For ... press 1, for ... press 2, ...
The Rectory, May 1998
One of the most infuriating customer facilities is the automatic telephone service offered by an increasing number of stores, banks and businesses. I do not mean answerphones. I have one and I admit I am as guilty as the rest who perpetrate dull and unfriendly announcements - I am not available at the moment No, I mean those messages that ask you all sorts of questions in response to which you have to press the buttons on your telephone to get to the next set of questions. Recently I had to ring up a Building Society/Bank and after getting the engaged tone for a few times I eventually got through. But what I got was a recorded message telling me that I was in a queue and that my call would be dealt with shortly. I hung on and at last my call was taken. I was hoping for a helpful person to deal with my query but another message told me that if I wanted this service to press 1 or that service to press 2 etc. I did not know what all the options might be so I listened to the end of the message by which time it was too late to press any button! I was beginning to panic. The helpful automaton knew to put inadequates like me through to an operator but the operators were all busy so I was back in a queue. I rang off and tried again, more prepared this time. Eventually I again got through to The Voice. I pressed what I thought might be the right button and then panicked when I was offered yet another set of choices and buttons. I couldnt cope so I pressed 1, just to stop the options coming at me. The Voice asked me to tap in my "something-or-other" code, on my bank "this-or-that" certificate. I was lost. It was "bank-speak". Which code, what form? Help! I rang off again in a sweat. In the end I rang directory enquiries and asked for any number for the Building Society except customer services. I rang and a human being answered! My sanity was restored.
In the name of efficiency we are being dehumanised and I protest! A series of questions I dont know the answer to are shot at me. The answer is press 1 for yes, press 2 for no, but there is nothing for dont know, lost and confused. I go around in a circle pressing buttons and fear I will be stuck forever at the end of a telephone listening to an appalling, tinny version of Vivaldis Four Seasons. And I thought this is what The Law is like (without Vivaldi, who had not been invented then!) This is what St Paul felt released from - going round in a circle, trying harder and harder and getting nowhere, and never meeting the human heart of God. The effect of the Law was to dehumanise people, to require Yes or No, to be up to the mark. In Jesus people encountered love and forgiveness. They were listened to, their true needs discerned. They found themselves affirmed as people of faith, your faith has made you whole. The little people, the nobodies who couldnt or wouldnt keep up, found themselves included, even offered Directorships and seats on the Board, you will eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.
Pentecost celebrates the universalisation of the new age that Jesus represented and brought into being. It is the age not of Law but of the Holy Spirit, an age where each person is important. It is an age which reveals the heart of God and that his heart is for humanity. I rejoice at presence of the Holy Spirit. It tells me that ultimately we are not in the hands of impersonal forces at work in the world - forces such as efficiency, economic or market forces, fate, the stars or some impersonal life force. We are being met through the Holy Spirit, as we are and for who we are, by the love and grace of God. The Spirit is a listening Spirit who hears our cries and gives expression to our deepest longings. The Spirit is a go-between as John Taylor famously put it, between us and God, and each other. The Spirit is a facilitating Spirit helping us rediscover what it is to be truly human. The Spirit draws us into a free relationship of love with God and into the life of the Kingdom of grace that Jesus made real. We are not to be efficiently processed or cast off if we cant work the buttons but treated like the Chairman of the Board.
The work of the Holy Spirit is to re-humanise the world, restore relationships, recover the lost and establish the justice of love. This is what we celebrate at Pentecost and what we need to shout about in a world where too often we live in fear of blind forces too great for us.