Thursday, April 30, 2009


The specialist's study was a bright, friendly, wood-paneled room, with a couple of cheerful landscape paintings on the walls set off by some very impressive-looking diplomas. I was seated in a comfortable leather chair peering across an expanse of wide polished desk trying to read the expression on his poker face. He got right to the point: "Well, Father," he began in his gentle fatherly voice, "we got the biopsy report back. The results were positive. I'm afraid they found some cancer." Although I had been preparing myself for this possibility for a couple of weeks, I was still surprised at my own calm response: under my breath I simply muttered an annoyed "Oh crap!"

Most of the time my life goes along quite well -- I have everything I need and most of what I could reasonably want, and I settle into a pleasant routine. This situation is reflected in my comfortable, calm and soothing relationship with the Lord. But invariably, when I start to presume that the Almighty is supposed to be for lack of a better word, "nice," I experience some shattering disruption or even a tragedy, and meet the other side of God. Then I remember the wise saying I came across in a book some years ago: the old rabbi observed "God is not nice, God is not your uncle. God is an earthquake!" I never know when I'm going to meet the God of the Earthquake as I did that afternoon in the doctor's office.
(By the way, I had successful cancer surgery two years ago and am cancer-free at the moment.)

But I'm a slow learner and am always surprised all over again whenever I meet the God of the Earthquake. Maybe that's because it seems contrary to the image of God that the New Testament gives us: Jesus' picture of a kind gentle Father hardly seems to fit with a God who is an earthquake. But surprisingly it is Luke, the evangelist who gives us the image of Jesus as the gentle, compassionate healer, who also gives us a sobering glimpse of that unsettling aspect of God. A spirituality for troubled times needs to come to grips with Luke's description of Pentecost.


A careful reading of Luke's account of the story of Pentecost gives us plenty of unmistakable hints that God is not necessarily "nice." The familiar story of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles is found in Acts 2:1-13. While the apostles are huddled together in a room, afraid that at any moment they will be found and arrested, a dove, the very image of gentleness, hovers over them. We usually see this as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, sent to reassure and calm them in the midst of their overwhelming fear and grief. A close look at the rest of the passage, however, reveals some surprises.

Look, for example, at the tongues of fire that appear above each apostle’s head (2:3). Fire is associated with the fearsome appearance of God on Mount Sinai when Moses receives the ten commandments. It is never used in scripture as a symbol of peace or contentment, but rather as a means of purifying or even destroying. The phrase "tongues of fire" appears in Isaiah as an image of destructive power: "As the tongue of fire devours the stubble…" (Isaiah 5:24). The fire of Pentecost, then, should remind us of the warning given by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29). John the Baptist uses the image of fire three times within a few verses: “Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.… He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire…. the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:9, 16-17). Those tongues of fire can hardly be meant to warm and soothe the apostles' troubled hearts!

Another detail in the story of Pentecost brings out this unsettling side of the Spirit: “They were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong, driving wind, and it filled the entire house where they were" (Acts 2:1-2). The metaphor of "wind" already gives us a hint that the Spirit may not necessarily be something soothing, static or passive, but it is Luke's description of the wind that sends the clearest warning that what is about to happen is anything but peaceful and gentle.

The Greek says literally “And there came suddenly out of heaven a sound as of a rushing, violent wind" (Acts 2:2). The Greek word "violent" is biaios, (bee'-ah-yos), from the noun bia, (bee'-ah), “violence, physical force.”

A quick look at two other places in Acts where Luke uses the word "violence" gives an idea of what he is implying with his description of the wind. First, he uses the word to describe how during a riot in Jerusalem “Paul was carried by the soldiers because of the violence [bia] of the mob" (Acts 21:35). Then during a fierce storm, when the captain deliberately runs the ship aground its stern is shattered to pieces "under the violence [bia] of the waves” (Acts 27:41). This kind of destructive "violence" leaves no doubt, then, as to the kind of wind Luke is talking about at Pentecost: the Holy Spirit is not a gentle breeze, but a gale force wind. Picture, if you will, one of those television news clips of a hurricane tearing the tops off of palm trees and heaving houses from their foundations.


The same "mighty wind" that troubled the waters in Genesis 1:2 and that filled the house on Pentecost continues to blow today. When the wind of the Spirit roars into my own comfortable life and uproots my favorite prejudices and assumptions or otherwise upsets my cozy little existence, the Pentecost story reminds me that this is a part of the mysterious, creative pattern of God’s action in the world.

The Lord sometimes needs to call me from my comfortable present into the wilderness, toward a threatening future of new possibilities and new promises. I need to be open not just to the Spirit that brings the sweet infant Jesus and Christ's healing miracles, but also to the Spirit who troubles the waters, who comes as a violent wind or a searing fire to purify and sanctify me, and to renew the face of the earth.

1. "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. (Gen. 1:1-2 NAB). Early Christian writers are fond of interpreting the wind troubling the waters as the Spirit, God’s creative energy at work. When has God’s troubling, creative wind blown in your life? How did you react?
2. Have you ever experienced God as "an earthquake?'

Both the noun bia, and the adjective biaios are found Matt. 11:12, and the related verb “to apply force” is in Luke 16:16.

Wisdom of the Desert
Amma Theodora said, "let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter's storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven."

1 comment:

  1. This is very true and when I tell people they don't believe me! They have the twisted Roman idea of the always nice G-d in their heads!