Here’s my heretical sentence for the week (you should have at least one a week). Non-Christians who are attentive to the world around them through slow rhythms of life might very well have lives more in line with the coming Kingdom of God than distracted Christians leading hurried lives.
Talk amongst yourselves.
Having made this heretical declaration, let me be quick to add that slow and attentive, while being necessary to participate in the life made available by the Spirit, is not the same as life in the Spirit. This is because, as I posted last week, the Spirit has an identity. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Crucified One. And this gives us cues to the Spirit’s presence and movement among the various details we encounter in life.
Ok, let me unpack this a bit. Every event, or everything that happens, has a “surplus of meaning.” That is, the potential meanings of an event are hard to exhaust. I don’t notice everything present in an event and interpret what I do notice according to my values or focus.
I opened my front door for years, for instance, and never noticed that it had a stained glass cutout in it. When I did notice, the potential meanings ran several ways. Someone switched doors on me. A thief? A prankster? A housemate? A “pay it forward” do-gooder? Or, I’m not very attentive. Is this a general principle? I am very attentive to some things, like books that have been borrowed from me and what kind of laptop a person is using and liner notes on an album cover. Do I have something against doors? Did I have a bad experience with one as a child? Am I an anti-doorite? Others around me have known for a long time that the door has a cut-out, so this narrows the range of potential meanings, but when asked they can’t tell me what kind of hardware is on the other side of the door or whether they pulled or pushed to get in.
And my neighbors who see me go in and out of the door all the time assume that I live in the house, but might be distrubed to see others enter in the middle of the day without knocking or ringing the bell and call the police on my unsuspecting parents.
OK, I could have found a better example. But it is good enough to show that even the simplest of events has a myriad of details and several potential sources of causation. And it shows that the perspective of the one viewing the event matters when supplying meanings. We see some things and not others, partly because of where we are standing (location) and partly because of what we are accustomed to look for (focus). And if this is true for a non-mysterious event like opening a door, how much more the case for a mysterious event like the moving of the Spirit.
So, how do we speak of the Spirit amid all the details of life? The identity of the Spirit as the Spirit of the Crucified One gives us both location and focus.
Let’s start with focus. We are looking for things that look like Jesus. For instance, we are looking for non self-seeking or securing things. We are looking for instances of self-relinquishment and trust. We are looking for events where there is mutual submission and understanding. We are looking for moments of reconciliation or of self-giving love. We notice humility and kindness. We notice those who don’t demand attention and who associate with the lowly. We notice those who love their enemies and do kind things for them, because after all, while we were enemies to God, Christ died for us. And as Paul says, this love…this very kind of love…has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Ok, but what do I man by location? From where do we view the world? Well, first let’s say that the incarnation teaches us to pay attention to the world. Jesus did not come to us a generic human, as an every-person, but in the particularities of time and space. And so our new incarnation of Jesus’ presence in the world should take the conditions of our world seriously, as the location from which the good news of God might emerge and have meaning. But as every good business man knows, its all about location, location, location. And here are some of the locations of the movement of God in the world: a barren womb, the ruthless treatment of slaves, wilderness, exile, an unplanned pregnancy, a manger, Galilee, a cross outside the city gates. Notice where the movement of God is largely missing: the perfect couple, Pharaoh’s court, a military victory, Rome, empire.
Here’s my point. If we want a front row seat to the movement of the Spirit of the Crucified One, we should be in places of brokenness, vulnerability, incarceration, disability, conflict, poverty. After all, Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind… You get the idea. These places are the natural habitat of the Spirit of God.
So, here’s my point. Because we lead hurried, non-attentive lives, the only thing we are attuned to is our inner self. How we feel from moment to moment. We have few stories of the Spirit, because our focus and location are severely circumscribed. So, all we know to report related to the Spirit are our own inward experiences.
Please here me at this point. These may very well be experiences of the Spirit of the Crucified One as well. The Spirit works in these broken, impoverished, conflicted, and vulnerable places as well. But apart from attentiveness to these other locations, we may be overly apt to equate how we feel with the leading of the Spirit.
As a preacher, people often have a Word for me that they have received from the Spirit. This thought came to them, they prayed about it, felt peace about it and decided to bring it to me as a “thus sayeth the Lord” moment (in a best case scenario. I have received other, less considered words as well). And I have had experiences where I am certain this was indeed the case, that this was a Word for me. But I have had more experiences where the “word” was just plain wrong or was incomprehensible, at least to me.
Here’s the thing. I think that the Spirit’s movement in our lives is as likely to be experienced as troubling as peace-giving, as much bewildering as confirming. As PT Forsyth once wrote, and I paraphrase, “there are few of us who can distinguish the voice of the Shepherd from the gusts and sighings of our own fitful selves.” Our inner lives are no less complex that the world of surplus meanings.
Here’s what I’m arguing for. I’m not arguing for less attention to your inward life. I’m arguing more for an attentivess to these other things as a corrective, as a way of attending to the life of the Spirit more deeply and with greater texture and nuance, than simply my inner experiences or feelings.
Come, Holy Spirit.