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Credo XII

“I believe in the Holy Spirit…”

I grew up in a Lutheran church where the Holy Spirit was known as “The Holy Ghost.” One Sunday when my brother and I were aged about four and five, we went to big church with the family, probably on Easter or Palm Sunday, a beautiful Spring day. I remember nothing of the service except that Bruce and I were very impressed by the Holy Ghost. Our imaginations ran wild with the possibilities of real, live (?), ghosts. In church! Everywhere! Best news ever!

After church the extended family gathered at our home for a holiday dinner. While grown-ups bustled around the house setting the table and preparing food and exchanging news, we sat on the front steps and talked about holy ghosts. Pretty soon, we started seeing them.

I don’t know for sure what my brother was seeing, but once he saw a holy ghost, I was going to see one, too. As soon as I saw a flicker of sunlight, I said, “There goes another one.”

In a moment, Bruce said, “I see one.”

Give it a three second pause, then me: “I see a holy ghost.”

Another beat, then Bruce: “There goes another!”

We went on for a while, sometimes seeing two or three at once, having a heckuva good time. It sure beat church and it sure beat behaving at the dinner table.

Unbeknownst to us, the extended family grown-ups had gathered behind the screens of the open windows and doors and they were enjoying themselves immensely–thus the beginning of a family story that has, to my embarrassment, refused to die. 

Yes, it was cute. Yes, it was funny. But now, ask yourself why it was funny. Those two little guys were clearly fooling themselves, and each in competition with the other to be a bigger fool. They could not possibly be seeing Holy Ghosts because: 1) There’s only one Holy Ghost? 2) The Holy Ghost is invisible? or 3) The Holy Ghost isn’t real?

Do you believe in ghosts? Supernatural forces of any kind? Spirits of nature? Demons? My family did not. We were of a northern European mindset that believed in hard work, cause and effect, truth and consequences. We didn’t even believe in luck. Nobody gambled.

Although we kids kept a more open mind, you can see how we might have been astounded to hear about a ghost in church. I’d like to say that further education and experience in the church made the Holy Spirit more real to me, but that would be inaccurate. Ours was a faith of liturgy and intellect, believing in the forgiveness of sins by grace and in life everlasting. But how the Holy Spirit fit into the Christian life? Who knew?

Sure, we heard of faith healing, even watching Oral Roberts on TV…and laughed. We heard of crazy people speaking in tongues and handling snakes and casting out demons, and we thought them all charlatans, weak-minded folks given to superstition, or even clinically insane. My experience on the psych ward as a medical student did not disabuse me of these attitudes.

Then one day when I was a third-year neurosurgery resident at Yale, my dad called me about a case. He had been a deacon for our large, downtown, conservative Lutheran congregation for several years. Now, a FBI agent, a church member, had suffered a gunshot wound to his cervical spinal cord and was on a respirator at Hennepin County General Hospital. The agent had regained consciousness and sent a message to the church requesting the elders of the church lay hands on him and pray for his healing. He quoted the book of James to the head pastor: “Is there anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.”

Lutherans didn’t do that kind of thing. Our prayers for healing usually had the general aim of accepting our suffering in peace rather than any expectation of physical improvement. Healing came from doctors. Comfort came from pastors. But the FBI agent had a persuasive argument. So the head pastor of Central Lutheran Church recruited dad and two other guys to go to the hospital and pray for healing. It couldn’t hurt, and they couldn’t say no.

Dad described the experience to me as strange but oddly peaceful. The agent had thanked them, and they all left wondering if they had performed an act of faith or an exercise in futility. Dad wondered, had I heard of this kind of thing before? What are the chances of improvement with this kind of injury?

No, in four years of medical school, a year of internship, and two years of neurosurgery residency, I had not seen anybody lay hands on a patient and pray for healing. I had no experience with anointing oil. As for prognosis, hard to tell without specific knowledge of the case, but gunshot wounds to the cervical spinal cord are usually fatal and the survivors are virtually always complete quadriplegics without hope for recovery. But, hey, prayers are always good for comfort anyway, right? What harm? The agent might have some anger issues with God when he didn’t get the result he and the elders had prayed for, but that couldn’t last. He would forgive God for not healing him, right?

A few months passed and our family returned to Minnesota for a visit. I remembered the story from a few months before and asked Dad what happened to the agent.

Dad looked a bit surprised, remembering something he perhaps should have told me before. “Yes,” he said, “about six months after his injury I helped officiate at his wedding at Central Lutheran. He walked down the aisle.”

Central Lutheran is a cathedral. The aisle is at least fifty yards long and you could only get to it by walking up a few steps. No way a quadriplegic could do this.

