Hearing the Spirit

Listening to the Spirit can sometimes feel like trying to hear someone over a band at a concert. How do we make out his voice? What exactly is he saying? To hear the Spirit, to become acquainted with his voice, we have to quiet the noise. One form of noise is busyness.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “We have lost the art of being still and doing nothing.” Can you remember the last time you did nothing? Really, stop and think about it. I have to talk myself into doing nothing sometimes, and when I am doing nothing, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to do nothing. I even have to shoo away the guilt for not being productive so I can just sit and enjoy grace. Occasionally when I’m reading the Bible, items for my to-do list materialize. They distract me and try to push God’s words around my mind. Suddenly getting a task done feels more urgent than meeting with God!

Once we slow down long enough to eliminate busyness, we may not like what we see. Danish philosopher and father of existentialism Søren Kierkegaard wrote volumes of thought-provoking philosophy that required gobs of doing nothing. Yet in reflection he described himself as a spectator in life, someone who learned about the views and theories of others while contributing nothing to the greater base of knowledge. He envied “great men” who pursued interests with great success, while struggling to find his own purpose. He struggled with a profound sense of inadequacy.

Do you ever feel inadequate? I think of mothers in our church who feel the pressure to accomplish something: well-disciplined children, organic, gluten-free diets, well-kept homes with inviting interior design, a stand-out hobby, side job, or great career. If they don’t accomplish these goals, they feel like they don’t measure up. Or men who are so driven by work and platform building that they have lost touch with the Spirit of God. We often mistake accomplishment for purpose.

Kierkegaard eventually saw through all of this: “Let us never deceive youth by foolish talk about the matter of accomplishing. Let us never make them so busy in the service of the moment, that they forget the patience of willing something eternal.”

He came to the point where he realized the futility of busyness in the service of temporal things and began to value the importance of slow, patient eternal things. This is particularly challenging in our age, where we believe just the opposite—that we need to accomplish a bunch of great things in order to be purposeful.

In this milieu, how do we hear the voice of the Spirit? We may need to begin by renouncing accomplishment, to throw off the claim that a meaningful life is based purely on what we do and instead learn to rest in what God has done. We must patiently set aside productivity to slow down enough to value the things of God. Embrace the value of silencing other voices in order to make out the sound of the voice that matters most. This is a lifelong endeavor: cultivating the patience of willing something eternal. And it is worth it, every single bit.

You can read more about listening to the Spirit in Here in Spirit: Knowing the Spirit who Create, Sustains, and Transforms Everything.

Preaching the Gospel with Your Sweat

Jesus came preaching the gospel to the poor, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:16). But he didn’t just preach to the poor; he proved it to the poor. Jesus is not merely a man of deep conviction, he’s profoundly authentic. He walks right out into the margins of society and calls us to follow him. To take our middle-class wealth, comfort, and convenience and subordinate it to the greater needs of the marginalized. He says nothing short of “Follow me…into the margins.”

The Gospels depict Jesus spending time with the mentally ill, the disease-ridden, and in the homes of the fever-pitched. We often refuse to drop a meal off if someone is contagious. Follow me, Jesus says.

In the sprawling city of Kampala, Uganda, the city center is surrounded by undulating dirt roads that wind into the slums occupied by millions of unaccounted poor. The slum roads are lined with cardboard and cinderblock homes, bordered by open sewage ditches, where half-naked children run free, some with parents many without. It was my day to depart after long two weeks of rural and urban travel, teaching, and orphan ministry among some of the poorest people I have ever known.

My flight out was that afternoon. I couldn’t wait to get home. The team was slated to go to an orphanage. I was flying out before them. When I woke up that morning, I took a warm shower, put on some fresh clothes, and began to reason why I shouldn’t really go to the orphanage with the team. I could get some shopping done, take care of some admin, and oh, when I landed in the States I had a conference to speak at! Lots of prep needed for that. I was trying to justify not walking into the margins, spending time with street kids and orphans.

Over breakfast, I read Luke 5, where I saw God–God–care so much for the marginalized that he became sweaty. Instead of avoiding the dirty, smelly, disease-ridden poor, he walked right into their living rooms, placed his holy hands on them, and loved them. Jesus’ saving message was proven in serving action. The Messiah got dirty with the dirtiest of us all. As I read, I wept. The reason I didn’t want to go to the orphanage was because I didn’t want to get dirty, sweaty before I got on that plane. I had fresh clothes on. I didn’t want to spend time with poor orphans because I didn’t want to get dirty.

