Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Narrative Theology of the Spirit

Chapter One - The Spirit in the Story of God
Chapter Two - The Spirit in the Story of History
Chapter Three - The Spirit in the Story of the Church

The Spirit in the Story of My Life

I have never experienced anything like it. I was reading some verses in my Bible as a sixteen-year-old kid when suddenly, I could not move. There was this paralysis that came over me. It seemed like time stood still, and all I could do was stare at the words on the page in front of me. To this day, I remember the sensation in my arm muscles. Eventually, I was able to catch my breath and regain my composure, but I really have never been the same since. Moments later, I found myself doing the only thing I could – praying and asking Jesus to forgive my sins and to lead my life. I know that not everyone has an experience like I did, but this is my story.

I have come to see that moment in my life as something that the Spirit of God did in me. In fact, maybe it would help if we thought of him for a moment as an emergency room doctor. I was flat-lined. I was dead. I don’t mean physically dead, I mean spiritually dead. Like everyone else in this human family, I was inclined to live life on my own, independent of our divine Father. Like so many prodigals who break from the family, I ended up a tragic case, overdosed on my pride and arrogance, and ultimately, unable to help myself. The worst part about it – I didn’t even know that I was a dead man walking. But the Spirit did. And in that moment that I was reading those Bible verses, it was like the Spirit of God shocked me with the electric paddles of truths. I jerked awake, breathing like the breath of life had just been sent into my lungs. And all I could do was turn and run home to meet my family again.

Something else happened in those moments. It was like I saw the light. It was like the light clicked on. (Insert your own tired and overused cliché here.) For the first time in my life, I could understand the Bible. When I say that, I don’t mean that I couldn’t read and study and grasp the Bible before – because I could. I could talk doctrine and theology with you. I could study a passage and present it in some kind of teaching form. What I mean is that, for the first time, after that moment, I could see how what the Bible said affected my life. I could put the pieces together and see how everything fit. Some people describe a person in their life who helps them make sense of it all. Often it is a college professor who opens up their mind to a whole new way of looking at things allowing them to see new vistas of opportunity. That’s what the Spirit did for me in that moment. He opened up my eyes to who God wanted me to be and how the Bible helped me get there.

There are some other ways I think of the Spirit in my life. One of them is as a highway patrolman. You know how it is – you’re flying down the road, trying to “keep up with traffic,” when you see the police car sitting in the median. The radar gun is out, and you pull your foot off the gas. If the police car pulls out and follows you, you’ll never speed back up to where you were before. The speed limit signs say how fast you ought to be driving, but the presence of the highway patrolman is actually what makes you drive that fast. I’ve had some times when it was like I saw the Spirit of God clocking not just the speed but the direction of my life, and I realized I needed to make some changes. One of those times was in college, when I listened to a particular sermon. What the pastor said more than made sense to me, it made me my knees tense up and my mouth go dry like I was about to be pulled over and get a ticket from God. Through that experience, I came to believe that God wanted me to be a pastor, and ever since, it has been like I have had the Spirit trailing me, keeping me on the right road, going the right the speed.

But I don’t want you to think that I only think of the Spirit as law enforcement officer who is going to get me if I veer off course. He is also like the GSP system in my car, directing and guiding me in the right way. In my heart and mind, often in conjunction with reading the Bible or listening to a sermon, there are lights and alarms that go off, telling me to take a certain road or to stop and help someone whose broken down on the side of the road. And even more than just telling me what to do, the Spirit empowers and energizes me to do it. When I am tired and don’t feel like helping, he gives me strength. When I am scared that if I give the only money I have I won’t have any for what I need, he reassures me that God will provide for me just like he has promised. Usually, the Spirit doesn’t speak loudly, so I have learned that I need to turn down the radio and all of the other distractions so that I can hear him. I have also learned that he speaks in unexpected voices, like the other day when I was sure it was him telling me through Brett Favre to take clothes to Hurricane Katrina victims. I’ll honestly admit to you that I am nervous talking this way because of all of the hocus pocus that is on religious television, but when the Spirit speaks, I am learning that I had better listen.

