The untamed Spirit

holy spiritBy Joe LaGuardia

There is an old Buddhist tale of a farmer who was working in his field.  He looked up just in time to see a man riding a horse that was galloping  as fast as lightening.

The rider and horse zipped by the field when the farmer asked, “Hey, where are you going?”

The rider looked back and yelled, “I don’t know; ask the horse!”

Sometimes I feel like I am on a ride that I cannot stop.  Some people call that ride “life” and look at it gloomily; others call it “fate.”

If we are to take Jesus’ words seriously when he said that the Spirit “blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8), then I think we may be able to call that ride the “Spirit.”

My home church in Florida is a charismatic church.  It’s worship, preaching, and ministry relied–sometimes only by instinct–on the leadership of the Spirit.  I learned that the Spirit certainly moves us nearer to God, and that the Spirit cannot be tamed.

Some people would ask, “Where are we going?”  We responded, “We don’t know; ask the Holy Spirit!”

I also learned that many Christians think they have a handle on the Holy Spirit.  They think they have all the answers and know exactly what God is up to.  Some people rely on their interpretation of the Bible to deduce what God is doing and promote their assumptions as fact.

The Holy Spirit defies all our assumptions about where God is at work and in whom God works.

The best story that illustrates the Spirit’s uncanny movement is found in Acts 10, in which Peter meets a Roman general, Cornelius, and learns that the Spirit works where Christians least expect it.

The story opens up with the Holy Spirit visiting both men.  Peter and Cornelius, both prayer warriors from two different worlds, find out that they are to meet each other.

Cornelius gets God’s orders first, and sends servants and a few soldiers to fetch Peter.

Meanwhile, Peter, hungry and tired in the mid-day sun, gets a vision of animals considered unclean according to Jewish law.  God tells Peter to eat the animals; Peter is offended and refuses; God rebukes Peter and says that he should not call unclean what God has made clean.

As soon as the two men meet and Cornelius tells Peter why he–Cornelius–sent for Peter, Peter understands the vision.  Peter then confesses, “I see that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35, NRSV).

Before this event, Peter never would have set foot in Cornelius’ house, much less think that Cornelius would be worthy of salvation.  As both a non-Jew and a non-Christian, Cornelius technically should have been left where he belongs: in the dark.

But Peter thought he knew everything there was to know about God and where God was working in the world.

The story is, therefore, really about the Spirit’s role in the conversion of both men.

Cornelius is a convert to Jesus Christ–a Christian who does not need to go through the Law of Moses to become a part of God’s people.  Peter is a convert to the type of Gospel that God has in store for the whole world, a Gospel inspired by an untamed Spirit.

The story is a powerful reminder that the Holy Spirit is always on the move.  God is works in the lives of individuals, families, and communities; and we Christians can’t assume we know exactly where God is at work.  God is much bigger than our preconceived notions, beliefs, and interpretations of Him.

The New Year is an opportunity for conversion

hobbesThe New Year is an opportunity to make resolutions.  Perhaps for many of us, however, resolutions may not be enough; we may need an actual conversion experience.

There is a fourth-century story told of two monks in the Egyptian desert.  One monk came to the other for advice:

“Father Joseph,” the monk said, “According as I am able, I keep my rule, my fast, my prayer, meditation and silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?”

The other monk rose up and stretched out his hands in response.  His fingers, held toward heaven, became like ten lampstands, and he said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

This story reminds me of John the Baptist coming out of the desert to declare that God had come in the form of a messiah.  “I baptize with water,” John said, “But he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).

Fire in the ancient world was as destructive as it is now, but it was also a cleansing agent.  Fire was used to purify precious metals, shape iron, and cleanse chaff from wheat.  The Greek word for fire is the root word for the English word, “purity.”  It was, according to ancient philosophy, the precursor to God’s Word and the harbinger of Spirit.

For John the Baptist and, later, for Jesus who claimed that he came to separate wheat from chaff, fire was the symbol whereby one was cleansed from all impurities and made right with God.  It consisted of God’s action as well as one’s decision to “repent” and convert.

Whereas resolutions are commitments to do something, conversion transform our very nature just as fire can transform the properties of many metals at certain temperatures.

Conversion is more concerned about who we are than about what we do, assuming that who we are will eventually inform what we do.

For those who see conversion as an important step in their faith journey, repentance is considered a regular spiritual discipline.  It does not occur only once, let alone once a year, but, as Father Joseph implied, is occurs continually: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”

The equation for repentance is straightforward, but we always need reminding of how it occurs. With the New Year upon us, it is a good time for a refresher.

Repentance happens when we realize that we are not perfect and fail to be who God wants us to be.  The Bible says that all of us are sinful, that we all “fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).  The first step in repentance and conversion is to acknowledge this simple fact.

This brings us to another fact: that because we “fall short,” we are disconnected from God and need salvation.  Unfortunately, we cannot save ourselves, and being a good person or doing a good deed for the day just does not cut it.  This is based on the premise that God is perfect and holy; and, since we are not holy, then we cannot justify our own actions before God.

This is where the Holy Spirit and “fire” come into play.  We recognize that Jesus, who died for our sins as a sinless human and bore the weight of our guilt upon him, is the mediator between us and God.  The Holy Spirit enlightens us to this truth as He draws us closer to God through the person of Jesus Christ.

Then, as we are set right in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ upon the admission of our sins, we are commissioned to live a life of obedience, sanctification, and discipleship.  This is where “fire” comes in, as the Spirit continually fashions us and molds us in the smelter of life experiences and lessons learned.  It’s fire that conforms us into the likeness of Christ.

I grew up in a faith tradition that saw conversion as a one-time event; but, as I grow older, I realize that it is a continual cycle with which God is never finished.  Just as each New Year brings with it inspiration for a fresh start, so does God’s Son, Spirit, and cleansing fire give us a fresh beginning every day.