“F you.” I thought I said that under my breath. Apparently it was just loud enough for my professor to hear.
He was the president of the seminary I was attending. I believed that he had crafted a community that could change the world by generating ministers who have done deep soul work, investigating our own woundedness in a way that liberated us from harmful behaviors and small mindedness. In extricating us from a web of brokenness and helping us find our liberation, I hoped this school would mould us into perfect skipping stones, dancing across waters, spreading ripples of liberation.
Spoiler alert: While seminary brought healing, it did not unleash a tidal wave of love and justice. Turns out I was maybe a little overly-optimistic.
Whenever I’d get overly-optimistic, my dad called me “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.” I always knew dad thought I was ready to take on the world when he called me “Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.” Or, maybe he knew I was ready to try to take on the world. And that I’d come back with tear stained eyes and tail tucked between my legs. My dad generally greeted my young plans for liberating love and justice with “O-o-o-kay.” Dad knew it would end with new calluses on these bright eyes – the cataracts of attempting change in an unjust world. Because none of us are ever ready to take on the world. Especially when we haven’t first taken on ourselves, our primary relationships, our churches, and neighborhoods, and the systems that form and conform us. Really, until we’ve faced our co-dependencies and addictions.
All the same, when I started seminary, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I had just gotten “Faith, hope, and love” tattooed on my back. The Apostle Paul, or persnickety uncle Paul as I sometimes think of him, tells us that Spirit gives us many gifts. Some are strange. Some are powerful. Some seem mild but are a slow burn on the brokenness of the world. Regardless of your particular giftings, Spirit gives us all faith, hope, and love. And even persnickety uncle Paul says that love is the greatest. Faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. Radical words. Life altering words. Empire crashing, white cis-hetero-patriarchy smashing words.
Turned out one of our foundational classes at my seminary, taught by the founder and president was called “Faith, hope, and love.” I could jive on that.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and I find myself audibly saying: “F you.”
My professor had just said: “If you have loved your father well for three years, he will have changed.”
My dad suffered with a number of addictions. Dad would try to tackle one but then another would pop up. Like a game of whack-a-mole, Dad tried – but those darn addictions just wouldn’t stay down. The second you whack one, another pops up.
I wanted to believe that Spirit could change Dad. Because then maybe She could change our family. And if She could change our family, surely she could change the world. So…you know, I didn’t put much pressure on my dad changing. Just, just a little.
Dad ended up dying from a whack-a-mole game with addiction.
And this professor told me: “If you love your father well for three years, he will change.”
I took a breath and listened to the rest of his words. He added: “The catch is, you can’t control how your father changes.”
At the time, I used those words to let myself off the hook. “Oh. Okay. I’ve loved Dad well. But my love just caused dad’s addictions to be worse because Dad couldn’t deal with the perfected love of a wonderful, angelic, child like myself.”
Self-delusion is a fun slide to whirl down.
As my education continued, we learned about systems and how addiction weaves her way into them like invasive blackberry bushes: Tasty! but destructive to any healthy ecosystem, replacing it with barbs and pain.
So long as the even a single root of blackberries remains – they return and whatever goodness you plant gets choked out.
If you have loved your father well for the past three years, he will have changed.
If you have loved the world well for the last three years, it will have changed.
Today, on Pentecost, as we celebrate the time that Spirit came to us and founded the church, we could say that if you have had a faithful presence in the world for two millennia, she will have changed. If you have hoped for the world for two millennia, they will have changed. If you have loved the world for the last two millennia, we will have changed.
As I understood family systems and how addiction works within them, I came to realize: All those times I started bright-eyed and bushy-tailed only to retreat into entrenched cynicism, it was not the world who knocked me down. It was my co-dependence and co-morbid addictions. I never managed to love my father well for three years. And I never managed to love the world well for three years. I struggled with my own addiction and whack-a-mole game.
