Spirit — it’s a thing, right?

Every October, early in the month, the National Storytelling Festival takes place in Jonesborough, TN, a tiny historical town nestled in the Smoky Mountains. Just as the Fall colors begin to peak and the scenery is aflame in reds, yellows, and orange leaves, more than 10,000 people descend upon this town to hear storytellers from all around the world. There were Middle Eastern storytellers dressed in colorful robes and African storytellers with drums and storytellers from the mountains of Appalachia wearing overalls — all mixed in together, all sharing their stories in 5 large outdoor tents over the course of three days.

There was an African storyteller with long, thick dreadlocks who took the stage and told a popular teaching tale from his homeland that seemed to capture the spirit of the weekend.

In the jungle, all the animals enjoyed playing with each other and teasing each other. Lion pranced around shaking his thick mane and teased monkey about his skimpy hair. Giraffe walked elegantly past hippo with her long, beautiful neck, but hippo just sank under water and rolled her eyes. It was all in good fun. One day, lion declared that of all the animals in the jungle, he had the most power. Hmmm. That one didn’t get much of a laugh. “What makes you think you have the most power,” asked rabbit. Lion smirked, took a deep breath, and let out a huge, ear-splitting roar. “That answer your question?” he asked. Rabbit said, “I can’t make that kind of noise, but bet you can’t do this” and he took off at lightning speed through the brush, jumping fallen trees, weaving in and out of thick vines. “There’s power in speed,” said rabbit. “You think that’s power?” asked monkey. “Watch this” and he cartwheeled across the grass, lept into the tree, swung from a vine to the next tree, and somersaulted back down to the ground. “Ta Da — that’s power.” Elephant was watching all this quietly. She didn’t say much, but everybody loved her. She moved slowly over to a tall tree and leaned into it. And she leaned into it a little more, and a little more until, BOOM — the tree fell over. “Is that power?” she asked. They all agreed, that was definitely some kind of power. All of them were having a good time except one. The man. Man stood up and everyone turned to see what he would do. He opened his mouth and yelled at the top of his lungs, but it was nothing compared to lion. Hyena broke the silence with side-splitting laughter. “You call that power?” he managed to say between guffaws. The others joined in the laughter. Man was not amused. He took a running start and did a cartwheel, then tumbled a few times, and finally caught a low hanging branch and pulled himself up 5 times, then turned with a proud smile. Again, silence — then when they couldn’t hold back any longer — guffaws. Now man was angry. “You want to see power?” he asked. “Wait — I’ll show you power” and he ran off. “I don’t know what that was all about! We like him just like he is, skinny little hairless thing, but he sure is determined to have the most power. In a few minutes, man came walking back into the clearing holding something long and thin and shiny. He lifted it to his shoulder, aimed straight at elephant, and fired. BOOM. Elephant looked confused, and began to stumble and then suddenly fell over with a thud that shook the ground, dead. The animals were speechless. One by one they turned to stare at man who now stood holding his gun, looking quite proud of himself. “Power!” he shouted and at that, every animal in the jungle fled for their lives. That night, the animals gathered at the far end of the jungle. Elephant’s death left them in a kind of shocked silence. Finally, a young cub broke the silence. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Was that power?” Lion shook his thick mane and said, “That was not power. That was death. Man is the only animal in the jungle that does not understand the difference between power and death.”

The story was finished and the tent was filled with momentary silence and then a few “Amens!” And I will admit there is some ambiguity to the meaning of this story that bears further discussion. But then the storyteller said something interesting, “Power and death come in many shapes and sizes and a multitude of experiences — from the loss of a job or a way of being to the loss of one’s very life. But I’m always struck . . . No, I’m always empowered by the spirit that is in this town on this weekend as thousands of people from around the world and from all varieties of socio-economic and political, religious and emotional, realities and the come together to listen and tell and listen . . . And it’s such a powerful experience.”

This Sunday is Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, the day we remember and celebrate the birth of the Christian church. It is also the day we remember the story in the Book of Acts where people were gathered from all around the “known world” in Jerusalem and a “mighty wind” came upon the crowd and everyone began to hear each other’s language as if it were their own. Each was filled with this mighty wind, with the power of the Holy Spirit.

This Sunday, we celebrate Pentecost and I want to think with you about this idea of the Holy Spirit, the third person in the old Doxology many of us remember singing in church — “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” What is this Holy Spirit? It can seem a little spooky! We’re going to spend a couple of weeks exploring the idea of spirit and the holy. I promise, it’s gonna be interesting! I hope you can join us.

This Sunday, May 20, in eleven:eleven

“spirit — it’s a thing, right?”

rev. tom mcdermott

with special guest vocalist Christa Russell,

the revolution band

and the music of david bowie, nina simone, and the wailin’ jennys


See you Sunday!

Rev. Tom McDermott
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven celebration


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