Earlier this week, I wrote in my blog about the first time I was called in to a hospital room where the patient, an elderly gentleman, was dying and his family was, understandably, in crisis. I was doing my student chaplaincy at Unity Medical Center in Fridley, and while the man lying unconscious in the hospital bed was around 80 years old, his health crisis had come on suddenly and was unexpected.
When my pager (kids…you can ask your parents what a pager is) went off that day, my hear kind of stopped. This was my biggest fear. Stepping into a crisis situation and having to be a voice of calm, and hope in the midst of it. I stopped by my supervisor’s office and let him know what was going on. I’m guessing that he could sense my anxiety. He simply said “Todd, this is why you’re here. Go down and do what God has called you to do. Just be with them.” And he sent me on my way. I was…to be honest…terrified.
I wish I could say that his words calmed me. But my nervous-meter continued to rise as I rode the elevator and walked to the room. But then something odd happened. I knocked quietly and opened the door. As I entered, and looked around the room at the family, it was, to be honest, everything that I had feared. It was obvious that the family was in crisis. Their faces were tear-streaked, some were huddled together, crying. Others stood around the bed holding hands…laying their hands on their loved one…and when I walked into the room, they looked up, startled, clearly wondering “who is this…will this be good news, or bad news?”
But for me, an amazing thing happened. As I entered the room, the high anxiety and nervousness I had been feeling evaporated, and I felt completely at-home. “Hi, I’m Chaplain Todd. Thanks for calling me to come down. So tell me what’s going on…”
In that time, at that place, I suddenly realized that I belonged; and I had no fear. It was like God’s Holy Spirit took hold of my heart and said “I’m here. I’ve got this.” It was a powerful experience; one that shaped my understanding of my vocation, of my call and the work of the Holy Spirit. It became clear to me how the Spirit works… often in moments of challenge and difficulty, to bring direction and peace.
This week, as we’ve approached the Festival of Pentecost, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Holy Spirit.
Our scripture text from the book of Acts describes the critical moment. The Jesus followers were all, the scriptures tell us, “in one place.” Jesus had died, was resurrected, had spent time with the disciples and then had ascended. I’m pretty sure that on this particular day, all of the disciples had gotten together in that room to simply regroup…to ask themselves, “well, now what?”
Suddenly the earth shakes, the wind blows, tongues of fire descend and they all began speaking in foreign languages. It had to be a chaotic moment…and for many of them, it had to be terrifying. And when the moment passes, something has changed. They looked around at each other, wondering “what just happened?” Then Peter, who Jesus had identified as the rock on which he would build his church, steps up, and is starts to speak…to preach the Gospel.
Now this is the point where if this were a Hollywood movie, the disciples would go riding off into the sunset, and they would change the world. A happy ending. Right?
But the story does not end here. The Holy Spirit sends them out into hostile crowds to share the Good News of the resurrection. And there was much that the disciples would have to face…struggle, persecution and for most of them, martyrdom. Their chaotic experiences in that room that day, they were only the beginning.
This is a very different image of the Holy Spirit than we like to think about. My preference would be the images of the Holy spirit that include peace… tranquility…a dove descending…but that is not the image of the Holy Spirit that we encounter today. It is wind…it is fire…it is chaotic.
Here is my root belief: The Holy Spirit, try as we might, cannot be contained, and cannot be controlled. But the Holy Spirit, is how God works within the world.
One of my favorite sets of books growing up was the CS Lewis series, The Chronicles of Narnia. In the first book of the set, the character, Mr. Beaver, is describing to the child named Susan, Aslan. Aslan is a mighty lion, the Lord of the Land, and is a metaphor for God. Susan asks “Is Aslan quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s good.”
He isn’t safe, but he is good. My friends, meet the Holy Spirit.
The work of the Holy Spirit does not lead us down safe or easy paths. The Holy Spirit challenges us…it motivates us…it shows us the pain of the world and breaks our hearts. And when our hearts our broken, we are moved to act.
You may remember the name “Millard Fuller.” Millard was born in Lanett, Alabama in 1935. After receiving his business degree from Auburn University, and then his law degree from the University of Alabama, Fuller entered the business world. He made his first million dollars in 1964, at age 29. He was on top of the world. But he was ruthless in his business dealings…he worked 80 hours a week…he was a hard-charger. His wealth and success came at the cost of his health, his integrity and his family life.
But as he describes it, the Holy Spirit went to work on him. It stirred something in his heart, a holy discontent. And after long talks with his wife, and wrestling with God, Millard quit his job and the Fullers gave away their riches. They gave everything they had to the poor. They lived for a while cooperatively on a farm with friends, and again God’s Spirit was stirring. When Millard became aware of stories of the homeless and people living in substandard housing, his heart broke.
Millard Fuller wanted to help. And so he founded an organization. You might have heard of it. It’s called Habitat for Humanity. And through Millard’s passion, energy and raw determination, Habitat grew.
And today, around the world, over 1600 Habitat for Humanity homes are dedicated every day. Every single day. Over 1600. That’s incredible.
All of this, because the Holy Spirit stirred within Millard Fuller.
In an interview I read, Fuller said “The Holy Spirit ruined my life. I’d achieved all of my dreams. But then, everything was turned upside down. I wasn’t sure how we would even buy groceries. But out of the mess, the Holy Spirit walked with me, and guided me, and focused me and my whole family on this mission.”
My friends, let me cut to the chase:
The Spirit doesn’t promise that life will be easy; or that because we believe we will become prosperous. In fact, the opposite is true. Because the Holy Spirit enters into our lives and our hearts in the waters of baptism, life can be even more of a challenge. We’ll have difficult decisions to make; we will struggle with a world that doesn’t align with God’s values; we will be forced to give up what we want, in order to accept what we need. The Holy Spirit can feel chaotic…and we cannot control it. It doesn’t always feel easy, or safe…but the Holy Spirit is good.
But God’s Spirit does promise to be with us…always. In the midst of the chaos and the challenges of life, the Spirit accompanies us, intercedes for us, gives direction and fills our hearts with love and joy.
Like those first disciples, we are gathered together today. And God’s Holy Spirit is with us. The Spirit asks us to open ourselves up to its work within us. Here is the question I think we all need to ponder: “What breaks your heart? What stirs you? What causes you to want to act…to serve…to lead?” Is that the Holy Spirit leading you?
Whatever it is, it may be a challenge. It may take us into places we don’t expect. It may mess with our lives. But in the midst of the chaos that can come with that moment, the Spirit promises to be with us. And when we follow the Spirit’s leading, we align with God’s will, and like Millard Fuller…like those first disciples…we too can be a part of making God’s mission…God’s Kingdom…a reality, right here. And right now.
Come, Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God!