Pentecost, today, we celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit, the coming of the tongues of flame, what we used to talk about as the “Holy Ghost.” This day begs a series of questions: “what do we mean, as Christians when we talk about “Spirituality?” What (or who) is this “Holy Spirit?” and finally, “Why bother with Christian Spirituality? What is at stake?”
I confess, I sympathize with the sentiment expressed in the popular phrase: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” I understand why people want a distinction. Religion in the eyes of the twenty-first century can seem old-fashioned at best, and often religion can be downright regressive.
While I sympathize with the sentiment, for me, the jig is up. (If you can’t tell by my outfit, I’m pretty pro-religion). But here is my caveat: while I can understand WHY people use the label “spiritual but not religious,” I can’t really tell you what they mean.
It seems to me that “spirituality” is something you might be able to buy at a specialty bookstore, you know the kind that smell like patchouli and feature a number of wind chimes? There you can pick up your copy of the Zohar, along with some prayer beads, a locally made beeswax candle, and then you can go home, light incense, and chant “OM” to your hearts content. Is that what we mean by “spirituality?”
The confusion for me comes because to call all of this “spirituality” is to divorce the practices from their originating traditions. You can say holy words. You can sit in the lotus position. You can click beads through your fingers. But by doing so, I don’t think you’re getting “less religious,” if anything you’re piling the religion on thick. And as I said, I think religion is a good thing. Go ahead. Any practice that helps you slow down, hold silence, anything that helps you get to a contemplative space is good in our busy world.
For Christians, spirituality can involve chanting, prayer beads, silence, meditation, even prayer postures. Spirituality can involve a rule of life, a simple set of practices that give shape to your faith. Such a rule can be simple: pray daily; worship weekly; give generously; serve joyfully; learn constantly; make pilgrimage yearly. Such a rule can be as complex as the book handed down by St. Benedict to his followers. No matter how structured your spirituality, a word of caution to spirituality enthusiasts: these practices can take lifetime to develop.
There is an old Zen story about a young convert who comes up to his master after experiencing what he believes is enlightenment. The old teacher listens patiently and then says: “If you meet Buddha on the Road, kill him.”
Like most Zen stories (and like many of Jesus’ parables) this tale is meant to trip up the hearers. Think about what the master says. “Kill the Buddha.” Any Buddha you meet on the road is not the fullness of the Buddha. Any supposed enlightenment you experience so quickly is not the fullness of enlightenment. Beware the early epiphanies. If you experience them, keep going. Don’t get stuck.
There is another deep truth in this Zen story: it is good to have friends and guides. Spiritual directors are not just for clergy people. Gatherings in homes to read the Bible and to pray make good groundwork for the journey. The journey of faith is long, and like any long journey, the walk is easier with companions.
We’ve talked a bit about what practiced Spirituality can look like. But for Christians “Spirituality” isn’t a nebulous concept. Spirituality is specific. It refers to a person of the Trinity, of the Godhead, God’s Spirit, living with us. That very wind which blew over the waters of creation, the wisdom which brings depth to God’s followers, the Spirit of truth and justice which was upon Jesus as he proclaimed good news to the poor. Spirituality is specific, it’s about God’s spirit.
Let’s turn to this morning’s scripture for a moment. In the Gospel Jesus speaks to his disciple’s at the last supper. Philip’s anxiety is echoed around the table. The disciples are nervous about Jesus telling them he’s leaving. So he promises them “an Advocate.” God will send the Spirit. The Spirit abides within you.
Jesus may have ascended to heaven, but God has not left us. God’s Spirit dwells with us, here, now. You know this Spirit, Jesus tells his followers. Christian Spirituality is about access. Through practicing our faith, we access God’s Spirit, always present to us. Across the spectrum of Christianity those practices may look very different. Holy Rollers may find themselves on the floor. Catholics might sit in silence with rosary beads. Protestants might find inspiration in Scripture. Here at Holy Communion, we gather round a table week by week. All these practices help us to become available to the Spirit which dwells with us, remains with us, abides with us.
So, what’s at stake? Why bother with all of this Spirituality mumbo jumbo? Let me venture an answer to this question based on recent experience. A group of 13 of us returned Thursday from a trip to El Salvador.
There is a story about El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero that I believe gets at the stakes of spirituality. Romero was famed for his faithful practice. When you visit his little house, you can see the rosary beads that he wore out by praying so often. It was rumored that the Archbishop spent an hour in prayer each day. The story goes that someone asked Romero: “with all that is going on, with the death threats, and the political organizing, and the preaching, with all that busyness bishop, how do you find time to pray for an hour a day?” Unblinking Romero answered him: “on the busy days, on the anxious days, I need two hours.”
The story from Acts reminds us of the prophet Joel’s words about God’s Spirit: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The day of Pentecost, for us, is a day of celebration. Holy Communion set a series of goals last year, and we’ve met or exceeded all of our goals. We are learning to dream dreams. We are learning to make a prophetic witness in the world.
In Joel’s eyes Spirituality is not a navel-gazing activity. Spirituality is prophetic. When practice our faith, we are sent out, out into the world with a vision for justice, with prophecy. Spirituality is about accessing God’s vision, that another world is possible. The stakes are high. Too many in our world go hungry. Too many live in fear of gun violence. Too many in our world lack access to basic human rights because of their gender, age, sexual orientation, race, religion, ability or other status. We are too divided.
On this day of Pentecost we celebrate that God poured out the Spirit on every race and language and people and nation. We celebrate the indiscriminate love of God, the wide dreams of God, the sweet Spirit in this place. We pray that we might listen to the Spirit still guiding us today so that we might leave this world a little more welcoming, a little more open to diversity, that we might leave this world a more loving community.
Happy Pentecost. May the Spirit of God, who abides with you, lead you to deeper faith and prophetic work for justice.