In preparing for my trip to the Holy Lands nearly two years ago I ordered on amazon an electrical power adapter. It was a multi-faceted device that boasted electric prong arrangements that would accommodate eight different kinds of outlets around the world. It would take care of my needs in Israel but also served me well on my trip to Europe last year. Packed into my suitcase I was relieved to know I would be able to keep my cell phone charged no matter where I roamed!
One of the appliances that was deemed unsuitable for this adapter was a blow dryer. This uses so much electricity that the 4-page long adapter instructions warned against using it with a blow dryer. I traveled to Israel with my sister, who was my roommate. One morning I emerged from our bathroom to see her leaning over, her hair wildly blowing thanks to her drying efforts. As predicted, the energy being siphoned from the hotel walls through the spiffy adapter was too great. I suddenly understood why four pages of instructions were warranted for this product because flames were shooting out of the blow dryer toward my sister’s increasingly dry hair! I yelled at her but she couldn’t hear me. A blow dryer is a pretty effective sound blocker. So I ran at her and she must have seen something in my face and gestures that led her to turn off the appliance. “What?”, she asked, unfazed. Safe from harm, her hair intact and not aflame, I told her what I just witnessed. It didn’t take too long before we were laughing about it but we vowed not to use our American blow dryer again on the trip!
Energy is a tricky thing. Sometimes the force of somebody’s energy is so overwhelming that we get pulled into it. That can be a wonderful thing, like the charisma of a singer at a concert who holds thousands of people in his hands. His words and melody make sense of their discordant lives. But too much energy coming from the wrong place can singe us and disrupt our plans. Although we try to control the environment to our daily lives we often find ourselves surprised by this intangible thing called energy that has a hold on us.
We celebrated Pentecost last Sunday. We read a descriptive passage from Acts 2 that tells us how the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the early disciples, equipping them for ministry. “Divided tongues as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” What a crazy scene that must have been! The arrival of the Spirit is marked by wind and fire. Common men were transformed into bold evangelists. The Spirit shows up as something that can’t be touched or controlled yet it must be harnessed to serve in Jesus’ name.
Spirit moments are rare gifts. We know them when we experience them. They are intangible and can easily be doubted by others. But they mark us with the permanency of a branding that identifies to whom we belong. As a pastor I hear these sorts of stories often. People preface them with words like, “I know it sounds crazy but…” Or “I’ve never told anyone this before but….” Or “Then the craziest thing happened…” The Spirit of God moves—always unexpectedly, never at our beck and call—and we know we’ve been blessed with a visitation. It may be in a worship service. It may be in the boardroom. It may come in the form of a voice or message that we hear inwardly. It may be in the arrival of the right person at the right time with the right words. After Pentecost the followers of Jesus turned to the Holy Spirit for guidance and the Church was born.
In John’s gospel Jesus is preparing His disciples for His departure although they don’t know that. This section of John is Jesus’ last lecture. His words made sense only after the day of Pentecost: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” The disciples would need to know what was true since they put their lives on the line preaching about Jesus. The crazy news that Jesus had resurrected from the dead as the long awaited Messiah became urgent news that they not only believed but felt compelled to share with others. The Holy Spirit convicts us of truth. Like Martin Luther we find ourselves saying, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” When we tap into the power of the Pentecost Spirit, we are convicted of truths upon which we build our lives!
In 1877 Arthur Sullivan set to music a poem that Adelaide Proctor had written in 1858. The poem was entitled “A Lost Chord” and Sullivan was drawn to its words as he kept a bedside vigil for his brother. Adelaide describes how the organist was playing music idly and then stumbled upon this chord that was a perfect ending note to all other music the musician had ever played:
Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wander’d idly over the noisy keys;
I knew not what I was playing, or what I was dreaming then,
But I struck one chord of music like the sound of a great Amen.
Just like on Pentecost, when the Spirit shows up we are changed by its presence. The Spirit makes sense of our struggles and leaves us with a sense of peace. These moments are fleeting. They can’t be manipulated. They come when we most need them and give us the answers that have eluded us.
The poem describes the power of this chord:
It flooded the crimson twilight like the close of an Angel’s Psalm,
And it lay on my fever’d spirit with a touch of infinite calm.
It quieted pain and sorrow like love overcoming strife,
It seem’d the harmonious echo from our discordant life.
