Diversity Without Division, Unity Without Uniformity

Sermon for Sunday, June 11, 2017 || Trinity Sunday, Year A

If you look to the back of the church, you’ll notice we have a window missing right now. The good folks at Cathedral Stained Glass in New London are currently restoring our Trinity window, which has deteriorated over the years to the point where it could have shattered during a blustery storm. Today is not the most opportune Sunday of the church year to be lacking the Trinity window. Today is, after all, Trinity Sunday, and in years past I’ve enjoyed directing your attention to the window at the beginning of my sermons on this particular day. I can’t do that today. Instead, I can only direct your attention to the lack of the Trinity window.

But such a lack of the window stirs up some new thoughts; specifically the following question: Who would we be without the mystery and revelation of God as Trinity of Persons and Unity of Being? This question jumps to mind because, in recent years, many faithful Christians have wondered if we really need the encumbrance of the Trinitarian notion of God. Isn’t it just unnecessary baggage weighing down an already weighty topic, they argue. With fewer and fewer people finding God in the Christian church in the United States, wouldn’t it make sense to streamline our beliefs a little bit, make them easier to apprehend? Continue reading “Diversity Without Division, Unity Without Uniformity”

So I Send You

Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31

Near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns to life. His adversary had executed him on that table in place of the boy Edmund. The witch thinks she has won a decisive victory, but Aslan knows of deeper magic than she. So the witch doesn’t expect the risen lion to appear at her castle while she’s off trying to conquer the land of Narnia. But that’s what happens. Aslan, the Christ-like figure of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, races to the witch’s home to free all those whom she had turned into statues. And do you know how he releases them from their captivity? He breathes on them. Continue reading “So I Send You”

God and Not-God: A Short History

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15

GodandNotGodThere’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”

So with that humorous word of caution in my mind, I turned my attention to Trinity Sunday, traditionally one of the thornier preaching days of the year. Continue reading “God and Not-God: A Short History”

On the Holy Spirit (With Help From Obi-Wan Kenobi)

Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2016 || Pentecost C || Acts 2:1-21

OntheHolySpiritI can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started describing God’s presence while writing a sermon and then realized that I accidentally quoted Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movie. It has happened at least a dozen times. So today, instead of accidentally quoting him, I’m just going to quote the dialogue delivered by the legendary Alec Guinness in 1977. He says this about the mysterious energy field that gives the Jedi their power: “The Force…surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Continue reading “On the Holy Spirit (With Help From Obi-Wan Kenobi)”

Lake Logan

lakeloganNo sermon from me this week, since I was at a conference called CREDO in North Carolina. Instead, here’s something I wrote during a silent Saturday morning, when I was able to get quiet enough to write poetry.

If a tree were unable to sway
It would break
At the first puff of air
Strong enough to ruffle its branches.
So it is with me.
The wind whips and howls here
In this valley between two mountains,
All sound and fury, signifying everything.
The water in the narrow lake ripples,
Then whitecaps leap and curl,
And the trees bend.
How is it possible?
How can they grow straight and tall,
Spindled columns connecting earth and sky,
And yet sway when the wind blows?
I watch them now – evergreens mostly,
With branches high up their trunks –
And a hypnotic peace breathes itself into me.

I notice a finch –
Or some other tiny bird
(I don’t know the difference) –
Land halfway up the bare trunk
Of the largest tree in front of me.
This one’s not an evergreen,
And the first promises of new growth
Are visible at the tips of its branches.
The finch (do they have finches in North Carolina?)
Starts climbing the trunk.
It doesn’t fly up, but hops little hops skyward –
Twenty or thirty feet, a few inches at a time.
Why doesn’t it fly?
Perhaps the wind is too strong,
Would blow the tiny bird off course
If it let go the trunk.
I wonder what its course is.
Where is it going
That a climb up the trunk would suffice?
Whenever I walk in the wind,
I imagine being lighter than I am,
Imagine floating off to God knows where.
God knows where:
Where the finch is traveling,
Where I am traveling.

Seeing the finch reminds me:
I heard tell that a bald eagle patrols Lake Logan,
And suddenly my only desire is to see him,
See him glide through the valley,
Not fighting the wind, nor hiding from it,
But soaring on it.
I stare out past the swaying trees,
Hoping my desire might resonate
Along one of the strings of creation
(The eternal music that God began
With the opening consonance of light)
And twinge the soul of the eagle
To take flight and give me something truly memorable
To treasure in my heart.
But this desire is selfish – I know –
And selfishness does not resonate,
But plays a discordant note,
A quarter-tone flat
And expects the rest of the orchestra
To re-tune their instruments accordingly.

