Archive for May, 2015


May 24, 2015

In 1980 I stood by at an open-heart surgery.  That was new surgery then, and the hospital where I was interning as a chaplain — Presbyterian in San Francisco — led the field in open heart surgery.  One day I summoned my courage and asked the preeminent surgeon if I could observe an operation.  I anticipated standing in a gallery above the operating room, so you may imagine my shock on the day of the operation when I found myself in green scrubs, standing on the operating room floor, at the surgeon’s left elbow, breathing through a little paper pyramid, with the patient’s head right before me.

Imagine my further shock when the surgeon took what looked like an ordinary electric skill saw and with a long, firm stroke, opened up the man’s breast bone.  Soon the heart itself lay bare; I could have reached out and touched it.

Two hours later, when the patient’s heart was back to pumping blood and his breast bone stapled together and his skin sewn up, I left the operating room in a daze.  For two hours I had been standing precisely on the threshold between life and death — not the concepts, but the bright red, pulsing reality.  I took the rest of the day off and went straight home to be alone.

This is not really a story about the mechanics of open heart surgery; it is a story about transformation.  I made my way home with new eyes.  On the street, in the bus, on the train — I saw, not a bag lady, not a cable car repairman, not a professional woman in a business suit; but vulnerable, precious beating hearts — hearts held more intimately in God’s loving care than a new born baby.  I had just enough sense not to rush up to hug all those precious strangers, but that was my whole impulse.

Luke told a similar story in today’s reading.  His story wasn’t about a hospital, a surgery, or an open heart; rather, he wrote about a mighty wind, flames of fire, and a dozen different languages.  But his real story, like mine, was about the human soul being transformed.  In other words, it is about salvation.

Why did Luke choose those three events for his story?  First, why the mighty wind?  The wind symbolizes freedom.  Jesus said, “The wind* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  The wind signifies the unbounded nature of the spiritual life.

Let me give you an example.  Our religious beliefs are meant to open our eyes to what faith makes possible — vast new vistas of what life can be.  But if beliefs become set in stone they act as barriers, and limit where we can go in our quest for greater intimacy with God.  For those who are “saved,” in other words, life is open on all sides.  We are never finished with flourishing.

Second, why the tongues of fire?  Luke’s readers would have connected them with another life-changing fire, the burning bush.  Remember the story?  Moses was still just a scared man on the lam when he saw a mysterious thing: a bush that was blazing, and yet was not consumed.   When he started to go near for a closer look, God actually spoke to him.  That was the moment when Moses went from being a man on the lam to being a man with a mission — a transformation of his whole identity, from being a leader of sheep to being a leader of a nation.

The burning bush held another message as well, one too deep for words; and perhaps Moses only came to understand it gradually over the years.  Through the symbol of a burning bush, God was, if you will, holding out a mirror to Moses.  “Look, Moses, a mystery, a sign of eternity, a life that does not depend on fuel.  See the true nature of your own life.”  ….That is also the true nature of our life.

Third, why the different languages?  Again, Luke’s people would have gone back to the only Bible they knew, what we call the Old Testament, and recalled the story of Babel — a story of division.  At that time the people all spoke one language and they mis-used it to worship their own technology.  God foresaw suffering if they continued, and gave them different languages to bring their project to a stop.  Pentecost reversed that.  The different languages remained, but understanding took place at a level beyond words.  Pentecost tells a story of divisions healed, a story of the underlying oneness of all creation — of unity in God beneath all the beautiful diversity.  This is a third aspect of salvation.

Friends, let’s step back for a moment.  Luke faced a dilemma.  He was writing to people, none of whom had known Jesus personally.  Luke needed them to know, not just about Jesus, but to know Jesus personally —  to experience what it was like to be in his presence.  Luke himself had never met Jesus, and yet he had come to know Jesus personally.  He doesn’t tell us how that came about, because it would not help us.  It could even mislead us into thinking that we could follow in his footprints.  Salvation is a journey we make on our own into the unknown.

So Luke could not tell his people directly, but he could do two things.  First, he can let us know it is possible; and second, he can tell a pointing story; and that is the story of Pentecost.  This story is not the experience in itself, but it points to the experience.

As we have seen, Luke used the wind to tell his people that the experience of knowing Jesus personally would have certain effects.  Freedom, for instance.  A relationship with Jesus would bring us freedom from constricting fears — such as fear of death, fear of failure or error, fear of loss, shame, even fear of false beliefs, which religion is prone to.  And freedom from always leads to freedom to.  It’s as if, like Moses, we’ve been in hiding for fear of Pharaoh, and now we are free to come out, stand our ground, and speak our truth, humbly but clearly.

Another effect.  Luke used fire to tell his people that the experience of knowing Jesus personally turns us inside out; that is, it transforms my sense of who I am.  Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself” put it this way, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  Not only do we sense how at-one we are with all creation, but at a deeper level, I sense how my life does not depend on this body and its fuel.  My life will go on eternally in the fiercely tender fire of God’s love.

Another effect.  Luke used different languages to tell his people that the experience of knowing Jesus personally means that you don’t need words to tell others about it.  I may not speak your language, I can still let you know by my love how I experience salvation, and that you can too.

We might call Pentecost the greatest of the Christian feasts.  We are celebrating how the experience of knowing Jesus personally did not end with his contemporaries.  That same transformation is ours to claim as well, but claim it we must.  Claim, not seek.

I was not seeking inner transformation when I asked to observe open heart surgery.  Afterwards, when it turned into a Pentecost experience, it wasn’t that something new had been added; but something dormant had been watered.  I claimed that experience as genuine and given by God — the experience of salvation.

But if salvation means going on in that blissful state of new freedom, new life and love, then salvation is a passing thing.  I didn’t stay on that mountain top.  But salvation is not like a merit badge, either you have it or you don’t.  Salvation is a process, the way an acorn is an oak tree.  But it helps to water it.

Forgive me if I’m being too fanciful, but picture God standing by with a watering can, longing to pour it out, freely and fully over each one of us.  We need only to open our hearts.  I have my own unique way of doing this, as do you, but let me offer a suggestion.  The thirteenth century theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart, said “Nothing in the world resembles God so much as silence does.”

The suggestion is this.  Make room in your day for silence.  Go into it and let your heart be opened.  Not with a skill saw, but tenderly, from the inside, the way a leaf opens and unfurls into its full beauty through the action of the Holy Spirit.