Psummer of Psalms – Psalm 13

Meadow
For the audio version of the sermon, click here.

Forgotten

A week or so ago, I was talking about the weather in Wyoming and stated that spring was in June, summer was July and August, fall was the first few weeks of September, and everything else was winter. But I read a story that my wife Heather showed me a month or so ago about a people who lived in perpetual winter for forty years. It was not until a team of geologists was surveying the incredibly remote area of northern Russia that this family, the Lykovs, were found, a people forgotten by the Russian government and by time itself.

The story comes from the Smithsonian magazine:

The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer–a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the anti-Christ in human form”—a point he insisted had been amply proved by Tsar’s campaign to modernize Russia by forcibly “chopping off the beards of Christians.” But these centuries-old hatreds were conflated with more recent grievances; Karp was prone to complain in the same breath about a merchant who had refused to make a gift of 26 poods of potatoes to the Old Believers sometime around 1900.

Things had only got worse for the Lykov family when the atheist Bolsheviks took power. Under the Soviets, isolated Old Believer communities that had fled to Siberia to escape persecution began to retreat ever further from civilization. During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their village while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into forest.

That was in 1936, and there were only four Lykovs then—Karp; his wife, Akulina; a son named Savin, 9 years old, and Natalia, a daughter who was only 2. Taking their possessions and some seeds, they had retreated ever deeper into the taiga, building themselves a succession of crude dwelling places, until at last they had fetched up in this desolate spot. Two more children had been born in the wild—Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943—and neither of the youngest Lykov children had ever seen a human being who was not a member of their family. All that Agafia and Dmitry knew of the outside world they learned entirely from their parents’ stories. The family’s principal entertainment, the Russian journalist Vasily Peskov noted, “was for everyone to recount their dreams.”

The Lykov children knew there were places called cities where humans lived crammed together in tall buildings. They had heard there were countries other than Russia. But such concepts were no more than abstractions to them. Their only reading matter was prayer books and an ancient family Bible. Akulina had used the gospels to teach her children to read and write, using sharpened birch sticks dipped into honeysuckle juice as pen and ink. When Agafia was shown a picture of a horse, she recognized it from her mother’s Bible stories.

Living on the edge of famine, disease, and the ever-present threat of the harsh environment, the Lykov family managed to survive from 1936 until 1978 without seeing anyone from the outside world. Unfortunately, after reestablishing their connection to the outside the family members began to die off slowly one by one until now only one of the Lykovs, Agafia, lives alone in the simply hut, deep in the taiga of Siberian Russia.

Why Me Lord?

Our Psalm today, Psalm 13, is titled “For the music leader. A Song of David.” Perhaps, this was written by David and perhaps it is written about the stories of David’s life, no one really knows, but what we do know is that this particular psalm is one of trials and heartache. It is one crying out from in the face of great pain and difficulty. It is, in short, a lament.

So, what is a lament? One theologian sees it this way,

Lament is not despair. It is not whining. It is not a cry into a void. Lament is a cry directed to God. It is the cry of those who see the truth of the world’s deep wounds and the cost of seeking peace. It is the prayer of those who are deeply disturbed by the way things are … If we are to participate in God’s plan to reconcile all things in Jesus Christ, we must begin to listen to this cry. (Beckett 2016, 209)

A lament, in other words, is a recognition that something is wrong, whether it is with us or with another. It is a recognition that we direct toward God, in essence, agreeing with God that these circumstances are damaging and hurtful to ourselves or to others. It is an expression of passion and compassion where we see the suffering within ourselves and within others and call it what it is before God. As Rolf Jacobson puts it, “Psalm 13 is a prayer for when the bottom drops out.” (Jacobson 2017)

Laments and psalms seeking God’s help, like Psalm 13, make up roughly one-third of the Psalms in the Psalter. These psalms are the ‘crying out’ for God and his presence, an expression of the moments when our pain and anguish are at their greatest. Yet, as with all prayers and lamentation, there is a hope buried beneath the hurt.

Psalm 13 is a model prayer in that it models the lament or crying out prayers. Notice the first two verses of the psalm/prayer have a repetitive phrase, “How Long?”.

How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily? How long will my enemy keep defeating me?

Notice in each of these phrases there is a certain fear that the Psalmist is expressing: being forgotten by God, being out of God’s presence, being left to fend for themselves, and finally, being defenseless before a greater enemy. These are the fears of someone who is facing an adversary that is continually beating them, one that is mercilessly coming after them, day after day. In these words, you can hear the fear, the frustration of one who feels that they have nowhere else to turn, no one else to go to. They are unable to overcome the enemy by their own power and are being beaten down by it.

