Pentecost can be a disappointing Feast Day in our mainline churches, especially if it falls on a stultifying and hot Memorial Day weekend. We can get out our dove kites and crank up the organ and read the Scriptures in different languages …. But where is the dancing fire, and the soaring wind, the huge crowds, and the wild speaking in tongues? When I read the Gospel in French, you didn’t all understand it. Being assaulted by all of those foreign words during such an important part of our liturgy might even have had the opposite effect of making you feel left out and grouchy. Even the Good News in English seems to escape our understanding these days, as we scratch our heads over the meaning of ancient terms and Bible stories that seem to come to us from a universe so far away. Sometimes preaching reminds me of the little boy who came up to me, after what I considered a very successful storytelling lesson in kindergarten French class, and said in a longing, trembling voice, yet with such a hopeful, upturned face , “Miss Madame Vouga, can you tell us that story again using real words?”
Has the Holy Spirit deserted us, then? Are we no longer a Spirit-filled community? Who is this Spirit whom we ask to visit us in wind and fire and words?
I had always been taught to think about the Holy Spirit as the Person of the Trinity with a unifying role. It is the Spirit who swoops down and unites God with the world. It is the Spirit who flows out of Holy Scripture to pour its Truth into our hearts. Wherever there is a gap between human beings and God, the Spirit is there to bridge the gap. And if the Church is on the right track, then the Church will be bubbling with that unifying Spirit, a Spirit of Love and excitement that will overflow the church walls and spill out into the world.
I was interested to read, however, a different understanding of the Spirit’s role this week, an understanding that seems to fit more closely with today’s readings. My all-time favorite theologian Rowan Williams points out that the Spirit is indeed a bridge and a divine gift of life and renewal, but it is not meant to be a bridge between God and the world. The Spirit is instead a bridge that spans the gap between human suffering and hope. The work of the Spirit is to create human beings who are capable of “confronting suffering without illusion or despair.”
In our Gospel from John, Jesus explains to his disciples that they will not be left to suffer alone when he returns to his Father. The Spirit--the Advocate, the Comforter--will come to them in order to keep them free from the illusions and despair that will arise when they look around them and, despite Christ’s resurrection victory, see sin continue, righteousness falter, and divine judgment delay. In our reading from Acts, we know that the Spirit comes to strengthen the early Church in the face of terrifying persecutions and in light of the trials of the end-times described in the book of Joel—times when “the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood.” And in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Apostle describes our life in the world, as he writes about the whole Creation moaning like a woman in labor, waiting in suffering and pain and yet holding patiently onto hope—hope for new life and a salvation that cannot yet be seen, except through the eyes of faith.
The Spirit acts within this gap that Paul describes, this gap in which we are all milling about right now, shifting around in our pews, worrying about loved ones who are suffering at home, bearing our own pain, bored, hungry, lonely, lost, misunderstood… and yet waiting for that glimmer of hope—the one lingering somewhere out there behind that stained-glass dove over the Altar. The Spirit is the divine power that settles into this unsettled space within us and pries open a corner so that the light of hope can shine in. The Holy Spirit is what sustains us as we live between “the given and the future, between reality as it is and the truth which encompasses it.” Sometimes that hope pours into us like a gale-force wind, nearly knocking us over with its power. Sometimes it dances dangerously all around us like flames. Sometimes it fills our bleeding hearts with the kind of joyful song that allows us to sing alleluia at the grave. Sometimes it carries our whole assembly forward, and sometimes it sustains us in the quiet of our own lives. But its expression is not limited to great outward manifestations. Sometimes, we can barely feel it at all.
I propose that the Spirit works in us and in our communities in the way that language works in us. It is no coincidence that Pentecost is wrapped in the power of language. In Through the Language Glass, author Guy Deutscher explains how the grammar and syntax of our languages create habits of speech that affect our memory and even our perceptions of the world around us. If I speak a language, like French, in which all nouns are associated with a masculine or feminine gender, then deep-down in my understanding, I will somehow associate “trees,” for example, with maleness and “tables” with female traits. My gendered language will determine my understanding of trees and tables. If I speak a language, as do some Australian aborigines, in which all location and movement are described by the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west, then I am forced to notice constantly, yet subconsciously, the geographical position in which I find myself. Such an understanding determines how I view the world and what I remember about the world. Language does not alter our logical reasoning patterns, of course; speakers of different languages do not do math differently. Yet, over and over again, the demands of our language force our brains into certain miniscule patterns, certain almost imperceptible habits. And what these habits of language train our brains to do, influences what we remember, how we perceive, and how we negotiate our surroundings. They subtly change the way in which we experience life.
The Holy Spirit works on our souls like language works on our brains. It molds our individual and communal souls imperceptibly, through the frequent use of certain habits and actions, and it thereby changes the way in which we experience life and death, suffering and hope.
If we want the Spirit to fill us and our community, we have to work to create not just emotional “highs” in worship, but those constant, daily spiritual habits that will form us, forever, into “Christlikeness.” Williams writes that the Church is a “sign of the Spirit, rather than its domicile.” The Church points us to humanity as it could be, humanity shaped by the Holy Spirit into the vulnerable form of Christ.
Think about little Sadie Rose, who will be baptized [shortly] [at our 10 a.m. service.] As she acquires the English language, her brain is slowly formed and molded by the structures of what she hears. She is still an individual, with her own unique personality, but without realizing it, without trying even, she is learning to view the world like an English-speaker. It’s also true that she learns American customs from her family and caregivers: she learns what foods taste “normal” and what expressions are socially acceptable. But the formation that her brain receives through language is deeper and more ingrained even than the culture that she acquires.
Since her parents are bringing her for baptism, she is also being immersed in the Holy Spirit; indeed, she is sealed by the Holy Spirit in a bond that can never be broken. As her brain is formed by language, her soul, as part of this community, can now be formed and molded by Christian habits. These habits go beyond the dogma that we teach her as acceptable; they go deeper than the creeds that we use to form her taste buds. As a member of this part of the Body of Christ, she joins us as we navigate the lifelong journey between suffering and hope with the help of our Christian take on spiritual practices such as prayer and the Eucharist, forgiveness and hospitality, gratitude and creativity. In order for her to be molded by these habits, however, we have to be practicing them ourselves, and she has to be around us enough for them to become habit for her, as well. Such is the serious nature of our baptismal promises and the goal toward which we all should be striving.
Do you want to see the Holy Spirit this Pentecost? Then look into the life-scarred faces of all the baptized sitting around you. Watch their unique, individual faces as they pray together, as they hold out worn hands for the Eucharist, as they reach out in love at the Peace, as they shed a tear during the Confession, as they listen and weave together meaning during the reading of scripture. You will see the Holy Spirit moving within and between them, blowing cobwebs from their souls, burning new pathways in their hearts, speaking in the age-old tongues of suffering and hope. And, like the crowds gathered in Jerusalem, little Sadie Rose will understand.
St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Louisville
St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Louisville