A message for the community of St. David of Wales, June 2022.
I used to love Pentecost and the images of fire, the tongues of flame hovering over the disciples’ heads. I wrote poetry about the hot breath of God on our faces, the spirit scorching our hair and singeing off our eyebrows and throwing us into the street chased by tongues of flame.
Back then, I was a stay-at-home mom, a classroom volunteer, a Sunday school teacher with a tiny life and small circle of influence, who had just felt a call from God to write as a form of ministry. I found myself on fire for God in ways that burned up all my earlier doubts and fears about being the right kind of believer. And the idea of Pentecost coming to set us on fire, to clean us to bone and sinew, felt absolutely right as I opened myself up to new bold ways of being in the world.
That was more than twenty years ago, when the worst thing I could imagine happening to my children in their classrooms was contracting head lice, not being fired upon. That was decades before COVID trapped us all in our own houses for months, long before I understood systemic racism and my privilege as a white woman.
And it was well before the summer of 2020 when wildfire consumed much of California, including 900 homes in the beautiful Santa Cruz mountains I called home for 25 years. Before the fire burned both of my sister-in-laws’ homes to the ground, and before they both died without wills, leaving my husband and I to figure out how to move forward in the aftermath.
When the CZU Lighting Complex fire struck, flames for me became personal and destructive, and I could no longer think of fire as a beautiful and inspiring metaphor for the Holy Spirit.
But I still love Pentecost. I still love the birthday of the church. I still love the idea of everyone being gathered in one place together, and regardless of language and ethnicity and places they’ve lived, and gods they’ve worshipped, being able to hear and to know, and to feel deep, deep in their hearts that absolute truth of God’s spirit swirling through them convicting and convincing them. And I love the words from Diana Butler Bass that Pentecost is bigger than just the birth of the church, it’s “the birth of a new humanity, a new creation.”
The symbol of the United Methodist Church is a cross and flame—the flame representing John Wesley’s experience of the Holy Spirit and having his “heart strangely warmed.” And I felt my own sense of Pentecost when I used to attend the California-Nevada United Methodist Annual Conference, first as a lay person, and then as a pastor. Two thousand of us gathered in the Sacramento Convention Center for almost a week each June. We laid hands on pastors and prayed for them as their next appointments were announced. We sang along with choirs from our Tongan and Filipino congregations, supported ministry to Africa University, and emergency relief after hurricanes and earthquakes. All of us from desert to mountain to bay and ocean, from urban to rural to suburban, from liberal to conservative, from White to Black to Asian to Pacific Islander to Latino to Native American, came together. And the Spirit danced and whirled among us who dedicated ourselves to being the church in that time and place.
Now that I’m officially Episcopalian, without the cross and flame symbol, and now that I’m woman coping with the aftermath of fire, I need to expand my metaphor for the Holy Spirit and Pentecost.
I need to remind myself that there are more images for Spirit than just fire, flame, and burning. In his message two weeks ago, after the first of too many mass shootings in recent days, Fr. Joe spoke of the Spirit as The Comforter. Not too long before that, Sky called our church community “the beleaguered beloved,” an image that stayed with me.
With the death of so many beloved church members in the past few years, followed by Fr. Steve’s death, with the violence and division that seems irreparable in our country, and in the many moving parts of my own life, I am feeling more beleaguered than beloved, and could certainly use comfort right now, and you could certainly use comfort right now.
And so, I imagine for us the Holy Spirit as Comforter, who if personified would offer us a cup of tea, slippers, a blanket, and Kleenex. A Comforter who would hold our hands and sits with us in our grief and our fear and our uncertainty, who would listen as long as we needed to talk, who would sit with us in the silence when words fail. A Holy Spirit that comforts us after fire in its many forms has scorched through our lives and calms us when the powers that be require us to complete mountains of paperwork in the midst of our pain and sorrow. A Holy Spirit of comfort that walks with us when safety and certainty have been destroyed; when atrocities and violence shake the very core of our communities; when our bodies and minds are plagued with illness; when those we love most have been taken from us.
We need The Comforter when we must live through circumstances that we could have never imagined possible; The Comforter to stand with us when we must enter that unimaginable place and inhabit it. We need the Comforter’s presence and assurance as we live in chaos and grief until the first steps toward the future emerge and a way through brokenness to healing finally becomes imaginable.
Jesus promised he would send that Spirit. And that Spirit didn’t come when the disciples were hunkered down, frightened and alone. When the Spirit first came and those tongues of flame hovered over the heads of the disciples, they were all together in one room, frightened and hunkered down, trying to figure out what to do next. And the answer became obvious, the answer became undeniable, the answer came through wind, and flame. It came in a flash of understanding and empowerment that emboldened them to run from their hiding place into the streets, shouting the ancient and ongoing promise of God never to forsake us, never to abandon us, never to leave us orphaned and bereft. And they knew they spoke the truth, as though it had been branded on their skin by flame.
