The choirs of Concordia College, guest soloists and instrumentals performing “Considering Matthew Shephard” on the Moorhead, MN campus, April 28, 2024.

“The Conspiring Spirit”

Kurt Jacobson

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Acts 2:1–4 The Day of Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Conspirare is a professional choral organization based in Austin, TX under the leadership of Minnesota native and St Olaf College graduate Craig Hella Johnson. This Grammy winning choir provides transformational musical experiences that have a deep impact on people around the world.

The aim of this choir and Johnson’s compositions is to inspire using the power of music to change lives. This spring I heard a performance of Johnson’s one hour-forty minute composition, “Considering Matthew Shepard” s fusion oratorio sung by the Concordia College Choral department in Moorhead, MN and it was inspiring beyond words. It has Johnson’s signature “collage” style of composing, which blends sacred and secular, classical and contemporary, traditional and popular genres.

It was the 1998 brutal and horrific murder of a young gay man in Wyoming that moved Craig Hella Johnson to compose Considering Matthew Shepard. Conspirare premiered the work in 2016 and later performed it on a nationwide tour. Since then, the composition has been performed by more than 30 choirs around the world with 15 more scheduled yet this year. Unlike any major choral event I have heard or sung in, it was deeply evident that Johnson and this composition’s inspiration uses the power of music to changes lives.

Something like that happened on the Day of Pentecost. Fifty days after the resurrection, the coming to the Holy Spirit changed lives far and wide and the continued work of the Spirit still breathes inspiration into life today.

The word “conspire” means to breathe together. You see the word “conspiracy.” Vocalists know how to conspire by breathing in together to breathe out together in song. In a way they conspire to inspire listeners with the breaths they breathe over and over again.

A similar thing happens between us when we come together to worship God. The Holy Spirit swoops in and out among us, knitting us together through the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the breaths we breathe. It can happen with three people or three thousand. It can scare or comfort, confuse or clarify things for us, but as far as I can tell the Holy Spirit never bullies us. We are always free to choose whether or how we will respond.

If you have studied earth science, then you know that this planet is enclosed in a protective wrap called the atmosphere, which separates the air we breathe from the cold vacuum of outer space. Beneath this veil is all the air that ever was. No cosmic-cleaning company comes along every few hundred years to suck out all the old air and pump in new. The same ancient air just keeps recirculating, which means that every time any of us breathes we breathe star dust left over from the creation of the earth. We breathe brontosaurus breath and pterodactyl breath. We breathe air that has circulated through the rain forests of Brazil and air that has turned yellow with sulfur over Shanghai. We breathe the same air that Aristotle breathed, and Bach and Michelangelo, not to mention Hitler. Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last. We take it in, we use it to live, and when we breathe out it carries some of us with it into the next person, or tree, or red-headed woodpecker who uses it to live.

When Jesus let go of his last breath for love of us, that breath hovered in the air in front of him for a moment and then it was set loose on earth. It was such a penetrating breath — so full of passion, so full of life — that it did not simply dissipate as so many breaths do. It grew, in strength and in volume, until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning through an upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath, and it worked.

There they were, about a hundred and twenty of them, Luke, the writer of Acts says, all moping around wondering what they were going to do without Jesus, when they heard a holy hurricane headed their way. Before any of them could defend themselves, that mighty wind had blown through the entire house, striking sparks that burst into flames above their heads, and they were filled up with it — every one of them was filled to the gills with God’s own breath. Then something clamped down on them and the air came out of them in languages they did not even know they knew.

Like a room full of bagpipes all going at once, they created such a racket that they drew a crowd. People from all over the world who were in Jerusalem for a harvest festival heard Pentecost rattling the windows and pushing through the doors, setting heads on fire and they were dumbfounded to hear someone speaking their own language so far from home.

Before the day was over, the church had grown from one hundred twenty to more than three thousand. Shy people had become bold, scared people had become gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of tying their own sandals without Jesus discovered abilities within themselves they never knew they had.

When they opened their mouths to speak, they sounded like Jesus. When they laid their hands upon the sick, it was as if Jesus himself had touched them. In short order, they were doing things they had never seen anyone but him do, and there was no explanation for it, except that they had dared to inhale on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the mother of Jesus, and for the same reason. It was time for God to be born again — not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.