The next two verses find the psalmist moving from fear to pure frustration, perhaps anger.

Look at me! Answer me, Lord my God! Restore sight to my eyes! Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I won!” My foes will rejoice over my downfall.

Imagine someone crying out for help and getting no response. “Look at me.” “Answer me.” These are the demanding words of someone desperate to be heard, desperate to know that their cries are not going unheeded. Not only do they cry out but they offer some rationale as to why they need the help they are demanding. If not, I’ll die and not only that but the enemy will assume they have defeated me and they will take pleasure in my death. By extension, the enemy will be making fun of God because God’s child has been overcome by them, rendering God a helpless façade rather than the Almighty. The conversation is as much about who the Psalmist thinks God should be in these moments of trial as what the enemy is doing and how the Psalmist is reacting. A god who cannot protect the ‘sheep of his pasture’ from the hands of their enemies is not much of a god. And yet do we truly understand what being protected by God is or are we so afraid of death that life can lose its meaning in the face of it.

A theology of The Dark Night

I think what might useful is to develop a theology of the Dark Night of the Soul. Many of us are familiar with this phrase, a text written by Saint John of the Cross, but more often than not we know little of the book. John wrote the book in the sixteenth century, a part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and yet, it continues to be read fervently by Protestants and Catholics alike. In the richly symbolic book, John writes initially, a poem of how the soul comes to mystic union with God.

The darkness in this poem is not that of trial and pain but of the unknowing as we journey with, to, and in the presence of God. Often, we think what is not seen as not being there and yet no one goes to find air with their sense of sight. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “No one chooses the dark night; the dark night descends. When it does, the reality that troubles the soul most is the apparent absence of God.” (Taylor 2014, 134) This is the absence that I believe the Psalmists is speaking of in the first four verses of Psalm 13. And yet, this absence may be seen as a great gift to us. It is, after the ideas of Saint John of the Cross,

“intended for our liberation. It is about freeing [us] from [our] ideas about God, [our] fears about God, [our] attachment to all the benefits [we] have been promised for believing in God, [our] devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make [us] feel closer to God, [our] dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, [our] positive and negative evaluations of [ourselves] as a believer in God, [our] tactics for manipulating God, and [our] sure cures for doubting God. All of these are substitutes for God” (Taylor 2014, 145)

They are in some sense a God of our own creating, a graven image of ourselves and our culture and our ideas that we can comfortably bow down to without fear of losing a self-made identity. Ultimately, we must tear these down and replace them with something else: The One True God.

But, how do we know when we have found the one true God and not another image created by self?

When the God we seek to worship is not a creation of selfish things. When the God we serve is not bound to our human weaknesses and desires. When the God we bow down to is not born of our prejudices, our fears, our baser instinct, and primal desires. In short, when we stop looking for our God, forcing an image of being and wait for the revelation of God to be before us and within us. Then we can say with the Psalmist,

“I have trusted in your faithful love.
My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
because he has been good to me.”

And no matter has happened to us, we will know it is true.

References

Beckett, Joshua. “Lament in three movements: the implications of Psalm 13 for justice and reconciliation.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 2016: 207-218.

Harris, Glen E. “A wounded warrior looks at Psalm 13.” The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, 2010: 1-2.

Jacobson, Rolf. Working Preacher: Commentary on Preaching Series on Psalms. Jun 11, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3270 (accessed Jun 06, 2017).

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark. New York: Harper Collins, 2014.

 

 

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Psummer of Psalms – Psalm 100

Meadow
For the audio version of the sermon, click here.

Amen

Music may well be one of the most powerful mediums for conveying the thoughts and feelings of the heart ever to exist. The French author Victor Hugo once mused, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” while the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.” Even philosophers have considered the power of music as Friedrich Nietzsche remarked, “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

Often our musical education begins as a child. I can remember staring at the bottom tow shelves of the four feet wide by eight feet high bookcases my father built that housed his record collection. If I had to guess, I would say there were no less than three hundred albums in his collection, supplemented by weekly trips to Turtle’s Records and Tapes in Austell or Oz Records in Marietta. Pick a musical style and an artist and my father had something similar at the very least.

Much of my childhood was spent with a book in hand, listening to albums and singles in the living room of our home. My mother would play records or mix tapes during the day when she cleaned and on weekends it was pretty common to listen to music between sporting events on television. If we had just been to one of the record stores, we had an impromptu listening party with whatever we had bought, everyone sitting around and reviewing the arrangements and lyrics, picking out favorites for the inevitable mix tapes.

