1 Corinthians 12:12-27 – The Same Spirit

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“The body of Christ has many different parts, just as any other body does.  Some of us are Jews, and others are Gentiles. Some of us are slaves, and others are free. But God’s Spirit baptized each of us and made us part of the body of Christ. Now we each drink from that same Spirit.” (Contemporary English Version)

As you well know, it’s easy to take things for granted.  For instance, we don’t typically think too much about our toes… until we stub them, drop something on them, break them, or need a podiatrist to operate on them.  Then, we not only know they’re still there, but our entire body (along with the mind and emotions!) feels the need to give a lot of attention to lowest end of our body that enables us to stand and walk without thinking much about it.

The body is an apt metaphor for how to think about humanity and its various systems and institutions.  We might see the face of any church or organization, but there are scads of people behind the scenes doing all kinds of good work.  For example, the golfing profession understands the importance of caddies; lawyers know the need of paralegal persons; healthcare facilities and organizations rely not only on nurses and social workers, but also on cooks and housekeepers; schools need the coordination of teachers, parents, students, volunteers, and the entire community to effectively realize the education of children.

Also, as you well know, it’s easy to take for granted services we receive… until we don’t receive them, or in a way to our liking.  Then, we pay attention.  We want action and resolution.  We want our food now and to our exact specifications.  Sometimes we might even forget that we are dealing with people, not cogs in a machine or parts in a system.  Millions of people labor every single day, sometimes even seven days a week, just to make ends meet and provide for their families.  When we neglect to understand this, or see it right in front of our eyes, we have done our fellow human beings a disservice.

It’s also awfully easy to forget how extremely radical the Apostle Paul’s words were for 1st century folks, especially in religious circles.  Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew community was God’s people.  If you wanted to worship the one true God, you came to Jerusalem and learned from Jews.  But Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit changed things in such a profound and organic way that the world would never be the same again.

It was firmly established by the early church, and preached with fervor and flavor by Paul, that there would not be a separate Jewish church and Gentile church.  They have become one Body of Christ through the redemptive events of Jesus.  Both Jews and Gentiles have the same Spirit – not different Spirits for each group.  Jesus Christ did not die so that people could be fragmented from each other; He was crucified to end once for all the segregation, discrimination, and ostentation of one group of people above another.

The cross was the ultimate radical act of justice against the powers of this dark world that seek to rank people according to their relative importance and worth.

The power of the resurrection is the energy of God raising Christ from death to triumph over the realm and system of evil throughout the earth.  All kinds of people everywhere are to rise with Christ in a great demonstration of God’s power to subvert the status quo of discriminatory racism, extreme individualism, gender inequality, social and economic class-ism, and any kind of “ism” which places one group of people in subjection to another in misguided notions of superiority.

The church is to be a community of redeemed people that reflects the diversity of God’s big world.  No two groups of people could have been more different than Middle-Eastern Jews and Greek Gentiles.  Yet, Paul insisted that they together, not separate, make up the one Body of Christ.  It isn’t easy listening to another group of people who think and act differently than you and me.  But listen we must.  And respond we must.  It is our responsibility as believers in the way of Christ.

“God put our bodies together in such a way that even the parts that seem the least important are valuable. He did this to make all parts of the body work together smoothly, with each part caring about the others. If one part of our body hurts, we hurt all over. If one part of our body is honored, the whole body will be happy. Together you are the body of Christ. Each one of you is part of his body.” (Contemporary English Version)

There is no ability to look down your nose on another person if you are already kneeling on the ground in humble prayer at the foot of the cross.  There is only the chance to look up.  There is even the opportunity to allow someone less privileged and fortunate to assist you.  Yes, we all need one another – even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.  It isn’t our job to colonize other people’s culture and society to make it more like our own.  It is our duty to share the Gospel, make room at the Table, extend love in the Name of Jesus, and work together as the one people of God, formed by the Spirit.