Instead of the eagle,
I am blessed to witness a pair of geese
Skim the surface of the lake
And land atop the water
Sending ripples ahead of them,
Announcing their arrival.
If I had not been looking for the eagle
I would not have noticed the geese,
And they, too, are a gift.
I thank God that my selfish desire
Did not blind me to the gift of the geese,
The ripples catching the mid-morning light,
The water returning to relative calm,
Moved now only by the wind.

Another gust pummels the trees,
And they bend dutifully,
And again I marvel at their swaying.
How is it possible?
The answer comes to me on the wind,
Breathes into me,
Nestles in my heart:
The treasure I receive
Rather than the one I desired.
“You see only part of the tree,” says the wind.
Yes, of course, I had forgotten.
The tree began in the dark earth,
Playing its nascent notes,
A piccolo trill,
A rat-a-tat of the snare.
And then it began to grow –
Both up and down.
The roots reach deeper and deeper;
Stretch through the soil;
Brush the bedrock;
Hold fast.
The trunk above sways in the gale
And does not break,
But moves where the wind directs.
Oh God, I pray,
Make it so with me.

After sharing this with a few people at the conference, I was informed that the tiny bird I saw was in all likelihood a Carolina Wren. But I wanted to preserve the authenticity of my wonderings (this is a stream-of-consciousness poem after all), and I personally know exactly zero about birds.

The Blueprint

Sermon for Sunday, May 31, 2015 || Trinity Sunday B

theblueprintHave you ever looked closely at the round window high up the wall in the back of the church? Go ahead – turn around and give it a good look. I love this window. I love the vibrant colors. I love that when the sun is shining through it, an afterimage gets imprinted on my eyes, so I see it when I close them. If you’ve never given the window much thought, I don’t blame you. The words on it are in Latin, after all. But let’s keep looking. The window presents a diagram of the Holy Trinity. “Deus” – God – is encircled in the center. Three smaller circles float around it: Patri, Filius, Spiritus Sancti – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of the smaller circles is connected to the others with the words “non est” (is not), and each smaller circle is connected to the large central one with the word “est” (is). The diagram is telling us that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other but they are all One God. How does this work? Wisely, the window doesn’t tell us. The window just illustrates the reality, a theological blueprint in stained glass.

Likewise, I’m going to take my cue from the window and stay silent on the “How does this work?” question. Too many sermons over the years have tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity by talking about apples or flames. What those sermons didn’t understand is that you can’t explain a mystery without destroying the very quality that makes it mysterious. When Sherlock Holmes figures out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub over discovering the body, the mystery is solved. No more mystery. This Whodunnit? type mystery is the kind we’re used to: Gibbs and the NCIS team solve their mysteries within the length of the 45-minute episode. The light-hearted mystery novels my mother loves to read always wrap up the intrigue by the end of the story.

But here’s the difference between these small, ordinary mysteries we watch or read and the great mystery of the Holy Trinity. The small mysteries have answers to them, like the poisonous snake. But the mystery of the Holy Trinity is the answer – the fundamental answer that rests at the very core of existence. Here’s what I mean.

Before creation came into being, there was God. There was only God. Then God spoke, “Let there be light,” and creation erupted in a rush of dust and energy and far flung fire. And suddenly, there was something known as “not God.” Suddenly, there was an “other” for God to love. And yet, we believe that God’s essence is love, which means that God must have loved before there was a creation to love. Confusing, right? It is confusing until we realize there’s only one possible answer for whom God loved before there was anything else. God loved God. This may sound narcissistic or vain, but it’s not. Narcissism and vanity are distortions of love, but God’s love is perfect and unsullied. God loves God with such perfection that there is still only One God, even though a loving relationship exists.

That’s the keyword: relationship. To try to come close to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we employ relational words: Father and Son, Parent and Child. We speak of the Holy Spirit as being the love that flows between them. This perfect relationship existed before creation, and thus serves as God’s blueprint for creation. Have you ever noticed that if you drill right down to the core of any subject whatsoever, you end up at relationship? At the most fundamental level, life, the universe, and everything are based on the relationships between things. Elemental particles vibrate next to other elemental particles, weaving the fabric of creation. Atoms repel and attract each other. Ecosystems thrive as complex series of relationships. Celestial bodies dance the precarious waltz of gravitational balance. Not to mention, the most important things in the lives of us humans on this fragile earth is our relationships with one another.

