On not being in control
I just returned from Chile, and—as much as I love travelling—I was painfully reminded of just how difficult it is for me to leave home. The day before I leave is always difficult, as everything takes on a melancholy glow. It’s like I get powerfully homesick just before I go. But more than that, I get outrageously anxious—I know, I’m a totally wreck and God bless Lisa for putting up with me! What am I anxious about? You might ask, and I might make you a list. But none of the things on the list are what I’m actually anxious about. I mean I need to double check, triple check, quadruple check to make sure my passport is in the right place, that I have all my power cables, that my phone is topped off, etc etc etc…
But none of that is why I’m anxious. It’s because I’m about to step out into a place where I am not in control. Or at least, where my illusion of control can no longer be reasonably maintained. When I get into the Uber, I am relinquishing control to the driver. A million things can go wrong with my flight, yet I am forced to trust Priceline, the airline company, the pilot, and even the people who take my bags from me. I watch them loaded onto the belt, I watch them being carried away. I wave… And they are…out of my control. And in some deep, neurotic, obsessive corner of my soul I HATE THAT.
And I also know that half of the things out on the road that can go wrong will. Part of the fun of travelling is navigating these bumps in the road, and learning to see them as just that: FUN. But that’s a hard adjustment for me.
At least with a trip you can see it coming. But it’s when your illusions of control are just snatched out of your hands in the midst of your daily life that it becomes truly upsetting and unsettling. This is exactly what happens to the disciples in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. They’re not going anywhere. They’re holed up in an upper room, they’re hiding out. They’re desperately trying to control their environment in a time that does not feel predictable or safe for them.
And then, out of nowhere, they hear a violent rushing wind filling the air around them. Fire springs up on the top of their heads, and suddenly everybody starts speaking at once—and as if that were not strange enough, they start speaking in languages they do not actually know. And this, not surprisingly FREAKS THEM OUT, not to mention alarming everyone down on the street around them when all of this noise and fire and babbling starts in and disturbs their peaceful morning before they’ve had their coffee.
I like to approach scripture by asking myself, “What scares me most about this?” And what scares me most about this text is that the Spirit seems totally out of control. At least She is out of the control of the disciples, none of whom chose to act in the ways that they did. They were hiding out, for heaven’s sake. They were trying to keep a low profile. Now all the sudden their hair is blazing like Micheal Jackson, the wind is roaring like a freight train, and they’re compelled—they can’t help themselves!—they’re spilling out onto the street preaching about Jesus.
That’s out of control. That’s not how people fearing for their lives and trying to keep their heads down ACT. That was not what any of them would have chosen, but God didn’t ask permission. God just sent the Spirit, and the Spirit shook things up but good.
Okay, so what scares me about this? Plenty, and I’m not even hiding out fearing for my life. I’m even preaching here, of my own free will and accord! But what scares me most is the idea that the Spirit might just invade, take over, and start doing things with my body—like lighting what’s left of my hair on fire, just for starters—that I don’t consent to or approve of.
I’ve seen people preaching in the street—I don’t want to be one of those people! I’ve seen folks who act drunk before lunchtime—I don’t want to be one of those people either. But the larger picture is that there are a million things that God might just swoop down and have me start doing that—in my right mind—I really really don’t want to do. I really don’t want to sell everything and go be a missionary to Zambia. I really don’t want to find myself at the site of a terrorist attack. I really don’t want to be put in a situation where I have to put myself at great risk in order to save someone else.
But it could happen. None of us know what God will ask of us. Or…well, forget asking. None of us know the situations into which God might suddenly thrust us, situations that might be scary or completely out of our control.
Maybe it’s an introvert thing, but I don’t think so. I do, however, prefer the much quieter, more introverted story of the bequeathing of the Spirit that comes to us from John’s community. There the discples are, once again huddling in fear, but Jesus comes to them—quietly, mind you. Okay, he does walk through the walls, which is upsetting. But there’s no rushing of wind, no flaming toupés, no sermons in languages we don’t actually know. There’s just Jesus, their friend, present with them as he had so often been. He breathes on them, and his Spirit passes into them to comfort them, to encourage them, and to empower them.
