Driveway Moments

Have you ever had one of those moments when you're driving in the car and listening to the radio--maybe it's an in-depth news story on NPR or some similar station--and you become so engrossed in the story that even though you have arrived at your destination, you can't leave the car until you've heard the whole story?

I've heard some people call these "driveway" moments--stories that are so compelling and personally moving that they touch mind and heart in compelling, life transforming ways. Some people are brought to tears by these moments and others begin to look at their lives in new and unexpected ways.

I had such a "driveway" moment a few months ago when I was listening to a Canadian Broadcasting Company program called Tapestry. Tapestry is a radio program on CBC Radio One, which airs on Sunday afternoons and features documentary and interview programming related to spirituality, faith, and religion.

The program's current host, Mary Hynes, was interviewing former chef, secular intellectual, skeptic, and journalist Sara Miles, about her unexpected--and inconvenient--conversion to Christianity when she entered a church on impulse in San Francisco one Sunday.

You see, Miles was raised as an atheist and she was happily living an "enthusiastically secular life" as a restaurant cook and journalist, indifferent to religion at best. As she says in the Prologue to her book, Take This Bread, "I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian.... Or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut."[1]

But as she entered the doors of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco on a whim, she ate a piece of bread and took a sip of wine and found herself radically transformed.... At the age of 46 this was her first communion and it changed everything.

I share this with you because on this Pentecost Sunday we focus on biblical stories in which God's Spirit--God's presence with us--encounters ordinary humans and wonderful and unexpected things begin to happen.

Pentecost is, in a sense, the birthday of the church; but it was an important Jewish festival before it became a Christian festival. It was one of three "pilgrimage" festivals that were ideally spent in Jerusalem and it occurred fifty days after Passover--which was the celebration/commemoration of Israel's liberation from Egypt. It recalled, not only the giving of the covenant to Israel at Mt. Sinai, but also the creation of a new kind of community--a radically different way of living after Egypt. And the early Christians incorporated these themes into their understanding of Pentecost as well.

For example, the late, great biblical scholar Marcus Borg said:

The central affirmation of Pentecost is that the Spirit promised by Jesus is now present among his followers and in the world. The Spirit is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. This claim is foundational to the New Testament and early Christianity.[2]

Of course, most Christian people are familiar with the story of Pentecost that we find in Acts, chapter 2, written by Luke, where the symbols of wind and fire represent God's presence in powerful and dramatic ways to the disciples of Jesus, who engage a diverse group of spiritual pilgrims--who speak a variety of different languages from various parts of the Roman Empire and who have made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. These same pilgrims are enabled by the descent of lively, creative, unpredictable and uncontrollable Spirit to comprehend a universally understood language. It's a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel that we find in Genesis, chapter 11, where the narrator says,"The Lord confused the language of all the earth."[3] 

So Luke is saying in his story that Pentecost is the beginning of the reunification of humanity--the creation of a new kind of community in the church. And a once timid, frightened, and discouraged group of Jesus's followers--his disciples--become forceful, confident, and unified advocates for their experience of the risen Christ, and a new faith movement--and community--is born.

But the church has not always lived up to this high calling. For instance, David Felten and Jeff Proctor Murphy, in their engaging book Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity write: 

In many faith traditions, it is tradition itself that is worshipped, held up as the whole purpose of the religious enterprise. Be it infatuation with 'smells and bells' or resistance to inclusive language, many faithful people have confused defense of their understanding of right practice and right thinking with what they call faith.

They insulate themselves from the unpredictable, demanding, transforming nature of the Spirit with a fierce, pious, unbending commitment to the church. They practice what Richard Rohr has called a 'cosmetic piety' intended to look good on the surface, but lacking any real depth or complexity. Defense of the changeless nature of their revealed truth becomes a virtue to be aspired to, regardless of how lifeless and rote the practice itself becomes.[4]  

These thoughts resonate with the words of the Prophet Ezekiel, who said:

"Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord...I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live...and you shall know that I am Lord."[5] 

The bones for Ezekiel are the symbolic bones of the Babylonian Exiles who have little hope of breathing life back into the kingdom of Israel. But the implication is that God can--God's Spirit, Breath, Wind--can put flesh on a skeleton and call it life--whether it's a nation or a church.

And that's really Good News, because it means, as our friends in the United Church of Christ love to say, that "God Is Still Speaking."

And that was the unexpected experience of Sara Miles, in San Francisco, the enthusiastic atheist, who had no intention of becoming a follower of Jesus, until she met him, as a living reality, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

How has this encounter of the Spirit changed her life?

She started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where she first received communion. She then organized new pantries all over the city to provide hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. Without committees or meetings or even an official telephone number, she recruited scores of volunteers and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.[6]

The living Spirit of Christ, described in scripture by the unpredictable, uncontrollable symbols of wind, fire, and breath, radically transformed Sara Miles' life--and her community. When the spirit is active and present, it's not just about, "me," but about, "we." It's about the creation of a new kind of inclusive, welcoming, community based on love.

But Sara Miles also discovered that her newly transformed life wasn't necessarily going to be easy. She had to trudge in the rain through housing projects, sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man, take the firing pin out of a battered woman's .357 Magnum, then stick the gun in a cookie tin in the trunk of her car, struggle with her atheist family, and doubting friends. She also had to learn about the great American scandal of the politics of food, the economy of hunger, and the rules of money.[7]

The Spirit brings change! Some of it welcome, some not, but always directed to the neighbor in need. As Felten and Proctor-Murphy point out:

Christianity is not about things we should or shouldn't do, or about just being nice. It's reveling in the beauty of creation, about taking part in the wonderment of it all by living, loving, and being. It's about embracing the pain and suffering of the world and transforming it into new life. It's about harnessing the creative Spirit that is so much a part of what it means to be human....[8] 

So, spiritual "driveway" moments still happen--God is still speaking--the Spirit is alive and active and bringing renewal and revitalization to both individuals and communities whose "bones" have gone "dry." This same Spirit even seeks out those who aren't looking!

Let us pray. Loving Spirit, make us aware and receptive to the unpredictable, uncontrollable gift of your creative Spirit that is closer to us than breath itself and that permeates and sustains the universe. Amen.



[1] Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Ballantine Books, 2008, Prologue

[2] Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Power-And How They Can Be Restored, Harper One, 2011, p. 184

[3] NRSV, Genesis 11:9

[4] David M. Felten and Jeff Proctor-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, Harper One, 2012, pp. 211, 212

[5] NRSV, Ezekiel 37:4b-6 (selected excerpts)


[7] Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Ballentine Books, 2008, Prologue

[8] David M. Felten and Jeff Proctor-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, Harper One, 2012, p. 218