Spirit_Rest_of_Us_FINAL.indd[This short series of three posts are excerpts from my book A Spirit for the Rest of Us. I am convinced that churches of Christ must rethink our understanding of and interaction with the Holy Spirit. Without a vibrant relationship with a living, indwelling Spirit, we are left with little more than our Bibles and self-discipline for becoming the people God wants us to be. That is not a very hopeful scenario in my thinking. So perhaps the time has come for us to think through the subject of the Spirit once again. These articles are an attempt to trace out how and why our theology of the Spirit developed as it did and represent chapters 17-19 (the closing chapters) of the book. Your comments would be appreciated.]

You and I, and our fathers and forefathers before us, have been hard at work constructing our religious house.

It is a magnificent thing, straight-lined and right-angled. It has all the necessary rooms any self-respecting religious house should include: a living room (for fellowship) and a library (for study); a large, public space (for assemblies) and closets (for prayer and meditation); rooms where doors can be closed (so elders can meet) and rooms where the lights can be dimmed (the Youth area). And it’s a house made to last: true to the Architect’s pattern; built on firm foundations.

Though still in need of some fit and finish, and being old enough now to require a bit of repair, our home is essentially completed. Some time ago, we determined to move in.

It wasn’t long, however, before some of us began to suspect our house was missing something. The roof worked, the locks worked, the plumbing worked. We had all the furnishings of faith arranged in just the right way. Still, our house got cold in winter and hot in summer. It was dark inside at night. The TV wouldn’t work. Food kept spoiling in the refrigerator.

The possibility began to dawn that we had constructed a religious house with every amenity except power. All the rooms we needed but no energy to heat and cool them. Every appliance of faith but not the essential dynamic that makes faith bubble and boil. Floor lamps and wall sconces and chandeliers in every room but never enough light.

In spite of all that, we did our best to make our house a home. We fanned ourselves in summer and sang Stamps-Baxter against winter’s frost. We ate (we always ate) by cooking over the open flame of our Bibles and our preachers’ fiery rhetoric. We lit candles from room to room rather than curse the darkness.

The longer we lived in that fine house, however, the more we suffered the consequences. It got lonely in there, no matter how many people crowded inside. Not that we didn’t have good friends or enjoy fine fellowship. But we missed the Master of the house. He’d gone away. He’d been gone a long time. And even fried chicken and multiple verses of “Just as I am” couldn’t make up for his absence. We wondered what was taking him so long. To tell the truth, we felt abandoned.

In his absence, we were forced to face our own inadequacy. There were things that needed doing in the house and on the grounds and in the neighborhood—important things. “He would know what to do,” we kept telling ourselves. But we didn’t know. The burden of maintaining that house hung on us like an albatross, unwanted but unavoidable. We didn’t have the tools. We didn’t have the skills. We felt unworthy, ineffective, incompetent. It was almost enough to make us bury our talents in the ground. Some of us did.

And at night, when it was dark and cold, the fear crept in. We could hear the world howling outside our walls. We knew what the world could do. And so we huddled close together, bolting the door and shushing each other and never going outside. It was dangerous out there. Safer in here. And safest of all not to call attention to ourselves with risky attempts at timid testimony and weak witness.

The world wouldn’t listen anyway. Not to us. It had its own power-grid, its own priorities, its own pursuits. What we preached about truth or crosses or sin didn’t interest people outside our house. There once was a time when—like frantic Dutch boys, our finger in every dike—we tried to hold back the flood. We ventured into the world with the sense that there might be other fingers in the dike besides our own: divine fingers, cloud-of-witnesses fingers. But that sense passed and with it passed the conviction that we could still make a difference. We grew frustrated. We felt insignificant. Our every interaction with Outsiders became more strident, less graceful. Hard-hearted world! Sin-deaf world!

Maybe it was the never going outside. Perhaps it was the lack of muscle-flexing that real interaction with the world would have required. But in time, stuck in our house, we grew flabby. We stopped growing. No one new added to the family. No one old become new again. We learned it was easier to put up with each other’s quirks and immaturities than expect anyone to change. The picture of the Master, hung in our hallway, became obscured with the dust of passing years. No one looked at him much anymore. No one looked like him much, truth be told.

The House Down the Road

The fact that we built such a fine house with no power is all the more ironic because we patterned our plans so closely after a particular house down the road. It sat on our street some twenty blocks away (its address was 33; ours 2009). We discovered that house, fell in love with it, more than two hundred years ago. Elegant, clean, neat—it seemed to us some divine hand must have designed and built it.