Almighty God of all creation, I understand that we don’t struggle merely against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities – those institutions and systems that keep separations alive by perpetuating the lie that some members of the family are inferior and others superior.  Create in us a new mind and heart that will enable us to see brothers and sisters in the faces of those divided by human constructed categories of power disparities.  Give us the grace and strength to rid ourselves of stereotypes that oppress some of us while providing entitlements to others.  Help us to create a Church and nation that embraces the hopes and fears of oppressed people everywhere we live, as well as those around the world.  Heal your family, God, and make us one with you, in union with our Lord Jesus, and empowered by your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11 – For the Common Good

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“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 

To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (New Revised Standard Version)

A gift is meant to be unpacked.  No one is graciously given a gift, then lets it set unopened.  We dive into the gift and express gratitude for it.  Then, we use it.

It is really no different with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit has been marvelously given to God’s people.  Each and every individual Christian is given a special gift to be opened, unpacked, activated, and used.  The kinds of gifts we are talking about are for the common good.  And this is where the gift is different than Christmas or birthday presents.

Spiritual gifts provided to us are designed by God to be used and dispersed for the benefit of others.  They are not solely meant for personal satisfaction.  In other words, if a person’s spiritual gift is teaching, he/she doesn’t stand in a mirror and talk at themselves.  Rather, they jump into the fray of learning and explaining, and do it in such a gracious and loving way that the enablement of the Spirit is evident.

If a person’s gift is faith, that person doesn’t merely step out and act with unusual courage for the purpose of personal betterment in a holy belief from God.  Instead, that person shows and demonstrates godly faithfulness to God’s people and to God’s world.  The gift is used for the common good of all persons.

The accumulation of wisdom and knowledge is meant for the strengthening of faith in others.  Spiritual gifts are intended by God to be shared freely for the common good of all people so that souls are buttressed and supported for the rigors of daily life in the world.

Therefore, we are to take the initiative in identifying our gift(s), unpacking them, and indiscriminately using them.  Spiritual health and wholeness can only be truly realized through everyone actively participating in the distribution of their God-given abilities.  Spiritual gifts are neither to be hoarded, nor miserly dealt to only people I like or my own little world of groupies and friends.  Any and every ability comes from God, and is, therefore given for the common good of all persons.  Underprivileged groups need the giftedness of others, as well as discovering their own resources to be used so that everyone is built up in a society of redeemed persons.

Whatever it is you do well, do it well through allowing God to activate it for his glory and for the prevailing needs of a church and a world which is desperately in want of seeing the manifestation of the Holy Spirit among them.

O Lord, you have taught us that without love, whatever we do is worth nothing.  Send your Holy Spirit and pour into my heart your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.  Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

What My Dementia Residents Teach Me

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It can be uncommonly hard to live in this day and age.  Bills to pay and mouths to feed; kids to shuttle; work stuff that never seems to end; sickness and disease to navigate; retirement to plan for; family junk to deal with; hobbies you want to do; and, seemingly, a thousand other things vie for your time and attention to the point of having difficulty sleeping or even sitting still.  The problem is that you and I can become so busy and so concerned about tomorrow that worry, anxiety, and fear can attach themselves to us like ticks on a dog.

I minister to a group of people living in a memory unit of a care facility.  They’re there because of a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s.  You haven’t lived until you’ve had Bible study with 32 memory care residents in a healthcare facility.  It’s a trip, a hoot, and a challenge all at the same time.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know if what you’re doing or saying has any meaning or significance.  But let’s flip this around.  Maybe it isn’t all about the “normal” (and I use the term very loosely) guy like me coming in and doing his mentally attuned thing for some folks who have problems with disconnection.  Perhaps the dementia men and women have something to teach me and you.  Methinks they do.  I’ll let you in on a few of the things I’m learning from my dear brothers and sisters in the memory unit wing….

They live in the moment.

