A Spirit of Hope

Melanie Ollet (’12)
Kay Spiritual Life Center
December 8, 2011

Image courtesy of wordle.net

Romans 8: 22-27; “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise, the spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the spirit herself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the spirit, because the spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  (ESV)

I have a confession to make which may cause a further reduction to the “seminary points” Ian has been awarding me.

The “Holy Spirit” really, really confuses me. In my defense, I think it is an aspect of Christianity- and Abrahamic traditions as a whole- that confuses many people.

Growing up, my understanding of trinitarian theology was as follows: God the father created everything, and acts as a kind of “grand officiator.” Whereas the Son is part of the father, and he became flesh and redeemed the world from its sins (because, let’s face it, we get on god’s nerves a lot.) The “holy spirit” was sent to us at pentecost (even though she had always been present?) and she took care of “the rest.”

Don’t ask me what “the rest” was, exactly.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I had felt the presence of God, I had recognized the work of God being done through people, and I had experienced the comforting peace of God in my own life and in the lives of others. I simply did not recognize these as the works of the holy spirit.

I blame some of my confusion on Nazarene singer/evangelist Jimmy Dell. There was a song of his entitled “holy ghost power” which terrified me as a child. Some of our friends in the Nazarene congregation I attended were acquaintances of Mr. Dell, and one year he came to our camp meeting and sang this song both in worship and at our family’s campfires. I have tried to block the memories from my head, but I think the images of the holy spirit that the song produced managed to affect my views on the 3rd member of the trinity.

Do you all remember the movie “Casper?” It’s a classic; the friendly ghost who interacts with humans and attempts to stop the “bad ghosts” from causing us pain and embarrassment wherever possible. For a long time, I viewed the holy spirit as a Casper-like specter. Perfectly friendly, and mostly harmless, but nevertheless a being that supposedly inhabited my body and was able to use it to speak and act in ways that I could not always control.

I later learned that I was not the only one who was terrified of this. It seemed that a large portion of my Nazarene congregation were. We rarely talked about the holy spirit in Sunday school, and when she was brought up it was when I would hear jokes from adults about that crazy time in their youth when they heard someone speak in tongues.

I was taught later on that the presence of God which I had felt was, in fact, the work of the spirit, and that it could be manifested in a number of ways which, in time, I would understand more. And for a time, I was content.

Then, I started to have an interest in ecumenism and I learned about the pentecostal church. It fascinated me; their emphasis on the work of the holy spirit was something I hadn’t heard before. But suddenly, I was given the impression that if I was not speaking in tongues or prophesying over people on a regular basis, I was not a “spirit-filled Christian.”

I took great offense to these accusations against my piety, and so I prayed for these “spiritual gifts” to be bestowed upon me.

I’m still waiting.

I have been so concentrated on seeking grand, outward signs of the holy spirit’s work that I have neglected the great inward transformation that has taken place.  I often fail to credit the holy spirit with what she has been doing most throughout my life; offering me healing and comfort in spite of the troubled world in which I lived.

The holy spirit has seen the situations that need healing in my own life  and the brokenness that exists in all humanity, and has cried out to god on our behalf. She, in her divine nature, is able to communicate to the divine our innermost hurts when we are weak and can’t communicate our pain ourselves. The spirit of god hears our groanings, and is present with us through them. 2000 years after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the holy spirit is the means through which we experience God in our own lives. It is through her that we experience God’s promise to us that he will be with us always, and eventually he will redeem the world and we will be with him. That fulfilled promise and that anticipation for the future are especially poignant in this season of advent.

That hope that the world may not always be as it is now is a concept which has long comforted Christians, but has also left us confused. As Christians, we are sometimes under the misguided impression that we are somehow supposed to transcend the suffering of this world. We are, after all, children of God, and assume ourselves to be “saved.” We have turned from the sins of the world, and so we have nothing to worry about because know our next life will be bright and cheerful, right?

Yet somehow, that hope for the next world is not enough to make us bright and cheerful all the time. Life hurts now. People are living in injustice now, people are sick now, people are dying now- and despite how many times certain Christian groups may try to tell the world that hope in Jesus Christ makes all of that feel better, it  really doesn’t.

Paul was a man of great resilience, but he understood that the life of a Christian was not all rainbows and kittens. In 50-60 A.D. the Roman government was extremely wary of these strange new Jews (and that’s putting it delicately,) there was turmoil among the Jew and Gentile churches, and that beyond the troubles of the early church, there were greater problems of the human condition that could not be solved in this world- even if one had the very spirit of god within them. So he comforted them by reminding them of what hope in Christ meant. It meant the eventual redemption of our earthly bodies,  it meant peace among the nations, it meant a world ruled with justice. Oh, how sweet that day would be!

After several millenia, we are getting a bit tired of waiting for it. We see the darkness of the world; the pains of death, illness, injustice, and poverty, and we cry out for God to save us all from it. Many times, we pray for God to spare us from the evils of the world rather than for the suffering world itself. Yes, the poor and the sick and the hungry make us sad, but after Jesus comes again they won’t be poor or sick or hungry anymore, so why won’t he just come already?

Thankfully, we have been left with a helper who is not only present in our affliction, but is able to communicate to God our struggles so we may receive healing.

I’m not talking about physical healing- although I believe that it has happened- but the spiritual, transformative healing that helps us to accept our own struggles and see into the world with the hope that one day the world will not have to endure those struggles.

In this way, the holy spirit can be evidenced in very strange circumstances. I have realized the Spirit’s work in a friend who gave birth to a stillborn daughter, and reached out to other mothers who had experienced that sorrow. She was filled with great pain, but also with greater peace as she felt the solidarity of those women around her. I have seen the spirit work in a family who, upon loosing their 17 year old to epilepsy, started a foundation to help youth live out their dreams and recognize their unrealized potential. Their grief was tremendous, but they have managed to transform lives by refusing to let one adolescent’s incomplete dreams go unfinished. I’ve felt the spirit move while looking into the eyes of Alzheimer’s patients who recognize their own confusion and the failure to communicate within themselves, but who refuse to give up their hope in looking for answers and trying to communicate with anyone who will listen.

Yes, the holy spirit is also evidenced through the community and hospitality of a congregation, through prophesying and encouragement and all of the other ways Paul mentions in his other epistles.

But, I think it is important to remember that the holy spirit also represents our own experience of god being present with us, she reminds us of our hope for the future that god will come again, and she is the comforting presence amidst our affliction that reminds us that god hears our cries, even when we can’t communicate all of our pain.

She is not a casper-like specter, but more like the gentle, humid wind in the desert which promises the restorative rain to come.