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Day of Pentecost: “The Spiritual Ignition Point”

Acts 2:1–21

John 14: 8–17, 25–27


How do you get ready for a difficult conversation? You know the kind: the one you dread, yet can’t avoid. If you’re like me, you rehearse it over and over in your head—playing both parts. In some scenarios, you’re absolutely brilliant in your mission: direct and logical; calm and clear. In others, the worst words are spoken, and you lose your aim and the upper hand. And that’s your greatest fear: to lose control.

I played out a script in my head for years: the dreaded conversation with my elderly parents about their leaving their home and moving into assisted living. I knew they were bracing for it too. We’d had rehearsals of this battle as they struggled harder and harder to manage their health and their household. And they must have seen it coming, in the aftermath of a particularly frightening episode that involved an apartment fire and a bout of the Norovirus. Enough said.

But the real tip-off of a coming confrontation was the arrival of my brother. I may have been the day-to-day lieutenant in my parents’ lives, but he is the family general—you know, the final authority with the most power. And when he sat down at their dining room table to launch The Talk, we each had our mental ammunition ready to fire: defenses up and arguments primed.

Yet something entirely unexpected happened. Instead of a rehearsed script, my brother started with a surprising, compassionate question: “Mother, what is your wish list for your next place to live? What would make you happy?”

I couldn’t believe it. I was all tensed up and ready to lecture my mother about their limitations, our tiny budget, the narrow decision space we all had to negotiate. Instead, he gently began to speak in her language, of dreams and desires. I couldn’t have been more surprised if a tongue of fire had shot down and rested on his head.

My mother relaxed and poured out many heartfelt requirements: “A place full of light. Good food. A place where I’ll be proud to bring my friends. Kind, intelligent people.” On and on. And as my brother wrote down each wish without argument or censure, we reconnected around the table. Tension turned into positive energy. Together, we started to envision this new home as a sanctuary, as a choice, as beautiful beyond our expectations.

And the truth is, against all odds, my brother and I found this place. That not only satisfied our mother’s wishes but exceeded them. That became my parents’ beloved, and final, home.

This story still seems like a miracle to me. What transformed a dreaded conversation into a flow of loving energy and a happy ending? What came to be was so much better than any script any one of us had tried to control. Looking back, I believe that this miracle was ignited by the fire of the Holy Spirit.

There are many symbols in Christianity for the Holy Spirit’s power to uplift and transform what we are, what we do, what we expect from life into something much greater. This Divine force is described as Living Water that refreshes and restores us. Wind that enlivens us. Anointing Oil that empowers us. A Dove that calms us.

But today, on this Day of Pentecost, when we’re told that Holy Spirit came down as flames on the disciples, I want to look deeper at this symbol of fire—a special image for understanding a transforming energy in our lives.

Unlike the other images of Spirit, fire is an energy flow that comes from chemical reactions between oxygen and a fuel. How does this work? Well, to burn, a fuel must first reach its ignition point: a high enough temperature to begin to decompose. The molecules in the volatile gases released then break apart, and those atoms combine with oxygen to form new products such as water and carbon dioxide. This chain reaction produces the powerful side effects of light and heat—heat that can then set off the same reaction in another fuel.[1]

In other words, this symbol of the Holy Spirit describes a flow of loving energy that comes when we reach an ignition point of the heart. When we allow our old scripts of control or fear to break down into ashes. When we intentionally open ourselves to love. And allow it to catch fire and spread to others.

Does this sound impossible? Can we become the fuel of the Kingdom of God? Jesus told the disciples, tells us, a clear Yes.

We are meant not only to be filled with this fire of the Holy Spirit but to spread it through miraculous works. So I wonder: did my brother’s compassionate words set off a miracle? Well, I definitely saw him reach his spiritual ignition point when he reached out to my parents in love. By asking instead of dictating, listening instead of lecturing, he opened himself freely to a higher power. And what followed was an amazing chain of events—that generated greater light and warmth in my family.

We see the same transforming action of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost story we acted out today. It was 50 days after Passover, the feast of Shavuot. The disciples had gathered in the Upper Room—the intimate room of the Last Supper. Along with devout Jews from every nation, they were in Jerusalem for this feast of thanksgiving, to celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.[2]

Most likely the disciples had been tensely rehearsing all sorts of inner scripts about what their lives would be now that Jesus had left them. Who would be in control; what their mission would be; the kind of danger or glory they would face. The Way was not clear; their situation was difficult.

Yet Jesus had promised them: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. . . . Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

What shifted their hearts?  It could be that their sense of safety in this precious room, their thankfulness for God’s covenant with them, their trust in Jesus’s promise of an Advocate, finally opened the disciples to a new calm, a higher consciousness. In this moment, they reached their spiritual ignition point to receive a greater power. From a Holy Spirit that transformed them, set them on fire, gave them the confidence and ability to witness love to all people, no matter the difficulty.

This was the baptism of fire—not of water—that John the Baptist had pointed to. In this moment, the disciples so deeply internalized the profound love of Jesus that they were able to communicate it to others. Reaching strangers across all differences, past all fears—in many languages.

And this miraculous flow of Holy Spirit energy, although almost impossible to explain in words, was expressed and received through the fire of their words. Words that started a chain reaction of love on earth that we call the Church.

So how can you and I tap into this energy flow of the Holy Spirit and become its fuel? Let’s start with a small experiment. Let’s consider again the way we get ready for difficult conversations. Over the next week, if you begin to rehearse a confrontation, or tense up about a meeting, or dread making a phone call, try letting go of your inner script. Calmly and consciously invite the Holy Spirit into this conversation.

You might become curious about this interaction instead of dreading it. You might reflect on what the other person’s fears and desires are—and how you might connect by speaking in their language, not just your own.

And you might visualize this surprising Holy Spirit conversation catching fire, transforming the relationship with light and warmth that spreads far beyond what you can imagine.

Because that’s the Divine power always available to us, when we’re willing to lose control and reach our ignition point of love. Amen.

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak

Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church

Incline Village, Nevada

May 19, 2013





[1] http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/geophysics/fire1.htm

[2] http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayc.htm