Whereas you might think it is sad that Aunt Bessie or Uncle Frank doesn’t remember what you just said to them two minutes ago, or where you were together a few hours ago, I think there is something amazing such folks have to teach me.  You see, when they eat a strawberry, or watch I Love Lucy, or have a conversation with you as if they have eaten, watched a comedy, and engaged a relationship for the very first time, it can be astounding.  Some of these folks just don’t remember that they have always loved strawberries, sit-coms, and their family.  And when they partake – as if they have never done it before – their joy, laughter, and endearing qualities come through like the beautiful wonderment of a child.

Oh, my goodness, if I could only learn to live in the moment taking the example of my blessed memory residents!  Their worries are limited.  Yes, they have them – and they can revisit decades-old worries like they were yesterday – but their own reassurances from the past are still at the tip of their tongues.  When we say The Lord’s Prayer together, I believe God takes a break from maintaining His creation to sit-in on the beautiful voices lifting an ancient prayer to Him.  The Prayer is so firmly inside them that they don’t realize that what they are uttering is routine.  It has new meaning for them.  They look at it differently.  They ask questions and make comments, as if this Prayer is the most wonderful thing they have ever heard.  I’ve beheld more than one person who does not talk at all, but when prompted with The Lord’s Prayer, bellows it out like a professional orator.

Perhaps no other group of people live into Christ’s teaching about avoiding worry more than the person who truly lives in the moment and doesn’t think about tomorrow.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients can teach us to live like the believers in Jesus we were meant to be:

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.  Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.  So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:31-34)

They keep short accounts with others.

Rivalries and animosities don’t really exist with my memory men and women.  If they had them at one time, they aren’t there anymore.  They are forgotten.  Yes, that can be a great consternation to the one who was at the other end of the old animosity.  But a new relationship can be forged.  One that is fresh and can start with a clean slate.

What’s more, my residents are quick to let me know what they think, where they are at the moment, and how they want something to go.  I, personally, find it refreshing to have someone say exactly what’s on their mind or heart.  The very first resident I met on the memory unit said her name to me, and then, with all seriousness, looked me in the eye and said, “If you mispronounce my name, I’ll punch you right in the face!”  I laughed out loud.  She laughed with me.  We laughed together.  She couldn’t even ball up her arthritic hand enough to punch, let alone raise her frail arm to do it.  So, there we sat laughing, with joy amidst the ravages of a disintegrating mind.

You know what?  In the days and weeks to come, I mispronounced her name.  She didn’t really care (at least, most of the time).  She forgot her own name sometimes.  And we would laugh about it.  At one point, I couldn’t help but note the juxtaposition between one woman in a former congregation who never forgot that I misspoke her daughter’s name and continually held it against me.  The woman never adopted the teaching of Jesus to “settle your differences quickly” (Matthew 6:25) and the instruction of Paul to “don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 5:26).  But here, in this time and at this moment, are two people in a non-descript nursing home experiencing a relationship free from the elephant-thinking that never forgets.

They have no inhibitions about expressing their emotions.

For a guy like me who tends to be emotionally constipated, it is good to be around a group of people that lets their feelings be known.  Just because a person’s mind begins to forget; and just because someone loses large swaths of memory (especially the short term stuff); doesn’t mean they have lost the ability to feel.  Sometimes all they have is their emotion.  Maybe some of them were stuffers of feelings back in the day, but now it comes out.  And you never know what it will be from hour to hour, sometimes even minute to minute.

I realize this is hard for family members or friends who have been close to the resident for years and years.  This isn’t the same person they knew in the past.  Yet, this is an opportunity to re-engage on a different level.  If expressing feelings and emotions were foreign to the relationship, now it can be engrafted into the friendship and become new and even healing.

Confessing your own emotions and feelings is on the table for you, as well.  After all, what are they really going to remember after you leave?  And even if they repeat it to someone, is that someone really going to believe what they’re saying?  Yes, I’m being a bit facetious, but you get what I’m saying.  You see, there is tremendous emotional freedom to be had, if you are willing to take it.  You might even realize that taking the risk to share your emotions and feelings with others is worth doing.  It would be a tragedy and a travesty if you moved through life always hiding how you really feel.  You have much to offer.

