Church 101: Insert Wind Metaphor Here

I am a cynic.

I am especially cynical about “Holy Spirit leading” language. Too often we use phrases like “God called me to” or “the Holy Spirit led me to” or, my favorite, “the Holy told me to tell you” to abrogate responsibility, follow our own desires carte blanche, recuse ourselves from situations we fear or just don’t prefer, or even control the behaviors of others. In so doing, we shortcut wisdom, amputate freewill, and cause undo stress at discovering God’s will, as if he’s hidden it and we can find it only through a series of secret handshakes.

Oh, we don’t do these things maliciously or even knowingly. We honestly believe that God works through concealed messages that require Holy Spirit decoder rings or that Christianity is like a Bourne movie. But it all becomes suspicious when God seems to change his mind about what we should be doing or when he doesn’t seem to want us to do something uncomfortable or when waiting for “the one” (whether “the one” be a person, career, or ministry) keeps us from ministering to those around us.

You can see why I’m cynical.

But my skepticism created a doubt that we can ever know the Holy Spirit’s work. I continued to believe that we feel the Holy Spirit’s comfort in hardship and grief. I continued to believe that the Holy Spirit labors in us and in the world for God’s kingdom but that we’d only understand what he’s done in hindsight. I distrusted our ability to follow any guidance. It’s all so nebulous, wrapped up in our own desires and fears. In other words, I believed in the Holy Spirit’s power but discounted his guidance. He orchestrates events but we can’t know or follow that.

Then I read Luke and Acts.

There’s more Holy Spirit in Luke’s writings than ABC stores in Waikiki. Trust me, that’s a lot. As in, two per block a lot.

As I read, God reminded me: that Jesus’ fulfilled his journey through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus gave this same Holy Spirit to empower and guide his followers on the Christian journey, and that first-generation believers acted according to the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.

But he also showed me that this guidance came for the purpose of ministry and in the midst of ministry. While Paul was teaching in Antioch, the Holy Spirit called him to overseas work. Paul, along with the community of believers in Antioch, made a plan, and for the most part, Paul ministered according to that plan. On his travels, the Holy Spirit called him to Macedonia, diverting Paul from his original plan. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s guidance did not happen in a vacuum of wisdom and action. God used wisdom, action, and the Holy Spirit to spread his kingdom.

Also, the Holy Spirit’s guidance didn’t seem to lead to a more comfortable lifestyle. He led Jesus into the wilderness to fast for 40 days and be tempted by Satan (don’t worry–I don’t believe this is a model we are to follow but a model Jesus followed). He led Jesus to Jerusalem so that he could die and be abandoned by the Father. He led Paul into a ministry that resulted in rejection, beatings, and imprisonment. The Holy Spirit will not make our lives easier. (Now that I think about it, do I really want to feel called by the Holy Spirit?)

The encouraging thing is we don’t have to decipher the Holy Spirit’s work alone. We do so most often in community through prayer. (I should say we do so always through prayer and most often in community.) As the early church worked out the implications of ministering to the Gentiles, they relied on understanding the Holy Spirit’s work, and they came to this understanding in community. The Holy Spirit’s call to Paul and Barnabas came to a community of believers worshiping and praying together.

Aye, there’s the rub, for we are Americans, taught to revere our independence in action and thought (to say nothing of our pursuit of happiness, but I’ll save that rant for another day). We depend not only on our Creator and Savior but on his body. We submit to one another and together understand God’s revelation.

God revealed his will in Scripture: to continue Christ’s ministry of restoring dignity, freeing the oppressed, and bringing in the outsiders. As we reorient our lives to this purpose, God will empower and guide us through the Holy Spirit.

For me, this starts with an openness to the nudges and promptings of the Holy Spirit. To do so is not to throw wisdom into the sea with cement shoes but to bring together godly wisdom, prayer, and the mystery of the third Person of the Trinity. I don’t believe every choice depends upon hearing from the Holy Spirit, but neither do I doubt our ability to know specific leadings in our lives.

I don’t know that I’m any less of a cynic, but I don’t cringe every time I hear someone use the words “called” or “led.” Not every time.

