Posts Tagged ‘Holy SPirit’

Teach us to pray…

July 24, 2016

Ask – seek – knock.  The suggestion seems to be that, if you are serious about this prayer stuff, you only need to engage in the conversation – take the first step toward God, and God will not deny your request.  So how is that working out for you?

The Lord’s prayer is one thing – a pattern by which Jesus teaches his disciple to pray; first, honour God – seeking the things of God (on earth as in heaven); then seek what is needed personally (daily bread); then acknowledge our sin and our need to be forgiven AND forgive one another (we don’t always hear that part)  Save us from the time of trial (whatever that might mean), and there you have it: a very sensible pattern for prayer, that we have made a mantra.

We have shared that prayer every Sunday of my time here – and every Sunday before I came – it has been offered in a nearly infinite variety of settings and languages, on every continent (and, one imagines every ocean) for as long as the church has been the church.  How often?  Difficult to say.  To what end?  Well, God’s name is still (occasionally) hallowed, but for the rest of it – not a great result, really.

It is no surprise that prayer is the thing that gets quickly passed over – or, more often, criticized – by faithful and doubter alike.  When we say “my prayers have been answered” we usually mean “I got what I wanted”.  Fair enough – but how often have we, in just the last ten years – prayed for peace and safety in the world’s hot spots, and how often have those prayers been answered?  The failure of our prayers for peace to bring anything like peace in places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, – I could go on – must therefore be a failure either of our faithfulness, or a failure of prayer.  Are we asking for the wrong things?  Are we asking in the wrong way?  We always hedge our bets with the “mantra” that is the Lord’s Prayer, just to show we understand the pattern.  What else must we do?

Jesus’ disciples saw something worthy in the act of prayer.  When Jesus prayed, things seemed to happen.  It isn’t hard to argue that they saw some sort of ’cause and effect’ – and they wanted to be a part of that.  Besides, John had taught his disciples to pray (that would be an interesting prayer to learn), so Jesus should do that much for his students.  And the request is granted, but another lesson follows.

It might be about being persistent – ask-seek-knock; it might be an assurance of God’s ability to do good and not harm – but the result at the end is singular.  If you who are evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the heavenly father GIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT to those who ask…

Wait, no one said anything about asking for the holy spirit.  Daily bread, forgiveness, deliverance – where did this come from?  What about the bargain I wanted to make, about a new job, or a cure for my aunt, or relief from my anxiety?  The lesson on prayer moves very quickly from general to the specific – and it appears (according to Luke’s gospel) that the Holy Spirit is (should be) the request that should feature in our persistence.

That persistence – that Jesus claims is a greater motivation than even friendship – has been misunderstood (I think) by the church across the years.  Forgetting, as we do, that elsewhere we are assured that “…your Father knows what you need before you ask…” (Matthew 6:8) we have come to believe that repetition is the key to prayer.  So in the name of persistence, we earnestly and desperately pray for the end of hostilities among the many war torn nations of the world.  And in the name of persistence we seek healing for the sick, and peace for the grieving, and safe repose for those who have died – even though we also believe that God knows the deepest longings of our hearts, grieving with us for the broken and battered world in which we live.  And the one gift we do not find the words to ask for – the thing we understand the least – that is the gift that Jesus says will be offered in abundance to those who ask.

For the Holy Spirit is a mysterious feature of our theology, most obvious only when it is absent.  It is that same spirit that moves one to an act of compassion, another to offer service, still another to reach out in sympathy.  When the Spirit is at work, we often have no words to explain our actions; “it felt like the right thing to do…”, the words most often uttered by those who cannot imagine that God may have given them a gift.  And the Spirit is the gift on offer – every time we pray.  For it is by, through and in the Spirit that God continues to act.  Such activity made visible in anything from bushes that burn without burning up, to cripples who suddenly dance, or the blind granted sight.  In our time, we have seen acts of incredible compassion flow out of great tragedy – all too often, in recent weeks, have we seen communities, bound together by grief, use those experiences to stand together against cruelty, or find tender ways to support those whose pain is deepest.  That hasn’t stopped the madness, the killing or the hurtful rhetoric, but these small, defiant acts of kindness lend hope to what otherwise appear to be hopeless situations – that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, that comes from our earnest prayers.

