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.

Safe Serving

They didn’t need me.

I had come to peel potatoes or shuck corn or cut out biscuits. I had come to stir pots. I had come to eat with forgotten children. But on this particular Saturday night, adult volunteers crowded the kitchen and outnumbered the children.

photo via flickr: All rights reserved by â–ºCubaGallery

The children came from broken homes, collected by CPS and deposited at this halfway house until they return to their parents or are placed in foster care. Before this night, I had baked a chocolate cake, iced it with more chocolate goodness, and dropped it off.

Safe serving, I call it.

Then I discovered that a group from my church makes meals for the kids once a month. Mostly, I stayed out of the way. At dinner, I sat with a couple of kids and a swarm of adults. I asked the woman in charge to add me to her email list, but she never did. They didn’t need me.

That is, that particular group on their particular Saturday nights didn’t need me. But the kids? Two years have gone by, and periodically I think, I’d like to do something with those kids. On their website, they say they need after-school tutors. I printed out the paperwork. It sat on my office desk for a year before disappearing into oblivion. At Christmas time, I think about these kids, who so easily get lost, who need to know they’re not forgotten, that they’re loved. I could knit some fun scarves for them, I think. Look at all these crazy yarns I’ve collected over the years! Perfect for a pre-teen, flashy, girly scarf. But inevitably, other knitting Christmas projects overwhelm me, and the scarves remain balls of yarn.

Now I have a four month old, and I think, how could I do this? What would I do with Keegan? I know very well that my mother-in-law would love to watch him for an hour each week while I reach out to kids who need to know that someone thinks about them.

Still, I hesitate. I procrastinate. I think, this year, I’ll start the Christmas scarves early.

The Post I Don’t Want to Write

It’s been seven years. Seven years since my midlife meltdown twenty years too early, my life and identity crisis. I had just graduated from seminary, where I had studied to go on the mission field.

Except I didn’t go on the mission field.

I stayed in a Dallas suburb to marry Chris, a decision I’ve never regretted. I have only to look at my sexy, caring husband and our beautiful son to dispel what might encroach.

But no regrets doesn’t preclude pain and confusion, for what should I do now, in this suburban land in the middle of the Bible belt? Over the following year, I worked through this question, and I became a writer. I’ve told the story before, so I won’t rehash the details now.

Last night, the pain and confusion revisited me. What am I doing in this suburban land, lush with prosperity, glut with churches? Months of spiritual emptiness culminated after discussions last night between my husband, his sister, her husband, and myself about the possibility of opening a franchise business.

Two things scissored at the frays of my life: what does this business have to do with our pursuit of the kingdom of God? and what do I, as an artist, have to offer?

Let me leave behind the first question for now except to say that I believe business to be an important aspect to God’s kingdom work on earth. To be discussed later.

We move on to the second question, then. My husband is a brilliant businessman, an entrepreneur exuding ideas, a strategist extraordinaire. My sister-in-law knows people and knows sales. My brother-in-law can manage people and businesses like nobody’s business. Their assets form a trifecta not to be taken lightly.

Then there’s me, the trained musician and theologian, the writer, the artist who daydreams in left field as the baseball rolls by. What do I have to offer this business?

Last night, this question broadened: what do I have to offer God, our family, our church, our community? Or, more significantly, what am I offering? After years of toiling and thousands upon thousands of words, I continue to write in relative obscurity. In addition, our recent life change has limited my writing time and my publication pursuits (i.e. the business side of my writing).

Don’t get me wrong: Keegan brings a plethora of joy into my life. I adore motherhood more than I expected. Watching his fascination with life itself reminds me of the care our Creator put into forming this world for us.

But I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the person I set out to be, and I couldn’t help but wonder what use my words are in this life.

My own writing came back to haunt me. After the tears cleared, I came to my computer this morning to find a note from Laura Boggess letting me know that The High Calling was reprinting an article I’d written for Curator Magazine about art I’d discovered at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. This art was created by the persecuted in ghettos, hiding, and concentration camps. What use did such art have? What audience did they seek? I wrote: “They found a power in art separate from functional services.”

I chuckle at the irony. What use do my words have? Perhaps to remind me a year and a half later that the pursuit of beauty and truth is in itself a worthy task.

And so, today, I pick up pencil, I take to paper, and I return to my work while Keegan naps. Unuseful? Perhaps. But important all the same. May I glorify God with this work.

(P.S. You can read the article at The High Calling here.)