In the car going to visit relatives or on vacation, everything from Motown to country music to album rock found its way out of the speakers of the various station wagons we owned through the years. I can remember the dry Georgia heat blowing over our heads, lying back in my seat and listening to the Big Chill soundtrack, Bob Seger live at Cobo Hall in Michigan, and Waylon Jennings’s Honky Tonk Heroes, the music so etched in my mind that I can recall the lyrics with just the first few bars of music.

All these memories, however, go back to one very simple song that I remember first before anything else on my nostalgic playlist. It is a simple chorus that my grandmother, Nana, used to sing to me:

Amen, amen. Amen, amen, amen. (Sing it over) Amen, amen. Amen, amen, amen.

This simple little chorus is etched in my memory as the first thing I remember learning to sing and still brings back memories of my grandmother. This simple, traditional folk-gospel song, made popular in the Sidney Poitier film Lilies of the Field, has its origins further back than just its life in America as a spiritual sung out of the pain and hope of an enslaved people. It is a modern representation of a musical form called a Psalm, the subject of our sermon series that we start today.

What is a Psalm?

James May writes, “The psalms…comprehend the complexity of human life, the variety in the Bible, the elements of the doctrine of salvation, and the two dimensions of the divine-human communication.” (Mays, Psalms 1994, 1) The short answer to that question is that Psalms are quite simply, the songs that Israel sang in their worship of God. Each psalm or song is a part of the corporate stories and worship of the Jewish people, their experiences written in the form of poetry and set to music. Think of it as a Columbia House catalog that everyone got a free subscription to or for those of you who are younger than forty, an Amazon Unlimited subscription gives you access to all the streaming music on Amazon. You can pick your life circumstances, your place in the journey at the moment and find a Psalm that fits the bill.

Psalms were an important way to express the ideas of the people who followed the God they called Adonai as they journeyed from being a handful of people following the head of their family, Abraham, to the slavery of Egypt, to the promised land of Canaan, to the great monarchies of David and Solomon, back into captivity in Babylon, and finally to the diaspora and the synagogue. All of these stories, the mythos of the people who became known as Israelites, are contained in numerous ways in these one hundred fifty pieces of poetry set to music. They also became, along with Isaiah, part of the backbone of the New Testament. These two texts are quoted more often than any others in the New Testament collection and they provided the gospels with much of their connection to the Jewish people and Jewish worship such as Jesus words on the cross from Psalm 22.

From then until now, the psalms have been a part of corporate worship. Many of the songs we sing, whether we sing from hymnals, psalters, or chord charts, have reference to if not outright quotations from Psalms. Hymnal favorites like He Leadeth Me: O Blessed Thought and Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and more contemporary tunes like Blessed Be Your Name and You Are Good.

Psalms also act in ways that express the social histories and ethics that have been passed down through the generations, a sort of spiritual disciplines guidebook if you will. They are a means of defining godly character and how that character should find voice and action in the life of a child of God. They are sources of prayers and meditations that lead us into ways of being and living, nurturing the soul of the individual and the community. Walter Bruggemann writes,

“When the community praises, it submits and reorders life. It is not only a moment of worship but also an embrace of a doxological life which is organized differently. So the summons is a summons to reorient life.” (Brueggemann 1985, 65)

It is our way of learning to live a life that is, as the writer Paul says, “living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service.”

The Old Hundred

As we come this morning to our first psalm, we find words that are familiar in many ways. One theologian writes,

“It breathes a faith of simple trust, glad surrender, and faithful responsiveness. It is not sung by newcomers who are only now embracing the faith but by those who are seasoned and at home in this faith and piety. Nor is it sung by the alienated who have any cause either against God or neighbor.” (Brueggemann 1985, 65)

And another says,

 “This psalm sings that we walk daily through a creation that God loves and that God loves us (“we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture”). The psalm sings that God’s character is different than those other gods — money, success, youth, etc. — who would seek to rule us. The Lord is a God whose character is marked by “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” (Jacobson 2017)

With those comments in mind let’s look deeper into the words themselves. The psalm introduces itself as a psalm of thanks.  So often in the life of Israel, they came to places where they saw God performing great deed on their behalf and their response was to sing or declare their praise for the work of God, often seeing it as the literal salvation or physical saving of the people. Whether this was the case or not, we don’t know but human nature being what it is, I would guess that the psalm was written after God had once again delivered either the people as a whole or the individual who wrote the psalm from something difficult.