So we set about measuring every wall, pacing off every room, poking around in basement and attic and kitchen. We set up our own house on exactly the same dimensions. We included the same rooms, in the same layout, using the same furniture arrangements. By the time we’d finished construction, we couldn’t tell any difference between the two. Ours looked just like the original. It was an exact copy of the perfect prototype.

We were beside ourselves with joy. We felt faithful at last, after years wasted in homeless wanderings. We were full of confidence, hope, and not a little self-congratulation.

After the initial flush of excitement, however, we discovered to our dismay that light switches didn’t work, the oven wouldn’t warm, the air conditioning didn’t cool. All that effort invested! All the time and sacrifice! The house was finished. The work was done. But …

No power. No real power. Okay, a little power. Feeble power. Candles flickering. Fans waved. Blankets spread.  But nothing like the megawatt power that coursed through the walls of that first house.

Apparently, when studying the original, none of us thought to tear down to the studs and take a close look at the wiring beneath. No one poked around in the fuse box or wondered about circuit breakers. No one traced the line that ran from the side of the house, to the power pole out front, to some invisible generator beyond.

But every bit of that was an integral part of the original house: all those wires and fuses and power poles. That first house wasn’t just a collection of rooms and cabinets; there were sockets on the walls and cable running to every socket. Somewhere beyond the house was a real power source. Somewhere between was a conduit streaming outside power in. Somewhere within, power flowed and diverted and became available to all. The original was more than the sum of its walls and materials and design. There was power built into its very bones; power to spare.

In fact, when we really thought about it, it was this abundance of power, this access to power, that made the first house so attractive to begin with: the Master present and alive with power; the people inside, plugged into and strengthened with power; their voices speaking out with such boldness and power; their work in the world so confident, so saturated with power; their lives full of glory and transforming power. It was the power that made the house work. It was the power that made the people within work. It was the power that gave the house and all who sailed within her an aura of beauty and grace and purpose.

But that was their house, not ours. Slowly, sadly, we realized we had meticulously copied the form of their house and left out the power that made it worth copying.

Bad News and Good News

The bad news is our house doesn’t work. Pretend otherwise if you want. Sing louder. Light more candles. Huddle against the cold a little longer if it will make you feel better. But the presence and equipping and encouragement and partnership and maturation that makes a house a home is mostly missing. Of course it’s missing … we’ve never plugged our house into the only source of spiritual power capable of generating those spiritual results.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? I’m sure there will be some who are livid with me for saying as much. But there is good news to go along with the bad; really good news.

Here it is: There is nothing broken about our house that a little power won’t fix.

Our house has good bones. The foundations are strong. The walls are plumb. The rooms are functional. We don’t have to tear down our house in order to pipe in a power source. We can retrofit. We can renovate. It’s what we’re good at. It’s what we’ve been doing all along. Restoration. Renovation. Replication.

Yes, we’ll have to pull wire through the house we’ve built with such care. That will mean mess: holes in walls and dangling fuse boxes. It will require us to think carefully about where our power comes from and how we can connect to it. It will oblige us to grapple with forces we don’t understand and mysteries we fear. We’ll have to remove the self-generated solutions—the candles and hand-fans—we’ve come to know and love. It will mean construction dust again in our well-ordered house. It will mean acquiring new habits and fresh ways of living.

But think of the blessings plugging into power can bring!

Jesus piped into our house and lives without limit and without interruption. His presence available to us in every room. The warmth of affection and affirmation; the sound of an occasional, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Power tools for doing a world-changing job. The possibility of recharged batteries. Constant access to a Master Craftsman who brings centuries of experience to bear on our task. A building Companion who works independently of us (when necessary) and cooperatively with us (whenever possible). A partner who accompanies us on forays into a dangerous world.

No more loneliness. No more inadequacy. No more fear of hostility or fear of failure. No more frozen immaturity.

Presence. Competence. Courage. Confidence. Wisdom.

There are those living in our house who will insist that the old ways are good enough. They’ll resist the diagnosis of powerlessness and the prescription of Spirit. They will see such measures as extreme—even unfaithful. They will feel them to be an attack on the adequacy of the house we have built and on themselves as builders.

Others, however, will agree that something is missing. They will see the blessings of power and the need for the Spirit. They will love our house enough, and the people who live within her, to do whatever is necessary to make her pulse with world-changing power once more. They will love the Master of the house enough to let him have his way with the house that belongs to him.

The Rest of the Story

Someday, in the not-too-distant future, a stranger will come knocking at our door. “Is this the Master’s house?” he will ask, provoking no small discussion among those of us huddled inside.