Church 101: Here Is the Church, Here Is the Steeple

I have a love-hate relationship with the Church for one main reason: when I open the doors and see all the people, I discover that they’re mostly like me. Serving and selfish, loving and condescending, hurt and hurtful. Turns out, I’m not always a big fan of people like me. Worse, I’m not a big fan of people whose fallenness happens to express itself differently than mine.

But no matter what I think or how I feel about the local expressions of this idealistic, historical, universal community called the Church, God chose to establish it over 2000 years ago during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost to do his kingdom work. While the Church is not the kingdom in its fullness, it is God’s manifestation through the power of the Holy Spirit of his salvific, kingdom work on earth until Christ returns. I suppose I have to accept that.

I shared recently how teaching through Luke and now co-leading a small group through Acts and selected Pauline letters has done something to me (studying God’s word tends to do that). God put together all these things I’ve known in new ways and added a dash of salt, and now this concoction simmers in the Crockpot, the scent of the flavors filling the house with anticipation. Ah-ha, I said. This is God’s kingdom, and this has ramifications for both the Church and for the church.

I saw that Luke is the story of the Warrior God coming to earth to do his salvific, kingdom work, reclaiming his people and saving them from oppression and evil through the power of the Holy Spirit. I saw that Acts is the story of God continuing his salvific, kingdom work in the Church through the same power of the Holy Spirit. And I saw in Paul’s letters local churches struggle with what this means and how to work it out and live it out and be God’s unified people, coming together on equal terms in the face of persecution and in the midst of cultures that valued things not of God’s kingdom.

And now I take this, alongside thousands of theologians (meaning anyone, whether lay or professional, who has thought about who God is and what this means, though, for me, I mean this specifically in the Christian sense) across time and space to figure out what it means in my little suburb and in the world.

As a friend in college used to say, it’s el fuego!

Sometimes when we hear the stumblings of pastors or the missteps of churches (of which, let’s admit, there are many), we forget that God is doing a powerful work. I easily list how the church has failed me and communities of people. It’s important to address these things, but for now, I want to look at what God accomplishes through this clay jar.

Hence, this new series, Church 101. I haven’t done much in the line of series on my blog before, but these thoughts lend themselves to just such a form, and I look forward to working through them together, with the community who from time to time gather at this space called L’Chaim (or on the local Facebook expression the blog), just as I have worked out and am working out these thoughts in my local non-virtual church. Each week, I’ll take a theme or motif from Luke and Acts to explore, peppered with how we see the first churches working these out through Paul’s letters. As I learn more about the Holy Spirit (more on this in a future post) and how he’s working in churches, I’m anxious to hear about his work in your lives and in your churches, ministering to the people around you in your communities and across the globe. (If I were cool and trendy and hipster, I’d try to get some sort of hashtagged to-do around all this, but since I’m just me, we’ll see where this goes on its own.)

(Nerdy footnote: As I taught through Luke, I depended mainly on Joel Green’s commentary, The Gospel of Luke, in the NICNT commentary series [not to be confused with NCIS commentary series, which as far as I know, doesn't exist, but someone will at some point come up with a Gospel According to NCIS, I'm sure] [further proof of my unhipster status: I like NCIS, although I haven't watched it this past year because my husband is more hipster than I am and likes to discover new shows, especially ones that no one's heard of or watches because he's cool like that], with some help from Darrell Bock’s commentary on Luke. For Paul’s letters, which our small group has looked at briefly [read: one letter per week alongside our Acts reading], I’ve drawn from Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; and several books and articles by authors including, but not limited to, Drs. N.T. Wright, Philip Payne, and Tom Constable. Also, my reading of A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight complements this study on the nature of God’s kingdom work through the Church.)

(Not-so-nerdy footnote: A great companion to this series is Belonging on Ed Cyzewski’s blog.)

Let the games begin.

Eyeballing It

I’m a big fan of eyeballing things. If God gave me two eyeballs, what other tools could I need? A leveler? Eyeball it. It’s straight enough. (This could explain why guests get seasick walking down my hallway where photos line the wall.) A teaspoon? Eyeball it (and if it’s vanilla, add another teaspoon or so). A ruler? Eyeball it. It’s long enough. (Or centered enough.)

My motto: close enough for jazz.

Just don’t open my closets. (Also, I once had a pie come out so, well, fluid-y that we had to serve it as a topping over ice cream. A problem? I think not.)

