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A new day, another Pentecost

A new day, another Pentecost

A new day, another Pentecost

31 May 2020

Your whole outlook changes when you start doing life with the Holy Spirit. Photo: Gareth McGuigan

By Peter McGuigan

In 1960, high winds of change were blowing across the world, introducing trends in societal thought and behaviour that by decade’s end would deliver the first vestiges of globalisation, postmodernity and a secularised world.

The ’60s marked a visible shift in the spirit of the age, like what had been brewing in the wake of the 20th century’s harrowing first half suddenly erupted from below the surface of our lives, its magma spilling out everywhere through the fissures of humanity’s fed-up and broken soul.

It was a torrent of cultural revolution – from conservatism to freethinking, rigidity to tolerance, contentment (with what you have) to consumerism, conformity to individualism, and uniformity to diversity in just about every area of life. It was societal change on a grand scale, carried to the earth’s four corners through music, fashion, technology, and a groundswell of human rights awareness and anti-establishment sentiment.

In Australia, our newly-acquired televisions depicted hysteria during the Beatles tour of 1964; bloody protests against conscription of young Aussie males for the Vietnam War; a mining boom that would deliver the nation’s balance of payments into surplus by the early ’70s but worsen our already blackened environmental footprint; the mini-skirt; the 1969 moonwalk; and a landmark 1967 referendum – carried by an overwhelming majority – that resulted in our Indigenous peoples being included in the census and able to vote. And we also saw, sadly, the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and the assumed drowning of our own Prime Minister Holt in 1967.

While still in its infancy in 1970, this movement towards postmodernism would mature over time and create the open society we now know in 2020 with its multi-faith and multi-racial canvas, its mantra of ‘equality’, its highly subjective and fluid understanding of truth, and still its suspicion of authority. The movement, while wholesome in many respects, posed a problem for the Church, which for centuries had acted as a kind of moral standard-bearer in the world and a dispenser of truth, particularly in the West (read https://others.org.au/features/mission-in-a-post-truth-world/). In Australia, according to the nation’s 1961 census, 88.3 per cent of the population identified as Christian. By the 2016 census, that figure had diminished to 52.1 per cent.

On the cusp of 1960, my parents had been commissioned as Salvation Army officers and sent to the Australian town of Clermont on the Peak Downs plains of Western Queensland. As Salvationists, they were committed to the Christian faith according to the Salvos Wesleyan and Revivalist roots, focused on the love of God in Christ and a life of holiness and service to humanity in the power of the Holy Spirit. They loved Jesus, saw the world through Heaven’s eyes, and believed in the Holy Spirit’s presence and power in the world to guide and lead humanity towards the will and the ways of God.

I was born in the spring of 1960, and, as fate would have it, named after Peter Marshall, the former US Senate Chaplain. Not only did I receive his first name but his second as well (also my father’s first name) – so, Peter John. While pregnant, my mother read A Man Called Peter, the biography of Marshall’s life by Catherine Marshall, his writer wife. She had also watched the film of the same title, made in Hollywood and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Mum was particularly taken with the integrity of the man and the power of his sermons. His message to the world included humanity’s need for the Holy Spirit. Here is an excerpt from one such sermon. Marshall initially speaks of the missing ingredient in the lives of the earliest followers of Jesus Christ. He then widens this out to embrace the whole world:

“Of course, these three years [following Jesus around Palestine] did something to them and in them. The fuel had been laid on the fire but it was not lit. The seed had been sewn but it had not germinated. All the possibilities for change in them had been created, but the changes had not yet happened. What did change them? Not the crucifixion, not the resurrection, but the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost … Not until the Holy Spirit had come upon them in power were they changed, so that cowardice gave place to courage, unbelief became a flaming faith and conviction that nothing on earth could shake, jealousy was swallowed up in brotherly love, self-interest was killed and became a ministry to others, fear was banished and they became afraid of no man, no threat, no danger.

