June 16, 2019
Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Jesus said to the disciples, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will Glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you."
Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers present. May we all give thanks for all fathers and father-figures of our lives, those who gave us life and care for us. Today, I am especially grateful for my husband, Paul, who is a wonderful dad to our two sons, one of whom--our elder son--became a father himself earlier this year.
My own dad died several years ago, and I’m thinking of him today. We had a tough go of it together, but thankfully we came to a place of peace and affection in his later years. I know that’s not always possible with parental relationships, broken human beings that we are. But there is, however imperfectly we have experienced it, a benevolent parental energy embedded in the human species, and an image of a good and loving father that understandably resides in our primal images of God. It’s not the only image, and it isn’t necessarily male in the way we human beings experience gender identity, but it is real, and it’s there for us as a source of strength and compassion. It lives alongside maternal images for God, and others. Jesus prayed to God as abba, the most intimate term for father in his language, and in the prayer he taught us, encouraged us to do the same. Again, not because God is a man, but because the image of a loving parent is one way for us to imagine God and, I hope, to experience God in the times when we need such love. It is also, for those of us called to be parents or parental figures for others, an example of how we are called to love as God loves.
I spent twenty-three years of my adult life in the Midwest, eighteen of those in Minnesota, which is sometimes referred to, for good reason, as Lutheran country. There are a lot of Lutherans in Minnesota. Garrison Keillor, host of the midwestern radio show A Prairie Home Companion, once observed that, in fact, everyone in Minnesota is Lutheran. The Catholics are Lutheran, the Episcopalians are Lutheran. Even the atheists are Lutheran, he said, because it’s a Lutheran God they don’t believe in.
Stay with me on this notion of the God we don’t believe in. What God don’t you believe in? Sometimes people will tell me--particularly people in my family and among my friends that don’t attend church--that they don’t believe in God. When I ask them to describe the God they don’t believe in, I often respond by saying that I don’t blame them. I don’t believe in that God, either.
We could spend the rest of the day talking about the gods we don’t believe in, or the images of God we have rejected, or struggled to believe in, or have wondered about--but I’d like to shift our focus toward the positive--and in particular, on the experiences which inform our understanding. Sometimes, for reasons ranging from trauma to boredom, we shut ourselves down and lose our curiosity about the mystery we call God. Or we imagine that the worst caricatures of God, or Jesus, are our only options and it’s better to walk away from those entirely. We can never fully separate our view of God from human projection, fear, and wish fulfillment. When it comes to God, we all see, as St. Paul said, through a mirror dimly. Nonetheless, we can, if we choose, come to know the mystery we call God better, guided and informed by our personal experiences of grace and holiness, the great repository of spiritual wisdom available to us, and the experiences of other people who by their example show us what a God inspired human life looks like.
Let me pause now and ask each one of you to think of a time when you had an experience that you would define as holy, a God moment, as some call it, or an occasion of grace.
When I’ve done this exercise in a small group setting where people can talk about their experiences, while there is great variety, their experiences generally fall into a few overarching categories.
The first category is that of experience in the natural world, where the beauty and the grandeur of nature and the wonders of creation evoke a sense of awe and transcendence.
The second broad category is that of human relationships and human love. A teenager in a Confirmation class I taught years ago spoke of the love he witnessed between his grandparents as being holy for him. Parents often describe the miracle of the birth of their children, or the wonder of watching them grow.
A third broad category is that of a more mystical encounter, what the prophet Elijah experienced as “the still small voice” of God, that is, God’s presence in silence or struggle, and answered prayer--not in the sense of getting what we want necessarily, but of feeling that we are not alone.
A fourth is the experience of holiness in community, and in particular faith community, the wondrous things that can happen among us as we gather in collective prayer and commitment.
There are other categories of holy experiences, to be sure, and experiences that have no category. The ones I’ve mentioned here have deep resonance with the repository of spiritual wisdom and experience of faith traditions, and in particular for us, the Christian path.
