I’m in the kind of work where the line between the personal and the professional is not always clearly defined and sometimes disappears altogether. I have the privilege and the challenge of telling stories, speaking out of my own journey — recognizing that what I have to say is filtered through my own particular experience of life and how I have sensed God’s presence around me. Often this appears more in anecdotal form — a childhood story, a book I have read, a conversation I have had. It’s important not to confuse one’s own story with The Story, of which we are always and only a small part. But every once in a while there is a personal experience that feels so embedded in the imagery and themes of the Grand Narrative, that its telling and the telling of that larger story become interchangeable, mixed, merged. In this celebration of Pentecost, and in this season of our grief, this has become the case for me. What I have to say personally, as a father and husband and friend, and what I have to say professionally, as a pastor, is the same thing.
As the people of Cincinnati Mennonite well know, and as our pilgrim visitors and other guests among us may or may not know, ten days ago Abbie and I and our family underwent a great loss. Abbie was pregnant with our third daughter, and, due to complications, delivered early, at 22 weeks gestation, before our baby was able to survive outside of the womb. This has been a time of grief and also a time of reflection and contemplation, trying to be in the moment and recognize it for all that it will mean in our lives. We have had time to rest and time to be with family, wonderfully supported with meals and child care help from you our friends.
Part of the way I have always processed significant events is to write. In the days following the delivery of our beautiful little Belle Ruthann, I have cherished the different times I have had to sit down and put into words that which seems almost ineffable. As important as it was for me to write this, I know that I am not yet able to speak it. A number of you have offered and provided help over the last number of days, and, in this case, I knew this was another area where we would need another’s gifts to hold us up. So I have asked Keith if he would be my voice today and he has agreed to do this.
In a speech given at a conference focused on how it is we talk about Spirit, James Alison makes the observation that the writers of the New Testament regularly leave out part of the phrase that has become commonplace for us in the church: “The Holy Spirit.” (http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng47.html) The various authors of the gospels and letters, those with the task of putting into words what it may mean to be accompanied by God through Christ, just as often speak of “Holy Spirit.” Mary is not told that she will be with child because the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, but because she will be overshadowed by Holy Spirit. John the Baptist does not promise that Jesus will baptize people with the Holy Spirit, but with Holy Spirit. It’s a subtle difference, but part of Alison’s point is that we too often are betrayed by our own grammar, allowing it to limit our perception of that to which it is pointing. In speaking of The Holy Spirit, we may be tempted to think of God as an object, another item, albeit a large and powerful item, that shows up on the scene. Here, but not here. There yesterday, but not today. Alison hopes to direct us toward a fuller comprehension of God’s Being, and for this, suggests that the use of Holy Spirit can at times be appropriate. Holy Spirit is not an object in our field of experience but rather, is the Presence which undergirds, surrounds, and illuminates our experience, enriching and enlivening.
Ever since learning that we were expecting our third child, our lives have certainly been enriched and enlivened, undergirded by a sense of Holy Spirit. Imagine my surprise when, the evening before my ordination, Abbie walked down the stairs, turned to me as I was walking by, and said, “I’m pregnant.” Just as I was preparing to have my life path affirmed and more firmly established, this little one stepped in and offered her presence as a reminder that one’s life path is anything but predictable. Surrounded by what was already a holy weekend, we began imagining life as a family of five.
Anticipating her arrival meant more than just preparing to unpack the infant clothes. This meant big changes. Our current house was too small. We would need a larger vehicle. Plans for the next few years would have to be rethought. OK, One thing at a time. Thrilled to find a larger house on the same block, aided by a gracious, and efficient, church moving crew, we began settling into a new place, preparing the space for the life to come.
When Abbie began bleeding a couple months into the pregnancy; when we were soon told, and believed, for a duration of about five minutes, that we had had a miscarriage, only to discover a healthy baby with a booming heartbeat show up on the ultrasound monitor, we were even more mindful of the wonder of this child. We felt like Mary might have felt, overshadowed by Holy Spirit. “What child is this?” Whoever she is, she has already changed our lives, caused quite a commotion, rocked our world. As Abbie’s complications continued, even as the baby continued to develop in a healthy way, we held on tenderly to this one coming into being in the midst of a gathering storm.
Breath, or, Home
In Acts chapter two, the coming of Holy Spirit shows up in the form of a sound: like the rush of a violent wind, filling the entire house where the friends are gathered. Divided tongues, like fire, appear, swirl through the room, and rest on each one. Loud shouts of praise burst out of their mouths in a multi-lingual barrage of hallelujahs.
John tells a different story of the giving of Holy Spirit. If the Acts event is primarily aural, a soundtrack of Holy Spirit presence, John’s is primarily visual. It could be told with no sound at all, a mime of blessing. Look at the locked doors, the effort made for safe solitude. Observe the huddling, perhaps even trembling disciples. Witness Jesus appearing, somehow, among them, stretching out his arms with a greeting that says, “Peace be with you.” See him showing them his hands and his side, pierced and broken, signs of death contained within life. And watch, lean forward, and take in the staggering scene, of Jesus…breathing…on the disciples. “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Breath is a remarkable thing. Even more remarkable when it is the breath of Jesus. Something so foundational for life, so given, that we barely give it a second thought. The earth is our home because it is a place where breath is available. No human can survive without the in-and-out, out-and-in rhythm of breath. No human, that is, who has emerged from our original home, the womb. Inside the womb, in the pre-breath stage of life, mother and child have their own way of sustaining and nurturing life. In the place where we are conceived and formed, water and blood, chord and membrane, provide their own rhythm. Here, Holy Spirit broods and floats and flows. Life surrounding life. Life surrounded by life.
