Praying for a Reckless Spirit

I have often heard well-meaning persons say something like this, “Holy Spirit, you are welcome here. This is a safe place for you.” I think I know what the speaker intends when using such language. I think that the one saying these words actually desires the presence of the Spirit. Still, these words sound strange to me.

Anyone who has read the New Testament, the source where we learn most about the Spirit, may wonder where anyone gets the idea that the Spirit is waiting for us to extend an invitation. However, we do find that Jesus tells his followers to wait on the Spirit. And there is no suggestion that the Spirit requests a safe place, though we might find that the Spirit can be somewhat dangerous. (Check with Ananias and Saphira about this). As Jesus told Nicodemus, you “do not know where it comes from and where it is going.” Predictability is not something we find with the Holy Spirit.

While we cannot define the Spirit in ways that sound like we have figured out all the Spirit is up to and where the Spirit will show up next, we can read the book of Acts and observe the Spirit showing up unexpectedly and recklessly and on its own terms. We will not be able to make the Spirit into something it is not, but when praying for the Spirit we can agree with the wise words of Todd Hunter who said “Whatever God meant by sending the Spirit – give us that.”

Missio Alliance and the Mission of the Spirit

Missio Alliance is an ecumenical group that does not want to avoid the challenges of living as the church in the twenty first century. Because of that, they continue to make a serious effort to host conversation about how the church can engage in mission in a postmodern world. Many things are worth repeating following their recent gathering “Awakenings: The Mission of the Spirit as the Life of the Church.” Some of them are included below.

The conference began with conversation on “The Holy Spirit: Our Forgotten God.” The reasons we could forget the Spirit may be numerous but Todd Hunter suggested these reasons may include the explicit gospel we grew up with does not mention the Holy Spirit. And he thinks we equate the Spirit with weirdness and try to separate ourselves from that. Hunter reminds us the Spirit could be grieved by wacky excess or by being ignored. He concludes by telling us it was Jesus who said “it is better that I go away…” And that to be the people of God is to be connected to the Spirit.

Over the course of the gathering we were encouraged to look at the Spirit from different angles and through the lens of different traditions. This was a helpful exercise. Throughout we were in agreement that the Spirit intends to strengthen the church by the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit has no interest in promoting individual advancement. The Spirit is not interested in hierarchy, but unity. Not celebrities or heroes but community.

We cannot reduce the Spirit to mere gifts. To reduce the work of the Spirit to individual gifts is to miss the point. The Spirit is always about the Body. And the Holy Spirit is not only about the Holy Spirit. This is about God. And God in relationship. Trinity gives us a fuller picture of God. It was N. T. Wright who mentioned the Spirit weaves us into God’s poem. Some of us may be sonnets or haikus or limericks to help the world imagine His new creation. We are his workmanship, the masterpiece of the Spirit.

Other things I find scribbled in my notes include;

-There is a vast difference between believing something and living in the narrative of the people of God.

-From the day of Abraham it is evident that the people called to provide the solution are part of the problem.

-God gave the church the bi-vocation of worship and mission.

-The church is not the manager of the guest list, but the welcome committee.

-Church cannot be reduced to a utilitarian tool, it is a relational entity.

-The tabernacle is a small working model of new creation. God dwells here. We are the tabernacle people, the Spirit dwells within us.

-God is shaping the church to be someone who will show the world what Jesus is like.

-The church is following Jesus into the future, no matter what is out there.

A big thank you to Missio Alliance for this conversation!

Picture of God

“Trinity gives us a fuller picture of God. Yet – whether Speaking Creator God hovering over the waters, Son of God rising from the dead, or Holy Spirit descending from heaven with a rushing mighty wind – there is still an element of mystery. Trinity reminds us we will never know all there is to know about God.”

From Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 110

Holy Surprise

It is safe to say that no one expected what happened on Pentecost Sunday. This reminds me of something I recently read. God’s name is often Reliability. Yet, according to Walter Brueggemann, “God’s other name is Surprise.” Perhaps on Pentecost Sunday we could say that God’s name is Holy Surprise.

The name Pentecost suggests “fifty” and makes certain that we are aware this day is connected to other parts of the story. This is not a stand-alone day in history, it occurs precisely fifty days after the previous holy day. Pentecost pulls us into an unpredictable, yet ongoing adventure that is guaranteed to be full of surprise.

It is of interest that the first thing that happens is a sermon. Peter preaches from a text that claims children will prophesy, the old will dream, and the young will see visions. The Spirit, according to the text, will be poured on anyone and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. It is safe to say that no one expected this interpretation of the words of the prophet in this place and on this day. The one thing that does not surprise us is that so many times we explore things that matter and we find that a prophet has already been there.

