June 9, 2019: The Problem with the Holy Spirit by Rev. Beth Hayward (Pentecost Acts 2: 1-21)

I remember this news headline from several years ago in the satirical online publication The Onion. It read “God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost out of the Trinity.” The Holy Ghost, the article said, will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities leading up to its formal resignation following Easter services. The rational included the usual over staffed and over budget but my favourite reason for the layoff was the “unclear nature of the Holy Ghost’s duties.[1]

I remember this news headline from several years ago in the satirical online publication The Onion. It read “God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost out of the Trinity.” The Holy Ghost, the article said, will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities leading up to its formal resignation following Easter services. The rational included the usual over staffed and over budget but my favourite reason for the layoff was the “unclear nature of the Holy Ghost’s duties.[1]

There’s some truth to it, right? The church will tell you that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. But really, what does that mean? I’ve taken an entire course on the Trinity and the Holy Spirit still eludes me. The other two persons of the Trinity are marginally easier to comprehend. Jesus was the Galilean who lived and died and was resurrected. There’s something tangible about him. God, well we could spend a lifetime debating the nature of God. At least we share God with the world’s great religions; worth hanging onto for that reason alone. What exactly is the Holy Spirit? Is it useful to us even if we can’t quite grasp it?  

If you were here two weeks ago you’ll remember that Tama, our Minister of Children Youth and Families, stood here and told you that the most important thing in the Christian faith is story, not doctrine or practice! The biggest problem with the Holy Spirit may well be the fact that the church, in her wisdom, has boxed the Spirit into the doctrine of the Trinity. In trying to make sense of this presence that shows up in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and is described as everything from a dove to breath to tongues of fire, well it’s possible that we’ve sucked the life out of the Holy Spirit. Maybe, the Spirit was never meant to be tamed.

And then we make it more complicated. You can be spiritual but not religious at the same time. Spiritual things are different from material things. I mean Spirit is about those lofty things we aspire to through quieting our minds, leaving behind the physical for a while and touching instead, well, the spiritual.

But what if Spirit stirs us up to pay attention to what’s happening right here right now? What if the Holy Spirit is the persuasive, persistent, presence of God that won’t let you go, until you pay attention to this life, your real physical life? What if Spirit has everything to do with our actual physical lives, inextricable from the food we eat and the company we keep and the seemingly innocuous decisions we make day in and day out? What if the Spirit is that which lures us back to the truth of the oneness of all creation? What if the Spirit is actually here, right now?

That first Pentecost day there they were 120 members of the newly formed Christian community and several thousand others out for an enjoyable long weekend afternoon. Those 120 had been waiting and wondering for ten days, since Jesus was unceremoniously swept into the skies: when would the promised Spirit arrive? He had told them that Spirit would come and that they would be empowered to be his body in the world. You have to wonder if they thought Spirit would come in this way, barging in, interrupting a perfectly fine celebration:  no visions in dreams, no doves gliding by, instead: tongues of fire resting on everyone: not just those who had been patiently and prayerfully waiting but on everyone, as if not even discerning who might be worthy of such a gracing. In the aftermath of Pentecost I expect the most lasting impact, the thing that none of those effected could shake was the fact that the Spirit was so undiscerning, every last person there was impacted in some way, invited to a complete and utter transformation.

When Spirit showed up on Pentecost people didn’t fall to their knees and pray, they didn’t pack their bags for an eight-day silent retreat, nah they turned to one another and said “what is going on here?” They were confused and surprised all at the same time. Their initial responses were as varied as ours would be. Some of them tried immediately to contain the Spirit and box it up in their usual answers. They tried to dismiss this transformative, life giving moment by saying “those people are just drunk on cheap wine.”And some of them stayed in that question long enough to be brought to their knees but others went to their usual excuses, or to put it more gently their usual efforts to box up and explain and package the power of the Spirit. But some of them caught a glimpse how the walls that divide, the walls we build, the languages that keep us safe and secure are a lie, or at least an inadequate story.

And when the Holy Spirit shows up well we know it’s happening because old worn out stories start to crumble and the walls we build up between us and them are revealed for what they truly are, permeable barriers. The Spirit can’t be kept out. Maybe the Spirit is not the presence that helps us escape the troubles of this life but the nuisance that keeps drawing our attention back to this life.

No matter how much the church has tried to contain the Spirit in doctrine, it is truly all about story. I wonder what stories we are telling, without even realizing it? I wonder if we know, I mean really know, that the Spirit is right here in our midst inviting us to dream bigger, to turn some stories on their heads?

Scholar and activist Joanna Macy wrote a book a few years back entitled Active Hope.[2] She is rooted in the Buddhist tradition but her work translates and I don’t suppose she’d be offended to hear me interpret her work through the lens of the Holy Spirit. She talks about how we can respond to any moment and specifically this moment we are in globally, this moment where fear is seeping in and we are living the story of climate change. She suggests that there are three ways to tell the story of the times in which we are living: Business as usual, The Great Unraveling and the Great Turning.

