Tag Archives: Spirit

Take up and Read: Exploring Spiritual Reading

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entitled “When Words Speak”, which detailed five books that helped inform my faith. It was a pleasure to go through my library and note the books to which I continually return. The spiritual lessons I gleaned from their pages have largely shaped the outward expression of my Christian faith. Since then, I have thought a lot about the habit of reading. Given that we are currently going through a season wherein we are able to spend a lot of time reading, can we view reading as a spiritual discipline? Am I only passing the time when I read a book, even if it is spiritually focused?

The act of reading a book is rarely included in a list of spiritual practices. While we may speak of spiritual walking (labyrinths) or spiritual conversations we rarely speak of spiritual reading. Immersing one’s self in faithful literature as a discipline of Christian formation seems reserved for scripture alone — but then we call it “Study” or “Biblical Meditation.” Of course, I am not denying the fundamental importance of soaking our lives in scripture. All practices need to be rooted in the Biblical faith, and lead us to a deeper dependence and love of God’s holy word.

Yet there is precedence to seeing reading as a spiritual practice. One can turn to Christian literature for the sole purpose of growing our inner Christlikeness, and in fact, many of the classic texts of spiritual formation took this form. That is to say, St. Francis deSales, for example, wrote spiritual lessons for his student — lessons he expected her to read and be formed by. In this way, spiritual reading is different than reading for information, or even enjoyment, although both may occur. Spiritual reading is inherently formational; We actively open ourselves to Christian teaching in order to be formed by it.

Like all spiritual disciplines, spiritual reading takes a certain amount of intentionality and humility. Volume, or expediency, is not the goal, nor is simply blasting through the latest book on our shelf. Rather, spiritual reading is rooted in a desire to grow closer to Christ. We approach our reading humbly, and with an attitude of teachability. We recognise that we never master the Christian life, and thus we are continually called to search out teachers and guides. If we assume that God has nothing new to teach us, or nowhere new to lead us, then we have cut ourselves off from the Spirit. Thus, in our reading, we open ourselves to the voice of the Spirit, mediated through the book in our hands.

We might say that Spiritual reading is a type of spiritual direction. Through our reading, we allow another set of eyes, ears, and experiences to help us interpret our faith life. Through the words of another, we learn how to attune ourselves to God’s activity in our lives. Given the busyness and frenzy of modern life at times, it can be easy to grow deaf to God’s voice. In spiritual reading, we cultivate the inner slowness necessary to hear a divine voice calling us to return. We may be prompted to ask ourselves questions not considered previously, or view matters of faith from a different angle; we may be challenged by a word or concept to which we must prayerfully wrestle. In the same way that a spiritual director does not tell us what to think, how to feel, or what to experience, spiritual reading merely opens the door to different ways of engaging with our faith. Good spiritual reading, like good spiritual direction, is a mixture of comfort, challenge and encouragement.

Furthermore, spiritual reading aids in forming our faith by providing the very language needed to describe our own inner movements. Using finite words to describe infinite spiritual realities, is difficult in the best of times, and we may find ourselves struggling with the limitation of our language. Listening to how others describe the spiritual life may help us in our own articulations. Personally, I know there have been times where I have read something and thought to myself: “That is exactly how I feel, I just didn’t know how to describe it!” This is particularly important as we recognise that our spiritual lives are part of a larger story. Our faith is never lived in isolation, but is, in fact, simply the next (local) chapter in God’s redemptive narrative. Because of this inherent connection with God’s movement prior to our individual journey, we can turn to the saints before us, to learn from their lives, teachings, successes, and failures. There is a wealth of spiritual knowledge out there, by men and women who have lived lives of profound connection and intimacy with God. It may just be that the answers we search for in our own struggles or hardships have been addressed by the spiritual fathers and mothers that have gone before us. Hearing their voice, written in pages of spiritual books, links us to the arc of God’s grand narrative, but also informs how we may be called to “further the story” as themes, disciplines, and experiences are now carried through in our lives.

