This is the second of my posts about the Holy Spirit in the World Today conference.
There’s loads of common texts that are quoted when talking about the Holy Spirit, but the one that stood out at this conference was Romans 8.12-27, a less commonly quoted but still significant one. Rowan Williams used it right at the beginning in his introductory talk, and it kept cropping up throughout the 2 days. You can listen to the talk here; what follows is my synopsis and reflections. It’s up to you to check them against his words…
Rowan began by speaking of Christian hope as being an energetic yearning and longing; a yearning to be what we are meant to be, to receive what is offered to us. This yearning implies a knowledge of what isn’t yet, a magnetic drive towards what we are made for. This comes from the Spirit at work in us. He quoted St Simeon who said of the Spirit, “Come, you who have become desire in me…” A key aspect of the Spirit for Rowan is desire in us, “…desire towards an unreachable God who has reached out to us”, desire to be adopted as God’s child, loved and precious as we were made to be.
He spoke of this desire to be a child of God not as childish, like a desire to be cuddled forever by a fluffy god, but desire to be a growing child, growing into Christ, growing in maturity, growing in real life in the real world. For Rowan it is so important that it is in Gethsemane that Jesus prays “Abba father”, when he is at his most lonely and dark, when the longing to be with his father is at it’s height. The greatest intimacy at the point of greatest pain. “If we yearn to call God ‘Abba Father’,”, he said, “do we yearn to be in the Garden of Gethsemane? Not likely!” But that is where growing in self-offering leads us.
unquenchable hope in high places
How does this fit with the Spirit? For Rowan, quenching the spirit is to ignore or to suppress this painful yearning. His argument progressed like this:
1. True freedom is freedom for full humanity, i.e. to be fully and properly as we were made to be;
2. full humanity is Christ-shaped;
3. Christ-shaped freedom for full humanity is kenotic, a freedom for self-emptying; not a humanity that is blithely or blandly in control but one that endlessly gives.
4 the energy of giving defines us – being fully alive in giving is the greatest gift of the Spirit.
This in turn gives us a passion for the world, a hunger and thirst for righteousness. He quoted Mother Maria Skobtsova: “Either Christianity is fire, or there is no such thing”.
Rowan concluded by saying that living in the spirit is really about true or false humanity in the world today. The church should be the Campaign for Real Humanity, like the Campaign for Real Ale. He reflected that there are few opportunities to do this in our world, because many of us do not know what real humanity is. Is it fantasies of control? Of desire? Of being free from constraints of one another’s needs? Of being in charge of my life right until my death?
Life in the Spirit involves a responsibility for all of us; it is not an escapism from passion or desire or pain, but an embrace of those things. He concluded by saying that “…humanity comes to birth in the daily renewal of our prayer “Abba father”, as we long for the transfiguration of all things.”
unquenchable life in harsh places
Despite his intellect and somewhat mystical aura, Rowan rooted life in the Spirit within ordinary, painful and messy life. Not a charismatic escapism, not a self-help ministry time, but a powerful encounter with God in Gethsemane that does refresh and restore us but only so that we can go.
This reminds me of an experience I had at a charismatic conference once where the evening session had been the usual worship and word, expected to be followed by a time of ministry; but the talk had been about social action, about getting out there and getting involved. What would they do, I wondered, because you couldn’t possibly follow an outward-looking call like that with the usual inward-focused ministry time? Could you…? Of course, the liturgy must be followed and personal ministry was bolted on with a crunch of a gear change. So much ‘ministry in the Spirit’ happens in this way, and can so easily miss the point. I’m sure the same can be said of high-church Eucharists or other ‘spirit-encounter’ equivalents.
Rowan’s call may not be what many of us are looking for when it comes to life in the Spirit, but I think it reflects the character of the Spirit and the call of God pretty accurately. Roots like that seem a good place to grow from… Don’t they?