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Posted: 6/7/2016
What Does the Holy Spirit Do In Our Meetings?
"May the Holy Spirit Be With Us as We Meet Today"
White Smoke at the Vatican
White smoke from the chimney on the Vatican's Sistine Chapel on election of Pope Francis March 13, 2013)After the College Of Cardinals completes a ballot for the election of a new pope, the Vatican uses a smoke signal from the roof of the Sistine Chapel to indicated whether the ballot was one of indecision or actual selection. Smoke is created by burning the ballots in a furnace. Black smoke indicates that a pope was NOT selected on that ballot. White smoke announces that a new pope has been elected. In earlier times, if the vote was not decisive, wet straw was added to the ballots, which when burning gave the black smoke. Unfortunately, the wet-straw method did not always produce a dark enough smoke so the message could be unclear. Today, chemicals are added that make it obvious whether the smoke is black or white.

Over years of involvement in churches, I've been part of many meetings: church board meetings, pastoral search committees, denominational conferences, and ad-hoc task-forces. A common denominator is that all such gatherings begin with a prayer ... and usually the prayer requests that the Holy Spirit be with and move among us, guiding and spurring us. Often that prayer will include a phrase such as, "And we ask that You would come by Your Holy Spirit and inspire our hearts today; that your Spirit will guide us in our thoughts and discussion, so that we do your will, not our own."

The words may differ, but the desires expressed are the same, whether it is the College of Cardinals praying before their election of a pope, or a small church's Board of Trustees debating whether they can draw from their meager budget to give the fellowship hall a fresh coat of paint. My wife was a parish delegate at a recent diocesan session to elect a new bishop for the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Prior to each of the ballots (it took four ballots to reach the requirements for a selection), they sang a hymn and offered a prayer for discernment and guidance. Many worship services open with a prayer of invocation, which usually calls upon the Spirit to be present and active.

Such an opening prayer seems right and proper, but, I've begun to ask: Just what do we mean when we ask the Spirit to be with us in such gatherings? What do we expect now that we've asked for the Spirit's presence? Do we behave any differently in a meeting where we've invoked the Spirit than how we act in a meeting at our place of work?

And what about our feelings after such a meeting? Do we think that the Spirit really did make the decision through us? Or do we think the Spirit threw up arms of fire and left in frustration? And, does the Spirit work by majority rules? Or does the Spirit insist on consensus? Do we trust that the Spirit really was present in our deliberations?

I have no answers to these questions. I've been in meetings where it certainly felt like the Spirit guided and stimulated. And I've been in many more that were so dull or contentious that if the Spirit really was present, none of us seemed aware.

The Sunday after Michael Curry was elected Presiding Bishop of the The Episcopal Church (the first African American to serve in that capacity), a few of us were discussing the election with a generally favorable attitude. Another guy passing by heard the conversation, shook his head and almost shouting said, "Don't get me started about that guy!" And he stormed off. Obviously Curry was not this man's choice. I doubt he thought the new bishop was the Holy Spirit's choice. He probably didn't think those voting in the election were Spirit-guided.

I may be unduly harsh about the guy upset with Curry's election ... probably because I thought Curry an excellent selection. However, I doubt few of us, when we ask for the Spirit's guidance in all such matters, think a final decision is simply the Holy Spirit's decision ... that we are just pawns for the Spirit to move around so things end up according to the Spirit's wishes.

Even in that most sacred task of selecting a pope, Pope Benedict XVI did not think the Holy Spirit actually makes the decision. In 1977, while still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was asked whether the Holy Spirit is responsible for the election of a pope. His reply:

"I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope. ... I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit's role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote." Ratzinger concludes, "Probably the only assurance he (the Spirit) offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined!"As quoted in the on-line National Catholic Register, by Jimmy Akin (blog) 02/28/2013

"Be completely DOCILE to the action of the Holy Spirit."
Pope Benedict XVI
The Holy Father's words are helpful in understanding what we are really asking for when we invoke the presence of the Spirit in our gatherings. He also emphasizes the critical role our attitudes play when we invite the Spirit into our deliberations. On Pope Benedict's resignation and last address to the College of Cardinals, he tells them that he will be close to them, "so that you may be completely docile to the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new pope."Ibid. An interesting word choice, "docile". With the presence of the Spirit, we are to be "docile": easily taught, of open mind, able to be led.

It seems incumbent on us then to be in a posture to recognize the presence and possible actions of the Spirit. If we pray for the presence of the Spirit, we must trust that God IS faithful and DOES send the Spirit. And we should trust that the Spirit is moving among us. We should put ourselves in a posture of expectation. And, as Pope Benedict said, we must be "docile" to the Spirit's actions.

