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“QUENCHING THE SPIRIT”
A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, December 11, 2011
OK, a couple of safety tips this morning. There you are in the kitchen, cooking up some bacon to accompany your two sunny-side up eggs and toast. Suddenly, the grease catches fire and the flames explode upwards towards the vent. You quickly turn the burner off, then turn to grab your handy fire extinguisher. As you look at the label, what should it say?
If it says, “H2O,” you’re out of luck. Spray that sucker on your grease fire and suddenly your whole kitchen will be on fire. If it says, “foam or powder, pressurized by nitrogen,” fire away, but remember that it’s probably filled with sodium bicarbonate or potassium bicarbonate, so it will leave a mildly corrosive residue which must be cleaned immediately to prevent any damage to materials.
Or, if it’s a dry chemical, fire for effect, being assured that dry chemical extinguishers have an advantage, since they leave a non-flammable substance on the extinguished material, reducing the likelihood of re-ignition. Presumably, it’s also a bit easier to clean up, so you can get started on that second round of bacon when the panic subsides.
All of this talk about extinguishing fires is, of course, relevant to today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica. In a parting shot at the end of his letter, Paul adjures his readers: “Do not quench the Spirit.” “Quench” is an old-timey expression for putting a fire out: “Don’t put the fire of the Holy Spirit within you out.”
It’s used analogously in other parts of the Bible. In the Song of Solomon it is said that “many waters cannot quench love” and the prophet Amos warned his countrymen by saying, “Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.”
So quenching actually gets quite a bit of press in the Bible. But what is Paul warning his readers about when he warns them not to quench the Spirit? Last year’s World Cup, held in South Africa, comes to mind. When I first tuned in to it, I thought something was wrong with the audio. There was this incessant sort of buzz. I had a hard time hearing the commentators.
That was my introduction to the vuvuzela. The vuvuzela is a plastic horn that produces a loud, distinctive monotone note. Traditionally, it was made from a kudu horn and was used to summon distant villagers to attend community gatherings. It later became a symbol of South African soccer and the stadiums were filled with the constant, raucous sound. It’s also controversial because not only does it interfere with the communications among the soccer players, but, at 120 decibels, it can also lead to permanent hearing loss after prolonged exposure.
Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk remarked, "... it was annoying ... in the stadiums you get used to it but it is still unpleasant". FIFA President Sepp Blatter responded, "we should not try to Europeanise an African World Cup ... that is what African and South Africa football is all about — noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment.” I suppose so and am wondering whether a World Cup hosted by the United States in, say, the Meadowlands, would produce better results with Queen’s “I will, I will rock you.”
But you’ll be happy to know that the noise levels during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa prompted sporting organizations to ban the vuvuzela at future events, including all sports matches at Cardiff City, the Millennium Stadiums, Wimbledon, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Yankee Stadium and all Ultimate Fighting Championship events. Even some shopping centers in South Africa had had enough and ban their use.
So what have vuvuzelas to do with fire extinguishers and quenching the Spirit? In a word, everything. Remember Henri Matisse? He was a draftsman, printmaker and sculptor, but is known mainly as a painter. In fact, Matisse is regarded, along with Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, as one of the three seminal artists of the 20th century. Matisse was born in the north of France, where his father owned a seed business. As a young man, he was tasked by his father to carry heavy sacks of seed, resulting in a hernia. Forced into inactivity by the injury, he began to paint. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Here we have the incessant vuvuzela of his father’s ironclad plan for his son. Australian philosopher Damon Young even used Matisse’s hernia as a chapter for a book he wrote called Distraction. Young explores “distraction” in our lives, and shows that distraction is not simply too many stimuli. Instead, it’s a confusion about what to attend to and why.
But committing to this job, this spouse, this leisure, this gadget means withdrawing time, energy and wherewithal from other possibilities. In an age of innumerable, intense diversions, Young argues, we need to be clearer than ever about what is important, and not be waylaid when seeking it.
Young explores the nature of work and free time, the challenges of technology, the deceptions of politics, art as an antidote to distraction, and the importance of caring for ourselves without retreating from others. Young argues that distraction is a basic impediment to freedom: the freedom to pursue a life of one’s own.
But perhaps the worst vuvuzelas are the ones going on inside our own heads. Billy Collins’ poem, “Insomnia,” says it all:
though the house is deeply silent
and the room, with no moon,
is perfectly dark,
even though the body is a sack of exhaustion
inert on the bed,
inside me will not
get off his tricycle,
will not stop tracing the same tight circle
on the same green threadbare carpet.
makes no difference whether I lie
staring at the ceiling
or pace the living-room floor,
he keeps on making his furious rounds,
little pedaler in his frenzy,
my own worst enemy….
What I found a year ago was that the best way to combat the vuvuzelas was to turn off the TV. In Buddhism it’s called, “meditation.” In Judaeo-Christian circles it’s called, “centering prayer.”
It is your distraction from distraction.
It is your freedom.