I love the Abram stories of the Hebrew bible because they are so raw. This is God’s chosen people long before they have learned what it means to be chosen or who exactly has done the choosing. We get a chance to see all that learning in action as Abram and Sarai get up to all sorts of atrocious acts as they stumble about on their long journey—bigamy and ill-treatment are some of their lesser issues! One of Abram’s favourite tricks is passing of his wife as his sister and offering her favours to whatever local king might do him a good turn. Charming!
But slowly the chosen people do learn who their God is. What do they learn? I reckon the chief insight of Abrahamic faith is this: what you do matters. They don’t learn it quickly. They don’t learn it well. But by twists and turns they do discover that faith in God is an ethical issue. What you do matters.
In another vein Jesus makes the same point: it isn’t words that mark your participation in the kingdom but deeds; you can call God by your own choice of endearment but, unless you actually listen and respond to what God is saying, words are worthless.
Knowledge never saves us, the truth rarely sets us free: relationship with God is what we need. Relationship which we act upon.
For example, we all know that we are loved by God, liked even, beloved. But unless we follow that through in what we do, it might as well be a lie. It is what we do that matters.
Sometimes doing outranks believing altogether. Edna is always reminding me ‘sometimes you have to fake it to make it’. When the belief in God’s love is getting very shaky we can still get by by acting as if we believed it even when we don’t. And when our bodies are doing the right thing our hearts and minds get the chance to follow. What we do matters.
June 26th, 2003
I became a catholic when I was a young adult, barely out of my teens and I remember my very first year as a part of the Church very well. In particular, I remember really getting into Lent, giving it the works—fasting, praying, going to daily mass—and I remember too the joy of the Easter Vigil and the excitement of this feast, of Pentecost. By the end of that first year I thought I had got it all—a full dose of the Spirit, full to the brim. So much so that when my second year as a catholic came round I was completely floored to be facing Lent again—what was I supposed to do this time when I’d done it all last year? What was the purpose of Easter if I’d already experienced the resurrection and what was the point of Pentecost if I’d already been given the Spirit a year ago?
These days I love the fact that the Church has its seasons and that they come round with regularity, one after the other. There are two things going on in me to make the difference. First is that I get a chance to grow, to go deeper into something that I haven’t found the bottom of yet. I’ve learned I need to grow layer by layer, inch by inch, all my life. And the seasons help me. In Lent I discover again my own unwillingness to be loved by God. At Easter I realise it doesn’t matter since God is greater than my stubbornness. And here at Pentecost I’m reminded the Spirit has something for me to do no matter how badly I’ve done it in the past—to be a witness: a witness to truth, a witness to love, a witness to life.
The second reason I love Pentecost coming around each year is that it reminds me, underlines for me, that the Spirit of God isn’t a thing. I don’t know about you but, while Father and Son are easy to imagine, Spirit is elusive. It escapes me. We tend to think of doves, or tongues of flame, or rushing winds and if I try to think what spirit means beyond those metaphors I end up imagining a kind of thin, disembodied, soup with no qualities at all apart from being there.
I’m tempted to think of spirit as something I can have—as if the Holy Spirit were a fluid I could be filled with or have emptied out of me. Or perhaps I think it’s like petrol I can get topped up once or twice a year but then it gets used up and I run out of steam.
But you can’t have the spirit in the same way you can have a full tank. The spirit isn’t something you have but something you do. The spirit is life, is a way of being alive. It’s a way you or I can be alive. It’s a way our communities can be alive—or can be dead. St Paul has the list of the ways the spirit can die among us: jealousy, quarrels, disagreements, factions, and all kinds of falling out and falling apart. But he also has the list of all the ways the spirit can be alive in us. “What the spirit brings is very different: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.
The way we are alive, the life in us, is what our witness is to God. We don’t have to be preaching from street corners or speaking in tongues to be alive in the spirit and giving witness to God. We give witness to God by letting the Holy Spirit bring us to life. There are always different spirits ready to make us miserable: maybe we feel we are unworthy of God, or unlovable, or maybe we feel heavy with a guilt we won’t have forgiven, or a resentment we won’t forgive. There are lots of inner voices telling us lies to get us to give up the ghost and let the spirit die in us. But God’s voice in us always wants life for us, real life. We are made for life for love, for joy, for peace. And, when we listen to God’s voice in us, the Holy Spirit comes alive in us, burns like a flame in us, fills us with a breath of fresh air, and makes us patient, kind, good, trustful, and gentle.
Every year I forget that, but every year Pentecost makes me remember and pray: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love”.
June 7th, 2003
Maybe it’s the heroic witness of those 22 Ugandans or maybe it’s Paul talking about his mission and the people he has served with care, but, when I read the gospel and hear Jesus talking to his Father about glory and trust and sacrifice and gift, I can’t help but hear him sound so proud of his disciples. He sounds brimful of pride in them. I can almost hear the tears in Jesus eyes.
Father, they have kept your word; they have believed in me; they have believed you sent me. Father, I pray for them, the ones you have given me, because they belong to you. I pray for them. All I have is yours and all you have is mine and in them I am glorified.
These are the ones he loves, the ones given to him, the ones he is so proud of. The ones who will shortly run away, betray him, and scatter. These are the ones he is proud of. Their failure and abandonment do not diminish his pride. He knows it, he loves them, and he is still proud of them.
He is proud of me too and proud of you. Feel that for a moment… Jesus is proud of you… He knows you, he loves you and he is proud of you. And lest you list your betrayals and itemise your failings: remember he knows them too, he knows you, he loves you, he is proud of you.
June 3rd, 2003