“And therein lies our hope. We have not seen Jesus as they did. We never heard the sound of his voice or saw the sunlight dance on his hair or traced his footprints in the sands of Palentine. But we have the same opportunity to be changed, because the same Holy Spirit is available to us today. He has been sent into the world to lead us into all truth, to convict us of sin, to be our helper, our guide. This is a day of little faith, of few convictions, a day when men seem to have no great causes and no great passions. So in frustration, in disappointment, they are inclined to say: ‘You can’t change human nature.’ It is true that we cannot change human nature. But God can!

“It is the modern heresy to think that human nature cannot be changed. But human nature must be changed if we are ever to have an end to war, or to correct the wrong situations that make our lives uneasy and our hearts sore … The Holy Spirit of God is the only force that can change people for good. It is the only power in the world that can change the gears in a man’s life from self-will to God’s will. It is the only power that can give a man the right motives – to do what God wants him to do. Nothing else can bring him to seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and to want most of all to be a part of the answer to the world’s ills, and not part of the problem.”

(From Mr Jones, Meet the Master: Sermons and Prayers of Peter Marshall)

One of the characteristics of postmodernity as opposed to modernity is its openness to revisiting old ideas or experiences to judge whether in fact these are ‘old’ and should be left in history, or, whether they are ‘timeless’ in nature and should be perpetuated in every generation or era. This is a good thing because it is highly possible that the strong reaction to modernity that sped us away from ‘the old’ in the '60s created a new context for our lives that lacked foundation and rendered us rudderless – without certain ingredients that, in hindsight, we shouldn’t have left behind. Some will say, “Well, that’s OK, and it’s OK for us to sit and contemplate in uncertain times.”

But this writer believes the world needs the Holy Spirit, an idea and an experience that goes back to that very first Pentecost. Perhaps it’s the ‘Peter John’ in me; or The Salvation Army in me, whose Founder said we need ‘another Pentecost’; or my mother’s father, Grandad Clanfield who, when visiting him on vacation as children would sit my sister and me down after dinner and tell stories about how the Holy Spirit had changed people’s lives, including his own.

Perhaps it’s the words of Billy Graham resonating in me from his book The Holy Spirit: Activating the Power of God in Your Life, which I read in my 20s; or the voice of General Eva Burrows, then the world leader of The Salvation Army, echoing across time, posing that challenging question to a packed Sydney Entertainment Centre in 1988: Can you hear the wind of the Spirit blowing through the gum trees? as if this had become the missing ingredient in the Australian way of life 200 years after white settlement – and that this could, in fact, be the missing ingredient in the life and service of the Army, which just might have needed ‘another Pentecost’ right about then. Much was made at that bicentennial celebration that we were ‘The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit’ before we were ‘Australia’?

In the year 2020, as we find ourselves amid another period of rapid and perhaps even unprecedented change (to use the ‘u’ word), I’m certain both the Church and the world need another Pentecost. We need a much greater sense of God being with us on this journey. While we embrace physical distancing from one another, can we seek closeness to God and all of the resources that can be ours through the Holy Spirit’s personal and collective presence in our lives and in our communities – like a new day for our humanity?

I’m talking about a day-by-day, moment-by-moment walk with the Spirit. There is a void or a lack in the human soul that most of us are aware of, like a hole in our lives that we don’t often talk about it. This is a God-breathed space that only the Spirit of God can fill. Words aren’t enough to define it and you certainly can’t measure it. It is a space for relationship, a spiritual space for you and the Holy Spirit to do life together. It’s a space of nurture and companionship, but also preparation and equipping for your personal contribution to the world. As Marshall framed it for us, your whole outlook changes when you start doing life with the Holy Spirit.

How does this new life begin, or, if we have been there before and became distracted, how does it continue? It was Jesus Christ who gave us the answer to this question. It’s really a matter of faith – faith in Jesus to transform your life and faith in the Holy Spirit to fill and empower your life. These two expressions of faith go hand in hand. One without the other would be like the sound of one hand clapping. He also said it was a daily experience, the most important journey we could ever take.

I leave you with Jesus’ words: “Ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you. Everyone who asks will receive, everyone who searches will find, and the door will be opened for everyone who knocks … your heavenly Father is even more ready to give the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks” (Luke 11:9-13, CEV).

Major Peter McGuigan is a Salvation Army officer who serves in Melbourne.

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