When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
John 14: 15-16; 25-27
One of the greatest compliments we can either give or receive is to name something either said or done as inspiring. Think of how you feel when someone says “What you have done is truly inspiring.” Or “You are an inspiration to me.” When we’re inspired, our actions and our words have an extraordinary quality to them, bringing out the best in people and making possible what seems to others impossible.
Similarly, when we use the language of giftedness, as in “You are gifted as a musician, or a tennis player, or a parent, or a doctor, or a listener,” we’re acknowledging an attribute or level of human accomplishment that isn’t available to everyone, but given to some with particular bounty.
This language of giftedness and inspiration underscores the unique creativity and potential of each one of us–for we are all gifted and inspired in different ways–and it acknowledges the existence of a greater power and source of creativity that lies beyond us, but in particular ways works through each one of us.
In the Christian faith, we call this power the Holy Spirit, the part of God that is a source of energy, creativity, and power. The Holy Spirit comes to us as a gift. When we’re inspired, it’s not that the Holy Spirit takes over and makes us something we’re not, but rather that a gifted part of us is amplified, so that we are still ourselves, but more, somehow. Inspiration gives us first-hand experience of God at work in and through us and through other people.
The story of the Holy Spirit coming to Jesus’s disciples describes this divine/human experience as a strong wind and as fire that created a collective sense of energy and anticipation. The disciples were then given the ability to speak in languages that others, gathered from all parts of the ancient world, could understand. What they said was what they wanted to say all along. They spoke of what they had experienced as followers of Jesus, and about the events since Jesus’s crucifixion, the encounters with them that assured them that he was alive, with them still, and that God had revealed to them through Him that love is stronger than hate, and life is stronger than death. The Spirit’s power took their words and amplified them, enabling them to transcend boundaries that divide with a unifying message of love.
The Gospel of John gives us a much quieter description of inspiration. At the last supper, Jesus tells his followers that after he’s gone, the Holy Spirit will come to them as a source of strength, power, and peace. The Spirit will remind them of everything he had ever taught them, give them words to say, and will assure them of his presence with them always. The image here is of internal strength and confidence that comes as a gift, allowing us to offer our gifts with less anxiety or fear. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said, “and do not let them be afraid.”
If you want to find evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in your life, you needn’t look further than your own spirit and your own innate giftedness. For the Holy Spirit works in and through us, deeply respectful of our human spirit, moving with such grace and anonymity that if we wanted to, we could take all the credit for what the Spirit is making possible or accomplishing through us. The Spirit doesn’t demand our acknowledgement, but is content to let the light shine on us.
There are, no doubt, many times when the Holy Spirit works through us without our awareness, but I’d like to reflect with you on those times when we do know, or have a sense that the Spirit is at work, that something creative is happening that we can’t fully take credit for or control. The Spirit’s presence gives us a heightened awareness and an energy that carries us for a time, so that we can do more than we can on our own, speak with greater facility, offer more of ourselves without exhaustion. It’s like that feeling you get when swimming in the ocean and catch a wave that carries you to shore. Everything stroke you take is bigger and a larger momentum takes control for a time. It’s exhilarating–one of the most affirming spiritual experiences a person can have.
Another way we can experience the Spirit’s power is in relationship and in community with others. This usually happens after a time of struggle, when things have been a bit messy and contentious, and we don’t seem to be making any headway toward resolution. But then something shifts in the dynamic between us and what was once an irreconcilable conflict or intractable struggle eases. Couples who are struggling in their relationship will sometimes describe the experience as a breakthrough, a moment of greater clarity and peace. Now they can say essentially the same things they’ve been saying all along, and because of this mysterious Spirit at work between them, they can hear each other in new ways. A door opens where before there was only a wall.