The Psalm itself is broken up into two sections: the first four verses which are a call to praise and worship and the final verse which offers the reason for praise.  In that call to worship, there are several imperative statements to this introductory Psalm. All of these imperatives are intended to lead the individual into the presence of God which is “the first and fundamental human act that constitutes worship” (Mays, Psalms 1994, 317). We are called to shout, serve, come, know, enter, thank, and bless with a conclusion in the final verse to explain why we should do these things.

The first imperative in verse one is shout, an imperative that calls the worshiper to an attitude and mindset of praise.  “The characteristic first part of a hymn of praise is a summons to praise…To praise is to reject alternative loyalties and false definitions of reality.” (Brueggemann 1985, 65) In calling the earth and its people to “Shout triumphantly to the Lord”, the psalmist is calling them to direct their worship to the God of Israel and no other. The next is the call to serve God but not just with the drudgery of some worker drone. We work to celebrate, our efforts brought about by the joy we feel from being in the presence of God. In order to do this, we have to come before the Lord and continue the shouting we mentioned first. As we begin this worship with the first three things, we know or make an acknowledgment that God is the Lord, the only god to be worshiped in a land surrounded by polytheistic nations and cultures. Finally, we enter through the gates of the temple and offer thanks and praise as we come into the courtyard of presence.

We see this in a spiritual sense in our day but in the day the psalmist wrote this it was quite literal.  Israel was a land of two houses, two kings. The call of the psalmist is one made by the King of Heaven, whose house, the temple, sat next to the Davidic King of Israel. In the same way that one might come into the presence of an earthly king with humility and praise, one was to come with greater humility and praise before the Lord of Heaven and all Creation. Service was an expectation of any servant and the offering of praise and thanks was the expected behavior of servants before their master or king. There is a confessional mode of being that is implicit in this humility and praise. The people who come before the Lord are confessing by knowing/acknowledging that Adonai is the Lord. This confessional is central to the reason for worship in verse five: The Lord is good, his love last forever, and his faithfulness lasts through generations.

These imperatives and this confession become as we said before a spiritual practice in imitation of forefathers, a continuation of the worship offered in the temple in days past. It becomes a worship of remembrance brought into the present and practiced in the moment. One writer draws on this theme saying, “Doxology as remembering puts life in perspective, affirms it is a gift and not achievement, offers pasts out of which to assess presents and evoke alternative futures.” (Brueggemann 1985, 68) We continue in this heritage of doxology, of literally ‘studying and practicing praise’ as followers of Jesus.

References

Brueggemann, Walter. “Psalm 100.” Interpretation 39, no. 1 (Jan 1985): 65-69.

Jacobson, Rolf. Working Preacher: Commentary on Preaching Series on Psalms. Jun 11, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3270 (accessed Jun 06, 2017).

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Mays, James Luther. “Worship, world, and power: an interpretation of Psalm 100.” Interpretation 23, no. 3 (Jul 1969): 315-330.

 

 

The Reason for Being

 

Wheat copy
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

 

Ghosts and other things that don’t really go bump at all

I love ghost stories. I remember the first volume of horror fiction I read was when I was in the third grade, Tales of Edgar Allen Poe. I swiped it off a shelf where my father had a bunch of other books and read The Tell-Tale Heart, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and my personal favorite, A Cask of Amontillado. After that, I tried to find every ghost story I could get my hands on anthologies of kid’s scary stories from the library, stories about urban legends, all the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew books that had ghosts, and finally, the modern grandmaster himself, Stephen King.

I was not only fascinated with the stories on paper, I was also intrigued by the stories that I heard from friends and relatives. My own family boasted no less than a dozen stories that I can remember about houses that people had lived with specters in the ceiling, doorways blocked and guarded by certain family members who had feuded with the dead during their lifetimes, or in cemeteries that had phantom crying headstones. As I got older, I began to look for these sites, a sort of amateur ghost hunter wandering North Georgia and the southeastern United States, looking for haunted buildings and spooky spots.

In the course of my teenage wandering, however, I ran into a different kind of spirit. It was at a youth rally in the college town of Carrollton, Georgia that I had my first real encounter of any memory with the Holy Spirit. Thus began a journey that has led on its own ghost hunt, a hunt to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit as I tried to understand what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. At times, I have followed the leading of that Spirit, at others, I have simply chosen my own way and wandered down other strange roads and paths.

