Monday, May 28, 2012

The Impact of the Untouchable

Nursing is hard. You see people at their worst: in pain, demented, afraid, sometimes drunk or high. You're there to help them but they may not appreciate that, especially if you have to give them a shot, or do a dressing change on a painful wound, or tell them something they don't wish to hear. Add to that the long hours, unrealistic and dangerous nurse to patient ratios, the ungodly amount of charting done largely for legal, not medical, reasons, the physical damage and emotional toll that are part of the job and it's not surprising that you find nurses who act more like disgruntled bureaucrats than angels of mercy. Yet what you need when you are sick and in pain are caregivers who are caring and giving. If the physical part of the job were all that mattered nurses could be replaced by robots with pill dispensers in their torsos. Don't laugh. Companies in Germany and Japan are working on them. The German model looks like a robot with a TV screen for a head on which a real nurse can look in on the patient remotely. The Japanese version looks eerily human but not quite.

But most people would not relate well to a machine. In fact, I would not put a robot nurse in the same room as someone with dementia or even conditions like urinary tract infections which often have mental side effects. And of course a machine would lack human judgment. I met a man whose wife is battling Social Security over being classified as a male, despite having a female name. It's obviously a computer error. Someone clicked the wrong box. Can you imagine what could happen should the computer in question be the one that is taking care of you? Say, after bladder surgery? That might not be a problem in the German model, where a nurse is driving the hardware by remote control. (I just hope it works better during bad weather than cable or satellite hookups do!) But if you're dealing with Artificial Intelligence, as in the Japanese model, may God have mercy on your soul! And body!

The real problem is that a caregiver should not merely look alive or human but be so. How do you program a machine to be empathetic or compassionate or comforting or considerate? How does a computer recognize the subtle signs of disease or discomfort, like distaste for one of the foods on a plate, or sudden irritability? How does a robot pick up on loneliness? You don't replace the dispirited with the soulless.

Spirit is one of those indefinable but undeniable elements in this world. Perhaps that's why the Holy Spirit is manifested in the events of Acts 2 as the phenomena of fire, wind and speech. Each is real and incredibly powerful but none can be grasped or, in the case of wind and speech, seen. None of them can be totally controlled and so all must be respected. Yet each can, if properly approached, yield great good.   

What do these 3 tell us about God's Spirit?

Fire is often a metaphor for energy, which it physically is. It also is used for excitement and passion. We talk about an idea catching fire or a person being on fire or having fire in the belly. And when we talk about encouraging someone to act, we speak of lighting a fire under them. You could say that in Acts 2, the Spirit lights a fire under the apostles! Jesus has been raised, has taught them for 40 days and ascended to the Father. It's time for his followers to spread the news. The Spirit starts the fire. Like a fire with multiple points of ignition, it can't be stopped. The apostles use every language imaginable to proclaim the wonderful works of God, the chief one being what he has just done in Christ Jesus. And the message spreads like wildfire.

Fire also illuminates. Nowadays if we want to show a cartoon character getting an idea or an inspiration we draw a light bulb over his head. In those days, I'm not sure how one would depict such a thing but if they had cartoons it couldn't be a lightbulb; it would have to be a flame over the head. Which is what you would have seen if you had been in that house on Pentecost. Did those tongues of flame mean anything more than the presence of the Spirit? Did it mean an insight or an idea as well? Possibly. It could have been the idea that "now is the time to get started on the commission Jesus gave us!" That seems to be the heart of Peter's sermon: that this is what the prophet Joel was talking about. The outpouring of the Spirit was a dramatic sign of the beginning of the Messianic age, the next step in the spread of God's Kingdom.

Fire also is a metaphor for love. When we are in love, our heart beats faster which can cause our faces to flush and look red. We get hot under the collar. Our hearts burn with love. Cool is never a descriptor of love. We are hot for the person we love. We never want the flames of love to be extinguished. 

Fire also purifies. It is necessary to refine metals. The impurities must be separated if we want our iron to be strong and our gold to be beautiful.

Wind is an exhilarating but powerful force. When I was working at the radio station, some storm chasers brought us video of what a recent hurricane did on the mainland. We saw roofs peel off of buildings. We saw signs go airborne. We saw trees bend and boats capsize. But the scariest sight was one of the storm chasers out in the hurricane. He got blown off his feet and started to tumble and slide across the parking lot like a sheet of newspaper. It was frightening to see a human being get knocked down and rolled around helplessly by an unseen force.

Early on, people harnessed the power of the wind. They made sails for boats, creating the first vehicles not powered by muscles. But they learned that you had to respect the wind. You could not command it. Wind came and went on its own. It could blow fair or foul weather your way. It might be on your back or blowing against you. It could sail your ship or sink it. But without the wind, you are dead in the water. 

