I was nervous Sunday. Not about preaching, per se, but about what might happen next. I had made the decision to spend a good few minutes calling upon the Holy Spirit to come and do her thing, whatever that might be on the day, among us.
You might think that a priest should take such in her stride. Maybe I should; but I was nervous. Deliberately and definitely calling down the Spirit for a visitation, an anointing, could be asking for trouble. Good trouble; trouble, still.
The first time I heard someone speak in tongues as a gift of the Holy Spirit was in a Baptist church in Wales; the one where my classmate’s dad was the pastor. He introduced the time of prayer, and the air filled with expectation, expectoration, and praise songs mixed with Welsh melodies. After a little while, a woman stood up and began loudly to call out her indecipherable prayer. When she sat down, Reverend James asked if anyone had received the gift of interpretation. A man on the other side of the room stood and spoke a word- I don’t remember it. I do remember wondering, as the man spoke for the woman who prayed in tongues, whether his translation of her prayer was what she had thought that she was praying, or what he thought she should.
Perhaps it was about forgiveness, because the other prayer I remember from that morning was a woman who asked how God could forgive someone who can’t forgive herself.
Except for the Words of Institution at Communion, and the Lord’s Prayer, most of that service was in a foreign language to me; and yet the Spirit interpreted our intentions, so that to this day I remember the woman and her need for mercy, and the kindness of the hands that laid upon her shoulders, as they clearly did almost every Sunday.
Calling upon the Holy Spirit for an anointing calls for a lot of trust. Trust in God’s Spirit is easy compared to trusting one’s neighbour, for an unbiased interpretation of angelic or garbled prayer, of the buckling of the knees, of a cry from the heart for God’s mercy to the merciless; the accidental and compulsive confession.
Calling the Holy Spirit into a wholly unsuspecting congregation Sunday seemed almost reckless.
So, I was nervous. But God was, as God is, faithful, and merciful.
There was no doubt that the Spirit was among us that morning, present to individuals in their private need, and binding us together in one breath, knitting the air between us into a prayer. But she was gentle. She did not burn us with fire, nor blow us away. She left us wanting more.
The desire for more will have to battle it out for a little while against the relief that we got away with it, this time.
And yet, the more I think about it, the more I feel that my fear should be less of what the Spirit might take, should I give her an inch. What should give me pause is the memory of a woman, invited week after week to open her soul to the mercy of God, who week after week built fences of unforgiveness around her own heart, which the Spirit respected too gently to demolish, waiting patiently instead for the weary erosion of time and eternity.
Image: Descent of the Holy Spirit, Battistero di Padova, 14th Century Fresco in the Baptistry (Padua) by Giusto de’ Menabuoi, via wikimedia commons (public domain)
The Reverend Rosalind C Hughes is the Rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio. Her sermons and other offerings are at her blog, over the water (RosalindHughes.com)