This essay was originally prepared for a course of study I took at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. Anything to do with the subject of the Holy Spirit will fascinate me forever…
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that there was such a thing as the Holy Spirit. My father was an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada, and we lived in what was then known as The Parsonage in a tiny village in Western Ontario. There was a continual procession of parishioners coming to the house, either to consult my father about problems they were experiencing in their lives, or to arrange for weddings and funerals, or even to get married right there in the study, if need be, as was the case with a 14 year old expectant mother and her 15 year old boyfriend. (I have to admit to being an eavesdropper outside my father’s study!) This was back in the 1930s when times were tough and we often had jobless men showing up at the parsonage door looking for a meal.
When I was old enough to grasp some of what my father’s sermons were about, and I heard about the Holy Ghost, I was afraid. To me, ghost stories were scary things. Mother found me hiding under the bed one night, afraid the Holy Ghost would get me, as I had been a bad girl that day. Mother said the Holy Ghost was a good ghost and would never hurt me. She went on to tell me that it was really God looking out for me. I don’t remember hearing too much about Jesus being with me back then, but I knew he was the Son of God, and Mother said they were all the same thing that was called the Trinity. So I grew up with the concept of the Three In One and soon put aside my childish fear of the Holy Ghost.
In 1941, my father was called up to serve as a Chaplain and left for England. We had to leave the small village and move to Toronto to live with my aged maternal grandparents. They were devout Christians: it was not unheard of for us to attend church twice on a Sunday. I had a good foundation in religion and the Bible from the well-organized Sunday School I attended; however, I don’t recall much being said about the Holy Ghost/Spirit.
Fresh out of high school, I met and married a wonderful man who had recently emigrated from Germany; we were blessed with four daughters. I’d decided not to go to University as I didn’t think I had either the intelligence or the will to study as intensely as my parents told me would be required. I’ve always been an avid reader; eventually my inborn curiosity led me to explore different subjects, such as European history; the rise of National Socialism and the Second World War; biographies of famous historical figures; the background to the Russian Revolution etc. Through all the 18 years I was at home with my children, I read at least six books a week, a habit I still carry on today. Some people might call me an autodidact.
As our children came along, they were baptized in the Lutheran Church where we were then members. When one of my daughters suffered a health crisis, forcing her to change her plans for her future, I got very angry with God, the God I had always considered to be loving and compassionate. After all, I had done my best to lead a Christian life: why did this have to happen? Why did my daughter have to suffer through no fault of her own? My faith wasn’t strong enough to carry me all the way through this crisis and I was hesitant to confide in our pastor, as he was having serious problems with his own four children.
Meanwhile, in the early ’60s, my parents decided to separate and my father resigned from the church and subsequently left Canada permanently. He married a woman he had met in England during the War and my mother married a retired Baptist minister. In the late 1970s, I found the stress of a growing family, a husband who was going through a ‘midlife crisis’, and two sets of parents who had numerous problems altogether too much and I suffered what I see now was an emotional collapse. My husband and I separated for a few months, but as we had always been close as spouses and were each other’s best friend, we decided to work to rebuild the marriage.
As I was still feeling resentful to God and organized religion in general, it had been some years since I’d been involved with any church. Besides holding down two part time jobs and doing volunteer work with cancer patients, I decided to enroll as a day student at Woodsworth College at the University of Toronto, where I studied Medieval European history; Russian, German and Irish history, and other subjects of interest such as Medieval art history, linguistics, Islam, and Arabic. The early to middle stages in the development of the Christian Church, primarily the Roman Catholic, fascinated me and I started attending mass regularly at St. Basil’s. Not quite understanding how it happened, I converted to Roman Catholicism in the mid 1980s. To me, then, the mass was a most satisfying experience, but when I began to look a little more closely, there were many things about this faith, including the hierarchy and the attitude towards women that I found disturbing. Something was still lacking in my life, but I continued to read and probe into questions to which I hoped to find an answer.
A string of events led me away from the church yet again. By this time we were planning our retirement, and relocated in the countryside in the early 1990s. For the subsequent 10 years, I stayed away from organized religion, but went on reading as avidly as before. I knew something was still missing from my life. I thought about God a lot of the time and wondered just where I fit into the scheme of things, but that’s as far as it went.
