[NOTE: During the 1999-2000 school year, I served as Interim Chair of the History Department at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS). This assignment meant, among other things, that I was once again “in the administrative loop,” whether I wished to be or not–be still, my beating heart!
One of my responsibilities that year came early, in mid-August, when I joined other members of the administrative food chain on a “retreat” at a nearby conference center. Our Dean of the Faculty had welcomed me back to “administration” by asking if I would give the opening devotional, and also find time to explain to my colleagues the origins and purpose of a newly-organized “alternative” student religious group for which I served as an advisor. Knowing that I’d be back in the classroom fulltime the following year, no matter what happened this year, I decided to combine those two tasks.
I’ve alluded in previous posts to the important role that religion played at AFPS. The other thing you should know before reading this post is that, each Spring, we returned from vacation to “Christian Emphasis Week,” when the school brought in religiously-affiliated speakers to discuss aspects of Christianity, usually in a modern context. Depending upon the invited speaker, these sessions ranged from informative, to moderately interesting, to “Please, God, get me out of this auditorium as soon as possible.”
And it was with the idea of “Christian Emphasis Week” that I began my talk. What I hoped to do was to use the “Day of Pentecost” described in Chapter 2 of Acts of the Apostles (when the Holy Spirit enabled an audience in Jerusalem, made up of people from many different areas of the Roman Empire, to hear–and understand–in their own languages, the Christian message being delivered by Peter and the other apostles) as a sort of metaphor for our school’s annual “Christian Emphasis Week.”]
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[Read: Acts of the Apostles 2:1-8, 12-15]
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? . . . All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are all filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. . . .”
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I think of the Book of Acts every year as Christian Emphasis Week approaches. It is never easy to be a missionary for Christianity, but surely few who have earned that distinction had so rough a time as the first-century “Christian Emphasis speakers” whose deeds are recounted in Acts.
Devout Jews, certain that the various disciples and apostles of the new creed were blasphemers, sent “truth squads” to dog them on their missionary journeys and, if that didn’t do the trick, to stone them or otherwise punish them. Local artisans, whose economic well-being depended upon the continued willingness of people to buy handmade silver idols of Roman gods, were not happy to see the missionaries arrive. Those early “Christian Emphasis speakers,” and the disorders that followed in their wake, were also anathema to town officials and Roman magistrates, whose primary commission from the imperial government was to keep a lid on an always restive populace.
In the passage I read from Chapter 2, Peter and the others got off pretty easily. The worst the scoffers could come up with was that the speakers must have been “filled with new wine.” Of course, Peter hotly denied the charge: after all, it was only 9 o’clock in the morning! BUT, perhaps the hecklers were correct: because his message was unfamiliar, and therefore scary to some in the audience, yet he persisted in trying to get his point across, Peter was, at least in a metaphorical sense, “filled with new wine,” and certain of his listeners did not like the taste of it one bit!
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But what has this got to do with our Christian Emphasis Week speakers? During our current President’s stewardship, we have adopted a broader approach to our annual showcase for the Christian message. Some of our speakers have presented the old, familiar Christian “wine” to our students, while others have trotted out some of the new stuff. While many of our students savor the “old wine,” some of them gag on the new, setting the stage for scenes like the one two years ago, when some of our more “committed” young Christians behaved badly during a presentation by one of our speakers and subsequently received a richly-earned dressing down from our President.
One result of this incident is the real reason I’m standing before you this morning. A group of our seniors, seeing this episode as all too typical of the approach to Christianity by many of their peers at AFPS, went to one of our English teachers and asked her to sponsor an “alternative” religious group that would be a “safe place” to discuss Christianity and other religions, setting attendees free from what they considered censorious comments by those of their peers who were already convinced that they had “solved the cosmic riddle” as far as Christianity was concerned. This teacher agreed, got approval from the administration, and asked several faculty members, of whom I was one, if we would be willing to help out. And so, though its name wasn’t decided upon for a while yet, “the Gathering” was born.
Two of the student founders of “the Gathering” elaborated upon the purposes of the group in a letter they sent to their successors at the start of last year. I’d like to share their thoughts with you this morning:
–Please keep in mind that the purpose of our group is not to create two warring camps of Christians at our school! We intend for this group to be in addition–not in competition–to Friday Morning Fellowship. Do your best to avoid bashing other people’s views.
–We created “the Gathering” because many of us came to see a need that wasn’t being met: this school simply did not provide a place for non-judgmental, open, and honest dialogue concerning Christianity. Above all, we want “the Gathering” to be a place to LISTEN–not a place to throw in your two cents simply because you have two cents.
–Furthermore, while this is definitely a Christian group, we want “the Gathering” to be a place where inquisitive people of all religious persuasions will feel not only welcome, but valued.
–Finally, the purpose of “the Gathering” is not to cultivate some sort of group mentality, where all of us believe exactly the same thing. Rather, we hope that our meetings will help aid the individual on his or her spiritual journey.
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So, what kinds of things go on at “the Gathering”?
- During the first year, the seniors who started “the Gathering” were dedicated to it. They set the agenda, assigning topics, leading discussions, and bringing food.
- Last year, while our seniors were excellent at leading discussions, they were so overcommitted academically and extracurricularly that they did little planning for sessions of the Gathering; in fact, we could not even count on their regular attendance. Thus, the burden of setting the tone for each session increasingly fell on younger students or on faculty advisors. (As a result, our student leaders for the coming year are two sophomores. One is Jewish, while the other approaches theology from the conservative Christian perspective).
- Among the topics we discussed last year were: a) “current events,” e.g., Assembly/Christian Emphasis speakers; news stories, like one featuring a student at a Kentucky Christian school who was barred from graduation because she had gotten pregnant; or something said by a religious figure on television; b) the essentials of Christianity–a popular topic: what must one believe to call him/herself a Christian? This included a presentation on the Nicene Creed, not just what it said but why (i.e., treatment of its historical/theological context); c) extracurricular–visits to a Roman Catholic service and to The [Jewish] Temple. There has also been some discussion of the group undertaking a service project, but this hasn’t yet come to pass.
The faculty who regularly attend “the Gathering” is an interesting mix. Two are the “usual suspects”: our school Chaplain and the Chair of the Bible Department. Like them, most of the rest of the faculty who attend are active in our churches and have studied theology, either formally or informally, or, in a couple of delightful cases, through surviving many years of Catholic schooling. Thus, we tend to see theology as to some extent an academic discipline, an area in which it is definitely OK to ask questions, to use the minds God gave us to investigate what others have said, thought, and written about their encounters with God’s word and its application to our daily lives.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us advisors believe that faith is not a destination to be reached once and for all before going off to college, but a journey full of pitfalls and detours, done in fits and starts, which can last long beyond the high school/college years.
If “the Gathering” sounds like your kind of place, either as a regular or intermittent visitor, please consider yourself invited.
Rather than end this devotional with a prayer, let me close with the words of one of the founders of “the Gathering”:
If every single one of us is made in God’s image, then what better way to gain a clearer understanding of God than to gain a clearer understanding of each other?”
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: