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A Force To Contend With

Gathering Up the Fragments
Preaching As Spiritual Practice
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.
-- Acts 2:1-4

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.
-- 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

As the scripture has said, "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water."
-- John 7:38

If we wanted to encounter the Holy Spirit of God, where would we look? And how would we know that we are in the Spirit's presence?

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, like breath and wind, is a force to reckon with. As described in the book of Acts, the Spirit cares about the way we communicate with one another. Saint Paul tells us that the Spirit functions within us as a catalyst of sorts, freeing us to exercise our God-given gifts. At a recent confirmation service, the bishop prayed for over 100 people, asking that the Spirit might be released in them so that they might experience the power of God working through them.

It sounds good: "God working in us." But sometimes I wonder if, honestly, we'd prefer that God's Spirit leave us alone. Life is hard enough. What if, on top of everything, the Spirit's presence is disruptive and unsettling? What if the Spirit's intention is to take us where we aren't ready to go or ask us to do what we don't want to do?

I read a sermon this week by a preacher who lives in the Deep South. In that part of the country, the Feast of Pentecost almost always coincides with the beginning of hurricane season. Wind, therefore, is not a particularly reassuring image for the Spirit of God. Her descriptions of the hurricane force with which God had rearranged her life one particular summer reminded me of a passage in one of the Narnia tales by C. S. Lewis. You may remember that in the magical land of Narnia, God appears in the form of a great and mysterious lion named Aslan. One of the children who had stumbled into Narnia and encountered the lion wondered, "Is Aslan safe?" "Safe?" a resident of Narnia replied. "No, my dear, Aslan is not safe. But he is good."

Can it be that God's Spirit is at once unsafe, but good? I think so, in the sense that we will often experience the Holy Spirit as disruptive at first, even unwelcome, stirring things up in and around us. But that stirring up may be a necessary step in creating new possibilities. My southern preacher put it this way: "We are often trapped by life, by too many good things or too many bad things. Afraid to leave and afraid to stay, we move into survival mode. 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. It is the earth-shaking blast that affords us power to choose love instead of hate, acceptance over judgment."1

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 right 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 stop and assume that the Spirit is only disruptive, its function only to shake us out of complacency. That's the wind part, when it blows with hurricane intensity. But then comes the breath part, that which lives deep within you and me. The breath part 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 or overcome 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.

So if you want to encounter the Holy Spirit in whatever ways work for you, find a way to connect with yourself at the deepest level of who you are. The Spirit of God, Jesus told his disciples, lies within you. The writer, Anne Lamott, in the speech she gives whenever asked to speak at commencement services, tells new graduates, "Your spiritual identity is something you feel best when you're not doing much -- when you're in nature, when you're very quiet, or paradoxically, when you're listening to music. I know that you can feel the Spirit and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line, in the harmonies, in the silence between notes."2 Contemplative Christians assure us that we can feel the Spirit if we simply pay attention to our breath -- breathing in and out, allowing our minds to calm down so that we can listen from the core. That's where the Spirit lives and speaks most profoundly, at that core place, even as the winds howl.

How will we be able to recognize the Spirit's presence apart from our own, hear the Spirit's voice as distinctive from our own voice? That's not always easy, but the clues for me are when the Spirit speaks -- if even "speaking" is the right way to describe it -- in ways that get my attention, that counter my own perceptions in a way that points me toward God. It's the presence that counters 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 the hurricane around me with a bit of detachment and 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.

That leads me, my friends, to the last and most important place we can encounter the Holy Spirit: in relationship to one another, and in particular, again using the words of Anne Lamott, when we simply push up our sleeves and start helping. "Every spiritual tradition," she tells those graduating, "says that you must take care of the poor, that you can make a difference in the lives of those who are poor in spirit, worried, or who have given up hope. You can do what you can, what good people have always done: You bring thirsty people water, you share your food, you try to help the homeless find shelter, you stand up for the underdog."3

When we're willing to allow others their imperfections and simply offer to help, the Holy Spirit will meet us more than halfway. "We see the Spirit made visible," Lamott writes, "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. In fact, that's often when we see the Spirit most brightly."4

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. Look at the beautiful children and their families who have come seeking baptism and the assurance that for all the dangers of the world, for all the ways that even God can be scary, that goodness will prevail. Pay attention to the ways you might be part of the blessing they seek. The Spirit is around, within and between us, a force to reckon with and God's greatest gift to those open to receive it.


1. "Hurricane Season," by Margaret Austin Smith, in Preaching Through Holy Days and Holidays: Sermons That Work XI, Roger Alling and David Schlafer, eds. (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2003), p. 11.

2. Anne Lamott, "Let Us Commence," in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 306.

3. Ibid, p. 307.

4. Ibid, p. 306.
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