The Wisdom Wednesday last post hinted that the Holy Spirit invites people into a dance full of grace. He doesn’t just stop at that though, he also confirms that we are a child of God, even when we don’t feel like a daughter or son of the Creator.
Deep Seated Reality
To pull from Henri Nouwen again, it is important to see that when we call God “Abba, Father” it means more than calling God by a close name. It’s a cry of the soul, surfacing from a deep seated reality– it is claiming God as the very source of who we are. For those who are in Christ, they have the incredible honor of being called a daughter or son of God.
In Romans 8, Paul writes that the Spirit of God (read: the Holy Spirit) cries out within us. It is he who helps us in our prayers when we don’t quite know what to pray for. It is he who helps us speak, even when we don’t know what to say at times.
Nouwen would say that it’s through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that we have the same “intimate, fearless, trusting, and empowering relationship with God that Jesus had.” Paul would put it even clearer, writing that if the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead also dwells in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead would also give life to your mortal body. How incredible is that? It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?
Holy Spirit As Our Down Payment
While, the Spirit makes it possible for us to know and recognize Jesus, he also can be seen as a down payment of sorts. Theologian Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen wrote that since the Kingdom of God has broken into the world, the Holy Spirit acts as an initial offering of the glory to come (see I Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:13-14) and as the first installment of the believer’s inheritance in the Kingdom (Rom 8:15-17; 14:17; I Cor 6:9-11; 15:42-50; Gal 4:6-7). Or as the second century Church Father Tertullian would write, “By whom has Christ ever been explored without the Holy Spirit? By whom has the Holy Spirit ever been attained without the mysterious gift of faith?” It is the Holy Spirit that connects us to God and empowers us.
He will not only be an initial down payment for us, he will also make us become more like Jesus. But more on that next week.
One of the things that I have learned at seminary is that Christianity has a core. Eastern and Western Christianity share a common core centered on the Nicene Creed; however, within these two large branches of the Christian faith there are some differences.
There is a heavy emphasis on Jesus (Christology) in Evangelicalism specifically and Western Christianity (Roman Catholic and Protestant) broadly. The Eastern Orthodox believers, on the other hand, place a large emphasis on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Recently in the West, the Pentecostal movement has brought about a renewed interest in the third person of the Trinity and I believe that this shift is a great thing.
Believe me though, it is very important to emphasize the person of Jesus and his role in the restoration of humanity to right relationship with God. Humanity is only able to relate to God through the God-Man Jesus (I’m thinking that I might have to use another series to unpack that statement. But for now, I mean that Jesus is fully God and fully man). However, Jesus himself said that he needed to leave them so that the Holy Spirit could come and bring power. In fact, Jesus said to his disciples in John 16 that it was good for him to go, that way the Helper could arrive and point others to this work of restoration.
Holy Spirit as a Helper
Did you catch that last thought? It was good for Jesus to leave. Think about that for a second.
Jesus (the one who conquered death, the one who spoke everything into existence a gazillion years ago, the one who bore the sins of the world) wanted to send someone else who could help humanity even more, someone who would bring power and new life.
It is he, the Holy Spirit, that would bring clarity about Jesus and about the Father. He would point others to this redeeming work and would also bring strength. As Karl Barth would reflectively write, “Everything that one believes, reflects and says about God the Father and God the Son… would be demonstrated and clarified basically through God the Holy Spirit, the vinculum pacis (unifying bond of peace, see Eph 4:3) between Father and Son.”
Holy Spirit, the Shy One
I heard a sermon on the Holy Spirit and the pastor described him as shy. What do you think about that?
Don’t picture him though as the painfully awkward individual who won’t say a word to anybody. Picture him instead a someone who likes to work behind the scenes as a support to the Father and Son, as an excellent servant like Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey or perhaps as a solid, right-hand man. Theologian Veli-Matti Karkkainen would suggest that the Spirit hides himself in a lot of ways, he retreats into the periphery instead of standing out in the forefront of the stage. Similarly, the Eastern Orthodox thinker J. Meyendorff wrote that the Spirit does not call people to himself, instead he points them to the Son.