All of this grows from that blueprint God used from God’s own self – the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. In the act of creating something that was not God, God knew creation wouldn’t be perfect. And yet, God made it anyway. The reason the Holy Trinity remains a mystery is that our relationships – indeed, all relationships in creation – are not perfect, and thus we cannot fathom perfection.

But while we aren’t perfect, the idea of perfection lingers within us, an echo of our Creator’s own perfect love. We feel this echo as a longing for connection, for relationship with God and with each other. God loves us perfectly, even though we have the capacity to return a mere sliver of that love. But that sliver is more than enough to activate our ability to engage in loving relationships here and now. When we nurture such loving relationships in our lives, we come as close as our imperfection allows to the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity.

Indeed, the Holy Trinity transcends our imperfection, draws us in, and strengthens our earthly relationships. The echo of God’s perfect love grows louder, more insistent, as we give ourselves over to be born again from above, to be remade closer to the blueprint than we were before. The blueprint calls for less domination and more mutuality, less prejudice and more generosity, less pride and more humility. The blueprint calls for less defending and more welcoming, less grasping and more embracing, less tearing down and more lifting up. And above all, the blueprint calls for love to spill forth in the forms of justice-seeking, mercy-granting, grace-sharing, hope-planting, and joy-singing.

And so you go home and do the dishes even though it was your brother’s turn. Or you tell your wife “thank you” for her poise in the middle of chaos and for putting up with you all these years. Or you introduce yourself to that bedraggled person you always seem to run into on your morning jog and ask if he needs assistance. Or you look those who are oppressed in the eye and say, “I’m sorry for not showing up sooner,” and then turn to stand with them.

Each of these is an expression of the blueprint of the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. And each of these will be done imperfectly. And yet, the mystery of the Holy Trinity rests at the core of all existence, of all we do and all we are. And so our imperfection is even now being redeemed by the perfect love of God, which somehow manages to fit all of itself into our mere slivers of love.

If in your life, the Holy Trinity has seemed no more than an abstraction, as clear as the Latin writing on the window back there, then I invite you to take a step back and look again. Reassign every single urge you have ever had to seek justice, to grant mercy, to share grace, to plant hope, to sing joy, and to love. Reassign all of them to the perfect love of the Trinity flowing, however imperfectly, through you. Notice now the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit catching you up in the ever-spinning dance of perfect love, and be thankful.

* The diagram of the Holy Trinity is the window on the back wall of St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT.

A Story About the Holy Spirit

Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2015 || Pentecost B || Romans 8:22-27

astoryabouttheholyspiritToday, on this day of Pentecost, I’d like to tell you a story about the Holy Spirit. It’s going to sound like a story about me, but if I tell it right, you’ll see that the Holy Spirit is the main protagonist of this little tale. The story takes place a stretch down River Road about three miles from the Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.

The summer before my senior year of college saw me driving down this stretch of River Road toward Peterkin Camp and Conference Center, and my job as counselor. The first day of camp, about a hundred high schoolers descended on the camp, and strangely enough, their enthusiasm and laughter and hugs of reunion were unhindered by the lack of a cell phone tower within 50 miles. Right away I could see their love for the place in their wide expectant eyes as they queued up to turn in medications and decorate nametags. They loved Peterkin because they got to be themselves around other kids who also got to be themselves. Places where teenagers are unafraid of coming out of their shells are few and sacred. Peterkin was one of them.

We shared Eucharist every day of camp, and with each day the volume of our singing increased as the more reticent campers started joining in. By Friday, the passing of the Peace had reached epic proportions because everyone tried to hug everyone else. The service that day included special prayers for healing, and I volunteered to assist with the laying on of hands because I’d never done it before. After communion, I walked to the back of the chapel with the priest Zach and a pair of sisters, Kenan and Leigh. We circled a metal folding chair, and Zach beckoned the first camper towards us. I remember looking down at my hands, seeing the dirty fingernails and calluses cut by guitar strings, and wondering: “What are these supposed to do?”

