Come, Holy Spirit
The Spirit is always transgressing the boundaries we impose to try to secure our sense of identity.
By Molly T. Marshall
Looking almost combustible, the red and gold paraments, banners and streamers swirled through our sanctuaries as we celebrated Pentecost once again. I am grateful that Baptist churches have grown more engaged in this liturgical season, which can hardly be confined to one Sunday. I think it is high time we had “Pentecost-tide” much as we observe Eastertide.
There is great interest in the Spirit in our day, and people sense that a deepened engagement with God’s abiding presence holds the key to renewal of faith, hope and love. We can never study the doctrine of the Spirit as an abstraction or different semantic approach to describing God. Actually, we cannot know God unless we enter into relationship with God, and the Spirit makes this possible.
On Saturday, the eve of Pentecost, Central hosted a premier scholar of American Christianity, Diana Butler Bass. Her writings about our epoch as a new time of awakening for the church have inspired many of us. We pursued a conversation about the Spirit, a neglected area of interest for too many centuries and too many ecclesial quarters in the Body of Christ. People are hungry for God, and the Spirit is the means by which we experience God.
Dr. Butler Bass told a story about a service in her home church in Alexandria, Va., which prompted her to leave mid-sermon. It occurred a decade after the 9/11 tragedy, and the preacher for the day spoke of those killed in the ensuing wars — 4,000 Americans — failing to mention the tens of thousands killed in Afghanistan and other so-called enemy countries. She was appalled by the insensitivity of this recounting.
As she left the sanctuary, she encountered an art festival that filled the streets with color and joy and exuberance. As she reflected on the graphic contrast between what she had experienced in the worship service and the vitality outdoors, she said, “I felt as if the Spirit was out here,” rather than in the narrow confines of the church with its judgment and self-interest.
When we read the story in Acts 2:1-21 of the coming of the Spirit in power, through new expressions, we see that those who receive God’s dynamic empowerment are compelled to go public. That each hears the witness to God’s igniting presence as Spirit in his or her own language demonstrates the desire of God for all people (2:11).
The Spirit is always transgressing the boundaries we impose to try to secure our sense of identity. Whether it be ethnic, gendered or ecclesial borders, none can delimit the sphere of the Spirit’s work. We cannot consign the Spirit to functions such as speaking in tongues or granting spiritual gifts; rather the Spirit is about “our deepest breath and our highest human aspirations,” in the words of Jack Levison in Fresh Air.
I am celebrating two recent examples of the fresh wind of the Spirit in Baptist life. The story of Dr. David Hull resigning his pastorate in order to support his wife, Rev. Jane Shannon Hull, in her call to pastoral leadership is breathtaking. Of course, women have moved with their pastor husbands for years; it was simply expected. Yet, I do not want to downplay his remarkable decision, for it models a kind of marital partnership that arises out of mutual submission, which is always born of the Spirit.
And by now, who among us has not heard of the call of Riverside Church to the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler to serve as senior pastor? It is historic, and she is uniquely gifted to take up this charge. I think this church’s Spirit-discerned action will prove to be an inflection point in American Christianity, as it signals movement toward an unforeseen, yet welcome horizon.
Of course, we are all clamoring to be claimed as her friends (FOA?) in these heady days, but I think our excitement speaks to something much deeper. There is this sense that if the power of Pentecost can whip through this august congregation, there is hope for the enlivening of all churches. In my judgment, welcoming the leadership of women is critical to this future.
Although the work of the Spirit is essential for congregational flourishing, the Spirit ranges far more widely. Rather than shrinking the Spirit to the size of the human heart or the varied expressions of church, we can imagine this Presence as the encompassing “giver of life,” as the ancient creed put it.
The Spirit of God gives life to all of creation, and nothing exists without the inspiring presence of God. Suffusing all with holy breath and brimming desire, the Spirit draws God’s treasured creation toward its divine purpose and joyous completion. The Spirit draws humans into this trinitarian history, granting us the dignity of being God’s partner in this inspired and redemptive work. And so we pray, Veni sancte Spiritus.
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