Whatever else we think we’re doing, in spite of our growing list of desires and demands, our prayers have a way of opening us to and engaging us in the work of the Spirit of God.  It is the only explanation that comforts me.  For whether in the intimacy of personal prayer, or through the broad strokes of public prayer – or even in the well worn words of the Lord’s prayer, what we really seek – and what God is glad to offer – is the gift of the Holy Spirit, in all its mystery and magnificence; for it is the Spirit that can help us navigate our needs, wants and desires.   It is the only gift that matters.  It is the only gift we need.


That old-time religion…

February 14, 2016

Deuteronomy is an account of the end of the wandering by the Hebrew people, and the beginning of a new challenge; how to live as people of the promise in the land that embodies the promise?  Moses has helped Israel to the borders of the promised land; it is up to Joshua to take the lead once the boarders have been crossed.  And through this memorial document that we call the book of Deuteronomy, the people are reminded of the most ancient of promises – God’s promise to provide, to deliver, to respond to the distress of God’s people.

The so called ‘books of Moses’ – Genesis to Deuteronomy – represent the selective history of a very specific people.  These are not first=person accounts – they are written generations – even centuries after the fact.  Most of our Scripture comes to us in this manner, emerging from the constant sharing of the memories of the community.   Their stories are recorded – the rituals formalized and they are used to encourage and empower a nation on the verge of something new and terrifying.  The Hebrew Scripture develops as the people ‘come in to their own’ – they become a nation; a force to be reckoned with in the ancient near east.  And throughout the Scriptural story, every time they forget their heritage, or grow arrogant, or fall prey to more powerful neighbours, they are called to remember that they are still strangers in a strange land.  “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”

Memory is a vital part of a life of faith.  And the many layers of these memories make up what we call ‘religion’, which is a word that describes the systematic articulation of spirituality.  Lately, religion has become something of  a dirty word.   More accurately “organized religion” has become code for “something to be avoided”, the same way we might avoid ‘organized crime’.  Religion has become associated with the structures (both beautiful and corrupt), and with the people (both faithful and fallible) and in the analysis, people have decided religion has no redeeming qualities.  Interest in things spiritual, however, is at an all time high.  As a religious person (as well as a religious official) this is very frustrating for me.  To be sure, when a religion abandons its spiritual foundations, it ceases to be useful to society. But a spirituality without ‘religious parameters’ – that is, a dis-organized (chaotic) spirituality – is an equally purposeless endeavour.

The ancient Hebrew memories became ritual; festivals to mark important moments in the history of their becoming a nation and in their relationship with God; Scripture to stand as a lasting testament to their discovery of faith.  Their religious identity develops as an expression of their experience with God’s guiding presence – religion and Spirituality are indistinguishable; civic leaders have religious function; religious festivals and activities are an integral part of the social fabric.

The Old Testament is an incomplete summary of the development of the religion of the Hebrew people.  Within that religion, differences of opinion and interpretation develop. There will be those who follow the rules for the sake of convenience, and still others who will seek a deeper connection with God by taking a mystical approach.  But the basic structures of religious life are common to the earliest days of the Kingdom of Israel and to the people living under Roman rule in Jesus’ day.

The power of The Spirit was not unknown – it is the Spirit’s voice that speaks at Jesus’ baptism; it is the the Spirit that leads Jesus to the wilderness – towards temptation.  But it is religion that guides Jesus through his interview with the Tempter.  What Luke describes is a competition between religious structures; the devil offers one scenario, Jesus counters with fundamental Jewish religious truth.  These expressions of Jewish Spirituality, quoted by Jesus chapter and verse from Hebrew Scripture are available to Jesus because his religion preserved them, embodied them and taught them to the community generation after generation.  This continues to be the task of religion.

