Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Discerning the Spirit

In a spiritual reflection for Pentecost Sunday Richard Rohr says, “Pentecost is actually every day, if we expect it; but, not surprisingly, this is the greatest forgotten major festival of the entire church year.”

Some of the reason for its neglect may be intentional, because talk of the Holy Spirit is always a bit mystifying to some people. Some of this, I think, is due to the way we have tried to describe the Spirit in our Trinitarian formulations. The Spirit in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament is another way of talking about God’s presence and activity in the world. God engages creation and particularly human beings through the Divine Spirit.

For Christians, the Spirit’s major task is to reveal Christ. In the Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday Jesus says, “He (the Spirit of Truth) will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:14). The function of the Spirit in the Christian community is to make Christ known. But not in the sense of dispensing information about Christ. Information does very little to convert us. The function of the Spirit is to make Christ known on an intimate, personal, relational, and communal level in a way that is transformational.

We sometimes pray, “Send the Holy Spirit,” or “May Your Spirit fall fresh on us,” and what we are asking for is a fresh sense of God’s presence or renewed spiritual strength and empowerment. There’s nothing wrong with these prayers, except that they could leave the impression that we do not have the Spirit and need to get the Spirit, or that the Spirit comes and goes. We all have the Spirit all the time, and we have all the Spirit we can get. The problem is on the human side. Are we in touch and communion with the Spirit that is within us and all about us?

You see, it’s not a matter of God giving us something we already have (a relationship with God); it’s a matter of our being aligned and in harmony with the Spirit, so that the Spirit can fill us and empower us. We are all children of God and we all have the Spirit, but not all of us have claimed our “belovedness” as God’s children and not all of us are being led by the Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit is evident to any one with just a small amount of spiritual discernment. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (5:22). He goes on to say (5:24) that the one who is led by the Spirit has “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (that is, he has put to death the little ego-driven self that is prideful, greedy, and arrogant; that seeks fulfillment in position, power, prestige, and possessions). Paul says “that against such things (the Spirit filled and Spirit led life) there is no law” (5:22). The one who is led by the Spirit does not need a bunch of commandments to follow, because she or he will always respond in a loving, compassionate, good, kind, and just way.

What better time than the season of Pentecost to learn more about the role of the Spirit in our lives and most of all, to align ourselves to the Spirit, so that we can experience and live the Christ-life.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Does Jesus Have a Friend in Me?

Anyone who has ever been in church is familiar with the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It was written by a son to comfort his mother whom he had left behind in Ireland when he came to the United States in the 1850s. According to the hymn, Jesus is our friend because he bears our burdens and sorrows. The hymn writer wrote the hymn to assure his mother that though he couldn’t be there with her, Jesus is with her and he is a friend like no other. He asks, “Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?” Yes, we have a friend in Jesus, but the question I want to ask: Does Jesus have a friend in me? Am I the friend of Jesus?

Jesus says to his disciples gathered with him in the upper room: “I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).

It sounds like a promotion doesn’t it? Going from servant to friend. Being a servant, however, is not a bad thing. In fact, being a servant of God is always a high honor in the biblical tradition. It’s very likely that Jesus thought of himself as God’s Servant after the manner of the Servant Songs in the book of Isaiah. Certainly, his first followers made that connection.

Jesus embodied the life of God’s Servant and taught his disciples to do the same. This is surely at the heart of what the feet washing is about in John 13. When Peter objects to Jesus washing his feet, Jesus says to him, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (13:8). Jesus is saying, “Unless you allow me to teach you how to be a servant, you cannot share in my mission, you cannot be about what I am about.” 

Maybe friendship with Jesus is a kind of relationship that we have to grow into. Perhaps it is a stage of discipleship that is not a given, but a relationship that we must nurture and develop. Until we learn how, with some humility, to be a servant of one another, to wash one another’s feet, we cannot enter with Jesus into that next stage of discipleship. Until I can say, “Yes, I am my brother and sister’s keeper. I have a responsibility to my sisters and brothers in the human family. I am a servant of all,” then I cannot share in a friendship that is a partnership in the kingdom of God.

When Jesus says to his disciples, “Everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you,” what is he talking about? Jesus is certainly not talking about a mere sharing of information. Surely he is talking about a relationship, a shared intimacy, a sharing of God’s passion and heart for the world. This is why Jesus can say, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (15:16). This fruit is what flows from our lives quite naturally when we abide in Christ, when we share Christ’s heart, love, and passion for the world.

