I mentioned last week that I am reading a book entitled Fingerprints of God: What Science is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience. It’s by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Still haven’t finished it, but I am far enough along now that I have something to offer you that is perhaps new and fresh regarding ecstatic experiences—ecstatic experiences like the one that is described in today’s scripture reading.
Author Hagerty reports on the work of a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. This scientist, Andy Newberg, has studied the brain activity of people who have come in contact with the holy. So for instance, he has studied the brains of Franciscan nuns in prayer and Tibetan Buddhist monks during meditation. In the experiment I want to share with you today, scientist Andy Newberg hooked up a Pentecostal woman to a brain scan. And here I should just say that Pentecostal Christians are well known for their excitable worship services, right—loud music, prophesying and speaking in tongues. After Dr. Newberg had shot dye into this woman’s body and attached electrodes to her head, he asked her to sing hymns and do whatever else she felt comfortable doing, as a part of her normal worship experience.
Within minutes this Pentecostal woman had moved from singing hymns to speaking in tongues. That was amazing enough—that this scientist was able to study brain activity at the moment of religious ecstasy. But more amazing, was the bizarre actions of one of Andy Newberg’s research assistants. While the experiment was in process, that assistant began moving erratically around the lab and then she ALSO began speaking in tongues. The two of them, the Pentecostal woman and the research assistant(quote) “gaily babbled away for the next fifteen minutes…” Which suggests I think, that ecstatic experiences are contagious.
That seems to have been the case at Pentecost, doesn’t it? The disciples are in that upper room in Jerusalem--the same upper room apparently, where they and Jesus celebrated their last supper together, and the same upper room in which the disciples gathered shortly after Jesus’ death and reappearance. This time, there is an energy in the room, that has gripped them in a powerful way. We read in scripture that on this particular day, a flame, in other words, a visual representation of the holy spirit, alights on each of the disciples, and, then, there is a sound like a violent wind. Air, the same air that surrounds us at every moment, has turned to breath—the breath of God. God’s breath infuses the disciples, just as at creation God’s breath infuses Adam and Eve— We might think of Pentecost, then is a second creation—the creation of the church.
At this point, according to scripture, these spirit-filled disciples—although now we must call them apostles—disciples are followers, apostles are messengers—these apostles, serge out into the streets of Jerusalem. They engage in fire and brimstone preaching, and they speak in different languages—a kind of speaking in tongues. And, because their enthusiasm for the gospel is contagious, just like in that laboratory, their listeners join with them, raising hands, shouting out their amens, crying, laughing, and generally making a ruckus. Scripture reports that in that electrifying, contagious atmosphere, 3,000 people joined the ranks of Christians. Awesome.
THIS spirit-induced gathering turns out to be the first Christian worship service ever! But here’s the thing. It is a far cry from a PRESBYTERIAN worship service, and also Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic. Peter doesn’t have a prepared manuscript from which to preach, there are no bulletins and no one recites the Apostle’s Creed (it hasn’t been invented yet).No one leads worshipers in the Lord’s prayer. The first recorded Christian worship service is completely spontaneous—impromptu. And it is loud, unruly.
If you had been there, on the streets of Jerusalem, would you have added your shouts and amens to those of the others? So strange, right? Maybe like me, you suspect that instead of joining in, you would have stood flattened against a wall, or huddled inside a doorway. We Presbyterians and our Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Catholic friends, are suspicious, even fearful of spontaneity and unruliness, aren’t we?
We might rightly ask ourselves why WE are so tame. I think it might have to do with why we come to worship. Most of us, I am assuming, don’t come to be shaken up. We come for other reasons—for comraderie, for an intellectual challenge, maybe, habit, but mostly, I think, we come to be comforted. When the world seems out of joint, we hope that here at least, we can be reassured that some things never change—That God is still God, and that Jesus is still our Lord.
Several days after 9/11, the church I served then, Immanuel Presbyterian in McLean, Virginia, held an evening prayer service. It was standing room only in our sanctuary, I tell you! Folks from the community were there—we’re talking folks who had never before crossed our threshold, their faces wan and drawn. I suspect that they wanted to be reassured that even while our nation was in the throes of tragedy, God was still in heaven and all was still basically right with the world. The fact that those strangers to the church never returned still eats at me. Was the comfort they sought not forthcoming? Were our prayers hollow, then?
At that service, one member of our congregation, stood up and railed against God. I personally thought that was appropriate under the circumstances—God can take it, right? But maybe his outburst was disturbing. Is that why those visitors never returned? Should “disturbing” be banned from worship?
Maybe though, most of us don’t come for comfort. Maybe here in worship, we are looking for control—we want to get control over our lives, and maybe control even over God. Which almost sounds heretical, doesn’t it—as if we could ever control God.
Believe me when I tell you that doing something a little different in a worship service can turn others of us into worship police. So for instance, Karen was a member at a church I served. She shook us up, I tell you, even though, compared to that first Pentecost, what she did was exceedingly tame. When she led worship, which she did frequently, she insisted that congregation members hold hands when we recited the Lord’s Prayer. “Gee, do I have to?” Indeed. Hold hands with a fellow church member?!
One Sunday, when Karen was worship leader, she interrupted her own prayer, and gave us her testimony. She wept as she told us about her life before Jesus, and then, her transformation, having found him. Didn’t she know? Presbyterians never give TESTIMONIES,
At another church I served, a single man, who lived alone with his cat, Snuggles, was having health issues. One Sunday in worship he asked that we pray for him—he was having bloodwork done, and he was frightened that the doctors would find something. We did pray for him, but after worship, some members were miffed. They felt that his prayer request was selfish: “We don’t ask for prayers for ourselves, in worship, out loud, like that.”
Why so much negativity? IS it about control? Theologian Walter Bruggemann shrugs his shoulders and says that that is the way it is in most churches. The Holy Spirit alights at worship from time to time, like a mother bird returning to the nest to feed its wide-mouthed hungry babies. Great image, isn’t it? When the spirit or the mother bird swoops down, we are so filled with good energy and emotions, that afterwards, we are determined to bring the spirit back for more. We try to replicate the conditions, to create the right formula, saying the right words, singing the right hymns. And this is a community effort of course, so believe you me, there are politics involved.
After we’ve had our conversations, voted in committee, and finally decided on a rhythm, and an order for worship, we don’t want anyone to mess with it, right? God forbid! But actually God doesn’t forbid. We must entertain the possibility that God encourages that the messing continue. Pentecost reminds us that God’s spirit cannot be planned for, ordered, or controlled. It does what it wants to, when it wants to.
That is borne out by Dr. Andy Newberg’s research which is still ongoing. The frontal lobes of our brains deal with executive functioning, speaking, writing, doing arithmetic and also planning, and ordering—Dr. Newberg has discovered that when Pentecostals are in an ecstatic state, the frontal lobes of their brains—actually shut down. A person say, speaking in tongues, cannot form real words, as we know them, then, because that part of his or her brain is not firing. That person’s brain, is not, cannot be, following a laid out plan, either, like thinking, “I think I will talk in tongues now.” That PERSON, has surrendered to, or is in the grasp of, a something that is other than self. Dare we say, that that person has surrendered to God? The Holy Spirit?
Returning to our scripture reading for today and Pentecost, as I said earlier, I am confident I would have cowered had I been on the streets of Jerusalem, when those Apostles surged forth. My thought is that you would have, too.
On this Pentecost Sunday, though, let us at least allow that the spirit is indeed a force to be respected, and even welcomed. Worship, after all, is not entirely about either comfort or control. It is sometimes about surrendering to God—and as scary as that sounds, it probably is a very good thing. Let all the people say, Amen.