Christianity, as you know, is a child of Judaism and a sibling to Islam. We share a common spiritual heritage and evolving understanding of the One we call God who is the source of all life. We speak of God as Creator, an image that sometimes draws our imaginations far outside ourselves and other times grounds us in ourselves. The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich described God as the “ground of our being.” In the Book of Common Prayer, there’s a prayer that begins, “Oh God, in whom we live and move and have our being.”
From this broad faith heritage comes the powerfully affirming notion that human beings are created in the image of God. Thus if we want to know and love God, there is no better place to start than in knowing and loving ourselves and other human beings.
For Christians, the astonishing experiences of Jesus, both when he walked the earth and after his death, took this human expression of God to its definitive statement of faith: that in Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, that God became flesh and dwelt among us, and in Christ Jesus we can see and experience God for us. And when death did not end, but instead transformed his presence among his disciples and through them to others, this fundamental conviction in Jesus--an essential part of God is with and for us--became its own proclamation of faith.
Our spiritual forebears took things a step further in attempting to give expression to their experience of God as what Jesus called “the spirit,” the sense of energy, connection, and power that emanates from God but moves in and through human beings. Both Jesus and Paul speak of the Spirit being given to us, or coming to us, and working through us.
And so this image of God as One and God as Three in One came to prominence in the Christian worldview, articulated in faith statements we know as the creeds. But the most important thing to remember about our doctrinal statements of faith is that they were born of human experience, the experiences of the great mystery we call God.
What I want to leave you with is an invitation to name for yourself and hold in your heart your own experiences of holiness and grace, of spiritual connection or hunger. Name them. Then hold those experiences in conversation with the great stories and practices of our faith. What those stories and practices can do is help us interpret our own experiences, and as a result, grow in our capacity to know and love God, and to be active participants, not merely passive recipients or disengaged critics, of that extraordinary, mysterious divine/human encounter that is at the heart of faith.
One of the most important reasons to raise children in a faith community is to give them language, metaphor and story to help them better understand and internalize their own spiritual experience. The same is true all of us.
Even more astonishing: the images of God as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit evoke the notion that at the heart of God is a relationship of love and mutual regard, and for whatever reason, an unceasing desire to be in relationship with us. However and whenever we choose to show up, be present, be open, ask for help, seek guidance--God will meet us more than half way, in whatever manifestation we can most readily receive.
So do your part, as best you can, and trust that God is with you, among you, for you, and through you for others’ sake. Take note of your experiences and longings, and follow where they lead. Let go of the images of God that you can’t believe in, and move toward the ones you can. Remember that definition of belief isn’t the absence of doubt but the willingness to trust and to give one’s heart. You can put your trust in God your Creator made known to us in Jesus, and whose Spirit is with us always. Your heart is safe in God.
June 15, 2019
Para los de habla espanol, buenos días. Gracias por su presencia y participación en este servicio de ordenación. Voy a predicar en ingles, pero les doy un breve resumen. Usando el ejemplo y varias citas de Evelyn Underhill, un autor del siglo 20 que escribió de la importancia de las prácticas de oración en la vida de todos christianos, incluyendo los líderes de la iglesia, voy a decir a los 5 presentados para ordinación que su personal camino espiritual es importante para su liderazgo. Pero también es importante que crezcan como líderes, en sus capacidades y creatividad and perseverancia como líderes.
In 1930, Evelyn Underhill, the English laywoman whose writings made her one of the most influential Christian authors of the early 20th century, wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury just as the archbishop was preparing to welcome all the bishops of the Anglican/Episcopal Communion to a meeting at Lambeth Palace.
MAY it please your Grace: I desire very humbly to suggest with bishops assembled at Lambeth that the greatest and most necessary work they could do at the present time for the spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church would be to call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently, to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer.
God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only priests whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by their own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend God. . .
