On June 4th, we celebrate the festival day of Pentecost ( literally “50th day,” observed in many Christian communions as the fiftieth day after Easter Day). It is the day when the liturgy focuses on the gift of the Holy Spirit to sustain the Church throughout its life and the spiritual journeys of its people. Pentecost is the “birthday of the Church,” and we are invited to observe the day with the kind of joy and thanksgiving with which we would observe the birth of a loved one.
As it happens, this June 4th is also the fortieth anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. As you can imagine, my reflections as this particular Pentecost approaches are a mixture of the story of “the Church” and of my own life story.
Teilhard de Chardin, the 20th century French theologian, Jesuit priest, and paleontologist, is reputed to have commented on the human condition by observing, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” As I look back over forty years of ordained ministry (and my own life experience generally), I find that perspective is provocative.
The “natural” tendency is, understandably, to perceive our life experiences through the lens of our material existence. When we do so, it is hard not to see a pretty rocky pathway. Our human choices – as individuals, as a community, and as members of the “Church visible” – are so often short-sighted, insensitive to the needs of others, and ultimately self-destructive. Spiritual perception, life-giving though it may be, is rare from this perspective.
If, however, we are from the start, spiritual beings having a human experience, as de Chardin suggests, the hope of our faith becomes the cornerstone. God’s love for us and the call to love one another as God loves us are the touchstone which sustain us through whatever pathways we travel in our human experience. It is not that the pathway is magically smoothed – far from it – but rather that we do not travel the pathway alone.
Come Pentecost Sunday, I’ll be decked out in a bright red stole with the image of the dove of the Holy Spirit. I will give thanks for the gift of that Spirit at work in the Church’s journey. And I will give thanks for my godmother who gave me that bright red stole the day I was ordained, and for all those whose presence in my life has lifted (and still lifts) my spirit.