And that is the point I want to get across to you today, my friend.  Memory unit residents; dementia and Alzheimer’s patients; and, a host of other people we typically think always need us, it turns out that we really need them, too.  Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God.  To discover that God-likeness within is a journey worth taking.

Allowing Your Pain to Make a Difference

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There’s a reason I do what I do, and am what I am.  Through nearly 33 years of marriage my wife and I have been through a lot – more than I could ever share with you.  One of our big challenges came from the year 2014.  In the space of nine months, Mary had three spine surgeries.  I went from not only having the role of husband, but that of caregiver, as well.  It took months of daily physical and occupational therapy, not to mention the endless doctor visits, for my wife to learn to walk again and do simple tasks that most of us take for granted.

The good news is that Mary is upright and walking.  She can mostly get around and do things on her own.  The bad news is that she lives with chronic pain every single day.  Some days aren’t too bad, and Mary can accomplish a fair amount of what she wants to do.  But there are other days when she can’t get out of bed; days when taking a shower and getting dressed is all she can get done; and, days when the pain becomes so problematic that discouragement and depression sandwiches her like two evil slices of bread.

Yet, even on the worst of days Mary is an amazing wife.  She is tough and resilient, as well as compassionate and caring.  I’ve learned most of what I know about caring ministry from her.  I don’t talk a lot about her on this website.  Yet, Mary is behind each word I craft and every phrase I smith.  She is always on my mind and in my heart.  Mary has taught me how to care through the example of her own life, and given me the opportunity to show how much I care for her.

Mary maintains a Facebook page about her journey with pain called “Joy in the Mourning.”  Because she lives with chronic pain, her posts come neither regularly nor easily.  It is a labor of love, some days being a whole lot more labor than love.  Recently, Mary was able to return to a job.  By no means able to hold a full-time job, she has found meaningful work doing what she does best: caring for people as a companion to folks with dementia.

The following is her most recent post.  I hope you are encouraged in your own journey of faith.  Whether you face chronic physical or emotional pain, care for someone who does, or just want to live-out your faith in ways that make sense, I trust you find some joy in your life through whatever circumstances you may face today:

Friends, I’ve got great news!  I have completed the first 90 days at my job!  It’s been a long time since I have been able to say that.  I’m sore today from working. Usually, I say that I hurt today due to getting dressed or showering, walking the dog, or getting out of bed.  It has taken over 3 years, post-surgeries, to be able commit to a regular schedule of working.  

In my healing journey, I had to commit /submit myself to physical therapy, yoga stretching, strength training, biofeedback, acupuncture, massage therapy, weekly counseling with a pain psychologist, daily prayer, journaling, meditation, and even sought out healing through the laying on of hands from godly healers, as well as nutrition, essential oils and music therapy.  All very helpful, but…

I have to admit a foundational piece to getting to where I am today: I mourned. 

I gave myself permission to mourn my loss.  I admitted my anger… no, I wrestled with my anger is a better phrase; and, I embraced my sadness, and let myself feel the loneliness of disability. I asked the hard questions: WHY!? How long? I cried… a lot. In my darkest times a little spark of light invaded my space.  A gentle and soft comfort hugged my heart. A warm sprinkle of hope powdered my soul.  I began to discover a new kind of joy.

No matter what your specific suffering is, I believe that mourning your loss, and allowing yourself to walk through the valley of the shadow will lead you to a path where you can experience comfort, hope and even joy.  For me, this part of the journey has been life-giving. Christ understands suffering. He will walk with us through this experience.  

I never told you what I’m doing now. I am a companion for those who suffer – mostly Alzheimer’s patients, and those who are suffering life-altering afflictions.  I’m working 2-6 hours each day, sharing some of the comfort I received, and being real and open while allowing my pain to make a difference.  May you be blessed, my friends.

Learning to Grieve Well

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One day, years ago in a previous church experience, Frank (not his real name) came up to me concerned about a woman in the congregation.  The woman, Daphne (not her real name), had recently had a miscarriage when just beginning her third trimester.  Frank proceeded to tell me that it had been a few weeks since the terrible event of Daphne’s miscarriage, and he had never seen her cry.  Frank was uneasy with this and wanted to go tell her that something was wrong that she wasn’t bawling over her tragedy.

