Standing in a Sandstorm

photo by Kyle Broad

Pregnant, barefoot and running late, she piled her four children into the car and hustled them to school. On the way, one of her sons tossed a flour bomb back and forth in the back seat. Catching sight of this in the rearview mirror, she warned, “Stop that! You’ll mess up your clothes; we’re late as it is.” He heard and disregarded her imperative, casting it off with the nonchalance of a born mischief-maker, and the inevitable happened. The bomb exploded and coated the regulation dress attire of the siblings just as they reached their destination. Mom held the younger son back so that she could wipe off his outfit, allowing her older son to cross the street alone so that he wouldn’t be tardy. At this point, the mother received a sharp reprimand from a crossing guard for putting a child at risk. She was humiliated and demoralized. She’d strained every nerve to be a good mother, but by 8:00 a.m. she felt like a failure. It’s a very common tale.

Discouragement is isolating. At the moment of failure, we feel: stupid, naïve, inept, hopeless, embarrassed, unworthy— the negative adjectives strike our souls like grit in a windstorm, pricking umpteen places at once. We can hole up, lick our wounds and wait for the storm to pass, but the subterranean sting of discouragement remains until we feel loved again.

Although some people are naturally loving; others, like me, have a hard time learning it. A cherished friend told me once that I “was truthful but not kind,” and I’ve meditated on that comment for over thirty years. It’s not that I want to inflict pain, it’s just that my tendency is to be in a hurry, to rush toward my goals without noticing the needs of others. And there’s the rub— my goals often conflict with the goals God has for me. While I want to change my circumstances, He wants to change my character. He wants me to learn to love.

All of us are, in one way or another, slow learners on the subject of love. Opportunities to love rush at us when we aren’t paying attention. In the moment, we don’t think fast enough to say, “Oh, my goodness, you’re having quite a morning! Allow me help you. By-the-way, this street can be very busy, so. . .” That type of response does not come naturally. So, seeing that we are “love disabled,” what do we do?

The apostle Paul’s advice to the Galatians was “walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). Or, as Eugene Peterson put it, “live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit.” I see this as a lifetime endeavor: acknowledging my need to change, becoming teachable, and practicing love until it becomes the “default” impulse. Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “look out for the interests of others” (Phil 2:4) is only possible because we have the indwelling Spirit, who is eager to show us how.

Thirty years ago, I had an idea that love somehow included triumph; if I did it right, I’d look like Jesus. It was really about me checking off boxes. Eventually, I gave up on becoming biblically picturesque, realizing that I just plain couldn’t do it. When I comprehended that neither love nor kindness resided in my “flesh,” I began sincerely asking for help, and help was given. I’m still not great at selfless love— no one would mistake me for Jesus— but, by God’s grace, I am improving at it.

Wind Dance

My four year old granddaughter pointed them out, “Them are mean ducks,” she warned. She was remembering when she got too close to a Canada goose in the park and it came after her, hissing and flapping its huge wings. Such scary behavior might nominate the wild goose as a symbol for aggression, but the crazy Celts chose it to represent the Holy Spirit. What were they thinking?

Aside from their reputation for belligerence during nesting season, wild geese have excellent qualities: they mate for life; carefully attend their young; distribute seeds and reduce pests. But these beautiful birds are primarily known for their cooperation with each other during migration. Look up during spring or fall and you’re likely to see geese traveling in a “V”, honking as they go.

As a matter of fact, geese make more noise in the sky than on land. This seems like an odd expenditure of energy when one considers the amount of power they need to generate 30 mph flapping, but they do it to keep the flock together until they reach their destination. Like feathered drill sergeants, they “honk out” position changes, letting the weary leader rest as he yields the position of highest wind resistance to another. In a carefully choreographed wind dance, geese work together so they can all move forward.

What geese do instinctively, Christians find difficult. While we find relief in the risen Son, we flinch at following the Spirit, and because it’s hard to pursue an invisible leader, we simply stop trying. We neither follow the Leader God provided nor encourage others along the way. Basically, we quit before we reach our destination.

The disciples had certainly lost their motivation; they were battered, scattered and bewildered. Their beloved leader was gone, and the light in their lives was extinguished. In the crucifixion horror, they temporarily forgot what Jesus had promised before He died:

” I will ask the Father, and He will give you another helper, that He may be with you forever. . . “ (John 14:16)

Then Pentecost came, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit was miraculously manifest to those who were watching for it. Luke records that “Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles” (Luke 2:43). So, what happened to the awe? Where did the Holy Spirit go?

The good news is this: the strong leader who Jesus promised, and the Father sent is here within us. To our discredit and detriment, we don’t recognize the significance of this. If we think of Him at all, we think of the Holy Spirit as a quiet traveler in the passenger’s seat. Watchman Nee wrote:

“To many Christians, the Holy Spirit is quite unreal. They regard Him as a mere influence, an influence for good, no doubt, but just an influence for all that. In their thinking, conscience and the Spirit are more or less identified as ‘some thing’ within them that brings them to book when they are bad and tries to show them how to be good. The trouble with the Corinthian Christians was not that they lacked the indwelling Spirit, but that they lacked the knowledge of His presence. They failed to realize the greatness of the One who had come to make his abode in their hearts. . .”

The tragedy of our situation is that while we have unlimited access to an untiring, unerring leader, Himself, very God, we forget about Him because He is quiet. For most Christians, He exists as part of the creed and nothing more.

We are not called to passively cool our earthly heels until the heavenly party begins, or to slog through life the best we can. Christians are commanded to walk “in” or “by” the Spirit with the understanding that heavenly life begins here. Too many of us have accepted the lie that walking with the Spirit is a ball and chain kind of life, but the amazing truth is that it is unimaginable liberation. Like dancing in the wind.