May 23, 2010
In Praise of Inefficiency
The building group conducted another group discussion session this week. They have been bringing together small groups of folks to talk about our current space, to dream about our future space. And people share lots of ideas. How much space they want. How many rooms. What the space should look like. How we can be responsible stewards of the earth in the process of building. All kinds of ideas. Good discussions.
In these discussions, I have never heard, I doubt Adam and Gary have ever heard, “Why don’t we leave a hole in the roof.” The trustees are shuddering at the very thought. But that is exactly what many of the sanctuary builders in the 10th Century did. A hole right in the roof.
It sounds ridiculous, of course. By contemporary standards, we would certainly fault it as very inefficient. But these holes were important to the 10th Century Christian worshipers. They were called Holy Spirit holes. These holes were there so that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that manifest herself so dynamically at Pentecost, would continue to have ready access to the Church.
Could the Holy Spirit have gotten into those 10th Century sanctuaries without the holes in the roof? Of course. Did those holes, ridiculous and inefficient though they were, serve a spiritual purpose? Of course.
Every time a raindrop fell through the hole onto your shoulder, you could remember–the Holy Spirit is here. If you had to walk around the puddle on the floor, you could remember–the Holy Spirit is here. If leaves drifted or bird poop dropped through the hole, you could remember–the Holy Spirit is here.
Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that we cut a hole in our roof. But thinking about these Holy Spirit holes has reminded me that Holy Spirit is indeed wildly unpredictable. Really, so terribly inefficient.
Like last week, our scripture this morning is from the book of Acts. And I’ll point out once again that even though the book is titled “Acts of the Apostles,” it is really about the acts of God–the way God, through the Spirit, works in the lives of the early Christians. About how the Spirit grows and empowers the earliest Church.
It is an astounding story. It is a story that would probably horrify most church growth consultants. Because the way the Spirit grows the church is not efficient. It is not even rational.
We have skipped a little bit of the Jesus narrative as we have moved from Christmas through Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, and now Pentecost. If we back up to the first chapter of Acts, we read about Jesus ascension into heaven. Which is a spectacular event in and of itself. But what intrigues me is not the splendor and awe of the event itself. What I find most fascinating are the instructions that Jesus gives his followers in between his resurrection and his ascension.
At one point Jesus says to the gathered believers, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
“Wait for the gift . . . in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” What is all of this waiting for the Spirit about? Surely Jesus, God incarnate, could have empowered them right then to go forth and witness. Or, even if the time wasn’t right for them to take the Good News abroad, there must have been something more productive they could have done than just wait around. I mean, how inefficient. What a waste of time!
Sometimes in the mornings as the kids are getting ready for school I will see that one of them has put a waffle in the toaster oven and they are just standing there watching the thing toast. This drives me nuts. We’re trying to get ready for school. There are clothes to put on, lunches to make, backpacks to pack. “Don’t just sit there waiting for the waffle to toast. Do something while you wait!”
But Jesus says “wait.” His followers could have been preparing speeches or sending letters. But Jesus says wait. They could have been recruiting friends and family or designing a PR campaign. But Jesus says wait. They could have made some picket signs and headed over to the temple: “No more robbers in God’s house of prayer!” But Jesus says wait. They could have been out on the city streets tending to the sick, feeding the hungry. But Jesus says wait.
And so these believers wait for the Holy Spirit. There are about 120 believers. And they gather and they wait. Obviously, they were not working with a qualified church growth consultant. They did not have a strategic plan.
But sure enough, after about ten days of waiting . . . a waiting that involved prayer and preaching and singing . . . after about ten days of waiting the Holy Spirit did indeed come upon them.
They were all gathered together in one place, and suddenly there was a loud, violent noise, and those things that seemed to be tongues of fire came down on them. This is frightening and exciting. They now have the power. The power of the Holy Spirit for which they have been waiting.
Now each of the believers is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!
