Saturday, May 26, 2007

Pity the Holy Spirit

On the Eve of Pentecost (as I write), it may be worth observing what rough times these are for the Holy Spirit, and maybe show a little love his (her? its?--that's part of the problem, a serious gender-identity issue that the Father and the Son aren't saddled with) way.

First off, we have the Charismatics. They've been staking a proprietary claim to the Holy Spirit for more than a century now, if you trace the movement back to the flowering of early Pentecostalism in America. Some of my best friends are Charismatics. Really. One of the Holy Spirit's biggest problems is that he/she/it is...well...a spirit, which is by definition invisible and impalpable in any direct manner. But the Charismatics know when the Holy Spirit is in the vicinity, because the "power gifts" start to appear, including speaking in tongues (aka glossolalia--which, for the record, I have done, and still do fairly frequently in private; it's pretty neat, but by no means "all that," and it plays a rather secondary or tertiary role in my spiritual life), healing of various sorts, and other gymnastics that resemble the movements of freshly-caught fish on the deck of a boat.

I like my Charismatic friends just fine (by one definition, I guess you could say I'm one of them), as long as I don't have know...go to church with them. But I do get a trifle annoyed when they start talking like those who don't behave the way they do, or haven't experienced the "power gifts," don't really have the Holy Spirit. Call me affectively held-back if you want to (it's a large club), but this just doesn't sound orthodox, and, if anything, I'm an orthodox kind of guy.

Then we have the Liberal Revisionist Wackadoos (hat tip to Brad Drell). I've got some friends in this camp as well. (Let's face it, I've got friends in lots of unlikely places!) At this moment in the history of the Episcopal Church, they are very much the majority party, and, on a percentage basis, are gaining strength all the time because my "orthodox" confreres are bailing in droves. These are the folks who find the Holy Spirit in the democratic process, particularly when that process yields a result they are predisposed to like. Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire because the Holy Spirit guided the delegates in their electing convention. His election was consented to because the Holy Spirit obviously (what other explanation could there be?) guided the deputies and bishops who gathered in Minneapolis four years ago. It is the Holy Spirit who has led the Episcopal Church to declare "normal" that which the Christian tradition--with virtual unanimity before 30 years ago--has always understood to be aberrant.

As Saturday Night Live's Church Lady would have sneered a couple of decades ago, "How conveeeeeenient!" I hardly think it appropriate to envision the Holy Spirit as captive to majority rule. Definitely not very wind-like.

Then there's the widespread tendency to use the Holy Spirit--along with the vocabulary of "discernment"--as a sort of pious wrapping paper in which we cloak decisions that are reached according to much more pragmatic and prosaic criteria. In announcing to shocked and grieving parishioners and friends our decision to accept a call to another parish two-thirds of the way across the continent, I have felt squirmy about using too much Holy Spirit talk. Yes, I believe this move is a faithful response to the call of God the Holy Spirit; I believe that very confidently. But to say that, and nothing else, feels like a cop-out to me, and I suspect it would sound like a cop-out to others. So, when My Favorite Plutotian is not within earshot (she can be very severe with me if she thinks I'm misbehaving), I usually add some supporting data of a practical nature. (And usually something more than "Warsaw is only 120 miles from Wrigley Field.") I don't believe the Holy Spirit is above using concrete considerations through which to communicate his/her/its direction.

Finally, I have discerned a vocation from the Holy Spirit to be particularly vigilant against any attempt to remove the "Holy" part of that appellation. (Note to Myers-Briggs wonks: This is where the 'J' part of my INTJ really kicks in.) When anyone starts talking about "the Spirit this" and "the Spirit that," I get the heebie-jeebies, because they probably mean "spirit" rather than "Spirit." I have a sister-in-law who is both a Buddhist and a Quaker. She doesn't see any inherent conflict in maintaining both religious practices, and from what I know of Buddhism and Quakerism, neither do I. In an amazing bit of serendipitous irony, she's also a huge fan of the Anglican choral tradition, and for many years has come to St John's to sing in our choir for Lessons & Carols. Now, I completely honor her faith commitments. But when she talks about "the spirit," I don't for a minute think she means the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit as defined by the Catholic creeds.