Jesus is so deeply authentic, so true to his own message, that his life demands a response. His gospel is so counter-cultural, so status-reversing that it exposes the rich in their pride and compels us to love the poor in their humility. Jesus didn’t just speak a great gospel; he lived a great gospel. He brought the hope of comprehensive salvation right into the slums. He announced and accomplished the gospel, and he is calling us to follow him. He’s calling people out of their designer slums and comfortable homes into the lives of the emotionally broken, socially awkward, mentally ill, economically destitute, racially marginalized, and the eternally-separated-from-God, not only to announce salvation but to prove it with our very own lives.

But “proving” Christ is not enough. Preaching Christ is more than enough. He heals all, makes everything new.

Jesus preaches the gospel to the poor with his sweat. Will we?

5 Books on the Holy Spirit

When writing a book, a constellation of influences converge to produce what we put on paper. Those influences range from personal experience to the knowledge of others. As I have matured in my understanding and enjoyment of the least understood person of the Trinity, I have been helped by quite a few people. Most notably the two men to whom I dedicate Here in Spirit: professors Richard Lovelace and Colin Gunton.

I took several classes with Lovelace in seminary including, Dynamics of Spiritual Life (if you haven’t read this buy it now). Lovelace opened up my understanding of Reformed Christianity as a renewal movement that includes a whole way of living in the world, in the Spirit, in every nook and cranny of life, to the glory of God. Gunton helped me ground Lovelaces theological and historical insights with a robust understanding of the Trinity’s work in creation. Gunton is much more academic. A good entry point for him is The Triune Creator. You can read a paper I wrote in seminary on Gunton’s theology of creation here. I am forever indebted to both of these men and hope this book is something they would be proud of.

If you want to read other books on the Spirit, here are five not so academic books I can recommend:

  • The Holy Spirit in Mission – Gary Tyra is a scholar at an Assemblies of God university and his work emphasizes the Spirit’s prophetic work through the church, in speech and action, for the mission of God.
  • The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament  – In this brief book Chris Wright, who runs the legacy ministry of John Stott and is an OT scholar, does a great job explaining who the Spirit is in the Old Testament and how that relates to our New Testament experience.
  • The Spirit-filled Church – This book by a veteran church and organizational leader and contains a lot of wisdom for Spirit-filled living. The chapters on leadership and prayer are excellent.
  • Practicing the Power – A balanced book on the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. You may not agree with everything but will find it challenging and helpful.
  • The Holy Spirit – A solid introduction to a theology of the Spirit by a renown Reformed theologian.

3 Great Untruths Affecting Society

Have you had the sense we’re losing our moral bearings? Been dismayed by the outrage culture creeping into social media, rendering Twitter and Facebook more acrimonious than ever? How can we make progress toward civility?

Christians, whose faith is summarized in “love God, love neighbor,” should lead the way. But to get there, we may need help assessing what makes things so contentious.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt give us a big hand up in their recent book The Coddling of the American MindBy “coddling” they mean “overprotecting,” the modern tendency to insulate one’s self from disagreement, risk, and adversity. For instance, college students are protesting assigned textbooks, and visiting speakers, not because their ideas are immoral but because they “harm” or “trigger” the student.

The authors argue that refusing to engage ideas that you disagree with, in the name of harm, actually does more damage to the self and society.

Our society has become so accustomed to comfort, that differences of opinion and the exchange of ideas are seen as threatening. They argue this is damaging to society:

We are not saying that the problems facing students, and young people more generally, are minor or ‘all in their heads.’ We are saying that what people choose to do in their heads will determine how those real problems affect them.

With this in view, they identify three Great Untruths that must be overcome:

  1. Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker (retreat from hardship and difference)
  2. Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings (emotional intuition trumps reason and truth)
  3. Untruth of Us vs. Them: Life is a battle between good people and bad people (I am good; they are bad)

They note, “Anyone who cares about young people, education, or democracy should be concerned about these trends.” I would add, anyone who care about their city, neighbor, church, small group, or children.