“I’ll Be There In Spirit.”

People get nervous about the Holy Spirit.

I’ll never forget developing a friendship with someone in my neighborhood, who I’ll call Jordan, when my wife Monica and I moved to Philadelphia in 2008 to start Liberti Church. Jordan is like most of the people who live in my neighborhood: smart, cosmopolitan, and decidedly un/non/post-Christian. Shortly after meeting him, I realized that I was literally the first Christian person he’d ever really interacted with.  

Jordan told me over dinner one evening, that he did have one other run-in with Christianity. Something of a jack-of-all-trades, he worked on the film Jesus Camp, a 2006 documentary that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, about a kids’ summer camp called “Kids on Fire” which happened in the Midwest. At the camp, children were taught to “get the Spirit,” roll around on the ground, babble crazily, and yell at the top of their lungs. After describing to me the strange, alternate universe he entered when on location for the film, he wrinkled his face up: “Is that like what you do?”

Even Christians are a little uncertain about the Spirit. Christians call God “Father,” and “Son”—both of which are relational titles with human analogues. The other member of the Holy Trinity? “Spirit.” Or, in the King’s English, “the Holy Ghost.” (That’s pronounced as one word south of the Mason-Dixon line: the “HolyGhost”.)

Yet, two millennia of Christian praying, worshipping, and theologizing has insisted that we can’t commune with God, can’t follow Jesus without the mysterious third member of the Trinity. After affirming “I believe in God…” and “I believe in Jesus Christ…”, the community of Jesus takes a breath, and gets in on the action: “I believe in the Holy Spirit… the Church… the forgiveness of sins…”  

John’s favorite word for the Holy Spirit is “parakletos”-- a rich, many-sided term variously translated as “Advocate,” “Comforter,” or “Mediator.” Tertullian called the Holy Spirit the “doctor veritatis”—the “Truth-Teacher,” or “Truth-Doctor.”  Augustine of Hippo thought of the Spirit as the “digitus Dei”—the “finger of God.” The Holy Spirit is God-in-action, God-in-person.  

The Holy Spirit attaches us to God’s past, present, and future. The Spirit brings God’s mighty history in Christ into our present; unites us with God’s own life, and offers us a foretaste of God’s great promised future.  

This makes profound sense in the lives of people far from Christian faith: the Christian story takes us seriously as whole persons. Christianity is a matter of history, intellect, facts—but not only these things. Christian faith is both intellectually compelling and spiritually satisfying.  

Oftentimes, when I’m invited to a dinner party, a wedding, or some other various-and-sundry-kind-of-get-together, and I can’t (or don’t want) to attend, I’ll often say, “I’ll be there in spirit!” The night before his death, Jesus told his friends this too, but he meant it, and it’s still good news for his friends two millennia later.

Jared Ayers is the founding and preaching pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, and is currently finishing an M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary’s Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 10 years, and love calling Philadelphia home. They’ve been graced with two sons (Brennan and Kuyper) and a daughter (Rae Ann).


More living water

From James C. Schaap

Only once in rural west Africa did I see anything like this--a man, a male, at the community well--and this time there was good reason. We were in an isolated village in Mali, far off any easily traceable beaten track, when the men, the powers-that-be, insisted that we, their honored guests, visit their wondrous village well, a gift by the way of the Japanese, the sign said. 

They didn't say it, but it was clear they were bust-your-buttons proud of that well's modernity. No ropes, no pulleys, and no buckets, save the buckets they used--the women that is--to lug all the precious cargo back to their huts.

We had to walk a ways in a desert sun so intense I wished I'd worn a cap or cape. Emphasis on had to--there are things honored guests simply have to do, and we had to witness the glory of their blessed village well.

"We don't really have a choice, do we?" I said quietly to my yankee traveling companion as we walked in heat that was almost unbearable.

He tipped his head and smiled knowingly. "No question," he said, "but out here remember, water is life."


Conscience Demands

From Thomas C. Goodhart

Let me introduce you to JJ TenClay, one of the Reformed Church in America’s newest missionary partners. As her official bio shares: “JJ will work in the region of Naples, Italy, as a social action worker, developing partnerships with medical, mental health/substance abuse, governmental, and social service entities as well as ministries focused on meeting the physical, spiritual, and socioeconomic needs of the over 500,000 migrants in the area, most of whom are from Africa and the Middle East.” She and her family—her husband and two children—have relatively recently relocated to Naples and are immersed in learning the local culture and language as they engage in ministry. They are partnering with the Waldensian Church in Italy.

