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Living & Growing: A spirit that unites and a spirit that divides

Prayers for unity (and maybe taffy).

By Tari Stage-Harvey

The Fourth of July must be close because I’m dreaming of taffy (cinnamon and licorice to be exact). I don’t knock small children down to get my favorite pieces, but I’m definitely willing to bribe them with the nasty yellow ones.

I’ve also been listening to the soundtrack to “Hamilton.” I know people may be all over the place in their knowledge and appreciation of the musical, but I get teary every time I hear George Washington’s “One Last Time.” I’m not queen of history, but I find it stunning that he refused to run for another term. His final speech is well worth reading, but here is the part that sticks out to me from his farewell address in 1796:

“Let me now take a more comprehensive view and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

“The baneful effects of the spirit of party.”

We’ve definitely seen that play out in our country.

Thinking of spirit of political party got me thinking about the Holy Spirit. The spirit of party is inclined to be divisive, self-righteous, insulated and often vengeful. The spirit of holiness is the creative power of love to create serendipitous community. The Holy Spirit is gathering, feeding and reconciling individuals into relationships. That’s what we try to act out on Sunday mornings at church and throughout the week. It’s messy business.

We don’t get to romanticize or demonize people, but we gather around a table, around old stories of what God has done, and we try to figure out how to live as a beloved community even when we don’t always know each other that well (and sometimes don’t even like each other that well). We try to make space for the Holy Spirit to surprise us with unexpected relationships and perspectives.

Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t, but when the Holy Spirit is at work there is no denying that something powerful has occurred. I’m thinking of a woman who I put into the “sweet older lady who knits” category. I probably treated her with some polite dismissiveness, but then one day the door opened for stories, and she told us about her adventures doing costumes for KISS. Didn’t see that one coming, but her stories helped bust her out of a category in my mind and into a sacred mystery who was more than one thing.

That’s what the Holy Spirit does unlike party spirit. The Holy Spirit lets us encounter the sacred mystery of each other and live in communion without demanding conformity, without creating a common enemy, and without the fear that makes us want to cling to a false security.

My prayer for this Fourth of July is for the Holy Spirit to make space in our nation, in our factions, in our parties for life giving relationships and communities. May we as a nation seek to witness to a kingdom where all are gathered, fed, and reconciled. (And may I get a bag full of cinnamon and licorice taffy).

•Tari Stage-Harvey is pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church. “Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Friday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.

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