I wrote the paragraphs below after the first day of Annual Conference 2019, feeling optimistic but unsure what would happen next. The next few days served as a complete confirmation that God was doing something amazing during that week, putting South Carolina in a direction to help undo the damage that General Conference 2019 afflicted onto so many people. The restorative work that I have been a witness to has been like a second wind, and I hope that the words below will be a second wind for anyone feeling discouraged or downtrodden.
I am writing this after a long and anticlimactic first day at the 2019 South Carolina Annual Conference. Voting mishaps, procedural jargon, and a palpable tension between the conservative and progressive sides of the conference made for a day that, if not for the Two Rivers community, would have left me in a cold, doused state of disillusionment and boredom. Yet, on this week leading up to Pentecost, when we remember how the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles as tongues of fire, I see that same holy fire burning in the lives of Wendy, Stanton, Nicole, Katie, Lyndsey, and so many new faces. I cannot help but feel that a holy fire is descending onto this place.
I have grown fixated on the regenerative and restorative aspect of Pentecost this year, how it takes old imagery and sacred truths and recasts them in a glorious new light. I first thought of the fire that Elijah called down from heaven to consume a soaking wet offering in a terrifying and awe-inspiring display of power. The presence of God’s Spirit is truly a sacred, wondrous, and fatal thing. Elijah’s miracle was followed by the slaughter of hundreds of heathen priests. Yet God’s presence is not only fatal to the ones that we think deserve to feel His righteous anger. The fatality of God’s presence to all of humanity, the fact that we are unable to stand in the presence of His justice, reminds me of how the UMC cannot stand unscathed in the presence of His justice while it denigrates beloved members of its own congregation for who they love.
I am also reminded of Moses’ burning bush and how God’s presence, which was once immediately available to Moses in the bush, was afterwards hidden behind a tabernacle. The Spirit of God descended and lived amongst His people yet remained cordoned off from them. The Israelites, sinful to the core, could not handle the full glory of God. And they knew that, too; after all, they asked Moses to go up Mount Sinai because they knew that they would die if they simply heard God speak. Even the tabernacle’s imagery reflects the half-tragedy of God’s presence with His people, for its very design reflects the journey of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve walked eastward as they left the Garden, a Garden now guarded by cherubim wielding a fiery sword to prevent their return. Yet the tabernacle, as God told the Israelites to build it, was to be open on the east side, meaning you would have to walk west to go inside it. The curtain that covered the Holy of Holies – the curtain that separated the Israelites from the presence of God Himself – had images of cherubim woven into its design. The tabernacle represents that God desires for us to go back to the Garden, to return back to Him and undo the course that we all take when we sin. But the cherubim-clad veil reminds us that sin has frayed our relationship with God, a reminder that we would die in the midst of God’s perfection. Indeed, God’s presence was so overpowering that only one priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year. What tragic, limited access. God’s glory and our sinful nature can’t coexist peacefully, for God must be just, and we are entirely deserving of that justice. A sacrificial alter preceded the Holy of Holies, a reminder of the fact that restored relationship required sacrifice. Yet God has not treated us as we deserve by making us the sacrifices for our own sin. Pentecost celebrates the new intimacy that we now enjoy with God, the intimacy that Christ won by satisfying God’s justice for us.
Pentecost highlights the fact that we have been made into the new tabernacles for the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ death and resurrection has paved the way before us, for as the writer of Hebrews tells us, Jesus went ahead of us into the Holy of Holies as our great High Priest. The veil of the Holy of Holies was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death, freeing us from the separation from God. As Christians, the power and splendor of the Spirit dwells within us. Moses would have to walk barefoot in our hearts; the fire that lit up the bush yet did not consume it burns within us even now. Even as procedure and politicking try to burn away at my enthusiasm, I am not consumed. The fire that crashed down upon Elijah’s offering descends on our water-soaked hearts and even now I feel the Spirit lighting up my flooded soul through my brothers and sisters. The Spirits soars out of the torn veil and we get to experience a miracle as God replants the Garden in our very souls. I feel that new Garden growing within me at this very moment. No amount of conferences and fracturing denominations can stitch the veil back together. It is torn. It is done. And because it is done, nothing can stop us from experiencing the fire that plants gardens.