The Spirit, the elements, and me

So in yesterday’s lectionary post, I talked about the elements, and I posed some questions that I knew I’d ponder over the week.

  • What does it mean to be set on fire with the Holy Spirit? What does it feel like to have a tongue of fire resting on me? Is it pleasant to be on fire? Is it angry, passionate, loving, urgent? Is this something I can be comfortable with, or is it supposed to make me uncomfortable?
  • If God can make the Leviathan for the sport of it, then what does that mean for me? Does God delight in me in the same way? How much more would God delight in God’s human children than in a great whale or sea creature?
  • That upper room… how must that experience have felt for the disciples? To be afraid for their lives, after watching their Lord die? And to have Jesus walk right through the locked door, unable to be stopped by things of the earth. Peace be with you. And to accept the breath of Jesus, to receive the Holy Spirit as breath. What does it feel like to have the Holy Spirit breathing in me?
  • Am I thirsty? What are the places in my life – in my heart, in my mind – that are thirsty, that need to be quenched? Do I believe that Jesus can fulfill them?
  • What does it mean to have rivers of living water flowing from my heart? What rivers flow from my heart now? What rivers are dammed up, blocked up, preventing God from flowing through me?

Last night, as I was preparing for sleep, some thoughts occurred to me, especially on that first question. I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of being set on fire with the Spirit. To be fair, this could be in part my staid Anglican/Episcopalian sensibilities and how We Just Don’t Do the charismatic worship thing. But I think it was deeper than that, and hits at WHY We Just Don’t Do That.

See, the thing is, fire is really hard to control – as all the elements are. We think we have tamed fire, so that it works for us – to cook our food and heat our homes and light our rooms – but the truth is, fire escapes our control so very easily. Fire is unpredictable, wild. It is beautiful to watch, but quickly and fiercely deadly.

We often think we can control water, too. We dam up rivers to create lakes and to produce electricity. We build pipes to bring water from the rivers to us, to water our gardens and our crops, to give us water to wash with and cook with. But we do not control the water that falls from the skies, that melts from the high ground and flows into the rivers, that rises each spring. We do not control the hurricanes, the thunderstorms, the floods, any more than we control the fog or the dew.

I think we know we cannot control the wind. We can harness its power with windmills to grind our grain or to give us electricity, but we cannot tame the wind or direct it. We can make our own, with fans or giant wind tunnels, but we cannot change the wind that blows across the landscape.

We probably think that of the four elements, we have the most control over the earth. We till the ground, we clear it to build our homes, we harvest the trees and the grains and the fruits. We hunt animals and raise animals for food. We shape and sculpt our gardens and lawns, to be fruitful, to be beautiful, to be ours. But the earth can still best us, with earthquakes and volcanoes and sandstorms and rockslides. The earth is our home, and we are called to protect and preserve this world that has been entrusted to us by its Creator. But we it is not in our control.

What is more than a little bit scary about the Pentecost story is that the Holy Spirit is not in our control, either. We can tell God what to do, but God doesn’t have to listen. The Holy Spirit sets on fire what the Spirit wants to set on fire. Streams of living water flow where God pours them. Jesus chooses those on whom he breathes. And God forms from the earth those whom God has chosen to form. We do not get to choose these things, nor to control them. I do not get to say that God cannot speak in George Bush’s heart. You can’t choose whether Jesus breathes life into Archbishop Akinola or Bishop Jefferts-Schori. We don’t get to control the hearts that are set aflame by the Spirit among the homeless, the poor, the different, the mentally ill. I can’t say that anyone is unable to receive the living water of God.

One of my favourite quotations by Anne Lamott says that you know you have created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do. Because the truth is, no matter how much we might want to, we don’t get to control God. Not any more than we can control the elements.

All of this reminds me of one of my favourite canticles that we sing or pray at Morning Prayer. It is from Isaiah, and this is how it goes.

The Second Song of Isaiah Quaerite Dominum
Isaiah 55:6-11

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found;
call upon him when he draws near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the evil ones their thoughts;
And let them turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion,
and to our God, for he will richly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as rain and snow fall from the heavens
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth,
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth;
it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed,
and prosper in that for which I sent it.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.

It is scary to not be in control.  It is scary to surrender yourself to anyone, including a God you cannot see or touch or hear.  But God is here, God is with you, as God is with me.  God formed us from the earth and breathed life into us.  God yearns to set us on fire with the Spirit.  God aches to pour rivers of living water into our hearts, where they can quench our thirst and flow to those around us who are also in need.  But God does not do these things if we do not want them, if we do not allow them, if we close ourselves off from God’s love.  The cool part about this is that God never stops knocking on our doors, tapping us on the shoulder, and saying Hey, just wanted you to know – I love you. And then God steps back, spreads God’s arms wide, and waits in hope that we will run into them for the divine embrace, and allow God to shower us with all the gifts God possesses.

What gifts are waiting for me, in God’s arms?  And what gifts are waiting for you, my friend?  All we have to do is give God permission to shower them upon us, to relinquish that illusion of the control we’ve never really had.

It’s so simple, like so very much of the spiritual life is.

But it’s not easy.

Peace be with you.  And all the blessed uncomfortableness that God brings us all.