When I was a parish priest in Minneapolis, about thirteen years into my ministry, the congregation I served got caught up in a pretty messy church fight. The issue centered around our building and plans to significantly increase gathering spaces and create a more unified floor plan to a facility that had been added onto piecemeal over the years. It was an expensive undertaking and many were justifiably concerned about the expense, but I had been there long enough to know that people weren’t really fighting about the building or the money. What was a stake was the congregation’s sense of itself and its calling at that moment in time, which happened to coincide with a generational shift among lay leaders. Many who had poured their lives into this church feared that the new building would change the essential character of the community they loved, make it too big and inwardly focused. Others argued that we needed a facility reflecting the spirit and mission of the congregation now, and serve that mission, which included the desire to welcome more people.
We were stuck in that conflict for over a year, which is a long time for a church fight, and I began to get worried. (This may be hard for you to relate to, but St. John’s, Minneapolis was a congregation of very strong-willed, opinionated leaders.) I was in favor of the new building plans, but I honestly didn’t know if there was enough support for them, and I didn’t want our sense of who we were to rise or fall on a building campaign.
Finally, we experienced a breakthrough at a parish meeting that had all the elements of Pentecost. A large group had gathered, all speaking different languages, as it were, talking past each other. The tension in the room was palpable. But something happened. It was as if a gentle wind blew among us. One person spoke and her words were filled with a holy passion that all could feel. I can’t fully adequately describe the experience except to say that even those least inclined to speak in explicitly religious terms said that it was a Holy Spirit moment. People could speak from their hearts and others could hear. And all felt the Spirit’s presence.
Unfortunately, we can’t control the Holy Spirit or evoke experiences like the one I’ve described on command. What we can do is open ourselves, and pray for Spirit’s guidance and strength. We can pray for inspiration. But then we must wait for whatever insight or direction that comes.
There may be long stretches when insight and direction don’t come. Or we might get bits and pieces of clarity, but not the whole picture. Or what comes to us is a message to keep waiting, as Jesus told his disciples before the day of Pentecost came.
The great temptation in those times is to take matters into our own hands. I do this a lot. Though I’ve been a practicing Christian for over 40 years, my default position in life is to assume that everything depends on me. And because I have a strong will and a lot of energy, I can make things happen. It’s an exhausting way to live, and I don’t want to live like that anymore. I want to draw my strength and sustenance from the Holy Spirit every day. That means that I need to ask for the Spirit’s guidance, every day, and then pay attention for whatever comes.
I’d like to close with two ways we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, remaining fully engaged in our lives, as we wait for our Pentecost moment. The first is to invest in our natural giftedness, to hone our skills, as it were, to get better at our craft. Remember the Holy Spirit works with and through us, amplifying our spirits, taking who we are and making more of us. So it matters, as a friend of mine used to say, that we give the Holy Spirit as much as we can to work with.
For example, if we take the time and effort to learn another language, to understand people whose life experiences differ from ours and seek common ground across those differences, we give the Holy Spirit, who is always working to transcend such boundaries, more human capacity to infuse with holy energy. Those of you who are musically inclined, or engaged in a particular sport or intellectual pursuit, you know that your efforts to practice your skills and get better at them increases the opportunity for the seemingly effortless grace that can take over and amplify your natural giftedness and hard work. You can’t control the Spirit and evoke it on command, but you can create an environment inside yourself that is more receptive to the Spirit’s power.
The second way we can essentially put ourselves in the Spirit’s path is by actively caring for other people, choosing to show up where help is needed. In a commencement address, the writer Anne Lamott said it this way, “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.
And to you, the wondrous young people and young at heart who are presenting yourselves for Confirmation and Reception in the Episcopal Church, know this: the Holy Spirit is here today, with you and for you. When I lay my hands on your head and pray for you, I will ask the Holy Spirit to allow your natural giftedness to be infused with God’s Holy Spirit, so that you can become all that God has created you to be and follow Jesus in his way of love. Because the Holy Spirit’s blessing can never be contained, I urge everyone present to pay attention, offering your prayers for each confirmand and being open to receive the Spirit’s grace for ourselves. We’re all here, in one place. The Spirit is present. How might we be changed?