30 April 2017

Inhaling the Holy

John 20:19-31

Third Sunday after Easter

Robert Pirsig died last Monday, at 88.  He was the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, a brilliant novel full of ideas and deeply disturbing, in many respects.  It became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the 1970s, when it was first published.  The novel, part road trip, part treatise, part open letter to a younger generation, tries to reconcile humanism with technological progress. It navigates through the world of ideas, especially Plato, trying to reach an age such as ours, an age that has become obsessed with technology and materialism, alienated from the life of the soul, alienated from what he calls Quality, which could be could understood as God.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance unfolds as a fictionalized account of a cross-country motorcycle trip that Pirsig took in 1968 with his 11-year-old son, Christopher, and two friends.  The novel navigates through complex ideas that explore the relationship of humans and machines, the nature of madness, and the roots of culture. Pirsig was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1960s and said that the book was written to make peace with himself after two years of hospital treatments, and the turmoil that he, his wife, and children suffered as a result.[1]

This book had an enormous influence on me.  It was required reading for a program called the Oregon Extension, a four-month reading/study seminar in the mountains of Oregon, which I was planning to attend, after college.  In the end, I was in Oregon for only two nights and didn’t complete the program.  My grandmother became seriously ill and so I went home to New Jersey.  But I read the book, underlined most of it (in red), and finished reading it a year later, in 1987, in the waiting room of the Montclair Counseling Center in Montclair, New Jersey.  This novel threw me into an existential crisis, threw me into psychotherapy, which helped me to see the value of a therapeutic experience linked with faith, which continues today.

I thought about Pirsig and Zen this week as I reflected on John’s Gospel.  This is a remarkable part of John.  It’s Easter evening, the first day of the week.  We’re told that the doors of the house are locked, for fear.  We’re told that Jesus comes and stands among them and says, “Peace be with you.”  How did he get in?  He appears behind closed doors, locked doors.  He appears in the midst of their fear and says, “Peace.”  Jesus wasn’t there to shoot the breeze.  He was a man with a mission.  Ignoring their fear, he gets right to the point.  Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  As the Father sent the Son into the world, not to the condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (Jn.3:17), as God sent Jesus, so, now Jesus sends his disciples.

And not only does Jesus send his disciples to do the same work, earlier in John’s Gospel we have Jesus saying this: “Very truly, I tell you”—“very truly, I tell you,” meaning there’s no room for doubt about this, there’s nothing vague or ambiguous about this.  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes (that is, trusts) in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn. 14:12).  Not the same as Jesus, but greater, greater works!

And so, Jesus says, post-resurrection, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And, “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn. 20:22).  This is John’s version of Pentecost, without the tongues of fire and the hearing of many languages (see Acts 2).  The Spirit is given on the day of resurrection.  And, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus bestowed the Holy Spirit in a unique way.  He breathed on his disciples.  In both Hebrew and Greek the words for “breath,” “spirit,” and “wind” can all be used interchangeably.  God’s spirit is a breath that gives life.  God’s breath animates God’s people. God’s spirit as wind moves people.

All of which means—although the text doesn’t say it, it’s implied—that when Jesus breathed, they inhaled his breath.  They inhaled the holy.  They breathed in, took into themselves something of Jesus’ presence and power and breath and life.  Jesus bestows upon them—upon us—the life of God.  He brings us to life, true life, meaningful, abundant life (Jn. 10:10). Jesus is so close.  So intimate. Sharing breath.  That’s how close God is to us.  God in us, made flesh in us, dwelling in us, full of grace and truth (see Jn. 1:1-15).  When we know this, when we’re aware of this breath permeating our souls, when we feel this spirit/breath/wind moving through us and moving us, there’s no telling what we can do or accomplish or experience.

This brings me back to Pirsig.  Pirsig called this “gumption.”[2]  He turned to this old Scots word, used a lot by pioneers, to describe this element of the religious life.  He writes, “I like the world ‘gumption’ because it’s homely and so forlorn and so out of style it looks as if it needs a friend and isn’t likely to reject anyone who comes along.  …I like it also because it describes exactly what happens to someone who connects with Quality.  He gets filled with gumption.  The Greeks called it enthusiasmos, the root of ‘enthusiasm,’ which means literally ‘filled with theos,’ or God, or Quality.”

He says, “A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things.  He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes.  That’s gumption.”

“The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one’s own stale opinions about it. But it’s not exotic. That’s why I like the word,” Pirsig writes.

“You see it often in people who return from long, quiet fishing trips.  Often they’re a little defensive about having put so much time to ‘no account’ because there’s no intellectual justification for what they’ve been doing.  But the returned fisherman usually has a peculiar abundance of gumption, usually for the very same things he was sick to death of a few weeks before.  He hasn’t been wasting time.  It’s only our limited cultural viewpoint that makes it seem so.”

“Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going.  If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed.  It’s bound to happen.  Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and persevered before anything else is gumption.”

What’s true for motorcycles is true for our lives, our souls, is true for the church, for this church.  Gumption.  Enthusiasmos. Enthusiasm.  God-filled.  Filled with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit, Jesus, breathing through us.  Without the Spirit, there would be no church.  Without the Spirit, we wouldn’t be here today.  Christianity would have dissolved away like smoke, millennia ago. Without the Spirit, we wouldn’t know a thing about God or Christ or grace or love or the call of God in our lives and in the world.

On this Sunday, as we ordain and install new officers, we affirm the Holy Spirit’s role in all of this: through the work of the Nominating Committee, the Session, the congregation, the individuals who said yes to the call.  We will ask the Holy Spirit to come and rest upon these individuals in a unique and effective way—we will ask for gumption, the gumption to serve with courage and energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. 

And then we will hear from Alex Hall, who will announce this year’s Envision Fund Grants, totaling close to $115,000, shaping the ministry of this church and beyond these walls. And don’t underestimate for a minute that the Holy Spirit hasn’t been involved in this process either, in the grant writing, in the prayerful deliberative gumption of the board, and in the remarkable work we will be able to do, in the name of Christ—and dare I say, “greater works” than Jesus.  We’re about to do amazing work in a hospital in Haiti.  Jesus never set foot in Haiti. And yet we will help countless souls, bringing healing and wholeness and hope, all done in and through and with Jesus.  In John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus has enormous confidence in his disciples.  It absolutely astonishes me when I consider that Jesus actually trusts us and entrusts to us this ministry, this work.

The good news, friends, is that Jesus is still breathing through us, calling us, equipping us, the sending us out into the world to be God’s beloved people, with gumption.  So, go ahead, inhale.

Image: Nalini Jayasuriya, Receive the Holy Spirit.
[1] Robert M. Pirsig obituary in The New York Times.  
[2] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1983), 272ff.


Tom Blair said...

Left me breathless....

Really solid!

Kenneth Kovacs said...

Wow. Thanks, Tom. Peace.