Monday, May 25, 2015

With Spirit

The scriptures referred to are Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, and John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15.

The media have done something weird with the word “porn” lately. It used to mean sexual pictures or movies or stories that people drool over. But now I find my Facebook feed filled with things called "food porn," which is mouth-watering pictures of dishes, and “space porn” which is just gorgeous pictures of space, usually taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Or Word Porn which is a website with good quotations. There are horrors movies called torture porn because they don't try to scare you in the typical way but use special effects to show people undergoing awful suffering in a stomach-churningly graphic way. Which is why, though I grew up loving the old Universal pictures about Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman, I rarely see modern horror films.

What these things have in common is that they are things people with certain intense interests love to look at and, I guess, drool over. So the word “porn” loses its sexual connotations in these cases and is just about stuff people are really into. And it can also mean unrealistic fantasies, which is the main feature of regular old porn. So I guess it makes sense to see the term “competence porn” in a discussion of stories that I read. And what it means is a story in which a character is an absolute expert at something (or everything) and always knows just what to do. Which is as unrealistic as the sexy pizza delivery guy and the compliant French maid. Sherlock Holmes, with his ability to notice every tiny detail around him and logically deduce the significance of each and use them to solve a crime is perhaps the archetypal “competence porn” figure. The folks of the shows CSI and NCIS and Bones are his descendants. Most of our heroes are: Batman, Doctor Who, James Bond. For a former World War 2 naval commander, James Bond nevertheless seems to be able to drive or fly or operate anything he lays his hands on, from helicopters to submarines to rocket belts to space ships. There was a time when he couldn't. One of the most suspenseful sequences in Goldfinger was the part where Bond, having defeating the nearly indestructible Oddjob, is now faced with disarming a nuclear bomb. We see him desperately trying to stop the whirling gears or pull out wires when the hand of an expert pushes Bond out of the way and flicks the off switch. Of course, the countdown stops at 007. By contrast, today's James Bond probably has a degree in nuclear fission.

In a technological world we are really putting a lot of faith in the experts and their products. We have bought into the idea that all we need in order to solve the world's problems is somebody smart to come up with the right technological fix. And certainly there are a lot of instances where this is true. Irrigation and vaccines and prosthetic limbs and disease cures and cognitive behavioral therapy and other scientific techniques can solve a lot of problems. But they won't fix our most pressing ones.

As of last week ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a group that wants to bring about the end of the world, captured Ramadi, the main city of the Anwar providence of Iraq. And yet they are opposed by the US with the largest military in the world and all the best weapon systems. But we are fighting this war at arm's length and trying to let the Iraqi army act as the ground forces while we provide air support. And though we are killing about 1000 of the ISIS forces each month, they are recruiting about 1000 young people a month. We probably could win if we could get all the different nations and people who oppose ISIS to work together. But they won't. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim nation. Iran is a Shiite Muslim nation. The Kurds are neither. And none of them get along, not even in the face of a common enemy. But without uniting, no amount of technology will stop ISIS. Their spirit of unity is defeating their opposition's disunity.

Technology is the right hands. Biological research can fight viruses or weaponize them. Drones can be used to count endangered species over a wide area or to assassinate someone. Opioids can free people from severe pain or be a profitable way to enslave them through addiction. The internet can spread vital information widely and it can do the same for false and harmful information. The difference is a matter of the spirit of those behind the endeavor.

As I get older I find that competence is important but having the right spirit is essential. If you are dealing with someone who is good at something but not a good person, you could be in trouble. It's great to have a skilled doctor but not if he is also unscrupulous. He could takes shortcuts or pad your bill or sell you on a procedure that you don't actually need. Benedict Arnold was one of the best generals the United States had. But when he changed sides, his military expertise made him that much more of a threat to our side.

One way to explain Arnold's reversal is to say that after being passed over for promotion despite his successes, his shattered leg, and spending his own money in the war effort, he lost his patriotic spirit. You could even say he was dispirited. Here I am using "spirit" in the sense of a distinctive quality or attitude. We use spirit this way all the time. We talk about team spirit or about something being done in the spirit of someone else. Those uses of the word spirit are metaphors. Today we celebrate the literal coming of the Spirit of God into the lives of the first Christians.

I needn't repeat what we just read in the second chapter of Acts. What I want to do is to imagine what Christianity would be like if the Spirit hadn't been poured out on the church.

Without the Spirit, Christianity would become much more like any other religion. It has a founder and his teachings. It has a list of beliefs and a list of dos and don'ts. And both believing and and behaving would be entirely dependent on the individual. One would receive no inner help with either.