"The changes in our life must come from the impossibility to live otherwise than according to the demands of our conscience not from our mental resolution to try a new form of life." –Leo Tolstoy

One year ago this month my life changed forever.

There have been previous times when I felt the “demands” of my conscience had led to life-altering decisions. A couple of examples that jump to mind are becoming a foster parent and marrying a seminary student preparing for a life of vocational ministry. Not that I regret any of the major, life changing decisions, but knowing that most of them have not been easy decisions, and that they have come with their own hardships and pain mixed in with the joy, I have—in moments—wondered if I made those decisions because my conscience demanded them, because they were preordained by God, or because I wanted to try “a new form of life.”

So, I must admit I was a little apprehensive when I felt my conscience going into overdrive on October 3, 2013. It was the day I pulled up BBC news on my computer and saw a headline reporting hundreds of migrants from Africa were feared dead after a boat carrying them to Europe sank about a mile off the coast of Italy. You can review the article here. I knew this wasn’t a new issue, as my husband—Tim—had been in Italy in January 2013 for a conference and had heard about it. Thousands of migrants (many asylum seekers fleeing their countries due to war, genocide, religious, racial & ethnic persecution, famine, corrupt governments, etc.) from Africa and the Middle East have been attempting this trek to Europe for years, with many dying in the process. This was not a new issue—but October 3rd was a catalyst for bringing the issue into the international spotlight, and I felt ashamed that I was not more aware of it nonetheless. One of the most haunting articles about the boat sinking I have read can be found here. I felt immediate tears well up in my eyes as I thought about the approximate 500 people who were aboard the boat (approximate, of course, because the human traffickers who put them on the boat didn’t keep meticulous records). I prayed for the dead, the missing, the survivors, those aiding in the rescue (as well as search and recovery for bodies), and loved ones. I got angry at those who “allowed this tragedy to happen,” but quickly found myself feeling convicted that we must all take some responsibility for tragedies like this that occur. And I knew my conscience would not allow me to turn away from this issue.


Beliefs Don’t Matter As Much As You Think!

From Jes Kast-Keat

I'm very happy to introduce to you The Reverend Michael Bos who is my colleague at West End Collegiate Church. He has recently written a book and I think the content of his book has some helpful thoughts for us as we navigate changing church culture. I invited him to share more about what it means to be A Church Beyond Belief. 

The litmus test for church membership revolves around beliefs. We ask prospective members if they believe in God. We ask if they believe in Jesus Christ. We ask if they believe in God’s Word. Each church has its own way of doing this, from the most liturgical to those who exercise a little “pastoral freestyle” in these moments. But in the end, we all ask if they believe.

So here’s a novel question. What do we mean when we say we “believe”? And more importantly, what shouldwe mean when we say we “believe”? We use the terms “belief” and “believe” so frequently that we may never consider the answer to these questions, yet it lies at the heart of whether or not one can belong to a church.

For most of us, “to believe” is to give intellectual assent to a set of propositions that summarize the Christian faith.  But this is not always the sense in which the New Testament speaks about belief. To express belief was not about conveying the state of one’s knowledge as much as it was an expression of trust, loyalty, and commitment to a life-changing relationship. The question of belief was not to affirm facts about Jesus. It was about a relationship with God through Jesus.


Excusing Anger

From Scott Hoezee

Serena Williams had a reason, a rationale, an excuse. She missed a shot in a tennis match last week--a match she went on to win--and promptly threw a hissy fit that resulted in the complete mangling of her tennis racket against the court surface. When asked about the outburst later, Serena said she was upset because she felt like she was letting down her fans.

Cue eyeroll.

I may or may not be a fan, Serena, but listen: you let people down not when you show you are human by hitting the ball into the net once in a while like everyone else. No, you let everyone down when you behave like an angry, petulant child. Anger is not pretty--not ever. It's scary. Anger makes people lose control. Some years ago writing in the New York Times Book Review as part of a series of essays on the Seven Deadly Sins, an author wrote about the time she lost it in front of her children. She felt like she briefly transformed into some kind of really angry bird. Her children agreed. As her 6-year-old later told her, "I was afraid, Mommy, because I didn't know who you were."

We are increasingly a pretty angry society.