By Rev. Tabitha Isner
As a person of faith, I’d like to believe that I am filled with the Holy Spirit. Not in a speaking-in-tongues way, but in the sense that God’s Spirit impacts all aspects of my life, that God is present in each of my moments, helping me to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. But to be honest with you, it just isn’t true. When I am caring for a distressed friend, it’s usually true. When I’m mentoring my “little sis,” it’s mostly true. But for the largest chunk of my time–the time I spend at work – it’s just not true. I am NOT Spirit-filled.
Sometimes I think the problem is my job, the environment in which I work. It’s a bureaucracy, filled with excessive paperwork and excessive meetings, and it requires excessive patience to wait for anything actually to get done. So, day after day goes by, and I rarely feel a sense of accomplishment or appreciation. But it’s not just me, and it’s not just my workplace. We’re all frustrated. Resentful. Impatient. Defensive.
At work, I am often NOT Spirit-filled. And yet, it’s not never. When it does happen—when a spirit of grace and peace and gentleness fills my heart and mind, when I speak to my colleagues with patience and empathy as my sisters and brothers on this journey - I find myself completely caught off guard by my own actions and words. It’s not that they feel wrong or inappropriate. Quite the opposite. They feel wonderful. Like a cool breeze sweeping unexpectedly through a stuffy room. They feel right and obvious. Like the muscle memory of climbing into bed in the dark. Of course I am filled with the Spirit! Of course I am responding to a stressful situation with grace and peace and gentleness! It’s the most natural thing in the world.
And I’m 100% baffled about how it happened.
The thing is, I’ve been praying for peace. I’ve been praying that the Spirit might grant me the “peace that passeth understanding,” that standard Christian notion from Phillipians 4:7. I imagine it as the Zen calmness of one who knows her place as God’s beloved child and therefore is unruffled by the stress of deadlines and unscathed by the rough edges of inconsiderate coworkers. It’s a good prayer, I think, the kind that, if granted, would bring me closer to God and also to my neighbors. I’ve been praying it for months now and simultaneously reading books and blogs about how to make it so. But to no avail. I still don’t get it. I haven’t found an effective trick for staying in that Spirit-place throughout the day or for ordering up an injection of Spirit when the need arises.
Sure, I have those unexpected moments when it just happens, but I want more. I want to be the expert on the peace that passeth understanding. I want to be able to do it consistently, on command. I want to be a master of Spirit-channeling. I want to control it. The Spirit. The chaos-ordering, death-defying, church-birthing, millennia-crossing Spirit of God. If I’m being honest with you, I have to admit that I don’t want the peace that passeth my understanding. I want the peace which I completely understand, and can predict – but that others are impressed by, saying, “I just don’t understand how she does it!” And having put it that way, I have a sudden clarity that I’m not going to get it.
So back to the drawing board. No, not the drawing board. The prayer mat. It’s time to give up my self-conception as the expert designer and instead assume the position of baffled gift-receiver. It’s time to pray this prayer again, this time asking for the ability to blindly accept the Spirit’s incomprehensible gift of peace; to lean in to the fact that I can’t control when the Spirit shows up in me, I can only welcome it when it arrives. It’s time to pray for the peace that passeth right over understanding and skips straight to my heart. I pray it comes to you too.
Tabitha Isner is a government bureaucrat by day and a church consultant when she can talk someone into it. She confesses to a long-standing habit of practicing theology, feminism, and statistical analyses.