I was addicted to the convenience that pollutes our environment. I was addicted to white privilege. I was, at the time, addicted to cis hetero privilege, unable to cross the lines my evangelical siblings drew and find Jesus in spaces like this striking community here. Praise Spirit! She moved me. Praise Spirit! She moved you all 32 years ago!
When I think about Pentecost, when I think about Jesus promising us we’d receive the Holy Spirit and do everything Jesus did and more, I often find myself a little depressed. I read those words: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” I find myself saying: “F you.”
Then I look at my addictions to the broken systems of this world and I have to ask: Have I believed in Jesus? Have I believed in the one who crossed socioeconomic, gender, and racial boundaries to reside with the oppressed? Have I believe in Jesus who refused to recant even when he knew empire and the religious elite who had wed themselves to empire would kill him for it?
Or, if you look at the story of Acts, of the early church, we can ask, as we might in AA: “Have I surrendered my will to a power greater than myself?” Have I surrendered to the wild Spirit who caused a community of people to share all they had so that none had want? To welcome voices that had been marginalized? To speak a Gospel that is truly good news in words, and more miraculously, in lived ways that everyone could understand?
Or, as in my family system, have I allowed my dad’s addiction to woo me back into my own. Have I allowed the world’s addictions to woo me back into the comfort and false sense of safety of my own? Has the church allowed those blackberry roots to entangle our hearts? Have we doubled down on our codependent and co-morbid addictions?
The church has been around for 2,000 years. Jesus early followers believed the church, empowered by Spirit, would change the world. And sometimes Pentecost is my least favorite day of the year because the church has not changed but has been changed by the world. We have historically aided and abetted slavery, genocide, sexism, cisheterosexism, racism, empire, abuse of our environment.
Pentecost feels like my professor telling me: “If you have loved well, you will have seen change.”
“F you, Pentecost.”
But, I take a deep breath and remember how addiction works. So I ask myself: Has the church admitted we are powerless over our own addictions to a broken and breaking world? Have we come to believe in a power greater than ourselves that can restore us? Have we surrendered to the Spirit of faith, hope, and love that can rain liberation down on this parched land?
This Lent, we focused on the spirituality of the 12 steps. We talked about how we are all experiencing addiction, about our powerlessness.
Today is Pentecost. Pentecost is not a day for powerlessness. It is a day for empowerment. If we love the world well, she will change. Alleluia!
If we have a faithful presence of hope and love in this world, as we follow Spirit, the world will change. Alleluia!
You all. We are powerless. We are.
I could not change my dad so long as I also lived in my own addictions. And even my addictions to Dad’s addictions. I was powerless to change my dad.
We are powerless to change our world. Powerless over corruption. Powerless over racism. Powerless over climate change. So long as we live in our own addictions and co-dependency, the church cannot change the world.
BUT! When we finally lean into our powerlessness, when we surrender to Spirit, crying desperately: “Liberate us!” We are empowered. The church, at her best, is the powerless empowered.
Thirty-two years ago, this church followed Spirit as She called you to welcome and affirm the LGBT+ community. In faith, hope, and love, you followed Her. You all have loved well for 30 years. And the world has changed. Our rainbow flag outside of a church building is no longer startling to people. It has become commonplace. Because you followed a wild Spirit, because you did hard work. Because you have been a people of faith, hope, love – and the paradoxical empowerment of surrender.
You loved well for 32 years and the world changed.
Now, imagine, on this birthday of the church, if we face our powerlessness, surrender to Spirit, and commit ourselves to persnickety uncle Paul’s three words: Faith, hope, and love. Imagine what this small ragtag powerless group of people could see happen in the world when we allow ourselves to receive Spirit’s revolutionary power. Imagine what might happen if we become the powerless empowered. Imagine if the church universal let go of our connections to the faux power of empire and dove deep into our own powerlessness to meet the the Jesus of justice and the Spirit of liberation. The powerless empowered.
If we, embracing our powerlessness and receiving Spirit’s empowerment, love the world for three years, She will change.
And we don’t say: “F you.” We say Allelu.