He does not want to show himself, rather he reveals the face of the Father to us in the face of the Son. When people look to him, he steps back and pushes forward Jesus. He doesn’t seek the limelight, instead you could say that he is the limelight. The power that many find in the Spirit comes when we seek Jesus, for the Holy Spirit wants to point others to Jesus.
Mind blown yet?
Trinity as a Dance
Another way of picturing this relationship within the Trinity (remember, the God revealed in the Bible is three in one and one in three) is like a dance. The Trinitiarian Dance is a deep bond of love, where there is give and take. The Trinitarian God now invites us (you and me!) to come be reconciled, and it is through the Holy Spirit that humanity can now be called a child of God.
You might be thinking, how can this be? Stay tuned next week, but for now soak in the beauty that the Spirit will confirm within you that you are a dearly loved child of God.
Since I was unable to complete the Henri Nouwen series last month, I am going to use this final post on Nouwen as a transition to July’s Wisdom Wednesdays series: the elusive Holy Spirit. Personally, the question of who/what is the Holy Spirit is something that has unnerved me in the past, since I come from a background that was not centered on that. For the next few weeks, I will work through who the Holy Spirit is and why he’s so important to the spiritual life of a Christian. It is my hope that this series will help bring a little more clarity to the often forgotten third person of the Trinity (or Forgotten God, as Francis Chan would say). As always, push back or questions are appreciated!
Holy Spirit as oxygen for the spiritual life
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
The Doxology is a beautiful declaration of the Christian faith and it helps differentiate the faith from the other religions of the world. It’s pretty easy to relate to the Father and Son in the song and Scripture, because we conceptually understand those two roles. It’s the third person that is a little trickier though. Let’s be honest, what is this Holy Ghost?
Something that helps me understand the Holy Spirit is by thinking of him as the wind or oxygen for the spiritual life.
It is important to realize that when I speak about the spiritual life here though, it does not mean that it is cut off from every other part of our lives. Instead, it means that we are breathing fresh air, the type you get at the ocean or in the mountains. It means that we have (re)claimed a new identity, an identity that is planted in becoming a child of God. A spiritual life deals with the whole of who you and I are, it’s not just one part of a multi-faceted you. Just as taking a huge breath of air helps the various systems within the human body, so does drawing in the Spirit of God into our “lungs” help clarify our lives.
Let me adjust my nerd glasses here and remind you that spirit in the ancient languages means “breath.” Interestingly, Henri Nouwen draws the connection between this Holy Spirit (breath of God) with our breathing patterns. While athletes regulate their breath in training and singers are conscious of it when performing on the stage, most of the time, we are completely unaware of our lungs expanding and contracting. It’s so integral to our life that we only think about it only when something goes wrong with it.
Holy Spirit as the breath of life
The Spirit of God is a lot like that.
Often we don’t notice that it’s moving in us, but without this breath it would be impossible to live a “spiritual life.” Nouwen would write that it is the Holy Spirit who will “pray in us, offer gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.” And ultimately, “it is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.” There is a beautiful passage in Romans that comfortingly states that it is the Holy Spirit that will speak on our behalf when we don’t quite know what or how to pray. He will intercede for us, even when all we can do is groan in anguish.
Recall that a trapeze artist needs to throw her hands up and rely on their partner to catch them mid-flight. Her life is dependent on the sure hands of a partner. Similarly for someone who have trouble breathing, they need to have fresh air pushed into their lungs. They need an intercession by another to help restore the flow of oxygen into their system and ensure life.
I think this is one of the great challenges of accepting the Gospel. For at its core, we have to accept a gift and cannot give anything in return. We receive the breath of the living God through this good news. The gift that Nouwen describes is this breath of life. And it is in a place of prayerfulness that followers of Jesus receive the breath of God and let their lives be renewed and expanded.