Although I think Frank’s heart was mostly in the right place to have concern, there were a couple of things off about his thoughts.  These few things I’m going to highlight are important to keep in mind.  Whether you are grieving yourself because of some trauma or hard situation, or whether you want to be there to encourage and help another person going through trouble, there are two realities to keep in mind through the hard road of grief.  The first reality is this:

Grief is personal.  No two people grieve in exactly the same way.

Part of Frank’s concern was that he himself had gone through the death of a child, and he had cried much over it.  In fact, he had tears in his eyes just talking to me about something that happened many years ago.  Frank had found that his crying and emotional expressions were a central part of coming to terms with his own child’s death.  So, when Daphne was not responding in the same way as he had, he quickly assumed she was in denial and was not grieving.

The truth was that I was close to Daphne and her family enough to know that she and her husband were very much in grief, and were certainly working through their awful ordeal.  Daphne had never been much of an emotional person, and she found that lots of talking with girlfriends and other women was an important path of healing; and, that having her pastor pray for her and her family and just be around in a spiritual presence reassured her that God was with her.

A few weeks after Daphne’s miscarriage, she was clearly still in the throes of grieving.  I knew her well enough to know that eventually she would have that big cry session.  Daphne was a more reflective person, and her grief was buckets-load more cerebral than Frank, who tended to wear his feelings on his sleeve.  As it turns out, sure enough, two months down-the-road, Daphne’s emotions caught up with her and she had her own very personal big cry session.  This brings me to my second important reality that we must keep in mind….

You cannot put a timetable on grief, especially someone else’s.

Another part of Frank’s concern was actually his own anxiety coming through.  He knew firsthand how hard it is to go through something that you never saw coming and forever changes you.  Through Daphne’s tragedy, Frank was reliving his own nightmare.  If Daphne could get through her grief, hopefully by having a good cry and getting over it, then Frank could move on and not feel so damned uncomfortable himself.  This was, of course, not a conscious reality for Frank.  But that’s what makes grief so complicated.  Other people’s grief really does affect our own lives.  If we are not in touch with our own emotions and the deep hurts within that can be triggered at a moment’s notice, then we project our anxiety and our desire for tidy resolutions onto others who are not ready to be done with their bereavement or their grief.

When we put timetables on others’ grief, it says much more about us than the person grieving.  Statements like, “It’s been two weeks, and she should be over it,” and “When is he going to stop being so depressed?” come from a place inside of the statement-maker that cannot live with other people’s pain and would like it all to be better.  My bet is that such statements belie unresolved grief and hurt from the person making them.

Wise people sit with the emotions of others, and let them feel the full brunt of their feelings.  They don’t try to push emotions off, make the grief-stricken person better, or fix them so that they aren’t unhappy anymore.  The sage person knows that you cannot hurry grief along any more than you can make a turtle do a 4.6 second 40 meter race.  Besides, last I checked, the turtle ends up winning with his slow, yet deliberate pace.

When his good friend, Lazarus, was sick Jesus waited three days before he went to him.  In the meantime, Lazarus died.  Jesus was pressured to get there immediately, to take the fast track, to stop any sort of bereavement that might take place.  But Jesus didn’t let the anxiety of others dictate his Father’s agenda.  Because he operated on his own timetable, a miracle of resurrection proportions occurred (John 11:1-44).  And even when Jesus knew what was going to happen by raising Lazarus, that didn’t stop him from slowing down even more by taking the time to grieve and sit with others’ in their grief.  “Jesus wept,” was a genuine heartfelt response to the folks around him, as well as an authentic display of his own personal grieving over his friend’s passing.

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What’s more, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, never responded the same way to circumstances.  Whereas Mary wanted to be close to Jesus, Martha chose to work-out her frustrations in the kitchen.  Trying to pigeon-hole someone into a nice-and-neat grief to-do list never ends well for anyone.

