Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (Acts 19:11-20) transports me to Lehman Auditorium at Eastern Mennonite University for the last night of Peace Camp, aka the annual gathering of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. It was youth night, and the teenagers planned and led the worship. Seeing a film clip of the horrific plight of the Karen refugees in Burma, followed by a song, “Love Your Neighbor” sung in the Karen language by some of the refugees and their American friends, was quite a profound spiritual moment. After the worship, several of the young people performed in a talent show, which included one of the most beautiful expressions of grace and freedom I’ve ever seen. Sarah, a young woman with Downs Syndrome who I watched grow up over many summers of Peace Camp, performed a dance to the song “Secret Agent Man.” You may not associate that song with spiritual profundity, but Sarah’s performance, with her free spirit of abandon and joy, touched a deep chord in everyone there. And then after the talent show we had a concert by Jennifer Knapp, the singer-songwriter who left the world of contemporary Christian music when she came out of the closet. (But she didn’t leave her faith or her discipleship, and is an effective witness to the wideness of God’s mercy and her calling to share the Jesus story). Her strong voice, a mix of Melissa Etheridge and Mary Chapin Carpenter, now speaks to a different audience, and addresses a wider range of issues, including the attempt to discover what it means to identify oneself as both Christian and gay in a church world that wants to bury any such conversation, along with the people who want to talk about it. Taken together, the whole evening caused heaven to let its light shine down on our collective soul (we sang “Shine” a lot during the week), and our collective cups were overflowing with grace gifts. After the concert, I lingered in the auditorium and reflected back on the 14 or so other Peace Camps I have attended through the years. The auditorium marked each of those gatherings with a worship banner from each peace camp, hanging around the walls. I looked at those banners, and the memories they invoked were like a healing balm. They took me to spaces of great joy and abandon. The fabric of the banners reminded me of the fabric of my faith, and the many ways the relationships and experiences of the Peace Fellowship had provided threads for the material of my life.
Throughout the book of Acts, we see the apostle Paul creating a “peace camp” experience everywhere he went on his missionary journey. There was healing, there was joy, there was abandon, there was singing, there was conflict transformation, there was salvation, there was community. There was such a powerful presence of the Spirit of God in his life, that all people needed to do was touch some of the fabric associated with Paul – a cloth, an apron, a handkerchief, and they could access that same power, the power to drive away destructive spirits, the power to experience wholeness in the face of dis-ease. But there’s another part of the story that speaks to unsuccessful attempts at accessing that power of God. There were people who put their faith in the words, in the name of Jesus, without following the Way. These proclaimers encountered troubled folks possessed by evil spirits, and tried casting those spirits out, invoking the name of Jesus. But instead of having any authority over the spirits, these preachers, known as the Sons of Sceva, took a beating from the demons, and left the scene naked and bleeding.
The passage reminds me that evidence of following the Jesus Way is seen in the fruit that is borne from that Way. Are people liberated from the destructive and hateful spirits that possess our culture? Are people healed from any sense of “handicap” so that they are completely free to dance with abandon and joy? Are refugee teenagers able to sing of forgiveness and hope, even as they grieve the loss of family and friends to a regime that continues to oppress? To the extent that our hearts have more capacity to love and to forgive and to bless, even as we work fiercely and diligently to transform the violence of our world, then we can be assured that we are indeed on the Way. The language of faith we use seems to me to be a matter of less importance than the fruit our faith bears. I have had experiences when I could resonate with those who boldly confess faith in a name, but get the living daylights beat out of their spirits, leaving them bleeding and naked, wounded and wary, raging with anger and frustration and fear. I’d just as soon not go that route. To help us stay on the better Way, I think the Peace Fellowship would do well to start distributing some aprons and handkerchiefs, maybe some small replicas of those banners, providing some fabric for us to touch throughout the year as a reminder of the power we have access to when we confront the spirits of the world.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.