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The Forgotten Third

June 25, 2014

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Can we talk about a difficult subject?  one that will make me squirm?

Yes?

Good.

How about the Holy Spirit then, folks?  Not your everyday conversation starter, nor is it even written about much by mainline Church goers (mainline = not Pentecostal or Charismatic).  In fact, most of the time, I think those of us who go to church most Sundays would rather forget that third part of the Trinity.  Father (or Creator if you prefer a more inclusive title) we can imagine.  The Son was made visible and his life was documented in the New Testament of the Bible (and no, I am not saying the Bible is a historical document).  But the Holy Spirit?  There isn’t much explaining or categorizing or discussing the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is intangible and the most mysterious part of the Trinity that the Nicene Creed laid out way back in 352.  When I sit and try to explain to you what the Holy Spirit is, I can’t even do it.  The Holy Spirit just is, moving in ways we can’t predict, acting in ways we can’t put into words.

I’ve been wanting to read one of Phyllis Tickle’s books for awhile.  I’ve seen her name mentioned numerous times.  I listened to her interview on On Being with Krista Tippet.  Tickle’s name comes up when people talk about where Christianity is headed–not because she is necessarily leading Christianity there, but she is writing about where she sees Christianity going.  I wasn’t quite sure where to start and I noticed that a new book of hers recently came out:  The Age of the Spirit:  How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church.  I had found my first Tickle book to read.

Overall, The Age of the Spirit wasn’t a game changer for me.  What I learned was an old, fancy word, filioque (Latin for “from the Son”), which was added in the Third Ecumenical Council to change the Nicene Creed.  The addition of the filioque, which stated the Holy Spirit not only proceeded from the Father but also from the Son, enraged the church in Constantinople, eventually causing them to split from the Roman Catholic Church some 500 or so years later, forming the Eastern Orthodox Church  It was the first major split of the Christian church (the second split from the original monotheistic church–the first being when Christianity split from Judaism).    I must admit, most of the whole filioque debacle I didn’t really understand.  I was lost when they discussed the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father, much less adding the Son.

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What the Age of the Spirit did do was to make me think about my view of the Holy Spirit.  Let me restate that.  It made me think about how little thought I give to the Holy Spirit.  In fact, I work my hardest to avoid thinking about the Holy Spirit.

Based on the amount we talk about the Holy Spirit at our church, I suspect I’m not by myself in Spirit avoidance.  The Red Couch book club (over at SheLoves) is reading one of my favorite books this month, Soil and Sacrament.  The author, Fred Bahnson, alternates between his journey in the present, visiting four farms over the course of a year and the past, sharing his early (ten years prior) farm experience that led him to his current journey.  I love this book for countless reasons, but the most pertinent to today is that I feel like I can connect to Bahnson.  One of his visits takes him to a Pentecostal farm which reaches out to young violent men in the Skagit Valley of Washington (if you, like me, are shaky on your geography, that’s the area between Vancouver and Seattle, bordered by the water and the Cascade Mountains).  During that visit, Bahnson came face to face with his own thoughts on the Holy Spirit and I found they deeply mirrored my thoughts.

In the evangelical church of my youth I’d heard a lot about demons.  Junior high Sunday school classes often featured talk of spiritual warfare.  There was a great spiritual battle raging all around us, we read books like Frank E. Peretti’s This Present Darkness, and if only we prayed enough we would help the angels defeat the demons.  I had graduated from all that.  I did not doubt the existence of evil, but I also believed that God granted us human agency. I’d seen too many people use Satan as a smoke screen to cover their own mistakes, and it was hard not think about these things as I sat rigid in the pew while the violent and annoying wind of a prayer banner nipped at my neck.  Whenever I’d seen people get charismatic I was not like those witnesses at the first Pentecost who were amazed and perplexed and asking “what does this mean?”  I was one of those ready to sneer and say “they are filled with new wine.”

The Holy Spirit isn’t easy to receive like the love of God or Christ’s sacrifice.  With both of those things, there is an element of human choice voice involved.  I choose to accept God as Creator of heaven and earth.  I choose to allow God’s love in the sacrifice of Jesus to transform me (although, I must admit, this isn’t particularly easy either).   What do I choose about the Spirit?  I can plead with God to send the Holy Spirit to me, so I can be like those witnesses in the book of Acts in the Bible, who repeatedly are filled with the Spirit.  However, the Spirit coming to me, is an entirely different matter.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all.  There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord.  God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us.

A spiritual gift is given to each of us, so we can help each other.  To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge.  The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing.  He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy.  He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another Spirit.  Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is give the ability to interpret what is being said.  It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts.  The Spirit alone decides which gift each person should have.  (I Corinthians 12:4-11)

I avoid talk about the Spirit because I am scared.  (I told you this subject would make me squirm).   I am cynical about others’ Holy Spirit experience because I haven’t been knocked down, filled with laughter, spoken in tongues, healed or have been healed, or broke into uncontrollable dancing.  I hide in my liturgical services, guided by the quiet prayer of Benedict of Nursia and other nuns and monks.  Because I haven’t spoken in tongues, healed others, prophesized, or performed miracles, I think that I am not good enough–I am not faithful enough or trusting enough or my life is filled without too much of me (and not enough of God).  I ignore that third leg of the Trinity because I haven’t experienced it in those ways.   However, I don’t need to be scared.  While I perceive certain gifts of the Holy Spirit, as being greater than other gifts, according to Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, I clearly shouldn’t feel that way.  All gifts are equal—the ability to listen, share wisdom, and have faith are as “great” as speaking in tongues and healing.

It is Pentecost, friends.  Pentecost is that time when the Holy Spirit was poured out onto the masses, causing them to speak in tongues (the fancy, technical word is glossolalia).  Just like the Christian calendar acknowledges the other parts of the Trinity (Christmas and Easter), it also acknowledges the Holy Spirit in the celebration of Pentecost.

Happy Pentecost, friends.  May we all be more open to how the Holy Spirit works and moves in our lives.  May we move beyond our fear of that which we can’t understand and embrace the Holy Comforter (I love that term for the Holy Spirit in the Bible).

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