I spent the entirety of last week in fancy, air-conditioned convention center halls, pretend-posh 11th floor hotel rooms, and a dozen or so faux-pretentious, beer-dispensing hipster joints, looking around for the presence of the Holy Spirit.
I’ve become a bit of a pneumatologist in my theology, if only because the Father and Son bedazzle me so much. I do not and will never get CREATOR and SAVIOR, and at this point I’m loath to continue trying. But somehow, Sustainer seems more approachable. Friendlier. Apprehensible.
Things inside the convention center went surprisingly well. After last year’s vitriolic idiocy, the vast majority of those involved seemed to have settled down and decided that no, we’d really rather not deal in threat and contention. The overwhelming sense was conciliatory: preachers preached sermons of encouragement, presenters presented presentations of common ground, delegates delegated spokespeople to speak distanced disagreement, offenders apologized, enemies conversed, hurters hugged. People seemed to return to a very basic respect for other people as…people. And I am sure that a true believer in the Holy Spirit would ascribe that action to Her movement. It very well may be.
But really? Respectful discourse seems such a low bar to set, a paltry achievement to celebrate. “Hooray! We sat in the same place without threatening to kill one another!”
It was on the train ride to the airport – headed home exhausted and newly assigned to a Standing Committee Committee for a Response to the Special Response – that I caught the first real glimpse of Holy Spirit moving.
There had been other moments: Move in Our Midst in four part harmony in a big hall; recognition of holding particular commitments in common with another, particularly disagreeable, person; remembering exactly how MANY good and faithful people I love in this church…
But the first glimpse I saw of raw, immediate Spirit-work was on the train. I sat down beside my suitcase and flipped through my phone before I heard the woman two seats ahead talking on her cell phone. She was rough around the edges, tattooed and pierced and worn out looking. Younger than me, probably, with an asymmetrical haircut, yellow tank top and tall, uncurved baseball cap on her head.
The man beside her, also pierced and tattooed and tank-topped, slowly stroked the back of her neck, calming her as her voice rose and shook.
She talked with her hands, choppy motions that I learned somewhere along the line to associate with hard, punk-ass women who want you to know – and quick - that they are not to be messed with.
“I know, Mikey, I’m telling you – I done it wrong. I done it wrong and I’m calling to tell you I did, and I’m sorry about it.”
That was the first thing I heard out of her mouth – an apology. And in her tone, it was clear that the apology was not an easy one to make. Mikey was not her favorite person.
“It was my instinct, you know. I was in shock over grief of my sister dying, and I did it wrong, and I’m sorry. I want you to know it. So if you go over there and you can’t find some of her stuff, it’s at my house and I want you to know. Of course it’s her girls’. They should have it. I just need something, something to remind me of my sister. Something, I gotta…”
She caught her breath, blinked back tears, chopped her hand helplessly in the air. Her companion stroked her neck.
“Okay, okay. So I can have the stripper shoes? I don’t know, they…yeah. Okay. I’ll keep those. And you can…yeah. You can come…I know. I know, but we’re going to do this, Mikey, and we’re going to do it like adults, with dignity and respect. ‘Cause it’s all we got left. It’s all…yeah. Dignity and respect…”
“I know, and I want to tell you I’m sorry about the way I done it. I was thinking about keeping her shit safe, and not wanting nobody to go in there and steal it. It’s all her girls have left of her, all we have left and…”
Breath catching, again.
“NO! I don’t do that shit anymore. You know I don’t. I can’t, I mean, I have a weekend, you know, here and there, but my body is letting me down. I can’t keep doing that shit no more. I ain’t high. I ain’t now and I wasn’t then. No. It’s just…yeah. Okay. So that’s it, you come and get whatever you want. Whatever the girls want. I just needed you to know that I done it, and I done it wrong and I’m sorry…I know, Mikey, I know, but…”
He must have hung up on her, because she pulled the phone away from her ear, let the held-back tears run down her face and her head fall onto the man’s shoulder. She shook with sobs.
I wanted to go up to her and THANK her - for being so raw, so wrong and so human, for admitting straight up that she was grieving and that she did things wrong in her grief, for calling the guy in the first place, for sticking out the conversation even when he was obviously not as conciliatory as she was, for her declaration of need for adult dignity and respect.
I wanted to speak to her, connect with her, just…something. But the two of them got off the train at the next stop, not even a glance behind them as they exited. And I was left with this tiny moment from her story, this one hard conversation in the midst of what I’m sure is and has been an unending line of them.
Those moments happen all the time all over the world. It was not an exceptional moment, and it was nothing worthy to be noted or written about. No press release appeared the next day informing the world that reconciliation had been compromised and re-attempted. No one outside that train car and that family will be apprised of the unfolding relational pings prompted by this woman’s sister’s death.
But in all that time, a weeks’ worth of moments, it is the one that remains with me, the one I want to write down, the one where I felt the Spirit’s movement most powerfully. After a week in whitewashed conference rooms filled with emotionally managed church people, it was reassuring to see something real and immediate and consuming.
I am not suggesting that the Spirit isn’t present in church meetings. I’m not suggesting that the Spirit wasn’t present in this most recent one in particular. I actually tend toward the premise that if the Spirit works in one place, she must be at work in all places. Seeing her just depends on our eyes, attitude and faith.
I’m just struck by how powerful those few moments were on the train, how much I wanted to be a part of them, and how different they felt to me than the week’s worth of work that I (occasionally) claim a call to be doing.
And being struck by the difference: That’s all. For now.