A ghost? A shade? A phantom? A spirit? What's is this thing?
Jesus said, “So now go and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have taught you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
When I was growing up, Sunday worship always concluded with the same sixteen words. I don’t recall ever having thought about the meaning of the phrase one way or the other…. until the day my friend Theresa brought her cousin to church.
We children had returned to the main sanctuary from Sunday School for the closing hymn and benediction. Seated together in the last pew we listened as the minister ended his prayer in the usual fashion:
“in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Reverend Hewitt’s words electrified our guest. “A ghost?” whispered Jimmy, his eyes alight, “There’s a ghost in here?!” He scanned the sanctuary as if in hopes of catching a glimpse of a spooky hold-over from Halloween. Maybe this church business might turn out to be interesting, after all.
But Theresa and I hurriedly explained that, no, there weren’t any ghosts; it was just another way of talking about God. (We didn’t have much of an idea about what that “ghost” was all about, either.)
Clearly disappointed, and perhaps feeling a little foolish, Jimmy slouched off down the aisle and out the door. He never came back for a second visit. And any thoughts we may have had about “God’s ghost” vanished along with him.
In hindsight it seems strange that we weren’t particularly curious about this eerie presence that was invoked in our weekly worship. But, like so much else that is routine, the Holy Ghost simply disappeared from view: like wallpaper; after a time we ceased to see it.
It sounds as if the term “ghost” is a fitting one for this (nearly) invisible aspect of God.
But I wonder. Maybe it is time to do a little reclamation work. And maybe some renaming, as well.
The term comes to us from the King James version of the Bible. Why those seventeenth century Anglican clerics chose to translate pneuma (breath, wind, spirit, life essence) as “ghost” is a mystery to me. Especially as “spirit” would have been a logical and far more familiar option (from the Latin: Spiritus).
Whatever it may have meant in those days, for contemporary English speakers the idea of a Holy Ghost provides fodder for the popular scorn toward Christian beliefs. Alongside of a “zombie Jesus,” we apparently worship a Sacred Spook: a faint and feeble shadow of a man who once walked among us.
Now we know that’s simply not true. The Holy Spirit that abides with us is neither pale nor feeble nor ineffectual. It is a power, an energy, a force: the very breath of God; inspiring us to live with grace and generosity. This Spirit of truth (Jn 16:13) reminds us of our essence: of who we are, and who we are called to be.
It does not lurk in dusty corners, seeking to startle or terrify, it is nothing like a ghost. And yet it cannot be seen, or touched, or laid hold of — which makes it seem quite unreal.
On the other hand…
I have an acquaintance who is the model of an Enlightened Intellectual. Trained in the sciences, a hard-headed rationalist in every sense of the word, for years “Tim” claimed that the only spirits he believed in were Scotch ones — that came in a bottle. Then one day I got a phone call: it was Tim, but the voice that came across the airwaves sounded nothing like the confident cynic I had known. He’d had an encounter that — to this day and despite his every effort to explain it away — appeared utterly otherworldly.
Because of a real-life, personal experience, a devout atheist has become…. well, Tim hasn’t quite become a believer, but he is now open to the possibility of a reality beyond what can be “demonstrated” in a laboratory.
It isn’t always that “seeing is believing”, but experiencing a thing — now that can truly change us.
That is precisely how the Good News will be spread “to all the world”; through experience. A personal encounter with something marvelous, something glorious and grace-filled can change our lives: generosity, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, patience, understanding, love — these are invisible, inexplicable, glorious and grace-filled experiences. They are oh, so very welcome, and oh, so very desperately needed.
There has never been a world more in need of Good News than ours. And we have been called to share this Gospel
in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.
There’s that Holy Spirit again. The invisible ghost that Jimmy took seriously those many years ago — but that a couple of young Christians discounted as “just another name for God.”
But it isn’t “just a name”: it is an aspect of God. The Holy Spirit is a power — a divine power — that the risen Lord told his followers we can rely upon, that we are to call upon. This sacred energy can bring hope and peace and transforming love to all the world. Invisible, perhaps, but certainly not ineffectual. It is absolutely real.
Instead of discounting or ignoring or rationalizing away this aspect of God we should be emphasizing it — and embracing it.
Imagine the effect of Christians laying claim to a belief in a creative, life-affirming, healing Presence — actively at work, here and now, in this world.
Imagine if we spoke openly — boldly, as they used to say — of our faith in a universal power, a Great Benevolence that seeks our greatest good, a force that bends history toward justice and peace for all people. Imagine the power of that idea. Imagine that idea, that energy, put to work in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians: our every word, deed, thought, and prayer infused with the very Breath of God.
Imagine a world, transformed.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Imagine yourself inspired and empowered by the breath of God.