Of course, there is a wide array of literature out there. How do we know what would be best for our spiritual reading? It is hard to develop some type of criteria by which we can judge all manners of Christian literature. I would, however, make two suggestions. Firstly, think old instead of new. As I mentioned, there is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise that have gone before us. The saints of the past have wrestled with the very dynamics with which we often struggle. Take up the classic texts of spiritual formation. Texts like Introduction to the Holy Life, or Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, or Practicing the Presence of God, have proven to be beneficial to people’s spiritual growth for centuries. Secondly, consult a spiritual friend, mentor, or priest. If there is someone whose depth of faith you admire, ask what spiritual books they have learned from. Who are the authors they enjoy? What texts have proven formational for them?

The time in which we live is perfect for developing a habit of spiritual reading. This discipline is perfect for people who like reading, yet more importantly, it can be a great challenge for those who do not. In such a case, spiritual reading may so force us outside of comforts that we may find ourselves experiencing God’s present in dramatic fashion.

Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums.  One lesson has been particularly popularized.  As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life.  Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life.  One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity.  Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness.  Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle.  As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently.  Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.

 Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition.  Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.

This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement.  They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced.  This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat.  Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31).  Herein is the definition of Solitude.  Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.

This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline.   Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives.  Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason.  Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives.  As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord.  We silence the radio. We turn off the TV.  We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.

Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum.  It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter.   Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home.  Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like.  God’s grace is sufficient for our labours.  We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment.  We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.

They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness.  Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work.  We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away.  We must step towards.  In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ.  Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention.  Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us.  Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.

So how might we experiment with solitude?  Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude.   Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet.  In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.”  This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within.  Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question.  As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within.  Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.

Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time.  Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors.  We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there.  It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day.  Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline).  Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives.  With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt.  For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.

Bonhoeffer, Statistics, and the True Focus of the Church.

Do you think Jesus feels invisible in today’s churches, like a guest at a party with whom no one chooses to converse?  I mean, sure he was invited.  We acknowledge his presence as a point of doctrine.  We may even state that the gathering is held in his honor.  However, is that where it ends?  Is Jesus left standing in the corners waiting for our eyes and ears to turn to him?

This pondering was piqued when I noticed the cover page of the latest edition of the Anglican Journal.  In dramatic bold type, the Journal heralded, “Gone by 2040?”  The article references a now well-known statistic; that the year 2040 is the “0 date” for the Anglican Church of Canada.  At this time, the last Anglican will turn out the lights, and the long history of Anglican theology and worship will be no more.  Nothing says “Happy New Year” like a message of impending doom!  The article goes on to talk about theories as to why this the case and how the church today might respond.  Yet while we toss around our theories and strategies for the church’s future, I have to wonder if Jesus stands in the corner hoping that eventually will look to him.

This is not to suggest that the church today has nothing to address.  Of course we do.  Nevertheless, I believe we make a mistake when we overly focus on recapturing the glories of the past.  When we do this, we cast our vision backwards to the days or years when the church was successful, truly established.  One comments, “I remember when every Christmas service was packed to the brim!”, whereas another laments, “In my day, we had a 50 person children’s choir!”  Of course, such statements may be factually true, but dwelling on such things only serve to take our attention the blessing of Christ in our midst. The church community can never be established in any reality, here and now, if we are too busy trying to picture what the church community looked like fifty years ago.

Likewise, I believe we err when we assert that the future of the church is somehow dependent upon the strategic implementation of our well-thought-out programs, whether that be “Fresh Expressions,” “Alpha courses” or whatever the newest fix-it trend may be.  To do so is to believe that the future of the church must include success and societal recognition as if the Christendom of the past must be the Lord’s desire for our future.  Is this not the unspoken point when we reference our percentage amid the Canadian population?

When we focus too much on the glory of the past, or on establishing the glory of the future, we tend to see the present existence of the church only as a stain on the church’s true nature.  Our dreams for what the church should be dismisses what the church is. We discard the present reality of our life together, along with the present reality of Christ’s own work within the church, in favour of a fantasy.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually speaks to this in his important book, Life Together.

Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christlike community is a hindrance to the genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive.  The one who loves their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes destroyers of that community.  (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 36)

Bonhoeffer follows this passage with a long paragraph elucidating God’s hatred toward our “wishful dreaming” about the Church.  For Bonhoeffer, dreaming about what the church ought to look like, as opposed to what the church held by Christ actually is, is rooted in pride and egoism. We base our dreams about the church upon our self-focused desire to realize our own glory and prestige.  The human image of the church replaces God’s own desire for the church. The wish-dream causes us to remain inwardly focused. “They act as if they have to create the Christian community”, Bonhoeffer notes (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37).   We look only within within for a way reclaim the glorious past. Instead of humbly accepting the Lord’s activity, we make demands upon how the Lord should work in the midst of his community.  We often do this when we equate “future” with “numerical growth.”  In doing so we stand against the present reality of Christ as the head of the church today. We set ourselves up as those who judge the church’s success or failure.  As Bonhoeffer notes, such judgement is based on our limited view, so that “whatever does not go [our] way, [we] call a failure”, writes Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 36).  Fixating on an idealized image of the church blocks us from responding to the incarnate presence and activity of their Lord in our midst. More to the point, however, it is to mistake the fundamental nature of the church itself as a body realized by the incarnate presence of Christ. It is Christ alone who creates, holds together, and sustains the church.

Bonhoeffer calls for a radical embracement of the hear-and-now of the church community, one that I believe we would do well to heed. “The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting,” he writes. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37)  We are to lay aside our idealized dreams of past or future glory in order to embrace the glory of the Lord in our midst.  Christ, and Christ alone, is to be the focus of the community.  Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.  The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 38)

Can we stop trying to realize an ideal and instead focus on participating in the reality into which Christ has invited us?

It may be tempting to see Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as overly theological, devoid of any real world applications.  We may think that such thoughts are great for seminaries and theological books, but surely offer no word given the condemning statistics our present-day.  I believe such a response is misguided.  One of the reasons why I find Bonhoeffer’s words so profound for today’s church is precisely the ecclesial reality surrounding Bonhoeffer’s ministry.  Bonhoeffer did not pen Life Together during a high point of church power and prestige.  In fact, the exact opposite was the case.  Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in 1938, while the German church was struggling with its response to Hitler and the Nazi agenda.  The Nazi Party had systematically closed seminaries throughout Germany, attempting to seize control of the church’s future.  Just prior to Bonhoeffer writing this book, the secret police raided, and closed, the underground seminary at Finkenwald where Bonhoeffer had taught.  Hitler’s systematic assault on the church did not stop at the closure of seminaries, however.  The secret police forced many German pastors to take an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler; those who refused awaited arrested and subsequent execution.

Bonhoeffer faced a crippling reality.  Nazism had a stranglehold on the church, one that did not look like it as going to subside.  The national church stood silent in the face of the holocaust.  Even the Confessing Church, the body that was to stand faithful to the gospel under Nazi regime, had unfortunately continually shown itself incapable to take an authoritative stance against the horrors occurring around them.  Instead of a 20-year statistical projection regarding the church’s demise, Bonhoeffer saw the death of the church looking much more immanent.  In response, he wrote Life Together. This book was penned precisely against the backdrop of war and holocaust, when one would be tempted to retreat into dreams about the glorious past.  Instead of wishful fantasies about how great things were in the past, or about future growth, Bonhoeffer speaks to the need to embrace the church as it exists in the present.

This brings us back around to the Anglican Journal and the statistic regarding our demise in just 20 years.  Bonhoeffer reminds me that the church has always faced a precarious future.  There has never been a time where the church is able to sit back and claim of itself “Aha! I have arrived!”  Yet despite this reality, Christ has continued to call his church into existence.  This is as true to Anglicanism as it is to other denominations.  Therefore, let us not be too swept up by doomsday statistics.  Let us not work ourselves in a frenzy attempting to fix something that ultimately, cannot be fixed by our efforts.  Rather, as Hebrews reminds us, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)

 

*Note: All citations taken from Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 2005; Life Together And Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vo.5); Minneapolis, First Fortres Press,).

Have we misunderstood the Church?

