Pastor’s Musings

Led by the Spirit, Pt. 3

Pentecost mosaic in the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. Picture retrieved from http://www.romeofthewest.com/2014/06/pentecost.html.

There are at least two more issues that need to be discussed as I conclude my thoughts on being led by the Spirit. The first issue is the nature of living in Spirit-led community. The second issue is the nature of spiritual gifts. On the first point, it is fundamental to our faith to recognize that, though our faith is personal (i.e. taking each of us seriously as unique persons in relationship with a personal God), our faith is not individualistic. Reformed Christians believe and teach that God has a covenant with his people, best expressed in the biblical statement, “They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Jeremiah 32:38 NIV). This covenant forms the reality in which we exist. This covenant includes commands, promises, stipulations, vows, love, mercy, and grace. We do everything that we do from our location within God’s covenant people.

And so we exist in this community, and the other members of this community are also persons in whom the Spirit is dwelling. They too have the privilege of being led by the Spirit in the way described in previous posts. They sense the Spirit guiding them through their thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and other personal characteristics. Problems arise when two or more Spirit-led persons seem to crash into one another through disagreement and difference of opinion. How do we sort out the mess of being seemingly out of step with other persons in whom the Spirit dwells? “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33a).

Several things might be said, but it is important to remember a few key ideas about the Christian life. First, the Christian life is a humble life. We accept that we are finite persons who can get things wrong. Every time that we disagree with a sister or brother is an opportunity from the Lord to personally disclose ourselves to that person and to be honest before the Lord about our own finiteness and frailty. Second, the Christian life is a submissive life. Our first submission is to our God. But we also submit to other persons within the church. In a Presbyterian congregation, this is beautifully demonstrated when elders vote on a matter and those who voted in the minority agree to abide by the decision of the whole. Third, the Christian life is a teachable life. Teachable persons know they need to learn, and they accept that others will be placed by the Spirit in their path to provide them these learning moments. Fourth, the Christian life is a loving life. We never go wrong when we try to love and serve others across our disagreements.

As for the matter of spiritual gifts, it is enough for the time being to say that our spiritual endowments operate in ways consistent with the leadership of the Spirit as described in the last post. God can extend his grace in remarkable and extraordinary ways. Yet more often than not, I think there are thin boundaries between natural talent, personal development, and spiritual endowment. For example, Paul mentions the word of wisdom as a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 14:7). It is possible that the Lord will give members of his body a sudden bolt of wisdom. We may with a flash know what word to speak to the person before us, and know in a manner resembling the conversational intimacy of with relationships. But we may also know the wise thing to say to a person, and know this based on years of experience and reflection. I once was meeting with a seminary professor. He listened to me share about some things in my life. And then he spoke a few sentences to me which were perfectly suited to the situation I was facing. They felt like a revelation to me. But I know that he said this “word of wisdom” because he had years ago set out on the path to acquire wisdom and had honed his thinking and pastoral sensitivity after much practice. And yet there is no doubt in my mind that what he shared came from the leadership of the Spirit. I know this, not because he received a word in some dramatic moment, but because of the way his words seemed crafted to speak to my heart in that precise situation.

Craftsmanship may be an excellent way to think of the gifts of the Spirit. Think about Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:16: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Spiritual gifts exist for the building up of the body, and each bearer of a gift is, therefore, a builder. Just as Bezalel was empowered by the Spirit to craft the tabernacle, so Christians are empowered by the Spirit (through ordinary and extraordinary means) to build the community of God’s people. And when the church is built up in faithfulness to God, we know that the Spirit is leading.

Led by the Spirit, Pt. 2

In my last post, I suggested that conversational intimacy – two or more persons disclosing themselves to one another in close proximity – is a significant part of with relationships. Because of this, we often long for it to be a part of our relationship with the Holy Spirit. But to have this kind of intimacy with the Spirit would actually place a limit on our relationship with him. Instead, Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit will be in them. There is a deeper relationship in view, and the good news is that Christians – by God’s grace at work within them – are already experiencing this relationship. The task remains for us to learn how to recognize the Spirit’s leadership and grow in our relationship with him.

Jesus’s words in John 15 are crucial in understanding the nature of this relationship. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5 NIV). Now the vine and the branches are distinct – a branch can be removed from a vine without diminishing the vine. And yet it would be inappropriate to speak of the life of the branch as somehow different than the life of the vine. Instead, we see that the vitality of the plant flows up from the roots through the vine and comes to expression in the individual branch. This must be something close to the relationship that we have with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit expresses his personal qualities (will, desire, thought, etc.) in us. You might even say – to borrow an expression from Lutheranism – that his personal qualities are expressed “in, with, and under” our personal qualities. He interpenetrates our being in such a way that he thinks through our thoughts, feels through our emotions, and senses things through our intuition. To say this all with a Pauline slant – “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). So we must work, and even as we are working God is working in us to bring about his purposes.

We might adapt from C. S. Lewis an analogy from music (he used it to discuss the moral law and our impulses in Mere Christianity). Imagine that all of our personal attributes (will, emotions, habits, and the like) are the keys of a piano. Now think of the Spirit as a master performer. He comes along and engages the right keys in the right tempo to bring about a beautiful peace of music. We are bringing forth the sounds – these are truly our thoughts and emotions and intuitions – and yet they are sounding out because of the personal intentions of the Spirit. He is leading us. If we grieve him with our ongoing sin, then we find that he permits us to try and play the music on our own. We might with great effort ape his performance for a time, but eventually we will begin missing notes and falling out of tune. To ignore the Spirit’s work is to play discordant music. Hence there is a contrast between the acts of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

Now it is true that sometimes the thoughts or the intuitions we have will be so startling and so seemingly other than the normal course of our experience that it will feel like the with relationships we know so well. In thinking of my own call to ministry, I remember experiencing in a time of prayer a thought that entered my mind with such force that it seemed audible. I understood this to be the Lord calling me to serve His church. Or we might experience the sudden urge to pray for someone, only to find out later that they were experiencing a significant event at that very time. But more often, I think, we will think and feel and sense things in perfectly ordinary ways. We will be doing some type of inductive Bible study, and grasp hold of the meaning of a passage. We will hear a prayer request spoken out loud and simply pray for the person because we were asked. How do we know this is the work of the Spirit? Because the fruit of our lives will be love, joy, peace, and the other things identified in Scripture as the signs of God’s work. Our life will have a sense of integrity and rightness that is deeper than circumstances and passing moods. But if things start to go out of tune, if discord and impatience and strife mark our path, then maybe we need to take the time to personally disclose ourselves again to the Spirit who lives within us. Remember – “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). So the “full” life which Jesus promises is a sign that our personal qualities are being guided by the Spirit. The loss and devastation of life (which is different, in this case, than external suffering) is a sign that we are not cooperating with the Spirit in his work.

Therefore, be free of the burden of pursuing the elusive with relationship with the Spirit. Instead, work out your salvation (which you did not or could not earn) and trust that God is at work within you. Study Scripture. Pray. Do acts of mercy. Worship with God’s covenant people. The Spirit is leading you in these things, and he will continue to do so. As we consider the matter of being led by the Spirit, there are at least two more issues that need to be taken up. We will consider them in the next post.

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!