The very nature of Pentecost reminds us that we cannot forecast God’s next move. We know we are waiting for something; perhaps instruction, courage or closure. And then we get violent winds, tongues of fire, and a language miracle. We cannot think we now have God figured out, we do not know what He may do next. I am somewhat surprised we do not fortify our worship structures or wear hard hats or safety goggles or have the fire department on standby. After all, it is Pentecost Sunday and we may be in for Surprise.

Acts: a Lively Adventure

The conclusion to Acts includes a lively voyage to Rome.  It is interesting that this prompts discussion on whether Luke was influenced by Homer’s Odyssey.  I find this discussion fascinating and am not surprised that Luke may have enjoyed stories of the adventure genre.  If Luke loved reading adventures like these, how excited would he have been to participate in such a story?  This seems to be the case as here we find him writing about this voyage as the “first person peripheral narrator.”

In the Gospel and early in Acts, Luke the historian tells us that he relied on investigation and eyewitnesses.  But later in Acts, most fully in chapters 27-28, he implies that he is a participant in the spread of the good news.  Many episodes in Acts may be summaries of information received from others, but here with Luke on deck we get details that he may have witnessed with his own eyes.

Perhaps his own experience told him that an audience would enjoy such a story.  I think Ben Witherington is right when he suggests that we should not ignore Luke’s desire that the reader gain information but also experience enjoyment while hearing this story.  Perhaps this section of Acts is intended “to keep his listener on the edge of his seat.”  Again, with Witherington, I admire Luke’s ability to integrate an interesting voyage into his story while staying on course with his purpose of “chronicling the spread of the unstoppable good news.”

It is important to remember that the same Spirit that saturated us early in Acts may be less visible on this voyage, but is no less present.  The Spirit evident by wind and fire is present during shipwreck and snakebite.  The same Spirit who added three thousand to their number in chapter two is there in chapter twenty-eight when some were persuaded but others would not believe.  The same story that overcame a language barrier during a Galilean sermon is still being told openly and unhindered by a prisoner of the empire while under house arrest.

A Persistent God

It is interesting that we do not respond to the Spirit’s arrival the same as we do to the arrival of the Son.  Or, to His return from the dead.  In comparison, it appears that we downplay it, as if it were not as miraculous or as important.  Luke on the other hand, gives a chapter to how the birth went down, another to how the resurrection went down, and yet another to the arrival of the Spirit and how it went down.  Yet, our response to Christmas and Easter is vastly different from our response to Pentecost.

This is interesting because as Christmas (God arrived on earth as a baby) and Easter (crucified Jesus raised from the dead), Pentecost has an interesting plot.  Perhaps we can summarize the interaction like this; Jesus says He must go to the Father.  Followers express that they do not wish to be left alone.  Jesus promises that they will not be alone.  Followers ask what they should do, where should they go?  Jesus says to stay in Jerusalem and wait.  Followers wonder what they are waiting on and why.  Jesus replies “you’ll know.”

Luke the historian leaves no doubt.  “Suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind… and there appeared to them tongues of fire… and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues… and when this sound occurred, the crowd came together and were bewildered.”

I can’t help but notice a distinct pattern in the relationship between Creator and creation.  The Creator keeps showing up, again and again, unwilling to let creation go.  So we celebrate His arrival as a Middle Eastern baby.  We celebrate His return from the dead. We celebrate His arrival as Spirit.  This Creator seems willing to show up anywhere at any time.  This is a persistent God.  It is clear that He is unwilling to give up on us.

The Susquehanna and the Spirit

One morning I am at Fort Hunter, looking out toward the Susquehanna River.  The Susquehanna is the longest non-navigable river in North America.  It drains 27,500 square miles of New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.  Approximately 448 miles separate it from start to finish.  It provides half the fresh water in the Chesapeake Bay.  On an average day, the Susquehanna delivers 25 billion gallons of water to the Atlantic, enough to supply every household in the United States.

The governor lives alongside the river.  I wonder if he takes advantage of his front row seat to watch it flow by.  Sometimes when I look at the river, I think of Huck Finn.  Huck may not have ridden the Susquehanna, but did remind us that a river can be an adventure.  When in high school, my friend Tim and I built a raft from wooden pallets, plastic piping and barrels.  We sailed that thing in a regatta from Owego to Nichols.  For most of 11.1 miles, we floated in the current.  Sometimes, we were forced to carry it through shallow waters.   We were exhausted by our effort, burned by the sun, and we smelled like the river.  I would like to do that again.  Tim, what are you up to these days?