That’s a nice, manageable, introvert-friendly way to receive the Spirit. I’ll take that one, please. But the fact is, we don’t really get to choose. I mean, I didn’t choose to be a pastor. It wasn’t on my short list of career opportunities. It was something I couldn’t not do (if you’ll pardon the double negative). And I don’t think that’s unusual. I think that happens to a lot of us. God taps us on the shoulder—and then when we ignore the tap, begins shouting at us until God finally gets our attention—and enlists us to do something that was never, ever on our radar. That might even include becoming a Christian. It might be a ministry or a calling. Whatever it is, it usually comes as a surprise, our response is usually something like, “Who, me? Are you kidding?” and through a slow process of trying to ignore it and being rather aggressively nagged by this same Spirit, we give in and we discover a depth of riches and rewards that we never could have predicted.
Just as the trick with learning to see the setbacks and surprises of traveling as fun, however, the trick with this is learning to see these nudgings and naggings and callings as a privilege rather than a stormy intrusion into our otherwise orderly and predictable lives.
We’re a bit like Bilbo Baggins, just wanting to be home at Bag End, warm and comfortable, leaving the adventures to others. But the Spirit blows where she will, and as anyone who has followed Jesus for any length of time will tell you, she blows on all of us now and then. It’s inconvenient, it’s disruptive, it can even be scary, but it’s also deeply good.
One of the Roman coins in use at the time of the apostles depicted Caesar with a split tongue of flame leaping from the top of his head. The imagery indicated that he was royalty, but not just royalty, he was also divine, the son of god. Luke uses the very same iconography—a symbol that would have been known by anyone in his day with a coin in his pocket—to depict a similar message.
The tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles symbolized that they were a royal people, a divine people, that they were children of God. The Spirit didn’t enter into them and move them to do extroverted and scary things as some kind of punishment, but because they were favored by God, because God trusted them to do great things—greater things than they imagined they COULD do.
I think most of us sell ourselves short. I think God has greater things planned for each of us than we would dare to imagine for ourselves. But before we freeze up from performance anxiety, let me point out that the while the disciples were the ones out there preaching and being obnoxiously extroverted in this passage, it wasn’t something they planned or practiced or prepared for. It was something GOD was doing, not them.
And it will be the same for us. Whatever it is that God wants us to do, it isn’t one more thing we’ve got to put on our TO DO list. It’s something that God is going to bring about—either gradually or dramatically—and we don’t have to plan for it. It’s something that we can trust God to do. Because WE’RE NOT THE ONES IN CONTROL HERE. God is. And this kind of thing is God’s doing.
And the final piece to this is that, scary as it is, and personal as it seems, it isn’t about us. It’s about God’s concern for creation, and God’s desire to heal everything broken—not just us, but the world. That’s a lot of broke, and a lot of healing, and God has quite a task ahead. But it’s God’s task. As God’s people, we’re on board to help. It’s part of what we signed up for.
Travel is anxiety-producing, but I keep travelling because it is also deeply good. And when God asks us to help, it isn’t always going to be comfortable, it isn’t going to be in ways we would have predicted or would have chosen for ourselves. This adventure requires giving up control. And that’s deeply good too. But, I know…it’s scary.
God, we don’t understand why you chose us and called us…but you did.
We don’t know why you ask us to do the things you do…but you do.
We can’t predict the way your Spirit is going to move…only that She will.
Help us to sink into you. And to trust you. And to loosen our grip.
And to let go of the need to be in control.
Because truly, we’re not.
And letting go of illusions is never a bad thing.
Let us welcome the wind and the flame and the voice of the Spirit in our lives,
and help us learn the trick of seeing her interruptions as graces rather than
…well, whatever it is we’re afraid of today. Amen.