It link’d all perplexed meanings into one perfect peace
And trembled away into silence as if it were loth to cease;
In my prayer group this past Wednesday we prayed for an African woman who receives care in an assisted living facility. She and her husband moved to the United States years ago as missionaries to their home country of the Congo. She has needed dialysis for many years so she no longer has the possibility of returning to her home country for a final visit. Though they are part of a community in Pennsylvania, they are African. They have family in the Congo including a son who is buried there. At times we feel like foreigners far from home. We know we somehow don’t belong where we are but it’s where we have to stay.
This describes our spiritual life: created for a heaven but anchored first in our earthly home. Often we feel uncomfortable with our world. There’s a pervasive sense of despair in our country right now. A new report released by Trust for America’s Health and Well Being Trust give statistics behind an increase in “deaths of despair.” These are lives lost to suicide, alcohol or drugs. While deaths have increased in nearly every age group due to these struggles, they have risen dramatically for those betwteen the ages of 18 and 34. Between 2007 and 2017 drug deaths rose by 108%. Alcohol-related deaths grew by 69% and suicide by 35%. In 2017 alone 36,000 millennials died from deaths of despair. Loneliness rampages all ages like an epidemic. Elderly are left in care facilities without visitors. Youth and adults have replaced authentic human contact with social media “friends” who don’t sit with you, listen to you or look you in the eye. Deep human relationships are the way we most directly experience the Divine in our world. Without a rich array of close friends and family our lives are like a melody comprised of only a few notes. We are strangers in a foreign land without the presence of Christ and His love that binds us together. So those moments when the Spirit drops in have the effect that Proctor described of giving us peace, calm and healing.
For all of his heady intellect, the apostle Paul names our human struggles. Don’t you love his description in the first five verses of Romans 5 that we stand in God’s grace. I imagine standing in a river with water about knee-high. This grace swirls around us, enabling us to triumph over our weaknesses. Paul surprises us by writing that we boast in our sufferings! How often do we hear someone rejoicing in their suffering in our prayer time? Never! Yet folks will tell us, usually on the healing side of tragedy, how they met God powerfully in the dark times. Paul gives a theological progression that is our survival guide while living in this foreign land: Suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope and hope does not disappoint us!
Hope does not disappoint us. Isn’t hope what is often lacking in our news stories today? Isn’t hope what we try to transmit to those who are despairing? Isn’t hope central to our walk as disciples, linking “all perplexed meanings into one perfect peace”? When the Spirit shows up with firepower, we are transformed. Pentecost power leads grandmothers to walk in protest marches; high-power executives to leave lucrative careers for ministry; couples of meager means to adopt children into their families; busy teens to give up an evening to help serve a meal at a mobile home community. When the Spirit drops in we labor to raise the funding for trips that take us into the communities of complete strangers who become our friends. This week we have church members traveling to Ohio, Kentucky and Honduras as missionaries. They have worked all year to pay for their journey and our congregation has generously supported them. By God’s grace the adversity we inevitably face teaches us endurance and we become peddlers of hope in a world that is wading through fake news praying for truth!
The very nature of the Holy Spirit is elusive. We learn that those epiphanies, those divine encounters, are moments that cannot be pinned down. Remember Peter’s reaction to the Transfiguration of Jesus? He wants to build a booth (or tent) and camp out as if it’s a movie marathon that he can prolong by constructing some permanent lodging. He’s ready to pop some corn to keep the show going from the ease of sideline chairs. But no sooner has he proposed the scheme and the vision is over. We try to capture inspiring scenes by taking pictures that we can pull up on our phones at will. But seldom do those digital images truly convey the feeling of the moment. We aren’t meant to entrap the Spirit as if hanging on to the tail of a shadow.
Proctor describes how the organist could never quite recapture the beauty of that chord that gave such resolution to his or her life:
I have sought, but I seek it vainly, that one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ and enter’d into mine.
It may be that Death’s bright Angel will speak in that chord again;
It may be that only in Heav’n I shall hear that grand Amen!
The Holy Spirit that was given on Pentecost is what fuels the Church today. It’s what offers that grace in which we stand! If we underestimate its power, we might as well be using a blow torch to dry our hair, fully expecting it to turn out well! But when we watch for it and yield to its power we find that we are home. No longer aliens in a strange land, when we live in Christ and serve as His disciples, we are filled with hope. And hope, Paul assures us, does not disappoint!