What are some other ways to capture who the Holy Spirit is?
I have a confession.
When I’m rushed in my morning routine, I typically cut down my morning routine. I cut out the gym, writing, and a few other things out of my routine. But if I was honest, I would say that something more vital might be placed on the dusty bookshelf as I rush my way out the door for work. I put my prayer life on pause. Alright, that sounded too nice: I choose not to pray. (Ouch, that sounds really harsh!) I mean how important can it actually be?
According to Henri Nouwen (among others!), it’s pretty vital.
In The Way of the Heart, Nouwen expands on prayer by addressing what it is not and what it is meant to be.
Prayer is not a last ditch support system
Prayer is not a weakness, a support system for weaker men and women. It is not a last resort for people at the end of their rope. Though it might be a good place to start when you hit a dead end (I think about George Bailey’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life), prayer is a basis for all relationships. As Nouwen puts it, prayer is a creative contact with the source of all life.
Prayer grounds us
How do you picture God? Is he the cosmic fly swatter, a magical magician in the sky, or a wise sage? Nouwen would suggest that if we try and fit God into our own views, into our own preconceived idea of who God is, then our prayers will become warped. If the God of our prayers is “created in our own image and adapted to our own needs and concerns” then we will indeed see it is a weakness, our last line of defense.
Think about it another way, if we come to God and create him in our mind to be something that he is not, then we will be disappointed every single time. Thinking about prayer as a last line of defense will simply lead to frustration and a Christian who might live more like an atheist than a Christ follower (since the person might believe in God, but is living as if he doesn’t exist until they hit rock bottom, see Craig Groeschel’s The Christian Athiest).
Prayer connects us
Prayer not only grounds us, but it also connects us with the author of a grander story. It grounds us in the reality of a relationship with the giver of life. Prayer is thinking and living in the presence of God. Certainly we ought to set aside time to pray, even when we have a full schedule. Martin Luther once remarked that he was going to have such a full day that he would start it off by spending the first two hours of it in prayer. Prayer is huge!
Prayer grounds us in the Kingdom of God and connects us with the mission of Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself often snuck away to pray. If the God-Man believed it was important, how much more important would it be for confessing followers of Jesus?
My challenge and encouragement is in your full days, take time to pray. Maybe you are so busy that you should heed Luther’s motto and spend the first hour or two in prayer. What say you? Care to join me?Photo credit: Leland Francisco via Compfight
What moves you?
Money? Sex? Power? A dream?
I wish I could say without the slightest hesitation that it is Jesus the Messiah. I wish that I could look you straight in the eye right now and tell you that my top desire is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Unfortunately, I know that this is not the case. I am a man who often wants to do X, but instead chooses to do Y instead. Can you relate?
This despair led me to the writings of Henri Nouwen. In case you haven’t been introduced to his works, Nouwen was a Catholic priest and prolific author of 40 books. I first encountered him in a class on Christian Spirituality at Fuller and his book The Way of the Heart about Silence & Solitude deeply influenced me. His constant reminder and example as a man of prayer is something I want to explore for the next few Wednesdays. The themes will come from a compiled book on Nouwen about prayer called The Only Necessary Thing.
Human beings desire something. We desire something special. St Augustine would write that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. What do you think about that?
Nouwen in The Only Necessary Thing would similarly suggest that we mainly desire communion (“union with”). Certainly, we look for union in many things, both good and bad. Whether in marriage, friendships, recognitions, or successes, we look to belong with something or someone.
Yes, desire is a good thing. Please don’t journey down the road of the Eastern mystics or Stoics that seek to remove desire. It is a natural thing that causes both immense pain and joy. Nouwen remarks that Jesus came to proclaim that “our desire for communion is not in vain, but will be fulfilled by the One who gave us that desire.” Perhaps Augustine was right. Maybe we do yearn for something more.