I know that recovering the ordered interior life of prayer and meditation will be very difficult for clergy immersed increasingly in routine work. It will mean for many a complete rearrangement of values and a reduction of social activities. They will not do it unless they are made to feel its crucial importance. All clergy must understand that it is an essential part of their pastoral duty and not merely for their own sake: (a) To adopt a rule of life which shall include a fixed daily period of prayer and reading of a type that deepens communion with God; b) To make an annual retreat; (c) To use every endeavour to make the church into a real home of prayer and teach people, both by exhortation and example, so to use it. (A letter from Evelyn Underhill to Archbishop Lang of Canterbury)
I am humbled and personally challenged by Evelyn Underhill’s words, for I know what it’s like to get so caught up in the work of ministry that I lose my tether to the One from whom my strength comes. I routinely need to be called back and reminded of my first love. I’ve worked alongside enough clergy to know we are not that different from others in dealing with the struggles of life, and the challenge to sustain foundational practices of Christian life. There were times in my years as a rector that I didn’t know how to create a community in which drawing closer to God in Christ was our primary work, and as bishop I’ve lost some sleep on that question as well.
So may we all take Evelyn Underhill’s words to heart--clergy and laypersons alike--and recommit to a life of daily prayer, reading that feeds our souls, and to make our homes, churches, and schools places of blessing and spiritual inspiration, rooted in the love of Christ. Speaking in particular today to the ordained, to which the five of you now belong: to tend to your life of prayer, your personal relationship with Christ Jesus, and to your spiritual growth, a journey of faith that progresses and deepens over time.
That said, I must also say this: to be a leader in Christian community--be it a parish, school, or any other gathering of followers of Jesus--it’s not enough to be a person of prayer. It’s essential that you are, so essential that if you’re not, everything else falls apart. But it’s not enough.
You have been called--Yoimel, Rachelle, Jenifer, Tim, and Todd--to spiritual leadership at a time when the entire spiritual enterprise known as the Church is undergoing, like the society in which it finds itself, dramatic transformation. It’s true that we are blessed with many sacred traditions, rituals and institutional structures to sustain us in the changes and chances of this life, but it is nonetheless true that we are living in a time of what some call adaptive change. That is to say, that many of the challenges we face--not only in our congregations and schools, but as a people, a nation and a species--surpass our current capacities and skills. So we must learn new skills, new practices, new ways of being ourselves in order to become--by grace and hard work--leaders capable of meeting the challenges and opportunities before us and helping others do the same.
Thus you are called--we all are called--to be people of deep faith and at the same time to lead energetically and whole-heartedly, with a willingness to learn new skills, experiment with new ideas, and do whatever is needed to be catalysts of transformation, so that our communities may thrive and rise to the challenges of our time.
Such a posture of continual learning is humbling because we make a lot of mistakes along the way. Moreover, the issues before us are daunting and require a real slog of persistent effort. I know that you five know this, because you’ve lived it. Everyone else in this Cathedral and watching online knows it, too, because life in church and school isn’t that different--in terms of human dynamic and institutional challenge--from life anywhere else. Except for the fact that in Christian community, we can consciously, intentionally, and explicitly commit to the timeless spiritual practices that sustain a personal relationship with God in Christ, as we go about our work--not as an escape from the real challenges we face, but as our way to engage them. We can draw upon a strength not our own, and know joy in the midst of sorrow, and the peace that surpasses understanding.
The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said.
This week I met with one of the heads of school in the diocese, along with a few others in her circle of leadership. The school is facing significant financial challenges, the kind that keeps the person in charge up at night. The good news is that there are ways out of this situation, and the head, the board, the congregation with which the school is affiliated, and the diocese are all working hard to pursue any number of those paths. The not-so-good news is that the work has been slow going and frustrating, in that other entities with authority to make decisions that affect the school are dragging their feet, to put it kindly. As a result, the head of school, who is a person of deep faith and commitment to the education of children, must spend untold hours of her week dealing with the numbing complexity of the financial issues of the school, rather than on the work of her heart, which is with the students, faculty and staff. But you know what? She is all in, committed to the financial work because it’s the work that’s needed now. “I look forward to the day when this is behind us. I’m going to look back on time and say, ‘that was really hard.’” But the mission of the school sustains her, and her commitment to it is contagious. She will do whatever it takes to guide the school to a sustainable, fruitful future. That is leadership.
At the same time, she realizes that she and her faculty need to be spiritually sustained and encouraged in this season of challenging work. So she scheduled a day-long retreat for them all, a time for relaxation, celebration and renewal. I don’t know what her daily practices of prayer are, but I trust that she has them, given the faithfulness and sustained, persistent, creative energy of her leadership.
