By Esau McCaulley
As a child I never much liked the Holy Spirit because he would often descend upon our church at the most inopportune moments. I liked church, but I loved football, and the Spirit’s descent meant that our rather long service would extend for an extra half hour or so. This extra time meant I would miss the kickoff. And if the Spirit’s descent led to folks getting saved or sharing a testimony, there went the first half.
But it wasn’t simply my love of sports that made me uncomfortable with the Spirit’s work. It was his sheer unpredictability. One moment the pastor would be moving right along with his sermon, and then he would be shouting. This unabashed joy spread like wildfire through the congregation, and the service quickly shifted into another key. The Spirit came most often in the midst of song when the lyrics took on flesh and Kirk Franklin’s Conquerors became the soloist’s song about her life. The congregation sensed these moments, and then we were off. Hands would wave, shouts would resound, and the Holy Ghost would take control.
One Easter service stands out. That spring had been good for our family and for the first time in a long time I got a new suit for Easter. The year escapes me, but it must have been elementary school because I remember wearing a clip-on tie. There I sat in my brand-new suit enjoying the music, the flowers, and the preaching when the Holy Spirit fell upon a smartly dressed woman sitting next to me. The Spirit caused her to kick her legs forward and lean her head back in the joy of the Lord. Unfortunately, my pant leg was in the way of her joy and she ripped a hole in my new suit. The first new outfit in years was destroyed before the offering had been passed. The Spirit had struck again.
My real struggle extended beyond suits. I was confounded that the Spirit, who moved so visibly in the congregation, always seemed to pass me by. As much as I feared the Spirit, I also longed to join the in crowd of the visibly sanctified.
This struggle stretched into my teens when I first experienced the call to preach. The other preachers in my church were steeped in the black whooping tradition. I was not. I had seen it done my whole life, but I had no idea how to enter in. What they did seemed spontaneous and Spirit-wrought. Therefore, I did not feel right practicing whooping. Instead, I would stand up to preach and hope that when I needed it the Spirit would supply. It didn’t happen. I respect and love the black preaching tradition, but apparently I was made different. The Holy Spirit and I continued our uneasy alliance.
Years later I found myself visiting a charismatic church. I might have been in high school or college. Girls were involved. They had invited a few of us, the barely saved but potentially dateable boys, to a church service, and we agreed. At one point in the service, the pastor asked if anyone had sinned in the last six months. My friends and I looked at each other and then promptly raised our hands. Unknown to us, in this church, this was their form of an altar call. After we raised our hands, the pastor called us to join a line of people at the front. Then he began making his way down the line laying hands on one person after another. Each time the person, after receiving prayer, fell to the ground.
When my time came, I felt the pastor place his hands on my head while simultaneously placing some pressure on my lower back. Caught off balance, I staggered, and my head leaned back, as if I would fall, but I gathered myself and snapped back into place. The preacher looked at me with profound disappointment. The Spirit had passed me by once more.
I have returned to that moment in line over the years, often thinking of the pastor. More recently I have begun reflecting on that church’s members. What kept them there? What did they seek? I think that they were seeking something transcendent, an encounter with their creator that for a moment at least would wash their troubles away. I know that longing, and I hope that somehow they found what they sought.
I cannot speak for what happened to them, but I found the Holy Spirit when I was not seeking him — and in the most unlikely of places. In college I found myself attending an Episcopal chapel for two reasons. First, my car was not reliable enough to take me far from campus. Second, a woman whom I would later marry attended the 8 a.m. service.
In that music-less service I heard the liturgy, and over time it did its work. The God of the Bible shouted at me in the confession of sins. I found myself face to face with my brokenness week after week. I found myself stirred as I awaited the bread and the wine. Then, if the weekly Eucharist was the Holy Spirit coming in fits and starts, my first Holy Week was a torrent. When they stripped the altars on Maundy Thursday and we stumbled out of the church in the darkness, I was shaken. By the time we got to the solemn collects of Good Friday, I was a wreck. I felt as if for the first time I had truly entered into the passion of Christ and lingered there.
I discovered something in my first year with the church’s liturgy that has remained true since. The liturgy is stable, but it is not safe. You never know which part of the church year, which part of the liturgy, which reading, which celebration of a saint will step out of history and grab you by the heart. The Spirit broods over our work. I also found that the Daily Office helped me listen to the Spirit. So many ideas and concerns assault me as I sit down to pray. I have found that the set prayers of the Daily Office settle my spirit, so that I can finally sit quietly and listen to God. My most powerful experiences of the Spirit have come during that waiting.
The Spirit is in the liturgy. I do not mean that traditions without structured liturgies lack the Spirit or that I never encountered the Spirit before being introduced to the Anglican tradition or that the Book of Common Prayer is some divinely inspired book. I love the black church that shaped me and the preaching that still inspires wonder when I hear it. I miss the gospel music that took control of the service and ushered us into the presence of God. I long for the day when the reconciliation of these two great traditions in one service would be the norm and not the exception.
Nonetheless, I do mean that the liturgy of the church provided a framework within which I might encounter the living God, not as some still quiet voice that warms the heart, but as the one who rends the heavens and comes among us, leaving us all to marvel at his glory.
It’s true. Thank you for reminding me why I joined the Episcopal Church.