Christian faith is earthy, concrete. It is not about universal, timeless truth or generalized moral principles. It is about God invading time and place: being born in Bethlehem, growing up as a carpenter’s son in the village of Nazareth, walking the dusty roads of Galilee. It is about Jesus healing sick people, feeding hungry people, confronting greedy people, and dying on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.
Christian faith is trusting that God deals with us in the same way: God invades our time and our place. It is trusting that the Holy Spirit is involved in the actual circumstances of our ordinary lives. The Spirit’s work changes the way we spend our time and our money, the way we treat our families and friends, the way we conduct ourselves at work. The Spirit pushes us to offer radical hospitality to strangers and enemies. God is at work, training us to live cross-shaped lives in the midst of this world.
It is unhealthy for communities of faith when activities like stewardship and mission get reduced merely to give money away. A healthy congregation needs some hands-on work for people to do. It needs to provide tangible ways for people to experience the blessings of serving others. The Iona Community in Scotland was founded by people who believed that part of what was wrong with the modern way of life was that our brains and our hands got separated too often. People who live there and those who visit spend time not only in creative thought and worship. Part of their day is also given to physical labour. Christian faith is earthy.
However, in the midst of our doing, we can forget that God is trying to do something in us. It is easy to forget that the things we do in serving God are the overflow and outward expression of the work God is doing in us. We love because God first loves us We serve because Jesus serves and saves us. We forgive because the Holy Spirit works God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace into our lives. We welcome the stranger because God has welcomed us. What we do flows out of God’s work in us.
What we do is also the means by which God continues God’s work in us. You show up to serve at the Inn of the Good Shepherd and God is forming you as much as you are feeding the hungry. You take a trip to Haiti and the service you render the poor pales in comparison to the way God is shaping your character, your priorities, and your heart.
That work of God is going on all the time. It is the easiest thing in the world to ignore it. There is always plenty to do. There are always lots of distractions. There is always enough resistance within ourselves that we shove the signs of God’s work to the edge of our consciousness. We do not attend to what God is doing. Worse, we do not respond to it. Eventually, we drift away from the source of our energy and our life.
Sometimes, when that happens, we say that we are suffering from ‘burn out’. It is a term that is borrowed from rocketry. A rocket, soaring upwards, runs out of fuel and falls back to earth. The problem with the metaphor is that it is too mechanical. It implies that there is something external to us that is missing: the problem is that there is not enough fuel; the solution is to add more fuel. Problem fixed. The rocket remains essentially unchanged. It nurtures in us the illusion that, if we could just find the right thing to change about our lives, we would manage well. We look for something external to fix what is wrong: we cut back on our commitments; we find a new time-management tool; we start a new physical fitness routine; we take more vitamins; we learn a new spiritual exercise that will restore our energy.
All those strategies may be helpful in appropriate circumstances. However, when God is at work, God does not merely change what is happening outside of us or what is happening to us. In fact, the external circumstances may not change at all. God’s Spirit works within us, changing our spirits. God’s Spirit forms us, shapes us, and creates within us the capacity to receive God’s life.
That is why the Bible uses organic images when it talks about the spiritual life. Jeremiah says that there are two kinds of people. There are the kind of people who depend on human resources to see them through. They might use God as a background or adjunct to their project, but the dominant context in which they operate is human knowledge, human skills, human resources. Such people, he says, are like those little shrubs you see in the desert: small, easily blown around, brown and dry. They are surviving but just barely, meagrely.
The world is teeming with the energies of God. We live in the midst of God’s extravagant, lavish creativity and redemption. Human resources makes up such a minuscule portion of that richly alive world. If you only count on human resources, if human capacities shape the limits of what you attend to, you end up with a life that is shallow and thin. When the lean times come, you lack the support you need to survive.
Other people, says Jeremiah, live strenuously. They are like a tree by a river: large, green, abundantly watered, deep-rooted and fruitful. They are the ones who attend to what God is up to. They are developing minds and hearts and spirits that are capable of receiving God’s extravagant grace and life. Even when the lean times come, they keep growing and bearing fruit.
God is always at work in your life. The Holy Spirit is always trying to shape your spirit so that you love with an eternal love and live with the energies of eternity. There is no circumstance that God cannot use to accomplish that work in you. God is at work, whether you are soaring like an eagle or trudging through each day, barely getting the hours in.
God is at hand. Sometimes God is affirming you, strengthening and supporting you. Sometimes God is making you face up to a truth you have been trying to ignore — a truth you need to face if you are going to be set free. Sometimes God is pulling you away from some habit that is becoming destructive. Sometimes God is refining your character to make it stronger, cutting away idolatry, or selfishness, or laziness. There is much in us that distorts God’s image in our lives. Always, God’s aim is to fill us with true and abundant life and to fit us to spend eternity in God’s presence. God wants to bless us and fill us with joy and make our lives fruitful.
It is not always pleasant to be God’s work. You can help God or you can hinder God. If you do not spend some time intentionally attending to what God is doing in your life, you will probably miss it. Says Jeremiah, “The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” Given free reign, we will probably going to misunderstand what is going on. Our hearts and our spirits need training and development so that we become capable of receiving God’s work in us and then capable of responding to it well.
“Abide in me,” said Jesus, “and you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing. You will become like a withered up old branch that gets thrown into the fire and burned.”
Whatever is taking up your energy, keep your eyes and heart and spirit open to the ways God is at work, teaching you to love more deeply. Let Christ’s great love permeate deeper and deeper into your life. Abide, make yourself at home in the love of the One who says, “I have called you by name. You are mine. I have cared for you from the time you were born. I am your God and will take care of you until you are old and your hair is gray.” (Isaiah 43: 1; Isaiah 46:4)
Abide, makes yourself at home in the love of the One who knows all about you — your good moments and your bad ones; the times of glory and the times of which you are ashamed; the ways you try to live faithfully and the ways you have failed. God knows all that and loves you still.
Abide in the love of Jesus who left the glories of heaven and went to hell and back to prove that nothing in all creation could ever separate you from God’s love. Abide in Jesus’ love. “You will be like a tree, replanted in Eden, bearing fresh fruit every month. Never dropping a leaf, always in blossom.” (Psalm 1, The Message)
Love divine, all loves excelling,
love that creates us in your image,
love that meets us in our brokenness,
love that pulls us out of deadly traps
and sets us in the wide expanses of your salvation:
You we worship;
You we praise;
You we love.
You know the ways we wander from your love:
the fears that drive us to make our world small and manageable;
the selfishness that shuts down our hearts;
the arrogance that limits our reach toward the ones you love.
Immerse us again and again in your lavish grace.
Bathe us one more in the cleansing stream of your truth.
Send you Spirit flowing through the dried-up, worn-out places.
Bring life — your life
your wondrous, abundant life,
for we pray in the name of Jesus,
the Way, the Truth, the Life,
your Word made flesh,
your Love. Amen.