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Andrew Forsthoefel was 23 years old when he decided to try walking across the Continental United States from his home in Philadelphia all the way to the Pacific Coast. No rides. No smart phone. He carried a backpack containing camping equipment, a camera, a food bag stocked with jerky, tuna fish and PB&J, and a sign hanging off the pack that said, "Walking to listen."
He also carried a voice recorder that he used to collect the stories of those he met along the way, asking them the question, "If you could go back, what would you tell yourself at 23?" The question yielded some remarkable answers, which Andrew curated into a radio show which appeared on This American Life in 2013.
Andrew admits that along with his spirit of adventure he traveled with an acute sense of vulnerability. At times he said he was "fear-walking." And this fear was heightened by those that he met along the way. Not one person said that they would tell their 23-year-old self to be more cautious or more fearful. To the contrary, their messages were full of boldness and daring. Nonetheless, Andrew described how when people would take him in they were constantly warning him--telling him to watch out for the others down the road. "Don't trust them," they would say. "They're not like us."
"What I wish," Andrew said thinking back, "is that these people could have experienced what I did and seen that the people that they had warned me about were the very ones who took me in later on, and fed me, and told me their stories." Of course most people never had the chance to learn that, from behind their own doors.
John writes that the disciples were in the house, and the doors were locked. For fear. Fear of the Jews in John's Gospel, but fear of "the others" more broadly. Fear of what could come next.
As the Spirit comes in John, through the breath of Jesus, it enters a scene with latched doors and crouching disciples. And we've been there--that setting where what we want to believe about ourselves and all our courage and faith clashes with the realities of our suspicion and caution and self-limit.
Staring out the peephole from inside that locked room, the whole world must have looked fearsome and dark, having seen what those disciples had seen. The cross was still perched outside the city with its message that Rome is running things, rolling stones in front of tombs and locking others indoors with trembling. Written at the top of that cross was the message "King of the Jews," but the sign just as easily could have read, "This is the way things are and the way things will always be." Beneath a cross like that any who had been holding onto their idealistic notions that anything will change are best advised to hunker down and get used to reality.
But we have seen plenty of reasons to fear from our vantage points too. "I awake in the night at the least sound for fear," Wendell Berry writes, "at what my life and my children's lives might be."
None of us want to believe that we're not as brave as we once thought we would be, but we see and hear enough and we start installing deadbolts and security cameras. These days you don't even have to peer out the door. Why, for just $200, you can get a detector installed to your doorknob that notifies your phone when anyone comes near. Yes, there's an app for that, and it can leave us latched inside, or if we venture out at all, locked in place.
But this day of Pentecost reminds us that sometimes the things we end up closing ourselves off from are the things that can renew us and redeem us, the things that flow from the very Spirit of God.
The coming of the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus is so big and compelling a tale that it's found in two versions--not only in John, but also in the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost. Both episodes settle on the reality that after the death of Jesus the Spirit comes to comfort, empower, and enliven those who had followed Jesus, but the two accounts diverge on details.
In John, the Spirit is received as a gentle breath from the risen Jesus. In Acts, the Spirit arrives as a forceful wind that seems to rush down the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem.
In John, the disciples are in mourning and dejection. In Acts, the Spirit arrives during the Feast of Weeks, amidst festival crowds in the streets.
No tongues of fire in John, and no "peace be with you" in Acts.
But most striking are the distinct portrayals of those who wait. John describes them with the cowering concern for well-being--the double-bolted doors--while in Acts, the doors are wide open. At least that's what I imagine. The disciples have stayed in Jerusalem, as Jesus had instructed. They've gathered in one place, hopeful and anticipating Jesus' earlier promise, when he'd told them, "You will receive power when the Spirit comes upon you." There's expectation in the scene. There's celebration. Some look out the doors and windows. Others have started to feel too confined by the walls of the house and have walked outside to join the crowds of people from all different backgrounds gathered there in the city center.