Jesus didn’t call on the power of ‘religious authorities’ during his crisis of temptation – he offered the truth about God that his religion taught him.  He has been led to this “by the Holy Spirit” – a leading he trusts because of that same truth.  The temptations are meant to exploit weakness: physical hunger, the hunger for achievement.  When Jesus answers those first temptations with his religious convictions, the devil makes an appeal to Jesus’ pride: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…”  Put your money where your mouth is, in other words – but Jesus isn’t fooled.  The truth taught by his religion is that even the power of God abides by the rules of creation.

People who appeal to the ‘power of spirituality’ (even Christian spirituality) have been tempted by the idea that religious rules somehow limit the power of the Spirit – but nothing could be further from the truth.  Religion is what helps us understand the framework in which the Spirit of God works – an imperfect understanding, of course, and always open to re-evaluation according to our Reformed heritage – but there it is; the Spirit of God is a Spirit of order, not chaos, and the Christian religion (at it’s best) affirms that order and teaches us to recognize the work of the Spirit when we see it.

Can ‘religion’ save you?  No, but it can point you to the saving power of God.  Are ‘religious people’ somehow superior to those without religion?  No, but religion can (indeed it certainly should) affect the way you live your life – for better or (occasionally) for worse.  Christian religion has the power to change lives because it expresses the power of the spirit of God; the Spirit of order and peace; of love and life.  Thanks be to God the power of that Spirit meets us and guides us in the person of Jesus, whose trust in God changed forever the way we express our religious convictions.

Baptism of Jesus (from a different angle)

January 10, 2016

All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.  Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6: 3-5)

So Jesus – the one who John says will baptize “…with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” first must be baptized himself.  Fair enough.  It’s a little strange, I’ll admit, but there is an argument that says you cannot offer something that you do not have – so; Jesus is baptized, and while he prays, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in physical form – and if you need help imagining what that moment looks like, the gospel writers ask you to picture a dove landing on Jesus…

Have you ever seen a bird land on a person?  Parrots on shoulders, Falcons on leather gloves – there’s always a great deal of commotion; feather’s flying and the human target trying to stay upright – the goal is to provide a stable platform – because if the human target is not ready…or nervous…or moving about, it can be disastrous.

A similar disaster is suggested by a church sign that a friend in Halifax told me about this week.  She reports seeing a sign that, in addition to announcing the service times, stated quite boldly “You will be baptized by the Spirit”.  We agreed that this didn’t sound like a comfortable process – or much of a gracious invitation; more like an expectation or a requirement.  A close reading of Scripture suggests something less…rigorous.

Luke’s gospel makes the baptism of Jesus something of a non-event.  Sure, there are a great many people crowding the riverbank, but John seems to be the focal point – albeit against his will.    Luke gives us a lot about John, talking about how he’s not Messiah, but this is what Messiah will be like.   Then our attention is drawn to Jesus, one of many who have been gathered by the call of John, now sitting apart from the crowd; newly baptized and praying.  There is a heavenly voice – meant only for Jesus, but duly reported by Luke – that identifies Jesus as a much loved son.

And for the Baptism, that’s it – except that Luke then makes another connection for us.  For all who failed to hear the voice – to any who doubt the connection that Jesus has with the almighty, Luke offers (post-baptism) Jesus family tree. (see Luke 3: 23-38)

It is a little one sided; son of…, son of…, son of…, but the point is to link Jesus to God in the most intimate (and culturally legitimate) way possible.  So while his baptism places Jesus among the ordinary seekers of forgiveness and righteousness that have flocked to John’s call, because it is an act of humility his baptism also provides a “stable platform” for the Holy Spirit – setting the stage for that spectacular revelation (You are my beloved Son…) which is how Luke reminds us that there is nothing at all ordinary about him.

So what, you might ask; Jesus is extraordinary – everyone knows that!  Jesus has this effect on the people around him – he makes others more aware of the presence of God – more attentive to the voice of God – more easily able to discern the Spirit of God – and here, in his adulthood, is where those particular traits of Jesus make themselves known.  And because everyone doesn’t know it – the task of the church is to continue to tell this incredible story; that into a time and place where all seemed bleak; to a people who imagined that God may have passed them by – from the midst of them, in fact – God works in and through the particular person of Jesus, and offers a new connection – a stable platform for the landing (and launching) of an incredible work of the Holy Spirit.

