Inspired is the word we use to describe extraordinary human activity, with a tacit acknowledgement of a creative energy and power beyond the self. In all major religions, such inspiration is explicitly acknowledged as a gift from God and is, indeed, evidence of God at work in our lives and in our world. For Christians, the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to us that he would send his Spirit, and through the Spirit we would receive power and strength, guidance and wisdom to be his witnesses and to live joyful, purposeful lives.
During services of Confirmation, I am privileged to pray on behalf of those professing their commitment to Christ:
Strengthen, O Lord, your servants with your Holy Spirit;
Empower them for your service and
Sustain them all the days of their lives.
Everything about this prayer assumes that the Holy Spirit is pleased to make a home in us, to take our naturally endowed gifts and make more of them, and even to work through our weaknesses and sin for the greater good. The Holy Spirit is God present in and through us, strengthening us where we need courage, and guiding us, often with astonishing particularity.
In Scripture, the Holy Spirit is often likened to the power of wind, blowing where it will, sometimes gently and at other times with tremendous force. The Spirit is also described as breath, the life force within each person. If those images are to be trusted, then our search for the Spirit must take us both deep within ourselves and far beyond, just as breath moves in and out of our bodies and wind travels freely across the planet.
The Spirit’s power can be unsettling, in a good way, though we may not experience it as such at first. “We are often trapped by life, by too many good things or too many bad things,” writes the Rev. Margaret Smith. “Pentecost marks the descent of the Holy Spirit of God—a spirit different from our own. It is the hurricane-like wind that, if we have the courage to conspire with it, will rearrange us into people who can be more than we are and do more than we do—not just for ourselves, but for others.” (Hurricane Season,” by Margaret Austin Smith, in Preaching Through Holy Days and Holidays: Sermons That Work XI, Roger Alling and David Schlafer, eds.)
One place, then, to consider the Spirit’s presence in your life and mine is where things are stirred up, shaken around, and unsettled. It may not feel very good now, but the shaking and stirring may be exactly what we need for reasons beyond our knowing. Or it may be that what’s swirling around us is not of God at all, but is the raw material God has to work with, helping us to stretch and grow.
Yet it would be a mistake to assume that the Spirit is only disruptive. For the other image of the Spirit is breath. The Spirit as breath says to us, “In the midst of all that’s swirling around you, be still. Go to that place inside where you find your core strength and goodness.” This is the Spirit’s gift when we feel overwhelmed by what’s happening around us, when life conspires to disconnect us from our core truth and keeps us focused on the things that matter least in life rather than on what matters most.
How are we be able to recognize the Spirit’s presence apart from our own, to hear the Spirit’s voice as distinctive from our own voice? One clue for me is that when the Spirit speaks—if “speaking” is even the right way describe it—it gets my attention, and I sense a different kind of energy at work. If I feel the Spirit’s presence countering my internal anxiety, for example, with an assurance that what I’m worried about will turn out all right. The Spirit allows me to listen to a hurricane around me with a bit of curiosity. What can I learn from this? How is God using this circumstance to teach me something important? The Spirit shifts my perception of another person or a situation, giving me the capacity to be kind when I am hurt, non-defensive when challenged, accepting when I’m disappointed, and forgiving when I would rather rehearse and refine my anger.
Thus another way we encounter the Holy Spirit is in relationship to one another, and in particular when we choose to show up and offer help. In the words of Anne Lamott, “We see the Spirit made visible when people are kind to one another, especially when it’s a really busy person like you, taking care of a needy, annoying, neurotic person, like you.” (Anne Lamott, “Let Us Commence,” in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. (Riverhead Books: New York, 2005, p. 306)When we’re willing to allow others their imperfections and accept our own, the Holy Spirit will meet us more than halfway.
So let the wind blow gently or fiercely all around you and pay attention for what the Spirit might be saying. Go deep within yourself, however you best get there, breathe, and pay attention. Look around and offer whatever olive branch, word of kindness, or gesture of generosity you can to another, and pay attention.The Spirit is around, within and between us, a force to reckon with and God’s greatest gift to those open to receive.