The boy sat down, and Zach leaned in close. “My parents are divorced and I keep thinking it’s all my fault and I feel sad all the time.” The truth of the boy’s words startled me out of my self-centered musings about my hands. Here was someone hurting profoundly, with his whole world crumbling around him and misplaced shame eating him away. And yet he trusted the four of us to place our hands on him, to whisper words of healing, which would never make everything all better again, but maybe just maybe might allow him to breath with a bit more space and by God’s grace start letting himself off the hook.

As Zach dabbed oil on the boy’s head, I touched his shoulder, lightly, like I was testing a bruise. Doubt gnawed at the back of my mind: how am I qualified even to be standing here, let alone be expected to participate in healing? The self-centered feeling of inadequacy threatened to wash over me again, but then a prayer blossomed in my mind and in my heart, a prayer that I had no hand in writing. I exhaled slowly, and the Holy Spirit carried her words on my breath: “Lord, make him whole, make him holy, make him wholly new.”

This became my breath prayer. As the campers kept coming and coming, the Holy Spirit kept speaking these words through me and I prayed with a fervor I didn’t know I possessed: “Holy Spirit, fill me and flow out of me, down my arms, into my hands, and into these broken, beautiful boys and girls. Make me your conduit. Make me your vessel.”

Their need for healing was so great, these young people in so much pain: depression, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, the urge to cut themselves, feelings of abandonment, grief, loss… Lord, make her whole, make her holy, make her wholly new.

I kept asking the Holy Spirit to fill me to overflowing so she could spill out my fingertips and the campers could know the healing presence of God. When the service was over, the campers filed toward the dining hall, but we who had manned the three healing stations gathered around the altar and said a final prayer. As I backed away from the altar, I felt a tear moisten my cheek, then another and another. Suddenly, I was crying. I sat down in the second pew and just as suddenly, I was no longer crying. I was weeping. For twenty minutes, my chest heaved and fell, and I knew nothing but my ragged breaths and fat tears…and the truth.

God granted me exactly what the Holy Spirit had prompted me to I asked for – an abundance of that same Spirit, an excess, a proportion so much bigger than was meant for me alone. The tears puddling at my feet were the Holy Spirit spilling out of me. When the tears stopped, I noticed a hand on my back. Leigh, one of the sisters I had partnered with, had stayed behind and sat with me in silence. She had said nothing. She had not tried to hand me a tissue. She had let me weep, alone and yet not alone, laying her hand on me as we had done for the campers. Remembering that act of kindness still brings tears to my eyes.

I tell you this story because it taught me about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does not come at our beck and call. We come at hers. We would be unable to ask for the Spirit’s help if she were not already helping us in the asking. Paul speaks this truth to the church in Rome: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

At Peterkin, the Holy Spirit made her presence known in my life, and I fervently hope in the lives of the campers as well. That experience was so overwhelming, I expect, because the Spirit knows me well enough to appreciate that I need to be whacked upside the head in order not to misunderstand my role in all of this. But even when the experience doesn’t leave us pooling tears on the chapel floor, the Spirit is still ever present, interceding for us, helping us in our weakness.

Remember when you stood on the beach at dawn, and the first rays of sun turned the ocean to liquid gold, and gratitude unbidden caused you to raise your arms to the heavens? Your prayer of thanks rose from the Holy Spirit prompting you to notice – to see with more than your eyes – God’s glory in creation.

Remember when you had to take your daughter to the emergency room because her stomach flu just wasn’t getting any better? The unimagined patience you showed in the hours of waiting rose from the Holy Spirit speaking peace into your panicked heart.

Remember when your mother died and you never thought you’d take another breath? And then you did. The breath that came when tragedy squeezed all the air from your lungs rose from the Holy Spirit leavening your agonized grief with a dash of hope.

Remember when the Holy Spirit showed you the person in need? Remember when the Holy Spirit stirred you to help? Remember? If you don’t remember something like this in your own life, I challenge you to look again. Ask the Spirit for help in the looking. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to a lucky few or just to the people who ask for her intercession by name. The Holy Spirit has always been moving through your life like the wind through the trees. And she still is. I wonder what your next memory of the Holy Spirit will be.

Secret Names

Sermon for Sunday, June 15, 2014 || Trinity Sunday, Year A || Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a

secretnamesAs most of you know, Leah and I are expecting twins in just a couple of weeks. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am so excited. And terrified. And excited. Whenever I think of the immensity of the change that is about to take place in our lives, I get this “deer in the headlights” look on my face for a minute. But then I remember to breath, and I remember that we’re going to have a lot of help and support, and I remember what Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel reading: “I am with you always.” And all that helps.