Yesterday, the five ordinands, the Rev. Robert Phillips, and I spent several hours together, and we read some other quotes from Evelyn Underhill. Let me share a few of them with the rest of you:
It is those who have a deep and real inner life who are best able to deal with the irritating details of outer life.
Every minute you are thinking of evil, you might have been thinking of good instead. Refuse to pander to a morbid interest in your own misdeeds.
Pick yourself up, be sorry, shake yourself, and go on again.
A simple rule, to be followed whether one is in the light or not, gives backbone to one's spiritual life, as nothing else can.
And the one that seemed to resonate the most for all of us:
Never let yourself think that because God has given you many things to do for Him--pressing routine jobs, a life full of duties and demands of a very practical sort--that all these need separate you from communion with God. God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive God there with gratitude in that sacrament; however unexpected its outward form may be, receive Him in every sight and sound, joy, pain, opportunity and sacrifice.
Yoimel, Jenifer, Rachelle, Todd and Tim, you are called to lives rooted in foundational spiritual practices of prayer, learning, and personal growth, combined with a growing capacity to function at a certain level of excellence, and to lead, in particular, to lead during times of uncertainty. It’s a tall order, requiring a degree of stamina and commitment to growth, and assurance of your call to spiritual leadership.
Remember this: spiritual maturity and your personal walk with Christ are what give you authority to lead. It isn’t about the amount of time you spend in prayer, but the person you become as a result of your prayers, the way you live and work and function in the world, that matters.
Trust the slow work of God in your life, who is always with you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment.
June 13, 2019
When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
One of the many gifts of summer is the length of days, light that greets us in the early morning and extends well into the evening hours. For most of us, that extension of day coincides with some shift in schedule. For some the shift is dramatic; for others less so, but to whatever degree our routines shift, we’re given the opportunity to consciously begin the summer by setting our intention for it.
Setting our intention simply involves asking a few purposeful questions, “What do I most hope to experience or accomplish in the months ahead?” Or, “What is my life, or what is God asking of me now?” Or, “What parts of life or relationship or vocation are in need of particular attention?” The great Jewish mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel writes of sabbath as the time each week to mend our tattered souls. I often think of summer that way--what in my world feels tattered and needs tending?
Of course the work of care-taking, compassion, hospitality and justice is ongoing, and summer is often a time of intentional service, boundary-crossing, and deeper engagement in ways of love. In some professions and stages of life, summer is the busiest of times. Thus our intentions can take many forms. What matters, I think, is the act of setting intention, a conscious engagement with our lives so that when the season ends we can look back knowing that we were fully present, open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and striving to grow in our capacity to receive and offer the love of Jesus.
At a gathering last Sunday, I asked those present to give voice to some of their summer intentions. Many spoke of their desire to renew or deepen connections with family; others spoke of their need for rest and renewal; still others mentioned a longing to be more intentional in prayer or service. And books to read, vacations to look forward to, and even the ability to drift without being scheduled from morning to night.
I reminded them of Presiding Bishop Curry’s invitation to every Episcopalian to adopt of rule of life, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus Centered Life. One way to explore the intentions we might set for ourselves is to review the practices and determine which one or ones God may be inviting us to focus on this summer.
I commend to everyone Presiding Bishop Curry’s new Way of Love podcast that, over the next 8 weeks, will highlight each practice and how we are transformed by adopting an intentional rule of life. In the first episode, Bishop Curry likens spiritual practices to the training and discipline that first responders regularly undergo so that they can immediately and often heroically respond to crisis situations. Spiritual practices, he says, such as prayer, Scripture study, and blessing help us to live in a context greater than our egos, more readily attuned and responsive to the sacrificial love of Jesus.
Spiritual practices aren’t things to check off a “to do” list in order to move on to other things. They are the foundation upon which an intentional life in Christ is built. So this summer, consider where Jesus may be inviting you to set an intention, mend your tattered soul, or practice love in a particular way, and thus be fully present to God’s presence in you in this season.
June 09, 2019
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?
June 06, 2019
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.