No Coincidence in the Spirit
May 15, 2005
Fr. George Smiga
I am not sure that many people here would recognize the name Edwin Booth. But if you were living in the United States during the Civil War that name would be recognized in almost every household. Edwin Booth was recognized as one of the greatest actors that had ever lived. He was the Russell Crowe of the American stage. He did not, however, have an easy life. His father drank himself to death. His first wife died after two years of marriage. His second wife went insane. But perhaps the greatest cross that Edwin Booth had to bear was one of shame. Edwin Booth’s younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, was the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. So despite all the fame and success that Edwin Booth had in his life, he always had to deal with the embarrassment that a member of his family killed one of the greatest figures of American history.
Then, one day later in his life, while Edwin Booth was waiting for a train in Jersey City, there was a disturbance on the platform. Booth saw that a tall, young man was being shoved by the crowd onto the train tracks just as a train was approaching. Booth dropped his suitcase and ran immediately and pulled the man out of the way of the approaching train, certainly saving his life. The young man recognized who Booth was at once and said simply, “Well that was a narrow escape, Mr. Booth.” As the two men began to talk with one another, Booth found to his amazement that the young man whose life he had just saved was Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of Abraham Lincoln.
Now how would we explain such a remarkable connection of events, that the brother of the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln was the man who saved the life of Lincoln’s eldest son? Is that a coincidence? Those who do not have faith in God have no other explanation. Despite the odds being a million to one, people without faith would have to explain an event such as Edwin Booth saving the life of Robert Lincoln as a remarkable convergence of random events. Those, however, who believe in God, who believe in Christ Jesus, have a different explanation. For we believe that there is a force, a power, that is active in our world. That force is the Holy Spirit.
You see, believing in Christ is more than accepting a list of propositions that are outlined in the Creed. It is more than believing that a certain number of events once happened to Jesus thousands of years ago. Saying that we believe in Christ means that we believe that the power of God’s Spirit is active and moving in our world and in our lives. We believe that the Holy Spirit moves us towards reconciliation, towards life, towards salvation.
Jesus in today’s Gospel breathes on the disciples, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” That is His way of saying that He will remain with us, that God’s power will remain active in our lives and in our world. The action of God’s Spirit often appears as a coincidence. Yet for believers there is no such thing as coincidence. For us what appears as coincidence is the action of God in our lives.
Think about it. Was it coincidence that Saturday night when you finally gave in to the demands of your friends and went out to a party even though you rather would have stayed at home and met that night the person you were going to marry? Was it coincidence that you were in an automobile accident and you walked away and then realized you would have to take steps to deal with your drinking problem? Was it coincidence that you met someone you had hurt in the produce aisle at Heinen’s and found the courage of saying, “I’m sorry,” and took a step towards healing and reconciliation? Any one of us can recall events in our life that look like coincidence. How we interpret them is up to us. All I can say is that on the deepest level, Christians don’t believe in coincidence because we know that the spirit of God is active, shaping and directing our lives.
But if we accept that truth of God’s active presence in our life through the Spirit, it changes us. It makes us see life differently. It makes us into different people. For people who recognize the action of God’s Spirit in their life are more humble, more optimistic, more generous.
A person who knows that God is active in the world tends to be a humble person because he or she recognizes that they are not the center of the universe, that there is another power in the world working for good, building the kingdom. Although our decisions are important, we recognize that our decisions are not absolute, that God is working around us and through us. Therefore, we watch humbly for signs of God’s presence.
The person who sees the action of the Spirit in their life is an optimistic person. If God is active, there is always reason for hope. There is always reason to believe that things will turn out better than we had planned. There is always a reason to believe that as we get up each morning, something good will happen today. If God is active we can be optimistic.
A person who believes in the action of God’s Spirit tends to be a generous person. Because once we see that God is active, we want to cooperate, we want to take part. Therefore, we tend to give of our time, of our resources, of our talents more freely without holding back, without counting the cost because we believe that whatever is freely given will be used by God for God’s good purposes.
Those who recognize the action of the Spirit in the world tend to be a humble, optimistic, generous people. Conversely, those who look at the world and feel that whatever happens is totally up to them have a tendency to be proud, pessimistic and stingy. What kind of person do you want to be? It depends on what you believe. Therefore, choose what you believe carefully.
The great feast of Pentecost that we celebrate today proclaims to us that God is real and God is active in our world. Let us then today embrace this great truth. Let us believe in the presence of God working and directing our lives. Let that faith make us into humble, optimistic, generous people. It all depends on what you believe. Christians do not believe in coincidence. We believe in the Spirit of God.
The Spirit in the Middle
May 11, 2008
Beginnings are frequently scary, and endings are often sad. But it is what is in between that is important. It is in the middle that we live. We experience beginnings and endings with heightened emotions. Beginnings are often a mixture of excitement and fear. How will I be as a parent? Will I succeed in a new city or a new job? Will I be accepted in a new school? Am I ready for retirement?
