Acts 2:1-21 | Psalm 104:24-34, 35b | Romans 8:14-17 | John 14:8-17
I needed to get out Friday. It was such a beautiful day. So I took a walk in Cougar Mountain Park up past the Coal Creek Y. As I walked from the parking lot into the deeper forest what struck me most were all the ferns. They were everywhere, their prehistoric green spikes creating a shimmering rich texture all over the forest floor dappled with sunlight. It was stunning.
As I began to look a little more closely though, I also began to notice all these tall shoots of a broad-leaf plant rising up right in the midst of the fern. They were the same rich, green color as the ferns, so almost indistinct as I took in the whole scene, and easy to overlook up close if you’re not paying attention. And I remembered what they were, these tall, unremarkable plants—stinging nettle. Sure enough. A careful look revealed the tiny hair-like nettles covering the leaves and stems of this plant growing right next to the clumps of the fern. They looked so soft, but had I brushed up against them I would have felt a bee-like sting that could continue to throb all day.
I think it was either Mike Jaslowski or Paul Mitchell who showed me some years ago the tiny rows of dots on the bottom of several varieties of ferns. If you get stuck by a nettle, grab a frond from a nearby fern and rub the underside of it against the stinging area. Sometimes it helps to lessen the pain.
It all got me wondering: Why do beautiful things exist so closely to what can harm you? Why do things that bring so much relief co-exist so closely with what causes pain? And why are our hopes found so close to disappointment. It’s true in nature. It’s true in relationships. It’s true within our own psyches. It is a one of those mysteries of life, I think, that may not have an answer.
There’s some thought that those fruit dots on the bottom of some fern varieties evolved over the eons because of their proximity to the nettle, almost as an adaptation to the irritant of that sting. And we know, of course, that the nettle isn’t an evil thing. It is simply a survivor. Its nettles are actually a success—an evolutionary defense to keep predators away. So are the fruit dots, I suspect, which bear the spores that allow for reproduction in the fern. It seems then that the fern and the nettle have found a way to be thrive in each other’s midst.
That sounds promising, doesn’t it?
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung built his theories on a similar insight when it comes to humans. Our strengths co-exist amidst our deficits—life next to death, consciousness and unconsciousness, light and darkness together. We all have a shadow side to our personality, according to Jung. It is the unknown part of our personality. Jung said it was dark for two reasons. The shadow consists of what we consider the primitive, negative human emotions and impulses: Sexual lust, the striving for power, selfishness, greed, envy, rage. It is also that part of ourselves that is obscured from our consciousness. Whatever we deny about ourselves—what we consider evil or inferior or unacceptable becomes part of the shadow, the counterpoint to our conscious personality.[i]
Jung considered the work of paying attention to that unconscious shadow within us, of integrating the opposites to be the central process of human development. “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” he said, “but by making the darkness conscious.”[ii]
Jung also understood that one of the primary ways we delay and avoid this work is by unconsciously projecting this unknown, dark and fearful part of our being onto others. So he also said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”[iii]
Of course an irritant is another word for pain or suffering. Growth, it seems, only comes by way of some pain. What we blame others for is a sign of the pain we face. You can hear the pain in Philip’s dissatisfaction in John: “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” he tells Jesus. Philip represents our struggle with what isn’t visible. Remember the gospel of John is written some 60 years after the death of Jesus. It is written to and for the church. The Gospel writer is offering a pastoral response to the struggle of keeping faith when you just can’t see or touch the thing that will hold us, the pain that comes from facing the shadow of our lives.
So John’s Jesus tells him and us the truth. The deep truths are never certain things. They are about what is not visible, about our stumbling through. This is where faith lives, the source of enlightenment, and all you get are signs.
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
All you get is Spirit. We don’t get to reach out and touch the object of our faith anymore. Faith is as fleeting, and yet as real as a flame. Go ahead. Try to grab it and hold on. Faith is as strong and sparkling as a good word that stirs the soul. It grabs us with such power, and yet we move forward and leave it behind, looking for the next thing to remind us of what we believe, what we hold onto.
And yet it is such a powerful thing. It moves mountains. It turns history on a dime. And it is embodied in you and me, in our light and darkness, in our heartbreaking failure and our spectacular successes, in our strong belief, and our devastating doubt. You know him, because he abides with you and in you.
This is perhaps the most stunning thing of all on this day of Pentecost. That God’s Spirit is made known in us, is seen in you and me. We are signs of God’s Spirit. We are Pentecost. We are what the world sees in order to believe. God’s story is being played out in you, in us, in our life together. It’s what Jesus tells Philip in John:
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…
It’s what Paul says to the church in Rome: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
And it is enough. In you and me. In the Spirit of those we encounter along the way. In your faithfulness, my faith is found.
Loving Spirit, loving Spirit,
you have chosen me to be,
you have drawn me to your wonder,
you have set your sign on me.
[i] See Stephen A. Diamond’s Psychology Today blog “Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: What is the ‘Shadow’?” Accessed May 13, 2016: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201204/essential-secrets-psychotherapy-what-is-the-shadow.