Filled With the Holy Spirit

By Charleston D. Wilson

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, St. Luke writes: “And they were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Let’s come back to this in just a few minutes.

Do you think the best part of your life lies in the past, or do you think the best is yet to come? I am not asking if you are a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person, and I’m not making a segue into the power of positive thinking. I am simply asking this: Are the best times over, or is “the best is yet to come”?

Paul Zahl, who preached here last year, wrote me a couple of weeks ago to tell me about book he’s just published. The title is Peace in the Last Third of Life: A Handbook for Boomers. I’m not a “boomer” by any means (unless you count musical preference), but I couldn’t put it down. His premise is simple and arresting. To quote from it directly, Paul says:

One of the chief cornerstones of the mental attitudes of persons in the last third of life is something like this: “I [never] thought my life would turn out this way” or, “I guess I put my eggs in the wrong basket.”

The book then proves that people say things like that to themselves over and over again every single day in the last third of their lives, and they have to find some way to deal with it.

But, I wrote Paul back, suggesting a title change, because one doesn’t need to reach the last third of life to say thinks like “I never thought my life would turn out this way.” We are friends, so he took it in stride.

All of us ask those sorts of questions every single day. Just look at us six feet apart and limited to 100 persons; all of you look like bank robbers. I never thought it would turn out this way.

But this isn’t the first I’ve made that comment. I first said it to myself in the fourth grade. I still remember when the girl I wanted to call my girlfriend wasn’t willing to accept that title. I can remember crying in the boys’ bathroom — seriously tearing up, hoping nobody would see me as I sat there thinking: “I never thought my life would turn out this way.” I could be quite ridiculous.

Why do you think there is a rather seedy bar on North Tamiami Trail on the way to the airport called Memories Lounge? In case you don’t know, it’s actually not a place you go to remember things. They stay in business year after year because most people can’t stop saying to themselves “I never thought my life would turn out this way.” So in they go, day after day, to that place “Where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases [the] blues away” (to paraphrase Garth Brooks).

But it never works. Give it 12 hours and the same statement goes running across the news ticker of our thoughts and emotions: “I never thought my life would turn out this way.”

Modern psychologists don’t prescribe sessions at the Memories Lounge, thankfully. But they do believe that the brain can get over traumatic things through a process called disassociation — a method of learning to block certain recollections that trigger stress and pain.

I’m not here to debate what seems to be a good and holy treatment for many, but the fact that such a therapy exists just proves the first thing I want to say this morning, which is this:  everyone, irrespective of age or season in life, has at least one emotionally traumatic event stored — rather, burned — into the core processor that is our brain, and we never totally forget about it.

The only other thing I want to quickly say — and this is the only other thing I need to say on Pentecost — is not about what we always remember, but what we always forget.

In the third chapter of his letter to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” A very faithful translation could be: “Have you forgotten?”

Suppose I have forgotten that the Holy Spirit dwells in me over these last couple of months. What can I do about it?

Well, like most of the great joys that come from being a Christian, the solution in neither complex nor difficult; it’s really straightforward and simple.

It really is as easy as the old tent preachers used to put it: just say these words in your heart: “Come, Holy Spirit.” If you prefer your tent tradition to be medieval monasticism, just say it in Latin: “Veni creator, Spiritus!”

And, by golly, he shows up — to renew, to reinvigorate, to pray within us when we’re fresh out of things to say, to encourage, to lead.

And when the Spirit of God Almighty is renewed within us, in that very moment we truly overcome — we don’t forget, but we overcome by the power of grace, by God’s one-way love.

We have to be careful, however. I’m not saying we overcome as an army might win a war through maneuver or skill — it’s not “veni, vidi, vici,” and it’s not overcoming in the way one might prevail over terrible odds on the tennis court through strategy and, say, a rabbit’s foot in your left pocket. The Holy Spirit is not a commodity we manipulate to grant spiritual or worldly success like a genie in a bottle.

Victor Frankl, the celebrated psychologist and Holocaust survivor, was really on the right track. In his timeless book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he said:

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so … as the by-product of one’s surrender to [a cause] or person other than oneself.

For you and for me, the Holy Spirit is that “other” person, that greater cause. As Billy Graham once said, “The Holy Spirit is not some ‘thing.’ He is someone. He is God.”

And because he is God, the way to renew the Spirit of God himself within us comes through gratitude and surrender — from the total and complete capitulation and crucifixion of our egos and our supposed “got-it-togetherness.” Then, a little bit of that peace that passes all understanding begins to ensue, to well up, in each of us.

As St. Paul said to St. Titus, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.”

And they “were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Come, Holy Spirit.

The Rev. Charleston D. Wilson is rector of Church of the Redeemer, Sarasota, Florida.


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