Holy Spirit


I like the way the gospel of John talks about the Holy Spirit.  In Jesus’ farewell to his disciples (John 14-17), he talks about a Spirit – a Comforter – that will come to bring peace to the disciples after his death.  I like how Jesus knows that his departure will be disruptive.  I like Jesus’ acknowledgement that death leaves us reeling.


John 14:27 recalls Jesus’ words in this way:


Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”


As ministers, we memorize these words and repeat them at funerals and memorial services.  These words are supposed to reassure the grieving.  I most appreciate the recognition of how death and loss really feel.  Death and loss turn our lives upside down.  Death and loss make it hard to put one foot in front of the other.  Death and loss keep us up at night, and steal our appetites.  Or drive us to all sorts of places seeking rest and comfort.  Indeed, peace is elusive when unwelcome death is nigh.


I value most how death is not the end of Jesus’ story with the disciples.  I’m not referring to a resurrection. I’m referring to Spirit.  Jesus suggests that once he is gone, a holy Spirit will replace him.  He may die, but a Spirit lives on.  He will become an ancestor.


I admit that I did not understand this by reading the Bible.  I understood this when I heard Sweet Honey in the Rock’s song Breaths based on the poem “Les Souffles” (often translated “Invocation of the Dead”) by 20th century Senegalese poet Birago Diop.  Sweet Honey sings:


Tis the ancestors’ breath when the fire’s voice is heard

Tis the ancestors’ breath in the voice of the waters

They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods

They are in the crying grass, they are in the moaning rocks

The dead are not under the earth

Those who have died have never never left

The dead have a pact with the living


Many African Christian theologians have referred to Jesus as an ancestor.  Charles Nyamiti talks about this in Christ As Our Ancestor and Emmanuel Martey refers to it in African Theology: Inculturation and Liberation.  It’s not a perfect comparison.  For many African cultures, the term “ancestor” requires a gentler death than Jesus experienced, living offspring and a familial connection.  But Jesus’ life had a lasting impact, and, in his physical absence, he protects, guards and guides us.  This, many African theologians have insisted, makes Jesus like an ancestor.


When I read the gospels from the disciples’ perspective, Spirit is the ancestor.  Jesus leaves. Jesus dies; Jesus returns; Jesus tells the disciples to wait; and then he leaves again.  Jesus is gone. But the Spirit comes.  And knowing that death leaves us distraught, the Spirit comes granting peace and comfort and help.


I’ve often found this much more biblical than true.  When death comes, I don’t feel peace. When I realize that parts of me have died in the depths of depression, I’m not very comforted.  I’m downright inconsolable.  And being told to wait for peace and power and hope (like in Luke’s description of the ascension) is not exactly inspiring.


But it is a way forward.  Jesus tells us that there is not just life after death, but there is peace, comfort and help.  When we die, we still live on.


In some ways I know this.  I come from people who light candles, interpret dreams and visit gravesites.  We’ve always assumed that the spirits of those who have died were close to us.


This is why I like Pentecost so much: ancestral spirits are more common than resurrections.


It took me much longer to apply this to myself.  Acknowledging that parts of me die in each depression is a first step.  Giving myself permission to mourn is a second step.  Part of that mourning is waiting – almost begging – for peace and comfort.


These scriptures reminds me that although I’ve lost something big, it’s not completely gone.  The part of me that died . . . well it became an ancestor too.  It’s not an active part of me – not even if I want it to be – but it hasn’t left me.  It still has my memories.  It can still teach me.  It can still guide me.  Even if it’s not who I am anymore.  I’ve heard some psychologists talk about one’s inner-child this way.  I like to think that the parts of me that die – sometimes violently and loudly; other times quietly passing away in the night – don’t just float away into some ether.  I never abandon myself.


I’m not sure that this is what Jesus meant in those farewell discourses.  It’s definitely not how most Christians have read it.  But there is something comforting in knowing that we don’t hang ourselves out to dry.  I find a door opens on the path to peace when I don’t have to completely let go of my past.  I like knowing that I can be a Spirit to myself.


So I find Birago Diop’s words through Sweet Honey to be holy:


Those who have died have never never left

The dead have a pact with the living


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