by Rev. Dr. Elmo D. Familiaran for The Christian Citizen
The summer season is an interesting period in our Christian liturgical calendar. In the United States, it is triggered by the Memorial Day holiday at the end of the month of May, and serves as a cultural switch in our society to signal that summer is here. In turn, summer brings a different cultural rhythm both in practice and in our mindset that significantly changes the tempo of how everything moves in our communities and neighborhoods – school is out, vacations are taken, the weather is warm, and we don’t have to spend extra time and effort to put on and lug around heavy coats and warm clothing. It is a time for vacations, things slow down, we adjust most of our activities accordingly. Even the stock market traditionally slows down during this period because of the change in investor psychology during summer.
In church life in particular, programs and planning – except for VBS – are for the most part put in abeyance because of the implicit understanding that summer is a time when things slow down and folks tend to want to relax and take things at a slower pace. Even the worship time is changed in many of our churches to an earlier hour, so that people can take advantage of the longer daylight hours of summer to do more fun and relaxing things. Additionally, this liturgical period is almost invisible because, unfortunately, it does not carry the same cultural and consumerist signals that attend the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. The season of Pentecost has no commercial value to secular society. No store sales can be had during Pentecost, because how do you market and sell the noumenal in our materialistic culture?
So we find a direct cultural and social link between the relative inattention given to the seasons of Pentecost and Ordinary Time, and to what is colloquially called, the “summer doldrums.” Known to sailors around the world as the doldrums, the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), is a belt around the earth extending around the equator where the climate tends to be calm during this period. Due to elaborate atmospheric dynamics, there is often little surface wind in the ITCZ. This is why sailors know very well that the area can be calm sailing for ships for weeks on end. However, sea vessels in earlier times, powered only by wind and sail, have been known to get marooned in this region, unable to move for extended periods of time. This is why this region around the earth’s equator is called the doldrums during the summer months.
When you look closely at the seasons of our Christian calendar, it is no surprise that the season of Pentecost is the most neglected season in our liturgical life. After Pentecost Sunday, we liturgically enter what is called “Ordinary Time” until Advent. It is a time that runs through summer. It has nothing to do with our common understanding of “ordinary.” Rather, it comes from the Latin word, ordinal, which literally means “counted time.” And so, it actually means the liturgically sequential time when the church is invited to enter into the discipline of intentionally reflecting on the nature and mission of the church.
In Acts chapter 2, we are told of the birth of the church. It is reported to have taken place when the Holy Spirit blew through and around the gathered disciples like a raging wind which filled the entire house where they were in. They were all gathered together in one place, having been commanded by the risen Jesus, before his ascension into heaven, not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there for the coming of the Holy Spirit: “For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:5) The pouring forth of the Spirit, Pentecost, is understood to be the birth of the church, the imparting of its very life. Its birth is directly linked to the Great Commission of the risen Jesus, the final words he uttered on earth.
But in that raging and mighty wind – the wind that at the same time brought spiritual fire – we are told that the flame of the Holy Spirit did not rest only on Peter or a few select disciples. We are told that, in fact, the Spirit willfully and intentionally separated into several tongues of fire and sought out and rested gently on each of the disciples. Tongues of fire gently burning in the midst of a raging wind, which even the laws of physics could not contain.
Biblically speaking, the Pentecost is the commissioning of Jesus’ community, and its authorization to continue his work in the world through the Holy Spirit. But what is that work? In Luke chapter 4, we are told that after his baptism by John, Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for 40 days, being tempted in every way by the principalities and powers of the world. When he surmounted every temptation, we are told that “Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee” and there, began his public ministry. When he came to Nazareth, he came up to the synagogue and preached his first publicly recorded sermon. Using the words of the prophet Isaiah, he framed the very nature of his ministry through the concrete social and political words of the Jubilee in Isaiah 61 – “Preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, setting at liberty the oppressed, giving sight to the blind.” By announcing at the end of his sermon that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus declared that in his person, and through the public ministry he was about to undertake, God’s reign has come and will be revealed once and for all.
The Spirit reiterates the words of Jesus to the church when he said that he has given the church the keys to the kingdom, and that even the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. When the church is the church of Jesus Christ, it can make what is considered impossible in conventional terms, possible. The Holy Spirit continues to illumine and interpret the words and works of Jesus. This is the essence of Pentecost, and the sacramental gift of the harmonic rhythm of Ordinary Time, as a season devoted to the disciplined spiritual discernment of how God is working in our midst for this time, and for this place.
And so, must the seasons of Pentecost and Ordinary Time become the periodic excuse for the church to enter into a de facto state of spiritual doldrums? Must the church merely submit herself to an annually scheduled season of listless inactivity or stagnation? Like any other athletic activity, the benefits of spiritual vitality and health cannot be reaped if we do not bodily commit and dedicate ourselves to the hard work and discipline required in growing spiritually. Spiritual vitality and health does not happen by osmosis, as it were. It requires faith, discipline, commitment, desire, and dedication to the necessary task required to growing spiritually. It is understandable that many Christian traditions have become essentially binitarians in temperament because the third person of the Trinity is ineffable, evanescent, not so easily perceived, doesn’t lend itself to predictable strategic planning, and is never controlled. Yet Jesus gave us specific signs of how the Spirit is ever present in our midst, and ever at work.
