Ghosts and other things that don’t really go bump at all
I love ghost stories. I remember the first volume of horror fiction I read was when I was in the third grade, Tales of Edgar Allen Poe. I swiped it off a shelf where my father had a bunch of other books and read The Tell-Tale Heart, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and my personal favorite, A Cask of Amontillado. After that, I tried to find every ghost story I could get my hands on anthologies of kid’s scary stories from the library, stories about urban legends, all the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew books that had ghosts, and finally, the modern grandmaster himself, Stephen King.
I was not only fascinated with the stories on paper, I was also intrigued by the stories that I heard from friends and relatives. My own family boasted no less than a dozen stories that I can remember about houses that people had lived with specters in the ceiling, doorways blocked and guarded by certain family members who had feuded with the dead during their lifetimes, or in cemeteries that had phantom crying headstones. As I got older, I began to look for these sites, a sort of amateur ghost hunter wandering North Georgia and the southeastern United States, looking for haunted buildings and spooky spots.
In the course of my teenage wandering, however, I ran into a different kind of spirit. It was at a youth rally in the college town of Carrollton, Georgia that I had my first real encounter of any memory with the Holy Spirit. Thus began a journey that has led on its own ghost hunt, a hunt to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit as I tried to understand what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. At times, I have followed the leading of that Spirit, at others, I have simply chosen my own way and wandered down other strange roads and paths.
One thing that I never thought about or really considered was what it meant to be led by or to follow the Holy Spirit. For me, it was always some sort of feeling that tugged me one way or another as I sought to find whatever Kingdom Work was going on in my vicinity. It was a yearning of the heart that drew me in a direction, sometimes in ways that were perfectly logical, other times in ways that made no sense to my unseeing mind. Yet, I never took the time to consider what it meant to understand the workings and ways of the Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost, Spirit of God, however you chose to name the “…life-force sustaining all life” (Kärkkäinen 2004, 19), “…the principle of the active presence of the transcendent God with his creation…the medium of the participation of created life in the Trinitarian divine life” (Kärkkäinen 2004, 20).
It’s a little early in the season, Halloween isn’t for another five months, but this morning, as we consider the meaning and the effects of Pentecost on the life of the church, I want us to do a little ghost hunting, a bit of looking for the Holy Ghost in the life of the church as well as our own lives.
I cannot think of anything more existential – that is more related to seeking a life of authenticity amidst a human society of meaninglessness and absurdity – than the experience of encountering the Holy Spirit. But what is it? What are we encountering or engaging with when we are in the presence of the Spirit of God? Throughout the history of the church, theologians, laymen, and seekers of various kinds have tried to understand the work and nature of the Holy Spirit. The early church father Basil of Caesarea writes that the Holy Spirit is “a substance endowed with intelligence, of infinite power, of a greatness which knows no limit, which cannot be measured in times or ages, and which lavishes its good gifts.” (Caesarea 2007, 191) Cyril of Alexandria writes that the Holy Spirit is the bringer of unity, “The one and undivided Spirit of God, who dwells in us all, leads us into spiritual unity.” (Alexandria 2007, 205) Others, however, have seen the Holy Spirit in less conventional terms, “a supreme field of power that pervades all of creation” (Kärkkäinen 2004, 20), that which embraces “all of life, in every sphere, and in every direction (Oden 2009, 267), or an internalization of the norms of Jesus exhibited in the life of his disciples of all ages (Hector 2008, 17).
The truth is, our understanding of the Holy Spirit is reminiscent of what Paul writes about the experience of love and unity in 1 Corinthians 13: “…a reflection in a mirror…”, something seen as a distortion of the real world, a glimpse of what is through a lens. As with all lenses, there is a certain reshaping that happens, a modifying of the image that leaves you with a two-dimensional appearance of something three-dimensional. In much the same way that we have shaped the culture of the other aspects of our lives around us to suit our personal comfort level, we also shape our understanding of faith and the tenets of faith that we choose to engage with. This can make it difficult to find understanding on any given topic but I have always tried to look for the commonalities that tie the various opinions and perspectives together.
First off, we understand that God is Spirit. John chapter four speaks to this as Jesus utters those exact words, “But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.” The Holy Spirit, while defined as a separate person within the Trinity, is understood best as the Spirit of God. While people may choose to try and do the mental gymnastics necessary to create a systematic theology around a sound theory of Trinity as an existentialist, I have chosen to be more concerned with the experience of the Spirit and the presence that the Spirit brings. And that presence is the presence of God.
Second, we can understand that the Spirit of God is made available to all who seek. We celebrate Pentecost today as a celebration of the Spirit being poured out on the disciples in Acts chapter two but then the celebration does not end there as the Spirit of God continues to work and reach out into the world today. In the Wesleyan sense of it, the Spirit of God offers the three graces: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. It is the Spirit which calls out to us with prevenient grace before we begin the journey of following Jesus. It is the Spirit which in the moment of realizing our need to change offers a justifying or forgiving grace to help us begin the journey of Christ with a new heart. And it is the Spirit of God that journeys with us as we continue on the Way of Jesus that strengthens us and reaches out to keep us drawn close to the way. All of these graces are offered freely to all who would seek them and live in them through – meaning with the help and guidance of – the Holy Spirit.