One thing that I never thought about or really considered was what it meant to be led by or to follow the Holy Spirit. For me, it was always some sort of feeling that tugged me one way or another as I sought to find whatever Kingdom Work was going on in my vicinity. It was a yearning of the heart that drew me in a direction, sometimes in ways that were perfectly logical, other times in ways that made no sense to my unseeing mind. Yet, I never took the time to consider what it meant to understand the workings and ways of the Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost, Spirit of God, however you chose to name the “…life-force sustaining all life” (Kärkkäinen 2004, 19), “…the principle of the active presence of the transcendent God with his creation…the medium of the participation of created life in the Trinitarian divine life” (Kärkkäinen 2004, 20).

It’s a little early in the season, Halloween isn’t for another five months, but this morning, as we consider the meaning and the effects of Pentecost on the life of the church, I want us to do a little ghost hunting, a bit of looking for the Holy Ghost in the life of the church as well as our own lives.

Finding Spirits

I cannot think of anything more existential – that is more related to seeking a life of authenticity amidst a human society of meaninglessness and absurdity – than the experience of encountering the Holy Spirit. But what is it? What are we encountering or engaging with when we are in the presence of the Spirit of God? Throughout the history of the church, theologians, laymen, and seekers of various kinds have tried to understand the work and nature of the Holy Spirit. The early church father Basil of Caesarea writes that the Holy Spirit is “a substance endowed with intelligence, of infinite power, of a greatness which knows no limit, which cannot be measured in times or ages, and which lavishes its good gifts.” (Caesarea 2007, 191) Cyril of Alexandria writes that the Holy Spirit is the bringer of unity, “The one and undivided Spirit of God, who dwells in us all, leads us into spiritual unity.” (Alexandria 2007, 205) Others, however, have seen the Holy Spirit in less conventional terms, “a supreme field of power that pervades all of creation” (Kärkkäinen 2004, 20), that which embraces “all of life, in every sphere, and in every direction (Oden 2009, 267), or an internalization of the norms of Jesus exhibited in the life of his disciples of all ages (Hector 2008, 17).

The truth is, our understanding of the Holy Spirit is reminiscent of what Paul writes about the experience of love and unity in 1 Corinthians 13: “…a reflection in a mirror…”, something seen as a distortion of the real world, a glimpse of what is through a lens. As with all lenses, there is a certain reshaping that happens, a modifying of the image that leaves you with a two-dimensional appearance of something three-dimensional. In much the same way that we have shaped the culture of the other aspects of our lives around us to suit our personal comfort level, we also shape our understanding of faith and the tenets of faith that we choose to engage with. This can make it difficult to find understanding on any given topic but I have always tried to look for the commonalities that tie the various opinions and perspectives together.

First off, we understand that God is Spirit. John chapter four speaks to this as Jesus utters those exact words, “But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”[1] The Holy Spirit, while defined as a separate person within the Trinity, is understood best as the Spirit of God. While people may choose to try and do the mental gymnastics necessary to create a systematic theology around a sound theory of Trinity as an existentialist, I have chosen to be more concerned with the experience of the Spirit and the presence that the Spirit brings. And that presence is the presence of God.

Second, we can understand that the Spirit of God is made available to all who seek. We celebrate Pentecost today as a celebration of the Spirit being poured out on the disciples in Acts chapter two but then the celebration does not end there as the Spirit of God continues to work and reach out into the world today. In the Wesleyan sense of it, the Spirit of God offers the three graces: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. It is the Spirit which calls out to us with prevenient grace before we begin the journey of following Jesus. It is the Spirit which in the moment of realizing our need to change offers a justifying or forgiving grace to help us begin the journey of Christ with a new heart. And it is the Spirit of God that journeys with us as we continue on the Way of Jesus that strengthens us and reaches out to keep us drawn close to the way. All of these graces are offered freely to all who would seek them and live in them through – meaning with the help and guidance of – the Holy Spirit.

Finally, most all agree that the Holy Spirit is present in the continuing creative process and all of the creation. From the beginning, the ru’ach or Spirit moved on the waters of the chaos to bring order to creation and continues to provide order. One theologian writes,

“The Spirit of God can be understood as the supreme field of power that pervades all of the creation. Each finite event or being is to be considered as a special manifestation of that field, and their movements are responsive to its forces.” (Kärkkäinen 2004, 20)

That sounds almost like a description of a science fiction novel, but the truth this idea of a ‘field’ is the idea that the Holy Spirit pervades all things and because of that it is the Spirit of creation, the created order as God brought it into being. As we continue to act as stewards of both the created order and the cultural order, we are tasked with being ‘in tune’ with the work of the Holy Spirit that we may find and follow the direction of God’s Spirit. This ‘spiritual tuning’ is what we would call ‘being led by the Spirit’, a combination of our learning from scripture, tradition, reason, and experience or if you like, our experience with God as we have written it down, passed it down, thought about it, and how we have responded it.

