Monday, June 29, 2009

The Spirit's Presence

Last night my wife Beth and I had a fantastic meal at a local restaurant called Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be—and no, I did not miss the irony). I had redfish, one of my favorites, topped with an assortment of peppers and crabmeat, and an unearthly seafood cream sauce. Beth had fried green tomatoes with crabmeat—a Southern delicacy. It was awesome. As we bowed to thank the Lord for such a meal a series of thoughts raced through my mind, and then two very distinct memories of similar moments of insight (forthcoming in another blog).

The first thought regarded all the time and effort that went into making the dish. Being a fisherman, I thought of all the folks involved in catching that redfish, which to my knowledge is not commercially available, so someone had to sacrifice for Jesus and go red fishing, and someone had to make lures, fishing line, reels, anchors and a boat and motor. Then they had to get the fish from the Gulf to Jackson and to Que Sera in a hurry. Then I thought of the hours and hours that had been spent by many people perfecting the sauce, and of the cooks, the waiters, the English brewers of New Castle Brown Ale, and even of the architect who designed the building, the men who built it, the painters, the decorators, and of the beautiful fans that kept the outdoor area fairly cool. And right behind my chair was a wonderfully conceived flower garden, full of color and obviously loved and nurtured. Our waitress told us she was new, but she worked hard to make our evening as wonderful as she could—and she did.

As we break through the veil of Western Deism and think of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in the light of the relationship Jesus has established with the human race, and indeed with the cosmos, we are ready for a simple question of enormous significance.

Why do we thank the Lord for the food?

Don’t get me wrong. Of course we thank the Lord for food and beauty, for life and relationships, for breath, for our wives and husbands and families, but is it not the case that when we thank the Lord for a meal, we are in fact speaking volumes about the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, as well as the ‘ordinary’ people who are involved in the meal?

When we thank the Lord for our meal we are instinctively or intuitively operating out of a reality that scarcely makes the front page of our rational theological discussions. In our prayers are we not acknowledging the participation (perhaps unwitting) of each and every person in the Lord’s lavish gifts to us? Our heart theology is way better than our head theology. As my friend Ken Blue says, “Thank God, most people live better than their theology.”

I will probably never meet the men or women who got up at 5:00 am to go red fishing, (if you read this, I am ready to participate) or the people who designed and built the reels, line, boat and motor they used, or the truck to haul the fish to Jackson, or the designer and manufacturer of those cool fans. And I will never meet the chef whose great great grandmother created that awesome seafood cream sauce in her kitchen on the bayous of Louisiana, and handed down its secrets to be tweaked through the generations. But before I was conscious of what I was doing, I was thanking the Lord for this beautiful moment and this great food—praising Him for His gift given to us through the time and effort and heart, and perhaps blood, sweat and tears of hundreds of people.

We all do the same thing every day. Yet, theologically we cannot, or perhaps will not, see it. We have so separated Jesus Christ from His creation that we swim in the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence and blessing, oblivious to everything but ourselves and perhaps a few friends. Our shrunken, distant Jesus forces us to live with the assumption that there is no Holy Spirit in the ‘ordinary’ moments of our human existence. While our hearts betray our blindness when we thank the Lord ‘for the meal we are about to receive,’ we are left to look over and beyond our humanity to find the Holy Spirit and a spirituality in another world—usually one of our own devising. All of which means that we look over and beyond people, devaluing their existence and participation, as we chase the ‘supernatural.’ This is the revulsion people feel when we in the Church act as if we are ‘in’ and others are ‘out,’ and as if we are onto ‘the real thing’ whilst others a ‘just people.’

In Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is present, not absent, and He is present with all of the life and beauty, creativity and music, burdens and joys and loves of the blessed Trinity, whether anyone sees it and believes or not. My yearning is that we would be able to see each moment in the light of Jesus, to perceive and enjoy the Holy Spirit’s presence, and participate in His fruitfulness with complete awareness. And what will happen when we do? If the Holy Spirit is able to do so much everyday around this planet through a human race that is as blind as bats, what will happen when we begin to see? What will happen when instead of imposing our own ideas and agendas, our pride and prejudice upon the Holy Spirit’s presence and work, we actually stop and pray, asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten us so that we can participate as those who understand what is going on in and through and around us? What will happen when instead of unwitting opposition to the Holy Spirit, we give ourselves whole heartedly to participate in His life-giving, fruit-producing presence?