But I’m getting off topic. You all know we’re expecting twins. You know we’re hoping for six more weeks of gestational time, and you know we’re having a boy and a girl. But there’s one thing Leah and I have been keeping to ourselves – one thing we barely whisper even to each other. We’ve been keeping their names a secret.

(Now, before you get all excited, I’m not going to tell you their names today. You’ll have to wait until they’re born.)

As I sat down to ponder this Trinity Sunday sermon, I found myself wondering why we’ve been keeping their names secret. We don’t even use them when we’re alone. We still call them “Baby Girl” and “Baby Boy,” which took over a few months ago from their original codenames “Alpha” and “Bravo.”

All of this was on my mind while reading the creation story from Genesis that we heard a few minutes ago, and something struck me that I’ve never noticed before. Did you catch how many things God names in the first three days of creation? God calls the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.” God calls the dome “Sky,” the dry land “Earth,” and the gathered waters “Seas.” Likewise, in the second creation story, which follows what we read this morning, God invites the first human to name all the living creatures of the earth.

Thus, as Genesis tells the story, one of the things God creates is the act of naming. And God passes this act to the first human and by extension to us. Have you ever stopped to think how important names are? The simple act of naming causes us to value things in new and greater ways.

Think of it like this. I don’t know anything about trees, but you do. We go for a hike in the woods. I see a bunch of trees. But you see an Oak and a Chestnut and a Birch. You appreciate the curves of the boughs and the shape of the leaves. You know which root goes with which tree and which bird prefers to nest on which branch. I still just see a bunch of trees. But then you teach me the name of the Chestnut and how to recognize it. And suddenly, I see Chestnut trees all around me. I appreciate them in a new way because I can see them and name them.

Naming something brings out that something’s intrinsic value: value it always had, but which we don’t necessarily appreciate until we name it.

So what’s all this have to do with the Trinity? I’m glad you asked. Our understanding of God springs directly from our desire to name God. Yes, we have the word “God,” but in our experience those three letters do not do justice to the sublime coherence of grace and love and communion that we feel when we stumble into God’s presence.

So let’s train our imaginations to look back before God said, “Let there be light”; back before there was a creation for God to call God’s own. We believe that “God is love,” as the First Letter of John puts it, but if there was no creation to fill the role of the Beloved, then how could this be? Well, if there was nothing else to love, then God loved God. But we can’t stop there because true love always manifests as a relationship. And so in our futile attempt to find the right word to name God, we latch on to relational language and name God “Father.” We could just as easily use the word, “Mother,” as well. This sets up one side of a loving relationship, that of parent to child.

But the relationship is incomplete without the second person. And so we also name God “Son” to acknowledge the complete relationship between loving parent and beloved child. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says that God “loved me before the foundation of the world.” This love between parent and child is so palpable that the love itself is the third member of the Trinity, which we name the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Paul tells the church in Rome that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

This loving relationship between parent and child existed before anything else. Nothing existed that could substitute for or diminish the relationship. The love was pure, perfect, unsullied by deficiencies such as lust or anger or apathy or dominance. In fact, the perfection of the relationship meant that, while there was a Trinity of persons, a Unity of being was the ultimate reality. This Unity of being was the home in which the three persons dwelt: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them.

When we name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we show our willingness – our desire – to resonate to a deeper degree with God’s movement in our lives. Just like learning the name of the Chestnut tree and suddenly seeing them everywhere, when we name God with the relational words of the Trinity, we set ourselves up to notice God moving in our lives in myriad ways: as the Father, the Son, the Spirit; as the Parent, Child, and Love between them – Love that brings us into the relationship and ushers us back home.

As I contemplate the secret names of our nascent children, as I lift those five syllables daily to the heart of God, I remember the importance of names. Names reveal the intrinsic value of things. Names pulls us deeper and deeper into relationship. Names help us notice things our eyes have never seen before. This is why we have three names for One God. This is why God has given us the gift of revealing God’s personhood as a thrice-named Trinity.

As I pray the names of our unborn children silently to God, I continue to wonder why we are keeping them secret. And I think the reason is this: we are saving their names for the new and joyous relationship that will begin at birth. Right now, they are ultrasound photo and pulsing heartbeat and kick on the belly and empty car seat waiting to be filled. And they are hope. I feel so much love gathering up inside of me – more love than my heart can hold because my heart is too small right now. I think this is a piece of the kind of love God felt in that moment before creation when there was only a Parent, a Child, and the Love between them. This new love is overflowing the banks of my heart, flooding me, waiting for the rapidly approaching day when I will hold my children in my arms, smell the tops of their heads, kiss their tiny fingers, and whisper their names.

