Friday, June 6, 2014

Sweet, Sweet Spirit

Acts 2:1-21
I Corinthians 12:4-11

There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the spirit of the Lord.
There’s a sweet expression on each face, and I know they feel the presence of the Lord.
Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet Heavenly Dove, stay right here with us, filling us with your love,
And for these blessings we lift our hearts in praise; 
without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived when we shall leave this place.

This hymn is so familiar it seems like it has been around forever. In fact, Doris Akers, an American Gospel music composer, wrote the words and music in 1962.

This lovely melody stimulates our spiritual antennae to feel the presence of God’s Spirit in this place, and in every place. 

Granted, there are times when the Spirit seems far away, and there are times when the Spirit doesn’t feel sweet or placid.

I am indebted to my former World Council of Churches colleague Olivier Schopfer for posting, in French, a prayer that captures other dimensions of the Spirit. A rough translation:

You are in us, breath of life, so close that they almost forget you: come Holy Spirit, our breathing!
It is you who give meaning to the words, which do live the ancient words: come Holy Spirit, our inspiration!
Sometimes you're storm, you scream injustice and absurd suffering: come Holy Spirit, our protest!
Sometimes you have the sweetness, in a voice that sings the love and peace: come Holy Spirit, our consolation!

The Holy Spirit: our inspiration, sometimes stormy and screaming out against injustice and suffering, sometimes sweet, loving, peaceful, consoling. And always as close to us as the air in our lungs.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, the dramatic occasion when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples as tongues of flame. 

The story is told in Acts 2:1-21.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”  
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’  
The flames weren’t the only concrete evidence that God’s Spirit was in the air. The disciples also began speaking in foreign languages, and – even more astonishing – the apostle Peter’s bumbling syntax was transformed to evangelical eloquence.

All this was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would come to his followers after he ascended to heaven and disappeared from their view.

The Spirit remains among us, of course, but for most of us it dwells in silence. There are no tongues of flame and, in most mainline churches, no linguistic wonders to remind us God is all around us.

Yet there are many reminders of the Spirit’s presence. 

According to the Apostle Paul, we know the Spirit is in us because of the Spirit’s abundant fruit.

“The fruit of the Spirit,” Paul wrote in Galatians 5, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

I’d like to think the indwelling spirit enables me to exhibit these traits all the time, but I must confess they often elude me. 

Alas, I’m much more successful in flaunting the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. I often engage all seven of them every day, sometimes before lunch.

That’s the thing about sin: it blocks access to God’s loving spirit. Love is cancelled out by greed and envy. Joy is rendered miserable by wrath and pride. Self-control is derailed by lust and gluttony and envy.

The distractions of our sins are no small matter because it prevents us from noticing that God is incredibly close to us. 

Henry J.M. Nouwen wrote, “When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we speak about the breath of God, breathing in us.  The Greek word for ‘spirit’ is pneuma, which means ‘breath.’  We are seldom aware of our breathing.  It is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it.

“The Spirit of God is like our breath,” Nouwen said. “God's spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.  We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a ‘spiritual life.’   It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.  It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.  Let us always pray:  ‘Come, Holy Spirit, come.’”

We can pray, but will we know when the Spirit comes? 

Brother Thomas Merton warned us that we usually don’t allow the Spirit to penetrate the arbitrary obstacles we place in its way. It’s not only the seven deadly sins that block the spirit, although there’s no question that lust, envy, greed, and pride render it impossible to dwell in love with God and our sisters and brothers. But there are other distractions.

Our days and nights are crowded with harsh sounds that shatter our inner peace: traffic noises, trash pick-ups, shouting neighbors, barking dogs, screeching cats, pounding woodpeckers, chirping crickets, and twittering squirrels. In self-defense, we surround ourselves with droning radios and blaring televisions. We plug our ears with electronic nodes that shout harsh musical dissonance of music, and we hypnotize ourselves with computer games and social media. 

No wonder we can’t hear God’s voice. Merton said we will never hear God’s voice until we are able to shut ourselves away from the cacophony of daily life.  

It is only behind closed doors, in the silence, in the eerie stillness, we begin to hear the still, small voice that dwells inside. That voice, Merton cautioned us, might scare the hell out of us. It is the voice of God who dwells within us like the air in our lungs.

Silent prayer and mute meditation – if we have the time and patience to stick with it – will open our harried souls to the indwelling Spirit of God.

And that voice that dwells within us has remarkable and often mysterious faculties.

Years ago I sat on a picnic bench at the Green Lake Conference Center in Wisconsin and sipped coffee with a learned seminary professor.

The professor, a Nordic native and an expert in Old Testament, was the main speaker at the annual bible study conference. I was there to supplement his lectures with a lay commentary on how the Hebrew Scriptures might pertain to modern life. I had no seminary training and little background in the Old Testament, but Baptists tend to wink and look the other way when laypersons unveil their implausible theology. Many Baptists believe that seminary education weakens your faith and erects barriers to the Holy Spirit, while ignorance opens the doors to divine inspiration.

Naturally the professor and I were initially suspicious of one another, but we soon found we had enough in common to compensate for the vast educational gulf between us. One of those commonalities was the abundance of mystery in our faith. 

“I left Scandinavia when I was young to complete my theological education in the United States,” the professor said. “My family remained in the old country. I returned home for brief visits every two or three years, but ongoing communication (in the days before satellite technology) was difficult.

“I was in the midst of a lecture one morning when I felt a strong urge to step out of the classroom,” the professor continued. “It was such a compelling urge I felt I should respond to it immediately. I smiled at the students who were sitting sleepily in front of me and said. ‘Excuse me, I have a message.’ I dismissed the class and stepped out of the room.?

“In the hallway, a silent message formed inside my head – there was no sound, no voice, but the message was clear. ‘Your brother Lars has died in Stockholm,’ the unspoken message said. ‘You must return home.’

“I went to my office where my secretary had just picked up the phone. My sister-in-law was calling with the message that my brother had died in his sleep. I said, ‘I know.’ And I began to prepare for the trip home.

“I often think about this incident when one of my students asks me to solve a theological controversy or interpret an ambiguous passage of Hebrew scripture. There are so few certainties in life. Only mysteries.”

Yet the professor had no doubt that the mysterious message came directly from God, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit that dwelt within him as close as the air in his lungs.

If we only took time to shut ourselves away from the raucous commotions of life, if we only found the time to sit in silence and listen for God’s still small voice within us, we would become aware that the Holy Spirit walks with us every step of our lives: as a comforter, as an informer, as an advocate, as a window into the mysteries of God’s eternal realm, as a giver of the fruits of God’s love.

It is the Holy Spirit that equips each of us with unique and special gifts to serve God and one another. 

Paul describes these gifts in I Corinthians 12:4-11.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

On Pentecost Sunday we hear the roaring winds of the Spirit, the hissing tongues of flame; we see the disciples dancing like drunkards in the street, we hear inexplicable sermons shouted in many languages.

But Pentecost Sunday also bids us to sit in silence, in quiet places where no roaring, hissing, or shouting will clog our ears. ?And God asks us to sit in the silence until our hearts are at ease and our minds are still. 

And if it is God’s will, the still small voice will speak to us, reminding us of our own special gifts from the Spirit, and urging us to use those gifts for the “common good.”

And that still small voice is the greatest gift we will ever receive.

Come, Sweet Spirit. Come.