A couple of weeks ago, during an out-loud prayer on my porch one evening (I was alone), I went on a tangent about how I was getting mixed up regarding the target recipient of my prayer, and I actually said out loud, “Holy Spirit, I started this prayer talking to you, but I think I’ve wandered into the Father’s jurisdiction now. I guess you guys can sort it out amongst yourselves when I’m done.” And yes, I actually used the word jurisdiction. Which was why I then proceeded to have a laugh with God – whichever branch of the system was listening – before I finished my prayer. However, this understanding of God as three separate beings – instead of the word God referring only to the Father – is pretty new to me, and my acknowledgment of it in prayer is even newer.
In the Christian world, tithing is probably the only topic that pastors are more afraid of preaching than the Trinity. Most of them freely admit it’s because they don’t fully understand the Trinity themselves (they overuse the word mystery in their attempted explanations, but I think sometimes that’s more of a cop-out than a legitimate explanation). And while I appreciate the humility such an approach displays, this avoidance of the topic in some cases and in other cases glossing over its surface is not helpful to young Christians, new believers, immature Christians, or people who are any combination or all of the above. At one time or another in my life, I have certainly fit into all three categories, and it was not until recently that I began – out of desperation, out of feeling that I was missing out on something huge – to attempt to develop my own understanding of the Trinity, in the absence of corporate help from the church.
The Trinity is one of those concepts you learn early in your recitations if you grow up in the church. There are plenty of songs that mention the “Three-in-One,” and you hear multiple christenings, dedications, baptisms, and anointings whose prayers end with the words in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. So the concept is introduced early on but, without adequate attention given to what the Trinity is, it quickly becomes an accepted but basically meaningless part of the backdrop of a Christian upbringing, just another word in the Christianese language.
For most of my Christian life (which encompasses most of my life, period), when I have prayed, I have vaguely addressed “God,” “Father,” perhaps “Lord,” and even sometimes “Whoever the hell is up there, if anyone.” Not even Jesus, except for that one time when I first prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and accepted him into my heart, and then those other couple of times, when I attended Christian conferences and rallies and allowed overzealous evangelicals to convince me that if I wanted “to get into heaven,” I better “rededicate my life to Christ.”
(Evangelicals, conservative Christians, fundamentalists – whatever you want to call them – they love that term rededication. That concept is garbage, by the way. God – or the Trinity, the GodSystem, the Institution of Higher Beings, however you’re comfortable thinking of it – does not lose the record of a person’s original salvation. It’s not like a piece of paper God never got around to filing, or that God spilled coffee on, or forgot to Xerox. If you pray the prayer, you’re good to go…in a manner of speaking. That doesn’t mean you can go on a killing spree or live selfishly after that or be a complete jerk to everyone and think things are still copacetic, but God knows the state of a person’s heart when the prayer is prayed, and that counts for something. And yeah, we all mess up, whether it’s doing drugs or dealing drugs or busting a cap on the guy who won’t pay for his drugs. We all mess up. But here’s a message to all those well-meaning evangelicals who tried to convince me that Christianity was a game of balance, of sin management, of collecting more tally marks toward heaven and against hell than the other way around, all those perfectly nice but so misguided adults who made sure I re-prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and re-prayed it and re-prayed it: That’s not what Christianity is about. That’s not what salvation is about. That’s not what love is about. That’s not what grace is about. And it’s not the gospel. Okay, sorry for the digression, but I have been wanting to say that in a public venue for like eight years now.)
So, I have mostly always prayed to “God,” for whatever that was worth, and whomever it meant. But then a couple of years ago, the pastor of my church sent around an email to the congregation in preparation for a Pentecost-Sunday sermon on the Holy Spirit. The email request was that we write back with a short explanation of what the Holy Spirit meant to us.
And I was so completely embarrassed by the fact that I had to answer the email with this: “I’m sorry, but the Holy Spirit means nothing to me. I don’t really get what it is, I have no story of how it/he/whatever has worked in my life, and I don’t understand what its role in my life is supposed to be.” I could’ve just ignored the email, I guess. I didn’t have to expose my shortcoming of the understanding of something that is supposed to be pretty fundamental as well as pretty central to my faith. But the deed was done, and the email was sent. I don’t remember what my pastor’s response was, nor do I remember the Pentecost-Sunday sermon from that year (sorry, Pastor).
But what I do remember after that incident was that I couldn’t stop thinking about the way my understanding of my own faith fell short when it came to the Holy Spirit. I remember turning to a coworker one day at work and randomly asking him, out of the blue, no warning at all, “Hey, does the Holy Spirit mean anything to you?”
And I listened in awe as he explained that yes, the Holy Spirit meant everything to him. He directed me to the passage in Scripture – John 14:15-31 – where Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for his imminent absence, and he promises to send an “advocate” – named the Holy Spirit – to help the disciples (and subsequently, the belief is, all Christians from then on) in his stead. Well, when my coworker pointed me to that passage, I was surprised how new it sounded to me. I knew I had read the entire book of John before, and probably more than once. So why did it feel as if I’d never read that particular passage? Probably because it never meant anything to me before. Hungry for more, I asked my friend if he had any book recommendations that might help me grow in my understanding of the Holy Spirit. He recommended Forgotten God, by Francis Chan.
I admit, I didn’t immediately go out and buy the book.* I did look for it in the local library, but in my experience, the public library is depressingly void of quality Christian literature. That didn’t stop me from continuing to reflect on the concept of the Holy Spirit as something more than just a name to add to the end of my prayers, though. I continued to search for mentions of this being whenever I read Scripture (if you’re curious, and not looking to buy the Francis Chan book, the gospel of Luke – specifically 11:13 and 12:12 – has my favorite mentions/understandings of who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit’s purpose should be in our lives).
The Bible uses words like intercessor and advocate to describe the intended role of the Holy Spirit, but I think there’s more to the story than that. (After all, how many translations has my copy of the Bible been through?) Once, in an unprompted discussion, someone described their understanding of the Holy Spirit as the nudgings and nigglings of their conscience. They described it in such a way that, when applying the explanation to my own life, I interpreted it to mean the “gut feeling” I get sometimes when I know exactly what I need to do, the “voice in my head” that keeps the needle of my moral compass pointing north(ish).
I have taken that particular explanation to heart and have slowly begun to incorporate the Holy Spirit into my prayers – first as small breaths of gratitude when I followed a gut feeling and it turned out to be definitively the right decision, or when I had no idea what to say to a friend but somehow ended up saying (or not saying) exactly the right things. I started attributing that influence to the Holy Spirit.
Gradually I got to where I could specifically decide which part of the Trinity I wanted to pray to depending on what I was praying about. The funny thing is, I had more trouble adding Jesus into my understanding of Trinity – as far as him being a divine entity I would pray to, beseech, or thank beyond his role in the Sinner’s Prayer – than I did adding the Holy Spirit. And no, I don’t really think it matters if I get mixed up and send a prayer to the “wrong” branch of the Trinity. They are, after all, three-in-one, so I think they have a pretty good message-relay system going up there.
But dividing it out the way I do now, being intentional about what I’m praying for, and whom I’m praying to, has become a small but extremely significant and meaningful way that I can own and understand my faith and my salvation. It just works for me. But it does sometimes result in laughing aloud on my porch mid-prayer. And I think that’s totally okay with them.