What a mess — this rush of wind, tongues of flame, everyone talking at once! Are they drunk?
It’s Pentecost, and there’s nothing neat and tidy about it. We can handle it, though. We’re 21st century tech savvy, hip, used to a little chaos, and two millennia removed from the fear and trembling of the early Christians. When our pastor, decked in liturgical red, sings “Happy Birthday” to the church, we join in good-naturedly.
Good News! The Spirit Is Moving
I admit to a special fondness for the Holy Spirit, imagine it breathing creativity, courage, and joy into me when I write at my desk, teach piano lessons, conduct the choir.
Outside my apartment window, the world is a mess — all of us at each other’s throats, the poor getting poorer, the greedy running riot, sucking the planet dry. Resignation threatens.
But then, the Holy Spirit — antidote to passivity and despair — shakes the walls, inspiring us to create and heal, come together, act for justice. I know it’s true: I saw it on the evening news. Listen!
Tyrants and assassins believe authority derives from violent coercion. But the Spirit breathes through us to “speak truth to power” and bends the knees of Church and State. In the news, the poor dance in the streets of El Salvador for a world turned upside-down. Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred in 1980 for challenging injustice and preaching liberation theology, is a step closer to being named a saint.
> LGBTQ and straight seem to speak different languages, unable to comprehend each other’s expressions of wholeness. But the Spirit moves, calls us to community, and, increasingly, we seek to understand and be understood. In the news, Ireland (Ireland!!) is the first nation to embrace same-sex marriage, not by an act of legislation, but by popular vote.
> Americans stagger under the weight of racial injustice. But the Spirit is stirring us awake, inspiring youngsters to dream new dreams, elders to see visions. In the news, a vigorous anti-racism movement pulses through our cities and college campuses. We unite in our diversity, rise up insisting “enough!” spill into the streets with rage and hope, birthing a new day.
A Pentecost Prayer for Help
Dublin-born George Croly (1780-1860), an Anglican minister, penned the words to “SPIRIT OF GOD, DESCEND UPON MY HEART.” A Grim Reaper look-alike, gaunt and stern, Croly was as conservative in his politics and theology as I am progressive in mine.
At age 30, he left the small church he’d served in Ireland for the bright lights of London, set on pursuing a literary career. For two decades, he wrote a little bit of everything — satire, theatre reviews, history, biography, comedy, tragedy, novels, poems, songs.
Then, at age 55, he returned to the church, this time serving a ragged congregation at the spectacular church of St. Stephen Walbrook, an impressive building with a dome and massive stone columns, at that time located in a neglected part of London.
Though Croly successfully drew crowds with his passionate sermons, he knew discouragement. His lyrics betray him. He begs “stoop to my weakness,” though he shrugs off any need for Holy Spirit high drama (no prophet ecstasies, angel sightings, opening skies). He’s acquainted with “rising doubt, the rebel sigh.” I know these, too.
All he asks is that God take the dimness of his soul away. He prays for holy passion, “the kindling of the heaven-descended Dove,” and I, borrowing the words, do too. In the hymn’s best metaphor, Croly promises to make his heart an altar for the flame of God’s love. It’s a worthy prayer.
Speaking of Flames
When Croly’s congregation begged for a hymnbook, he created one. By then in his 70s, he compiled Psalms and Hymns for Public Worship, which included a number of his original compositions. Most copies were destroyed in a fire, but this hymn survived.
TO GO DEEPER
Lyrics at Hymnsite.com
Organ arrangement of hymn tune “Morecambe“ by Joe Utterback, played by Robert Hovencamp.
A brief history of the church building, St. Stephen Walbrook, from before the Great Fire of London to today’s “Internet Church”