In the gospel lesson today, Jesus speaks of the spirit coming as the Spirit of Truth, a spirit that comes and brings us peace. Jesus says his peace is not the peace of the world, and he’s talking to people who are oppressed by Roman rule, who live under the thumb of the Empire, who have no peace in the world. And that is good news for all of us, because if we aren’t among the powerful and privileged, what sort of peace does the world give? And even when we have power and privilege, can the world really offer us any real or lasting peace?
In my experience, the answer is no. A world that promises peace through wealth, or peace through achievement, or peace through force, or peace through popularity, or peace through political power, offers only fleeting and false security masquerading as peace.
Back in the decade before the Great Recession, my husband was a corporate executive and we had stock options that glittered like a shining paradise in the future. “Golden handcuffs,” my husband called them. If he just stayed with his job in that tech company and kept investing all his brilliance and ingenuity and time, then one day that long promised reward would come in, and we would cash out those stock options, and we would be so rich that we could fund a foundation to do good work in the world, send our daughters to college without taking out loans, support all our needy relations, and cruise around the world.
On paper, our potential wealth was so impressive that our financial planner wrote a “predator clause” in our family trust just in case I was widowed and had men lining up with marriage proposals trying to steal the family fortune out from under me and our daughters.
And then the economy crashed and our house, and thousands of other houses, were worth just a fraction of what we’d paid for them. And my husband’s job vanished like thousands of other jobs, and we left our home to start all over in a new place where the cost of living was less, but where we knew no one and had no jobs. The world gave us nothing but uncertainty and anxiety.
But the Spirit of Truth reminded us that nothing could separate us from the love of God. And filled with that Spirit, we felt a strange peace that emboldened us to step into the unknown with faith that God would accompany us in whatever came next.
Our life has been a rollercoaster since then. One worldly success followed by another worldly setback, on what feels like an infinite loop. Sometimes I’d like to step off the rollercoaster and take a nice tram ride instead, slow, steady, stable.
It’s such a hard truth to know that there is no escape from being human. There is no escape from our mortality, and the ways we destroy our earthly home and even each other, as we act out of our greed, fear, and woundedness. There is no time when the world is going to give us peace that lasts more than a moment.
When I’m shaken up, thrown off balance, blown and battered like a house in a tornado, when being human feels overwhelming, that’s when I most need to remember that Jesus delivered on his promise to send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth to abide with us, and not just with us, but in us. The Holy Spirit tethers us, centers, and grounds us, fills the God-shaped hole in the center of ourselves.
We are intertwined with the divine. That gives me hope. That truth abides marrow deep when I might otherwise collapse under the weight of the world.
The Spirit of Truth helps me remember that there’s a truth so much bigger than “my truth” or experience. And that spirit reminds me not to believe everything I read, or everything I hear, or everything I think, or even everything I say.
When I’m living as a disciple, I remember to look beyond myself, and to check my assumptions and actions against the deeper truer guidance of the spirit Christ has sent to dwell alongside and within us. That spirit desires to bring us into the full humanity and abundant life Jesus offers.
Jesus’s disciples stood in the ashes of death on wobbly legs until the Holy Spirit filled them with power, until they could stand firm, preach to the crowds, and eventually even dance with joy as they spread his commandments to love God and each other. The Spirit came to them as a community, and so it comes to us, that we might hear one another in languages new to us. That we might understand one another in new ways, despite our differences.
I can find the Holy Spirit here with you in this building on Sunday mornings when I can’t find it anywhere else during the week. It doesn’t matter if we don’t know each other’s employment history, or political affiliation, zip code, or even name. As we pray the Lord’s Prayer, as our voices soar in song, as we kneel alongside one another at the altar, the Spirit is here. It’s here in our silence as we listen to the bells peal 34 times after they chime 10:30. Here in a smile and nod, the squeeze of a hand, in a hug. Here whenever two or three are gathered.
The Spirit will carry us through fires and floods and losses and grief and death. It will carry us all through all the ways the world will burn us down and eat us up, use us up and spit us out.
Jesus longs to bind up our broken world, to bring about true peace and justice, to calm our troubled hearts, to quell our fears. And so, he sent the Holy Spirit. It came like wind. It came like tongues of fire, not to destroy, but to warm, light, inspire, and empower us, as it did the disciples, to spread God’s love through our presence and our witness, our words, and our actions. It came for us offer hope and healing and the peace of Christ to a world so desperately in need. May it be so.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.