We either see ourselves and others as merely human, with an occasional dash of ‘supernatural’ inspiration, or we see ourselves and others as those included in Jesus Christ and in His anointing in the Holy Spirit. The former will produce pride and incessant striving, followed by more pride, then boredom and burnout, and the divisive minimization of our human existence as we chase the spirituality of the non-human god. The latter will produce dignity and hope, and a regard for one another beyond race, religion, and all prejudice. For we will see ourselves and others as brothers and sisters (blind as we may be) equally included in the Trinitarian life of God. We will look for the Trinitarian life emerging in and through the ‘humanity’ of others, and we will cherish, celebrate and do what we can to encourage its emergence. Seeing ourselves and others included in Jesus’ anointing will give us the freedom to embrace our fishing and cooking, our mothering and fathering, our relationships, our burdens and joys, our ideas and designs as not our own at all, but as our participation in the presence of the Holy Spirit in person.

Holy Spirit, we are blind lot. Thank you for your patience with us and for the wonderful way you share the life of Jesus and his Father with us. Thank you for your utter determination to bring about the full emergence of the Trinitarian life in and through us, until the whole cosmos is alive with the Great Dance of the Triune God. We pray for and give you permission to reveal Jesus Christ in his glory, and our place in him.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Dualisms and the Holy Spirit

It is not always what you don’t know that hurts you. More often than not the real problem lies in what we don’t know that we don’t know. In speaking of what we don’t know that we don’t know we are moving into the realm of presuppositions, assumptions and paradigms—those invisible ideas and hidden categories that shape what we see and don’t see. This is the fundamental issue in all areas of human knowledge, and nowhere more so than when we attempt to think about the Holy Spirit.

It is critical that we reflect on how we are to go about understanding the Holy Spirit. Do we simply amass all the verses in the bible that speak of the Spirit, distill them into one or two or more general categories and call this the biblical doctrine of the Spirit? While we neglect what the scripture says to our peril, this approach could quickly fall prey to the problem of what we don’t know that we don’t know and how that shapes what we see and don’t see in the scripture.

For theologians such as Irenaeus and Athanasius in the early Church, and Karl Barth and T. F. and J.B. Torrance in our own time, the way forward is to stick closely to Jesus and to the light shinning in his very identity. Part of what these theologians mean by following the light of Jesus is that the very existence of the Father’s Son incarnate speaks volumes about God, humanity and the divine-human relationship, and not least about the Holy Spirit. The identity of Jesus Christ gives us a fundamental, a starting point, and an inner logic and framework for our thought. It also exposes deadly assumptions built into the Western mind, and these assumptions (which happen to be dualisms) dramatically affect the way we read the scripture and go about theological thinking.

To speak of Jesus Christ biblically is to speak of the Father’s Son incarnate, and of the One anointed in the Holy Spirit, and of the Creator—in and through and by and for whom all things were created and as sustained. Jesus has serious connections, to say the least. And unless we are going to posit that Jesus divorced himself from his Father, unanointed himself of the Spirit, and split away from being the Creator—in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained—then his very existence proclaims to us that the Father, and the Holy Spirit, and creation are not separated but bound together in very real relationship. Indeed, Jesus is himself the relationship. Jesus’ identity, his very existence in relationship with his Father, the Holy Spirit and all creation is the light of life, the secret, the key to God, to creation, to history and human existence within it.

“ I am the light of the cosmos. The one who follows Me shall never, ever walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).

This vision of the identity of Jesus as the One who lives in relationship with his Father, and the Holy Spirit, and all creation exposes several dark spots in our Western mindset. First, our presentation of the gospel typically begins with the announcement of our separation from the Father. We sinned. We are separated from God. But the very existence of Jesus, as the Father’s undivorced Son incarnate, and as the One who did not undo his relationship with humanity when he became human, proclaims to us that all forms of separation from his Father, whether mythological, theological or personal, have been overcome by Jesus himself. The gospel is not the news that we can be reunited with a separated god. The gospel is the news that the Father’s Son himself has come, the Creator, and he has overcome whatever separation from God we have created, and he did so in his own being and existence. We don’t make Jesus part of our lives. He has made us part of his.

