Yesterday, many churches celebrated Pentecost. If you’re not a mainliner, it’s quite possible you don’t know what I’m talking about since many evangelical churches don’t like to mention it, much less celebrate it. Strangely, you heathens who don’t go to church, or worse, don’t believe in all this religious mumbo-jumbo, may know more about it than some Christians. I’ve often wondered about the ignorance(?) that surrounds Pentecost. Until yesterday morning, that is, when things finally clicked into place: for all our excitement about the birth of the church, Pentecost makes us uncomfortable.
While I’m sure there are people everywhere who get the heebie-jeebies when folks start speaking in tongues (and, let’s be honest, that’s what freaks us out about Pentecost), I can only speak to the southern experience. Southern society has historically been one of the more stratified when it comes to class. Class (and race, but that’s a story for another day) permeates everything, even church. In most southern towns, the more well-to-do families were Episcopalians or Presbyterians. Middle and working class families were generally Methodists and Baptists. The “holy roller” churches, like the Church of God in Christ and other Pentecostal denominations, tended draw their congregations from poor whites (what we called ” white trash” back then) and black folks. Though the lines have blurred somewhat, you can see remnants of this stratification today.
You may be wondering “What does this have to do with being uncomfortable about Pentecost?” Simple, when I was growing up in the south , the worst thing a white person could be was “white trash”. Being poor was one thing, acting like you were poor was something else. And, nothing denoted your social status like your religious affiliation. If you couldn’t go to the “good” church, you sure as hell didn’t have to behave like those crazy holy rollers. Living in the south in those days was an exercise in climbing the ladder.
I grew up Methodist, a denomination that could give the Episcopalians and Presbyterians a run for their money when it comes to the “frozen” part of a certain nickname (the Presbyterians have a corner on the “chosen” part, however). When I was about 11 years old, however, my family left the UMC for a charismatic house church. If you’re thinking that’s an extreme change, you’re right. It’s also one that doesn’t bring up a lot of good memories for me (read more about that here). Between the social programming of my childhood and the not-so-good experiences of my youth, you can see why this Pentecost thing makes me itch.
I find it interesting that, although my friend and I approach Pentecost from completely different angles, neither of us handle it very well. While I can’t speak for him, I know my discomfort has caused me problems. I have spent a great deal of time and effort looking a
more reasonable explanation for what happened the day the church was born. I mean, seriously, a bunch of uneducated hillbillies sitting around speaking languages they’ve never even heard before? It’s bad enough reading about it in the Bible, bring it into the present day and things really start to get awkward.
I don’t want to crap on other people’s experiences, so I’ll just say I have yet receive the gift of tongues. Now that I think about it, this may be where my problems with mystery began. My charismatic experience occurred around the same time I started noticing that I didn’t have that mystical connection with Jesus, that God never bothered to speak to me, that others were filled with the Holy Spirit while I seemed…, not exactly empty, but not filled either. As a result, I’ve distanced myself from many of the more supernatural aspects of Christianity while at the same time craving some kind of spiritual encounter. I know that doesn’t make much sense, but I’m weird that way.
I know this post is unusual. It’s long-winded and rambling (like my others aren’t?) and doesn’t seem to have a point. That’s partly due to the fact that it deals with subject matter that unsettles me and partly because I don’t do deep theological concepts all that well. I’m an action-oriented guy and prefer talking about how to bring the Beloved Community to fruition rather than rehashing something that, frankly, I don’t see advancing that goal. To be honest, I’m not even sure why I wrote this piece. It came in fits and starts and had a stream of consciousness vibe as I wrote it. I don’t know if it will help anyone or not. I’m not even sure if it helped me to write it. Whatever. Here it is. I hope you like it.