Business as usual is just as it sounds. It is carrying on with life saying all is well, without a questioning perspective. Business as usual says economic growth is essential for prosperity, it says consumption is good, getting ahead is right, it says nature is a commodity to be used by humans. The measure of success in Business as Usual is around how much more we have than we used to or how much farther and faster we can go. It’s a bit difficult when living in the midst of it to see that you could actually ask questions of the business as usual model. 

            The second story is The Great Unraveling, Or put more crassly we’re going to hell in a hand basket. The great unraveling is when you look around at the list of things that are going wrong and you throw your hands in the air not because you don’t care but because you feel powerless. Climate change, the growing gap between rich and poor the world over, mass migration, political upheaval, nuclear threat, mass species extinction. I dare say there are moments in our own small lives mirror this reality and we are sure that there is no way out of the mess we are living of grief or brokenness, or loss. Some of us find ourselves moving back and forth between these two realities many times in the span of a day, in fact most of us do.

Macy proposes a third way. She calls it the Great Turning but for our intents and purposes today I’m going to call it the way of the Holy Spirit. The third way as three dimensions: action, and I like to call it the way of The Holy Spirit.

The first action of the third was includes protests like the one happening this afternoon, but ask anyone who’s dedicated their life to social action and they’ll tell you if can suck the life out of you. The second is changing behaviours, like how this congregation took its investments a decade ago and decided profit was not the only measure we’d use to determine where to invest we wanted to invest ethically and not in the fossil fuel industry or think about the rise in farmers markets and CSA boxes, or how you bring your own bags to the grocery store and your own cup to the coffee shop.

The third aspect of the third way, is the place where the Holy Spirit is at work. Our changes in action and our behaviour cannot stand-alone. She talks about refreshing our sense of belonging in the world. In the past, changing the self and changing the world were seen as separate endeavours, in either-or terms. But in the story of the Great Turning they are mutually reinforcing and essential to one another. We need to let go of the “us” and “them” story. We are one. Sounds rather like what the Holy Spirit was up to that day.

It sounds simple, it makes good sense and yet the Third way IS IN fact a monumental shift. It is a grieving, if you will, of the both business as usual and the great unraveling, it is like what happens when the Spirit shows up and suddenly young men have visions and old men dream dreams – that’s not how it’s supposed to be!!!

We have a choice about the stories we will root ourselves in, the stories we live and the stories we will dream and vision together. But it comes down to which story will you tell, which story is worthy of your life? Which story has the power to breathe life into your very being and turn your entire life upside down.

The story the early church experienced, lived, breathed on that first Pentecost day – it was one that at its core broke down every division people had put in place to make sense of the world. First the disciples emerged from the room in which they’d taken up residence, then the crowds came running, then people understood one another, they even understood those ruddy, backwater Galileans.

Underneath the differences of nationality and language, there was a fundamental unity that was not only touched but enlivened and experienced, profoundly, by many who were there. Others scoffed and interpreted even the most amazing of events through the eyes and ears of cynicism, but those with hearts and minds that were open to the movement of the Spirit knew that a new day had come.

And perhaps that is what makes Pentecost so terribly ordinary and remarkable: perhaps that day serves as a loud reminder that Spirit is in our midst, sweeping through our very beings all the time.  That day people felt something overwhelming and it changed their lives, it was a moment of commitment of reigniting the fire in their bellies…  it was not a moment of signing up to a particular set of religious beliefs,  there was no test about whether those gathered believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or whether God is some other worldly being or whether their theological views were in total alignment with the community.  This was not a melting pot moment, this crowd gathered was not made to fit in some sort of box rather it was a moment where each one tapped into the deep wisdom within, the innate call to life that we all fiercely share. 

Was life perfect after that, heck no, most of those disciples were martyred as the story unfolded. But they caught a glimpse, or more accurately they caught a breath of the presence of the Spirit, and they knew in their hearts that there are a story to be lived where the bounds of who we have capacity to care about were broken open, their minds were blown.

Maybe the duties of the Holy Ghost aren’t so unclear after all, its role is to cause trouble, to mess with our heads, to disorient, to shake us into paying attention, to insist when no one else will that there is another way, and it’s a way where every last division we use to make sense of the world and to protect ourselves is shaken to the core. Maybe Spirit is the power that shows us we are all one.

Way back in the years following WWII astronomer Fred Hoyle said that onece a photograph of the Earth was taken from outside, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” Twenty years later when Bill Anders, the astronaut who took the first pictures of earth from the moon, commented, “We came all this way to explore the moon and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” The earth with no political borders, from way up there in space no divisions of race or class or species, just one, great world.

What stories is Spirit calling us to live about this world and our place in it.

