Pastor’s Musings

Led by the Spirit, Pt. 1

Friendship by Pablo Picasso. Accessed at hermitagemuseum.org.

What does it look like and feel like to be led by the Holy Spirit? If we believe Paul’s writings, then we find that this question is crucial to living the Christian life. He writes in Romans 8:14, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (NIV). Moreover, we find these words in Galatians 5:25, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” So how do we experience this walking with the Spirit? Are we concious of this leading or does it run in the background of our lives? Does this involve audible voices or sudden eureka moments? Is being led by the Spirit different than other expressions of God’s providence?

If we are going to get a sense of the Spirit’s leading, we must begin by affirming that the Spirit of God is personal. He is a Person of the Trinity, fully possessing the Divine Nature. What is a person? A person, at least in my simple explanation, is a unique center of will, emotions, thoughts, and habits. A personal relationship involves two or more such unique centers disclosing something of these thoughts, emotions, desires, and habits to one another. So to be led by the Spirit means that we are in a personal relationship with the Spirit. We would expect then some type of personal disclosure from the Spirit, reciprocated with our personal disclosure to him.

But our relationship with the Spirit is unlike our relationship with other human persons. In a relationship with another human person, the other person remains outside of us, and we are never able to fully know the other person (as if we could fully know ourselves). Yet Jesus says, “But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17b). So the Spirit is not merely with us but in us. Though we often think of intimacy with the Spirit as something like the conversational intimacy we have with loved ones, it is clear that this image doesn’t do justice to the nature of this relationship. Conversational intimacy – or even the deep intimacy pictured in Picasso’s Friendship – is ultimately only an expression of a with relationship. But we have an in relationship with the Spirit.

There is power in realizing this simple truth. If you are like me, you have wondered why you do not have the kind of conversational intimacy with God’s Spirit that you have with other friends and family members. You consider your faith deficient, and you probably look for experiences that you think will finally make your relationship with the Spirit evident. Is there a prayer practice, a charismatic service, a practical manual, or something else that can finally satisfy your longing and assuage your guilt? Be relieved of this burden. The truth is that a relationship with the Spirit is too intimate and too unique to be contained within conversational, with relationships. We may think that we desire this, but God is already working within us in deeper ways. We need to have our vision enlarged to see the work he is already doing. Next time we will explore what it looks like to be led by one who lives in us.

Looking for signs of growth

It is an exciting time in our congregation. There are signs of God’s work among us, bringing new growth and excitement in their wake. This leads us to ask an important question. What does church growth look like?

During last year’s study of the book of Acts, we explored several verses in Acts which point us to a model for church growth. We discovered together that there are three necessary ingredients to growth.

  1. Ministry growth – This is growth in our community impact. Who are we reaching? What do people think of when they think of our congregation? What would be lost if we closed our doors tomorrow?
  2. Maturity growth – This is growth in our knowledge of the faith and in our faithfulness to the Lord. How is Scripture challenging us and shaping us? Where is the Spirit producing his fruit? How are we learning from our tradition and doctrine?
  3. Membership growth – This is growth in the numerical size of our fellowship? Are new people coming to worship? Are people exploring the step of membership?

When these three types of growth are taking place, a congregation is in the “sweet spot.” I can’t wait to see what the Lord is going to continue to do in our congregation!

What do a church and a chain gang have in common?

From O Brother, Where Art Thou? Image retrieved from imdb.com.

Chain gangs are thankfully a part of our punitive past, but the image endures in the American mind. Chain gangs show up in our music and our movies. The image running through your mind right now is several men in striped uniforms bound together by ankle chains. They are sweltering in the noon day heat as they work their scythes back and forth in a field. It doesn’t seem like this image is very helpful when it comes time to think of church. But I wonder?

In Ephesians 4:3, Paul counsels the Ephesian Christians to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (NASB). Likewise in Colossians 3:14, love is called “the perfect bond of unity.” In both cases, the word bond comes from a Greek word which if broken down woodenly would be translated “with chain.” Somehow we don’t think that love and peace are congruous with chains. Yet Paul doesn’t seem to think that bondage is an inappropriate way to picture the unity of the church.