Well, not quite. But, when they speak, those who are listening in the gathered crowd hear them in their own native tongues. And this really is quite impressive considering all of the different places these people are from.
The power of the Spirit is there, for sure. But again, this seems a highly inefficient use of Divine power. Because really, if the disciples had just spoken Greek, everyone could have understood them. Greek was the lingua franca. Anyone in Jerusalem–residents and visitors alike–probably spoke it.
So, while the whole “speaking in tongues” thing is pretty cool, it does seem rather unnecessary. A very inefficient use of Holy Spirit power. And not just inefficient, but possibly even harmful to the reputation of the church. Word is getting out on the street that these Jesus followers are a bit odd. Possibly even drunk at nine in the morning.
And it just goes on from here. After this Pentecost scene, we learn more about the early church. How they worshiped together and ate together. How they “gave to all as anyone had need.”
What about worship schedules and volunteer lists? Was there any kind of a screening process to see who really had need? Were there any rules about who should bring what to the potlucks? It all sounds rather haphazard. Quite inefficient.
We pray each week for God to lead us not into temptation. And it seems that efficiency at any cost is one of the greatest temptations of our era.
I heard an interview on NPR a few years back. I don’t even remember which celebrity was being interviewed. I just remember him saying that he was so obsessed with efficiency that at one point he actually timed himself to see if it was faster to put on both socks and then both shoes, or to put the sock and shoe on one foot and then the other.
I don’t know all of the details about the recent mine explosion in West Virginia or the oil leak in the Gulf. But if I were a betting person, I would put good money on the guess that, in each case, somebody near the top was trying to be efficient.
In the 1990’s, Russian orphanages were terribly efficient. Each nurse could care for 15-20 children. The children, of course, spent basically all of their time alone in a crib. Any family who has adopted a child from one of these orphanages could tell you about the troubling results of this efficient system.
Some of you may know about the Family Promise organization that has begun work in Lawrence. It is a program that hosts homeless families in churches. Each week, the families spend the nights at a different local church. In the mornings, a van takes children to school. Adults go to school, work, or the day center where they can work on budgets, educational opportunities, or job searches.
This is a truly amazing program. Thirty-three churches across Douglas County participate. And there are nearly 1,300 volunteers.
At any one time, the program will house 2, 3, maybe 4 families. I’ve heard charges that it is inefficient. What we could do, they say, with 1,300 volunteers.
This past week I heard what the Holy Spirit is doing with 1,300 volunteers. I heard Thomas and Tara’s friend, Karin Feldman, talk about her church’s experience in hosting the homeless guests of the program. How the first time around it was basically just her. And now there is a whole group from the church working together every few months to provide a hospitable space for a handful of folks without homes. How their church’s expensive, unused, many would say misguided, second building now has renewed life and purpose.
I also heard that all of the families who have “graduated” from this program are still in stable housing.
We see, Paul says, as in a mirror darkly. But our God has a deep and abiding wisdom. A wisdom that often seems as foolishness to the world. A wisdom that often seems absurd and terribly inefficient.
It is precisely in the inefficiency of waiting that those first 120 believers become a community. It is in that inefficiency of waiting that they train their hearts towards God, thus preparing themselves to receive those things that seemed like tongues of fire–without getting burned.
And after that inefficient–after that ridiculously absurd–display of Holy Spirit power at Pentecost, about three thousand people are baptized and added to the number of believers.
And thanks to the terrible inefficiencies of the early church, “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
As followers of Christ, the Holy Spirit leads us not into efficiency, but into faithfulness.
Often, the wind of the Spirit moving through our lives calls us to wait when all around us are rushing.
To be willing to make fools of ourselves in a culture that idolizes image.
To share from our abundance despite those who say we must live in fear because of scarcity.
The powerful, comforting, compelling Spirit calls us to construct our lives not in the way that makes the most sense to us, but in ways that leave space–like a hole in the roof–for the mighty wind to enter. Space for the tongues of fire to dance.
Thanks be to God.