Without the Spirit, Christianity would of necessity become very legalistic. Biblical laws tend to be general and even when they are not, they do not cover every possible circumstance the believer will find himself in. So Christians would have to do what rabbis did—add to the commandments, expand them so that if followed one wouldn't even come close to breaking the original and getting real specific on certain things. There would be little leeway in how one acted and as the world changed, Christians would cling fiercely to old ways and become increasingly irrelevant to the world at large. Without the Spirit, Christianity would join the other two Abrahamic faiths in being mostly about interpreting and applying old laws, rather than about living in a new way.

Without the Spirit, there would be fewer reform movements to put Christianity back on track. If you know just a little bit of history, you know of the capital “R” Reformation. But if you know more about church history, you know that there have been a lot of other significant reform movements in the last 2000 years. Some did not reach the scope of the Protestant Reformation but in each of them was a desire to revive and bring forward key doctrines, practices or emphases of the early or New Testament church. Without the Spirit, I don't think folks would be as inspired to re-examine the present state of the church, find that it had lost something and try to recapture that.

Without the Spirit, there would be less motive to find new expressions of the faith. People would be less inclined to reach out to outsiders and other people and groups and more content to focus on maintaining membership and the status quo. The missionary movement would have died on the vine and we would be dying too.

Now you may have heard me describing what it would be like without the Spirit and say to yourself, “We're like that now! We are pretty much defined by lists of things to believe, to do and to not do. We have gotten legalistic. We are backward looking and inward looking. We are dying.”

To which I say, yes. Which can only mean one thing: we are trying to proceed without the Spirit. Because the Spirit scares us. He is like the wind—powerful and beyond our control. We cannot dictate the direction in which the Spirit moves. We must be like sailing ships adapting to the the way the wind blows. Or we can tie up in a nice safe marina, hooked into cable and the internet, not planning on leaving the harbor but pretending we are mighty sailors. That is not how Christianity is supposed to work.

Without the Spirit or with the wrong spirit, we cannot succeed as Christians or as a church. We can appear to be doing well. We can manage to have earthly success, attract a lot of people, raise money. Anyone can do that. ISIS can do that. But if we are doing this without the Holy Spirit, it won't really accomplish anything lasting spiritually. As it says in Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” We need to stay in touch with the Spirit and follow his guidance.

With the Spirit, we receive help in trusting God and in living in harmony with his principles. We receive help in discovering and recalling the spiritual and moral truths God reveals. We receive help in communicating with God. We are impelled to recognize that God is doing new things, bringing new groups of people into his kingdom, and to seek out those who are wrongly considered beyond his interest and grace.

The Spirit brings people together. He facilitates communication and reconciliation. In 2 Corinthians 13:14, Paul writes of the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit draws us together through truth and love. The Spirit brings unity, though not through uniformity. That's a human mistake. The Spirit instead distributes various gifts and abilities to all. No one has every gift and so we need each other, the way a team or crew needs people with various skills. The unity comes from a common attitude and goal.

We've seen how people can be united by hatred as in ISIS or the Nazis. They are defined primarily by what they are against. And there are people who want to define God negatively as well. But the Holy Spirit is defined by truth, unity, encouragement, comfort, communication, help, strength, life, and fruitfulness. The Spirit gives these to us and causes them to grow in us, so that we are one in the Spirit.

People have done and are doing horrible things in the name of religion. And some of these were done in the name of Christ. But they could not be done in the Spirit of Christ. And if we are filled with the same Spirit that empowered Jesus then we cannot do evil in his name either. There are those who harm and destroy and exploit and terrorize and divide and degrade and ruin God's creation and his creatures, including their fellow human beings who were made in God's image. We are not those people. We walk in the Spirit who brings forth love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness and self-control. He equips us to repair and restore and heal and comfort and unite and teach and build up and liberate and proclaim the good news. 

But we can only do it if we live our lives in the Spirit and open every part of ourselves to him. We need to give up the idea that we are in charge and instead open our sails and go where he takes us. It may be delightful and it may be scary but we must remember what Paul wrote from prison to his protege Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Tim 1:7) We can face whatever we encounter and do whatever works he gives us to do, for we are filled with his Spirit, the Spirit who hovered over the void as God made ready to create the heavens and the earth, the Spirit who empowered Jesus to do his mission, the Spirit who emboldened the apostles and sent them all over the world to proclaim the truth to all they met. That Spirit is in us. What are we afraid of? What power in the universe can stand against us? What works of love and unity is the Spirit calling on us to do? It's time we caught fire, stood up in public and did them and let the world be amazed. 

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