Then a neighbour invited me to join the choir at the United Church just down the road from us. It felt strange at the beginning, to be back in the environs of a church again, but the welcome I found there was overwhelming. Some months later, I rejoined the United Church, realizing that I had indeed come full circle, back to where I had begun on my spiritual path – a little rural church.
Then, a remarkable thing happened: one hot August afternoon, I was reading alone on the front porch, enjoying the view of the Lake, when I heard a voice say, “You need to do more. Why don’t you think about becoming a lay person?” I looked around, but there was no one in sight. The strongest feeling came over me that I had to do something, but what exactly? It was about this time that we were about to lose our minister and it would be some time before we could find another one. I said out loud, “Who, me? I don’t think so. I’m not a good enough person. Besides, who would want to hear what I have to say?” I knew that besides organizing and conducting a worship service, a Lay Leader/Minister would be expected to give a sermon. But the voice came again, more urgently this time, “You could try, couldn’t you? Why not try?” I remember going directly into the house to ask my husband what he thought of the idea. Over the years, he has invariably supported me in anything I wanted to do, but this would mean taking me out of the house more often and me having to ‘hit the books’. We were just getting used to a totally different lifestyle. Was I asking too much? My husband is not a churchgoer, but he said, without hesitation, “If that’s what you want, go for it!” I didn’t tell him about the voice until later on. I was afraid he’d think I was going senile!
Those concerned with Ministry and Personnel at Presbytery agreed to interview me, and after hearing about my life experience and taking a week’s deliberation, they decided that yes, I could act as Pulpit Supply, but told me that unfortunately I was past the cut-off age to begin the process of becoming qualified as a Lay Minister. During the time I was waiting for an answer, I was still hearing that mysterious voice, urging me to give it a try. One minister from Presbytery kindly offered to mentor me. After a few false starts, I produced a sermon which he approved. Following a couple of sessions with him, I was on my own.
My first worship service was on the Sunday immediately following Christmas, a day known for its small turnout. When it came time to proceed into the church, I was a bit overcome by the size of the congregation. The three churches in our charge have the tradition of holding joint services on that ‘low’ Sunday so that could have accounted for the larger crowd, but then I spotted a whole row of my friends, some of whom are Roman Catholic. The feelings I experienced following that first service are indescribable. This was the first time in my life that I felt that here was something I could do.
Since then, I’ve been privileged to conduct a number of worship services, often covering the three churches in three hours. Our people expect the sermons to be Biblically based, so I had to ‘bone up’ on my knowledge of the Bible; at the same time, I had to learn to talk in terms that everyone could understand, as many of our parishioners are people who left school early to work on the farm: in other words, no quoting from heavy-duty academic writings!
Just by chance, (if there is such a thing, which I doubt. as I realize now that God has a plan for each of us), I was excited to discover that as far as Wycliffe College was concerned, I was not too old to study for my diploma. Close to halfway through my seventh decade, I’m enjoying every minute of my studies. Earlier this year, I even had the temerity to do a sermon on the Holy Spirit entitled “Who is this Third Person?” I wish I had had this particular course under my belt before attempting it!
Afraid of the Holy Spirit? Not Me!
So, where does the Holy Spirit fit into all of this? Well, It was there the whole time, just waiting for me to come alive to Its voice. Except for that period in the 1960s when I felt abandoned by God, I never really lost my faith. I know now that it was I who abandoned God. Jesus’ life and work, His death and resurrection I feel most strongly about. From that stunning event in human history, I know that I can never suffer the way Our Lord did. None of us can. This may be a selfish notion, but that is what it has meant to me personally. Jesus brought us something no one else has ever done: He brought us a message of hope and the promise of God’s all-encompassing love and forgiveness. I believe that God had to come in human form for us mortals to be able to better understand Him. As for the Holy Spirit, from the Gospel according to John in Chapters 3, 14 and 16, which I have read and reread, I’ve always understood that Jesus promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit/Comforter/Helper (depending on the translation) would take His place, and, since the Father and the Son are One, so is the Holy Spirit One with Them. Where I have difficulty is trying to explain the Trinity to anyone else. Perhaps Jürgen Moltmann could be said to have the advantage of having very few, if any, preconceived notions about faith/religion/the church to overcome. When confined to the grim existence of a prisoner of war camp, he opened his mind, or rather, his mind was opened to the Trinity and what it means. His forerunner, Wolfhart Pannenberg, paved the way with his essentially simplistic, yet systematic approach of going back to scripture to formulate his thesis on the Trinity.
