It’s been more than a decade since the first trip we took to Chicago with our children. We drove a rented Chevy Blazer from Connecticut to the Windy City for a minister’s conference. H had been invited to this conference by a ministry colleague, and we decided to make it a family summer vacation. We arrived in Chicago, ill-prepared for the rain and, yes, wind. I wore sandals, and when I think back on that trip, I remember my toes were cold for most of our time there.
The plan was that we’d drop off H in the mornings for his conference, and the children and I would explore the city until late afternoon; then we’d pick up H and have dinner together. That first morning, we drove over to the church where the conference was being held. The sun tried to outwit the overcast sky by peeking through breaks in the clouds, and we rode with the windows down — right up to the front door of the red brick church. H leaned over and kissed me good-bye and the children waved adolescently from their seats in the back of the SUV.
I made my way through traffic, making a mental note to ditch the vehicle and take the train the next time around. We sat still on the highway while my children pointed out the speed with which the trains were passing us by. By the time we found a parking spot and unfolded ourselves from the Blazer, everyone was hungry and grumpy and sick and tired of the whole adventure. So, I wasn’t in the best mood when I found myself standing in Abercrombie & Fitch, in the middle of downtown Chicago.
By now, you know about me and the way I scan a crowd for anyone who looks like me. Well, standing there in that store, I scanned the store and saw one store clerk who looked like me. At first, I thought I might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. But then, I looked at the ads on the walls in that store and saw not one single shirtless, photoshopped person who looked like me. Now, that is both a good thing and bad thing, in my opinion. No exploitation of brown-skinned teenagers and adolescents going on here, right?
I remember walking up to that brown-skinned store clerk and asking, “So, I noticed there aren’t any brown-skinned people in the ads on the walls?” That store clerk looked at me with a blank face and one of the white store clerks chimed in, “Um…there might be some in our catalog,” she said. “Really?” I asked. “I think so,” she said. “May I see a catalog?” I asked. She looked beneath the counter and handed me a catalog. Not one brown-skinned person on all of those pages. That spoke volumes to me. I was already opposed to the sexy, shirtless marketing techniques they’d chosen, but the obvious decision not to market to my demographic sealed the deal.
I’ve avoided A&F ever since.
When we picked up H from the conference, I leaned over and kissed him and asked, “How did it go?”
He paused. Then, “It was…” He searched for the right word, and decided on, “…interesting.”
“Really?” I replied. “How so?”
“Well,” and here he named the man who had invited him (we’ll call him Ralph), “Ralph acted as if he didn’t know me at all.”
“What?” I asked. This just didn’t make sense. Back in Connecticut, these two men had lunch together, engaged in theological conversations, enjoyed each other’s company, and were growing a friendship. “Did he see you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” H said. “I walked up to him and said ‘Hello.’ It was weird. He’s the only person I know here. He’s the reason I came.”
“Well, what do you think that’s about?” I asked.
Again, H hesitated. It had been a long day, and I was asking him questions he probably didn’t care to answer. But, he reached down deep and said, “It seems sort of like a closed community. Those guys are clearly very close, and they may not want anyone new to join them.”
“Then why did he invite you?” I asked.
H thought again, “I’m beginning to wonder if he invited me, or if I invited myself. I’m not sure, anymore.”
Somehow, these were the memories that surfaced as we celebrated Pentecost yesterday. Pentecost is the day when the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples and they were able to tell the story of the gospel in different languages so everyone around them could understand it and choose whether or not to accept the free gift of God’s love for them. No languages excluded. No visitors ignored.
I’ve been thinking about Pentecost and I think the church has gotten all caught up in the fact that the disciples spoke in different languages, and the church has made that the big deal. As if speaking in tongues was the stamp of approval, affirming a person really is living a life of faith, in step with the Holy Spirit.
But what I believe now (and I’m not discounting the speaking in tongues part) is that God wanted us to know the message of the gospel is for everyone. Everyone. Different language. New to the whole idea. Different culture. Different history. It doesn’t matter. Anyone who hears it, understands it, and says, “Yes! I want that!” is forgiven of their sins and lives in friendship and fellowship with God. Now let’s say, however, someone hears how much God loves them — how much God is for them — and says, “Nah, I got this. I don’t need that. Thanks, though.” Well, I think God is loving and kind and patient and respectful enough to not make a person say, “Yes” to Him if they don’t want to. And, not to then insist they hang out with Him forever if they’d really rather not.
Pentecost is not about giving people one more way to say, “You over there, you’re in. But you with the yellow shirt? You’re out.” It’s not another way to single out a group of people and say, “Because you didn’t jump through this hoop, you don’t get to sit at this lunch table.” Pentecost set the table and invited everyone to the party. It didn’t say, “You’re not sexy enough to wear my clothes,” or “I don’t really want you in my group.” Pentecost said, “You! Yes, you! You’re invited! Put your dancing shoes on!”
Sometimes people look at the invitation and decide they’d rather sit this one out. Or wait for their favorite tune to play before they break a sweat on the dance floor. My inclination is to raise an eyebrow in their direction, turn my back on them and say, “What? They don’t like disco? Only acid rock? SHAME on them! I don’t want them and their music on my dance floor anyway!” Well, shame on me for drawing a glittery line around myself and calling it good. When I do that, I’m no better than the A&F guy who doesn’t want certain people wearing his clothes. Or the ministers at the minister’s conference who didn’t welcome the new guy in their midst. As much as I have to fight it, I don’t want to be like that. I’d rather keep pointing at the invitation and saying, “You! Yes, you! You’re invited! Put your dancing shoes on!”