The Spirit’s Note

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, March 2010
– PDF version –

When I lived in Southern California, I walked every week along the promenade between Santa Monica and Venice Beach. The famous beach pathway is not only well-known for its sunshine and beautiful sand, but for all the colorful people who make their living selling unique items. Many people will also offer their small or individual talents in exchange for a money offering. Some people who are homeless ask for a donation of coins or paper money dropped in a bucket or hat or tossed on a blanket.

One Friday morning as I was making the return trip to Santa Monica, I noticed a homeless man blowing on a trumpet with a small, rusty coffee can at his feet. He caught my attention because his trumpet looked as if it had been run over by a truck. The smashed instrument looked unplayable at best. However, my fascination became centered on the fact that he was playing just one musical note. I stopped in my tracks and watched him play for awhile. I could not believe my eyes or ears. After listening to his one note concert for a few minutes, I moved on along the path back to my car.

After walking about a half-mile away from the horn player, I stopped cold. All of a sudden something dawned on me. I said out loud on the path, “Now I get it! It was not that he was playing just one note on his trumpet, the man had the courage to play his note!” I am not sure what the people around me must have thought when they heard me talking to myself. However, the new insight sent me racing back to the one-note gentleman to put some money into his rusty container. Unfortunately, he disappeared before I could make a donation to his flat trumpet.

As I look back to my experience on the beach that day, I hold this man’s courage firmly in my heart. He was so humbled by his communication with his trumpet, yet he was fearless in offering to the world what only he could offer. This note speaks to me now of our upcoming celebration of Pentecost.

On Pentecost Sunday, we will proclaim from 1 Corinthians, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” This is manifest in my friend’s trumpet playing. The cumbersome note grasped my attention. It was not a note from a wealthy person, or an educated musician, a cleric or a teacher. This sound of belief and even longing came from a homeless man struggling for a dime in the hot sun.

Because I heard this man’s trumpet, I only imagine how many people I have ignored before him. His dire poverty struck me. I catch myself judging people for expressing themselves, or discounting their voice because of their background, their financial status or their lack of formal education. His humble poverty changed me and my belief about how the Holy Spirit changes me.

At Pentecost we must reconsider the people crying out to us who long for our attention, who beg to be heard, understood and accepted. We must welcome the teenager lost in the foster care system, the elderly suburban woman being abused or the manic housewife caught in addiction. If we believe that the Spirit is not dead, then we must be able to hear the Spirit in the lives of people we have ignored, shunned or have turned a deaf ear.

Many parish communities are paralyzed with fear faced with people in poverty. We have built fences around our schools, locked our church doors and protected our parish gatherings from strangers. We are called again this Pentecost to break free of our fear to welcome the lost, the smelly, the ragtag and the neighbor next door. Pentecost is not a past experience; it is an explosive grace capturing the hearts of people today, in our time and generation.

The Spirit still blows the hinges off our doors, still knocks us off our pedestals, still whips the wind out of our preconceptions and heals our hurtful judgments of one another. The celebration of Pentecost must create the Church from the lives of those who are waiting for a new dignity of life, for those who long to be accepted and for those who cannot wait to pray with us.

The golden age of the Spirit does not exist. We must not believe that a certain time in history is more infused with grace than another. We cannot get stuck in our parish communities believing that the Spirit was more present when we had the cute pastor, or when we had stricter rules, or when priests wore cassocks, or when we wore tie-die.

The gift of Pentecost costs us our thinking that we are in charge, that life will be better without the stranger or that our false security will bring us peace. Pentecost reminds us all as individuals and worshipping assemblies that our lives are a mystery and we are made lovingly in each note of the Spirit’s love.

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