I find it most amazing that Tertullian could express such deep ideas on the subject of the Trinity, considering the period in which he lived, and that today he remains an authority who is still quoted. His ideas were so radical, it’s a wonder he wasn’t persecuted to death by the authorities who might have perceived him as a threat. What is also remarkable is that until Pannenberg, there had been no real advance in thinking on the Trinity from Tertullian’s time. Certainly there were many controversial theories, but they don’t appear to have taken real root until Pannenberg proposed that in order to fully understand the meaning of the Trinity, one could only start with the revelations of God as embodied in the life and death of His Son Jesus Christ and the scriptures that followed from His teachings and preachings. Could it be that God reveals only what He decides man is ready to hear – ‘in God’s own time’ so to speak? From reading about the myriad controversies and heresies that plagued the early Church, it would seem that Christianity was forged by God’s will and survived by God’s grace.
I find it interesting that the main authority for what Jesus said rests mainly on the witness of John, who repeats over and over how Jesus explained, and attempted to clarify, His relationship to God. This concept must have been most difficult for the disciples to grasp. The life and work of Paul the Apostle, coming some 40 to 50 years after Christ, is worth spending time on, especially his travels as a missionary. It is positively amazing to learn what enormous distances he covered and at what risk to himself. The impact he made on the development of the early Christian church cannot be underestimated. A few years ago, when I visited Malta, it was obvious he left a lasting mark there. In the City of Valletta, a lovely little church, with a number of relics, such as the column on which he was beheaded (in Rome), is dedicated to the memory of his time there: the Church of St. Paul Shipwrecked recalls his miraculous escape from drowning and snakebite (Acts of the Apostles Ch. 28).
As far as the Trinity is concerned, from the reading by Gordon D. Fee, it would appear from the Greek in which Paul wrote his letters, he himself wasn’t exactly sure what form the Holy Spirit should take, or even just exactly what sort of spirit it was; however, he recognized that the Holy Spirit was a powerful presence in people’s everyday lives. Perhaps how Paul really felt about the Holy Spirit can only be understood in the context of the Greek language. Being fluent in German, it has been my experience that some words/expressions/idioms are impossible to translate and provide the true meaning the speaker/writer intends to convey. This is not to detract from the lifework and writings of Paul, it is merely a personal observation.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that both Pannenberg and Moltmann are German, two theologians whose advanced ideas, pronouncements and theses regarding the Trinity have made them the current authorities on the subject. It struck me years ago that the best and the worst of humankind have emanated from Germany, where one finds two extremes: great minds, ie. philosophers, scientists, composers, theologians, and base minds, ie. appalling acts of cruelty, aggression, persecution, and fanaticism such as National Socialism.
The work of the Holy Spirit in the daily lives of humans isn’t always recognized as such, but in my life experience so far, I can see that that particular force has been at play through everything that has happened to me. Only when I began to actively ‘listen’ did my life change for the better. It took many years before I realized that it wasn’t the particular church affiliation I had that was important, that there was indeed much work of the Lord’s to be done and that I could contribute in some way to spreading the word.
From Genesis 1:2 throughout the Old Testament, and throughout the New Testament to Revelations 22:17, the Holy Spirit is referred to again and again. My prayer is that more people may come to accept the Trinity and that more scholars will work to clarify what it means to future generations. God’s plan for humankind is indeed unfolding as He intends.
“…there are countless stories in the Bible about the Spirit showering strength, courage, wisdom, faithfulness, understanding, comfort, reassurance, and a host of other blessings on those who are open to believing … open to listening when the Spirit gives directions, … the Spirit is active in every Christian’s life, carrying out the Divine Will of God and helping us to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. … the Spirit transforms believers and lets them live a holier and more Christian life. And don’t we all need that empowering Presence in our lives?
References to the books quoted by the author in the above essay are available on request.
From the January 27th sermon “Who is this Third Person?” © 2008 Laura M. Haferkorn. All rights reserved.