I find something edifying in thinking of church unity in terms of chains wrapping us up and holding us together. First, the idea of a chain helps me to think of the unbreakable strength of God’s covenant love in Jesus Christ. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you are a part of the body of Christ and nothing that you can do can change that. God preserves his true people. And even when we are pushing at the bonds and doing a really bad job of living as the church, it is impossible for us to destroy what Christ has made. Second, the image of a chain gang reminds us that the bonds are there in part because we will try to run. We all long for human community, yet in a fallen world we all are scared of it as well. Thank God that he somehow chains us together so that we cannot get away from him or from one another.

Let us then work together to strengthen these chains that hold us together. They remind us of God’s amazing love. And one day when you or I try to run away, we will need these bonds to keep us in place.

If you want to know more about strengthening this “bond of peace,” join us in worship this Sunday morning.

Possum Holler

From http://www.worldanimalfoundation.net/monkey-hollow-cabins.html

My father had two older relatives that he would sometimes visit as a child. The husband and wife lived on an old farm in the hills of Kentucky – in a place called Possum Holler. The buildings were old; the farm was small and muddy. The couple did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. They did not have a car, and they did their cooking on a wood stove. Most people assumed that the couple was poor. My dad certainly did. He once asked his father after a visit, “How can people live so poor?” His dad replied, “You must not be very smart. These people are rich.” Now Dad thought that Grandpa meant they were metaphorically rich. But this was a mistake. It turned out that Grandpa meant that they were actually rich – sitting on top of a half million dollars at least in the bank. They had spent their whole lives working – farming and mining – and storing away money while they lived cheaply and provided for themselves. The outward appearance of their farm and the assumptions that it caused others to make were not accurate reflections of the true wealth of these old Kentucky farmers. In a similar manner, it is sometimes easy to make assumptions about the true state and condition of the church. The doomsday prophets of religious decline have been bellowing out verdicts about the church for decades. And, of course, some of the things stated are accurate analyses in the case of established mainline congregations. Biblical and theological knowledge have severely declined. Deaths have outpaced conversions. Congregations have dissolved. It can be at times a rather bleak portrait. But the doomsday prophets – even when they are right – do not tell the whole story. Sometimes the truth about the church is hard to see from the outside. But when one has ears to hear and eyes to see, it is possible to see surprising shimmers of life and vitality even among the wreckage.

At what moments and in what ministries have you felt the life and vitality that flows from Jesus to his people, even as life flows from the vine to the branches? When have you experienced the true wealth of the church?

Is everything sad going to come untrue?

In one of my favorite scenes from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, Sam awakes from slumber, having escaped from Mordor, only to find Gandalf alive and well at his side. The old wizard asks the hobbit how he feels and Sam marvels that he himself is alive. He then asks the question, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Skipping over to Sally Lloyd-Jones’s incredible The Jesus Story-book Bible, I find another deeply moving scene. Mary Magdalene has just encountered Jesus, risen from the dead. She is running to tell the disciples what he has said, and she thinks to herself, “Was God really making everything sad come untrue?”

The resurrection of Christ is God’s answer to the pain and suffering of this life. Jesus has gone to the deepest depths of suffering and grief. He has gone to the place of ultimate loss. And he has triumphed. And in his triumph, God’s ultimate plan for his creation has been set in motion and guaranteed. Resurrection is now available for us through Jesus, and God is busy applying resurrection to all things – even when the days seemed riddled with darkness and uncertainty. Yes, everything sad is coming untrue. And one day we will be with Jesus forever in a new heavens and a new earth. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

New Mercies

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

– Lamentations 3:22-24 ESV

For 175 years, the First Presbyterian Church of Hillsdale, MI has been worshipping and serving our great and glorious God. When a church has a long history, it is dangerously easy to focus on great personalities and great events to the exclusion of the most important reality of all – God’s unfailing mercy. The history of this church is not merely the history of women and men gathering together but the history of God’s unfailing love in Jesus Christ experienced afresh, day-in and day-out for 175 years. In Christ and in his mercy, we live and move and have our being. Here’s to another 175 years of God’s mercy!