And the moment I do, my heart will grow. These two new creations, these two incarnations of the love of God will hear their names. And pieces of my heart will exit my chest, enter theirs, and beat in tandem with their new hearts.

* ART: Detail from “Trinity” by Andrei Rublev (c. 1410)

Spark. Fuel. Fire.

Sermon for Sunday, June 8, 2014 || Pentecost, Year A || Acts 2:1-21

sparkfuelfireBeing a creative type, I have found myself relating to the Holy Spirit more readily than most people do. Whenever I sit down to write or play my guitar, I try to acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s presence in that creative activity. I’ve always thought of the Holy Spirit as God’s creativity in the act of making and molding and speaking existence into being. And I’ve always thought of my own creativity as my response to the Holy Spirit moving in my life. The Holy Spirit, then, is the in-spir-ation for my creativity. The Spirit inspires. The two words even come from the same Latin root!

But after many, many conversations with parishioners across several churches, anecdotal evidence suggests that most people gravitate to God the Father or God the Son, rather than to God the Holy Spirit. For a long time, I’ve honestly felt a bit strange due to my affinity for the Holy Spirit. After all, so many people have told me they have real difficulty relating in any meaningful way to this creative force, this inspirer, the Holy Spirit.

But here I must confess something. I’ve come to realize that my process of anecdotal evidence gathering has been totally flawed. For years, I’ve been shortchanging the Holy Spirit when conversing with people about their relationships with God. I’ve been shortchanging the Holy Spirit because in those conversations, I’ve described how I relate to the Holy Spirit as if it’s the only viable option. If the other people didn’t relate to the Holy Spirit in the way I do – in the creative, inspirational way – then I failed to help them name the way the Holy Spirit was, in fact, relating to them. And they assumed they just had no share in the Holy Spirit.

So the rest of this sermon is the beginning of my own remedial training in how the Holy Spirit moves, apart from the raw creativity I’m used to. When I was in college, I often studied by recounting aloud to other people what I had learned, so consider the next several minutes a study session on the Holy Spirit’s movement. As this is a remedial course, I’m going to stick close to our textbook and even to the word “Spirit” itself.

Here goes. We’ve already talked about in-spir-ation, the creative spark that I mistakenly reduced the Holy Spirit to. But what about a-spir­-ation. Each and every one of us experiences the Holy Spirit because each and every one of us has aspirations – goals, dreams, hopes for the future. The Holy Spirit fires these aspirations within us, and gives us strength and support to realize our own potential.

The Holy Spirit was present at creation as the wind that swept over the face of the waters. In the tremulous moment before God said, “Let there be light,” there was nothing. But there was aspiration. There was God’s dream for creation. In that tremulous moment, the Holy Spirit gathered the potential energy of all that would be.

We are each of us small pieces of that potential energy. We are each of us small pieces of God’s aspirations. When we set goals, when we dream, when we aspire to accomplish all that God invites us to do, then we are resonating with the Holy Spirit’s movement. It’s no wonder then, that after the Spirit descends in the rushing wind and tongues of fire, the apostle Peter quotes from the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

Are you beginning to see how much bigger the Spirit’s movement is than my pigeonholing it to simple creativity? We have inspiration. And we have aspiration. How about per-spir-ation? Each and every one of us experiences the Holy Spirit because each and every one us has worked hard to achieve something worthwhile. We’ve put our backs into it. We’ve used our elbow grease. We’ve sweated, perspired.

The Holy Spirit, as our constant companion, gives us the perseverance and endurance to see things through. Those tongues of fire that descended on the heads of the apostles didn’t vanish. No, they kept descending and lodged in their guts. Have you ever heard the expression “a fire in your belly?” The fire of the Holy Spirit catalyzed the apostles to spread the good news of Jesus Christ far and wide, and to be witnesses for the love and grace of God, come what may. It’s no secret that most of Jesus’ original followers came to untimely and grisly ends, but they did so with the fire un-extinguished. They kept perspiring for the sake of the Gospel because the Holy Spirit kept fueling their fire.

