The whole of our uneasy debate about the meaning of the word ‘God’ for modern [people] cries out, I believe, for a recovery of a significant doctrine of the Holy Spirit. That is where we must now begin our talk about God — God working anonymously and on the inside: the beyond in the midst. If we had not relegated the Holy Spirit to the merest edges of our theology we might never have got ourselves into our present confusions — or, better still, we might have endured our present expansion of awareness without dismay. As it is, we seem to have rarified God out of existence.… Any insight which make us exclaim: ‘Oh, now I see the connection!’ is potentially a new revelation. — John V Taylor, The Go-Between God
Someone asked me the other week how progressive Christians may speak of the Holy Spirit without sounding like Pentecostal™ wannabes or Evangelical® soundalikes.
So today I’ll try to say something about how we might speak about the Holy Spirit, we who may feel shy about the Spirit.
We need to speak of the Spirit, because the Spirit is central to our experience of faith. The Spirit is fire that purifies by burning off all our crud. The Spirit is wind that comes through like a cyclone to blow the chaff of our lives away. The Spirit is water that cleanses by half drowning us.
The Spirit is a dove that swoops like a magpie in nesting season.
Have you had an experience of the Holy Spirit? You probably have. Possibly, you don’t realise it. Or, you may be hesitant to talk about it.
Let me tell you about the first time the Spirit took hold of me. The first time I know about, anyway. You may have heard this before. Apologies if so.
It was 1968; I was fourteen, a shy fourteen. I went to a Methodist youth group for the first time, to find it was going to the Billy Graham Crusade that evening. I was curious about what he had to say, so I was quite happy to go.
I was sitting in the benches at the Exhibition grounds with the rest of the group. I only knew one of them, the lad who’d invited me. He wasn’t happy to be there, but at least he was out of the house.
Billy Graham spoke. On and on, forever, it seemed to me. I felt something stirring within me, but I was on my guard. The date was 5 April, 1968; Martin Luther King had been assassinated just the day before. I decided that if Billy Graham didn’t say anything positive about Martin Luther King, I’d ignore his message no matter how I felt.
Well, he went and spoke warmly of King and his ministry, and very sorrowfully about his death. My one objection had been answered.
Then came the altar call. I’d never heard of an altar call. I’d not been part of any church before, and I had no idea about such things.
I felt something was drawing me to go to the front. I tried to keep my seat, but I couldn’t. You know those tractor beams in Star Trek and other science fiction stories? I had a tractor beam fastened on my chest.
I walked out, nervously. Remember I was a shy kid? I marvelled at how anyone else could stay in their seats. I had to go out.
I still believe that the Holy Spirit was the ‘something’ that was drawing me out that night.
I gave my heart to Jesus in the old-fashioned evangelical way, and something changed. I was told to read the Bible, so next day I took out my King James Bible and read from the Gospel of Luke. I’d tried reading it before, and couldn’t make any sense. But now, it spoke to me. It seemed clear!
I was actually looking forward to English class at school, because I thought I’d be able to understand Shakespeare now. Surely, God had given me the ability to make sense of Elizabethan English!
Sadly, Shakespeare was still a closed book to me. But I was more and more excited by the Bible in its archaic KJV language.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, 52 years of it.
How does someone who now frames his faith differently from evangelical or pentecostal ways talk about the Holy Spirit?
Like me, you may often feel less than comfortable with stories of healing that are accompanied by the ways those who are not healed may be treated. Or you are uncomfortable with reports of prayer stopping a hurricane hitting a certain town, when it tracks elsewhere and demolishes another town. Or, if we don’t speak in tongues we don’t like being told we’re second class.
Where and how do we look for the Holy Spirit at work in our lives? I have shared a life-changing experience of mine. How can we tell if an experience is from the Spirit or not?
I’ve told you about something that happened when I was fourteen. But I had lots of experiences when I was fourteen, 366 days worth of experiences. (It was a leap year.) Why do I tell you about this one?
It’s not just because it was life-changing. Not every life-changing experience comes from the Spirit. Some experiences change our lives for the worse.
It’s because this experience connected me to Jesus Christ; it connected me to the scriptures; and soon, it was to connect me with the Church.
We can see experiences that connect us to Jesus and the mission of God in the world as experiences of the Spirit.
These Spirit experiences also connect us to the people of God.
I would add that Spirit experiences also connect the broken parts of ourselves together.
Is the Spirit working in your life right now? Another way of asking the same question: Is your spirit being connected to something other than yourself right now? Something that takes you deeper into the life that Jesus embodied?
If so, I invite you to ask yourself whether this is from the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of Jesus.
This connection may be with people; other believers, or with people who are doing it tough right now.
It may be with the Scriptures, which are bursting with new significance for you.
It may be in prayer, in finding yourself more deeply connected within and without.
We do not have to shy away from speaking of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does not belong to one section of the church. There is no Holy Spirit franchise.
There is more than one way of describing the way the Spirit works in the human heart.
We may tend domesticate the Spirit a little. The Spirit is not all wafting breezes and gentle drops of water. In Acts today, we heard of
a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there.
The tractor beam I felt drawing me to the front at the Billy Graham crusade was not a gentle feeling. It was insistent, it was the ‘Love that wilt not let me go’. Remember that hymn?
I guess I could have said No. All I know for sure is that I said Yes. So if you have an experience of being drawn to a connection with the things of the Spirit, trust it. Let the Spirit do her work. Take the first step, make the journey wherever it leads.
May the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of Jesus, be with you. Amen.