Huh, I thought. I must have misunderstood about his injury, because that could never happen. Because laying on of hands and anointing with oil and prayers for healing couldn’t do this. Because, much as I believed God was real and Jesus forgave sins, I didn’t believe in the Holy Spirit. I didn’t believe that God would interfere in the affairs of men beyond to change hearts and minds. He might have created the world, but He didn’t heal spinal cord injuries.

The tables had turned since I sat on the front steps and counted Holy Ghosts while my dad watched from inside the house and laughed because he didn’t see any. Now he had experienced the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit while I watched and, I didn’t laughed exactly, but I still couldn’t see.

That was a long time ago. Since then I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit at the bedside when people who should have died recovered and people who should have been paralyzed got up and walked. I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit in the streets where men who were bent on getting drunk heard the Gospel presentation, left their booze and prayed for eternal life. I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit in the jungles of Central America where I witnessed what can only be described as a demon being cast out of a man.

I think it is possible to think of yourself as a Christian if you believe that God created the world and Jesus was the Son of God who entered human history and died for the sins of the world and was raised again from the dead. That’s the first two parts of the Apostles’ Creed. Those beliefs alone bring you the greatest story ever told and lead you into the most gratifying philosophy of life, the one preached by Jesus. That’s what I once did.

But when I left it there, I only embraced a story and a philosophy, and did not experience the power and the beauty and the joy of God working actively in the world, and in my life, in the right here and right now.

I’m trying to think of how I got from that cynicism I had as a young doctor and to be an old guy who believes in miracles. There is not one story; there are a lot of experiences. But if I could point to a beginning, I would point to the first time I heard God’s direction clearly in answer to a prayer. “No, you can’t fix it,” He said. “Just go home.”

I’ve told the story before, and I won’t repeat it. But I will point out that the experience opened up one new vision for the universe and one new insight into the experience that follows the forgiveness of sin.

The new vision of the universe is simply the recognition that the material world, enormous and complicated as it is with all the matter, time, space, and energy, is not the complete reality. Perhaps I recognized that before in some abstract way, but I was convinced that that spiritual world–heaven and hell, angels and demons, miracles and curses–was separate from our reality. Then God spoke and the veil between the two worlds broke.

Then there is the forgiveness of sin and what happens next. Think of sin as an addiction to a behavior contrary to a life of love and peace. Think of alcohol and drug addiction. Think of gambling and sex addiction. Then think of the addictions our culture encourages: greed and vanity.

The thing about addiction that every addict knows is that you can’t fix it yourself. Over the past hundred years or so, our culture has gone from viewing addiction as moral turpitude to viewing it as disease. I guess this is a step forward. It is the recognition that the individual is helpless, unable to save himself or herself. It is the cultural equivalent of the forgiveness of sins. It is permission to leave the past behind. This is the first step in the twelve-step recovery program modeled by Alcoholics Anonymous.

But the first step, though necessary to leave the past behind, is not enough to give freedom from addiction into the future. For that we need step two and step three: recognize that a “greater power” can restore us to sanity, and decide to turn our life over to that power.

Welcome to the Holy Spirit. I am a sinner incapable of saving myself. I can study the rules, the moral codes, the ethics statements, the Ten Commandments. But what I know and want to control does not rule my behavior. I am not alone in this. St. Paul says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Those of you who have never been trapped in sin or addiction think that statement nonsense; those of us who have been there know exactly what Paul is talking about. To move forward is to turn our life over to that “greater power,” and that greater power is the Holy Spirit.

Please recognize that this is not deciding to become a better person. I tried; it didn’t work. This is giving up trying to be good. This is surrendering. It is seeking relationship. It is trusting in something intangible, an other-worldly spiritual power. Some would call it “magical thinking.” I call it the Holy Spirit.

This is the essential power of the Holy Spirit, the transformation of sinners into something closer to saints. I’m not at sainthood, but I’m a lot closer than I was when I tried to be good.

There is more, of course. The Holy Spirit has the power to change lives in this world and the next for confessing sinners and those still lost and seeking. It has the power to heal the sick and bring about countless miracles. It is the living spirit of Jesus in the world today. There are specific gifts of the Spirit for each believer. There are no limits.

But there is a guarantee. If I can let the Spirit work in me, I can be the kind of person that shows the “fruit” of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Now I’m an old man sitting on the front steps of my life and looking into the front yard. I see the Holy Ghost…and there He is again…and again. I’m seeing an FBI agent walking down his wedding aisle and a brain-dead woman coming back to life and a redeemed alcoholic. I’m seeing me as a jerk in my twenties. I’m seeing us then and I’m seeing us now. And the FBI agent and the woman and the alcoholic and me, and now…we all look a lot more like Jesus.

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