Two different perspectives. Two different writers. And two different historical settings, don't forget. Decades separate Luke/Acts and the Gospel of John. In the book of Acts, Luke tells the story with that 23-year-old idealism--the kind of youthful abandon that would set out with a backpack and give all to the cause holding onto the vision of Jesus that constantly calls us forward.
But John writes some 20 years later. So there's more established in the movement, which means that more is at stake. There's more to preserve and insulate, and there's more to fear.
We learn to fear, don't we? Over time as more is established and more is at stake, as there's more to protect. And we forget that vision in Acts and the prophet Joel before that even those who have seen it all--even those who have lived all these years--"your old ones"--will dream dreams.
I wonder where you find yourself in these passages. In the house? Out in the street? Crouched in the corner? Or peering out a wide-open window? The songwriter Deb Talan-- in a song called Forgiven--asks the question, "So my dear, will it be faith or fear?" That might be the question of Pentecost. How will we greet the Spirit that visits us? What will our posture be toward that Spirit that comes with force and the power to disrupt and shake us from our established ways and patterns to new visions and dreams?
Theodore Wardlaw, the President of Austin Seminary, once shared about an old Presbyterian church in Dallas with a worn out building AND enough money to build a new one. The new building was all modern and airy and built out of limestone. But the congregation found a way to incorporate the stunning Tiffany stained-glass windows from their original structure. There was one window that was particularly captivating because of its size and its message. In the original building, it had taken up most of the chancel wall-- a larger-than-life image of Jesus the Good Shepherd with his arms outstretched and beneath him the words, "Come to me, all you who labor." Generations of people were greeted by that invitation as they came into that old sanctuary. But when they built the new building, they did some serious theological thinking about that window and they put it not in the front but in the back, so that now, when worship is over, it soars over the narthex of that church, through which people go back out into the world, the outstretched arms of Christ with the call: "Come to me, all you who labor."
Come out here into this world that I love. Come see it as I see it. Come love it as I love it. For this is where my Spirit is rushing through streets and rounding corners to bring people together across the boundaries of background and status and language. It's out here that the young are seeing visions and the old are dreaming dreams
It's the invitation of the one who was always finding his way out ahead of us, stretching out arms and calling us forward in faith through unlocked doors. It's what we hear and see throughout the gospel. We hear it when he opens his mouth and says, "Sell what you have and give it to the poor." When he speaks out, "Whoever gives her life, will gain it in the end." When he says, "Fear not. I am with you always." We see it as he heals and touches, crossing boundaries in his work. One time, in Mark, chapter 7, he extends his hand to heal a man, he looks up to heaven, and he says not "be healed" or "be well" or "be restored, or "be saved," but instead, he utters this Aramaic word ephphatha: "Be opened."
So my dear, will it be faith or fear? Well, the truth is that in times like these and places like this, it is always both. And we are left to decide how we will walk as we follow the one who calls us forward.
I don't know if it was the Spirit of God or the spirit of disenfranchised young adulthood--or if it was both--that sent 23-year-old Andrew Forsthoefel out his door that day. But whatever it was, it carried him coast to coast. Some 4,000 miles. 11 months. 85 hours of recorded conversations. 5 pairs of shoes. And plenty of fear-walking along the way.
The last night he spent on the road he was camped out in the forest 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean. He set up his tent for the last time. He ate his last dinner from his food bag, enough with pb & j. There were cars passing him on the road and he had a thought: "If I was in one of those cars right now looking into this dark forest, I would think the dark forest was a scary place. But I'm in the forest. And so I know that I don't have to be afraid."
And if we were in that house, locked inside or cowering in the corner, well then, we'd think the world was a frightful, fearsome place. A dark place full of those who threaten us. But if we're in the world--if we've opened the doors wide--then through the miracle of Christ's Spirit, we've come to know that we don't have to live afraid.
What would you do if you weren't afraid? What would we do if we weren't afraid?
If we can find the answer to those questions, then we have a chance of finding out what the Spirit is calling forth in us this Pentecost Day.
From "Hit the Road," This American Life May 5, 2013.
From "The Peace of Wild Things."
From "Staying Power" (June 3, 2012, First Presbyterian Church NYC).
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