Listening to the Holy Spirit
May 1, 2005
At the beginning of the last century, one of the most desirable and attractive technical jobs was to serve as a radio operator on one of the luxury ships that regularly crossed the Atlantic Ocean. To hold this job you had to understand the operation of the primitive radios that were available at that time. But you also had to master Morse code, which was a technical language of longer and shorter beeps that could be sent over the radio by which the ships could communicate with one another.
On one occasion, one of the most successful cruise lines advertised a position for a radio operator. The waiting room for the line’s office where the interviews were taking place was filled to capacity. Over 50 people were waiting to interview for the job. They were talking to one another in voices loud enough to make themselves heard over the public address system which every so often would announce that the interviews would soon begin. In the midst of this activity, a young man entered the room and filled out an application for the job. He then sat down by himself for a few moments. Suddenly he stood up and went through a door marked “private.” A few minutes later he returned with a big smile on his face and announced that he had been hired for the job. This caused one of the applicants to protest. “Look,” he said, “we were here hours before you arrived. Why was it that you went in for your interview before us?” The young man replied, “Any one of you here could have landed this job, but you weren’t listening. Over the PA system there was a constant message being sent in Morse code. The message was this, “We desire to hire a person who is always alert. So if you hear this message, come immediately into the private office.”
This story is a good image of our relationship to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is always with us, and yet we have to listen to appreciate that presence. We know and believe that the Spirit is always with us because Jesus has promised us that this is the case. In the gospel today he says, “I will ask the Father and he will send you another advocate to be with you forever, the Spirit of Truth.” We know that we have the Spirit because Christ has promised the Spirit to us and Christ’s promises are trustworthy.
To truly appreciate the gift of the Spirit, it is perhaps helpful for us to remember what Christ has not promised us. Christ has not promised us life would be easy. He has not promised us that we would never have to face divorce or rejection or pain. He has not promised us that we would always have a job or that we would always have our health. He has not promised us that we would always be successful or that we would never make a mistake. These are all promises which perhaps we hope would have been made to us, but they are to be found nowhere in the scriptures.
What is found in the scriptures is a greater promise. Time and time again Jesus promises us the gift of his own Spirit so that he would be in our lives forever. We believe in that promise, and yet we know that we will have to listen if we can benefit from the gift of that Spirit.
The Spirit of God is not always the loudest sound in our ear. The Spirit of God is not always the brightest light in our eye. Often the Spirit of God is found in the subtext of our lives. The presence of God’s Spirit is often discernable under the activities and responsibilities that fill up our days. Like a constant message in Morse code playing out beneath a louder announcement, God’s Spirit continually assures us of the presence of God. Therefore, we must be careful lest we allow ourselves to become deaf to that Spirit because of all our responsibilities and preoccupations. We must not allow our disappointments over the gifts that we have not received deaden our joy over the gifts which the Spirit has given us.
Even if we have to struggle in life, we are called to discern God’s presence in the strength that allows us to continue to move forward. Even though we might have to face hardship and pain, we are called to recognize God’s Spirit in the love of the people who still share life with us. Even though we might have to cope with sickness and death, we are still called to hear the sound of the Spirit in the life that continues and promises us a tomorrow.
The admonition of today’s gospel is to believe and to listen. To believe that the Spirit of God is always with us at every moment of our lives, and to listen so we can hear the sound of the Spirit as it moves under our everyday schedules. Yes, we are called to listen, so that we might recognize the message of God’s Spirit, the message of love that keeps sounding under all the activities and challenges of life.
God Is With Us Forever
April 27, 2008
1 Peter 3:15-18 / John 14:15-21
A college student landed a summer job working on the street department of a small rural community in Indiana. The department was not too technologically advanced. So they gave the young man the job of painting the yellow line down the center of the county highway, and he had to do it by hand. After three days of this work his supervisor called him in and said, “I have some bad news for you. The first day on the job, you did great. You painted three miles of that yellow line. The second day was OK. You painted two more miles. But today was terrible. Today you only painted one mile. Each day your productivity has gone down, and this is unacceptable. You’re fired.” As the young man left the office, he looked back and he said, “You know it’s not entirely my fault. Each day I got farther away from the paint can.”