Endings are inevitable and often sad. Good-bye to fellow classmates at graduation. Good-bye to co-workers in the office. Farewell to a friend who moves away or to a spouse we lose in death. We feel beginnings and endings deeply. In those moments, life has our attention. So does our faith. We know that we need God in beginnings and endings. We need God to be present, and we pray for God’s help. God regularly supports us with strength and consolation. In those moments, our faith is focused and clear.
But we need God beyond beginnings and endings. We need God in the middle of life. This is why Jesus’ gift of the Spirit is so important in today’s gospel. For the Spirit is the one who guides us through the middle, in all those moments of low emotion and ordinary living. The Spirit is the one who calls us to live deeply, in all that day to day routine that comprises the majority of our lives.
It is easy to be the best parent we can be on the day of our daughter’s baptism, or on the day of her wedding. But we need the Spirit to be with us when the kids fight over the video games and when we have to help with homework after a grueling day of work. It is easy to be focused at work on the day that we receive a promotion or when the business is facing a financial crisis. But we need the Spirit of God to sense the sadness of a fellow worker or to remind us to inject some humor in all those ordinary Tuesday workdays of our lives. It is easy to be thankful for our mother on her birthday or on Mothers Day or at her funeral. But we need the Spirit to remind us to call her during the week, to ask “Can I help with that?” and every so often simply to say, “Mom, thanks for everything.”
We remember the beginnings and the endings, but life happens in between. It is there that we invest our time, that we build our relationships, that we become the people we are. So on this feast of Pentecost, we need to open our hearts to God’s Spirit, for God’s Spirit is the one who prompts us to live deeply in all those ordinary moments. God’s Spirit is the one who calls us to live more joyfully, more deeply, more faithfully in all those nondescript days which fill up most of our years.
Now I know that some here this morning are dealing with beginnings and endings, caught up in the peaks or the valleys of living. But most of us are in the middle. Therefore, we must open our hearts to God’s Spirit who helps us to remain focused, fresh and faithful. Come, Spirit of God. Come into the middle of our lives. Come into all the ordinary time which surrounds us. Come, make us joyful, thankful people today.
Seeing the Invisible
June 12, 2011
During the Second World War, two soldiers who were seriously wounded were convalescing in a small hospital in rural France. Conditions were rather primitive. The room was tight and, in fact, there was only one small window through which you could see the outer world. Both of the soldiers were bedridden, unable to even sit up. But the soldier whose bed was by the window was able to raise his head enough to look out and see what was outside. Because there was little to do in the hospital, the soldiers spent a great deal of time with one soldier telling the other what he saw.
He saw a beautiful public park in which there was a lake with ducks and swans. Children were feeding the birds breadcrumbs and sailing their model boats on the water. He saw lovers walking hand in hand under the trees. There were beds of bright flowers and stretches of open grass on which people were playing soccer. Beyond the trees you could see the buildings of the small village with the spire of a majestic cathedral. One day after the other the events outside the window were described: how one of the children almost fell into the lake, how beautiful the young women looked in their summer dresses, or how skilled some of the young men were at soccer. This description of the world outside their hospital room not only helped the soldiers pass the time, it also gave them hope—hope that there was a world to which one day they would return.
Then one night the soldier who was away from the window was awoken by doctors and nurses gathered around his companion. He had just had a stroke and they were unable to revive him. When the sun rose the next morning, the bed that was next to the window was empty. It was a great loss to the surviving soldier. Not only did he lose a companion, he lost his access to the outside world. So, when an opportunity presented itself, he asked if he could be moved to the bed next to the window. His request was granted and the nurses and orderlies came in, lifted him up, brought him to his new bed, and tucked him in. As soon as they had left the room he twisted his head up as high as possible to look out the window. It faced a blank wall.
Seeing is more than taking light and color into our eyes. It also involves our minds and our hearts. Seeing includes believing. This is an important truth for us to remember today on this Feast of Pentecost as we celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit, because the Spirit of God is invisible. The Spirit has no shape or size or color. The Spirit of God is God’s immaterial presence in our world and in our lives. We need the eyes of faith to recognize the presence of God’s Spirit among us.
Where should we look? When you see your children laughing and playing, do not only see their enthusiasm and joy. See also the mystery of their life which is a gift that God has given them and entrusted to you. When you gather with close friends and spend an evening together, do not fail to see how the presence of those friends in your life is a result of God’s love—a love that brought you together and allows your relationship to be life-giving. As you face the news of the world, look amid the violence and the injustice for those moments of harmony, service, and cooperation. See in those good events the action of God’s Spirit working to bring peace and justice to the world. As you drive or walk during these beautiful summer days, do not simply see the greenness of the trees, the billowing clouds, and the vibrant colors of the flowers. See in all the intricacy and life that surrounds you a sign of a God who created all things and continues to guide them.
We are surrounded by people, events, and nature. But what do we see? Can we discern the invisible presence of God’s Spirit which animates and directs all of them? If someone can see a world of life and wonder by staring at a blank wall, how much more should we be able to see the love and presence of God in all the beauty and life that surrounds us.
