We are now in the season of Pentecost, the season of the Holy Spirit. So it is time to talk about comforters.
I got a new comforter recently. The one on my bed had grown lumpy and had several little holes in it. But I didn’t really want to get rid of it. It was still so…, well, comforting! I had to think about what qualities make for a perfect comforter – how much loft, how much weight, what sort of fabric, how many quilt pockets for the fill? The bottom line was that it needed to be…, well, comforting. It needed to feel good to snuggle into at the end of the day, wrapping with warmth and enough substance to make me feel safe from the world while I sleep.
A comforter is a soft, cuddly blanket. And Comforter, is a name we have given to Holy Spirit. How is the Holy Spirit like a soft, cuddly blanket? Wind, flame, earthquake, everyone talking at once, people doing things they never imagined, energy galore! If you look at the stories of what happened when the Holy Spirit comes, it sounds like Spirit is more about shaking things up and creating chaos, than about being soft and cuddly.
How did we come to call the Holy Spirit a comforter? Is the Holy Spirit our place of rest at the end of the day? Perhaps in a way. In sleep we give our bodies and our busy minds over to the simple rhythm of breathing in and out, and breath is the essence of the Spirit.
But I don’t think Holy Spirit’s work is primarily about sleep. Rather, Holy Spirit may just be the ants in the pants of faith.
Comforter comes from the Greek word, “parakletos.” It is John’s word for Spirit. He uses it four times in his gospel and once in 1 John. Paraclete literally means, “to come alongside another.” Different English words have been used to translate it – Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor, Counselor. “Companion” picks up part of it, too. But no one of these words alone captures the meaning.
Paraclete, as Advocate, comes alongside someone to defend and counsel them in court. In this sense it reminds me of the way the synoptic gospels describe Holy Spirit’s role: “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11, Luke 12:11, Matthew 10:19). In this case, Holy Spirit specifically has the role of being the defense attorney in court, the one who will speak for you in time of trouble.
But, it appears that Holy Spirit doesn’t have a very good record in court. Tradition says that eleven of the twelve apostles died as martyrs, found guilty of heresy or some other transgression against the government. So the Holy Spirit’s words given in court did not mean the followers would be acquitted. Getting us off, saving our lives is not necessarily the work of Holy Spirit. The words Spirit gives are true and courageous, more than we would be able to speak on our own. But truth can trigger some pretty nasty backlash!
Advocate Holy Spirit prays for us, as Jesus did, that we would stay one with God and each other. Stay one with our true life source. From this, we get the aspect of Intercessor.
Paraclete, coming alongside, can also be more like a companion. It can be like the man who walked the miles to Emmaus with the two Jesus-followers. He came right up alongside them, fell into step with them and engaged them in conversation. He told the truth, as he explained the Scriptures, but more, he accompanied them in their grief. He let them know that their questions and hope and doubt were all okay. He would not leave them just because they were in grief and confusion.
Paraclete doesn’t solve our problems, but invites us to see possibilities we would not have seen otherwise.
Paraclete doesn’t remove our fear, but grants us courage to move forward.
Paraclete doesn’t promise safety, but is the presence of God through whatever life gives us.
If we heed the word and work of the coming-alongside Holy Spirit, we will inevitably be pushed beyond what we imagine and end up stirring things up. We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as solving our problems, but what if the Spirit’s work is to create for us a new problem?
Jesus does not command us to go out and build churches, take care of old buildings, and devote ourselves to crumbling institutions. No, Jesus says “go and make disciples” and “when you care for the least of these you are caring for me” and “love one another as I have loved you.” And this kind of work is inherently disruptive, difficult, and at times even dangerous. And so Jesus sends the Paraclete, the one who comes alongside us to encourage, equip, strengthen, provoke and, at times to comfort us so that we can get out there and do it all again.
The more I thought about the One who comes alongside, the more I realized that this is the greatest gift of all! Oh, its nice to have someone to swoop in and fix all your problems, to have your life resolve in a few minutes like a movie script. But how often have I heard people complain that their spouse didn’t listen to them. He or she rushed to fix the thing, but never actually heard the pain in the heart. And really what the wounded one wanted was only to be heard, for her pain to be acknowledged, for his dilemma to be understood as fully human, normal. And to be embraced anyway.
To come alongside is the greatest comfort of all! There is no greater yearning in the human heart than for belonging. I have been asking guests who visit us about why they chose to try coming to our church in a time when church attendance is out of style. Why do you come here? Pause a minute and ask yourself the question: Why do you come here? What gets you out of bed on Sunday morning, going through the routine of getting ready, walking, getting on a bus, or driving to this place? What gets you here?…
From almost everyone I hear a version of: I want to find a place where I belong. Remember the old TV Show, Cheers? The theme song didn’t get it wrong:
Making your way in the world today
Takes everything you’ve got;
Taking a break from all your worries
Sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?…
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.
[Theme from “Cheers,” Gary Portnoy, Judy Hart-Angelo, on their album “Keeper,” 2004.]
The truth is, we can get through a whole lot of pain, if we don’t feel alone. Jesus said to the disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned.” I will be with you always. I am giving you Paraclete.
Why do people come to church anymore? One answer: for belonging. The Holy Spirit wants to do this work through our hands, and our hearts. How do we help people know they belong?
We have begun to practice this through Coffee & Stories. Telling and listening to each others’ lives. I remember an exercise I did with my friends in seminary. We had dinner together every Monday night. We decided to take a few weeks to give each person one whole evening to tell their story. We did a life-line exercise in preparation, drawing a graph line on a piece of paper with our significant life moments mapped. And then we told our story to the others. They listened. They received the gift which was our life. And they came alongside. From that time on, I knew that in this group, I always belonged. We have been friends for forty years. I could go to any of them if life bottomed out, and I could find a place to land. And they could do the same with me. We belong.
Coming alongside involves the gift of curiosity. Wanting to know about the other person. Lindy has been practicing curiosity with people who come to church here, making strangers feel like the most important people in the world. She is taking a break right now, and we need to pick up where she left off. Can we become a whole congregation of “coming alongsiders?” Like most things in life, it can be learned.
And so, our spiritual practice this week is “one to one’s.” There is a hand-out in the back describing the process in more detail. But it is really pretty simple. Invite someone to coffee and find out about them. Learn to know their name. And all their name has been in this life. Well, not all. That will take time. But learn their name and something which moves them, shapes them and brings their life orbit into yours. Listen. What name does the other like to be called? Do they like tea or coffee, or the color purple? What is their favorite book, movie, TV show. Are our lives too busy to come alongside? To be Paraclete to each other?
This is a special kind of conversation. It is a Paraclete conversation. The goal is to come alongside the other, not meeting our own needs or telling our own story. We can build the Coffee & Stories practice into our everyday lives. It takes intention and practice and maybe a little bit of the ants in the pants Holy Spirit to move us out of our comfort zone.
And remember as you face your fears, that Paraclete is always coming alongside you. Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned.” You are never alone. May we know God through each other as the one who comes alongside, whatever life offers.