My husband, on the other hand, is a frustrated perfectionist. Which means his closet is empty, and his clothes are everywhere else. His filing cabinet is immaculate, but the papers are piled on our kitchen counter.

I feel like I should turn this post now toward a spiritual direction, how this amusing tidbit about my life leads to some sort of epiphany, or at least a small commentary on the culture at large and its relationship to something Jesus-y.

Be assured that this is exactly what it appears to be: a small, meaningless tidbit about my life simply because I felt like saying “eyeball it” and confessing to the fact that I view recipes as more of loose guides than strict instructions. Wanna come over for dinner?

But here’s a biblical metaphor that occurred to me while buying my new car last night (after poor Annie was totaled, sacrificing herself to protect my husband and son from the villain who rear-ended them; the new car’s name is Gustav, by the way). Gustav has one of those key-less starts. (Gustav also has three free months of XM radio, which means I’m enjoying all Broadway! all the time! but that’s neither here nor there.) As long as the key, which looks nothing like a key, is in the vicinity of the car, I can unlock my doors, start the car, and drive away. (In a few months, Eddie at Hyundai tells us, I’ll be able to start my car using my cell phone by proxy through their blue tooth technology.) Pay attention to the biblical metaphor lest you miss it:

It reminded me of the centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant by proxy. You don’t even have to come to the house, he said. Just send your bluetooth(y) authority, and I know that’ll take care of things.

So is Jesus’ power like blue tooth? And does that make the Holy Spirit blue tooth technology? I’ll leave you to ponder on that philosophical genius.

Visual Voice

A treat for you–today’s post is by Michelle Pendergrass, a writer, visual artist, and blogger, and all around sarcastic person (which is why we’re such good friends).

I can sing, but not well. Let’s just say there won’t be an American Idol tryout for me in the future because they’d feature me as one of the bad ones and the whole world would feel sorry for me.

I can write. Some think I write well, others not so much. Maybe I can hold my own. One compliment from several critiques is that (if nothing else) I’ve got voice down. While there are tons of definitions of what exactly “voice” is to a story, there aren’t too many arguments over the importance of it. It makes or breaks a story for sure. One could write a magnificent story, but without a stunning voice, it’s just another submission in the slush pile. I like to think of voice as attitude. Personally, I fall in the sassy, sarcastic, bold category and I think my writing reflects that.

Visual Prayer-Wait for the Promises of the Father

I can paint. Like–as in painting on a canvas and selling the artwork. I didn’t know I could until last year and it was by accident that I discovered I had it in me.  I was not a good pray-er…probably because I’m visual and tactile. I’d get lost in the never-ending list of needs and people and I’d start visualizing things that needed to be done or outcomes to situations and never get to the actual praying. Until I fell into (what I call)  Visual Prayer.  It started with doodles and evolved into a whole mixed media art mess that I’m sorting through as we speak.

Visual Prayer-Wait for the Promises of the Father

Through Visual Prayer, I learned I have a visual voice. (If that’s really even a term. If not, I’m making it one!)

In the same way the Spirit also joins to help in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings. And He who searches the hearts knows the Spirit’s mind-set, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

This: because we do no know what to pray for as we should.

No other way (that I’m aware of) has the Holy Spirit showed himself more boldly than in the process of creating Visual Prayer.  Because I do know know what to pray for as I should, the Spirit Himself intercedes for me with unspoken groanings…which in this case come out as images, colors, shadows, and highlights.  He calms me and allows focus like I’ve never known. My spirit is one with the Spirit and through the quiet, prayers are made and said and received and answered. My visual voice is the Creator’s voice.

Visual Prayer--wait for the promise of the Father

And because He is THE Creator of creation, because we are made in His image, we all have it within us to create. Your Visual Prayer probably won’t look like mine (because we’re unique.) Just like your fingerprint will never match mine, your unique visual voice will be yours. And like dipping our fingers in ink to see an image of our fingerprints, we also might need to dip our fingers in paint to see our visual voice.

Michelle Pendergrass has all of her fingers (and sometimes toes) in the mess of mixed media art or Visual Prayer. She and two other gifted women are leading women to artful prayer with the Creative Soul: Worship Outside the Lines retreat in September 2011.