Nouwen makes the connection that the more we desire God and the more we pray (through living a prayerful life), the more we desire to pray. Just as there are vicious circles that lead people into bad habits, this pattern of prayer leading to more prayer is a victorious circle that lead people into a Kingdom building life.
Having discovered a desire to love God though will not just have us end there. No, it’s a love that needs to be cultivated. Like a rose garden, a marriage, or planted field, it needs to be tended daily. Nouwen would suggest that after we have found the treasure of God’s love, we are then put onto a new quest. It is a quest that will not be completed on our own terms though. We cannot just pray on our own time, and expect God to show up at 630AM every day. He could be trying to reach us at 11:05am, or perhaps 3:32pm, or 6:58pm. God is not a tame house cat, instead he is a lion like Aslan, one that is good but never safe.
“A truly spiritual life is life in which we won’t rest until we have found rest in the embrace of the One who is the Father and Mother of all desires.”
The early 20th Century had a lot of controversy. The Evolutionary Theory seemed to knock people off guard and the reliability of Scripture was called into question. Controversies, however, are nothing new.
Christianity has always had to confront challenges. Whether it was from the early days of the Church, where Roman scholars vociferously argued against Christianity, or in the era of the Scope Monkey Trial, Biblical scholarship has had to answer big questions. In the case of this current post, emergence of conflicting gospel accounts seem to make the Four Gospels merely four opinions selected out of dozens of other narratives of Jesus. Isn’t it possible that Dan Brown is right and that Christianity squelched the truth of the gospels of Thomas or Judas?
In short, no.
The other gospels like Thomas and Judas were written much later than the Four Gospels found in the New Testament (and many of the key texts used to showcase the positive aspect of Judas were hastily made with bad translations). According to the earliest dated documents written concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul seemed to have a very high view of Jesus. The Four Gospels found in the New Testament were more than likely written in the First Century and captured the early Church’s perspective on Jesus.
Quite frankly, those who might hold up contradictory new gospels like Thomas or Judas do so because they don’t like what the New Testament figure has to say about a variety of things. A Jesus of nice moral platitudes that our Founding American Fathers liked so much is easier to follow than a messianic figure who equated himself with God. As the earliest NT writer would say two decades after the crucifixion, the gospel is for our justification and promises restoration of the world one day. Having a fortune cookie version of Jesus is much safer than the Jesus found in the New Testament.
There will be a time where a follower of Christ will be confronted with questions about the Bible. Defending the reliability of Scripture can be important in certain contexts. However, sometimes defending the faith can be used in an abusive manner (see The Good, Bad, And The Ugly Of Apologetics), which is not good (just in case you didn’t know). Apologetics should never be used as a hammer. But for those occasions when an individual has a legitimate question, we truly do need to be able to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. We need to be able to answer legitimate questions.
Where fundamentalism gets it wrong is that they defend the faith at all times without smiling. Have you ever noticed that? Those people on the street corners holding those big signs, the ones that stand there shouting at you entering into a baseball game or walking down the pier. I agree that this is serious stuff, but to stand there angry is not good. Defending the Bible as God’s Word is a good thing, but using it as a hammer at all times is not always the best thing. Sometimes it needs to be a precise scalpel, a warm cloth, or a piercing sword.
This month, Wisdom Wednesdays will veer into the rise of Fundamentalism. There will be some historical exploration in addition to a closing “so what” moment at the end tying things together. Stay with the series though for the epic conclusion: Why I’m Not A Fundamentalist.
The early parts of the Twentieth Century was very chaotic for religion in America. There was a rise in the hope of a scientific modern world, where the spiritual aspects of the Western world could be swept away in favor of a more logical, cerebral world. Reason was about to replace religion.
These deistic understandings brought about an enlightened world, and this enlightened world came into conflict with a traditional understanding of Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus, atonement for sins, miracles, and a high view of Scripture were either dismissed outright or softened as feel good tales. Religion was sterilized in many lives and congregations. Good moral lessons were kept while the need for a crucified and risen Christ was discarded.
