"Pray in us"

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

May 20, 2018—Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-17; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


          He tells them he is leaving, and knows this devastates them. They are struck dumb. They have apparently even stopped asking “Where are you going?” (though they asked it several times before).[1] So he assures them, once again, that he will send them something. A parting gift, if you will, that will make it okay.

          Which is an astonishing claim, really. That’s going to have to be quite a present!

          It got me thinking about a piece that a writer named Dan Beachy-Quick wrote about his three year old daughter, anticipating the arrival of a present from her grandfather: He told her it would arrive in a few days, “and she, being at the age where the idea of any gift or surprise is the finest thing in the world, began her anticipatory questions. “Is it here, Daddy?” she would ask me ad infinitum, until its arrival.

“For me, the best part of waiting for the gift is asking Hana what she thinks it might be. “An elephant?” she guessed. “A macaroni bowl without macaroni?”

“Nothing else gives me such a sense of how astonishing desire is. Desire gives equal weight to things of radically different worth. Hana cycled through the possibilities at every meal. “A piece of glass?” “Crayons?” “A cloud?”

“Desire erases boundaries by easing through them. Desire is wonder in motion. … My 3-year-old girl knows already what many poets would do well to learn: desire pushes through the limit of what is possible; it does not recognize it and retreat.

“A cloud in a box would blow my mind, would knock my socks off. I hoped the gift was a cloud in a box. I had my doubts.”[2]

Is the Holy Spirit a cloud in a box, Jesus? I hope it’s a cloud in a box! That would knock my socks off.

A cloud in a box. A bird on the wing. A rush of water. A world on fire. The gift will come, blowing past even our desire. The gift will come, sustaining us until Christ comes again. Inspiring us to stay on the Way. Giving us words, giving us comfort, keeping us company, carrying our burdens, leading us on. The gift will come. And like a three year old, we will be … blown away!

But like a three year old, we will not always be blown away by the big flashy part of the present. Sometimes it’s the box, right? Sometimes it’s the small things, the quieter parts that unexpectedly bring the greatest joy and satisfaction. And so the Spirit comes not only as the fire but the tiny dancing flame. And the wind that calmed the chaotic waters at the Creation of the world became the breath that God breathed into us at our own birth.

The Spirit moves in us, breathes in us, prays within us. That’s the gift we are promised in Romans. And that may seem a trifle, but believe me, it is not. When all around us seems to be chaos and destruction… When the world is groaning, when we ourselves are groaning with the labor pains of what is coming into being… When we hardly even know what to hope for, and cannot possibly know what to ask for… the Spirit prays within us, with sighs too deep for words. The Spirit will pray.

If this indeed is a time for beginnings and not endings, for birth and not death, for womb and not tomb … then the Spirit is sent as midwife. The Spirit goes alongside us, reminding us to breathe, telling us when to push. As the Pulpit Fiction guys put it, the Spirit in the Acts reading is the push (go out and tell of God’s glorious power!), but the Spirit in Romans is the breathing that makes the push possible.[3] Prayer is the breathing that calms us down, that gathers our strength, and focuses us in. And the role of Spirit is to teach us how to pray, by praying within us.

Remember that. When you feel overwhelmed by it all. When the situation feels hopeless, and so complicated that you have no words. When you want to place it in God’s hands but don’t even know where to start… Remember the gift. Remember the cloud in a box, the Spirit that Jesus sent to dwell within you, and trust the Spirit within you to pray.

 And the prayer will be like breathing. The prayer will enable you to breathe. To breathe and find some calm. To breathe and gather strength. To breathe, and know when you need to start pushing. So that something will be born in the midst of all the chaos.

It is tempting, as I write this, to allow myself to be caught up in all the joy and cheering of the crowds in England for the Royal Wedding. And let’s face it, that was a welcome reminder that there is love and hope in this world. But the Acts reading pushes me back further in the week. The Acts reading, which bursts with crowds gathered in Jerusalem, crowds of people from across the region. People who had no reason to understand each other, and no reason to expect to understand the disciples. And yet, with the miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit, were given the gift of understanding.

Which makes it impossible not to think of those gathered this past week in Israel. Not in Jerusalem, but not so far away. Gathered in Gaza, gathered at the border, on either side of a fence. People who also have no reason to expect to understand each other.

Those who were there, and those of us who watched from afar, speak wildly different languages, even when we are using the same words. Speaking of homeland and return and morality. Speaking of threat and self-defense, of justification and injustice. Speaking of a future for the children, speak of safety and potential and opportunity. Speaking of “what could it be” and “how could it be” and “could it possibly ever be?”

And I don’t even really know how to pray, as the psalmist begs us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Don’t know what to say that will allow all those who love her to prosper (Ps 122:6). And so I will try to remember the gift. Will try to allow the Spirit to pray within me, with sighs too deep for words. Will hope that the Spirit prays within the world with sighs so deep that the whole earth trembles with the birth pains. And then I will dig deeper, and remember Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies. And hope that the people of the world (all of us) can receive this gift of understanding: can somehow catch the sound of the prayer that the Spirit prays within our enemies.

Breathe that in. Breathe it out. Let it live within you. For it too is part of the birth.

We have been given a gift. A cloud in a box. Desire that pushes past the boundaries of reason. Hope that can hope for things as yet unseen. Let it live and breathe in you, so that you will be ready (so that we will be ready) when it is time to push. May it be so. Amen.


[1] Judith Jones, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3663

[2] “A Gift for My Daughter Brings Up Memories of Childhood With My Father” posted in Modern Love, August 3, 2008,  https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/fashion/03love.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fmodern-love

[3] Robb McCoy and Eric Fistler, Pulpit Fiction podcast 271: Pentecost B (5/20/2018), posted May 12, 2018.

Clare Hickman