Holy Spirit, Wilderness Guide of Love #PENTECOST

An excerpt from an essay I wrote as my integrative faith statement at Palmer Theological Seminary. It’s written as a letter to my daughter, Isla, and uses an extended metaphor of faith as “walking through the wilderness” to describe who God is and who God call us to be.

Love is our Trailblazer, but Love is also our wilderness Guide. We know this Guide as the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guided Jesus throughout his entire life in the way of Love and led him all the way through death and into new life. When Jesus left the wilderness, he said the Guide would come to invite all people to become like Jesus as they follow the way of Jesus as a caravan of Love.

Just like Jesus, the wilderness Guide is God. But unlike Jesus, the Guide was not born as a human being. The Guide is unseen. She is like our breath – we have no life apart from her. She walks within our caravan to give us power to love ourselves and others the way Jesus does. She brings us together in friendship with people who are different from us. She comforts and encourages our caravan when the trail gets tough. The Guide gives us special gifts to keep our caravan strong. She leads us back to the way of Love when we walk in sin. In fact, She’s always leading us, but we need to practice the spiritual disciplines so that we can hear her voice more clearly.

But the Spirit of Love is also working in the wilderness beyond our caravan. She gives life to the entire wilderness and protects the wilderness from harm. She is present with all who are lost and alone in the wilderness trying to show them the way of Love. She gives strength to all who must journey over hard terrain and purifies the polluted air that causes us to walk in sin. As we walk with the Guide, we join in this greater work of making the wilderness a place for all people to find a home.

I’ve experienced the Guide all throughout my wilderness journey. I felt her comforting, guiding presence when I was in the middle of a jungle in Bolivia. Even in the most remote part of the wilderness, the Guide was with me. I also felt the special presence of the Spirit when you were born, Isla. I was in awe as your mom gave birth to you and I still remember that first time I held you in my arms. It’s the Spirit who has given me the power to love you as your dad. I have also seen the Spirit at work healing hurt people and bringing very different people together as friends. I feel the Guide when I work in the garden or play at the park. The wilderness is alive with the Spirit of Love!

Pentecost1

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God Is Love

Yes, I’m posting a blog on Valentine’s Day entitled “God is Love.” What can I say? I’m a loser with a very bad sense of humor. If you can get past that though, this is a brief “statement of faith” that I wrote for a class recently. The assignment was just to “sit down and write about what you believe in your own voice” so… that’s what I did. It’s certainly not comprehensive and probably not thought out all that well. But, what I can say is that it has very little to do with Valentine’s Day.

God is the triune Community who is Love: who created all things for love, who is present with all things in love, and who calls and wills and moves all things towards love. This Love is not an attribute of God; it is God. God is Love because God is Trinity: the three Persons – Parent, Christ, and Spirit – who are inseparably united as one in a way that does not diminish the unique otherness of each Person. This triune Community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Christ and Spirit.

Because God is Love, God is relational and desires to be in relation with another. This desire gave birth to creation. God as Parent, Christ, and Spirit is the maker and sustainer of all things past, present, and future. In creation, God envisioned and then spoke into being a community whose life together would be inspired and shaped by Love in order to be a reflection of the Creator. Just as God is many and diverse, God’s creation is many and diverse. The unique character of created things is good because there could be no relationships, and therefore no love, without it. God gave one creature in particular – the man and woman – a special purpose in this creation: keeping the community, nurturing its multifaceted, interwoven connections, and preserving the diversity of each created thing in order to preserve the image of the Creator.

Because God is Love, God creates space for God’s community-keepers to reciprocate God’s love in freedom. However, the man and the woman rejected their purpose and turned away from Love towards self-reliance as if they could live apart from Love. This act of utter rebellion wounded creation at its core. Instead of Love, there was fear; instead of relation, alienation; instead of community, desecration.

Because God is Love, the Parent, Christ, and Spirit remain present and active in, with, and for creation in spite of the rebellion of God’s community-keepers. This active being of Love within and among creation is salvation. God is the saving God who comes to creation in a form it can see, and hear, and touch. Jesus the Christ is Love born to be the true community-keeper whose life, death, and resurrection made a way for all of creation’s wounds to be healed. In Jesus, Love reigns supreme.

Because God is Love, God creates anew by the power of the Spirit. Just as Jesus was compelled by Love to heal creation’s wounded, fearful heart, the Spirit was poured out over all creation to unite all things together again in Love. The Spirit is open-handed Love who reconciles relationships broken by fear, tears down the dividing walls of alienation, and restores all created things to their place in the embrace of Love. In the Spirit, Love brings new life.