One of the ways we seek to touch into the power of Spirit is in this sacrament that transcends time that links us to the first followers of Jesus while at the same time draws us into future possibilities of a new story. Flow into an invitation to the communion table…


[1] https://www.theonion.com/god-quietly-phasing-holy-ghost-out-of-trinity-1819566754

[2] Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In without Going Crazy, New World Library, California, 2012.

There’s some truth to it, right? The church will tell you that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. But really, what does that mean? I’ve taken an entire course on the Trinity and the Holy Spirit still eludes me. The other two persons of the Trinity are marginally easier to comprehend. Jesus was the Galilean who lived and died and was resurrected. There’s something tangible about him. God, well we could spend a lifetime debating the nature of God. At least we share God with the world’s great religions; worth hanging onto for that reason alone. What exactly is the Holy Spirit? Is it useful to us even if we can’t quite grasp it?  

If you were here two weeks ago you’ll remember that Tama, our Minister of Children Youth and Families, stood here and told you that the most important thing in the Christian faith is story, not doctrine or practice! The biggest problem with the Holy Spirit may well be the fact that the church, in her wisdom, has boxed the Spirit into the doctrine of the Trinity. In trying to make sense of this presence that shows up in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and is described as everything from a dove to breath to tongues of fire, well it’s possible that we’ve sucked the life out of the Holy Spirit. Maybe, the Spirit was never meant to be tamed.

And then we make it more complicated. You can be spiritual but not religious at the same time. Spiritual things are different from material things. I mean Spirit is about those lofty things we aspire to through quieting our minds, leaving behind the physical for a while and touching instead, well, the spiritual.

But what if Spirit stirs us up to pay attention to what’s happening right here right now? What if the Holy Spirit is the persuasive, persistent, presence of God that won’t let you go, until you pay attention to this life, your real physical life? What if Spirit has everything to do with our actual physical lives, inextricable from the food we eat and the company we keep and the seemingly innocuous decisions we make day in and day out? What if the Spirit is that which lures us back to the truth of the oneness of all creation? What if the Spirit is actually here, right now?

That first Pentecost day there they were 120 members of the newly formed Christian community and several thousand others out for an enjoyable long weekend afternoon. Those 120 had been waiting and wondering for ten days, since Jesus was unceremoniously swept into the skies: when would the promised Spirit arrive? He had told them that Spirit would come and that they would be empowered to be his body in the world. You have to wonder if they thought Spirit would come in this way, barging in, interrupting a perfectly fine celebration:  no visions in dreams, no doves gliding by, instead: tongues of fire resting on everyone: not just those who had been patiently and prayerfully waiting but on everyone, as if not even discerning who might be worthy of such a gracing. In the aftermath of Pentecost I expect the most lasting impact, the thing that none of those effected could shake was the fact that the Spirit was so undiscerning, every last person there was impacted in some way, invited to a complete and utter transformation.

When Spirit showed up on Pentecost people didn’t fall to their knees and pray, they didn’t pack their bags for an eight-day silent retreat, nah they turned to one another and said “what is going on here?” They were confused and surprised all at the same time. Their initial responses were as varied as ours would be. Some of them tried immediately to contain the Spirit and box it up in their usual answers. They tried to dismiss this transformative, life giving moment by saying “those people are just drunk on cheap wine.”And some of them stayed in that question long enough to be brought to their knees but others went to their usual excuses, or to put it more gently their usual efforts to box up and explain and package the power of the Spirit. But some of them caught a glimpse how the walls that divide, the walls we build, the languages that keep us safe and secure are a lie, or at least an inadequate story.

And when the Holy Spirit shows up well we know it’s happening because old worn out stories start to crumble and the walls we build up between us and them are revealed for what they truly are, permeable barriers. The Spirit can’t be kept out. Maybe the Spirit is not the presence that helps us escape the troubles of this life but the nuisance that keeps drawing our attention back to this life.

No matter how much the church has tried to contain the Spirit in doctrine, it is truly all about story. I wonder what stories we are telling, without even realizing it? I wonder if we know, I mean really know, that the Spirit is right here in our midst inviting us to dream bigger, to turn some stories on their heads?

Scholar and activist Joanna Macy wrote a book a few years back entitled Active Hope.[2] She is rooted in the Buddhist tradition but her work translates and I don’t suppose she’d be offended to hear me interpret her work through the lens of the Holy Spirit. She talks about how we can respond to any moment and specifically this moment we are in globally, this moment where fear is seeping in and we are living the story of climate change. She suggests that there are three ways to tell the story of the times in which we are living: Business as usual, The Great Unraveling and the Great Turning.

