Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Catching the Spirit

A lot of us are eagerly awaiting the Avengers movie. Not only will this film feature Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Incredible Hulk but it's written and directed by Joss Whedon. Besides doing movies and TV, most notably "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Serenity," Joss has written comic books. So we know he will do it right. It's only too bad he didn't do the other Avengers film, by which I mean, not the Marvel Comics superhero team but the movie version of the 1960s British spy series. At a time when everyone was trying to do a TV series that looked like the James Bond films, this show mixed satire with sci fi and spy tropes and came up with a wonderfully frothy confection. A key element was the chemistry of the lead characters, played by Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Macnee played John Steed, a smiling secret agent in a Saville Row suit complete with bowler hat and umbrella. Rigg played Emma Peel, a cool beauty who dressed in Carnaby Street mod clothes and was a master of the martial arts. They symbolically represented Old England and Swinging London. The sexual tension between the characters and their tongue-in-cheek approach to the bizarre threats they faced made the program a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. When the inevitable movie remake came out in 1998, the notable cast included Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery. But Fiennes' Steed was dour, not jovial; Thurman's Peel was frantic, not coolly confident; and Connery uncharacteristically chewed the scenery as the villain. The result was a movie that totally missed the spirit of the original. I wish I'd never seen it.

As someone who has seen and read far too many bad versions of Sherlock Holmes, I can tell you that it's not enough to get the superficial details right about a character being portrayed. You need to capture his or her spirit. Thus all the pipes and deerstalker caps in the world could not get a good Holmes out of Roger Moore, Stewart Granger or even Tom Baker. Whereas Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett and even Benedict Cumberbatch's updated Sherlock got the character's personality perfectly, even though each brought something different to the role. This is even more noticeable in Doctor Who. Each actor who plays the role brings something new to the title character. The Doctor can be heroic, wily, rude, inoffensive, madcap, or formidable but always he is the same person, a champion of justice who uses his brain rather than brawn, and who encourages others to act their best.

The problem with talking about the spirit of something or someone is that it is notoriously hard to define. It's easy to say that Richard Roxburgh's Holmes was all wrong because he portrayed the Great Detective as a hardboiled private eye who beat information out of his suspects. It's tougher to put one's finger on how that is different from Robert Downey Jr.'s action hero version, who, while he did display prominently Holmes' canonical prowess at fisticuffs, fencing, and the single stick, somehow managed to play him as a person who thought first and fought only or mainly when necessary. It comes down to a matter of emphasis and is best seen by contrasting it to something that is antithetical to the spirit you are seeking.

Sunday was Pentecost, the anniversary of when the Holy Spirit was poured out liberally on the disciples and kicked off the growth of the church. And at a time when church is seen as increasingly irrelevant by those of the Millennial generation, I think we must ask if we have somehow lost the Spirit of our faith.

In the Old Testament, God's Spirit is an extension of his power, synonymous with the hand of God, by which he accomplishes his mighty acts. It is also chiefly thought of as the spirit of prophesy. The Spirit comes upon a prophet and he or she announces the word of the Lord. The prophets also spoke of God's wisdom as semi-autonomous aspect of the creator, attributing to Wisdom many of the characteristics we see in the way the New Testament speaks about the Spirit. Between the Testaments, Jews recognized that no one spoke with the power and authority of God's Spirit anymore. One of their hopes was for the day when God's Spirit would be poured out on all of his people. This would happen when the Messiah inaugurated God's kingdom.

So when Jesus spoke of God sending his Spirit upon his disciples, his audience understood it in this way. What Jesus added to this was the realization that the Spirit is not an impersonal power, but God himself. In John 14:15,16, Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever." In verse 26, he explicitly says the Advocate is the Holy Spirit. And in verse 23, he says, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." The parallel shows that the Spirit is to be identified with the Father and the Son who will be with believers forever.

In addition, Jesus calls him "the Spirit of Truth" and elsewhere says of himself "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." In Romans 8:9, Paul calls the Spirit of God the Spirit of Christ. Which makes sense since it is the indwelling Spirit that makes believers into the Body of Christ. So the Spirit we are to embody is that of Christ, God Incarnate. If we do so, one can see how that will draw people to the church. But if they do not perceive in the church the Spirit of God but some other spirit, that's not going draw them to us.

How do we embody the Spirit? Looking back to the prophets there are a handful of characteristics that stand out. First, the Spirit speaks out against evil. This is what the world primarily hears and why it thinks that all we talk about is negativity. And yet we don't say doctors should lighten up on warnings about disease. Oh, wait, we do. I remember an incident that took place here in the Keys. Solares Hill newspaper gave space on its front page to Dr. Mark Whiteside, who wrote an article reacting to the upsurge of HIV infections and detailing the specific practices that were responsible. There was a huge backlash that essentially called Dr. Whiteside a traitor to the community he so selflessly served. But he was concerned with saving lives and there was a generation that did not remember how AIDS devastated the gay community in the 1980s and were not practicing safe sex. He had to speak the truth, however unpopular, and warn people, even persecuted people, about self-destructive behaviors.