This road that I am on has led me to be a pastor, and in pastoral ministry, I spend a lot of time talking. This is interesting to me, because I am not naturally a talker, but nonetheless, I spend a lot of time talking. Sometimes I don’t know what to say. And I have found that in these times, it is like the Spirit of God has been my teleprompter. (I have to admit that I got this image of the Spirit from a Newsboys’ song, and I doubt I could think of a better one.) Especially when I am tired or sick, and I have to preach a sermon or teach a lesson or counsel a couple or talk to a friend, when I don’t think I have the words to say, they just kind of come out right. No, better than right – perfectly suited for the situation, like I wouldn’t have been able to come up with anything better if I had tried. It is difficult to explain, except that the Spirit of God has given me the words to say, like a teleprompter transmits the speech that a politician is giving. Some people I have heard use this as an excuse not to study or be prepared. “I’ll just trust the Spirit,” they claim, “He’ll give me the words to say.” But I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to do. I think that the more I am prepared, the more I study, the more I know and have a handle on, the more the Spirit can draw from.

But it is not just that the Spirit helps me when I am talking to other people; I think he also helps me when I talk to God. God is a divine family, a relationship of love between the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Spirit. From all of eternity, there has been this wonderful conversation that has been taking place between each member of the Trinity, and God has invited me, as one of his children, to sit at the table and participate. But I often don’t know what to say. I feel like a toddler trying to keep up with a grown-up conversation. I don’t have much to offer but a list of demands and desires. I sometimes feel like an eighteen-month-old, knowing what I want but not being able to say it in a way that anyone gets. And that’s where the Spirit comes in. You know how a mother always just seems to know what her child needs? She can step in and interpret different cries or wails or whimpers, giving the child not just what it wants but what it needs? That’s like what the Spirit does for me. He takes my mixed up and often selfish cries and translates them into something that makes sense in the conversation God is having.

Even more than that, though, the Spirit takes my deepest pain and makes sense of it. Everyone has a favorite aunt, a cool aunt that lets you get away with things your parents would never dream of. Mine was named Emily, and I adored her, as did everyone in my family. But she died of cancer when she was only 42. The pain of losing her hit scores of people hard, and I was one of them. One night, I was laying on the floor of my room, feeling overwhelmed by how much it hurt that she was gone. All I wanted was to talk to God about it, but I simply couldn’t. The pain was too deep and too sharp. All I could do was lay there. But I wasn’t there all alone. The Spirit was there with me. It was as if he took my pain and offered it to God (who personally knows the pain of loss) so that I could be somehow comforted. When those moments passed, I did not feel hollow and empty. I felt full and held. I think it was the Spirit.

All of this reminds me that I am not alone. The divine Family is with me and so is the human family of his children. We talked last week about how in the early days of the church, as people were getting dunked into a body water, the Spirit was dunking them into a body of believers in Jesus, the church. He is still doing that today. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing I have, that when you meet someone else who is a follower of Jesus Christ, there is an immediate bond and connection like you don’t have with just anyone. There is a Spirit there. The Spirit of the church is a unity that transcends political party or geography or ethnic background or economic standing or even language. Maybe more often than not, the presence of the Spirit can be felt in our communal interaction with each other even more than in our private interactions with God.

The presence of the Spirit that I felt on some of the days I have described here was not exactly normal for me. I don’t feel the Spirit everyday. I tend to think of him like a wedding ring. I wear my ring all the time. In fact, I couldn’t take it off if I wanted to. But even though I always have it on, I am not always conscious of my ring. Sometimes I fidget with it. Sometimes I clean it. Sometimes I just look at it. But most of the time, I just go about my day, doing my thing, oblivious to the ring that is on my left hand. That’s like the Spirit. He is always with me, but I am not always conscious of him. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just the way it is. But I’ll tell you what, whenever I take a moment to really look at my wedding ring, it reminds me of Vanessa, her love for me, and our commitment to each other. My ring means that I am always hers. And that’s the way it is with the Spirit too. Whenever I think of him, I am reminded of God, his love for me, and our commitment to each other. The Spirit in me means that I am always his. Because the Spirit is in me and with me, I know that one day I will be the man God wants me to be in the world that he is re-creating.

(c) 2005 copyright Robb Ryerse. Please do not republish without permission.


A said...

I think he helped you write this stuff.

Absolutely fantastic, this might be my favorite one.

The ring analogy is the bomb, I might have to "borrow" that one.


I can't wait to write stuff like this with you . . .

Robb said...

yeah, feel free to use the ring analogy. it comes out of ephesians 1, the spirit being a down payment assuring our inheritance.