Pentecost, the Holy, and John Russell

[adapted from the sermon delivered on Pentecost, 2014]

God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

On Tuesday before Pentecost, about nine a.m.…
My son John and I were driving to the Interact Center (his day program, in Minneapolis’s warehouse district—a short drive from our place in Loring Park). Per usual, he cued up a CD. As we eased around the Lyndale Ave curve in front of the Basilica of St. Mary, “You’ve got a friend in me,” from Toy Story, began. The light turned red. We stopped, but the song kept going—with intro rolling toward lyrics, John put his hand on my arm.
Nice, but not extraordinary. John does similar things fairly often. In his post-Leukemia world, words still don’t come easily. John often lets gestures and nods, other folks’ words (even song lyrics), speak for him. In the car, when he plays disc-jockey, he’ll connect a song with a feeling and reach over to give my arm a tap. These moments are always nice—and this moment could have stayed, simply, “nice.”
But that morning, John moved WAY beyond nice. In the shadow of that big old church, John did something amazing—even sacred. It happened like the rush of a mighty wind. This time he held my arm. No mere pat would do. No little rub. This was different. John touch lingered. His gesture grabbed my attention.
So I looked at him.
But I wasn’t ready for what I saw: John Russell was beaming! His bright grin, strong wave, powerful posture, twinkling eyes emphasized, even outshone, his words. The way John held my arm got my attention. And my surprise turned to astonishment. John was filled with a new kind of energy, an enthusiasm he hasn’t had in a long time. It’s been years since he’s glowed like that.
That would’ve been enough. But John wasn’t done. He spoke! He didn’t mumble. He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t let the CD say it. He used words. He looked me in the eye and spoke so clearly and strongly that, if the car were filled with “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans and Cappadocians…,” and all the rest, then each could have understood, in their own language, what John was saying.
His energy touched me as palpably as his hand. There may even have been a tongue as of fire resting on him. At that red light, the Spirit moved John and he spoke. And he spoke with power! The profundity did not simply follow from the words in his sentence, though they certainly moved me.
It’s about that cascading holy happiness. He was so unmistakably happy that he could not help but share his joy. The Spirit, yes the Holy Spirit, touched him and John touched me.
It was a blessed moment—with power and energy and wonder to spare. In fact, I think the statue of old Father Hennepin (on the pedestal in front of the basilica), with his cross of benediction held high, might’ve even given us a wink and a thumb’s up from his lofty perch—you know, the kind of thing a statue in a Disney movie might do…
Of course this doesn’t mean that now life will be a smooth, easy ride of good energy and sappy songs and sweet smiles. John’s life is not a made-for-TV-movie. There will be stops and starts, bumps and potholes. Even some washed out roads and breakdowns. But as real and as difficult as those things are, they don’t define him.
John Russell has a sacred source of strength, a well of hope that defines him beyond and in spite of Leukemia. Moments like this provide a glimpse at, a reminder of what can be. That, on the other side of all the hell he’s known these last three years, John can be happy again. He’ll touch others. He’ll listen to music that he chooses. He’ll speak his truth.
Yeah, there’s something holy about those things. And there’s something holy about the words he spoke that day:
“I love you, papa.”


  1. The Akron survey also found that many Christians who call themselves Pentecostals have never spoken in tongues, despite the fact that traditional Pentecostal doctrine says that the phenomenon is the first evidence that a person has been “baptized by the Holy Spirit.”

    • Augustana (Author)

      Thanks for your note, Jeremy,

      What’s the connection between the first Pentecost and modern Pentecostalism?

      Thanks again,
      Pr. Bill