In our home, mother and child have had their months of huddling together; yes, trembling; yes, fear; hearts pulsing next to each other. Facing an uncertain future. Speaking to one another with words only they can hear. Prayers for breath. Prayers of blessing: “Peace be with you.”
The Acts passage is commonly referred to as the birth of the church, the bringing forth of a new creation, whose life will be for the purpose of witnessing to the life of Christ and bringing glory to God. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly where it takes place in Jerusalem, only that they, the small remnant of Jesus’ friends and allies, were all together in one place, in a house. Earlier in chapter one, we are told there was a room, upstairs, where the remaining 11 disciples along with certain women and others were staying while in the city. In the weeks after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, these believers, numbering about 120, were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. And so this event of Acts 2 has come to be associated with this upper room. In this small cavity of space in a relatively unimportant region of a vast empire, the church is born.
In our upper room of the maternity ward, windows facing east, overlooking a flat roof of an adjacent building and, beyond that, a small forest of trees, blocking the sprawl of the city, the sun rises on the day that has become the arrival of our storm. For a few brief seconds I stare at the sun directly, if only to be reminded of the impossibility of the act. The earth continues its steady path, circling and spinning; and the rays trickle, then pour into the humble space that we currently occupy. The world is illuminated, and I avert my gaze from its source so as not to be overwhelmed, or blinded by its intensity. A few feet from me Abbie has begun laboring. What will be brought forth from this difficult work will soon be made known.
“Now there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem…Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes.”
When Holy Spirit arrives, suddenly it’s as if the entire world is present in the room. All language, all praise that can be formed on the tongue, all thanksgiving, all expression of awe and wonder. Grown men become like fools, reduced to babbling. Women act is if they are children, dancing, unable to contain this energy that has entered them. All comprehending in their native way. The air is dense. The entire universe shows up, and presents itself as fire and wind.
Or, as perfect stillness…no movement. Silence…no speech, no words. There is no deeper universal language.
Our beautiful Belle Ruthann is here. The mouth closed and the body calmly, resolutely, motionless. Such a small vessel of perfection. No tongue able to capture what is at hand. Tears and lamentation. Sadness and grief. Swelling, burning like flame, swirling. This too is the fullness of the cosmos, now cradled in your arms.
All who witness it are bewildered, amazed and astonished. “What does this mean?” This drunkenness with exaltation. This intoxication with sorrow.
Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” His words draw from the ancient Israelite law code teaching that a case in court is established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. For a testimony to be credible in the eyes of the law, for it to be true, it must have two or three who have seen the same thing. The presence of Jesus, Holy Spirit, becomes true, becomes tangible and known, when two or three come together in this way.
I like that. Two or three. Three is good. Three is desirable. But if not three, then two. That way if, for whatever reason, the third isn’t able to show up, there is still a quorum for Holy Spirit. If the third happens to get stuck in traffic, had a last minute change of plans, is having a bad hair day and doesn’t want to come out of the house, loses track of time, or doesn’t make it out alive from the war zone, or the womb, the two who remain still get visited by Jesus. Are still able to bear witness to the holy presence among them.
And where two are gathered, or three, or many more – a family, a group of friends, a congregation – Jesus is surely there in the midst of them. Holy Spirit becomes tangible, true, embodied, incarnated through these relationships. And this is, in essence, the church. The assembly. The gathering.
In the church we are entrusted with matters of the Spirit and of the flesh. Jesus left his followers with the promise of the Holy Spirit, and he also left them with the practice of sharing a meal together around the table. “As often as you do this, do so in remembrance of me.” Our life together can at times touch on the ethereal, the ecstatic, the transcendent, but most of the time we are carrying out the most ordinary of work, the most common of activities. The symbol of our life is here in front of us in the bread and the cup. In this our bodies, and our souls, find what they need for sustenance.
Our hunger is a hunger for real food. Food we can touch, food we can smell and taste. Food we can put our fingers on and feel the warmth. An invitation to the Communion table. A meal at the family table. A chance, during the times when we must ourselves focus on other matters, besides buying and preparing the food, to have the meals brought to us, one after the other. Our longing is for real flesh. Flesh we can hold and cradle. Flesh that shows up with an embrace of comfort.
In our caring in this way, we bear witness to Christ present in the bread and the cup; to the One who hears out laments, bears our suffering, burns with love for creation, sustains us even in our sorrow.
In the bread, feeding. In the body, gathered. This is where Holy Spirit has its home. Eternally. Undergirding, comforting, birthing, enriching, haunting. Now fire, now calm. Now wind and words. Now silence. Always “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with you.”