June 8, 2014
Pentecost is the feast of the Holy Spirit. In today’s Gospel Jesus invites us to receive the Holy Spirit. But what are we receiving? Who is the Holy Spirit in our lives? Images must be used, and today I’d like to suggest one that I think is particularly helpful. The Holy Spirit can be seen as God’s midwife. A midwife is a person, a man or a woman, who assists a woman giving birth to a child. The Holy Spirit can be seen as God’s assistance to us as we give birth to new things in our lives. The Spirit in this sense is God’s guidance through the transitions of life. And, as we all know, life is often one transition after another. Most of us here today recognize some transition on the horizon.
It might be a transition occasioned by graduation, by leaving our old school behind and preparing to enter a new school with new relationships, or no school with a full-time job. It might be occasioned by the commitment we make to another person in marriage, leaving the single life behind and building our life now around the person that we love and the family that we will share together. It might be occasioned by loss, as we grieve the people who are no longer with us because of death and as we try to imagine living without them.
In all of these transitions the Spirit of God can be seen as God’s midwife assisting us as we give birth to something new. And what is so helpful about the image of the midwife is the respect that it shows to our participation in the process. A midwife does not replace the mother. She does not do it for her. A midwife sits facing the mother giving encouragement, advice, and sometimes pressing down on the woman’s abdomen to encourage the child to come out. In the same way, the Spirit of God does not replace us. Our initiative, our insight, our effort are all necessary. The Spirit does not do it for us. But the Spirit sits with us encouraging us, advising us, and sometimes exerting some pressure.
It is important then for us to recognize this midwife presence of the Spirit in our lives. As you enter your new college campus for the first time and are overwhelmed by the new places and faces, it is important to hear the Spirit say in encouragement, “You can do this. You know who you are. You can make friends. You know how to study. Let this new life come forth.” As you live the first year of marriage, it is important to let the Spirit advise you as she says, “Be honest with your spouse. Let your spouse know what you need and what you feel. Do not let the fear of an argument cause you to side-step what is important. Love only grows in the presence of truth.” As you cope with the loss of someone that you love, be prepared to feel the Spirit’s pressure as she says, “Yes, it is sad that he or she is no longer with you. But there is life to be lived. It is a new life that is worth living, and you are not going to find it here alone sitting in your house. You need to get out there. It is time to push.”
The Holy Spirit is God’s midwife assisting us through the transitions of life. We have to do the work. We have to be the one who pushes. But it is important to trust the Spirit’s presence. Her encouragement, her advice, and at times her pressure will lead us to new life.
The Work of Forgiveness
June 4, 2017
Today’s gospel in which Jesus appears to his disciples on the evening of the Resurrection is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. Jesus greets his disciples with peace, shows them his hands and his side, and then sends them out to continue his work. But what is often overlooked in this passage is the work that Jesus sends the disciples to do. He does not send them out to preach or heal or to teach. He sends them out to forgive. And there is a very specific way of forgiveness that Jesus has in mind.
A priest in a country parish decided to buy a farm on which he planned to live in his retirement. The farm was a total mess. It was really not much more than a few acres of weeds, gopher holes, and run-down buildings. So each week on his day off the priest would go and plow the weeds and rubble, mix cement, saw wood, repair broken windows, and fix the plumbing as best as he could. After about a year of this, one of his parishioners who was familiar with the old farm stopped to visit. He was impressed. “Well, Father,” he said. “I can see that you and God have been doing a lot of work in this place.” “Thank you,” said the priest, “I appreciate your thoughts. But let me tell you something. You should have seen this place when God had it all to himself.”
God is always working in our lives, but when it comes to fixing up a farm, you need human effort as well. This is close to Jesus’ understanding of forgiveness in today’s gospel. He first of all gives the Holy Spirit to his disciples, because he knows that true forgiveness is only possible through God’s grace. But then he places the work of forgiveness into our hands: “Whose sins you forgive will be forgiven.” Jesus understands that forgiveness involves human action. Forgiveness is a collaborative effort, an action in which the Spirit and we work together. We need the Spirit because the Spirit has the power to soften our hearts, change our minds, and empower us with love. But along with the Spirit we must take up the hard work of forgiving.
Who is it in your life that you need to forgive? Do you need to forgive a family member who has disappointed you? A friend who has betrayed you? A co-worker who has insulted you? A spouse who has rejected you? The risen Christ challenges us to take up the hard work of admitting that we have been hurt but refusing to allow that hurt to determine our future. Jesus calls us to recognize that we have pain but not play that pain over and over again in our minds so that healing is impossible. The hard work of forgiveness is knowing that the hurt which attacked us is real but insisting that the pain will not rule our lives.
Forgiveness is letting go of the past, letting go of those things we cannot change. That is hard work. But when we become exhausted with the hard work of forgiving, it is then that we can trust upon God’s Spirit to revive us and lead us forward. Forgiveness is a work that the Spirit and we do together.