So, how are we to grieve well when tragedy or trauma happens?  I’ve already hinted at it, but I’ll now give it to you plainly with two more realities….

You need to sit with your emotions.

When hard times come, our natural human reflexive response is to want to get away from the grief.  Feeling hard stuff hurts.  No one likes pain.  But feel we must.  Ignoring how we feel only puts emotions on hold – it doesn’t take them away.  Emotions must be felt deeply, usually over a long period of time for most people.  No one ever just “gets over” the death of a child or any other trauma.  It forever changes you.  Feeling angry, out-of-control, powerless, depressed, mentally and/or physically pained, and a whole host of other emotions can come flying at you like razor-blade arrows aimed at your heart.  Go ahead and feel them, feel them all.

Also, let others feel them, as well.  It isn’t anybody’s job to fix another person in grief.  You and I don’t heal people – that’s God’s job.

Your emotions will make a comeback in the future.

Just like the example of Frank, your emotions can get triggered by another’s grief, or even when you least expect it with seeing, hearing, or smelling something that reminds you of what you have lost.  Just because you grieved, and even grieved well, back there in the past doesn’t mean that it is a one-and-done affair.  Nope.  Not even close.  The feelings associated with that hard thing in your past can come back at the drop of a hat.  It’s okay.  Go ahead and feel them again.  Don’t short-circuit the emotions.  Coming to grips with trauma and hurt takes a lifetime of dealing with.  That’s not a popular message today; but it is certainly a true one.

I myself have had to learn the hard way that having a detached Mr. Spock-like approach to trauma only compounds the trouble.  I might not always be in touch with my emotions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel deeply.  Sometimes I need to slow down and stop long enough to feel, instead of running away from my heart.

Trauma, tragedy, and hard circumstances forever change us.  We can never go back to the way things were.  But, over time, we can learn to pay attention to our emotions, acknowledge them, and live with them as guides and friends rather than as unwanted guests.

Galatians 5:16-26 – Being Led by the Spirit

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“Be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires…. the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.  Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.” (Common English Bible)

I’m the youngest sibling in my family.  So, I know what it feels like to be a third wheel with things.  When I was a kid, it always seemed as if everyone thought I was too young to do anything or engage any of the real fun stuff, like watching Mannix, Sanford and Son, or Love American Style past my bedtime like everyone else was doing (I was fascinated with TV as a kid).  Now, much older, I have a larger context for understanding all of that stuff.  Yet, the fact remains that I really was a third wheel lots of times.

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Sometimes I think we treat the Holy Spirit of God somewhat like a third wheel.  We pray to Almighty God; we pray in Jesus’ blessed name; and… what of the Holy Spirit?  Sometimes, even many times, the Spirit gets the short end of the stick.  In fact, I’ve been in some churches where I think their understanding of the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Bible; the Spirit is nowhere to be found.

Maybe, because we can never predict what in the world the Spirit is going to do, we send Him off to some metaphorical bedtime so that we watch and do whatever we want.  Or, perhaps we really are diligent about the Christian life.  We strive, work, and wrestle to live a good life.  But, somehow, we fall short and feel like a failure far too often.  Why is that?

Could be that we’ve looked at the Holy Spirit as the third wheel.  We believe in Him, have faith that He’s there, but don’t have any idea how to relate to Him.  God is big and sovereign; Jesus has a real body and blood; and, the Spirit… well, He’s really out there, man – like, He’s too cool for school and would be one of the characters on The Mod Squad, or something.  How do you have a relationship with someone (and often we refer to the Spirit as some “thing”), that is, with a person (and the Spirit is fully a person) who is so crazy ethereal and seemingly other than you and me?

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The Holy Spirit is the power source of the Christian life.  Without him, we can easily degenerate into all kinds of illicit thinking and behavior – including things like “sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that” (verses 19-21).