The prophets were received in much the same way. They pronounced God's judgment on political as well as spiritual evils. They talked about private sins as well as social injustices. They often ran counter to the culture and they paid for it, some with their lives. We can all find in the writings of the prophets things we like and things we don't. We Episcopalians enthusiastically go after social injustice but are less comfortable with pronouncements on people's personal sins. Evangelicals tend to do the opposite. Either is unbalanced. Despite constant reminders of our duty to the poor, Leviticus 19:15 says, "You shall not render an unjust judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor." There is no protected class; there are no forms of dysfunction that are acceptable. I can cause a car accident by breaking laws, speeding and passing where I shouldn't, as well as by texting on my phone or reaching for something or having an argument with my passenger. It doesn't matter to the person I hit if I was deliberately or inadvertently being reckless, whether my focus was on getting ahead or on personal matters.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out, in an orchestra, not only do the musicians have to harmonize with each other and keep the same beat, each individual instrument must be maintained and in tune, or the symphony will be a disaster. It's not an either/or situation. And we keep seeing how the self-destructive personal habits of the prominent can derail their effectiveness as leaders, regardless of their position or politics. You can't completely compartmentalize your life. Neither should we try to do so with our faith.

But the doctor doesn't tell you about your bad habits simply to bum you out. He offers hope of healing if you change. Things are only hopeless when nothing more can be done. One of the bizarre features of the aftermath of Harold Camping's busted rapture prediction is that he says the final judgment of the world happened in May instead. It's too late for repentance now. Everyone's fate is set in stone when the world ends, according to his calculations, in October. If you're not already a Christian, you're doomed. Not only is his math off, so is his theology.

The prophets did not come just to afflict the comfortable but also to comfort the afflicted. God had not abandoned his people, nor were they beyond his mercy. God is primarily about forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration and resurrection. That last part is key. Death should be the point at which all hope is lost. Certainly the disciples thought so. One of the men walking to Emmaus said, "We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel." Notice the past tense. Jesus' death meant that hope was dead as well. But all things are possible with God. And the men traveling to Emmaus were in for a big surprise. There is no end to hope when love is present, Paul reminds us. And God is love.

I recently heard someone disparage the saying, "God loves you just as you are and he loves you too much to leave you that way." But that's the essence of our hope. I know building up people's self esteem by telling them they are perfect just the way they are is the vogue. Too bad there's no evidence that making people feel good about themselves actually makes them good. Too bad that they've discovered that incompetent people often have good self esteem as well as bullies and psychopaths. Being told you're all right when you're not is cruel. Ask the person struggling with addiction if God's love would mean anything if it didn't mean she could change. Ask the person who has spent his youth getting into trouble and bouncing in and out of prison if he merely wants God to affirm who he is and not transform him. Ask the person who has spent his life chasing money, material things, or women if he wants God to simply say he's fine as he is, without filling the void in his existence he is so obviously feels and making him complete. Jesus said that the sick, not the healthy, need a doctor. So he comes to call, not the righteous, but sinners. When you realize that you need healing, the Divine Physician is your greatest hope.

This is the message we so often neglect to proclaim. Even John the Baptist at his most scathing did not forget about hope. He didn't water down the diagnosis but he was able to offer a promising prognosis because God's Spirit renews lives. And his Spirit is available to all who let him in and let him do whatever he wishes with us. When you don't try to limit what God can do in you, he can do amazing things. Scary, perhaps, but amazing, nevertheless.

And when hope bubbles up within you, when you see the triumph of God's goodness, when you glimpse the beauty and promise of his love, the natural reaction is joy. And that is also a characteristic of the Spirit. In the Old Testament we see at times companies of prophets singing, dancing, and making music. When Saul, Israel's first king, was anointed he ran into a band of prophets and we are told that the Spirit of God came over him mightily him and he prophesied with them. The Hebrew word for "come over" has the sense of being pushed powerfully or overwhelmed and so some translations speak of him being "seized," "possessed," or "ecstatic." It sounds rather like joy.

Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus said that he had come so that our joy may be complete. Joy is an quality Christians, especially in the affluent West, are not known for. We are seen as dour killjoys. And we wonder why people aren't going to church as much as they used to.

The church grew like crazy when the Spirit was poured out. The apostles spoke the truth about people's need to be saved. They offered the hope that in Christ people could be changed for the better. And they showed joy.

Why aren't we growing today? Is it that we aren't telling people the truth? Is it that we aren't admitting that something deep within us needs healing? Is it that the message we offer is no different from the "feel good" messages that people can get elsewhere in our culture?

Is it that we are ashamed of the hope we can offer in Christ? Is it that, for fear of sounding exclusive, we are sending the message that you don't have to come to him; you don't have to come here; you can get the same thing down the road, somewhere else, anywhere else?

Is it that we don't do joy? Is it that we are so afraid of what the Spirit will do if we unleash him, so worried that people will think we are drunk or crazy, that we settle for a sedate, measured, dull presentation of what should be great good news? Have we rendered boring what should be a joyous proclamation of what God in Christ has done, is doing and will do for us? Christ has died--for us! Christ is risen--for us! Christ will come again--for us! How mindblowing is that? How can we not be excited at what he is doing in and for us and others? And how can we not be thrilled over what God will do next and what our part in it will be?

We wore red Sunday to recall the fiery tongues that appeared over the apostles on that first Pentecost. Jesus said he came to set the world on fire. Let us not quench that fire. Let us stoke it. May our prayer be from this day forward: Holy Spirit of the living God, who appeared to Moses as a blazing bush, who lead the children of Israel to freedom as a pillar of fire, who transfigured our Lord Jesus Christ so that he appeared to shine like the sun, purify our souls, illumine our minds and set our hearts on fire for you!

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