I was scared of the Holy Spirit for a large portion of my life. Scared. Fearful. Even terrified. It couldn’t have helped that the name for the Spirit I heard was “The Holy Ghost.” As a child, I had this vision of a ghost, not nearly as friendly as Casper, who could come and go through the walls of my house and check up on me. For a time, I was sure that it was the Holy Ghost who reported to Santa about who had been naughty and nice. Ghosts, holy or not, were not to be trusted.
I was not sure I wanted the Holy Spirit in my life at all.
As a teenager, I was taught that my body was the temple of the Holy Spirit, a theologically sound teaching. This Scripture was, however, most often brought to my attention in the context of discussions about sexual purity. Becoming aware of my sexuality as a teenager, I remember feeling guilty for every sexual thought because I knew that the Holy Ghost was inside the same temple as my hormones, and this combination did not bode well. Again, there was fear. I was fearful that the Holy Spirit might go tell the Other Two what thoughts I had about kissing boys when I listened to Rod Stewart songs. I was not sure I wanted the Holy Spirit in my life.
I was thirteen years old when I was baptized, and I don’t remember very much about it. I know that I had not talked to my parents or anyone else about it previously. I listened to the lessons at a revival at my church, a Jimmy-Allen revival, for those who remember those meetings. I took notes, and, after I felt sufficiently scared of going to hell, I made my way down that aisle just as I was and said I wanted to go to heaven for sure. Maybe it was because I was a child, but that’s all I remember understanding at that point. I cried hard the whole way down the aisle, the whole time I was changing into the church baptismal clothes, the whole time I was in the water, and the whole way home.
As I matured, I sometimes felt embarrassed or apologetic that I had been so emotional when I was baptized. My friend in school, Robert Cooper, got baptized on the very same day, and he didn’t cry. I looked back on my baptism with some regret that I had been emotional. Later I even questioned whether it was a legitimate baptism, whether I had understood enough of what I was doing or whether I did it for the right reasons. Several times I considered being re-baptized, which was fairly common among my friends as they went through some of the same doubts I had experienced.
One specific concept concerned me, and that was whether I had received the Holy Spirit at my baptism. I was baptized with these words “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit for the remission of your sins.” That was standard procedure in our churches. I felt that any further discussion of the Holy Spirit, however, was confusing. I was taught that the Holy Spirit played a part in the early church and in the work of the writers of the New Testament, but that the Holy Spirit did not work in the miraculous ways we saw in Scripture anymore. That was something that died out with the first apostles. As I understood it, the Holy Spirit’s place was on the pages of Scripture, and since I was taught that Holy Spirit was dead, the ghost thing sort of fit with the dead part.
I was a student of Scripture, however, and I kept running across scriptures about the Spirit that didn’t jive with this explanation. I read about the fruits of the Spirit. I read about the gifts of the Spirit. I read about the Spirit’s work in the body of believers. Those were clues that the Spirit might not be dead. And, although I didn’t know what to call it at the time, I experienced the Holy Spirit in my life. I sometimes felt moved with emotion during prayer or worship in a way that continued to embarrass me. If I felt tearful during these times, I would try to subdue it, to hide it. I sometimes awoke in the middle of the night and felt compelled to journal or to pray about specific people or situations. I did not feel free to share this with anyone at the time. It seemed kooky. I felt that it was private and possibly wrong. Additionally, when I studied Scripture and prepared to teach it, I noticed guidance that seemed to come from within me, from a place other than simply my intellect. I knew something very real was taking place in me, but I didn’t know what to call it.
God used a Ugandan coworker of mine to help me better understand the Holy Spirit. Deron helped me see that these experiences were the work of the Holy Spirit. I experienced freedom when I began to look back on my life and to see the Holy Spirit in new ways. Deron shared with me that the Holy Spirit helped raise him, like his parents raised him. I looked at Deron’s life, and I saw fruits of the Holy Spirit that I had read about in Scripture. I saw how the Holy Spirit empowered Deron to learn the Lusoga language, to preach and teach powerfully, to pastor people cross-culturally, and to live as a loving husband and father. I distinctively and powerfully witnessed the Holy Spirit in Deron’s life. That’s how I finally got it – when I saw evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in Deron’s life, and then miraculously, my eyes were opened to see how the Spirit was working in my own life (even during Rod Stewart songs).
I am not so sure the Holy Spirit can be understood apart from the communal stories of Holy-Spirit-filled human beings. Saint Patrick helped us consider the Trinity with his shamrock. Sunday school teachers explain the Holy Spirit with an apple: the skin, the flesh, and the seeds all distinct but all a part of the whole. But, those descriptions fail to acknowledge the human element. The Holy Spirit dwells in people! Scripture itself points us to see that the Spirit cannot be separated from community – the community of God and the community of believers.
My eyes were opened so that I could see the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. I looked back, seeing that the Spirit was with me during prayer, worship, journaling, study of scripture. I began to see that the Spirit was developing gifts in me that God could use in his Kingdom just like he was using Deron. This was life-transforming because I had never pictured myself in the middle of God’s work. In scripture’s terminology, I was someone relegated to the outer courts of the temple, unclean as a woman, a suspect marginal, wanna-be, not someone worthy of being the temple of the Holy Spirit, of God himself. The only way I know to describe my expanded understanding of the Spirit is that the temple of the curtain was torn in two in my life. I looked at my Christian life in a whole new way. I even looked back on my baptism in a new way, seeing that emotion could be powerful and useful, not embarrassing or regretful. I looked back on my baptism and saw that even though I did not completely understand what was happening at that time in a way that could be dissected and reasoned at the time, God took my wee bit of faith, planted it, and started growing something in me. I began to see that baptism was not an end of a thought process which would change my heaven-or-hell status, but it was an official, public acceptance of what God would do in me.
I love Paul Young’s depiction of the Holy Spirit in his book, The Shack as one who gardens the soil of our souls. I no longer see the Holy Ghost as a fearful presence in my life. Here’s how I picture this relationship.
Every year in the glorious spring in Michigan (it’s nothing but gloriousafter our long winters), I can’t wait to plant annuals in my window boxes. John, Nate and Brynn bought me window boxes one Mother’s Day, and now it’s our tradition to buy annuals for my window boxes every Mother’s Day. I usually buy begonias. I love to take the small begonia plants out of the plastic boxes one by one and carefully move them into the soil. They are small plants at that point, so I have to space them apart in anticipation of how they will grow together once they are large. I plan ahead according to how I want the colors to accentuate one another as they grow. Eventually, just a few plants will fill the entire window box, and the different colors will grow together to compliment the entire house and yard.
That process is how I envision the Holy Spirit - as a gardener, taking us in hand and carefully planting us in just the perfect spot for who God has planned for us to be, nurturing our souls for God’s purposes. I see each of us as beautiful on our own, but so much more glorious, beautiful, and healthy when planted among other believers who are also nurtured by the Holy Spirit.
I no longer fear the Holy Spirit.
I trust the Spirit as part of God’s plan for how I am held and nurtured tenderly, gently, and with purpose.
It feels safe to be held in the nurturing hands of the Holy Spirit.
And I eagerly anticipate how I may grow deeper in the great mystery of the Holy Spirit throughout my life.