An Ode to the Spirit We Can’t Control
Early on in my adult life in ministry, I served as the Youth Outreach Worker for an inner-city Cleveland congregation. Within the context of my role, I was charged with helping to facilitate the participation of children in the traditional liturgy of the Episcopal Church.
Simple enough? Not quite. Any given worship service included 20-30 children, 20-30 children who arrived at church unaccompanied by any adults. We had 2 year olds in the care of 8-year-old siblings, elementary schoolers eager to tell us about the fight or the gunshots or the yelling, teenage boys showing off their new tattoos, baby mamas who were babies themselves and baby daddies who were just beginning to shave. They came, they came to church, they came hungry for care, hungry for food, hungry for a community in which they could trust that they would be safe.
But, they were also hungry to share their gifts. And, so they told us in word and deed how they sought to do right in the world—they told us about fledgling loves; about those moments in which they sought, for better or for worse, to enforce their own sense of right and wrong; little girls puffed up in pride as they scolded the toddlers in their care, and teenagers stayed late helping us clean and stack the folding tables and chairs. They brought their hunger, and they brought their gifts too.
So, like the disciples—the children gathered for safety, rejoiced together at the love made manifest, and stood in anticipation of a freely given.
Hunger and gifts joined together—joined as one voice with the prayers and the creed, the hymns and the acclamations. Joined together as one body in the standing, the kneeling, the sitting and the going.
The did like we do, here within these walls at St. Clement’s, and as is done throughout the Episcopal Church.
But, liturgy is the work of the people. And, in this case, the people were mostly children. And, so every service was shaped by the work of these little ones. And, so, no matter how hard I worked to try and conform the children to the liturgy—it was the liturgy that conformed to the children.
It was within this context that I learned to accept that anything could happen—even while I despaired that anything could happen.
Erika was 5 or 6 years old when I first met her. She was the kind of child you would describe as spunky, and she was clearly the leader of the small tribe of girls who accompanied her. She had no problem speaking up, and she had no problem telling you what for.
One night just prior to worship, she approached me with earnestness.
“I want you to know…sometimes, the spirit catches me and I cry—so don’t worry if I cry, it’s the spirit taking over me…” The other girls around her nodded in all earnestness.
She fully, and whole heartedly had faith that God’s Holy Spirit would overwhelm her--and, she wanted to prepare me for the possibility that she would be a vehicle by which the Spirit would make itself known.
This child was prepared to welcome the gift of the spirit--to welcome the wind, the fire, the ruach adonai, the breath of God, no matter where that Spirit would take her.
I envied her faith, I envied her openness--and at the same time I remember my own unease as I looked into her eyes. My rational mind, my general rejection of woo, my own sensitivity to not making a “scene” was quick to discount and reject her easy embrace of the manifestation of the spirit in her life.
Yet, I nodded along in agreement indicating my acceptance of her truth and the possibility of the Spirit. But, if I am to be honest, I kind of hoped that the Spirit wouldn’t show up—that we could just worship like we’d planned without interruption or irregularity. What if we lost control?
In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard writes: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions...It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares, they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
I must confess, in our Pentecost planning, we didn’t plan for what we would actually do if tongues of fire alit and a wind throw open the doors. The ushers carry only bulletins—carefully proofread, with double checked page numbers, and consistent formatting. But, the Spirit is no respecter of form and no copy editor can define the margins by which the Spirit is manifest.
Manifest in ways that we cannot control. Manifest in ways that comfort and call us. Manifest in the intangible truth of the love that brought us here. Brought us here together—for baptism and bread, fellowship and prayer.
Baptisms of infants and small children demonstrate quite well our lack of control—and when I met with today's baptismal family, we discussed how little control we have over what happens today. We can’t keep the baby from fussing. She might get hungry at an inopportune moment or have just fallen asleep when we assemble at the font. What we can do, however, is love her no matter what, baptize her into the household of God that will help to shepherd her in a life of faith, and trust that God’s got this and we as heirs of the Spirit are together in this place of chaos and grace.
God’s got this, God’s got us, and that we’ve got each other.
And together we have the Spirit, freely given. And, in a world that feels out of control and with the daily papers bringing grief and worry, the Spirit serves to both comfort and empower us with the peace and the power of Christ--the power to forgive, the power to love, and the power to serve.
So, we gather to prepare for our calling, but not for the sake of controlling the outcome, but for the sake of welcoming the gift of the spirit--welcoming the wind, the fire, the ruach adonai, the breath of God, no matter where that Spirit might take us. From this day to the last, God’s gift will remain…
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”