Nicodemus, member of the ruling religious party of the Sanhedrin and scholar of the Torah, came to Jesus at night to express his fascination in the mighty works of wonder that he has seen Jesus perform. He told Jesus that he is convinced that Jesus is from God, just from the things he has seen Jesus do. But Jesus taught him a great lesson on the ways of the Holy Spirit. Jesus essentially told Nicodemus, and I am paraphrasing from John chapter 3: “You think you know just by what you see, but if you really must see that the reign of God has come, you must be born again – of the Spirit. You must have spiritual eyes to see the kingdom. You can’t predict the Holy Spirit, nor control it with your knowledge. The Holy Spirit comes from where it chooses and goes where it wills.” Jesus was telling Nicodemus, and us, that we need to develop a new way of seeing – a third eye, as it were – if we are to perceive God at work in our midst. We need a way of seeing that can enable us to catch a vision of the presence of God’s reign in our midst outside the predictable and comfortable constructs that we have built around us.
The gateway into catching a vision of the Holy Spirit’s work in our midst is in taking seriously Jesus’ invitation to follow him – to come, see, and do. Following him is not a merely a call to intellectual assent. It is a call to action. It means engaging and bodily participating in his very ministry, and participating and engaging in Jesus’ ministry extricates us from spiritual doldrums.
We do not have to submit to the de facto slowdown and spiritual stagnation of the doldrums of the summer months. There are things that we can do in our congregations during the seasons of Pentecost and Ordinary Time that can, in fact, strengthen our spiritual vitality and health. If the post-Pentecost season of Ordinary Time is a season set aside liturgically to give the church the opportunity to reflect on its mission and purpose, how can you cultivate a spirituality for the summer doldrums?
Here are a few suggestions which, by their very nature, inform each other:
Review your Constitution and Bylaws in light of the challenges and opportunities that your congregation is facing in the present reality of your neighborhood. Many congregational analysts have long demonstrated empirically that the vision, mission, and purpose statements of the church need to be reexamined at regular intervals during its life cycle. Many of them suggest that this be done every 7-10 years. When was the last time your congregation has done this? A small committee can begin the initial groundwork in this process even during the summer months.
Begin a process of looking at your congregation in context. What are the assets and the capacities of your community? How can your congregation’s own assets and capacities interface with those of your community in such a way that your congregation can become a felt presence in your neighborhood? A small task force in your congregation can begin developing a congregational inventory instrument during the summer months, with the view of making it ready for use in the fall. The task force can also begin building friendships with your local firehouse, police precinct, trauma center ER, family services organization, etc. There are numerous instruments and tools out there that can help you engage in this process strategically.
The pulpit, especially during the season of Ordinary Time, must proclaim and teach the nature and mission of the church. The pastor is teacher, shepherd, and prophet, and must lead and guide the church deeper into its life. The pastor sets the tone for the culture of the church. Many pastors unwittingly minimize the importance of this season when, during the summer, they rely too much on pulpit supply and guest preachers more than at any other time of the year, subliminally sending a signal to the congregation that the church is in spiritual hiatus.
These are just general practical suggestions. Each congregational context is unique. There are many other ways that you can strategically utilize the summer months with spiritual discipline. The main objective here is to revise the commonplace perception in the minds of many, that the summer months are relatively empty of spiritual significance for the life of the church.
I recently watched a TV episode of a documentary series on Japanese culture. This episode addressed the Japanese aesthetic of “Wabi-Sabi,” a mindful approach to everyday life, an aesthetic that defines the beauty of things that are “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” The highest embodiment of this aesthetic is said to be found in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, where economy of motion is celebrated through the purposeful, simple, elegantly resolute, and meditative movements of the ritual. Okakura Kakuzo, author of the “The Book of Tea,” said: “Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”
As a Christian, the aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi reminded me of the wisdom of Qoheleth, who saw beauty and meaning even in the transience of things, when he declared, “For everything there is a season.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) The summer months are not the de facto province of spiritual doldrums. While a major portion of the culture’s psychology shifts to leisurely things in the summer months, it can also be claimed as a season of disciplined discernment – waiting and lingering even in the mundane, mindful that, with spiritual discipline, we can peer through the distractions and discover that even the commonplace and the ordinary hold moments where the Holy Spirit discloses insight about the meaning of our own existence.
There is so much more to be said about the risen Jesus’ command to the disciples to “wait and stay” in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit came as Jesus promised, but that moment was never scheduled, and it came at a time that no one expected. But because they waited and lingered, they were present to experience the powerful unveiling of the reality of the Spirit’s constant presence in the world. So a lesson for us Christians during this post-Pentecost season of Ordinary Time is, perhaps, to purposefully slow down – not to be idle, but to acquire a mindfulness that sometimes it is in waiting and lingering a little even in the transience and fleeting glimpses of the things graciously granted to us by God, that we will experience the ephemeral ubiquity of the Holy Spirit who is constantly at work in our midst, always inviting us to participate in the grand drama of God’s mission.
The Rev. Dr. Elmo Familiaran is a pastor, writer, and practitioner in the mission and purpose of the church in the world. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is a 39-year veteran in pastoral ministry, in ecumenical and cross-cultural engagement, and executive leadership in both national and regional denominational settings.