The Spirit Within

Someone very dear to me said congregations of faithful people are like a river, constantly moving through the terrain of life. Pastors are called to swim with them for a little while. Recently, my church family invited me to swim along with them for a just a little while.

As their associate pastor, I’ve decided to take on a project while I swim with them. I was inspired by the Matthew 25 Challenge, an initiative of our denomination, the PCUSA. On their website the Missions Agency says, “By accepting the Matthew 25 invitation, we are helping the PCUSA become a more relevant presence in the world. We recognize Christ’s urgent call to be a church of action, where God’s love, justice and mercy shine forth and are contagious. And we rejoice how our re-energized faith can unite all Presbyterians for a common and holy purpose: our common identity to do mission.”

For my part, I invited members of my congregation to pray with me on a schedule of topics, and to reflect on how the Spirit of God is moving in and among us as we move through the terrain of life. The goal is to enhance our congregational vitality so to carry out God’s mission in the world: for when we realize the Spirit in each of us, we naturally recognize the Spirit in all creation. That’s what compels us to go and do unto others as we’d have them do unto us.

I was offered the opportunity to preach last week on Pentecost, also known as the Church’s birthday. It offered the perfect opportunity to introduce my project–a new year, a new spirit-filled initiative. On Monday, our church hosted an “open mic night” at a local outlet and invited members of our congregation, the local interfaith council, and greater community to come and share whatever the Spirit moved them to share. We were treated to music, poetry, history, reflection, contemplative prayer, and plenty of spirit filled fellowship! 

In the spirit of reflecting on the Spirit, I offer here what I shared at open mic night. I invite you to read on and then let me know how you recognize the Spirit moving in your own life. 

Once when I was asked to describe how I understood the Holy Spirit, I failed to produce an adequate answer. It was my first class in my first year of seminary and I thought to myself, “This does not bode well for me.” The assignment was confusing, I complained when I went to see the professor. I did what I was taught to do, especially in the context of academia: I hit the books.

Sheer curiosity led me to The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, aka the theologian of the Holy Spirit, venerated and vilified in equal measure by Presbyterians like me. I confess I was skeptical, but it turned out that I liked what Calvin said about the Holy Spirit and so I used him as my source to write the paper. Ironically, it was my approach, not his ideas, that led me astray and JC said so himself—John Calvin that is, although the other JC would probably agree.

Calvin said the Spirit of God can only be known from within. It’s the Spirit that edifies our intellect, not the other way around. I could no more discover this Truth by reaching for a book on the shelf than I could by asking Pontius Pilate. Thanks to a dusty theologian whose theology I was prepared to dismiss, I discovered the Spirit dwells inside my heart, and is not aquired as empirical knowledge of the mind. The Spirit is innate wisdom which cannot be defended or rationalized; measured or quantified. The Church mothers understood this truth very well (why oh why didn’t I look to them first?!). The Spirit within them showed herself in their dreams and visions, not in footnoted dissertations. The Spirit may speak many tongues, but her language is poetry. Now I realize my error.

A poem, by Antonio Machado

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.