Bright Wings: The Ever-Moving Spirit

Bright Wings: The Ever-Moving Spirit

Across the years whenever I deposited a sermon into my files, I typically paper-clipped to the sermon a copy of that week's church bulletin. At the top of such bulletins, I had jotted down a list of members in need whose names I wanted to include in that Sunday's pastoral prayer. So when I upon occasion looked up one of my old sermon manuscripts, I'd see also a roster of people for whom I once prayed. But upon reading through the list, I'd realize that a good many of those people were now dead—indeed, most had died of the very disease we prayed God would heal. Of course, there were any number of people on those same lists who had been healed or who did go on to have a successful surgery or whose troubled pregnancy turned out just fine. But seeing those old prayer lists was like peering through a window into the past—a past that included wonderful answers to prayer and more disappointing outcomes as well.

All pastors know that praying in public worship involves a certain pastoral risk. We pray in the power of the Holy Spirit; and we pray that God's Spirit will be active in the congregation to cure diseases, to mend fractured marriages, to return wayward children, to bring forth healthy infants, and to keep those little ones safe as they grow up in a dangerous world. What's more, we pray specifically. We don't pray that the Holy Spirit take care of cancer in general but rather that God will work by his Spirit to cure Harold's cancer. We don't offer up bland petitions to the effect that we want marriage as an institution to remain vibrant, but rather we pray for Katie and Nick, who were united in marriage last Friday evening. Each time pastors invoke the power of the Holy Spirit, they render themselves vulnerable to subsequent questions that could arise if Harold is not cured or if Katie and Nick's marriage falls dismally apart. Indeed, the questions become more acute when savvy observers notice that the Holy Spirit's work in response to our prayers seems a bit random. Why did the Spirit work healing in the body of Jill but not of Harold when we prayed for the healing of each person in the same Sunday morning prayer?

What is to prevent a cynic from claiming that what Christians call answered prayers are really little more than random happenstance? Since few of us claim that the Spirit works according to our prayers 100 percent of the time, how can we connect the dots between a given prayer for healing and a subsequent healing that did in fact come? If we cannot account for the healing that did not come, how can we be sure we are correct to claim as God's work a healing that did come?

These are dicey questions borne of pain. Tragically, some theologians and pastors deal with this by saying that when we pray for a working of the Spirit that then does not come to pass, something was wrong with the prayer—or with the person offering the prayer. The Holy Spirit will respond to the prayer of a righteous person who offers up a prayer radiant with faith-filled confidence and power. So if a prayer goes "unanswered," we know where to lay the blame. Pastorally, however, I find blaming the pray-er to be a little sub-compassionate.

Others claim that whether or not there is anything lacking in the prayer or in the faith of the one offering the prayer, sometimes we are not discerning enough to pray according to the will of God. So we pray for things that, for some mysterious reason, are at variance with God's plan. Again, however, it's a bit difficult to see how God could be pro-cancer or pro-brokenness such that we could ever be sawing against the grain of God's will to pray for the eradication of such things.

A better approach may be to claim that prayer ushers us into the mysteries of God and into realms where even the most Spirit-filled person can see no better than "through a glass darkly." When we pray, we abandon ourselves to the working of God in the midst of a world where any given situation is fraught with more complexity than we know. So we pray for something that, all things considered, is good and desirable—even if we cannot know for certain whether that good and desirable outcome will come to pass. It's not that our prayers are faulty or that our faith is weak, but instead we recognize that the Spirit's work in response to prayer may be more nuanced than we often realize.

One of the most striking ideas to emerge from twentieth-century science is the so-called "butterfly effect." Scientists have concluded that the physical world is so intricately interconnected on myriad levels that it is no exaggeration to claim that the flapping of a butterfly's wing over Bangladesh on Tuesday morning could have something to do with the whipping up of a thunderstorm over London the next Sunday afternoon. As it turns out, the universe is a vast web, and the slightest vibration on one part of the web eventually reverberates through the whole.

Who but God could possibly keep track of physical (and spiritual) interconnections so vast as to approach the infinite? Only the Holy Spirit is nimble enough to navigate such overlapping and interconnected avenues. Christians believe that the Spirit is constantly active and is always responsive to our prayers, even as we admit that it's difficult to see the myriad aspects of the Spirit's work. There may well be a kind of spiritual "butterfly effect": What looks to us to be an odd response to our prayers—or perhaps what looks to be a non-response to our prayers—achieves a larger effect after all (even if we may never quite grasp what that larger, good effect is).

But a question remains: Are we right to celebrate as a work of the Spirit those times when bodies are healed or lives are put back together in response to our petitions? Yes! The Spirit of God is both responsive to our prayers and active through them. If we did not believe that, we would not pray. However, are those more dramatic instances of the Spirit's work the limit of the Spirit's power? If we celebrate only visible manifestations of the Spirit on those occasions when we get what we asked for, we may inadvertently send the signal that in the ordinary run of life—not to mention when life's bottom falls out—the Spirit is not present or active. That would be a mistake.

God always gives his Spirit to those who pray; and the Spirit that is given is a vibrant, incessantly active presence who works wonders, gives gifts, shores up faith, and comforts those in grief whether or not we witness one of those more powerful manifestations of the Spirit that tends to make congregations rise to their feet and applaud. Perhaps, even, we diminish the power of the Spirit if we limit that Spirit's work to only those occasions when a tangible, dramatic event takes place.

Let us confess instead that the Spirit of God is as gloriously at work when a baby is born after an "uneventful pregnancy" as when a baby is born after a fragile pregnancy over which a congregation had prayed much. Let us confess that we have reason to give God glory for the work of the Spirit as much when tumors mysteriously disappear as when they are eradicated through six months of chemotherapy and radiation. Let us confess that the Spirit is at work as much when someone's life is spared from harm as when a family holds a deeply Christian funeral for one who died despite our most ardent prayers that he would not.

Of course, some could allege that if the Spirit is everywhere in general, then it's difficult to celebrate the Spirit's presence anywhere in specific. Don't we run the risk of shortchanging the Spirit if we claim as much enthusiasm for the Spirit's work at a deathbed as at the bedside of someone who was inexplicably healed? We certainly do not want to take the Pentecostal wind out of the sails of proper celebrations of those miracles that God works today. But neither do we wish to convey the message that absent such miracles, people cannot be full to the brim of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes looking back on my old prayer lists makes me sad—I still miss the saints for whose healing I prayed before the congregation. But even in that sadness the Holy Spirit of God reminds me that the Spirit's work does not end at death nor is that work absent when life is difficult. As Gerard Manley Hopkins so well phrased it in his poem "God's Grandeur," sometimes, in even the darkest places of our lives, we spy that divine Spirit who broods over our bent world "with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."