When we sweat for things, when we put our hearts and souls into a worthwhile project, then we are ever so much more invested in the outcome. Habitat for Humanity calls the work their homeowners put into their own homes “sweat equity.” Their perspiration gives them a deeper sense of ownership when the work is done. And so does ours when we partner with the Holy Spirit and perspire for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

We have inspiration. We have aspiration. We have perspiration. Finally, in our remedial course on the Holy Spirit’s movement, we have re-spir-ation. Each and every one of us experiences the Holy Spirit because each and every one of us breathes. It’s that simple. Each breath we take is a gift from God. We inhale this gift. The breath of the Holy Spirit infuses us; keeps our bodies, souls, and spirits intact and integrated; and animates us with the desire to serve God in our day-to-day lives. Then we exhale the gift of the Holy Spirit in our actions, in our service, in our love.

The Church calls the Holy Spirit the “sustainer” and the “comforter.” The “sustainer” evokes the constancy of the Spirit’s presence; the “comforter” evokes the peace that comes from breathing deeply. During the last supper, Jesus told his friends he would not leave them orphaned, but would provide them the Spirit to abide with them. After the resurrection, Jesus met them again in the upper room and breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Our constant respiration – whether we are conscious of our breath or not – links us to the Holy Spirit.

Inspiration. Aspiration. Perspiration. Respiration. We participate in the Holy Spirit’s movement in each of these ways. The Spirit sparks our creativity. The Spirit fuels our dreams. The Spirit fires our determination. And the Spirit breathes on our embers, rekindling us again and again. If you have never given your relationship with the Holy Spirit much thought, I invite you, I urge you, to pray about these things. Do not ask if the Spirit is moving in your life. Ask how.

5 Years: These Inadequate Hands

This June is the 5th anniversary of Wherethewind.com, and we are celebrating by looking back at some of the best of the last five years of this website. Today we have the original “Davies Tale,” the first in a series of autobiographical fiction that I’ve written off and on over the years. I’ve always loved this story. While some of the details were changed, the gist of this story is entirely true. (Originally posted February 4, 2009)

The summer before Davies’s senior year of college, his bishop told him that he was going to work at summer camp. Davies raised a hand to his forehead in salute and said “yessir” without hesitation because he was several steps into The Process to become an Episcopal Priest. The amount of deference he was compelled to show the purple shirt equaled that of what he would show if he had a favor to ask of Don Corleone. This was the summer before the Red Sox won their first world series since 1918; the summer before he started looking over the stacks of polisci books to what his future held; the summer before he got himself into a two-year relationship, which eventually fizzled a few weeks before he planned to ask for her hand in marriage. It was the summer before all the real life stuff that college is so good at ignoring.

A skit at Peterin, the real camp behind Camp Madison. (We fake bishops had corporate sponsorships for our miters.) With the Rev. Siobhan Patterson and the late Rev. Keith Butler.
A skit at Peterin, the real camp behind Camp Madison. (We fake bishops had corporate sponsorships for our miters.) With the Rev. Siobhan Patterson and the late Rev. Keith Butler.

Davies had never been to summer camp as a child, so he didn’t know what to expect as a counselor. Until he googled “James Madison Conference Center,” he also didn’t know the camp was named after a bishop rather than a president. Nor did he know where it was located. As it happens, Madison is three miles down River Road from the no Starbucks town of Lucado, West Virginia. Lucado (pronounced LUCK-a-do) is in the Eastern panhandle of the state. Unless you are already in the Eastern panhandle, a geographical idiosyncrasy of West Virginia (called the Appalachian Mountains) means you pretty much have to leave the state to get to Lucado. A piece of the Potomac, in which Davies once learned to fly fish, gives River Road its name. If you are looking for nowhere on the map, three miles down River Road from Lucado, West Virginia is pretty close by.

Despite Madison’s lack of a cell tower within fifty miles, kids came to the camp. Davies could see their love for the place in their wide, expectant eyes as they queued up to turn in meds and decorate nametags. They loved the camp because it was out-of-doors; they loved it because it broke the monotony of what-do-you-want-to-do-I-don’t-know-what-do-you-want-to-do summer vacations; they loved it because they got to be themselves around other kids who also got to be themselves. In his own teenage years, Davies learned that places where teenagers are unafraid of coming out of their shells are few and sacred. Madison is one of them.