Second, while a split or dualism between the supposed ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ dimensions of human existence is built into the fabric of the Western mind, and of Western religion, Jesus’ existence exposes such a notion as nonsense. He is the Creator, the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained. This Creator became a human being, and in doing so he joined the Father, the Holy Spirit and all creation in relationship.

“All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3).

What part of creation has come into being behind the back of Jesus? And what part of creation manages to continue to be without him? What part of creation is not included in his relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit? The ultimate dualistic disaster is ripping the Father, Son and Spirit apart, such that we could possibly encounter one without the other. Given the beautiful and utter oneness of the Trinity, the fact that the Son is the Creator and sustainer of all things means that he has a relationship with all creation, and in him so do the Father and the Holy Spirit. What part of our human experience is therefore ‘secular,’ without Jesus, devoid of the life of the Father, Son and Spirit? Motherhood? Work? Play? Romance? Gardening, golf, teaching, doctoring, governing, loving our neighbors?

Third, to go back to Irenaeus and his insight that the Father and the Holy Spirit were ‘accustoming’ themselves to dwell in the fallen human race through the life of Jesus—and over against our own ideas and assumptions—we are to proceed on the assumption that the Holy Spirit is present and at work in the relationships that Jesus himself has established with the fallen human race and with all creation. For in Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit found their way, so to speak, into real relationship with us in our fallen worlds.

What we don’t know that we don’t know is that we come to the scripture and to the discussion of the Holy Spirit and his relationship with us with a mindset riddled with dualisms, which keeps us from even suspecting that the Holy Spirit may be present, at work and producing his fruit everywhere. I once heard a young man say, ‘our job is to get the Holy Spirit into people.’ To begin with, only the Father’s Son and the anointed One could ever accomplish something as staggering as uniting us with the Holy Spirit. If you take Jesus Christ out of the equation of creation, the cosmos instantly vanishes. Not a single molecule survives a second without Jesus. And if the Holy Spirit decided that he would evacuate human existence, the cosmos would become utterly fruitless, void of life. It seems to me that we are giving ourselves far too much credit, assuming that ‘ordinary’ things like laughter, fellowship, caring, working, giving ourselves for others, being parents, making music, creating things are simply 'human' and have no Jesus or any Holy Spirit in them. Our dualisms have blinded us, and we don’t even know it.

When we finally meet Jesus face to face, I don’t think we will ask his forgiveness for giving him too much credit, and for overestimating his place in the whole scheme of things. I think we will be stunned silent by the sheer centrality of his very existence to the whole cosmos and to every moment of our entire lives. And I think we will be overwhelmed when we see the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit everywhere.

Where we are in our understanding and in our believing in the Holy Spirit is another matter, and is never to be confused with the Holy Spirit's presence, work and fruit-producing.

Holy Spirit give us Jesus’ eyes. Help us to see you in our lives and living, in our work and play, in the extraordinary ordinariness of life.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Irenaeus' Vision of the Incarnation

Reading the early Church Fathers always jerks me out of our Western deistic legalism back into the relational world of sharing in Jesus’ relationship with his Father and in his anointing in the Holy Spirit. Mark it well sisters and brothers, Jesus became human to share with us nothing less than himself and all that he is and has with his Father and the Holy Spirit. Only the blessed Trinity could dream of such a gift. And only the Father’s Son incarnate, anointed with the Holy Spirit himself without measure could make such a dream a living reality. Here are a few classic quotes from the great Irenaeus, disciple of Polycarp, disciple of St. John.

“…the Son of God being made the Son of man, that through Him we may receive the adoption—humanity sustaining, and receiving, and embracing the Son of God” (Against the Heresies, III.16.3).

“For [God] promised, that in the last times He would pour Him [the Spirit] upon [His] servants and handmaids, that they might prophesy; wherefore He did also descend upon the Son of God, made the Son of man, becoming accustomed in fellowship with Him to dwell in the human race, to rest with human beings, and to dwell in the workmanship of God, working the will of the Father in them, and renewing them from their old habits into the newness of Christ” (Against the Heresies, III.17.1).