Captain John Smith also rode the Susquehanna.  His explorations in 1608 may make him the first prospector on the river.  Later, the Susquehanna was visited by another traveler by the name of David Brainerd.  His diary records that “he traveled about a hundred miles on the river” and “visited many towns and settlements of the Indians.”  Brainerd was not interested in exploring, he was a Gospel preacher, interested in converting the Indians.  It appears that he followed the banks of the river, in reality he followed the leading of the Spirit.

Upriver, near Wilkes Barre, PA, I am told that beneath the river lies a “buried valley.”  A channel a mile wide and perhaps 300 feet below the floor of the valley.  It is a reminder that reality goes beyond what is visible.  There is more than the eye can see.  There is always more than the eye can see.

Just north of Fort Hunter, the river cuts through five mountain ridges.  Instead of avoiding them, the Susquehanna attacks them head on to win its way toward the Chesapeake.  Geologists are puzzled by the direction of the river.  I am reminded of what David Hansen says about a river “always moving forward, always cutting new banks, providing constant nourishment for the valley.”  He says this reminds him of the Holy Spirit.

Susan Q. Stranahan writes in Susquehanna, River of Dreams of a number of ways that people have attempted to manipulate the river for their own purposes.  I am reminded of Simon who thought he could purchase the Spirit’s power and use it for his own profit.  Just as the river can be misunderstood and polluted, I am reminded that the Spirit can be quenched.

As the Spirit, the river does not give in to manipulative effort.  Wendell Berry reminds us that the river can benefit us, but we are not its master.  Every time we think we have it under control, it reminds us of this fact.

We don’t have to look far to be reminded of this.  In September 2011, Hurricane Irene was followed by Tropical Storm Lee and the Susquehanna rose significantly above flood stage.  In Harrisburg, approximately 10,000 were evacuated (including the governor).  Upriver, 75,000 were forced to evacuate the Wilkes Barre area.  Further upriver, where Tim and I launched our homemade raft, the Village of Owego was ninety-five percent underwater.  It is a clear reminder, we do not control this river.

My mind wanders a bit.  I want to find a front row seat and watch for life along the shore.  I want to wait to discover the next thing that floats by.  I want to climb the high banks of the river in order to look upstream to see where it comes from.  And downstream to see where it is going.  I want to walk the water’s edge and discover something new.  I want to wade with egrets and splash with fish.  I want to cast in my line.  I want to get caught in its current and flow wherever it leads.  With David Brainerd, I see the water but desire to follow the Spirit.

Fire and Refreshment

On July 19, A.D. 64, a fire started in Rome.  In New Testament History, Ben Witherington tells us that half of the regions of Rome were affected by this fire and three regions were leveled entirely.  Some accused the Emperor Nero of setting the fire.  Nero accused the Christians, perhaps for his own survival.  In order to punish them in a way to fit the crime, Nero used Christians as living torches to light the nighttime games at the Circus Maximus.

It was during this time that the Pastoral Epistles were written, including the second letter to Timothy where we are introduced to Onesiphorus.  Onesiphorus is a friend of Paul’s, likely from the church at Ephesus.  Paul is in prison, perhaps the Mamertine prison, as part of Nero’s persecution of Christians.  While there, Onesiphorus shows up when no one else dared risk it.  That this is a terrible situation for Christians is likely the reason that no one supported Paul in his first defense (4.16).  That Onesiphorus is not ashamed is an example to Timothy of one not ashamed (see 2.15).

There is danger for Onesiphorus to search for Paul.  Yet, he risked the danger.  We are told that while others (we are talking about you Phygellus and Hermegenes) “turned away” from Paul, Onesiphorus “refreshed” him.  A contrast is suggested between those who deserted him and one who served him.  Fritz Rienecker and Cleon Rogers suggest that the presence of a friend provided “a special tonic.”  Craig Keener says that “Refresh” is the language of hospitality.  Onesiphorus may have housed Paul during stays in Ephesus.

Where are those like Onesiphorus?  Where are those with the courage to refresh others at the risk of our own life?  What does this refreshment looks like?  The presence of a friend?  Reading aloud?  A cool breeze?  Playing an instrument?  Serving a cold drink?  A sandwich?  Conversation?  Talking about memories?  Is there laughing?  Continuing the mission?  Who and what brings refreshment when days are numbered?  Where can we find this?

This is the work of the Spirit.  It has to be.  People like Onesiphorus are not capable of this on their own.  This same Spirit who unleashed tongues of fire and a rushing mighty wind is able to unleash refreshment into the Mamertine.  While friends and allies were serving as torches and the apostle awaited certain death, the Spirit sent Onesiphorus with refreshment.  Whether we are preparing to receive tongues of fire or to be lit on fire, when summer days get hot and when memories of the ancestors remind us that our fate could be death, the Spirit able to refresh Paul in the Mamertine can certainly refresh you and I.