It is the Spirit who helps us, comforts us, provides strength for us, and enables us to replace old habits with new ones and dead practices with solid “Spirit”ual action.  The Christian virtues which flower and produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control occur through a close intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit helps us in our weakness when we pray and act.  The Christian enjoys such a close affectionate association with the Holy Spirit that it is as if we are a building, like a temple, and the person of the Spirit has taken up residence within.  The person of the Spirit is the person of God the Father’s, and the person of God the Son’s gift to the people of God.  By means of the Holy Spirit, God is always with us and continually at-this-moment working within us to make the redemption given in Christ an actual real-live encounter.  In other words, the Spirit gives us feet to walk among this world armed with the implements of God’s love.

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I’m going to make a simple observation about the Galatians text for today.  All of the spiritual virtues expressed are the “fruit” of the Spirit, not “fruits.”  The nine ethics are a package deal.  When you have the Spirit and spiritual fruit, you possess all nine Christian values.  If we look at the list and say something like, “Well, Tim, I’m pretty good at kindness and goodness, but I don’t have much peace or patience.”  What that really means is that you are probably doing kindness and goodness from a different place than by means of the Holy Spirit because when the Spirit manifests Himself in us we exhibit the fruit.  You can’t separate the nine spiritual virtues any more than you can separate the Trinity.  They are all one spiritual fruit cultivated and produced inside you by the agency of God’s Spirit.

Maybe it’s time to back up the truck and take a look at the shadow side of our lives.  It could be that we are, for example, far more driven by our anxiety about most things than about genuine altruism and love.  The same result might seem to appear through our words and actions, but it will not last if it is generated from a place of worry – and it is not of the Spirit.

So, what do you do about it?  You must put to death (mortify) the deeds of the sinful nature.  You have been crucified with Christ and you no longer live but Christ lives in you by means of the Spirit He has given to us (Galatians 2:20).  If you have C-clamped your heart so tight that the Spirit can’t get in, then it’s high time to loosen the grip and enable God to do His gracious and merciful work within you.  It is the only way to go about genuine transformation of life.

two wild and crazy guys

Yes, it is scary.  Letting go of control is very hard for many people, including me.  But the results are worth it.  The Spirit knows what He is doing.  He might work in wild and crazy ways.  He might show up on Saturday Night Live where you least expect him to be.  The way we go with God is by going with the Spirit and being led by Him.  Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29).  The Spirit always points us to Christ, the one who has delivered us from the realm of sin and brought us forgiveness.  This work of Christ sets us up for the work of the Spirit who now makes our deliverance practically and effectively a reality in daily relationships and experiences.

streets of san francisco

The Holy Spirit is not a third wheel.  He’s the real deal.  When you open your heart to Him, you expose yourself to the wideness of God’s mercy which results in the wonderful fruit of the Spirit.  And when you experience the Spirit working inside of you, it makes the car chase scenes in The Streets of San Francisco look not so dramatic.

May the Spirit of the living God be with you now, and forever.  Amen.

“Why, God!?”

why god

“Why, God!?” is a refrain expressed by all kinds of people and, most likely, by you at some point in your life.  That’s because we all face suffering, on some level.  The circumstances might vary from person to person, but we all have been touched by this fallen world and experience some sort of brokenness.

Brokenness of either/both body and soul comes in all shapes and sizes.  Yes, it sometimes is the result of our own foolish and/or self-destructive choices.  But sick bodies, broken spirits, and damaged souls are just as likely to occur simply because we live in this world that’s askew from how it should be.  In other words, sometimes we really are victims of disease, accidents, natural disasters, and mysterious evil that we have trouble putting a name to.

In such situations, it’s very normal of the human condition to cry: “Why, God!?”  I like honesty, and this is an honest question.  Personally, I don’t “poo-poo” people who are frank and sincere with God.  Yes, sometimes that question is only rhetorical – not really asking a question but expressing anger.  That’s okay, too, because God is more than big enough to handle a question asked in frustration, even rage.  Even a cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals David’s emotions of not understanding many of his situations and exactly what he’d like to see happen.  Sometimes he pukes some awfully raw feelings onto God – and those emotionally charged words made their way as being a part of the Bible.

