New identities

One persistent fear that I carry into midlife is that I will always be a kid brother. I would like to not be a kid brother anymore. I don’t mean this literally: I have four older siblings, I mean them no harm, and even beyond all of our lifetimes, we forever will be siblings, at the very least on a dusty and yellowed copy of our family tree stored away in someone’s attic. In that sense I am and will always be a kid brother (and a big brother too: I have two younger sisters). But I often bring before God in prayer a desire—and I hope also an openness or willingness—to be, or to become, someone more than that identity, the identity of kid brother, an identity with which I have identified since the dawning of my self-awareness. I want to be someone more.

In a film written by Carrie Fisher, a wise person consoles our struggling heroine, who has an acrimonious relationship with her mother. The wise person says, “You could make a mother out of anybody.”[1] His insight was simple: if she wants to be free from the destructive pattern of conflict she suffers with her mother, she needs to recognize her own long, and mostly unconscious, habit of participation in that pattern, a habit she has generalized into most of her other relationships. I was a therapist for many years: I am familiar with this concept. It is a good, if basic, insight.

When I hold before God this prayer for my own life, my hope is that I will not move forward in an immature way, making older siblings of everyone—friends, co-workers, supervisors, and most especially parishioners or clients. My hope is that I will lead a life in which I am a peer, a friend, a companion, a person occupying a seat at a table of equals, a person who contributes to my community’s effort to improve the life and health of our neighbors.

But there is a possible problem with this prayer. If it is only me sitting in prayer and doing all the asking, with a desire that springs only from my family history, then sadly I will likely not grow or change. For my prayer to be news of a difference, a new thing in my community’s life, a renewal or growth into something or someone beyond me—for that to happen, my prayer needs to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Reflect for a moment on your old, problematic understandings of yourself. What is your all-too-familiar self-understanding? “I’m bossy,” you might think. “I’m impatient.” “I’m a procrastinator.” “I’m not a natural at parenting.” “I’m not a born leader.” “I was never a good student.” “I’m too short, too slow, too lazy, too this, too that.” Most of us carry around views of ourselves like heavy, unwieldy grocery bags. These views often inhibit our psychological development, but they can make our community smaller, too. If we pray to be delivered of these burdens, that prayer will only take shape through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

When we pray, to a casual observer it may sound and look like a dull or uninspired activity: there we are, standing or reverently kneeling, saying words, keeping silence, asking for things, responding with the rote “Hear our prayer,” saying “Amen.” It can also seem individualistic: my neighbor in the pew is praying that his hospitalized father be healed … Is that his prayer alone? It can seem to be. He mumbles it, or prays it silently, or I’m not really listening, so it seems that he is on his own in that moment. We don’t always seem to pray with much gusto about communal needs: our most fervent prayers, like mine about my desire for maturity, seem to be the ones that are most directly about ourselves. “We do not pray as we ought,” St. Paul tells us. It is hard to see, hard to think about, hard to accept that in all of our prayers, feeble and incomplete as they sometimes can be—in all of our prayers, the Holy Spirit is present, moving among us, moving to transform even the most self-centered and myopic prayer into a solemn invocation of God’s majestic presence.

Today, in our prayers around this table—at the close of the novena of prayer this community has kept since the feast of Ascension—we once again encounter the forlorn band of women and men who followed Jesus, and we once again find them gathered together in one place, perhaps out of habit more than anything else. They seem to have done this quite often since his traumatic death—gathering into a faraway room somewhere, even going so far as to lock the doors. Much like us in this room today, they gathered for various reasons, in various states of emotional and physical health, with various concerns on their minds and hearts, and with the usual human jumble of self-understandings—their “kid brother” issues, if you will—that flow freely in any room occupied by human beings. And it was into this room that the Holy Spirit powerfully moved, and changed this group into something new, someone new. The Holy Spirit put flesh on the dry bones of their old ways of thinking, their old ways of relating, their old ways of understanding who they were, and what they could, and should, do. 

They had been so much smaller, before the visitation of the Holy Spirit. “I am going fishing,” Peter had said shortly after the Resurrection, in John’s Gospel. “I am going fishing”—this innocuous little comment was a kind of Monday-morning, back-to-work thing to say. After all that had happened, Peter was resigning himself to go back to his old job, his old identity. Moments later, all of this was interrupted when Jesus cooked breakfast for his friends and led Peter through a painful repair of their friendship. Perhaps on the Day of Pentecost, when they all gathered together again in one place—perhaps once again their minds turned to fishing, or construction work, or textile sales, or whatever it was that was right in front of them and needed to be done, done by someone who knows from long experience how to return to an old way of life.

Moments later, all of this was interrupted by the movement of the Holy Spirit, and by 9:00 in the morning they were filled with energy, fired up, their bodies and minds and hearts enflamed like the thornbush Moses encountered, filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit … and fluent in many languages.

Fluent in many languages: this is an interesting detail in the story. Their experience of the Holy Spirit wasn’t only an emotional one, or an experience that defied verbal description. No longer standing mute before God, they were able to give voice to what had happened to them, and to give voice in such a way that everyone could understand them. They finally were able to understand, to put it all together, to think in a radically different way about who God is, what God is doing, what they must do, and even—don’t miss this part—even who they were. Kid brothers no more, weary fishermen no more, vigilant grief-stricken survivors of trauma no more: each of them was someone new, and each of them understood precisely who they were.

Perhaps they realized when the Holy Spirit descended upon them that God had never seen them as they had seen themselves, and had always known who they truly were. God had never doubted that these bones could live. God’s Spirit, with “sighs too deep for words,” had been present in their prayers long before they were even conscious that they were praying at all. God’s Spirit had been in all of those lonely, locked rooms. And God’s Spirit was now giving them not just new languages, like a kind of heavenly Duolingo language app on my phone; no, God was rewiring their minds completely, opening up their understanding, empowering them finally to prophesy, to see visions, to dream dreams.

There are no kid brothers in the Spirit-filled Kingdom of God, which we discover here in this room, our own room in which we gather together in one place. The Spirit moves not only over the chaotic, primordial waters, but over the waters in that font near our front door, where today our brothers Jethro and Daniel will be baptized. The Spirit moves over the waters coursing through our bodies. The Spirit of Christ moves in, with, and under the gifts of bread and wine we are about to share, and the Spirit makes us one community, opens up our understanding, and gives us voices to proclaim the Good News to the roiling, confused, discouraged, and violent world that swirls just outside that door … and within the troubled heart of the person seated next to you right now. Our Lord reassures us that the Spirit will guide us into all the truth. Do we not know what to say, or what to do? We need not worry. God, who searches our hearts, will set our lives afire with love, and place on our lips the very Word of God. We need only gather here together in one place. “Come, Holy Spirit” can be our prayer.

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

[1] Fisher, Carrie. Postcards from the Edge. DVD. Directed by Mike Nichols. Los Angeles: Columbia, 1990.