Running Out of Gas

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When I was thirteen, I was a great admirer of John Denver.

He was everywhere that I wanted to be at that time in my life. In torn Levis in an alpine meadow, or dressed as a cowboy on a snow-capped mountain peak, his image graced the pages of a cherished songbook at the bottom of my guitar case.

I liked his confident energetic smile, his I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-my-father-thinks long hair, and his wire-rimmed glasses, which added just the right touch of sophistication to his appearance.

Through music and album covers, his records moved me into a place of jagged recklessness and joyful abandon, a world of danger and freedom.

The lines you’ve just heard were written by a younger version of myself, at a writers’ workshop at Ghost Ranch, our Presbyterian conference center in Abiquiu, New Mexico. They were the result of an exercise in which we were given the phrase, “When I was 13,” then given time to compose before sharing with the group. There are several windows through which I might have chosen to view my eighth-grade year, but I chose this one because I had John Denver on my mind. It was about that time that he had died.

Some of you weren’t around to know how popular John Denver was in the 1970s. He was a singer who composed most of the pieces he sang, often while playing acoustic guitar. He appeared in films and television specials. He was active politically, calling attention to environmental issues and speaking out against censorship in music.

Denver also loved to fly airplanes. He held licenses to fly several types of aircraft. I imagine the love of flying had something to do with the fact that his dad was an Air Force pilot, who young John never seemed able to please.

One day in the fall of 1997, John Denver purchased a two-seat experimental aircraft at Monterey Peninsula Airport near Pacific Grove, California. To get acquainted with the plane, he made a series of touch-and-go landings. In the middle of one of these test runs, Denver’s plane went into a nosedive, impacted the water with great force, and he died. While flying over Monterey Bay, he simply ran out of gas.

The story is a haunting one. A sporty little plane, buzzing through clear skies above the waters of one of the most scenic bays on the west coast. It must have been so beautiful. Then, the engine began to sputter.

The phrase “Running out of gas” is an idiom, you know. We might be watching a Cardinals’ game, see the starting pitcher begin to struggle, and think, “He’s running out of gas.” Perhaps we’ve been tending a garden, and as the heat rises and the day wears on, we think, “I’m running out of gas.” The context can be more serious. You’ve been in your job a couple decades, and then in the middle of a long month or difficult project you wonder how much longer you can endure. “I’m running out of gas.” For a long time, you’ve cared for a relative with medical issues or lived in a challenging home environment, and you wonder how much longer you can bear the load. You’re running out of gas. We use the idiom “running out of gas” to describe the phenomenon of losing energy or interest to continue an activity.

I think Jesus’ first disciples, in the weeks following his crucifixion and resurrection, felt like they were running out of gas. Imagine the emotional energy that must have been consumed, the highs and the lows of the entry into Jerusalem; the Last Supper; the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion; the resurrection; his amazing but limited appearances to the disciples. At the final appearance, as recorded in the first chapter of Acts, they ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Just when they think the finish line is in sight, he disappears, leaving them wondering what to do without the constant guiding presence of their teacher and leader. They stand there staring at the clouds, as if to ask, “God, what we are we supposed to do now?” They must have wondered whether this whole Jesus movement was running out of gas.

For just a moment, I want to take you back to the story about John Denver’s death. His particular experimental aircraft had an unusual fuel system. The plane’s design called for the fuel gauges and selector lever to be between the pilot’s legs, but the plane’s builder had positioned the lever and gauges behind the left shoulder of the pilot. This configuration made the gauges impossible to see, and the selector lever difficult to move. Crash investigators believe that when the engine began to sputter, Denver didn’t have enough training or experience to adjust the fuel lever while continuing to pilot the plane. When the first tank emptied out, there was a second tank that would have saved his life. Tragically, he couldn’t switch from one gas tank to the other.

The disciples were anxious because God’s kingdom was not appearing as fast as they wanted, or in the form they desired. In that confusing and frightening time of change, they wondered what they would do next. They worried they were running out of gas. Jesus says that they have a mission to be his witnesses, and that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Jesus addresses the disciples’ anxiety by telling them, in effect, “Don’t panic. You have another gas tank!”

Wait for the Holy Spirit. Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Discern the leading of the Holy Spirit. Live and witness in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Recently, I attended the Festival of Homiletics, which is, as far as I know, America’s largest preaching conference. Brian McLaren is a popular author and speaker who offered some advice to confront the doom-and-gloom mentality found in many churches.[1] He said that if you look around today, you’ll see a lot of “pacing religion,” with Christians wondering, “What are we gonna do?” There’s a lot of “marching religion,” with Christians wondering, “Who are we gonna fight.” But what we need is more “dancing religion” that answers the question “Where is our joy?” My wife would like that. If you like to take notes of sermons, here are three key points I gleaned from McLaren, filtered through my particular interpretive lens.

  • Dancing religion listens to the voice of the Holy Spirit. It pays attention to what is going on in regard to your thoughts about God and your feelings toward God. It doesn’t let the gas gauge rest unnoticed over one’s left shoulder until the tank runs dry. You have to take responsibility for your relationship with God because no one, not even your pastor, can read your thoughts or feel your emotions. Tend to your own relationship with God, and do the things that nurture it.
  • Dancing religion discerns the leading of the Holy Spirit. We can struggle with hearing the rhythm a long time, but eventually we have to take a step because sitting passively is not an option. The Holy Spirit gives us permission to try. And, says McLaren, in this new age we should feel permission to innovate and improvise in all forms of ministry. What our church can become, what it will be, is not predetermined. We can make a difference.
  • Dancing religion lives and witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit. With a humorous nod to the news from Colorado, McLaren said, “You have to smoke what you’re selling.” You can’t be a purveyor of the abundant life if you’re too much of a workaholic to enjoy it. So light fires, most importantly beginning with your own.

As we move from the season of Easter toward next week’s celebration of Pentecost, hear the word of the Lord:

  • Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
  • Discern the leading of the Holy Spirit.
  • Live and witness in the power of the Holy Spirit.

When the flight seems a little choppy, and you wonder whether we have enough fuel for the journey, don’t panic. Jesus says we have another gas tank.

[1] The following is gleaned from my notes on Brian McLaren’s “Light Fires, Issue Permission Slips, Invite Others into the Interpretive Community,” a lecture delivered at the Festival of Homiletics, Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, 22 May 2014.

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~ by JohnH1962 on June 1, 2014.

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