It is April 21, 1898. A fleet of Spanish ships anchor of the coast of Cuba, and Congress has just declared war with Spain in response to the sinking of the Maine. President McKinley is given $50,000,000 to win the war. The war will last only 3 months and cost the U.S. about 400 killed or wounded. By December, the US will gain the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, and emerge as a power to be reckoned with on the world stage. For Spain it will be a humiliating defeat. Both her Atlantic and Pacific fleets will be sent to the bottom of the sea and with them went Spain's prestige as a world power.
On April 21, 1898, closer to home, life seems to go on as normal. In Trumbull, CT it is a windless night, darkened by the new moon. A church social, sponsored by Helping Hand Mission is held in the basement of the congregational church. The sexton locks up the building at 10:00 and goes home. But soon after, without warning, fire breaks out in the church basement. Flames engulf the entire church in a matter of minutes. Local citizens come from all directions to put out the fire, as the owners of the Plumb Brother’s store next to the church scramble to remove as many of the store’s contents as possible. All efforts to save the church are useless. The Trumbull Congregational Church is burned to the ground. The bell that rang throughout the village is destroyed, along with the entire structure of the church. The only furnishings that survive are a few chairs and the weathervane that was perched on the lofty steeple.
Sometimes we talk about people with vibrant faith as being on fire. Let it never be said that the Trumbull Congregationalists were never on fire for the Lord.
The mid- 1800’s were actually a time of great spiritual renewal in Connecticut. It was the golden age of liberal theology, and congregational churches proved to be the most fertile ground for this new way of thinking about the Bible. An example of this is the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. A graduate of Andover Seminary, Sheldon was a liberal Congregationalist minister, wrote a book about the fictional small town of Raymond. The town is challenged by the local minister to ask themselves in every situation, for one full year, “What would Jesus do?” It’s ironic that conservative evangelicals picked this phrase up in our own day and marketed the WWJD craze. Sheldon’s liberal religious view was actually in line with our Puritan ancestors. He believed that God could not be confined merely to the church and the home. He saw Christianity as a valiant fight that took place in church and on the street, in the home and in the business world. In the 1890’s, ministers from this pulpit preached about self-sacrifice and the cultivation of character, and the need for all of society to be transformed by the Gospel.
We here at Trumbull Congregational Church are the inheritors of these traditions. At a time when our church was literally on fire, the citizens of the town answer the call to aid one another. And when this area was spiritually on fire with new theologies, I imagine the good Congregationalists in Trumbull were faithfully worshiping, and trying to figure out how to match their faith with their lives. And while the times have changed, the spirit of this place has not. We still support one another, coming together in loss and tragedy. We still worship together in a traditional protestant fashion. And on this Pentecost Sunday we stop to realize that we, as a community, have are people who are not comfortable with religious fervor. We have an intellectual tradition that has never emphasized tongues of fire and prophesying and speaking in tongues. Our Spirit-filled heritage emphasizes faith and obedience over the long haul, righteous obedient living, and the common good for the community.
Too often our chatter about the Spirit latches on to the unusual; the exceptional, the wildly flamboyant. People tend to limit the visitation of the Spirit to special, effervescent spiritual experiences. Like speaking in tongues. Or a rapturous moment of spiritual insight. Or a miraculous healing. By doing this, we can miss the prime importance of the normal, loving activity of the Spirit in our lives. I know some wonderful “salt of the earth” Christians who feel guilty because they can’t remember any extravagant spiritual experience. Yet those same people steadily bear the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. You can probably remember people like that in the history of our church. They weren’t Spirit-filled tent revival evangelists, but they were Spirit-filled instruments of God who touched lives around them with the greatest fruit of all: love.
Those who only connect the Holy Spirit with the spectacular, are missing something. The majority of the Spirit’s work is done quietly. Sometimes the Spirit does come in powerful, description-defying ways. But I think most of the time, the Spirit is our holy Friend who quietly works in us and through us day by day.
The Holy Spirit is graciously and quietly busy all over the place. The quiet Helper. The modest Friend.
The Spirit is quietly at work:
in the sincere concern of a friend for our health,That’s just the edge of the Spirit story. I could go on and on, reflecting on the quietly consuming ministry of the Holy Spirit in our midst; that inspiring Lover whose fruits we tend to take for granted. It is only by the Holy Spirit that we as followers of Christ live and give ourselves in love to the world for which Christ died.
in those who take a stand against injustice,
in the grace of neighbors who go the second mile,
in the inner resources we discover in times of crisis,
in those who dare to go against the tide of popular opinion,
in the grace that enables us to admit when we are wrong,
in the resilience of people who fight for the rights of others,
in those who surrender some of their rights for the larger good,
in times when we share the Gospel in spite of our inadequacy,
in finding joy in unexpected places,
in taking on responsibilities that we once thought beyond us,
in refusing to let the greed of society take over our soul,
in giving thanks always, even through the hard times of life,
in rising above past failures and putting past hurts behind us.
in finding a central core of peace in the midst of turmoil,
in daring to laugh in situations where some would curse,
in knowing ourselves to be children of God,
in knowing ourselves loved, even when we have been very unlovable
I’ll admit, sometimes I find myself hankering for a little more spectacular action. A slice of excitement would be nice every now and then. I have good memories of those occasions when a double dose of the wind and fire have shaken me up. But as I reflect on those events in my journey, I now recognize that they happen at times when I was so thick-headed, too insensitive, to grasp what was happening. The Spirit had to give me a shove in new directions. Maybe these more dramatic experiences are a testimony to my own poor faith. Maybe this is what happened to the believers when the wind and fire from God blew down upon them. Before Pentecost they were guilt-ridden, demoralized men and women, afraid to even leave go out in public for fear of their lives. One had betrayed Christ. One had doubted him. One had publically denied knowing him. Some left him at his hour of greatest need. They saw Jesus ascend to heaven, and were joyful and confused. They are waiting in Jerusalem for some promised direction from Jesus. Then the Spirit comes in power. It is not until that moment that the believers are empowered with boldness to tell the world about Jesus.
My experience is that God takes drastic measures when I get in a rut and can’t see the obvious way out.
All such “wind and fire” occasions need to be tested, to see if they are authentic. As far as I know, there is only one test for the gift of the Spirit. Love: the Jesus kind of love. Never forget, not for one second, that the most Spirit filled person of all time was Jesus. Love is the only infallible sign of the Spirit.
The Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez sent a farewell letter to his friends as he was dying of cancer. He wrote, "If for an instant God were to forget that I am a rag doll and gifted me with a piece of life, possibly I wouldn’t say all that I think, but rather I would think of all that I say. I would value things, not for their worth but for what they mean. I would sleep little, dream more . . . I would walk when others hold back. I would wake when others sleep. I would listen when others talk, and how I would enjoy a good chocolate ice cream! If God were to give me a piece of life, I would dress simply, throw myself face first into the sun, baring not only my body but also my soul. My God, if I had a heart, I would write my hate on ice, and wait for the sun to show . . . My God, if I had a piece of life . . . I wouldn’t let a single day pass without telling the people I love that I love them. I would convince each woman and each man that they are my favorites, and I would live in love with love. I would show [people] how very wrong they are to think that they cease to be in love when they grow old, not knowing that they grow old when they cease to be in love!" The words of dying man, a rag doll gifted with a piece of life, telling friends how to live.
For me, this is the essence of being on fire. It is often like a rag doll being filled with abundant life. My fellow rag dolls, let us warm to the fire, bear our souls to God, wear our hearts on our sleeves and go forth into the world, rejoicing the power of the Holy Spirit and burning with love.