This past Sunday something truly unusual, revolutionary, perhaps unique in the history of humankind occurred at a Methodist church in Illinois. Think I'm overselling a bit?
It was this: planned...Methodist....chaos.
Methodists don't do planned chaos very well. Unplanned chaos, sure, we're great at that. We can make chit-chat loud and long and fail to pay attention to the proceedings--in fact, the funny thing about the way our service opened on Sunday was how long it took for our pastor to get attention to make the morning announcements. There was festivity in the air. Lots of people in their flame-colored attire, negotiating flame-colored streamers on the backs of the pews and, probably, loudly observing the strangeness of all of this to their neighbors.
It was when the announcements were over that the chaos happened. At the words "turn and greet your neighbor" some persons began greeting one another in different languages. Then a few more joined in. There were the usual handful of volunteers, some speaking German, some Italian, some Spanish--I think we had at least one Asiatic language in there, and sign language--and additionally, the choir had fanned out into the congregation and about two dozen of them were adding their voices to the din, which kept getting louder, and LOUDER.
About a minute into this sanctified fracas came a voice. One soprano intoning the ancient pentecost hymn "Come, Creator Spirit." When she finished there came a thunderous chord from the organ and the opening voluntary began. At that point the flash mob was over and the choir gathered at the back of the church in order to process forward during the singing of the introit. They sang the heck out of it, by the way. I'd like to think the mood created by the flash mob and the ensuing organ music helped them to do that.
We've been doing some variation on the languages of Pentecost for a few years now. The story of a roaring wind, tongues of fire, the disciples suddenly speaking the gospel in different languages lends itself to some kind of dramatic commemoration and, as Methodists, we have a committee that tries to do creative things in worship. It is a sub-committee of another committee, naturally, and I think even those members are answerable to another committee. But this sub-committee, RuacH, from the Greek word for Spirit, is, I would imagine, a fairly unusual thing for a church to have. We gather every couple of months on average to explore the themes for the upcoming seasons of the year and the new sermon series and find ways to incorporate poetry, drama, liturgical dance and so on into those worship services. In past years on Pentecost we've had people stand up front and deliver the gospel message in different languages one at a time, politely waiting until the person ahead of them is finished. Even the rushing wind sound is done solo. It's all very orderly, which is how Methodists like it. That's how we got our name.
So getting folks to all speak at once, or to talk over each other, and to do it loudly, and ON PURPOSE, was like breaking through the fourth wall of Methodism (no, not the Wesleyan Quadrilateral). I don't know if it's ever happened before, and, like a naturalist, I feel compelled to document it. Plus, it was pretty cool.
Of course, afterward, someone said to me that she would have preferred people do the languages one at a time, and I told her we'd probably do that again next year. And, as unexpected as the whole flash mob thing was supposed to be, the pastor kind of tipped everybody off by explaining it in the church email days before, and instructing everyone not to politely sit down until the organ came in. (We had decided to dispense with the usual Pavlovian chimes and go directly to the organ voluntary.) Look, for a Methodist over fifty, that's about as close to a real flash mob as anyone is going to get! Don't knock it.
One other thing: I was meditating on the irony of the whole Pentecost celebration while putting my notes (/strategy) to the flashmobbers together, thinking about how at the original event everyone was astounded to be actually able to understand the disciples, because in this bustling metropolis of a thousand tongues the gospel was suddenly being shared in all of them, and how, in our sanctuary, it was highly unlikely that any of us would understand most of these languages. In other words, the celebration sort of reversed the event being celebrated. And then I got an advance copy of the bulletin, complete with a prayer of confession which contained the line "We continue the divisions of Babel, speaking in tongues that confound rather than clarify, hurt rather than heal, separate rather than unite."
True, confusion gets a pretty universally bad rap in the church, but besides taking at least one holyday in the church year and un-domesticating it a little bit, bringing back some of the wildness and awesomeness, I think a bit of off-balanced unexpectedness is not such a bad thing always. We in the church are so good at doing things the same way, getting comfortable with ourselves and our methods, that we seldom grow our skills of adaptation and understanding. How can we minister to the stranger in our midst if we don't know what their needs are? And how can we know that, or even empathize with that, if we don't understand them? And how can we understand something outside of ourselves if we don't try to come to terms with something or someone that we don't already understand? Knowing what we like and liking what we know is a good way to avoid growth; it leads to stagnation. They way forward involves learning to know the unknown; Karl Barth even referred to God as "wholly other." (I'd like to find out what that means sometime when I have a couple thousand free hours to read "Church Dogmatics.")
And effort indeed needs to be made to that end. Maybe on the first Pentecost the Spirit gave everyone the ability to speak in new languages just magically, but everyone since who has gone out to spread the gospel in other languages has had to take the trouble to learn them. And always there is at first a sense of floundering around in the new and the unaccustomed. But they get the hang of it.
So maybe getting people outside of the tranquil expectations of the orderly, not just by preaching about it, but by throwing them a little off balance during a worship service, isn't such a bad thing.
In any case, for a few moments on a Sunday morning, something slightly unusual happened within the confines of a Methodist church, the full effects of which are not yet known. We are forming a committee to study it.