Detecting the Holy Spirit
“How is the Holy Spirit found in everyday life?”
The questioner asks a Lutheran how to find the Holy Spirit in everyday life.
Trouble is, whatever you can say about Lutherans, we aren’t generally known for hanging loose with the Goose.
Now, Jesus, Jesus crops up everywhere in our world.
God the Father (often, I think, shorthanded by plain old “God”) comes up in our liturgy, our petitions (“Almighty God” or “Holy and Everlasting Father”), and in swearing.
Not that Lutherans cuss.
But excepting for baptisms and Pentecost and benedictions, we don’t really have a habit of making a big to-do about the Holy Spirit–certainly compared to our Pentecostal sisters and brothers.
Some say that on those rare occasions when pray for it, we want to send it back home again when it actually shows up.
But what is “it?” What is the Holy Spirit?
The word “Spirit” itself is nebulous…and that word means “vaporous.” It’s where we get the word “nebulizer,” for example.
It’s hard to catch and hold mist.
In American Sign Language, the sign for Spirit looks like this: Wispy.
In fact, a fairly fine description of a ghost is wispy vapor.
And, wait for it, the Holy Spirit is also called the Holy Ghost!
So ghosts aren’t so much known for making themselves clearly visible (though just a few weeks ago, the kids and I settled in for a cozy hour of snuggling while we watched the Waltons, of all things. How wholesome and family friendly can you get? Except when a poltergeist takes over Elizabeth’s world and raggedy dolls move and chairs hover and pianos play and windows open and shut and lights flicker on and off. I kept telling Else that it would all be explained–it’s the Waltons, after all! I thought what a good way to show that even things that seem really bizarre and scary all have a rational explanation. But nope, it never was. Elizabeth really was possessed, and Else really is still traumatized. Poor kid. Bad mom.)
ANYway, the Spirit sure seems to be not a little difficult to define, let alone to see.
Expect for one little thing, a tiny helpful detail that Walt Bouman pointed out in his lectures on the Spirit: The All Important Adjective.
There are all sorts of spirits around. Christmas, Team, (I’ll put down Teen here too, but that song always makes me want to take a shower for some reason), School, Community.
And there are other forms of the word Spirit: There’s the spirit of someone present, like hearing an orator who speaks in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.
And you have alcoholic spirits.
And you have mob spirits.
Now, at a pep rally, you don’t celebrate Christmas Spirit, nor do you deck your halls with Team Spirit, nor do you drink mob spirit (depending, of course, on what you’re tipping).
The point, you see, is that the word “spirit” is rarely used alone, with no reference point, and with the reference point, you get a clearer idea of what sort of spirit is afoot.
So the questioner asked about a specific Spirit, namely the Holy Spirit.
Galatians 5:22 is helpful here: Paul writes “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…”
That is, where you see Holy Spiriting, you see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
But wait, there’s more.
In a book I’m reviewing now, Ethics of Hope, by Jürgen Moltmann, he speaks of the Spirit in this way: “The coming of the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the beginning of Christ’s parousia [advent]. That is why the Spirit is called ‘the pledge (or guarantee) of glory’ (2 Cor. 1.22; Eph. 1.14). What begins here in the Spirit will be completed there in the kingdom of glory.” (38)
That is, the Holy Spirit announces the reign of God by word and by action and by, well, spirit.
This, says Moltmann (and I think he’s right), makes the Spirit intrinsically radical. It’s worth a long quote:
But what does this kingdom of the Spirit reveal? [And here’s the rub of the question above] According to Joel 2 and Acts 2.17ff, it will be poured out ‘on all flesh’, that is, on all the living inasmuch as they are ‘flesh’–weak, helpless, and hopeless–in order to make them living for eternal life. ‘Your sons and your daughters will prophesy.’ Men and women will receive these gifts of the Spirit equally. There are no male privileges. A charismatic community comes into being where men and women have the same dignity and the same rights. ‘The old shall dream dreams and the young shall see visions’, so no one is too old and no one is too young. The generations are equal in their reception of the Spirit. The Spirit ‘will be poured out on menservants and maidservants’, so the divine Spirit takes no account of slavery and social subjugations; it does away with them. All the Spirit-filled revival movements in Christianity have these socially revolutionary aspects, as we can see from the Anabaptists in the Reformation period. Through its forward-pointing existence, the new Spirit-possessed commujnity of men and women, old and young, former slaves and slave-owners, testifies to the world that there is salvation even in danger, testifies to what is permament in a world passing away and to an eternal future in transitory time. (39)
So a hallmark of the Holy Spirit is Holy Social Transformation.
That adjective “Holy” is a keeper here too. There are all sorts of Social Transformations, but this one is one defined by the Holy Spirit, defined by joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So how is the Holy Spirit found in everyday life?
Where do you see equality being fostered?
Where do you see mindful patience being used?
Where do you see self-control–not narrow-minded self-control, by the way, reduced to no drinking, feasting, or card-playing–but personal excesses that do not cause someone else’s scarcity?
Where do you see kindness given precisely to those who do not deserve it?
Where do you see joy manifested in gratefulness, even when all other signs point to devastation and despair?
In fact, that last piece about joy reminds me of my son who, as I’ve often said, has taught me the art of Joyful Defiance. Perhaps that’s the essence of manifest Holy Spirit, come to think of it.
The Holy Spirit is seen in contrast to Unholy Acquiescence.
And, lest we not forget, the Church, and Christians in general, have been known to take part in Unholy Acquiescence. That is, we have a history of being the anti-Joels, the ones who divide, and create hierarchy based on power rather than call, and attend to the wealthy voices rather than those of the poor.
In fact, one could argue that some of the biggest social advances made within the Church came because the Holy Spirit left the Church in frustration and went out into the World.
Women’s ordination in many denominations began after the societal women’s rights movement, not because, as Walt often pointed out, a bunch of male theologians gathered in a smoke-filled room to review the Bible again and it then dawned on them, with no push whatsoever from the world outside the room, that perhaps the Old Testament prophet Joel, picked up later by Paul, had a point.
Environmental advocacy? Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler figured it out long before many of the rest of us in the Church–or outside of it, for that matter. Take a look and listen here, particularly to his speech given in New Delhi.
But it took those pagan, heathen, infidel tree-huggers (it’s hard to write with tongue-in-cheek spelling) to help the Church see the Holy Spirit Out There.
And one could argue, (like me, for example) that the slow but steady acceptance of gay rights as a matter of civil rights finally happened culturally and socially, and only then religiously. And now that the Church is moving slowly toward welcoming the valid ministries of gays and lesbians, many might wish that they hadn’t prayed so hard for the Holy Spirit.
See, all of these changes are not painless, are not without conflict. So be not mistaken that where you see conflict you see no Holy Spirit.
Labor breaths bring new life with great pain.
And that’s precisely what the Holy Spirit is doing: breathing new life into us.
Sharp, life-giving breaths.
Where you feel those, I’m of the mind that you just be glimpsing the Holy Spirit in everyday life.
I remember that episode of The Waltons from when I was a kid. Totally freaked me out!
I am glad that I am in good company! What were they thinking?