The Rev. Karen B. Johnson
Last summer I was having a dish of pistachio ice cream down in Round Pond with a friend who has a knack for weather lore. We were sitting on a bench overlooking the harbor when clouds appeared in rows something like mackerel scales. And my friend quickly launched into a ditty that was new to me: Mackerel sky! Mackerel sky! Not long wet. Not long dry.
As we took cover in our vehicles, sure enough, for just a few minutes the rain did fall, and then stop. And then fall again. And then stop. Several times. Mackerel sky! Mackerel sky! Not long wet. Not long dry.
The memory came back when I read today’s Gospel in which Jesus comments about the ease with which we can interpret stormy weather signs and respond accordingly, yet the difficulty we have interpreting stormy life signs and taking appropriate measures.
Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem for what will be his final journey. The times were indeed stormy, full of signs signaling coming calamities: rage amongst his townsfolk erupting into an attempt to throw him off a cliff; escalating hostility on the part of scribes and Pharisees intent on trapping him; Herod growing perplexed and conniving at each new story of him. Jesus is clear about what these signs likely portend – his followers can expect to be treated as lambs amongst wolves; he, himself, will suffer and undergo rejection, betrayal, and even execution. He has warned about these stormy times, and also about responding accordingly. Remember his assurance that when trials come, “The Holy Spirit will teach you at that time how you are to respond.”
We may wonder, “How are we to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and what will authenticate it as trustworthy?” A few suggestions seem invited. You should know that I speak from the perspective of an Ignatian trained spiritual director whose primary ministry for more than two decades has been grounded in that tradition. St. Ignatius of Loyola was the 16th century founder of the Jesuits and part of his legacy is a set of prayer practices known as the Spiritual Exercises. These ‘exercises’ have become formative for many religious orders and lay people longing to cultivate a more intimate relationship with God. So what does Ignatian wisdom suggest as ways to hear the Holy Spirit and then to authenticate it as such?
First we are to ask for what we deeply want. Here it is for the grace, the gift, of the ears of our hearts to be open that we might hear the Spirit’s word to us. And then we name, and ask for, the kind of word longed for – guidance, comfort, restraint, patience, a sense of God’s nearness, courage, insight, serenity – whatever we most deeply desire. And then we turn to tried and true sources to hear the Spirit’s response – Scripture, other sacred reading, conversation with faithful friends, wisdom from the natural world, spiritual direction. And more. And when some apparent response has come, how do we know it is from the Holy Spirit? We ask, “Does this open me to love? Love of God, love of self, love of the other? Is it consoling, does it leave me tranquil, at peace? Does it harmonize with what Scripture says are the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control.” These and other similar qualities validate the Spirit’s activity.
Back to today’s Scripture. Jesus’ warnings and guidance seem to have fallen on deaf ears. And so we find him revisiting the themes. But this time there is an urgency. His language is graphic – fire is what he came to kindle. Baptism is what he faces. Division is inevitable. A bit of word study and commentary from scholars brings some understanding to these images. The fire he names is not the fire of the arsonist’s destruction, but that of the refiner’s purification. The baptism he names is not that of water and the Spirit which welcomes us into God’s family, but the baptism of death through which we find ourselves at the portals of life in the hereafter. And the division he names is not meant to end in permanent separation, but in estrangement beyond human resources for healing, thus putting us on our knees for God’s help. The stormy signs are portending these kinds of fire, baptism, division. Yet, as searingly painful as they can be, the Holy Spirit promises to transform them into arenas of redeeming grace for those who will have ears to hear.
Perhaps some stories can help.
I’ll begin with an experience I had at the age of about 6. The youngest of three girls, we all received an allowance of $.25 a week, given in nickels. An expectation was that we put one of those nickels into the offertory plate each Sunday. I did not like giving up any of my nickels, so, whenever possible, would snitch one from my mother’s change purse which sat inside her handbag in the upstairs hallway closet. Sunday school lessons and pastors’ sermons did not deter my thieving young heart. That did not happen until my mother caught me. My parents’ bedroom was right next to that hallway closet. To my horror, my mother opened the bedroom door as I, nickel in hand, was snapping shut her change purse. And the fire that purifies burst into flame. There was a rocking chair in the corner of my parents’ bedroom. Wide-eyed, my mother scooped me up, and sat me down in her lap in the chair. And then she spoke.