In the end, it doesn’t matter who heard the voice – or who might have seen this incredible moment of transformation.  What matters is that Jesus lets us see how God can work.  Although this is the One who created with a word – who brought order from chaos – whose voice can shake the wilderness – God’s Spirit comes gently, to those who are ready and willing to receive the gift.  The Spirit is often unexpected, but never unwelcome.  Jesus’ example suggests to me that humility is the attitude most likely to encourage the arrival of the Spirit, and it is in that same humility that we are invited to offer this remarkable Gospel.  Though it may be tempting to expect everyone who hears Jesus’ story to be instantly transformed, we should remember that even in Jesus’ time, it didn’t happen like that.  The Spirit settled on one person that day – one who was patient, praying, and who presented the Spirit with a safe and stable landing place.  And from that moment came the start of something wonderful and new.

A new way to encounter the power of God – a new attitude toward the coming Kingdom of God – new hope, new life; all this comes thanks to the humble and willing witness of Jesus.  May his example become our habit, that the Holy Spirit might find, in us, a welcome place to land.  Amen

Nothing and Everything – Pentecost (2015)

May 24, 2015

This is the ‘Sunday of the Spirit’ – Pentecost –
a word that means nothing and everything to us.

Nothing, because Pentecost is too often associated (in popular culture particularly)
with a style of Christian worship that has become a stereotype;
hand-waving, tongue-speaking, hallelujah-ing worship.
‘Pentecostal’ conjures images of charismatic preachers
and congregations of enthusiastic ‘born-again’ folk.
Some of us are curious about this phenomenon,
and others are frightened by it –
but mostly, we recognize that as a ‘preference’ in worship style,
and leave it at that.

But Pentecost also means everything to us,
for we are a Christian church,
and we collectively remember one particular celebration of this Jewish festival
as a turning point in our early development.
We may be (as I’ll continue to insist) an Easter people,
but the church of Christ is also an institution of the Holy Spirit,
without whom we are just another social club.
And since we are Presbyterians –
ordered and deliberate; reasonable and rooted in Scripture –
we need this annual reminder of the gift that keeps on giving;
the Spirit of the Most High.
As a moment in time it is significant – certainly memorable.
A good starting point for this new adventure
that puts the life and work, the death and resurrection, of Jesus Christ at its centre.

But if we are to be, in this time and place, a church fully ‘in the Spirit’,
what should that look like?

We don’t typically speak in other languages –
though I occasionally make reference to Greek or Hebrew.
There has been no rushing wind to sweep us off our collective feet;
no spectacular moments of conviction where
(as happen towards the end of Acts chapter 2)
“…some three thousand were added to their number [in one day!]”

Where is the Spirit working among us?
Where are the signs?
How can we tell that we are still covered by Jesus’ promise of this comforter –
this Advocate – who will support us in our witness to the truth?
Jesus extended farewell speech (in John’s gospel)
makes some points about the Spirit’s task among us.
The Spirit only comes because Jesus made room (by leaving):
“if I do not go, your Advocate will not come,
whereas if I go, I will send him to you”
That suggests that the Spirit can be crowded out by people (or things)
that would otherwise seem good for us.
Jesus departure was a troubling issue for the disciples,
yet the promise is that in this trouble,
they will find help that they would not otherwise receive.
So our search for the Spirit must include the quiet places:
those times of trouble when all seems lost;
the dark night of the soul that helps us imagine we are alone;
in these times and places, empty of all but our fears,
there is ample room for the Spirit to work.