“Therefore, as I have already said, He caused man (human nature) to cleave to and to become one with God. For unless man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately vanquished. And again: unless it had been God who had freely given salvation, we could never have possessed it securely. And unless man had been joined to God, he could never have become a partaker of incorruptibility. For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by His relationship to both, to bring both into friendship and concord, and present man to God, while He revealed God to man. For, in what way, could we be partakers of the adoption of sons, unless we had received from Him through the Son that fellowship, which refers to Himself, unless His Word, having been made flesh, had entered into communion with us? Wherefore also He passed through every stage of life, restoring to all communion with God” (Against the Heresies, III.18.7).

“For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God” (Against the Heresies, III.19.1).

“…the Word of God, who dwelt in man, and became the Son of man, that He might accustom man to receive God, and God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father” (Against the Heresies, III.20.2).

“And for this reason it was that He graciously poured Himself out, that He might gather us into the bosom of the Father” (Against the Heresies, IV.2.1).

“Now this is His Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in the last times was made a man among men, that He might join the end to the beginning, that is, man to God. Wherefore, the prophets, receiving the prophetic gift from the same Word, announced His advent according to the flesh, by which the blending and communion of God and man took place according to the good pleasure of the Father, the Word of God foretelling from the beginning that God should be seen by men, and hold converse with them upon the earth, should confer with them, and should be present with His own creation, saving it, and becoming capable of being perceived by it, and freeing us from the hands of all that hate us, that is, from every spirit of wickedness; and causing us to serve Him in holiness and righteousness all our days, in order that man, having embraced the Spirit of God, might pass into the glory of the Father” (Against the Heresies, IV.20.4)

“He might easily have come to us in His immortal glory, but in that case we could never have endured the greatness of the glory; and therefore it was that He, who was the perfect bread of the Father, offered Himself to us as milk, [because we were infants]. He did this when He appeared as a man, that we, being nourished, as it were, from the breast of His flesh, and having, by such a course of milk-nourishment, become accustomed to eat and drink the Word of God, may be able also to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the Spirit of the Father” (Against the Heresies, IV.38.1).

“It was for this reason that the Son of God, although He was perfect, passed through the stage of infancy in common with the rest of mankind, partaking of it thus not for His own benefit, but for that of the infantile stage of man’s existence, in order that man might be able to receive Him” (Against the Heresies, IV.38.1).

“…our blessed Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Against the Heresies, V. Preface).

“But we do now receive a certain portion of His Spirit, tending towards perfection, and preparing us for incorruption, being little by little accustomed to receive and bear God…” (Against the Heresies, V.7.1).

In these quotes several themes emerge with passionate clarity. First, the goal of the incarnation is not to appease an angry god, but to reach us with the very life that the Father’s Son experiences with his Father and the Holy Spirit. Adoption—being included, fellowship, the sharing of life, union, not legalities and accounting—is the point. Second, in the incarnation there is a two-way movement of ‘accustoming.’ In Jesus, due to his unbroken relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Holy Spirit are accustoming themselves to dwell with and in us, and in his life and death, Jesus is accustoming human nature to receive and share in nothing less than the life of the blessed Trinity. There is in Jesus a stunning stooping on the part of the Triune God, and an equally stunning transformation or conversion of our humanity to bear the life and glory of the Trinity. Jesus is and will forever be the mediator, the One in whom the life of the Trinity and the life of humanity are together in real fellowship and union. At the heart of the incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus lies this two-way movement of togetherness, which forever calls us to give ourselves to participate in Jesus. Third, and this is not a new point, but one that surely needs to be emphasized; it is the Father himself and the Holy Spirit himself who come to dwell in us in Jesus.

Over the next few weeks I will be writing about the Holy Spirit’s relationship with us and with all humanity. St. Irenaeus, with his vision of the Holy Spirit accustoming himself to dwell with and in us through Jesus’ incarnate experience is surely the proper foundation for any discussion of the Spirit’s work in our lives. Meantime, let go of the distant, unapproachable, disapproving Judge and ponder the early Church’s vision that the purpose of the incarnation was bring us to share in, to taste and feel and experience the very life of the Father, Son and Spirit. While it may not appear to us in our dark times that these things could possibly be so, the fact that they are warrants us to pine, and to expect, and to pray for more. For we have been given a place in the relationship that Jesus has with his Father and the Holy Spirit.