Because God is Love, I am. God loves me and empowers me to love God, myself, others, and all creation. Through Jesus Christ and the Spirit, God has invited me and empowered me to play a small part in a fellowship of community-keepers who embody and enact and reveal the healing and new life Love desires for all creation. This fellowship liberates and embraces those who are suffering from the violence of fear, alienation, and desecration and gives it life for the transformation of this violence into peace and justice. They welcome others into their body of unity-in-diversity and are sent out as witnesses to the Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete.

Because God is Love, there is no reason to fear. Creation has hope because God is gathering all things into Love. The perfect communion of God and creation will be made complete.

Church Renewal & Evangelism: Proclaiming Peace

As I consider the relationship between church renewal and evangelism, the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians come to mind: “[Christ Jesus] proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.”1

In the Ephesian context, those who were “far off” were the Gentiles; the “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”2 The world today is full of “Gentile” people who are estranged from God, God’s story, and God’s people.

For Paul, those who were “near” were the Jews; the chosen, covenanted children of Abraham. Many of the Jews did not listen to the testimony of Paul concerning the saving work of God in Christ Jesus, but some, along with many Gentiles, heard this testimony and believed. The communities they formed became the foundation for the vast, diverse network of communities and institutions known today as the church.

By the Spirit’s power, Christ Jesus still comes today and announces peace to all people in all times and in all places. This universal work of peace provides a framework for understanding the relation between church renewal and evangelism: church renewal is what happens when the peace of Christ comes by the Spirit to those who are “near” and evangelism is what happens when this same peace comes by this same Spirit to those who are far off. In either case, the purpose and goal is for all people to be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” in order to “gather up all things in [Christ].”3

While Paul’s words in Ephesians highlight the unity between church renewal and evangelism, they should not be used to obscure the differences between these two works of God’s saving grace. “Church” renewal implies the existence of a church: a community which has responded to God’s call to be God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. This group of people is constituted by their corporate and individual response – a conversion – to God’s gracious presence. However, this response is not a singular event. It is an ongoing journey through history which God’s people must walk together with “fear and trembling” as God gives them power to do so.4 This power is none other than the presence of the Spirit who continually evangelizes the church as it struggles to live out its identity as God’s people for God’s world. The church is renewed by its continual conversion to the peacemaking, reconciling ways of Christ who confronts all of its idolatrous tendencies to seek its own good and ignore others.

This process of renewal is one by which God invites God’s own wayward people back into God’s mission in order to bring greater healing and wholeness to them and to the world. It must be noted that church renewal, while originating in God and coming only as a gift of God’s grace, is a set of practices which continually prepare the church to receive its renewal and enter more deeply into the reign of God. Through practices such as hospitality, Sabbath, thanksgiving, forgiveness, Eucharist, spiritual discernment, public worship, prayer, and evangelism the church makes space for the Spirit to come and bring new life.

Evangelism, on the other hand, is a practice of the church whereby God’s people help others say yes to God’s invitation and become active participants with God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. Through evangelism, the church announces the good news of God’s reign to all people: the peace and love for which the world groans has come to life in Jesus Christ and is real today through the abiding presence of the Spirit who calls and empowers all people to restore and renew all creation.

This announcement is both verbal and embodied; the church’s life is shaped by the story it tells. In fact, the church should be a living demonstration of that story. While this announcement is universal, it must also be particular. The church does not exist in abstract but in specific times and places formed by unique histories and guided by differing values. In order to proclaim peace, the church must know its place and how that place uniquely suffers from a lack of peace. This dynamic process of becoming “all things to all people” is essential to the church’s work of evangelism.5 It is one way – a vital way – that the church fulfills its identity as God’s people who participate in God’s mission for God’s world. Without evangelism, there would be no church to renew.

1 Eph. 2:17, NRSV.

2 Eph. 2:12.

3 Eph. 2:22, 1:10.

4 Phil. 2:12-13.

5 1 Cor. 9:22.

Wendell Berry on Real Hope for Our Communities, Our Land, Our World

I dare say that if you claim to care about the health and sustainability of our environment and our local communities, you should take the time to watch this interview with Wendell Berry – even if you’re already familiar with his work. We’ll all be better off if we pay more attention to his wisdom.

BILL MOYERS: The grace of the world, take that a little further for me.

WENDELL BERRY: I meant it in the religious sense. The people of, people of religious faith know that the world is, is maintained every day by the same force that created it. It’s an article of my faith and belief, that all creatures live by breathing God’s breath and participating in his spirit. And this means that the whole thing is holy. The whole shooting match. There are no sacred and unsacred places, there are only sacred and desecrated places. So finally I see those gouges in the surface mine country as desecrations, not just as land abuse. Not just as…as human oppression. But as desecration. As blasphemy.

Welcoming Hope [Romans 15:13]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

As I meditated on this verse, one phrase kept jumping out at me: “as you trust in Him.” I thought about it a bit more and it seemed to beg the question: “for what? What is the goal, the end, the vision that Paul is wanting the church at Rome to trust in God for?”

