The Wild Ways of the Spirit

It is the season of the Spirit. Totally dependable and utterly unpredictable, gentle and wild, challenging and comforting-this Spirit cannot be described or contained. It blows where it will, taking us along on the journey.

This is a wild Pentecost ride, to which we are all invited. Hold on to your seats-and each other. And discover that God can be found in faint whisper or fury of fire.

May 7: I Shall Not Want
Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

Like many of us, I imagine, I memorized the 23rd Psalm as a child. When I was given the opportunity in Sunday school on my sixth birthday to choose a picture as a gift, I didn't hesitate. From among such familiar images as Jesus knocking on the door and welcoming children to his side, I picked Jesus holding the lost lamb.

Montessori-based religious education centers on this Jesus. Educators have discovered that a shepherd is a most comforting image for children.

But there was always one point of confusion for me as a child. In my recitations, I ran the lines of the first verse of the psalm together: "The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want." I always wondered why I shouldn't want this shepherd, especially since he was supposed to be taking such good care of me.

On the path of my faith journey since those days, I sometimes remember my early confusion and smile. Indeed, there have been days when this Jesus has been a shepherd I would rather not follow. I know his voice; but sometimes his call feels like much more than I ever bargained for.

It is impossible to follow this shepherd without walking into pain-one's own as well as that of the world. It is impossible to follow without understanding the cross and the commandment to pour ourselves out for enemy and friend.

This past week I have stood in court with battered women, prayed for a friend dying of cancer, shared bread with a community that ministers to homeless people and death row prisoners. The throng of those who suffer is immense, and likely to get worse in the days ahead.

Ours would be a lonely journey if Jesus had not walked ahead. It is a great paradox of our faith: Jesus is the shepherd-but also the Lamb that was slain. He is a guide who knows how to lead because he has been down this road before. And he still offers that intimate comfort that so touched us as children.

Revelation 7 holds forth the image of a throng gathered around the throne of this Lamb. As I read the passage, I picture faces of people I know. May we take comfort in the promise it offers for our journey:

...the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;...
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
-Revelation 7:15-17

May 14: All Things New
Psalm 148, Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

Our passages this week are about new things: a new commandment, the New Jerusalem, a new heaven and earth. Old ways and old sorrows are passing away. God promises that God's saving, healing, changing work in the world is ongoing: "See, I am making all things new" (Revelation 21:5).

Perhaps most challenging for us from among this week's scriptures is the passage from John: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). I would rest easier if the last part of the verse read "...if you live simply enough," or "...if you protest loudly enough," or "...if you help the disadvantaged enough." This commandment about loving each other is tougher.

But Jesus must have meant it. About to go to his death, he picked this as his "new commandment," among his final words to his followers. This love for each other was to be the mark of true discipleship. Jesus must have known how difficult was the task.

Those of us who are busy with trying to be the body of Christ in the world should pause over these words. How easy it is to get so consumed with the work of ushering in the kingdom that we forget to share a meal, listen to a good story, or sit on the porch with those with whom we share the work.

We can get like Peter in our fascinating Acts passage for today, so preoccupied with the details of faithfulness that we sometimes lose sight of the big picture. Peter dreams of a sheet descending, filled with beasts and birds and reptiles-all the animals good Jews are forbidden to eat. At God's command to kill and eat them, Peter stammers something along the lines of "It wouldn't be politically correct"-or perhaps religiously correct is more to the point.

But the Spirit (inklings of Pentecost) says it's time to break the rules. What matters is breaking down the barriers and distinctions between people. What matters is love.

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another" (John 13:34). God is making all things new. Including us.

May 21: A Home for Faith
Psalm 67, Acts 16:9-15, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29

It is encouraging to have the stories of two of the great women saints of the early church appear in these weeks before Pentecost. Dorcas, whose story appeared two weeks ago (Acts 9:36-43), is called "disciple"-the only occurrence in the New Testament of the feminine form of the word. She lived northwest of Jerusalem at the port of Joppa, an important center of Christianity as the faith spread across the Mediterranean. There, grieving widows looked out longingly at the sea that had claimed their sailor husbands, and the destitute scavenged on the shore for bits of rags.

Dorcas was moved to compassion by their plight. She began sewing clothes for the poor, offering all out of her generosity. She made tunics and coats, which served not only for warmth but were the mats the homeless poor slept on at night.

Dorcas' home was a center for mercy and hope. When she died, the grieving was widespread and heartfelt. The disciples sent for Peter. It was high tribute that the leader of the church came immediately.

When Dorcas came back to life, word spread quickly. The rejoicing was as ardent as the mourning had been for this beloved sister, the only person recorded to have been raised from the dead by a disciple of Jesus. So well known was her rising that many came to faith through this miracle.

