When you think of the Holy Spirit, what images come to mind?
Growing up, the Holy Spirit felt like that distant cousin we saw only at family reunions. The one who had no boundaries, no respect for personal space. A crazy guy who made everyone laugh nervously as he threw Grandma in the swimming pool. The Holy Spirit always seemed scary, loud, and destructive.
He seemed to like flashy preachers in packed arenas best. Televised showmen, with anointing oil and forceful prayers. I can still feel those cold, soft palms on my forehead pushing me backward, ”encouraging” my faith.
I always pictured the Holy Spirit as a force, knocking little old ladies to the floor, “slaying” them. He was a message in unintelligible tongues that would need to be interpreted (usually only by the showy preacher with the slicked-back hair). The Holy Spirit was “thus saith the Lord” and a woman clucking like a chicken in the aisle at my Grandma’s little country church, with shouts of “Glory!” stretched into four syllables.
I grew up in the era of the “Spirit of…” whatever outward signs and wonders we saw that particular Sunday morning. As a little boy, the “Spirit of Laughter” was the funniest and most confusing of all. I had never read about such a spirit in the Bible, but it seemed to come over the entire congregation in waves, as people laughed, snorted, and cried uncontrollably, right in the midst of the preacher’s sermon. The teaching would be upended for the day and folks would fall all over one another, at the very throne of God. It was the happiest and certainly the silliest I’d ever seen many of those typically grumpy, stern-faced church folks.
For many years, I wondered why my personal times with God were often so different from the public experiences others seemed to have. I think it was the abuse. Alone with God was the only place I felt safe enough to fall apart. I spent the first thirty years of my life performing on and off the stage, but I longed to believe that God only wanted the most raw, unfiltered parts of my heart. I needed a God who was powerful and protective, not loud and showy. I longed to feel God the Father, wrapping me in his arms, whispering, “You’re safe here.”
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During my childhood, I saw people act forcefully on behalf of the Holy Spirit, but I never experienced Him that way. I knew the Holy Spirit as a gentle nudge, a Comfort, like one of my Grandmother’s quilts. But what I heard was that He was the hall monitor of our souls: the ever-watchful Eye of a perfect and holy God, who was more interested in finding the secrets we hid in the darkest places of our wandering hearts than being the balm for our weary souls.
As a result, for a while, I grew jaded, skeptical, angry. Every day of my college life, I drove past The Church of the Holy Comforter and referred to it as The Church of the Divine Duvet. Church had become a joke, mainly because I was tired of constantly trying to reconcile my personal encounters with God’s careful and kind spirit against the public outbursts I had seen so many times as a church kid.
But as extreme as my childhood experiences may have been, let me tell you: these days, I still believe in the Holy Spirit.
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It turns out the Comfort I knew in God’s presence was the Holy Spirit all along. During my second day in ICU, I heard him as a gentle whisper. As I laid in a hospital bed, waiting to see if my liver would recover or not, I heard that soothing voice again, and I recognized it as the same voice from my youth. God was with me.
Even in that place, when there was not an ounce of performance or pretense available. In that moment, I met the strongest version of God I have ever known. He never shouted. He never pushed or “encouraged” me. He just stayed. I’ll never forget His words: “I’m not finished with you yet.”
What about you? In what ways has the Holy Spirit shown up in your life? Do you feel the Holy Spirit more in rowdy churches, or in the quiet spaces of your life? The last thing I want to try and do is to put God in a box. He is certainly capable of operating in different ways for different people, at different times. I would love to read about your experiences. Leave them in the comments or email me.
*Also published on The Huffington Post.