I started thinking about the whole letter of Romans to put this verse into context. Among the many theological nuances and levels of thought weaved into this letter, Paul is, on the whole, addressing a situation of deep disunity and distrust among Jews and Gentiles trying to be God’s people in Rome. The first 9 chapters lay the theological foundation for the new community in Christ that he envisions in chapters 12-15. However, this is not just any community but the “body of Christ”:

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

Romans 12:4-5

This is the vision Paul has been developing when we arrive at Romans 15. In this chapter, Paul is really driving his message home loud and clear. Verses 5-7 really capture, for me, the main reason he has written this letter:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.[Welcome] one another, then, just as Christ [welcomed] you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15:5-7

So, what is Paul instructing the church at Rome to “trust in God” for? Becoming one mind and one voice, having the same attitude of Christ towards each other, knowing and experiencing God’s gracious welcome and then welcoming others in the same way. This, I think, is what Paul is asking us to trust God for: unity that is experienced in community, the specific, unique – even holy – community of the body of Christ.

So, we’re trusting God for community in Christ, but how is that related to hope? It’s interesting to me how Paul asks “the God of hope” to fill his readers with joy and peace – not with hope. Paul wants them to overflow with hope, but he doesn’t ask for hope directly. Why not? Why ask for joy and peace if he wants the church at Rome to be filled with hope?

As Christians, what is the source and ground of our hope? The simple answer, for me, is Easter: the empty tomb, the risen, resurrected, reigning King, the Lord, Jesus Christ. When Paul asks for joy and peace, I think he’s trying to remind his readers of their only real source of hope in the one who has defeated death and overcome evil. Jesus is alive and Jesus is our hope. But here’s the key: Jesus isn’t just up in heaven somewhere. Jesus is alive and well yesterday, today, and tomorrow. How? Through God’s people, “the BODY of Christ,” the community of men, women, and children that welcomes one another as Christ has welcomed them. This community is – by and only by the power of the Holy Spirit – the resurrected body of Christ!

We welcome hope when we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. Our hope is found in the community enlivened by the Spirit to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ to us. Our hope is real because we know it by name, we can touch it, be hugged by it, and hear its voice.

Paul’s prayer in Romans 15:13 reminds the Romans that they need God’s joy because community is can sometimes be discouraging. It can be confusing and even upsetting, so we need God’s peace. As we trust in God for this provision, we experience the Holy Spirit’s power to “stay at the table” with each other and welcome one another even in the midst of our pain, confusion, and imperfect attempts to love one another. Then, I think, one day, we’ll be able to step back and say, “Here is my hope. In these people, in this place, as we come together and trust in God to fill us with joy and peace by the power of the Spirit; I have hope because I’ve known Jesus, I’ve felt his touch and heard his voice. He’s alive.”

Of course, this hope is experienced incompletely, inadequately and in ways we can’t plan or control. These experiences and moments of hope may be fleeting. The phrase “trial and error” comes to mind. “Community” does not “equal” hope and not just any “community” can claim to be “the body of Christ.” So, we move forward humbly always taking time to discern the Spirit – because, without the Spirit, we’re as good as dead.

Brownson on the Pneumatological Contagion of Holiness

One of the unwavering assumptions of the purity codes in the Old Testament is that holy things and holy persons become unclean and impure by contact with unholy things and unholy persons. Impurity is conceived of as contagious… [HOWEVER], in the reign of God [announced in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ], holiness drives out impurity… Why this change in the “flow of contagion”? The New Testament writers were convinced that the Spirit of God had been poured out on the church in a dramatically new way… The powerful new gift of the Holy Spirit is the underlying reality that gives the church confidence where there was only defensiveness before. It is the Holy Spirit who reverses the flow of contagion, and who makes holiness contagious rather than making impurity contagious.

James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p190-191

…for our God is a CONSUMING FIRE

Donovan on the Nature of True Missionary Work

To approach each culture with the respect due to it as the very place wherein resides the possibility of salvation and holiness and grace. To approach the people of any culture or nation, not as individuals, but as community. To plan to stay not one day longer than is necessary in any one place. To give the people nothing, literally nothing, but the unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel before baptism. To help them expand that gospel into a creed and a way of life after baptism. To enable them to pray as Christians. To leave them the bible towards the day when they can read it and use it as a living letter in their lives. To insist that they themselves be their own future missionaries. To link them with the outside church in unity, and the outside world in charity and justice. To agree with them that baptism is indeed everything; that the reception of baptism is the acceptance of the total responsibility and the full, active sacramental power of the church, the eucharistic community with a mission. To encourage them to trust in the Spirit given at baptism, and to use the powers and gifts and charisms given to the community by the Spirit. And then the final step. The final missionary step as regards the people of any nation or culture, and the most important lesson we will ever teach them – is to leave them.

Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered