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I don’t know if you have noticed, but one of the puzzling things that has crept into some churches over recent years is the strange habit of welcoming the Holy Spirit into meetings. Now of course, I am as pleased as anyone to know that the Holy Spirit is present with us when we meet together. However, the Bible assures us that he is always present at those times, and even when we are not meeting together. If we are truly part of the body of Christ, then we are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit both individually and corporately all of the time.
I struggle to get my head round the idea, seemingly implied in this new habit, that when I meet with other Christians, the Holy Spirit somehow leaves us at some point before we get there, and then waits outside until we ask him in. Perhaps I have misunderstood what people mean when they pronounce a welcome to him, but it seems an unusual practice, to welcome someone who has been with us all the time, and who will stay with us when we leave. And if, by some strange (indeed impossible) phenomenon, we were actually separated from the Holy Spirit, then it seems to me that it would be more fitting for him to welcome us back than the other way around.
I can certainly understand people being grateful for the fact that the Holy Spirit is present, and I can appreciate a thankfulness for those times when we may experience that fact in a greater measure than at other times. However, our awareness of his presence is not actually any indication of the reality of his presence (I suspect most of us are unaware of him being with us when we sleep).
I find this practice doubly confusing because it also seems to imply that the Holy Spirit is ‘out there somewhere’ hanging around waiting to be invited in. Jesus taught that when we drink from him, then the Holy Spirit will flow out from us. We are filled with Holy Spirit as a consequence of our union with Jesus (he used the illustration of us as branches attached to him and drawing life from him as the vine). There are times of special manifestations of the Holy Spirit (mentioned both in the Bible and through history) when he is described as ‘coming upon’ or in terms of wind sweeping in, but these are special times. The day by day and week by week work of the Spirit, often described as ‘walking’, originates in and is mediated through Jesus, as we live in union with him.
Perhaps we should be cautious about introducing habits and terminology that do not exist in the bible and which have not been used by Christians throughout history until the last few years. If we do decide to introduce something novel into the way we talk about God, it would be helpful to folk like me to perhaps explain what we mean by it, or maybe even to check out whether we are getting into a habit that is actually a bad one.
I am not really a sunbathing enthusiast, but I do know that if I wanted to be, then I would have to go out of doors and expose my skin to the sun. If I did want a tan, however much I desired one, it would not happen by staying in a darkened room and simply trying hard to get one. I am pretty certain that it would not work either, by praying very hard for the sun to come indoors where I am instead of me going out to where it is.
I do understand that even in a darkened room, whilst the sun sustains me and its warmth permeates my whole environment, just because one aspect of its work reaches into that sort of situation, it does not mean that all other aspects will as well.
I am very grateful to God that wherever I am, even in the darkest spiritual period of my life, his presence and power will sustain me. However, there are some aspects of his work, which will only happen if, by faith, I walk out of that room and consciously and deliberately expose myself to the full blaze of his glory. Paul says in two Corinthians chapter three that it is as we look at the Lord with uncovered faces, the glory coming from the Lord transforms us into his likeness.
Some aspects of God’s work, especially his transforming work in us, happen as we expose ourselves to him, and they will not happen when we hide away, even though we may be trying hard or even praying hard to make it happen. We are encouraged to enter boldly into God’s presence in order to find grace and mercy to help in time of need. The transforming power of God comes from the risen Christ upon his heavenly throne. It is from there that he sends his Spirit to make the work of his Passion effective in the lives of his people on earth. If we shrink away from the exposing light of the Spirit we will not change, just as the sun will not tan us if we hide away from it.
There is only one sun which sustains our world, but the effects of the sun itself, and its light and heat are all different in the ways they function and relate to the various aspects of our needs on earth. There is only one God, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit have clear differences in the way in which they relate to us, God’s people. One of the increasing areas of confusion in the churches is how we are to respond to God who is Trinitarian, clearly one yet also clearly three.
A blog of a few hundred words is hardly the place to try to develop a right understanding of the Trinity for it is a mystery. However, it is perhaps the place to sound an alarm, that a lack of right understanding of the Trinitarian God we worship, may be part of the reason why so many of us are not seeing the growth in godliness that we long for.
We may always benefit from the light and heat of the sun even when we are hidden from it, but we cannot receive the ultra violet rays needed to give us a tan unless we expose ourselves to it. In like manner, God’s providential grace will benefit us even when we are hidden from him, but his transforming grace requires us to actively open ourselves to him in expectant faith.
I once worked for a man who lived with his mother in a small terraced house in London, where their front garden was just a tiny patch of ground between the house and the pavement. In spite of this, his mother, who was a keen gardener, used to try to make the best use she could of the area available. Her solution was to grass it over but also to plant it fairly intensly with daffodil bulbs. Come the early spring, the patch was a mass of bright and cheerful yellow flowers.
Their next-door neighbour had a similar patch of ground but it usually stayed as bare or slightly weedy earth. On one occasion, when their own garden was in full bloom with a fairly spectacular show of flowers, my friend came home from work to discover that since he had gone out that morning, his neighbour’s garden had been transformed and was also full of daffodils rivalling their own.
Somewhat puzzled by the apparently instant transformation, my friend leant over the dividing wall and gently plucked at one of the flowers. It came straight away from the earth, and he found himself holding a plastic daffodil head on a green covered wire stem. The neighbour had discovered a short cut to apparent beauty that eliminated the wearisome process of having to grow something from scratch.
It is often a temptation to try to imitate a work of God by producing something which, superficially at least, looks the same but which has no more reality than a plastic daffodil. Jesus said that in God’s vineyard, he is the vine, we the branches, and his Father the gardener, and that the Father will cut, prune and tend as necessary in order that the whole vine should be fruitful. From our point of view that can be both a painful and seemingly over-long and tedious process. It can therefore appear to be an attractively easy option to create something that looks like the real thing, by pressing people (or allowing ourselves to be pressed) into an outwardly conforming shape of church structure and individual Christian behaviour.
When God deals with us directly, he always ensures that we are securely rooted in Jesus, and that the fruit in our lives originates in Jesus’ life not our own. When we try to produce fruit by our own efforts (often trying to conform to patterns laid down by others) it may look similar to God’s fruit, but on close examination it will lack the life that can only come from Jesus.
There are plenty of church options around that seem slick, professional and quite pleasing to the ear and eye, but many of them do not stand up to close scrutiny. Whilst initially they may seem very attractive, when you get close, they almost appear to have all come out of one mould. But no two living things are ever identical. Even in one species like daffodils, diversity is rampant because life originates in living roots, not from the outward pressure of a mould. Real things also show the blemishes that occur in growth, often from attacks by assorted pests and insects. Insects rarely go for the plastic version. They at least can tell the difference between the real and the imitation.
During the summer before I started work in my first job, I discovered that not everyone in a position of authority is as competent as their position requires.
As young fit teenagers looking for a bit of ready cash, my friend Rik and I found out that the local council were looking for some casual labour to clean out a boating pool on the seafront near where we lived. Although the pool had a concrete surround, it had been dug out of an area of grassland and the bottom of it was simply an earthy clay. Over the years, reeds had grown in the pool and they had begun to foul the small propellers on the boats. Quite sensibly, the local council decided to drain the pool and dig up the reeds. Rik, I, and a handful of others were duly taken on for a week’s work and we set to in glorious sunshine with a sea breeze to cool us down. By the end of the week, we had uprooted all the reeds and piled them in heaps around the bottom of the pool to await removal by a council lorry. One more good day’s work would probably have had the job completed.
Then a man from the council came to assess what we had done. He took one look at the situation, and decided that there would be no need to waste money on having us shift the piles onto the side of the pool and then onto a lorry. Instead, he said that if we refilled the pool, all the reeds would float and we could then rake them off to the side. So the pool was refilled, all the reeds sank to the bottom and we all got another week’s work to dig them all out again. The interesting thing, was that all of us ignorant teenagers, and also the job foreman thought the decision to be wrong, but none of us said anything because the man from the council was the one in authority and we assumed that he knew what he was doing.
A university professor by the name of Peters studied the correlation between authority and competence and came up with a formula called the Peter Principle. It was that as a general rule, people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. The idea is simple. For instance, a mechanic in a garage is both competent and reliable, the boss needs a new foreman and promotes him to the position. If the good mechanic turns out to be an incompetent foreman, instead of going back to his old job (which he was good at) he stays in the new one (which he is no good at). However, if he proves to be a good foreman, he might then get promoted to works manager. If the good foreman turns out to be an incompetent works manager, instead of going back to his old job (which he was good at) he stays in the new one (which he is no good at). However if he is a good works manager, he might be promoted to area manager etc. And so it goes on till he finally gets promoted to a job which he cannot do and then he stays there. In this way, positions of authority can have a tendency to be filled by people who were good at something else but who are not very good at the job they end up doing.
There are of course many notable exceptions and the principle is far from infallible. However, it is surprising how many times it does actually happen. Raymond Hull developed Professor Peter’s theory in a little book just called ‘The Peter Principle’ and it is well worth reading if you can find an old copy of it.
In local and national government, incompetence may be widely recognised by those outside the bureaucratic system, but rarely acknowledged by those within it. However, we all would do well to look at ourselves and ask whether we genuinely have the ability to match the responsibilities which we carry – whatever level they are at.
Incompetence will be minimised where an environment of honesty and humility prevails. For Christians, the Holy Spirit will always be nudging us to recognise incompetence in ourselves and then subsequently in others. Where robust but gracious challenge is welcomed, the Holy Spirit will press that home and help eliminate the Peter Principle in us and our churches.