Jesus is also confident that the Spirit (Advocate as John’s gospel names it)
will be a powerfully persuasive force in and of itself.
The power of God’s Spirit alone will convince the world of right and wrong,
where Jesus is concerned.
Only the conviction of faith (a fruit of the Spirit)
can move a person to accept the claims made by Jesus about God and the Kingdom
(and, as time goes by, claims made by Jesus’ friends about Jesus)
And while the history of the church is filled
with wonderfully powerful and persuasive speakers
none of them are any use unless the Spirit brings their words to life.
The disciples were only making noise enough to draw a crowd,
it was the Spirit’s gift of free and instant translation
that helped the crowds hear the great things God has done
uttered in their native tongues.
I have been preaching in various places now for nearly 18 years
and I can tell you, that while my presentation has improved
and my approach to the text has changed since I first stepped into a pulpit, what I say doesn’t matter unless you can hear it.
There are plenty of barriers to hearing –
your mood; my mood; circumstances in our lives; distractions in the sanctuary –
but the Spirit can overwhelm them all, whenever it chooses.

So it happens that, from time to time,
individuals in the same congregation
hear different things from the same sermon.
One hears encouragement – another hears blame.
In all likelihood, I intended neither,
but the Spirit gets the final word in every circumstance
and that is something that still catches me by surprise.

Jesus finally pronounces the Spirit as a guide to all truth,
and this may seem the hardest to believe –
for there have been more battles within and among the faithful over “truth”
than anything else in the history of the church.
It would first appear that, as a guide, the Spirit is an abject failure,
for the surest way to argument even now
is to propose something as “True” for the purposes of religious observance.

Scholars have sought the “historical Jesus”;
others have lobbied for forms of worship
that were “true”to the earliest practice of the followers of Jesus.
There is a perpetual search for true meaning in Scripture
that only seems to be satisfied by those who are relentlessly extremist
in their understanding of what Scripture is and of who God must be.

But the truth is more resilient that that (and more deliberately elusive)
and I believe that the Spirit is still the most trustworthy guide
through the minefield of fact, myth, tradition and experience
that we call life.

It could only be the gentle company of God’s Spirit that brought the churches,
one by one, to the point of recognizing the need
to offer apology to First Nations peoples (in Canada)
for the horror that was the Residential School system.

It was only in the company of the Spirit that churches,
some more reluctantly than others,
came to value the gifts of women for Ordained Ministry in the church.

It is the Spirit whose gentle prompting moved,
not one, but twenty-three overtures (many identical)
to this year’s General Assembly, each asking questions
about the churches policies with regard to ordination and sexuality.
We pray that the Spirit’s presence guides those conversations –
not with rushing wind, or exuberant, multi-lingual displays,
but in a respectful sharing of stories
and a genuine desire to be led; to hear and be heard.

Yes, the signs of the Spirit are there to be seen –
and they are not always alarming, or spectacular –
but it is the Spirit that brings us from hopelessness to hope.
It is by the Spirit’s hand we are drawn together, week after week,
to offer praise and to be encouraged in worship.
It is the Spirit of God – still in the act of urging creation towards completion –
that brings life to us and breath to us.

Come Holy Spirit, is the ancient prayer,
but we need not call the Spirit out of hiding –
we need only open our eyes to a power that is always present –
waiting to be re-discovered.

Sixth Sunday of Easter. “Who can withhold…”

May 10, 2015

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10: 44-48)

In the name of God – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer – Amen

This portion of Acts is pretty exciting.  Saul, aka Paul, has just begun to  provoke the Jewish community by his sudden conversion and his passionate arguments for Jesus as Messiah (Acts 9)  Peter meanwhile is preaching and healing – even raising the dead.  The church was “living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” being built up, and enjoying a time of peace.  So far, so good; everything is going according to plan – disciples are being made, the community is growing, and people are being welcomed into the body of Christ.  But only a certain people.  Only Jewish people.

It was through the God of “Abraham Isaac and Jacob” that deliverance would be revealed; to God’s ‘chosen’ that the promise had been made.  To Peter – “The Rock” – (Mr. “I would rather die than deny you, Lord…”) comes a disturbing vision.  Three times, while fasting and praying, Peter encounters a vision that suggests to him that everything is about to change.  There are people coming to him who represent a different direction for this new community of faith.  They have been sent by Cornelius, a Centurion who fears God and is well thought of in the Jewish community, to bring Peter to share the Gospel with Cornelius’ household.  This is astonishing news.  It’s not allowed; it’s contrary to Jewish law and against generations of tradition.  God’s good news was for God’s people; it was that simple.

