Lectionary: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29; John 5:1-9
I began attending church regularly when my age was a single digit. I know church. Many worthwhile things happen in church; many wacky things happen in church.
When I was still fairly young I can recall occasions when a guest speaker would make a comment, backing it up with a verse from the Bible, and I would think, Hmm... but that’s not what that verse is saying… Oh well, must be something I don’t understand.
I now realize that those instincts were often correct: the leader was stating a personal belief and then ‘proving’ it by cherry picking a verse and squeezing a specific meaning out of it. (While we’re on the subject, using one or two verses to prove what you say is called proof texting and that’s how the Bible can get abused.)
The church lifestyle of sitting in a row and letting the person at the front (or on TV) tell us what we should believe has become all too commonplace. It is somehow in the DNA of churches to blindly let the pastor / teacher think for us and that has resulted in a decayed level of knowledge and critical thought in faith circles. Spiritually lazy congregants who want to be told what to believe are as much to blame as shallow leaders are in this crisis of thought.
First of all, life and spirituality are too complex to be put into sound bites, easy answers or single opinions. Any of us are capable of learning and thinking theologically. The church and the world need believers who are good, knowledgeable thinkers.
Any human being who is in church leadership needs to be loved and supported but also held up to the light of morality, common sense and solid theology. Don’t let your religious leaders ‘wing it’ or use ‘religious talk’ or give simplistic answers. Worse, don’t let them be frustrated or closed when you ask questions.
There is another thing that each Christian has at their disposal to filter out the dangers in our churches and lives. It’s called the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit and enables us to consider, but not be held hostage to, the opinions of others. There have been many times when that Something deep inside me warned me of a concerning teaching or event.
Of course this emphasis on church teaching is not the only reason why the Holy Spirit exists; in fact doesn’t come near the point. The Spirit of God is the practical, constant, internal voice of Jesus given to help every believer live.
Here, I’ll let Jesus explain:
‘Jesus replied, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them. Anyone who doesn’t love me will not obey me. And remember, my words are not my own. What I am telling you is from the Father who sent me. I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you.
‘“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am. I have told you these things before they happen so that when they do happen, you will believe.’ (NLT)
Remember the context of these words. Ordinary Jewish people are living in a society that is soaked in religious rules, practices and wordage. They are essentially under the thumb of educated, powerful, entrenched religious leaders who have no patience for questions and little concern for the needs of the people under their care.
Then along comes Jesus who not only questions their authority but shares fascinating, freeing, empowering answers to anyone who ‘has an ear to hear’. Large crowds begin to follow him just to hear him teach because he brings with him something more than just words. There is a Spirit that causes him to sink deep into the minds and souls of the listeners.
That makes it a very big deal.
The Spirit of God teaches, advises, heals, accompanies, loves. From the inside out. It ensures us that our identity is not conditional or tribal but instead that we are loved and seated in the person of Jesus.
How do we know when God’s Spirit is speaking? I can’t explain what it is or how it works – it’s just something you know as you learn to listen to God with your head and heart. It begins with focusing on God: openness, prayer, scripture, meditation, worship, learning, shared wisdom.
- If you already know what is right or good or loving – do those things; you don’t need the Spirit to inform you of every step. That’s already God approved.
- The Holy Spirit doesn’t exist to help us choose the right job or best house or the Honda instead of the Volkswagen; rather the Spirit wants to walk with us through those decisions because there are more important things to be learned and experienced.
- It’s a gut thing. You just know. You will feel unity with God when you’re in step with the Spirit.
- Sometimes God has spoken to me out of an unknown, inner restlessness or ‘holy discontent’. Perhaps rooted in my reading or conscience but confirmed when I moved forward and explored God’s part in it.
- Sometimes a door yields gently to a steady push; go there. Sometimes a door is stiff and difficult to open; don’t go there.
- Occasionally a thought inside my mind is reinforced by a small voice somewhere inside me, behind my solar plexus. An inner joining of something both mental and physical and spiritual. When it’s in my soul, I listen.
- There are specific times of deep wellness and joy; knowing deeply and inexplicably that I am in His care. (The last one occurred while walking on the treadmill … go figure.) Those rare events of overwhelming emotion, wellness, gratitude and love assure me that the Spirit is with me and that all is well.
Over time we develop a sort of ‘muscle memory’ for intuiting God’s voice within us. Our intentions become purer and we are more able to discern truth from the inside out.
As the Old Testament character Elijah discovered in 1 Kings 19, the Spirit is not so much a powerful, overt movement as it is ‘a still, small voice’. Or as some other translations describe it, ‘a gentle whisper’. So if it’s loud, closed, authoritarian or sharp – not God’s voice.
That’s it in a nutshell.