In both Hebrew and Greek the word for "Spirit" also means "wind" and "breath." There is a parallel between the movement of air that fills sails and that which inflates our lungs. Breath is a vital sign, an indication of life. It doesn't matter how good your heart is, how low your weight is, how much you exercise--if you can't breathe, you won't live long. After 4 minutes without oxygen, brain damage begins to set in and your revival is increasingly less likely. Of course, in biblical times, no one knew CPR. So no breath meant death.

That's what underlies Ezekiel's vision. He was a prophet in exile in Babylon. After 586 BC, Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Temple was burned, the reign of the Davidic kings had ended, and Judah was no longer an independent nation. It looked like it was all over for God's people. Ezekiel has a vision in which he finds himself transported to a valley that was the site of a great battle. And the victor denied the dead proper burial but left them to the elements and the scavengers, a grave dishonor in the Middle East. It's a picture of the utterly devastated Jewish nation. The Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. They come together and are covered with flesh but they're still dead. So God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind and winds come from the 4 corners of the world and breathe life into the bodies. With the divine breath, the Spirit, God will bring back his people from death.

The Spirit breathes spiritual life into us as well. Without the Spirit, all you can have are the bare bones of a Christian life. You can say prayers and worship and read the Bible and volunteer and tell people about the Gospel and still find your efforts lifeless.

But doesn't the Spirit enter us at baptism? Yes, but just as you have to continue to breathe after that first breath you take as a newborn so your spiritual life is sustained by the continual inspiration (literally "breathing in") of the Holy Spirit. A lot of Christians get so busy that they get out of breath, so to speak. They need to stop and take a deep breath of the Spirit. Go on a retreat. Go for a walk, a run or a hike. Meditate. Meet with a spiritual mentor. Read their favorite Christian writer. I have a playlist on my iPod of music that stirs me up  and connects me with my feelings of nobility, peace and love. You need to go wherever God usually meets and speaks to and refreshes you and just let the Spirit flow into and through you.

Like breath and wind, speech is invisible but powerful in its impact. Like fire, it illuminates and once it begins to spread you can't stop it.

Speech is a miraculous gift. Unlike other animals, our mouth, tongue, lips, throat and brain are designed for it. Our thinking is influenced by it to the point that we can't think clearly about something if we have no words for it. Speech allows a person to take something that exists only in his or her brain and pass it into the brain of others. And by being passed from one person to another, an idea can become immortal.

Speech can unite or divide. At the Tower of Babel, miscommunication brought down a grand enterprise. Here at Pentecost it not only draws together people from all over the known world but they will become the means of spreading the gospel worldwide.    

But words are not magic. As a radio copywriter, I had to disillusion people who thought a good-sounding ad would make people flock in and buy what they were selling. But content is important. If you're giving away a gold bar with every purchase, I can have the person who does NOAA weather radio broadcasts record the ad in his deadly monotone and people will come in droves. If you're giving away a dead dog with each purchase, it doesn't matter if James Earl Jones records your ad, not many people are going to take you up on it. Memorable words spoken in an appealing manner are good but content is king. You have to have something vital to say.

You do have to get your message listened to and the uproar of people speaking in every language all at once did the trick. People stopped what they were doing. At first they thought the apostles were drunk. They were in fact filled with the Spirit.

That's not the only instance in Scripture that being filled with God's Spirit is mistaken for being drunk. And there are some parallels. People under the influence of either find their tongues loosened, though those filled with the Spirit aren't going to insult people or drunk-dial ex-girlfriends. One fruit of the Spirit is self-control, after all. But the Spirit will lead those under his influence to say the right thing at the right time, especially when it comes to sharing the gospel.

Both those filled with distilled spirits and those filled with the Holy Spirit will find themselves braver than they normally are. But while a person who is drunk might be reckless and foolish--they say the last words of many an inebriated person is "Hey, wanna see something cool?"--those filled with the Spirit will be emboldened not only to pass on the good news to those who need to hear it but to do good works for those who need them.

And the expansiveness of the Spirit is not like the maudlin "I love you" an intoxicated person says to all and sundry, only to have that emotion evaporate with the morning after. When filled with the Spirit, the genuine and unstoppable love of God moves us to see and serve Christ in everyone we encounter.

The outpouring of the Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost is considered the birthday of the church. In embryonic form, it grew and developed during the disciples' time with Jesus but here it burst into the world, took a deep breath, and let everyone know loudly it was here to stay. Like any child, it set out to explore every part of its world with lively wonder and making a racket while doing it. As adults we often lose that. The church today sometimes sounds like old men pontificating rather than the joyful noise that heralded the baptism of the Spirit.

In keeping with the original Pentecost, let us be more enthusiastic in our worship, filled with the Spirit, on fire with the Spirit, using our gift of speech to praise the giver of all good things. So let us really hear it for God the Holy Spirit!          

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