Sometimes I think we imagine God as paint can, as a presence outside of ourselves. We see God as a presence we can be closer to or farther away from, depending on where we stand. We think we are closer to God when we pray or when we do what is good. We locate God as being present in other places and people. We see God being present in the church or in the beauty of nature. We imagine God being present in saintly people like Mother Theresa or in church leaders like Pope Benedict. And of course God is present in all these people and places. But prior to any of these presences, God is present in you. God is not some paint can exterior to yourself. God is in your heart.
Now this is the message that comes to us from today’s gospel, because in the gospel, Jesus promises us the spirit of God. He tells us that this Spirit is the spirit of truth and the spirit will be with us forever. Now forever is a long time. Forever is always.
Jesus wants us know that God’s presence and God’s spirit is present to us always. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Now I know that this is not news to any of you. You would agree, “God is with me, God is in my heart.” Yet today I want that truth to sink in. The enormity of that truth has tremendous power to shape the way that we live.
God is with us always. God is with us even when we sin. God is with us neither judging us nor rejecting us but patiently waiting. God waits for us to see the wastefulness of our selfishness, the destructiveness of our anger, the foolishness of our prejudice. God is waiting and calling us to change.
God is with us when we succeed, when we love generously and serve faithfully. God is with us rejoicing in our goodness and calling us to more, inviting us to love even more deeply, to serve even more completely, to give more generously. God knows that the more generous we are, the happier we will be.
God is with us in our suffering—when our world falls apart, when the people we love leave us, when sickness and death surround us. God is with us, affirming us and calling us to patience and to courage.
God is with us forever. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. It is only when we know this truth that we can be people of hope. For what is hope? Hope is to believe that there is something beyond our strength and our cleverness and our abilities. Even though we are always called to use our strength and cleverness and abilities, when they fail us, hope can continue. There is something beyond ourselves which is close to us: the presence of God. Because of that presence, we can hope even when we lose our job, even when we discover that our son is abusing drugs, even when our marriage fails, even when we are handed a frightening diagnosis from the doctor, even when we hurt someone we love, even when death is on the horizon.
There is a beautiful line in today’s second reading. It says, “Always be prepared to give your defense to anyone who wants an explanation of the hope that is within you.” Always be ready to explain why we are people of hope. We are people of hope because God is with us. God is with us now and always. God is with us forever. We are not alone. God is not some paint can we can leave behind. God is in our hearts and that presence is with us now. So let us live in God’s spirit. Let us claim God’s dwelling within us. Let us give voice to the hope that is the sure sign that now and always we are children of God.
A Name for the Holy Spirit
May 25, 2014
John: 14: 15-21
Whenever we try to describe God, our words fall short. This is because God cannot be seen or heard or touched. So we end up using a variety of terms that in some part reveal who God is. This is especially true of the Holy Spirit. In today’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples that the spirit is an “advocate.” But this word in Greek, could just as easily be translated as a “comforter,” “counselor,” “companion,” or the “Paraclete.” The Holy Spirit is notoriously difficult to name.
This became particularly clear recently, when a group of European scholars attempted to translate the New Testament into the Karre language. Karre is the language of a small, isolated tribe in equatorial Africa. When the scholars came to today’s passage from the gospel of John, they realized that in the Karre language there was no word for “advocate,” “comforter,” or “counselor.” So they came up with a unique solution. They noticed that in the life of the tribe, it was common that when a group would go out for a journey in the bush, each member of the group would carry a bundle of provisions on his head. Everyone would have a bundle to carry except for one person who carried nothing. The scholars originally thought that this person was the boss, and that was why he carried nothing. But they found out that they were wrong. The person who carried nothing had a particular job. If any member of the group fell down with exhaustion, this person would fall down next to him, and take up their burden and carry it. In the Karre language this person was called “the one who falls down beside us.” The scholars decided to use this word to name the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the “one who falls down beside us,” to take up the burdens we no longer can carry on our own.
