The Holy Spirit

One of the best parts of my job is conversations with people about faith and life and how they intersect (everywhere).  It’s unfortunate if people are made to feel that asking questions is somehow unfaithful (or just threatening).  We don’t always have answers for things, but we can be honest when that’s the case.  But discussion and honesty is crucial to growth and health in the life of  faith.

I communicate pretty regular with a young man who attended our church for  a short time before relocating.  In our recent flurry of communications, he raised the vexing issue that many in the Church struggle  with as they read the Bible – why is it that the early Church (particularly described in the Book of Acts) experienced so many miracles of the Holy Spirit while many, many congregations don’t see those things today?  Is there something wrong with our theology that makes it harder for the Holy Spirit to work in our congregations than in other sorts of congregations where manifestations of the works of the Holy Spirit are not only welcome but expected?

It’s an interesting question.  Interesting in part because this past Saturday evening as I struggled to finalize the sermon for Sunday I was treated to the very loud preaching of the pastor of the Hispanic Pentecostal congregation that leases access to our sanctuary.  They were having some sort of special service and the sound system was on full blast.  I listened as he preached for at least an hour after I arrived.  My Spanish is quite poor so I understood very little of what he said, but what he said seemed to be rather repetitive and notable not necessarily so much for what he was saying as how he was saying it.  Yellings, growlings, shoutings, cries of agony, all responded to in growing fervor by his congregants with Amens and Hallelujahs.

Hills of emotional exhortations would be crested and descended from only to rise up another, larger one until the final exhortations, when the congregation was now in a constant state of loud wailings and prayers and other emotional responses.  Music began to play.  Those  who wanted to sing sang for a while while others (mostly male) exited into the hallway just outside my door to anticipate the meal that would follow.  Whatever emotional and spiritual ecstasies were just experienced seemed to have vanished into the banter of friendly conversation in Spanish and English.  The pastor himself, who just moments earlier seemed on the brink of emotional break-down as he preached, now could be heard laughing and joking with his members as though nothing had happened.  Or as though whatever had happened had been sufficient.  Now it was time to relax and enjoy the meal together.

I am not a Pentecostal.  Nor can I or will I attempt to determine whether the Holy Spirit was moving either the preaching or the response.  I trust the Holy Spirit was present, but delineating between what is the Holy Spirit’s actual workings and what are our workings on behalf of the Holy Spirit is a discernment I don’t dare attempt.

But I can admit the experience was baffling to me.  Because I presume that to some degree each worship service is more or less like this one.  Building to an emotional and spiritual catharsis.  Perhaps of repentance and sorrow and rededication to the Christian life.  In some part the emotional and spiritual experience is the goal, the measure of whether the service was good or  not, the preacher was good or not.  I presume at some level this is linked to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  If the Holy Spirit moved you, then all is well, regardless of what comes after.  If He didn’t, either there’s a problem  in you or in the service/pastor.

I welcome correction on this if these assumptions are incorrect.

There’s an expectation that the Holy Spirit will not only show up but move and act in particular ways.  Which gets at  what my young friend was asking about a few days later.  Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit do this more often?  Why are we tempted to mock Christians who claim He does?

I think the confusion comes when we ascribe to the Church those things rightly ascribed only to the Holy Spirit.  Is the Holy Spirit present?  Yes.  Always.  I (as a Christian) don’t have to invite him to be here or hope He’ll show up.   I have been told by the Son of God himself He is present.  He is at work.  But how He works is up to him, not me, not a congregation, and not a denomination.

The disciples didn’t sit around and plan out Pentecost.  They didn’t determine how big the tongues of flame would be or how loud the sound like rushing wind would be.  They didn’t allocate who would be speaking in which languages.  They had no idea what was coming or how the Holy Spirit would work.  What’s more, they had no  idea what would result.  Thousands of converts.

As much as congregations talk about wanting growth, I can’t imagine that many if any congregations desire the kind of growth that happened that Pentecost.  Imagine 3000 people showing up for worship  Sunday morning.  Where are they going to sit?  How many services are you going to provide to accommodate that many converts?  How many times is the pastor willing or able to preach?  What about the altar guild or the folks who set up Communion?  Pretty sure Walmart doesn’t sell disposable Communion cups.  Where are you going to get that much wine on such short notice?

The early Church adapted to the way the Holy Spirit  worked but they couldn’t plan for it or predict it.  We  are in the same situation today.  The Holy Spirit can and will do what He wants.  We must and will adapt to whatever He does.  In the meantime, we’re going on with our lives, both individually and as the Church.  We make our plans and our decisions using the best information we have available, knowing at any point the Holy Spirit could render those plans obsolete or irrelevant or inadequate.  Thanks be to God!  But we don’t presume we can plan out the Holy Spirit’s activity and the results.

I’m pretty sure Luke bothers to record the miracles in the Book of Acts because they were exceptional!  They happened over a several year time-frame and in different locations and ways.  Nowhere am I given the expectation they will happen on a predictable basis, or their distribution curves will be in any way predictable.  My faithfulness is not a leash on the Holy Spirit.  Nor is my faithfulness an abdication of my duties in anticipation of divine intervention.

I can’t predict how or where or when the Holy Spirit will work.  Beyond pointing to the glory of God and the creation of faith, I can’t even speak to the why.  But what I can do is struggle to maintain the tension between affirming his presence and power and dictating what that will look and feel like.  It’s not a particularly enjoyable tension, but it seems to be Biblical.  God’s people respond in faith and trust to his gifts of life and salvation, but must leave the details of those things on a larger scale to his wisdom and means while being faithful in living out our lives as his people.





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