Not only in meetings, but also in worship, an attitude of expectation of the Spirit's stirring movement is important for us to experience, hear, and understand. But, if we are not in a docile position, we may totally miss any action by the Spirit. In every church I've been a part of, there have been a few persons who during worship appear to erect barriers to the gentleness of the Spirit. They are so ready to find something that offends them — the chosen hymns, something about the liturgy, the preacher's mannerisms, the choir's anthem, or the fidgety kid in front of them — that they probably would not notice if the Spirit shot up tongues of fire. We are not always going to sense the Spirit's presence in worship; but, we may never recognize the presence if we are not open and docile. (The Book of Common Prayer has a Prayer Before Worship that can help set a docile posture. See below.Book of Common Prayer (1979), Prayer 64, page 833. (I modified the words a bit to make it more contemporary.) "O Almighty God, who pours out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.")

And what about our meetings, conventions, and even bible study and small groups? We usually pray for the presence of the Spirit to be with us and guide. But, do we really expect (or even want) the Spirit's presence and involvement? Is our request simply what we think is proper for a "church" meeting? Something we feel like we're supposed to do? Do we participate in such a meeting differently than we might in a secular-setting meeting? If we don't have any real expectation of sensing the Spirit's guidance, should we even pray and ask for it?

After thinking and writing about "asking for the Spirit's guidance," I've thought of a few key points I should consider if I really do think the Spirit will be present in the meetings and gatherings I'm a part of. These are simply my own. They may or may not be helpful to you. Perhaps you have suggestions you'd add to your list.

  1. I need to trust that, since we prayed for the Spirit, God is faithful and sends the Spirit. I need to expect that the Spirit is moving among all of us: providing things to think about; helping us find the right words to speak; wanting to open our ears to hear each other. I need to accept the Spirit's help to be "docile".
  2. I need to realize that the prayer is for the Spirit to be with us in a communal way ... not just with me. I need to respect that the others may be moved by the Spirit. Recognizing this, I should listen seriously to the words and thoughts of others. Truly listen; not just hear enough to stimulate my own rebuttal. I must at least entertain the possibility that the Spirit is speaking through the other person ... even that guy! In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stresses the need to listen and adds: "Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either." (pg. 98).
  3. I shouldn't be quick to dismiss what seems an off-the-wall or outlandish idea. Perhaps that way-out comment is the Spirit's doing to jolt us out of our preconceived structures. Just maybe, as God said, according to Isaiah: "See, I am doing a new thing! ... do you not perceive it?" (43:19) Perhaps the comment really is simply a way-out one; but, if I trust that the Spirit is working among us, I should not be too quick to slough it off.
  4. Not only should I listen to and consider others, I should not be afraid to share my own thoughts. Perhaps something being discussed doesn't sound quite right. Or I think I see the hidden flaw others are missing. Perhaps that uneasy feeling is really the Spirit's action, prodding me to speak. Perhaps my words are the ones that may cause a few folks to say, "I never thought of it that way. That's helpful." And, yes, the others may look at me like I have two heads! But, I can have confidence that I didn't hold in something that might have been of the Spirit's nudging.
  5. And if things go in a direction I think is a wrong one? I need to take time to prayerfully consider whether the group really wasn't attuned to the Spirit, or whether I am simply disappointed that things didn't go the way I hoped? Is it time to accept that the Spirit was present and accept the decision? Or is it time to think of better ways to get across what I think God has placed on my heart?
  6. A final thought if I am dissatisfied with the discussion's results ... perhaps it is a thought that should also influence all of us before and during discussions: What are the motivations behind the positions or ideas I propose or advocate? Are they really what is best for the group or community? Or are they the dreams I hold for our organization? Even though my dreams and visions may be well-intended, honest, and even sacrificial, they may not be what is best for all or the mission to be served. While I might honestly decide that the decision was a mistake, I should at least entertain the thought that my disappointment is because the outcome did not fit my idealized vision.

Maybe, before we open our meetings with a prayer, we need to consider whether we really do want to ask the Spirit to be among us. If we do, then we should act as if we trust that the Spirit really is there ... and won't just sit and be quiet. Although the Spirit may be gentle, the Spirit will act. And that action may be as described by the prophet Joel:

"I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions." (Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17)

When we are sitting around the meeting table, will we be ready to accept that kind of Spirit? Maybe we should be careful what we pray for.

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