Business as usual is just as it sounds. It is carrying on with life saying all is well, without a questioning perspective. Business as usual says economic growth is essential for prosperity, it says consumption is good, getting ahead is right, it says nature is a commodity to be used by humans. The measure of success in Business as Usual is around how much more we have than we used to or how much farther and faster we can go. It’s a bit difficult when living in the midst of it to see that you could actually ask questions of the business as usual model. 

            The second story is The Great Unraveling, Or put more crassly we’re going to hell in a hand basket. The great unraveling is when you look around at the list of things that are going wrong and you throw your hands in the air not because you don’t care but because you feel powerless. Climate change, the growing gap between rich and poor the world over, mass migration, political upheaval, nuclear threat, mass species extinction. I dare say there are moments in our own small lives mirror this reality and we are sure that there is no way out of the mess we are living of grief or brokenness, or loss. Some of us find ourselves moving back and forth between these two realities many times in the span of a day, in fact most of us do.

Macy proposes a third way. She calls it the Great Turning but for our intents and purposes today I’m going to call it the way of the Holy Spirit. The third way as three dimensions: action, and I like to call it the way of The Holy Spirit.

The first action of the third was includes protests like the one happening this afternoon, but ask anyone who’s dedicated their life to social action and they’ll tell you if can suck the life out of you. The second is changing behaviours, like how this congregation took its investments a decade ago and decided profit was not the only measure we’d use to determine where to invest we wanted to invest ethically and not in the fossil fuel industry or think about the rise in farmers markets and CSA boxes, or how you bring your own bags to the grocery store and your own cup to the coffee shop.

The third aspect of the third way, is the place where the Holy Spirit is at work. Our changes in action and our behaviour cannot stand-alone. She talks about refreshing our sense of belonging in the world. In the past, changing the self and changing the world were seen as separate endeavours, in either-or terms. But in the story of the Great Turning they are mutually reinforcing and essential to one another. We need to let go of the us and them story. We are one. Sounds rather like what the Holy Spirit was up to that day.

It sounds simple, it makes good sense and yet the Third way IS IN fact a monumental shift. It is a grieving, if you will, of the both business as usual and the great unraveling, it is like what happens when the Spirit shows up and suddenly young men have visions and old men dream dreams – that’s not how its supposed to be!!!

We have a choice about the stories we will root ourselves in, the stories we live and the stories we will dream and vision together. But it comes down to which story will you tell, which story is worthy of your life? Which story has the power to breathe life into your very being and turn your entire life upside down

The story the early church experienced, lived, breathed on that first Pentecost day – it was one that at its core broke down every division people had put in place to make sense of the world. First the disciples emerged from the room in which they’d taken up residence, then the crowds came running, then people understood one another, they even understood those ruddy, backwater Galileans.

Underneath the differences of nationality and language, there was a fundamental unity that was not only touched but enlivened and experienced, profoundly, by many who were there. Others scoffed and interpreted even the most amazing of events through the eyes and ears of cynicism, but those with hearts and minds that were open to the movement of the Spirit knew that a new day had come.

And perhaps that is what makes Pentecost so terribly ordinary and remarkable: perhaps that day serves as a loud reminder that Spirit is in our midst, sweeping through our very beings all the time.  That day people felt something overwhelming and it changed their lives, it was a moment of commitment of reigniting the fire in their bellies…  it was not a moment of signing up to a particular set of religious beliefs,  there was no test about whether those gathered believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or whether God is some other worldly being or whether their theological views were in total alignment with the community.  This was not a melting pot moment, this crowd gathered was not made to fit in some sort of box rather it was a moment where each one tapped into the deep wisdom within, the innate call to life that we all fiercely share. 

Was life perfect after that, heck no, most of those disciples were martyred as the story unfolded. But they caught a glimpse, or more accurately they caught a breath of the presence of the Spirit, and they knew in their hearts that there are a story to be lived where the bounds of who we have capacity to care about were broken open, their minds were blown.

Maybe the duties of the Holy Ghost aren’t so unclear afterall, its role is to cause trouble, to mess with our heads, to disorient, to shake us into paying attention, to insist when no one else will that there is another way, and it’s a way where every last division we use to make sense of the world and to protect ourselves is shaken to the core. Maybe Spirit is the power that shows us we are all one.

Way back in the years following WWII astronomer Fred Hoyle said that onece a photograph of the Earth was taken from outside, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” Twenty years later when Bill Anders, the astronaut who took the first pictures of earth from the moon, commented, “We came all this way to explore the moon and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” The earth with no political borders, from way up there in space no divisions of race or class or species, just one, great world.

What stories is Spirit calling us to live about this world and our place in it.

One of the ways we seek to touch into the power of Spirit is in this sacrament that transcends time that links us to the first followers of Jesus while at the same time draws us into future possibilities of a new story. Flow into an invitation to the communion table…


[1] https://www.theonion.com/god-quietly-phasing-holy-ghost-out-of-trinity-1819566754

[2] Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In without Going Crazy, New World Library, California, 2012.