I don't get worked up about it, because she doesn't profess to practice Catholic Christianity. One cannot fault a cat for not barking. But when I hear vague "spirit" language from someone who does profess to practice a putatively orthodox version of Christianity (such as an Episcopalian, for instance), I have an urge to set my phaser on 'Stun' and give them a good talkin' to.

Come, Holy Spirit, come.


Anonymous said...

Do you think that possibly, God the Holy Spirit led 'so-called' conservative Bishops to vote for a woman priest ar out last General Convention, with whom they greatly disagreed, thinking that 'they' were pulling a political ploy in their action, rather than doing God's will? God does work in mysterious ways HIS WONDERS to perform! It seems to be a "THEY MEANT IT FOR EVIL, BUT GOD MEANT IT FOR GOOD" game plan.

Rob Eaton+ said...

I can't think of a single moment of flopping around -- Slain in the (Holy) Spirit (as we used to call it, but not PC anymore), yes, but no flopping.

: )


Anonymous said...

But seriously,
It is not the Holy Spirit who is to be pitied, the Holy Spirit can take of herself, and he is so focused on bringing glory to the Son and the Father that feeling sorry for himself is simply not part of her reality (there is in print one of the problems of using the English language to describe God).
You have described, though, one of the biggest problems the mainline denominations have right now, which is clearly identifying when the Holy Spirit is providing Truth for the moment -- such as where should I go, when should I make a move, how do I get this done, which way is the right way for me (us).
But this identification process (sorry for that word) is not the only part of the Christian's life. There are many other signs of the Holy Spirit, and some of them are at the mercy of the Spirit-filled human beings who have been so gifted. The gifts of healing are signs of the Holy Spirit, as are exorcism, tongues, interpretation of tongues, the working of miracles. When these things take place, we can confidently say, "Ah, it is the Holy Spirit." (Yes, there are abuses: thank the world, the flesh and the Devil - then get over it and back into making use of your own gifted ministry). When one needs healing, one asks all to pray for healing, and then gets ahold of a person in the congregation who evidences the gifts of healing!
The same with direction and guidance. Have people pray, you pray and keep your eyes and ears open, and get ahold of those with charisms of knowledge and prophecy and wisdom, and have them pray over you (the example of Paul at Antioch comes to mind prior to his first missionary journey).
Two other things in this regard, I have seen time and again in my life and in others that the Holy Spirit will confirm the "rightness" of the move or change, and the rightness includes "signs", familiarities unexpected, etc., etc., and not being in conflict with the Word of God.
Second, it can be a very difficult time of waiting on the Lord in between. "Go and wait for ....." No problem if the words come from Jesus' lips, and 10 days later the world is turned upside down. But think of Simeon and Anna, waiting to see the consolation of Israel. Wow. Or the centuries between the prophecy given by Jeremiah in 31:34 and finally Jesus being born.
Now, I believe there are right decisions to be made solely based on the teaching of scripture, and the teaching of the Church in wisdom living scripturally. But what I'm responding to is what happens when a person says in prayer, "What do I(we)do Lord?" The Lord has provided the charisms of the Body, the disciple's own hearing of the Lord's voice, AND the recognition of others.
My personal prescription for the Church whether preparing to select a new bishop, or a new priest, or some other major change, is to make sure that the one thing so woefully missing today is called into play: a "revelation" team, trusted Christians with gifts of prophecy, knowledge and wisdom, and the distinguishing of spirits, asking the Lord to move and speak through them to the issue of concern. Can't you imagine a diocesan search committee planning a worship and "discernment" retreat, and inviting a prophecy and knowledge team to take an active role in the retreat?! (I know it happens, but the testimonies are not widely circulated).

Too late for Warsaw....they already elected you. (smile)
But really it is not too late to ask God to bless your ministry in their midst. And yet to place this strategy into play (like throwing out the first pitch), call the parish into 30 days of prayer and fasting beseeching the Holy Spirit to reveal the needs and the directions you are to follow. Start with a service of recomittment to serving and following the Lord Jesus Christ, and you pray and lay hands on them for a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit. Then tell them how the Holy Spirit gives directions.