Senior high camp was the biggest week of the summer, with over five score hormone bombs flipping off the diving board, sneaking into the woods, crushing on each other, and complaining every day at breakfast because every day unfairly started in the morning. By midweek, Davies was one among many counselors with nerves fraying, ready to throw up his hands. The counselors used a code word to notify each other if they needed to be extracted from the clutches of a clingy/adoring/needy/smelly/nettlesome camper. As the days wore on, alert campers began wondering what “rich brownie candy bars” had to do with a pet rabbit or the athletic physique of that dreamy counselor.

On Friday morning, Davies thought his body was going to go on strike: he had never been so exhausted. But there was just one more day and night and then he could rest, mercifully. The camp shared Eucharist every day, and Friday’s included a special healing service. When the priests asked for counselors to assist with the laying on of hands, Davies volunteered because he had never done it before.

During the opening song, Davies noticed the new campers who were reticent at the beginning of the week singing with everyone else: You are my Prince of Peace and I will live my life for you! With the addition of those new voices, the camp’s volume went from ten to eleven. The peace took just as long as it usually did because, as usual, everyone tried to hug everyone else. They shared Communion, and then the campers settled into their seats for the laying on of hands. The usually boisterous crowd was quiet all of a sudden as if the mystery of God hit them all at once with the least awkward silence imaginable.

Davies walked to the back of the chapel with his priest friend Rick and a pair of sisters, Jennifer and Elise. The first camper stood up and turned towards them. Davies looked at his hands. He turned them over, saw the lines and the fingerprints and the dirt under his nails. What are these supposed to do?

The camper sat in a metal folding chair, and Rick leaned close. The boy had a pimple on his lip, which quivered as he spoke in a stage whisper: “My parents are divorced and I keep thinking it’s all my fault and I feel sad all the time.” Davies kept looking at his hands, his inadequate hands. Rick motioned for Davies and the sisters to touch the camper’s shoulders. Davies reached out one hand tentatively, lightly, like he was testing a bruise on the boy’s arm. Rick touched oil to the camper’s forehead and prayed. Davies found himself mouthing words that sprang unbidden to his lips.

Lord, make him whole, make him holy, make him wholly new.

This became his breath prayer. Over and over again, he breathed these words in and out. God, use my inadequate hands for healing, use my inadequate heart for loving, he prayed. Without thinking of the consequences, he prayed with fervor he didn’t know he possessed: Holy Spirit, fill me and flow out of me, down my arms, into my hands, and into these broken campers who keep coming and coming.

Their need for healing was so great. Who knew such young people could feel such pain: depression, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, feeling the urge to cut themselves, feelings of abandonment, grief, loss.

Lord, make her whole, make her holy, make her wholly new.

Davies kept whispering this prayer with his fingertips and his breath. He kept asking the Holy Spirit to fill him so the campers could know the healing presence of God. The last camper stood up from the metal folding chair. Davies had forgotten his own exhaustion in the half hour of laying his hands on the campers. They trickled out of the chapel on the way to the dining hall. The counselors and priests who had participated in the healing gathered around the altar for a final prayer. They held hands and prayed. As they let go of each other, Davies felt that little squeeze of his hands from friends on either side.

He backed away from the altar. A tear rolled down his cheek, then another and another. Suddenly, Davies was crying. He sat down in the second pew. Just as suddenly, he was no longer crying—he was bawling, blubbering, sniffling, choking. He had no restraint. His chest heaved, his cheeks reddened. For twenty minutes, he sat with his head in his hands, weeping. As he wept, he felt in his gut and in the soles of his feet the truth: God, you granted me exactly what I asked for—an excess of Spirit, an overflowing of your healing power. The fat tears forming a puddle at his feet were the Holy Spirit spilling out of him. His ragged breath was the Holy Spirit releasing from his body, bringing him back to a level of Spirit that is safe for one human being.

As Davies began to calm, he noticed a hand on his back. Elise had stayed behind and sat silently with him. She had said nothing. She had not tried to hand him a tissue. She had let Davies weep, alone and yet not alone.

He rose to his feet, shakily, drained and full at the same time. They walked across the field to the dining hall. The campers had gone back to their lodges for rest time, and all the grilled cheese was gone. But one of the ladies at the dining hall saw them, fired the griddle back up, and cooked them a pair of sandwiches each. Elise thanked her for this small act of kindness and slid a plate across the table to Davies.

He munched on his grilled cheese for a few minutes. His head pounded with the exertion from crying, but a new feeling a peace was emerging between the throbs. He looked down at his hands again, sticky now with molten cheese. These hands, God? These inadequate hands?