Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Speaking Metaphorically

This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)

This past Sunday we began the season following Pentecost.  As we follow the liturgical church calendar, we mark each Sunday going forward by how many Sundays it has been since Pentecost (the First Sunday after Pentecost, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, etc.).  We will do this until we reach Advent (the four weeks prior to Christmas) when we start our annual journey through the church seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost) all over again.  The season following Pentecost is the longest of the year and symbolizes where we are as a community of believers—doing our best to experience God in our daily lives.  According to traditional Christian doctrine, we experience God by means of the Holy Spirit.

The problem with the Holy Spirit is that who and what the Holy Spirit is remain elusive.  The portrayal of the Holy Spirit in the Christian scriptures is vague when it comes to describing what the Holy Spirit is but quite concrete in describing the Spirit’s effects.  Although the characters in the New Testament do not know when the Spirit will visit them or in what way they will experience it (flames, strange tongues, dreams, intuitions, human fellowship, etc.), the early church grows in number and spreads geographically according to the Spirit’s direction.  Furthermore, according to the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, we the readers are meant to understand the Spirit that energized the early church as the same Spirit of God who was at work throughout the history of Israel and the history of the world.  Yet even this biblical background is not enough for us to adequately capture what or who is the Holy Spirit.

As I shared Sunday, the “Great Schism” between the Western and Eastern Churches occurred among other reasons because of a disagreement over the nature of the Holy Spirit.  The Western Church insisted the Spirit originated with Christ (Christ came first!), while the Eastern Church declared the Spirit as part of the Trinity was always present as an equal “person” of God.  Each view has its strengths; theologian John Macquarrie notes that the Western view maintains consistency with Jesus and guards against extremism justified by a claim of the Spirit’s leadership, i.e. if it is not consistent with the love of Jesus then it’s not truly Christian.  Maquarrie also notes that the Eastern view, however, recognizes that God’s Spirit is at work outside the church in the entire world, even in other religions.  I figure why choose between the two?  Why not believe in a Spirit that is consistent with the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ and that is at work everywhere?

As with most things with God, we humans are left to grasp for language to describe who and what God is.  We are left with metaphors.  When it comes to the Holy Spirit, the church has long spoken of the Trinity or the three “persons” of God or the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, yet each of these terms works only to the extent they help believers to understand their experience of God.  To teach about the Spirit, and thus the Trinity, I have used the metaphor of water (able to be a solid, liquid or gas yet still water) or a metaphor from physics of a “force field” (the field of energy that exists between all living things), yet those metaphors have their limits too.  Even the name “Holy Spirit” only goes so far in helping us understand the presence of God in our lives.  The experience of the Spirit must come first, and language can only trail behind trying to express what that experience was like.

In the season after Pentecost each year, the best counsel I can offer is for believers to be aware of the metaphors we use to describe our experiences of God.  To the extent that those metaphors are loose and enable you to speak of God without limiting your understanding of who God is and what you believe God can do in your life, the metaphors are healthy and good.  To the extent that those metaphors are rigid and result in you placing limits upon what God can do and who gets included in the activity of God, the metaphors are unhealthy and destructive.  As we seek to sense the presence of God in our midst, may our language allow room for what the apostle Paul named as the “fruits” of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  When our language allows these “fruits” to blossom, then we will know our metaphors are worthy of the God we claim to serve.

Grace and Peace,

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