However, this sterile view of the world was soon shattered by two world wars, concentration camps, gulags, and communist horrors. Modernist ideas caused the death and suffering of hundred of millions. Such carnage was never seen prior to the Twentieth Century, large statist governments caused the deaths of hundreds of millions in the name of progress.
While America was thankfully spared a lot of the horrors of the modern age and the past century, America was a place of cultural conflict. A battle of ideas proved to be enormous for our culture. While there was scientific and historic criticism leveled at the Bible, a large bloc of the church in America defensively fortified themselves with a “radical literalism,” as Ross Douthat pointed out in his book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics. This is where many Christians adopted the “six 24-hour days” in Genesis 1 as scientific explanation. This uncertain world also produced a new trend within Protestant Christianity, where the best defense of the faith was fueled with either withdrawal or reaction. It is also in this era that many took up the banners of “dispensationalism,” a new trend in Christianity. These End Times schemes were popularized in the 1910s through the use of the Scofield Reference Bible and can still be seen in the Left Behind series. As you can see, there was a lot going on in this era!
These overcorrections are fascinating to me because they are pretty new. Certainly, there were views on premillennialism (not of the dispensationalist stripe, though), but this was not a litmus test for being a faithful follower of Christ. While some might have been in favor of a “6 Day creation” view, even on of the main sources of Protestant thought would caution against basing all astronomical and scientific thought on the book that was meant to reveal God, not the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (John Calvin wrote on Genesis 1 that “he who would learn astronomy, let him go elsewhere.”). Nevertheless, a defensive fundamentalism took hold in American consciousness and this group either went to the margins of mainline Protestant churches or jumped out of these denominations to form their own (see Bad Religion, p34).
Don’t despair, chaos will soon lead to some good. To be continued!
Have you ever noticed that it seems like sometimes Christians might have the tendency to be overly defensive? How do you respond to attacks, real or imagined?
I live in the best of places and the worst places.
OK, maybe that was a little overdramatic, but living in a privileged area like Orange County brings its share of blessings and cursings. In a land of diverse people and wealth, there is a significant upside to this area. Nice roads, manicured land, and an abundance of things to do and see. It truly is an incredible place to live.
But with the brightside, comes the shadowside. It’s tough being a young couple in this area that is not making a ton of money. It’s tough trying to live like no one else now, so that later on we can live like no one else and be debt free. It’s tough trying to plan to live on one income when you don’t work for a large biotech company or law firm.
You know what? It might be tough, and it might get old that the high schooler at the stoplight next to you is driving a Mercedes, but I know that I don’t have to be trapped. I don’t have to be caught in the vicious cycle of jealousy. I will never compete with trust fund babies and those who might have had a few extra opportunities than me. I don’t want to be crippled by envy, I want to be different.
Francis of Assisi came from an emerging family. His father was in the merchant class, a middle class group that was growing in the 13th Century. After several trials on the battlefield, Francis underwent a conversion to Christ. He renounced his possessions and his former life, even going as far as stripping naked to make a point to his father and Bishop. Francis was done with commerce and military valor. Francis chose to live as an impoverished hermit, becoming a totally different person than what society thought he would be.
His life of prayer, preaching, and helping the needy attracted other people. He soon had a fraternity of sorts, and they all got hammered every weekend. Er, I mean, they all lived a life based on the life of Jesus.
Francis lived differently in his time. St Clare of Assisi also lived differently, in coming from a prominent household and choosing to follow the footsteps of Francis. Both were reformers of the church at that time, and their band of brothers and sisters spread the love of Christ across the region. Francis even ventured into the Middle East (during the Crusades!!) to share Christ with the sultan in Egypt. That’s being different!
