Today is Trinity Sunday in the Christian church. The day, one of my colleagues said, when the Holy Spirit is not regulated to the background but is brought front and center with God and Christ. I said last week that it has been my observation and experience in midwestern Protestantism that the Holy Spirit is often considered suspicious. We are not quite sure what to make of it, not quite sure how to describe it. Not quite sure how to name it.
Because that is what we like to do. It is human nature to want to label things. To put things, ideas, concepts into boxes. To put a label on something is to claim an understanding of it. And often, far too often, those labels we put on things in fact limit our understanding. We think we have it all figured out so we don’t have to worry about it anymore and move on, when in fact those labels don’t fit because everything and everyone in God’s glorious creation is far more complicated that we would like.
But, like I said, it is human nature to want to put labels on things and that includes the Holy Spirit. So, I reached out to my colleagues across the globe and asked one question: what words or short phrase do you use to describe the Holy Spirit. Here is the list I got back:
The Holy Spirit is: Advocate, Friend, Truth, Motivator, Cheerleader, Interrupter, Counselor, Comforter, Interpreter, Companion, Great Surpriser, Presence, Mover and Shaker, Inspiration, Guide, Confirmer, Pest, Connector, The Why, The How. The Holy Spirit is…a de-fyer of labels.
But, the Holy Spirit IS. The Holy Spirit is a part of our world, a part of God, a part of Christ, a part of us. So, how do we grasp this character in our Trinity? Our scriptures are full of examples. Read the Book the Acts of the Apostles and you will find several examples of the Holy Spirit working in and through the early church leaders. Read the Book of Acts prequel, the Gospel of Luke, and you will read of the Holy Spirit being invoked by Christ and by the people around him. In the Old Testament, you will find mention of a Great Spirit, a presence of God providing wisdom. In the Book of Proverbs, we read of this Spirit at the birth of Creation – there when God created the heavens, earth, waters, animals, us. This Spirit, this breath of Wisdom is then infused in all of Creation. The Holy Spirit is very much a part of our religious identity so if we only pay attention on Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, then we are doing ourselves and our faith a great disservice.
I want to go back to that list of labels I gathered from clergy around the world. If I could, I would spend the rest of the day moving through the list and reflecting on each of them with you. But, as we all have a parade to get to, I shall just consider two of them with you. First, Mover and Shaker. It was a young clergy woman in Central America who provided that label, that understanding of the Holy Spirit. And I resonated with it tremendously. Because, in so many ways that is one of the greatest roles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. To move us into whatever next thing we are being called to. To shake us from our idleness and claim our heritage as co-Creators with God.
Because co-Creators we are. As Christians, along with our Jewish and Muslim siblings, we are in an in-between time. We are waiting for the fulfillment of a promise. We are waiting for the Kingdom of God to be realized. We are waiting for war to cease, for justice to flow like a mighty river, for all of Creation – earth, animal, and person – to be recognized as carrying a spark of the Divine within them and therefore be seen and known as sacred. We are waiting for the promise of Christ that what is will not always be – that the kingdom of God will one day be upon us and we will know peace. We will know equality. We will know Grace. We will know love. Yes, we are a people in-between the promise and the fulfillment of that promise – but the Holy Spirit will not allow us to be idle. The Holy Spirit, God’s Mover and Shaker, reminds us that we are co-Creators with God for that future. The Great Mover and Shaker helps us to get up and speak out. The Great Mover and Shaker gives us conviction, courage, fortitude to do the work of justice, to do the work of God, to do the work of creating the Kingdom of God. When you feel that tug, when you see an injustice and are simply not able to not stand up against it, when you find yourself in community with people who are trying to make our world a little more just, a little more caring, a little more compassionate – that is the Holy Spirit at work as Mover and Shaker in your life. That work is hard and can be frightening, exhausting, unending, but do not worry – because it is the work of God and you have the Holy Spirit by your side.
The second word I want to consider is Connector. The Holy Spirit as the great connector – connecting me to you and to everybody and everything. That was my word, the one I contributed to the list. And I want to describe it with story from back when I was a hospital chaplain in Maine. I was in the in-patient behavioral health unit, the largest unit in the hospital where I worked, caring for patients who were struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse. Often, both at the same time. I led two groups there every week. One afternoon I was sitting with about 10 patients and a young man was describing his disconnection from God. In tremendous grief, he shared with me and the rest of the group his conclusion that God had forgotten about him. My role in that moment was to not try to fix things for him, rather to simply sit with him in sacred presence. But, I am human too and I wanted to make it better for him. In my head I was trying to think of something, anything to say to him that would remind him God can’t have forgotten about him, that it is simply impossible for that to occur. But, in my frantic thinking, an aide knocked on the door and said that this patient, the one feeling abandoned and forgotten by God, had a phone call. He excused himself and the group continued in his absence, and I said a quick prayer of thanks that I a few more minutes to think of the perfect thing to say to him. He came back about 5 minutes later. Something in his demeanor had changed, he looked pale, overwhelmed, in shock even. He looked at me with eyes I will never forget as he moved back to his seat. I asked him if he wanted to share what had just happened. He took a deep breath, put his head in his hands for a moment, and after a few seconds of silence looked up at the group and said it was his childhood pastor who just called him. His pastor had heard he was in the hospital, and though they had not spoken in years, wanted to call and say he was being prayed for. What was even more astonishing, my patient said, was that his childhood pastor was in a hospital himself, suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, and would likely not live much longer. But, his thoughts turned to a member of his congregation from years before and, maybe knowing it, maybe not, a young man who was feeling separate from God. Just a few minutes before, that young man was in profound grief, feeling profound loss, feeling unloved by God. The Holy Spirit, the Great Connector, intervened and connected two souls who both needed one another. I have experienced a few miracles in my life, but I have never witnessed one quite like that before. The Great Connecting Holy Spirit of God brought two souls together and I believe they both experienced a healing, a healing that can only come from God, a healing of connection.
Mover and Shaker, Connector, Truth, Friend, Ally – what word do you use to describe the Holy Spirit? Think about that and at some point, share it with one another. Because your word will likely not match your neighbors word, but both will be right. The Holy Spirit, a de-fyer of labels, is the essence and presence of God in our lives and therefore as varied and beautiful as all of God’s Creation. That Holy Spirit was there when our world, when each of us, was breathed into life and therefore is a part of each us – driving us forward, standing alongside us, connecting us to one another. Perhaps my favorite way of thinking of the Holy Spirit is as the Living Memory of Christ – a memory that does not simply exist in thought but one that lives within us and lives with us into the future. A companion, a friend, a guide. Let us not forget this gift from God. Let us not just celebrate the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Let us be moved by the Holy Spirit. Let us be connected by the Holy Spirit. Let us be drawn closer to God by that Holy Spirit who is both incredibly knowable, not completely beyond our understanding. Thanks be to God. Amen.