The Holy Spirit can be the most underrated and misunderstood persona with the Divine Presence. Popular author Frances Chan suggests, “There is a big gap between what we read in Scripture about the Holy Spirit and how most believers and churches operate today.”
My first notions of the spirit world did not come from the Bible but emerged from a book about Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, a Southern folklore written by Kathryn Tucker Windham and Margaret Gillis Figh. Among this collection of stories, there is the tale of Jeffrey, a mischievous spirit who first made his presence known in the Windham home in October 1966. Jeffrey was alleged, “at irregular and infrequent intervals, to clump down the hall, slam doors, rock in a chair, frighten the family cat, move heavy pieces of furniture, cause electronic equipment to malfunction, and hide objects.”
When I was in Mrs. Gibson’s fourth grade class, I presented a report on this book. As denoted in the title, this book highlighted 13 of the best ghost stories from small-town Alabama. To this day, when I drive through the square of one of those quaint Alabama towns I look to see if there is a face in the courthouse window.
It only stands to reason that as a child growing up in the Bible Belt, I associated the ghost in the courthouse with the Holy Ghost in the church house. Evangelists who visited our community preached passionate and lengthy revival sermons alternating almost schizophrenically between asking, “Have you received the Holy Ghost?” and warning us to, “Beware of quenching the Holy Ghost” as though this supernatural apparition could invade your body or condemn your soul, depending on your response at that moment.
“It only stands to reason that as a child growing up in the Bible Belt, I associated the ghost in the courthouse with the Holy Ghost in the church house.”
Through the years, I have matured a little in my thinking and in my understanding of pneumatology. I appreciate my somewhat Bapticostal childhood, but when it comes to my early impressions of the spiritual things, let’s just say that I still have a lot of unpacking to do. Even the name “Holy Spirit,” which occurs in all English translations except the King James Version, is much more friendly than “Holy Ghost,” the former connoting holiness and the latter evoking more of a sense of spiritual haunting.
When I brush aside the folkloric notions of those nostalgic years, the biblical narrative helps bring a much-needed clarity to my understanding of the Holy Spirit.
Prior to the unfolding of what we now call “Holy Week,” Jesus began to prepare his disciples for his own departure by acknowledging he would be going away and yet he assured them, “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you”(John 14:18). Although the incarnate Jesus had been with them in bodily form, now Jesus was explaining that after the time of his physical departure, his Spirit would come to be present with them in a most fascinating and yet mysterious sort of way. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17).
Today when I read the account in John’s Gospel of Jesus foretelling of the comforter and encourager yet to arrive, I am consoled that Jesus’ closest followers didn’t “get it” either in the beginning. I tend to resonate with the angst of the disciples when Jesus started talking about a terminal point in his ministry, an unspecified incident yet to come which would alter and transform their relationship. They must have sensed by Jesus’ veiled hints that some crucial experience was looming in the not-too-distant future, but they could not have imagined the significance of these proceedings. They could not have anticipated the severity of his eventual execution and, obviously, they were astounded by the reality of his resurrection.
Up until this point, Jesus had been their mentor. They even called him “rabbi.” He had shown them a new way to live, a life not based on status or perfection, but a self-worth founded on God’s love and a value system grounded in God’s grace. Jesus accepted them in their imperfect human condition without prerequisite and cultivated within them a lifestyle trending toward simplicity and service.
With news of his pending departure, they must have wondered, “Who will lead us now? Will we return to our old ways and habits? Who will teach us what God expects?”
That to me seems to be the role of the Holy Spirit. This advocate about whom Jesus spoke is now assigned to Christ followers to navigate our steps, to keep us affirmed by God’s love, to steer us toward a lifestyle of service and simplicity, and to protect us from legalism by keeping us grounded in grace. Paul so believed in this spiritual linkage, he wrote to the Romans that “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
“I now embrace the Spirit as the personality of God in the world.”
Although my early notions of the Spirit were more ghost-like, I now embrace the Spirit as the personality of God in the world. And this Spirit is not floating around obliviously in the cosmos but takes up residence within a temple of human flesh. The Spirit of God that hovered over the waters in the creation story now occupies a human habitat in the redemption story.
And much to the chagrin of my hyper-Pentecostal friends, the Spirit does not have the demeanor of an exhibitionist showcasing bizarre feats. Rather, the Spirit prefers to work clandestinely, deflecting attention while always prompting people toward God and the Jesus-kind-of-life.
The story of Pentecost is a pivotal part of the biblical narrative, marking the inauguration of the church and launching the globalization of the Christian faith. However, just as we cannot duplicate the resurrection or re-enact the ascension, we cannot recreate the phenomena of Pentecost. Our God is not the god of repeat performances but is always seeking to do a new thing. The Spirit is filled with creativity and innovation and persistence. And just maybe, the Spirit is initiating an original story within you.
In his book Thinking About God, Fisher Humphreys describes the Spirit as one who “brings life and vitality into the experience of the Christian and the church. He vivifies us. He makes Christian living dynamic as well as decent.” I understand the activity of the Spirit to be a work of fostering unity, not division; a work of inspiring creativity, not repressing it; and a work of re-visioning the future, not preserving the status quo.
In chronicling the events of Pentecost in Acts 2, Luke describes the arrival of the Spirit as “a mighty rushing wind.” Those who live on the coast know that the breeze is constant but the speed is variable. The Spirit resembles the wind, a force that cannot be conjured or controlled. The wind blows and although we cannot moderate its potency or dictate its direction, we can choose to raise our sails.
Barry Howard serves as pastor of the Church at Wieuca in North Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife, Amanda, reside in Brookhaven, Ga.
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