What a beautiful image to describe the spirit of God in our lives! When we have to face trouble in our marriage or with our children and we try over and over again to make things better without success, the burden of that pain can press us down, and rob us of hope. Then we need to believe that the Holy Spirit will fall down beside us, and lift up our burdens so that we can hope again. When a friend rejects us, or when somebody we love walks out of our life, that loss and rejection can paralyze us and push us to despair. Then we need to believe that the spirit of God will come to us, so that we can believe that life can begin again. When our health fails, and the pain and fear of illness press us down, we need to trust that God will come to us, and lift us up so that we can continue.
Jesus tells his disciples that the gift of the spirit will be given to them. That is why he tells them that he will not leave them orphaned. Although he will no longer be physically present to them, the spirit will be sent to them, to fall down beside them in their exhaustion, in their brokenness, and to lift them up. Who then is the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is God’s presence walking with us on the journey of life. The Spirit is God’s strength always waiting to pick up our burdens when our strength is gone.
God as Our Advocate
May 17, 2020
In today’s gospel, Jesus promises us that he will ask the Father to send us an Advocate. This word “advocate” is a translation of the Greek word “parakletos”, which we sometimes translate “paraclete.” Our tradition has identified this term with the Holy Spirit. It is very important for us to understand what this term tells us about the Holy Spirit, because all too often our understanding of the spirit is incomplete. The most common image for the Spirit is that of a dove. All too often we limit our understanding of the Spirit to only “dove-like” qualities: gentleness, consolation, support and beauty. All of these qualities certainly apply to the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit is indeed the means by which God conveys gentle consolation to us. But the Holy Spirit is much more than that.
The term “paraclete” helps us to expand our understanding. What does paraclete mean? In Greek, it is a legal term and is probably best translated as “defense attorney.” A paraclete is one who stands with a person to defend them when they are under attack or in crisis. We could certainly use a paraclete as we face the onslaught of the coronavirus. What today’s gospel is telling us is that God is sending us an Advocate, a Paraclete, who will stand with us as we face this pandemic.
What will the Holy Spirit as paraclete provide for us? The same two things that every good defense attorney provides. The paraclete will help us build our defense and negotiate a settlement. In other words, the Holy Spirit as shows us how to judge and how to compromise.
There are many things we have to judge as we face this virus. We have to decide what voices will we trust. What expert opinions will we believe. What actions should we adopt. Should we wear a mask or not wear a mask? Should we social distance with our extended family? Should we go shopping or stay at home? All of these judgments on our part are important. The Spirit, as our defense attorney, helps us make the the decisions which will most effectively protect us. The Spirit helps us prepare to face the virus.
The Holy Spirit also helps us to negotiate a settlement. In our dealing with this virus, as in many legal cases, we will not be able to achieve all that we want. We will have to settle for less. We might want to interact with our family face to face but we will have to settle with a more distant contact through FaceTime or Zoom. We may have been planning to have a large graduation party or wedding reception but will have to settle for something much simpler and then move on with life. We may have been looking forward this summer to attending sporting events and concerts but will have to settle with watching the Indians in an empty stadium and listening to recordings of previously performed music. As we look at all of the things, we can become disappointed. The Holy Spirit as our advocate says, “This is a good compromise. It is a just balance between safety and freedom. It’s a good deal. Take it.”
As we face the battle with the coronavirus, it is important that we open our hearts to let in the Holy Spirit in. The guidance of the Spirit can lead us to judge rightly, to assemble a defense that will work. The presences of the Spirit can support us when we have to settle for less than we would prefer. Now engaging in such strategies and compromises is not easy, but the hope is this: If we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us, we will in time come to a day when we can announce that the battle with the coronavirus is over. The case is finished, and we did not lose. We won.