I get it.  Suffering is an unwanted companion, and we’d like to send it packing and have nothing to do with it.  Yet, suffering and the evil it can wreak is not outside the purview of God.  As heinous and as powerful as suffering might manifest itself, it is never beyond God’s capacity to touch it with resurrection power.

The answer to our “why?” question is, frankly, not usually answered – and even if it does get answered, sometimes we don’t like what we hear.  I want to make an observation about the New Testament Gospels and the life of Jesus, and I want you to consider it for a moment.  The observation is this:

Jesus never explained evil and suffering. 

Christ did not send out fliers and emails for a seminar on suffering from a divine perspective to be held at the downtown Jerusalem Hilton.  Instead, Jesus, the supreme Pastor, was present with people in their pain and wondering.  Jesus Christ did not provide cerebral answers to questions; he asked his own questions and filled people with God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus encountered people in their concrete real-live struggles and trouble, and, when a group of five-thousand people were hungry, he asked, “Who will feed them?” and when folks were struggling with how to make ends-meet, “Where is your treasure?” and to those with misplaced values, “What does it profit?”  Christ’s questions were designed to shepherd and lead people toward a path of healing, not necessarily a way of being cured.  Jesus Christ’s words and actions were meant to show people that he himself is the path toward peace, healing, and, sometimes, even the perceived need to be healed.

In the encounter with a Samaritan woman, Jesus, the Pastor, comes along and has a lengthy conversation with her that began with talking about getting a drink of water on a hot day and ends with the woman being in touch, maybe for the first time, with her deepest need of being accepted, loved, and satisfied.  Sometimes I chuckle over some scholars and writers pouring over this story in John’s Gospel, trying to find the secret sauce or discernible outline to speaking with people in need of emotional and spiritual healing or enlightenment.  Yet, again, I’ll just make a simple observation about the story:

Jesus put love where love was not.

woman at the well

The woman did not have love from the Jews because she was a “half-breed” Samaritan.  Furthermore, she had a string of loveless marriages and was with a man who apparently was just using her.  Then, Jesus showed up.  He abandoned all contemporary Jewish convention by speaking with a Samaritan woman.  He put his agenda on hold.  He was fully present to her.  He asked questions and took the time to listen.  And then he extended to her the kind of love that she desperately needed. Drinking water from a deep well became a powerful metaphor and picture of cleansing and refreshment to a dry and parched soul that had not known love for a very long time.  Jesus changed her life.  He put love where love was not (John 4:1-42).

So, let’s wheel back around to the question of “why?” and “why” we ask it in the first place.  Typically, we want a fix.  We’re broken, and it’s a big enough mess that the only repair person is God.  God, however, doesn’t feel the same anxiety we do about the dilemma (in fact, he doesn’t have any worry at all).  Instead, God does something we usually don’t expect.  He sends someone to care, and another to help, and yet another to pray, and even more to meet various needs.  Behind the scenes, far from our fear-laden hearts, the Lord of the universe is paying attention to us and orchestrating a massive campaign of love.

In those times when it seems chaos will win the day, and in those seasons when evil appears to have the high ground, please know that there is a God in heaven who sees your life and is personally writing a protest song against the injustice and unfairness of what is happening.  And Christ’s resurrection is at the center of that song.  When it’s sung, it will melt fear, cause demons to flee, and create transformation in ways that you would never have seen coming.  Where we are looking for a supernatural miracle, God is eyeing to bring common ordinary people to your doorstep with a basket full of love.

When Jesus left this earth, here is exactly what he wanted his followers to know going forward:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

The ever-present love of Christ shall never leave you, nor forsake you.  You can count on it.  Allow your “why” question to turn into a “who” question.  “Who” will be with me to the end, will pour his love into my heart, and will hold me up when I can’t stand anymore?  Every path leads to one infinite source of living water: Jesus Christ.  It is to him that you and I are to find our peace and our rest.