Acts: Introduction to a Journey

As John R. W. Stott spells out in Between Two Worlds, every year reminds us again of how God revealed himself as creator and Father, as Son of God made flesh, and in the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  We live in this Trinitarian structure.  It takes an entire year to begin to recognize a picture of who God really is (and then we must start over again because we can not grasp it all).  Pentecost is the time of year that calls our attention to the Spirit.

To assure that we are never alone, we have a constant companion in the Spirit.  Even when not visible to the eye, audible to the ear, or tangible to the touch, the Spirit is still evident to the heart.  That is why Gordon Fee describes the Spirit as an “experienced reality.”  I am reminded of Thomas Oden’s comment that the Spirit is “God’s own personal meeting with persons living in history.”

Pentecost is a reminder that God keeps his promises.  This is a natural season to remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  It is also a good time to be reminded of ethical, social, and missionary responsibilities.  To emphasize those things which remind us that life in the Spirit is a huge part of our ongoing adventure.  Before Pentecost, we wait.  Waiting may not be what one expects during a journey, yet here it is.  Following Pentecost, when the waiting is over and the promise is fulfilled, an adventure begins.  We might find it a good time to read the book of Acts.  And we can not help but notice that when the book of Acts is over, the adventure does not end.

Acts is a narrative of movement.  From one city to another, the Gospel moves forward.  Sometimes Paul is led to stay in a particular place for a while, other times he exits quickly.  At times he has companions.  Other times, he does not.  He may be found working or preaching.  Some places he visits as part of a planned itinerary, other places he is taken to forcefully.

No matter where the Gospel is taken, the Lord is the same.  Preaching in Europe or Asia, to Jews or Gentiles.  The Lord is the same whether his people be gathered for worship, placed in prison, or strolling through the marketplace.  People never become the focus of the story.  The Lord is the one in control.  It is his presence that enables the church to overcome the practical difficulties of this journey.  The Spirit works alongside us, witnessing on behalf of Jesus.  He lives with us as well as in us.  As D. A. Carson states,
“the Holy Spirit comes to us not just in our best moments, nor exclusively in times of crushing need, but always and forever.”

Acts reminds us that the journey may include arrests, trials, imprisonment, near assassination, shipwreck or snakebite.  These are not new strategies to oppose the Gospel.  The journey has always been filled with opposition.  Pharaoh tried to drown the baby Moses.  Herod the Great tried to destroy the infant Jesus. The Sanhedrin tried to stifle the witness of the apostles.  Not one of these plots were successful in stopping God’s plan.

In Acts, we get the impression that nothing will stop the forward movement of the Gospel.  The Spirit that descended at Pentecost gave the young church its tongue to tell what God is doing “with all boldness and without hindrance!”  The reader of Acts witnesses the beginnings of the journey that Pentecost has set in motion.

We live in the continuation of Acts.  Acts closes in open-ended fashion, with the door still open for work and witness rather than closed by death, because the Spirit is still active.  Acts is not history.  It is introduction.  An introduction to a story that continues in people like us.

A Walk With the Spirit

Following the sermon on that first Pentecost Sunday there were three thousand converts.  Churches ever since have been searching to replicate the formula for something like that.

But Pentecost has not always been so well received.  It is not reported to us so that we can have a repeat performance.  Instead it is a call to see reality differently.  So, we do not always see miraculous signs and wonders.  Fortunately, the New Testament warns us that the same Spirit responsible for miraculous signs and wonders is also responsible for things that seem much less exciting.  So we often walk through our days in less than miraculous fashion performing menial tasks and talking with people about the weather, garden, health, and job.

I am reminded of a walk through the neighborhood with five-year old Karissa (yes, she is now twenty).  I watched while we walked from house to house.  She sipped a juice box at one place, played Frisbee at another.  At yet another she tried on a holster and cowboy hat.  On the way home she tripped and skinned her knee on the sidewalk.  Watching, I began to realize that this is just like walking in the Spirit.  At times, it is like falling hard against the concrete.  Or threatening, like an inevitable gunfight.  At other times, walking in the Spirit can be comforting like a Frisbee floating on air.  Or like sipping something cool and refreshing.  It is true, we are literally walking with the Spirit.

We may find ourselves wishing that things in the world were going differently.  We may find ourselves wishing for more illustrations of miraculous activity.  But Pentecost did not occur in order that we would be able to determine what would happen and when.  The New Testament prefers to demonstrate that the activity of the church is not to move from one enthusiastic, successful program to the next.  It reminds us that Pentecost is not a strategy, but a celebration that the Holy Spirit has come.  A reminder that God keeps His promises.