Being a little fruity

At our Faith, Food, and Film movie group last night, we viewed the film Hugo, the story of an orphaned boy who is trying to understand his reason for being, while living in the walls of a Paris train station during the 1930s. One of the pivotal moments of the films finds the title character, Hugo, and his friend Isabelle looking out over the evening lights of Paris. Hugo says,

“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.” (Logan and Selznick 2011)

Hugo does indeed find his purpose and the film goes on to a happy ending, but many people in the church today find themselves wondering about their purpose, their ‘What do I do with my life?” question. Often what we have heard about churches (if we are lucky given this day and age) is that we are little more than a bunch of ‘do-gooders’, nice people who are trying be nice to others. But that isn’t the truth of it of course. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote,

“A church which is nothing more than a benevolent, socially useful group can be replaced by other groups not claiming to be churches; such a church has no justification for its existence.” (Tillich 1964, 177)

To be the nice people we are talking about is to be followers, both in being and doing, of Jesus of Nazareth. The reason for being is the preparation for doing. As we abide/are in the Holy Spirit, we prepare for the doing/living of the life of Jesus as the Spirit continues to teach us according to the promise of Jesus in the Gospel of John where Jesus says, “when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.”[2]

Looking at the passage today, we find Paul writing about being “guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires.” Paul goes on to write about several personality traits, or character traits if you prefer, brought into being for those who are ‘in the Spirit’ or better said, are being guided by the Spirit of God. The writer lists them as ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. These are in opposition to the ‘sefish desires’ that are within us, which Paul says are ‘sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that.’

I believe Paul is writing this to the Galatian church, speaking in a pastoral tone, to illustrate the competing mindset that exists within us, a mindset of the world-system, natural world, selfish life if you will, and the life of the Spirit, the life of emulating the person and character of Jesus. He is also saying that our choice will lead to what he has termed as ‘fruit’ or the by-product of our chosen way of being and doing. The one way leads to a life of self-interest and self-destruction where live as damaged beings, inflicting hurts on ourselves and others. The other, a way of peace and love, emulating the life of Jesus and living out the healthiest aspects of the creation within us as we are connected to creation around us. The choice being presented is a diverging of ways within us that calls us to decide who we would like to become and how we would like abide in this existence. It is a way of being that allows us to be interconnected in a way that as a unified group, we can live out this Truth that the Spirit of God seeks to ‘guide us into’ and in the process be the most Jesus-like version of selves individually so that together, we might be the most Jesus-like church. As one theologian wrote,

“He who is grasped by the Spirit can speak to one who needs his help in such a way that the Spirit can get hold of the other through him, and thus help becomes possible. For Spirit can heal only what is open to Spirit.” (Tillich 1964, 202)

Our choice is clear, be open to Spirit and the interconnectedness of creation and the creator or close ourselves off to the harm and detriment of ourselves and others. It is being a conduit to channel the fruit of the Spirit from God to one another and the world around us or being a sewage dump for our baser instincts and fears. Let us ‘be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires.’[3]


References

Alexandria, Cyril of. “On the Role of the Holy Spirit.” In The Christian Theology Reader, by Alister E. McGrath, 205-206. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Caesarea, Basil of. “On the Work of the Holy Spirit.” In The Christian Theology Reader, by Alister E. McGrath, 190-192. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Hector, Kevin W. “The mediation of Christ’s normative Spirit: a constructive reading of Schleiermacher’s Pneumatology.” Modern Theology, 2008: 1-22.

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. “The working of the spirit of God in creation and in the people of God: the pneumatology of Wolfhart Pannenberg.” Pneuma, 2004: 17-35.

Logan, John, and Brian Selznick. Hugo. Directed by Martin Socrsesee. Performed by Asa Butterfield, & Moretz, Chloë Grace Moretz. 2011.

Oden, Patrick. “An Emerging Pneumatology: Jürgen Moltmann and the Emerging Church in Conversation.” Journal o f Pentecostal Theology, 2009: 263-284.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Vol. 3. London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1964.


[1] John 4:23-24

[2] John 16:13

[3] Galatians 5:16