Pentecost, Pain, and Patience

Many years ago I tried to reach out to someone I loved very much. I could see them hurting. They were feeling trapped by forces they could not understand. In their imagination this prison took the shape of a dreaded disease this loved one was convinced she had. She didn’t have it, but it was consuming her nonetheless.


I reached out with the one thing I thought was powerful. I offered something I thought all people needed. I said, “Jesus will be with you.”


This one I loved snapped back at me, “Don’t give me that Jesus crap!”


She didn’t strike out at me because I had not listened to her. I had listened to her fears for hours and days, and it was beginning to consume me as well as her.


She didn’t hate me because I was spouting a cliché. I had seen, with my own eyes, how God’s grace had lifted all sorts of people from darkness and despair. In fact, I had just been amazed by the joy of a woman who was blind and deaf and had just had a second leg amputated. This was not a platitude, it was something real.


Still, there I was, stopped cold. I knew, in an instant, that I had offered the only thing I had—a testimony about Christ. It was all I had, and it was the only thing I had that I believed, deeply, that all people needed. Surely this person I loved needed it too.


The story of the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2) is the story of that one thing all people need–the truly Universal. There is one thing that can break down every barrier we put up, and bring people together. Throughout the Book of Acts we see all the barriers we can think of being battered down: religion, language, culture, social class, geography—people separated by these things are brought together.


And the one thing that does it is the Spirit of God.


But the Spirit is ineffable. It’s nature is so beyond us that the nearest the author of Luke and Acts can come is to say it is like wind and flame. It is unpredictable. It is beyond our understanding or control. An alternate First Lesson for this Sunday comes from that dramatic chapter 37 in Ezekiel—perhaps even more dramatic than the Pentecost story, when the “Hand of the Lord” laid hold of Ezekiel to convey him to a valley of dry bones. So the Spirit is that thing that takes over and overwhelms our imagination.


Another thing Acts adds is that the Spirit, though overwhelming, does have the power to pick us up out of the “crowd” of people who are simply amazed and perplexed in a desultory way, and give us some real meaning and direction in life—enough so that we can then prophesy. We can see something that God sees and speak something that God wants spoken.


That day, long ago, I tried to prophesy to this person I loved, but she fought back and called it all crap. I think I was not sensitive enough to the forces that push us apart as lovers and as people. Yes, Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Yes, there is no other name in heaven or on earth by which we can be saved. But only the Spirit can truly bring us together, and it does that because it is that invisible, intangible, ineffable force that works beyond words.


Acts shows God’s Spirit and God’s Word breaking down many barriers between people. But there are others. People differ in profound ways. One person may need a kind word and a warm embrace. Another may be violently repulsed by the same. One person may need to hear about Jesus, another may think it all a bunch of crap. People have different temperaments, need other people in different doses and different ways—need words and reasoning of different kinds—want to fit in or would rather  be different. Anything we think is universally good may be rejected by someone else.


And the same person can truly feel like they are several different personalities all rolled up into one, and they switch personas depending on what they have eaten or what phase of the moon it is.


For all these reasons and more it is hard—indeed it seems impossible at times—to reach out to someone you love. So much that keeps us apart is unseen, infinitely complex, and misunderstood.


So the Apostle Paul, in Romans 8, is so profound when he conveys his own thoughts about the Spirit. It is that thing that is in and with us as we “groan inwardly” and “wait for adoption.” It gives us the hope that saves us, but we hope precisely in what cannot be seen – or understood. And since it is all so beyond us, we keep groaning, yet, still, we wait patiently. In this state we are keenly aware of our own weakness; but we experience sighs and groans that are too deep for words.


When the person I loved snapped at me and said “Cut out the Jesus crap,” I was thrown off balance and felt helpless. Indeed, I was completely helpless and weak. But if I failed in any way, and I think I truly did, it was that I failed to groan and sigh and wait… patiently. I failed to be with someone I loved with my weakness.  I remember mustering a little patience. I said something about time and waiting and trusting. But I was so put off by the rebuke to that single word, “Jesus,” that I did not understand that rebukes and “crap” and downright agony are all par for the course when we are truly enveloped by the birth pangs of the soul.


Just so, wind and fire are not tame things. What they mean for us can be revealed only as we wait patiently.

The breakthroughs of the Spirit that Pentecost signal do not erase the pain. We can only wait out the pain. To be in the Spirit means to wait patiently.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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