To be a friend of Jesus is to share and bear the intimate knowledge of God’s love and passion for the world. It is to share in what God is doing and how God is doing it. The fruit of friendship with Christ consists of acts of peacemaking, works of forgiveness and reconciliation and restorative justice, deeds of healing and compassion. This is why Jesus could say, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” And, of course, what Jesus commands is love (15:12, 17)

Friendship with Jesus is both a wonderful gift and a terrible burden. It’s an immense joy to be able to share first-hand experience of God’s great love for the world. It’s also a crushing weight. This burden is hard to explain. Perhaps the best analogy is a mother’s love. A loving mother suffers with her suffering child and would gladly bear the suffering herself if she could. The loving mother suffers more when her child suffers that when she herself suffers. That’s the burden of friendship.

Tony Campolo tells the story of being on a landing strip just outside the border of the Dominican Republic in northern Haiti. A small airplane was supposed to pick him up and fly him back to the capital city. As he waited, a woman approached him holding her child in her arms. The baby was emaciated—his arms and legs were like sticks and his stomach swollen from lack of food. She held up her child to Campolo and began to plead with him, “Take my baby! Take my baby!” she cried, “If you don’t take my baby, my baby will die!” 

Campolo tried to explain why he couldn’t take her baby, but she would not listen. No matter which way he turned, she was in his face, crying, “Please, mister, take my baby!” She kept saying, “Take my baby to a hospital. Feed my baby. Save my baby. Please take my baby!”

Campolo breathed a sigh of relief when the Piper Cub airplane came into sight. The minute it touched down he ran to meet it. But the woman kept running after him screaming, “Take my baby! Please, take my baby!” Campolo boarded the plane as fast as he could. The woman ran alongside the plane as it started to take off, the child in one arm and with the other banging on the plane. 

Halfway back to the capital, Campolo says it hit him with a force. He thought of Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Then he realized that the baby was Jesus.

It feels good singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus” doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to have a friend to help us bear our griefs and sorrows? But the more important question: Does Jesus have a friend in me? Am I the friend of Jesus?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Growing Up Involves Participation in God's Larger Life

As we mature in our discipleship to Christ, our world should expand and grow larger too. As we grow spiritually, we will move into a larger sphere of reality while staying connected to our faith community and tradition.

Imagine living on a Great River and being part of a community that lives in one of the inlets. In that community there are certain guidelines and boundaries necessary to sustain a healthy community. In the community we form deep friendships. We provide and receive services. But we are not confined to that community. We navigate on the Big River and may be away for extended periods of time, but we always come back to our community.

We need our community, but think how limited life would be if we were confined to that inlet and never navigated the Great River. Unfortunately, many Christians remain locked into their little communities and faith traditions, never venturing out onto the Great River. They get bogged down in meticulously defining life in their inlet community, and are quite unaware and blind to the diversity and richness of life on the Great River.

I have no doubt that God abides with us in our small communities, but God is so much more. God’s Spirit pervades and permeates the Big River. God engages the larger world at many points and on many levels. Only as we are willing to risk and explore beyond our little inlet, do we become conscious of the Divine Reality that is so much greater, larger, and diverse than we ever imagined.

What can we do to venture out on the Great River? We could reach out in friendship to someone of a different faith tradition. We could expand our understanding by reading books on world religions that focus on their positive teachings and practices. We can ask God to open our minds and hearts so that we can discern God’s presence in encounters, conversations, actions, words, and experiences outside our Christian faith. We can become open to the possibility that God’s Spirit takes on other forms and speaks through other mediators than just through Jesus of Nazareth.   

In my earlier years I spent a great deal of time trying to get people to accept my doctrines, join my group, and think like me. Now I realize that God cannot be confined to a particular inlet, but is the Source of the Great River. Spiritual growth involves an expanding consciousness and awareness of the issues that the God of the Great River cares about: restorative justice, stewardship and care of the planet, peacemaking, fairness, the dignity and worth of all persons, poverty, oppression in all its forms, and systemic injustice and violence. And yes, God cares about the details of our lives too. Such is the greatness and largeness of God.

If all our time and attention are invested in defining, defending, and declaring our group identity without a larger frame of reference, then our group loyalty can easily become group superiority and idolatry. Without the prophetic critique of a larger vision, we become blind to our sin, we become blind to our egocentricity and complicity in evil.

Christianity that does not move beyond the inlet, that does not venture out into the Great River, is usually characterized by it exclusiveness and by what it is against. While Christianity that swims in the sea of abundant grace and diversity, is much more inclusive and known by what it is for.