one more thing to learn from Apple, which he writes about in his article, “The Church is not Apple, but…” (5/24/12) That one more thing to learn, which was Steve Job’s real gift, is “design matters.” One of the things we are learning in the revolution in cognitive neuro-science is that ‘the mind is less rational than we believe and more associative than we know.” (NY Times, 1/8/12, Week in Review, p. 12) In other words, we are hard-wired to absorb images, metaphors, rather than numbers and “facts.” Design matters. In our worship. In our we talk about/express God. In all our communications. In our building.
“In the last days it will be, God declares, [Peter told the astonished witnesses that first Pentecost] that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young people shall see visions, and your old people shall dream dreams…” On this day of Pentecost, may we commit ourselves to being open to God’s Holy Spirit as it seeks to transform us and transform the world. So may the church truly be re-born and the whole creation with it. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark