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Two Vital Questions for a Pentecost People

June 7, 2014

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:17-18, 38-39)

Tomorrow, June 8, is the Feast of Pentecost. On this most special day, we’re inviting people who come to our Services at St. Paul’s to wear red or the other colours that are in a flame. Our reason for this is not just for aesthetics, but also to remind us all of the essential truth of the above passage, that the fulfillment of the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we see in Acts 2 is something in which all of us today at St. Paul’s can share: “the promise is for everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” We are not spectators to what we read in Acts; we are participants. You and I are continuing the story of God at work through the Church, Jesus reaching the world through his Body, which began on the Church’s Birthday nearly 2,000 years ago. As I’ve reflected on what it means to fulfill this promise of being a Pentecost people, I’ve found myself coming back again and again to two vital questions. Indeed, for the last 28 years of my life, they’ve never been far from my thoughts.

Question One: Why Not be Totally Changed into Fire?

The_Wisdom_Of_The_Desert_300_457Question one, I first encountered in 1986, in Thomas Merton’s compilation of Fourth Century sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. He wrote:

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of distracting thoughts: now what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

Why not be totally changed into fire? The question calls to me to this day. I look at my life, and I feel so like Abbot Lot. I try to keep my little rule, and live my little life. But I feel a yearning to go deeper – to stop dipping my toe in the pool, and jump in. I want to know the transforming power of the Holy Spirit so much more than I do now. I want to become fire, and be ablaze for God – to live for the Lord with everything within me, not holding anything back. I know this is a yearning that many of us share. We see one expression of this desire at our Pentecost Services, where I’m always moved to see so many in our Parish family receiving Anointing with Oil, and prayer for the infilling of the Holy Spirit.

So, why not let the Lord transform us? Why not be filled and filled again? Why not be totally changed into fire?

This brings us to the second question.

Question Two: Why Not the Best?

I first encountered question two as I began Seminary in 1984. It originates not from the Fourth Century desert, but the 1976 US State of Georgia.

When a little-known former Southern Governor named Jimmy Carter decided to seek the Presidency, he wrote his autobiography, Why Not the Best? as a means of letting voters know who he was and his sense of values. The title comes from a question Admiral Rickover asked him during a job interview, following Carter’s graduation from the Naval Academy. Going into the interview, Carter had felt confident about his credentials, because he’d graduated near the top of his class. Rickover looked at Carter’s marks, and then asked the simple question, “Did you do your best?” Carter initially answered, “Yes sir,” but after some thought said, “No sir, I didn’t always do my best.” Describing the scene years later, Carter wrote, “He asked one final question which I have never been able to forget – or to answer. He said, ‘Why not?’”

Carter concluded the address announcing his candidacy for the 1976 Democratic Presidential Nomination with the challenge: “It is now time to stop and to ask ourselves the question which my last commanding officer, Admiral Hyman Rickover, asked me. For our Nation – for all of us – that question is: ‘Why not the best?’”

On my first day at Seminary, the Principal shared this story with us, and then thundered the same challenge to us: “Why not the best? Why not, while you’re engaged in this course of study, give it your very best?”

cslewisC.S. Lewis, in a 1945 address to an assembly of Anglican Priests and youth leaders, said:

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue ‘True – or False’ into stuff about a good society, or morals, or the incomes of Bishops, or the Spanish Inquisition, or France, or Poland – or anything whatever. You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point. Only thus will you be able to undermine … [their] belief that a certain amount of ‘religion’ is desirable but one mustn’t carry it too far. One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.

How can we be lukewarm about following the Lord? We only get to go through this earthly pilgrimage of life as disciples once, so let’s give it all we have! At Seminary, in the Navy, or whatever our employment; in family life; here at St. Paul’s; in loving from the heart, in all of life – why not give it the best?

And why not the best for the whole world? A few years ago I was at a meeting of all Calgary’s faith communities to learn and develop ways to help those needing homes in our city. One of the speakers said that the reason he joined the Board of the Calgary Homeless Foundation was because they approached him to talk about ending homelessness, not just managing it. Another speaker used the analogy of injury in the workplace. The goal is zero injuries, not a small or “acceptable” level. At St. Paul’s, we sometimes sing the song, “Let the Flame Burn Brighter.” It concludes with the vision of the whole nation being filled God’s song of joy. Surely this should be our passion for all the people and the other creatures God loves! Why not food, medical care, and peace for all? Why not education, free from the threat of physical harm? Why not respect for all creation? Why not the best for all of us?

The Acts 2 passage quoted at the start of this message testifies that God desires to pour out the Holy Spirit upon everyone – including us, and excluding no one. Nothing from God’s side is preventing this from happening. God doesn’t say: “I know you want to be set ablaze, and give yourself to me wholeheartedly, but that’s not for you. It was only for the First Century, or is only for ‘great leaders!’” To be filled to overflowing, give ourselves wholeheartedly to our God, and thus make a difference in this world is, as Watchman Nee reminded us, the normal Christian life.

Why not be transformed into fire – ablaze for God? Why not the best – offered by us to God, and through us to the world? As a Pentecost people, there’s no answer we can give to these two vital questions, except to say, “Amen. Come, Holy Spirit, come!”

May God fill us all with the Holy Spirit, and fill us, and fill us yet again to overflowing, this Pentecost and always!


This is adapted from my Incumbent’s Message in our June issue of Living Waters. The image immediately above is the Pentecost stained glass window at our Midnapore Chapel. Embedded below is the beautiful hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine,” which we’ll be singing at our 8:30 a.m. Service tomorrow.

From → All Posts, Music, Quotes

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