“Karen,” she said. “I know you. And deep down, deep down, there’s a goodness better than that!” She pulled me close. Rocked me. Then, “Go for the deep down goodness, Karen.” She rocked and loved me into being a better 6 year old. Part of that transformation was her insistence that I return $.50 worth of nickels. Purifying love is not indulgent. The offender needs to acknowledge and regret the offense. It includes, when appropriate, a restitution that attends to justice for the injured party. The offender’s conscience is not healed until amends are made. Retrieving ten of my nickels and depositing them into her change purse righted a wrong and lifted a heavy burden of conscience.
I think my mother saw the signs of the storm – her six-year old struggling with temptation and greed. And she chose to interpret them in an inspired – a Holy Spirit – kind of way – as opportunity to embody the mercy of God, purifying love which forgives, and offers opportunity for a reckoning and a new beginning.
Another story, this time about baptism into death. Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, the community I’ve been a part of for 28 years, was radically gifted with reading the signs of severely stormy times and somehow being open to the Spirit’s way of being in them. One time happened during his tour as a WWII army chaplain on the beach and its environs during the Normandy invasion.
Gordon was officiating at the funeral of a beloved friend whose bloated body, wrapped in the shroud of a torn parachute, lay on a war-torn field littered with corpses. Gordon’s only companion at the funeral was his drunk jeep driver; they were under rainy skies and nearby artillery fire. It was extremis of the most challenging kind. Against all hope for comfort, he opened his wet Bible anyway, and began the service. And suddenly he found himself exposed to a divine disclosure, inspired if you will, by the Holy Spirit. It was more a felt experience than a cognitive knowing. He “knew” his friend was very much alive in the newness of life after death! Gordon was momentarily envious, wanting to be out of the hell of war and into the mystery of that post mortem life which had broken into earth, right there, on a blood-soaked field. The Spirit’s activity is not thwarted by anything. As another scripture says, … neither death nor life, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers … nor anything else in all the creation will be able to separate us from the love of God …
One more story, division beyond human resources for healing. My family of origin, as have many, once suffered what seemed like intractable alienation. It lasted for twenty years. For the first five I tried, as did others, multiple ways of bringing some reconciliation. The estrangement hardened. A prayer came my way which I began offering almost daily for the next fifteen years. Knowing there are few things more dangerous than an apparently justified grievance, I prayed: I release you from my hurt feelings, from my reading of your motives. I withdraw my ‘justified’ outrage and leave you clean and happy in my mind. In place of censure, I offer you all of God’s deep contentment and peace. I will perceive you singing, with a soft smile of freedom and a glow of rich satisfaction. I bless you. You are a shining member of the Family of God, and I will wait patiently for this truthful vision to come honestly to my mind.
From The Quiet Answer by Hugh Prather
It was that last line which made it possible to pray the prayer with any integrity: and I will wait patiently for this truthful vision to come honestly to my mind. I promise you, that vision was far from what my mind’s eye was actually imagining. But yes, I prayed it anyway, and I stand here today able to say, by the power of the Spirit much healing has happened.
Jesus came to bring fire, not that condemns, but rather, like a mother’s merciful love, purifies. Jesus is facing the horrors of his passion, the baptism of death, yet interprets them like what happened on Normandy Beach: ghastly experience which ultimately can give way to unimaginable grace. Jesus speaks of division, estrangement so deep, that healing can only happen as we surrender to the mystery of grace given by the Spirit.
Mackerel sky. Mackerel sky. Not long wet. Not long dry. A sign telling those noticing to take cover. The storms of life. Signs telling those noticing to draw on and trust the Holy Spirit to provide ways of weathering them.
May we notice, interpret, and respond accordingly. Amen.