Mention is made twice of "the widows" in this story. It is likely that Dorcas herself was a widow. Women took much of the lead in the early church in caring for the sick and the poor. Some opened their homes as places of prayer and the breaking of bread. Widows were both the receivers and givers of benevolence, taking care of one another and of many others beyond themselves, living joyfully in sisterhood and service, incarnating the gospel.

Some of these women had gathered by a river outside Philippi to pray when Paul came by preaching. Philippi, a city on the major overland route from Asia to the West, was an ideal location for an artisan and merchant as skilled as Lydia, who made purple dyes from a substance gathered from a mollusk. Lydia bears the unique honor of being considered Europe's first convert to Christianity.

She was clearly a woman of respect and influence. When she converted to Christianity, her entire household was baptized with her. So enflamed was Lydia with a hunger to learn the gospel, she compelled Paul and his companions to stay at her home and share their knowledge in return for her hospitality.

When Paul and Silas were released from prison in a most earth-shaking manner, they headed straight for Lydia's house (Acts 16:40). They must have known that the sisters and brothers gathered there had been in fervent prayer for their safety. Later, Paul showed his special love for those companions in Christ in his warm and heartfelt letter to the Philippians, referring to the church there as his "joy and crown" (Philippians 4:1). The seeds of that great church were found among a group of women praying on a riverbank. They first took root in Lydia, whose home became the center of the church.

These two saints, Dorcas and Lydia, gave truth to Jesus' beautiful promise: "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them" (John 14:23). They beckon us to follow their example, offering hearts and homes for faith.

May 28: Witnesses to Joy
Psalm 47, Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

This week's scriptures bring us two accounts of the ascension of Jesus. We know with what joy and hope the disciples received Jesus after his resurrection. His appearances in a house, on the shore, and on the road to Emmaus were cause for great celebration: The promises had come true.

I imagine that if I were a follower in that time, I would have wanted the celebration to last forever. Somehow, no matter what Jesus might have told me, I would have expected him to stay around for a while. Forty days would have felt entirely too short after all that had gone on.

And, like the disciples in the Acts account, I would have wanted to be assured that now all will be well. "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Will the glory go on and the suffering end? Will justice finally come? Can we count on you, Jesus, to make it all right before you go?

There were no such reassurances. In fact, as we know from hindsight, the injustices continued, the persecutions escalated. To be a post-resurrection Christian meant to live in the promise while still facing the cross.

Yet, Luke tells us, the disciples-facing uncertainty without the company of Jesus-returned to Jerusalem "with great joy" after the ascension. They were "continually in the temple blessing God." They had been given the promise of a gift that would never leave them. The Holy Spirit would be with them always.

It's hard to imagine what that must have felt like to the disciples-letting go of a flesh-and-blood savior for the promise of an intangible, invisible Spirit. Yet they trusted that something remarkable was going to happen. They were going to be witnesses to marvelous signs and wonders. And they would not be alone.

Comforter, Advocate, Sustainer-the Holy Spirit would be within them and among them. They would be "clothed with power" to bear witness to all that they would see. And the overwhelming response of the followers of Jesus was not fear, or doubt, or resistance, but great joy.

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
-Psalm 47:1-2

June 4/Pentecost: Like Rushing Wings
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17, 25-27

It was barely dawn, and I was still sound asleep. Then came a noise-a holy racket of sorts. Honking and calling and furious fluttering of wings. I made it to the front porch just in time to see eight huge Canada geese land in the lake on the little farm where I live. With great fanfare, they touched down and then skimmed across the water to a stop, wings still beating the air.

Red fire appeared between the trees on the eastern horizon, then slowly turned orange and finally stabbing yellow. Birds and bugs of all sorts joined in an early morning chorus of welcome to the day-humming, chirping, whistling, singing. I laughed out loud. It was the closest thing to Pentecost I'm likely to experience.

It descends on us like rushing wings, tongues of fire, a cacophony of voices. Startling. Dazzling. Unpredictable. Enough to make the neighbors think someone raided nature's wine cellar before the sun even came up.

It is good that we have this wild, unfettered, uncontrollable Spirit. We want to do good. We want to live holy and just lives. We want to get it right. But what reassurance to know that part of it is totally out of our control! The Spirit moves around, utterly oblivious to rules, more gentle and grace-filled and generous than we deserve.

We are all included in this gracious baptism, as Peter reminds us. Sons, daughters, young and old, bound and free-all are prophets, bearers of a vision as yet unseen.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!...
The earth is full of your creatures....
when you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever-...
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
-Psalm 104:24, 30-33

June 11: Boasting in Hope
Psalm 8, Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

Ah, wisdom. Little did she know at the founding of the world what trouble she would create for late-20th-century churches.

