One of my students asked me recently if, as a pastor, my church “catches the Holy Spirit” on Sundays, or if it’s just one of those quiet churches that doesn’t talk much about the Holy Spirit. The question was difficult to answer, so I attempted to make light of it and dismiss the seriousness of her inquiry. As I reflected on this, I realized that there are risks and pitfalls inherent in working with the Holy Spirit, so much so that I have to give pause every time I pray the prayer before the Gospel, which is “Open my mind and my heart, O Lord, and fill me with your Holy Spirit as I proclaim your holy Gospel. May I become your voice that others may hear you clearly.”
This prayer, said on so many occasions, seems almost never to be fulfilled. That is because the prayer is clearly an invitation for trouble to come into me. The Holy Spirit, at least in my experience, tends to be pushy, assertive, antagonistic, and disruptive. It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to want to take over in a radical way. The Holy Spirit seems to abhor a vacuum, and frankly, many times my own heart is just that, a vacuum.
We humans like to keep all our empty spaces filled up, so we keep talking, keep going through the motions, keep the TV or the radio on all the time—in order to minimize those open spaces of silence, those gaps that might reveal something to us we’d rather avoid. As a priest, I have a solemn duty to keep the liturgy flowing, to assure that I finish my homily in less than 12 minutes, so that we can all resume what we were doing before….which is crucial if we are to drown out the whisperings of the Spirit. My chief role as pastor is to protect you from unwanted intrusions of the Divine that might creep into our ritual and your lives. Left unchecked, Spirit could even keep us here longer than an hour!
One of my personal friends, a former Roman Catholic who is now a Unity minister, has a real gift for NOT doing the proper thing in his church services. When he arrives at a cautious, well-ordered congregation, he shows no mercy in the length of his talks, in disrupting the order of service on a whim, and before long, everything is spiraling out of control! I’ve been a musician at his services many times, and always came with extra material, just in case he said, “Michel, sing something!” This is very disconcerting for us proper church musicians, let me tell you! People in his congregations even say “Amen!” and “Halleluiah!” and spontaneously raise their little spirit-filled hands in prayer, just because the Holy Spirit is allowed to creep into the church service. I don’t have to tell you why this sort of thing is to be avoided. Control is one of the main functions of clergy, and clearly Reverend Gregory is not doing his job. If congregations cannot trust their pastors to protect them from the Holy Spirit, whom can they trust?
What I hope you’re hearing today is another way of thinking about church, especially on this Pentecost Sunday. Have we become so comfortable with the way things are, with the ancient rituals, that we don’t even need the presence of the Spirit to get through the Mass? That is, are we so comfortable with our worship that we could coast through on auto pilot whether the Spirit showed up or not? Are we afraid of how our praying might look if we make a choice to invite the Holy Spirit to be much more a part of what we’re doing here?
Walter Brueggemann, a top-rate theologian, says he’s been raised in a “Euro-American” church, that is, a “mainline” church. He has always followed the typical order of worship with little variation. He has invested a lot of energy and his life into the liturgical and sacramental side of worship, but he too, wonders why the Spirit is not more noticeable in our congregations.
“The absence of the spirit in the church does not refer to an absence of excitement or novelty or experiences; the absence, moreover, cannot be adequately overcome by innovation and experimentation. The absence, rather, refers to the recognition that matters are kept tightly under human control-by liturgical precision or by other means.
“Not for nothing is Pentecost more plausible in storefront churches. Not without reason does the Spirit surge in the churches to the South while Euro-American churches bask in untroubled exhaustion.
“What our affluence, intellectual sophistication, and technology share is a capacity to control. And control in a thousand forms, makes the intrusion of Spirit impossible.”
This is what strikes me with some urgency today. The story of Pentecost and our stories in the 21st century have grown apart. There was an urgency and intensity among the Pentecost crowd to gather for prayer, which they did. They wanted to be there because they knew that the Spirit is especially powerful in the context of the family. Notice again the language Luke uses to describe their worship experience: “sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm,” flames or tongues of fire, and everyone was filled and empowered by the Spirit.
The Spirit continues to blow where it will. It may blowing among us . . . out of control, out beyond liturgies that have settled in, out beyond our little packages of truth. As Brueggemann says, it’s the blowing, the not being in control that scares us. As pastor I preside over a congregation where the wind is surely blowing, but I’m here to keep the storm windows up and in place when it happens.
But get this: wherever the Spirit blows, there will emerge people that have extraordinary power to turn the world right side up; there will arise a people who can heal without vast financial holdings, without magnificent buildings. There will come into being a radical generosity that will far exceed anything the world has seen to this point, and we will even embrace the freedom that is ours as we worship God here at Mass, but also as we take the worship out into our lives. Where the Spirit blows, there will emerge a new hunger for God, a new hunger for a Christianity that is not a slave to Tradition or limited views of Scripture. Where the Spirit intrudes, people become unified in their diversity and their commitment. And then the church will begin to grow in number and in strength of its witness.
We are praying and preparing for God to renew this parish. We’re forming a mid-week study group on Thursday evenings during the summer. We are looking at developing a library of books that others might use to their advantage. We are working with the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ and with Unity Christ Church to serve the elderly population that goes largely unnoticed in our city. We search for a way to reach out to Fort Wayne’s hurting populations and to get the word out that this is a parish for all people. Period. This is Pentecost Sunday, and as we await a new Pentecost for Holy Redeemer, let us begin yielding to Spirit. The Mass, the sacraments, the Catholic Tradition are all here to assist us, but until we surrender to what else Spirit wants from us, until we begin to take our commitments to God’s people seriously, we will only be another vacuum-filled church, like so many others.