The book of Acts is the story of their adventures, which is why I like to think of it as the Spirit’s gospel. In the first four books of the New Testament (the gospels) we learn the good news of what God did through Jesus Christ. In the book of Acts, we learn the good news of what God did through the Holy Spirit, by performing artificial resuscitation on a room full of well-intentioned bumblers and turning them into a force that changed the history of the world.

The question is whether we still believe in a God who acts like that. Do we still believe in a God who blows through closed doors and sets our heads on fire? Do we still believe in a God with power to transform us, both as individuals and as a people, or have we come to an unspoken agreement that our God is pretty old and tired by now, someone to whom we may address our prayer requests but not anyone we really expect to change our lives?

Of the Godhead, it seems to me the Holy Spirit is the hardest to define. We know God the father, creator of heaven and earth, who makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall. God the Son, who was human like us: our savior, teacher, helper, and friend. But how would you describe God the Holy Spirit? Even Jesus had a tough time with that one. “The Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).

I hope no one is satisfied with a definition of the Spirit — until you have felt the Holy Spirit blow through your life, rearranging things, opening things up and maybe even setting your own head on fire. There is nothing you can do to make it happen, as far as I know, except to pray “Come, Holy Spirit” every chance you get. If you don’t want anything to change in your life, then for heaven’s sake don’t pray that, but if you are the type of person who likes to stand out on the porch when there is a storm moving through so you can feel the power that is pushing the trees around, then you are probably a good candidate for the Holy Spirit prayer.

Asking for an experience of the Holy Spirit is only half the equation, however. The other half is recognizing it when it comes. There are people who believe they have never encountered God. But when they start talking about their lives it seems pretty clear to me, they have. They just did not know what to call the experience, so they wrote it off as coincidence or hormones. And maybe that is all it was for them. Each of us has the right to name our own experiences. But if you have had some things happen to you that you do not have a name for, I want to suggest it was the Holy Spirit in action.

Another trademark of the Holy Spirit is to give people a way back into relationship. Maybe you are estranged from someone you care about — because of something you said or did or something the other person said or did. Maybe you cannot even recall what started the estrangement. But you are tired of it, so you start plotting ways to get through to the other person. You draft letters, rehearse phone calls, only none of them sounds right. You are still hanging on to your hurt, or your anger, and it keeps leaking through. Then one day for no apparent reason something inside of you says, “Now.” You grab the phone, the person says, “Hello?” and the rest is history. Your heart opens and the right words come out. A reunion gets underway.

You can call that anything you want. I call it an act of the Holy Spirit. These intimate encounters are so potent that it is easy to stop with them, but the truth is that the Holy Spirit can work with hundreds of people at the same time. I have seen it happen in large rooms full of people who have come together to make decisions or seek direction. They come into the room with their own agendas. Some come armed ready to defend, others come ready to accuse.

Then someone says a prayer, people begin to talk, and for no apparent reason positions begin to shift. People listen to each other and take each other seriously. They become creative together, coming up with ideas none of them had thought of on their own. It is as if a fresh wind blows through the room and clears everyone’s heads.

You can call that anything you want. I call it an act of the Holy Spirit. Once you get the hang of it, the evidence is easier to spot. Whenever two plus two does not equal four but five — whenever you find yourself speaking with eloquence you know you do not have, or offering forgiveness you had not meant to offer — whenever you find yourself taking risks you thought you did not have the courage to take or reaching out to someone you had intended to walk away from — you can be pretty sure that you are learning about the Holy Spirit. And more than that, you are taking part in it, breathing in and breathing out, taking God into you and giving God back to the world again, with some of you attached.

Take a breath. Now just keep breathing. This is God’s moment-by-moment gift to us. We can call it air or we can call it Holy Spirit. It counts on us to warm it up, to lend it our lives. In return, it promises to inspire, fill us with new wind, to set our heads on fire, giving us tongues to speak of things we cannot begin to understand.

Do we still believe in a God who acts like that? More importantly, do we still experience a God who acts like that? I do not know what your answer is, but if you do not have one, I hope you will discover one. Join with the conspiring Holy Spirit and see what happens next.

If you love music, give a listen to some of Craig Hella Johnson’s “Considering Matthew Shepard.”

All of Us Virtual Choir (youtube.com)

Considering Matthew Shepard: Passion, 17. The Innocence (youtube.com)

Conspirare performs “Considering Matthew Shepard: Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass” (youtube.com)

Find complete recordings on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, or Pandora.

With inspiration from Home by Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor, Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.