“Yes,” we will respond suspiciously. “Who wants to know?”

The stranger will shrug. “Why aren’t there any lights on? Where’s the welcome mat?”

We will stare at him in silence.

“And why aren’t you out in the fields, reaping the harvest?” the stranger will want to know. “Why are you hiding in here rather than working out there?”

Our silence will become a low rumble.

The stranger will look around the door frame and search the interior of the house. “Where are your young ones? Where’s the next generation of faith? Where are your giants, the ones with victorious lives and vivid testimonies? Where are your wise ones, those who have grown deep and bear the blazing image?” He won’t know any better than to ask such questions. He won’t mean to be offensive.

But the rumble will become a swelling roar. We will rush out onto the porch to confront this stranger with his pesky questions.

“Who do you think you are, talking to us like this?” one of us will demand. “Don’t you see this fine house we live in? Don’t you see how straight and plumb everything is? Don’t make me show you our foundations!”

The stranger will look around with great calm and dawning awareness. “This is not your house,” he will say to us softly. “It belongs to another. You live here by his pleasure. You’re supposed to live here by his power.” He will look around again and shake his head sadly. “I’m here to inspect his house and collect what the Master is owed.”

We will look at each other in stunned silence for a moment. We will try to remember that this house, indeed, does not belong to us. It is his. And he has an agenda for the house, purposes for the house, that take precedence over our own. It’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to neglect the rent. It’s easy to withhold the Master’s due. What’s hard is remembering. We will stare and blink with the effort remembering requires.

It is at this point we will make one of the most crucial decisions of our spiritual lives.

There have been other houses, visited by other strangers, where the occupants of the house decided to rush the interloper, throw him into the front yard, and beat him for his presumption. Some beat him wanting only to shut him up. Some beat him hoping to teach him a lesson and send a warning to others. Some beat him lusting for blood. “Kill the messenger,” they shouted, “and the house will be ours!”

In fact, truth be told, there have been other times, right here in our own house, when we’ve done the same to other messengers.

This is not the first stranger to come knocking at our door. He won’t be the last.

But the story doesn’t have to end that way—in anger and rejection and blood. It could end with conviction and repentance. It could end with a huge sigh of relief. It could end with an invitation to the stranger: “We’re glad you’re here. It’s been too long. Come in and help us.”

It could end with the stranger smiling broadly and stretching out his hand. “Thank you for the welcome. I was hoping for that response.” He might lift an eyebrow in faint amusement. “Sure is better than the last few times I knocked at this door.”

If we have any spiritual sense, we’ll show the grace to be embarrassed and offer words of apology. “Come in,” we’ll say again, eager to chart a different course from now on.

“Don’t mind if I do,” the stranger will respond with great relish. He’ll shake hands all around as he moves with us into the house.

Suddenly, lights will begin to flicker and burn. A low thrumming will fill the house and warm air will start to blow from dusty registers. In a back room, a radio will play soft music. The smell of coffee will fill the house.

We will stand stock still, astounded by what is taking place in our house. We’ll hear things we’ve never heard before, smell aromas, experience sensations of taste and touch that we never imagined. We’ll stare at the stranger as he smiles back at us. He’ll seem to radiate power. We’ll sense it rippling from him in waves.

And then we’ll recognize him. In an instant, all at once, like he stripped off a mask and revealed a face we know. We’ll rush to the portrait hanging in our hallway and rub away the grime with a shirtsleeve. It’s him! He’s come back! We’ll jump and shout and dance. We’ll revel in his presence. We’ll bask in all that light and warmth and the mouth-watering feast we smell cooking. We’ll exult in acts, once so hard and laborious, that become simple when power is available.

We’ll pause long enough to recognize that something is changing in us. We feel at home, secure, loved, hopeful. We feel stronger, wiser, better. We are confident that we know how to act in this house and what to do for those outside of it. We’ll look around at this house filled with him and, for the first time in a long time, we’ll feel graced and graceful and gracious.

The stranger will take everything in, smiling the entire time. He will catch our eye and wink. He will know exactly what we’re thinking, precisely how we feel. And we know he knows, know it to our bones. And it doesn’t scare us a bit.

We move to him and choke out our thanks.

He wraps us in an embrace and says, “This is the way our house was always meant to be. This is how the Master’s house is supposed to work. Do you like it?”

We will nod in mute assent.

He will put a hand on our shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here,” he will say. “My name is Paraclete, by the way.”

We’ll start to give our name in reply.

But he will just shake his head. “It’s alright. I already know it.”

First Article in Series