Yes, he preached the gospel, and he used words because they were very necessary. But he also attracted other people to this message through his life. He lived differently and through this life he was able to share good news with others.
I wonder what this might look like in our world. Whether it is in suburbia, a major city, or rural setting, I wonder what living differently would appear to be. How might followers of Christ in modern society attract others, apart from bumper stickers and those people holding condemning signs outside sporting events.
What do you think?
I think sometimes regular people like you and me can put ourselves in the awkward position of comparing ourselves to others, especially those who have gone before us. We might compare our mundane life with the glamorous version of another’s life. For example, some might say, “Francis was clearly holier than me, so there’s no way I can impact the world for Christ like he did!” Others might lament, “Clara is bright and loving, no wonder she did so many great things for the Kingdom!” ENOUGH!
Yes, Francis and Clara did incredible things for the Kingdom of God. I am so thankful that they left a remarkable example of faithfulness to Christ in word and deed.
But dear reader, please hear me. Don’t compare your situation to the life of another. You will never be like those two, so be more like the person God wants you to be.
These great saints were not miraculously gifted with more spirituality than you. Sure, they might have worked harder in the sense that they carved out time to be with God, that can certainly be said. But the gifts that God has given you can be used in incredible ways. You or I might not be the next great reformer of the Church, but that’s OK.
Be who God wants you to be, be the person who is rooted in Christ.
You see, God wants you to honor him with your talents. I will never match the feats of Bach or Michelangelo, and I need to come to terms with that. What I need to do is be faithful in what God has given me, and use my life to honor him. I don’t necessarily need to model my life after Francis or Clara, stripping myself of all my possessions and roaming the countryside preaching.
We don’t have to be radical like that to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus. As I have mentioned before, God deals with us individually and not all in the same way. While some might need to sell all they have and move into an inner city somewhere, others will need to remain in their jobs in their respective industries. As Matthew Lee Anderson wrote in a recent article in Christianity Today, we can embody a radical faith when we travel like the “Good Samaritan” and help those we come across. We come across people in need every day, whether it is in a corporate job, a vacation to Yosemite, or a short-term missions trip. And it is in those times that we can do something radical, taking the time to stop and help those we might meet and reach out to them in “quiet, practical, and loving ways.” That is how we can honor God in our lives.
With the recent installation of a new Roman Catholic pope named Francis, a lot of people have been digging into the roots of the namesake saint, Francis of Assisi. So in this month, in honor of the new pope, this Protestant writer will bring out some elements from the lives of both Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis.
You might ask me, a Protestant Christian, why I would focus four Wisdom Wednesdays on a Roman Catholic pope. After all, since I disagree with my Catholic brothers and sisters on more than a couple of issues, why would I praise this man and his namesake saint? Why would I do such a thing? Simply, because he is a great spokesman for what Christianity.
Whether evangelicals like it or not, when the average non-churchgoer thinks about a leader within Christianity, their mind typically goes to a few people. Billy Graham might be in the mix, perhaps Desmond Tutu or Rick Warren. Most, I would guess, would think about the man in St. Peter’s. This man has the largest platform to speak on behalf of the Church. Pope Francis has the ability to speak on many issues that might be of interest to evangelicals as well, like the sanctity of life and the defense of the weak against an unjust strong. Francis is an articulate speaker who matches words with his lifestyle.
According to a lot of accounts, this Jesuit pope is theologically conservative in a lot of respects and is also a strong advocate for helping the poor. However, his advocacy for the poor is not some platitude or passing fad. No, he chose to live humbly, took public transportation when he didn’t have to, and frequently met with many people in weak social positions. He performed sensible things when he could have lived so much more comfortably.
I understand the tension between Roman Catholic and Protestants, believe me, as a student of Church History and Theology, I get that. But think about the things we have in common, not just the Nicene Creed. Pope Francis, at this stage in his papacy and life, should be a great leader for our faith, even if we might disagree on a myriad of issues.
What are your feelings on Pope Francis?