Peter knows it.  Cornelius knows it.  Everybody knows it, but Peter comes, on the strength of a vision, and Peter preaches in the strength of the Spirit.  And something incredible happens.

This sort of openness is rare among religious folk.  People tend to guard their beliefs quite closely – to build fences around their habits and their traditions to ensure that only those who truly believe can have access to the benefits of faith.  There are rules associated with membership, and strangers are only admitted after they have learned the rules and promised to respect and uphold the traditions.  First you must learn the stories.  Then you can help us tell them – that is how it goes.

But here are gentiles – outsiders – the centurion and his household, overcome by the Spirit of God by the mere mention of the story of Jesus.  Incredible!  Nothing like this has happened since…well, there is no precedent for this.  But Peter knows what must be done.  Peter has a word from God:

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

This is about more than ancient dietary restrictions.  God is inviting Peter to reach across old barriers and reunite the human family through the gift of the gospel.

We can’t really appreciate how alarming it must have been to see the Spirit take hold of these enemies of God.  They were “speaking in tongues and extolling God” – gifts that had been given to people who knew the promises of God and who then had encountered the Gospel of Jesus.and Peter (of all people) invites them into the fold.  Until now, the act of Baptizing is the thing that unlocked the gifts of the spirit.  This time, the Spirit has changed the rules.

Now, I want to be careful here, because it would be easy to infer that all our rules were useless, and that we should abandon ourselves to the wild unpredictability of the Spirit.  The Spirit has long proven that order, not chaos, is her modus operandi,  This episode is not unexpected, following as it does the vision Peter is given on the roof.  The gift of the Spirit to the unbaptized is an affirmation that the church (as it was) needed to open it’s doors to the wider community; to look past the ordinary and expected.

These folks are not drilled on the catechism and tested on doctrine before their names are added to the communion roster.  They are suddenly seen in the light of God’s love, and welcomed into the fellowship.  “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people…?”  Peter knows this is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.  The so-called ‘enemies of God’ are not so different than the ‘chosen people’.  It was true on that day for Peter and his friends, and it remains true for us today.

The history of the church is full of examples of our supposed superiority.  We know , certainly here in Canada, the kind of damage that caused among First Nations.  We never seem to run out of targets for these kinds of attitudes, though we do change our methods to make our prejudice seem acceptable or reasonable.  We still harbour an inordinate fear of those whose religious and cultural expression are different from ours, but they are easy to categorize as “THEM”.  More concerning are people of different sexual identity, for they are – in every other way – just like us.  Canadians, Christians, neighbours, employers; people who speak our language and hold our beliefs.  Some believe that the answers are simple – that the rules are clear and these people are outside the bounds of God’s love.  As I understand the love of God, nothing could be further from the truth.

It is to a people bound by such narrow vision that the Psalmist speaks.  God’s victory is defined by righteous judgement and equity.  The ends of the earth have see God’s victory – all of creation roar and sing for joy at God’s presence.  The urge to offer praise is inescapable, and cannot be controlled by our limited understanding.  The same spirit that brooded over Creation and called the elements to order, gathers us in our confusion, and our uniqueness to a single purpose.

Worship, in the wisdom of God, takes many forms and comes from often unexpected sources.  It is the privilege of the broken, and the first language of all God’s children.  It can be formal or spontaneous; serious or celebratory; it follows traditional patterns that can be suddenly abandoned.  The purpose is always praise and the benefit is always ours.

The church is facing interesting times.  Society is asking questions of us and we have trouble with the answers.  We are reexamining old definitions of friend and foe – We must face the truth that ours is not the prevailing religious opinion on the planet – We must still be true to God’s call.  And I wonder if the answer doesn’t lie in the discovery that Peter made that day on the roof.  The gift of life that God offers in Christ is a gift without borders; a gift without limits.  perhaps our barriers aren’t that important after all.  Amen