Finally, most all agree that the Holy Spirit is present in the continuing creative process and all of the creation. From the beginning, the ru’ach or Spirit moved on the waters of the chaos to bring order to creation and continues to provide order. One theologian writes,
“The Spirit of God can be understood as the supreme field of power that pervades all of the creation. Each finite event or being is to be considered as a special manifestation of that field, and their movements are responsive to its forces.” (Kärkkäinen 2004, 20)
That sounds almost like a description of a science fiction novel, but the truth this idea of a ‘field’ is the idea that the Holy Spirit pervades all things and because of that it is the Spirit of creation, the created order as God brought it into being. As we continue to act as stewards of both the created order and the cultural order, we are tasked with being ‘in tune’ with the work of the Holy Spirit that we may find and follow the direction of God’s Spirit. This ‘spiritual tuning’ is what we would call ‘being led by the Spirit’, a combination of our learning from scripture, tradition, reason, and experience or if you like, our experience with God as we have written it down, passed it down, thought about it, and how we have responded it.
Being a little fruity
At our Faith, Food, and Film movie group last night, we viewed the film Hugo, the story of an orphaned boy who is trying to understand his reason for being, while living in the walls of a Paris train station during the 1930s. One of the pivotal moments of the films finds the title character, Hugo, and his friend Isabelle looking out over the evening lights of Paris. Hugo says,
“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.” (Logan and Selznick 2011)
Hugo does indeed find his purpose and the film goes on to a happy ending, but many people in the church today find themselves wondering about their purpose, their ‘What do I do with my life?” question. Often what we have heard about churches (if we are lucky given this day and age) is that we are little more than a bunch of ‘do-gooders’, nice people who are trying be nice to others. But that isn’t the truth of it of course. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote,
“A church which is nothing more than a benevolent, socially useful group can be replaced by other groups not claiming to be churches; such a church has no justification for its existence.” (Tillich 1964, 177)
To be the nice people we are talking about is to be followers, both in being and doing, of Jesus of Nazareth. The reason for being is the preparation for doing. As we abide/are in the Holy Spirit, we prepare for the doing/living of the life of Jesus as the Spirit continues to teach us according to the promise of Jesus in the Gospel of John where Jesus says, “when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.”
Looking at the passage today, we find Paul writing about being “guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires.” Paul goes on to write about several personality traits, or character traits if you prefer, brought into being for those who are ‘in the Spirit’ or better said, are being guided by the Spirit of God. The writer lists them as ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. These are in opposition to the ‘sefish desires’ that are within us, which Paul says are ‘sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that.’
I believe Paul is writing this to the Galatian church, speaking in a pastoral tone, to illustrate the competing mindset that exists within us, a mindset of the world-system, natural world, selfish life if you will, and the life of the Spirit, the life of emulating the person and character of Jesus. He is also saying that our choice will lead to what he has termed as ‘fruit’ or the by-product of our chosen way of being and doing. The one way leads to a life of self-interest and self-destruction where live as damaged beings, inflicting hurts on ourselves and others. The other, a way of peace and love, emulating the life of Jesus and living out the healthiest aspects of the creation within us as we are connected to creation around us. The choice being presented is a diverging of ways within us that calls us to decide who we would like to become and how we would like abide in this existence. It is a way of being that allows us to be interconnected in a way that as a unified group, we can live out this Truth that the Spirit of God seeks to ‘guide us into’ and in the process be the most Jesus-like version of selves individually so that together, we might be the most Jesus-like church. As one theologian wrote,
“He who is grasped by the Spirit can speak to one who needs his help in such a way that the Spirit can get hold of the other through him, and thus help becomes possible. For Spirit can heal only what is open to Spirit.” (Tillich 1964, 202)
Our choice is clear, be open to Spirit and the interconnectedness of creation and the creator or close ourselves off to the harm and detriment of ourselves and others. It is being a conduit to channel the fruit of the Spirit from God to one another and the world around us or being a sewage dump for our baser instincts and fears. Let us ‘be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires.’
Alexandria, Cyril of. “On the Role of the Holy Spirit.” In The Christian Theology Reader, by Alister E. McGrath, 205-206. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Caesarea, Basil of. “On the Work of the Holy Spirit.” In The Christian Theology Reader, by Alister E. McGrath, 190-192. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Hector, Kevin W. “The mediation of Christ’s normative Spirit: a constructive reading of Schleiermacher’s Pneumatology.” Modern Theology, 2008: 1-22.
Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. “The working of the spirit of God in creation and in the people of God: the pneumatology of Wolfhart Pannenberg.” Pneuma, 2004: 17-35.
Logan, John, and Brian Selznick. Hugo. Directed by Martin Socrsesee. Performed by Asa Butterfield, & Moretz, Chloë Grace Moretz. 2011.
Oden, Patrick. “An Emerging Pneumatology: Jürgen Moltmann and the Emerging Church in Conversation.” Journal o f Pentecostal Theology, 2009: 263-284.
Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Vol. 3. London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1964.
 John 4:23-24
 John 16:13
 Galatians 5:16