Wisdom is the feminine face of God, the daughter who was "the first of God's acts of long ago" (Proverbs 8:22). She is the one who was present when God established the heavens, spread the skies, marked out the seas-a "master worker" and daily a "delight" to God (8:30).

In the Greek, she is named Sophia. In the New Testament, she appears as the Holy Spirit. She represents strength and creativity, truth and life.

She is a problem for patriarchal Christianity. She is helping to spread the radical idea that women, too, are created in the image of God; that we are all children of a wise and loving Creator; that humankind is infused with the Spirit of a God who is both masculine and feminine-and more.

Throughout faith history, the Bible has been quoted all too often to uphold evil. The Inquisition, the Crusades, slavery, apartheid, homophobia, the subjugation of women-these and much more have been justified by drawing a tight circle that shuts out humanity deemed "other," based on a narrow and self-serving interpretation of scripture.

But always the Spirit of wisdom and truth has found a way to break through, to convert hearts and change minds. She who was present at the birth of the universe is still alive and well, inviting us always to inclusion and equality.

The task of proclaiming justice is never an easy one. But the promise remains sure: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:1-5).

June 18: In Need of Grace
Psalm 5:1-8, 1 Kings 21:1-21a, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

Our gospel lesson always raises strong feelings in me. For years I read it as a mini-contest between good and evil-the loving, needy, marginalized woman vs. the rigid, rich, judgmental Pharisee. I always followed it rather smugly to its conclusion, content in knowing that the Pharisee gets put in his place at the end. Jesus lets him know that the kingdom is for the poor and the outcast; for those who give radically of themselves; for those who know their need of God's grace.

Then one Sunday I was scheduled to preach from this passage. I was sitting on the small back porch of a Sojourners household on a Saturday afternoon, preparing my sermon. Several children walked by in the alley, and I waved hello and chatted for a while. Then my next-door neighbor pulled up in his fancy sports car, unlocked the iron gate to the fence that he had put around his property, punched some buttons on his alarm system, and walked into his house. I didn't greet him. I didn't even know his name. I only knew that he was one of the "gentrifiers"-wealthy whites who were moving into my low-income, inner-city neighborhood and displacing people who had lived there for generations.

I had trouble with my sermon after that. The message that I thought I had to preach suddenly didn't seem right anymore. As much as I might want to see myself as a Christ-like figure who would welcome the woman to the table, I couldn't get over feeling like the Pharisee.

My attitude toward the Pharisee in the story was exactly the same as the attitude the Pharisee took toward the woman: You don't belong. Perhaps the real surprise of the story for us is not that Jesus received the blessing of a "sinful" woman-but that he ate at the table of a Pharisee. He listened and taught and took the man seriously.

Many of us, it seems, find it easier to minister to people in trouble or in need than to listen to those with a different viewpoint-especially if, in our view, they are deemed among the "oppressors." Our unwillingness to engage or listen leads to just as much brokenness as theirs. Judgmentalism and self-righteousness are sin, no matter what guise they come in.

The message of Galatians is for us: We are justified by our faith in Jesus Christ, not by our works. The message of the gospel is for us as well: The kingdom is for those who know their need of God's grace.

June 25: One in Christ
Psalm 42, 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

The adrenaline-rush excitement of Pentecost is contrasted with this week's images of despair and loneliness: the psalmist's soul cast down, recalling better days of celebration, longing for a glimpse of God as a deer longs for water; Elijah, lamenting under the broom tree, asking that he might die; a crazed man possessed by demons, living alone among the tombs.

This is the stuff of real life. Suffering, anguish, despair-when God seems absent, or friends turn their backs, or enemies loom large, or affliction won't let go.

Yet each of these passages tells us something of the power of God. The psalmist can cry out in pain, yet still declares: "By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me....Hope in God; for I shall again praise him" (Psalm 42:8, 11).

Elijah awakes, takes from the angel the water and the cake baked on the hot stones, and hope and strength are restored. He learns that God doesn't always come in the fury of wind or earthquake or fire-but sometimes in the still, small, barely discernible whisper.

The man possessed by demons discovers the saving and healing power of Jesus. Free of chains and shackles, free of stigma and fear, he returns home to proclaim the goodness of God. How much like life! Afraid or doubtful one moment, faithful and full of praise another.

We can bear these ups and downs of life as long as we know where we are grounded. We have been baptized by the Spirit, and we belong to God and one another. And so, with confidence, we can proclaim the truth that was used as a baptismal creed in the early church: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27-28).

Amen and amen.

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a former associate editor and now a contributing editor for Sojourners, writes, leads retreats, and works with survivors of domestic abuse in western North Carolina. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"The Wild Ways of the Spirit"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines