Sunday, May 31, 2015

What God is like: Reasoning from the nature of the Holy Spirit

Who among men knows the thoughts of a man except his spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. (I Corinthians 2:11)

If we receive the Spirit of God and Paul says this is God's Spirit in the same way that our own spirits know our own thoughts ... then it follows that we can understand the things of God and the nature of God by this Spirit.

What happens if you take that idea and connect it with the fruit of the Spirit?

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

If that is the fruit of the Spirit, and if the Spirit is the mind of God, then the mind of God naturally produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control. The reason that God's Spirit produces them in us is that these things belong to God's nature. It is what God is truly like.

All things that fulfill the law are things that restore in us the image of God. Love does no harm to its neighbor and love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is the nature of God. We have seen before how God is holy and so his people are called to be holy, how God's people are called to follow his paths, how salvation is being restored in the image of God. From the nature of the Holy Spirit, it should follow that the nature of God includes everything that is named as fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

God is good.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit: understanding

The Spirit of the LORD shall rest on him: The Spirit of wisdom and understanding ... (Isaiah 11:2)
This may seem obvious -- and sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we overlook. (Really, being proficient -- more than a beginner -- in any skill, means having become so accustomed to certain basic things that we no longer have to think about them any more. And so we don't. Every level of expertise carries its own blind spot, in that way.) If I look back on every conversation I've ever had, and look forward to every conversation I expect to have, all those conversations share one thing: a common language. The other person and I could understand each other, if we tried. Every long-term friendship I've ever had was with someone that I could talk to, or write with, in a language that we both understood. I've had some casual interactions with people who don't speak the same language; you can get a certain distance with signs and body language and facial expressions. But there is only so far we will get without a common language.

At Pentecost, the gift of languages was a gift of communication, a gift of understanding, a gift of including all people. It is a gift of fellowship ("the fellowship of the Holy Spirit") which begins at the basic level of understanding each other.

Like all the great gifts, even understanding must take its direction from love or it becomes unwelcome. Consider how much Amazon and google "understand" us from keeping close track of our actions, and how much Big Brother "understands" us from our communications, for examples of how someone can "understand" without any real understanding of us as people, or any wish to understand us as people. I do not mean to start anyone worrying about Amazon, google or Big Brother; I mean to mention that in our own small way, we're hardly any better if all our understanding is without love. As a follower of Christ, I want to understand my neighbor in a way that helps me see them through the eyes of love, so that my understanding is a gift. We all desire that kind of understanding. May God grant that the Spirit of wisdom and understanding help us.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Spirit and the fire

The Bible has a collection of images that it uses for the Holy Spirit -- and fire is one of the main ones. This fire is not a destructive fire, but a purifying fire, a holy fire. It is light in the darkness. It is the light that shines before men, the lamp on the lamp stand. It is the smolder that clings to the wick that is not snuffed out yet. It is the burning in the bosom as we hear the words of Christ. It is the flame that we fan. It is one way that faith passes from us to the next person -- that they feel the warmth, see the light, and are drawn. It is part of how we encourage each other, and part of why there is so much power in fellowship. In isolation, we are candles in the dark. Together, we are a bonfire.

In one of the Greek myths, man is denied fire -- it is reserved for the gods -- and the man who steals the power of fire is dealt a stern punishment. On Pentecost, God takes the fire of His own Spirit, and sends it down to man: The tongues of fire light on all the believers so that the young men will see visions, the old men will dream dreams, and on all -- both sons and daughters -- the spirit is poured out. God does not try to deny man the power of God: He pours it out on us, to lift us up, and restore us, and kindle the divine Spirit in us. God is a gracious God.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The spirit and the water

So many things in the Bible are used as either symbols or sacraments -- we can save the "sacrament" discussion for another day. There are so many things in God's word that have layers of meaning added to them, beyond what is there on the surface. And one often-used is that the Holy Spirit is associated with water. To be sure, the Holy Spirit is also associated with other things, but water deserves its own look.

Water is pure: it is what we use to clean things. Water carries away dirt -- and then itself becomes pure again in the course of nature. Much like my footprints might spread dirt, water instead spreads cleanness and purity. Water is how things are renewed. Each Christian is called to baptism, and the water carries much of the meaning: we are washed and cleaned.

Water is one of the absolute necessities of life. The Bible speaks of a deer panting for the water, and of a tree planted by the waters that has no fear of drought. It talks about still waters and restoring the soul. It talks about rain that comes down from heaven and does not return without giving life and renewal to the earth. It talks about a river whose waters make glad the city of God. Time and again, the Word of God uses water to describe God's life-giving role.

The Book of Revelation is a vision, and a book of symbols. But that does not make it meaningless: it makes us need to reach out to see what those symbols mean. We have seen that when the Bible speaks of water, it speaks of cleansing, and renewal, and the source of life -- all worked in us through the Holy Spirit. It reminds us where we are to look for the source of that fountain:
And he showed me a pure river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. (Revelation 22:1)
The life of the world, and the cleansing of the world, flow like a river from the throne of God. That is the river in which we are baptized. That is the still water that restores the soul.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Good in human nature, continued

Are we good for a purpose in relation to others?

We don't necessarily like the idea of being good for something outside ourselves, good for a purpose. There is a risk of being viewed as tools. It is such a common human experience for one person to use another person; it dehumanizes both when this happens. There is bitterness in the accusation "they were just using us." Being useful carries the risk of exploitation.

Yet if we are not good for a purpose, the alternative is to be purposeless, or to have a purpose and be no good for it. We don't like the idea of being useful because we don't like the idea of being used; still, we don't like the idea of being useless any better. One of the best-loved Christian prayers is a prayer to be useful in a holy way, and begins: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." How can we be useful without being used? Is there way to serve without being demeaned by it, without becoming subservient?

As we start looking at usefulness, we should take a quick look back at our last conversation about how we are worthwhile in ourselves. Whenever we focus on our own goodness, we run the risk of self-adoration. We easily become greedy for recognition and praise. And if we allow ourselves to be corrupted even in a small way by self-worship, it creates a problem for how we see others. We can crave exaltation. It is a short step -- how often have we seen it taken? -- that people who self-worship begin to look down on others. (Most people are particularly good at one thing. And whatever that one thing may be, we generally come to see it as important.) The very thing that we see so clearly as wrong -- being seen only for how we serve someone else's ego or agenda -- is the very situation in which we put others, if we let our pride run its course. It is not good to be so impressed with ourselves. If we are not likewise impressed with other people, it is nothing but self-centeredness. We can think of infamous people who used others, but we often do the same thing on a smaller scale. In our daily lives, are we pursuing goodness, or pursuing recognition? A thirst for recognition can make every conversation turn back towards ourselves, every hobby somehow self-exalting. Even an act of service could be a chance to show off. And whenever that happens, the people we talk to are an audience, and we are using them for our own purposes. It's not a good purpose.

Let your light so shine

There is a purpose that does not exploit us or use us: there is a purpose that fulfills us. And fulfilling that purpose will serve and bless others without demeaning ourselves. We looked at the problem that we might be used for some agenda that is not our own, used in a way that robs us of who we really are, We looked at the opposite problem that we might use other people for our own agenda, and trample on who they really are. There is another option: we might work for a goal that is part of our own purpose -- so that we are not used. We might work for a goal that comes from our own desires and is part of our own nature: that is what I mean when I say there is a purpose that fulfills us. We might see others in a way that lifts up the other person, and recognizes them, or restores them.

"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.". Our purpose shows us as a source of light but not as attention-seeking. We are called to give out our best for the benefit of others rather than to call attention to ourselves. The details vary by person: one will teach, another will encourage, another will garden or cook or paint or build homes. Any of those things could be done in a way that is a light for others (or in a way that seeks a spotlight for ourselves).

What does it take to see other people as they are, and not turn them into supporting characters in our own dreams? It takes humility. What does it take to be a light for them instead of for ourselves? It takes a generous and giving spirit: it comes from love.

Everyone has good things in them -- in general for simply being human, and each person individually in particular has their own distinct blend of abilities. The problem is that our best parts can easily become our worst parts depending on what we do with them. Whatever specific good is in us in particular, the more we use it to glorify ourselves, the less of a light it us for other people. The more we use it to lift up others, the more we sow light in the darkness.

If we see it as our purpose, and begin to do it on purpose, it is a powerful thing.