Let me begin with a question:  What is the goal of the Christian life?  What does committing one’s self to Jesus point us toward?  The possible answers are numerous.  Some could say ‘Worship’; the Christian life is to be a life of perpetual praise to God.  Others might say ‘Heaven’; the Christian life here on earth prepares us for an eternity in God’s heavenly kingdom.  “I’ll fly away. Hallelujah by and by. I’ll Fly away” we sing.  Another response might be an appeal to believing the doctrinal truths of the faith, or the call to follow Jesus example in life.

I take no issue with any of these responses.  Each answer has both an element of truth, and an element in which it does not convey the whole story.  For example, yes we focus on Christ’s assurance of life beyond the grave.  But is all that faith is about?  Is life here essentially inconsequential?  So, we still have that question posed, what is the goal of faith?  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes that he is ‘again in the chains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”.  For Paul, the aim of faith is not some grand vision of heavenly life in the by and by, nor is it a mere call to Jesus-based morality.  For Paul, the aim Christian faith is transformation in Christ-likeness.  To be a Christian is to open ourselves to the transforming work of the Spirit, as we are made to be more and more like Jesus every single day.  As our internal selves become more and more connected to Jesus, our outward selves reflect more and more of his presence.

Here’s a second question:  What is the goal of the Church?  Now, it’s pretty easy to see where I may be going with this. But by way of a mental exercise, what would you have responded with, if you hadn’t read the previous paragraph?  Would you have said that the goal of the Church is growth?  We could argue that, like a living organism, the church is called to continually grow – in depth of faith, in ever increasing numbers, in financial blessing.  Or, we could say that the goal of the church is evangelism.  We reach out; we find those who do not believe, and journey with them until they eventually become followers of Jesus themselves.  Perhaps we would point to prayer as the church’s fundamental aim – the goal of the church is to be a ‘house of prayer’.

Again, I take no issues with any of these responses.  Growth, evangelism, prayer – and many other things we could say – are all part and parcel with what the church’s call.  Interestingly, however, whenever we reflect on the nature of the church, the call to Christlikeness never seems to come up.  That is to say, we attribute spiritual formation to the individual, but not the community.  Yet we just heard the passage which is instructive regarding the formative aim of faith.  Paul is in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in them.  As we know, Paul’s letter to the Galatians wasn’t written to an individual, but a community. It is to the community of the ‘called out ones’ that Paul holds up the call to Christ-likeness.  Jesus’ high priestly prayer has the same focus.  Jesus prays that ‘they be one, as we (the God-head) are one.’ His prayer was for a body of people, not and individual believer named Steve.  Christ-likeness is not primarily and individual trait, but a corporate reality.

This, then, leads us to another question: what does the Christ-like community look like?  Here is where I think that we misstep. Inadvertently, at this point, we turn the matter on its head by again appealing to the individual.  We do this by making the Christ-like community dependent upon the Christ-like individual.  The Christian community is merely the collection of Christ-filled individuals!  As long as the individual members of a community are bible-believing, Jesus-loving, on-fire Christian people, then the community will be as well.  So goes the thought. The individual is the antecedent and the Christ-like community a mere by-product.

Yet community does not act this way.  Secular studies in community development have born this out.  Peter Block, in his book Community: The Culture of Belonging, writes; “We have already learned that the transformation of large numbers of individuals does not result in the transformation of communities.”  Simply put, getting a group of like-minded, evenly tempered, individuals in the same room for the same purpose does not make a community.  Community calls for another dynamic – something that exists beyond the individual, uniting all individuals into one, unified, body.

Thinking that a church’s Christ-like formation is somehow dependent upon individual formation is quite damaging.  When we think this way, we make the goal of the church nothing more than to aid an individual’s faith, which might be understood in some narrow fashion.  Such a church may have many numbers, but it is not a community, for all the members remain individuals exercising an individualized faith.  This undoubtedly leads to the trend that we see today of ‘church-shopping.’  The constant replacement of church communities under the guise of ‘it doesn’t feed me’ is merely another way of asserting that the community is out-stripped by the individual.  When this occurs, there becomes little place for formation.  Community Christ-likeness drifts away when an individual is ultimately concerned with ‘being-fed’.  Furthermore, to assert that the Christ like community is constituted by Christ-like individuals actually betrays the nature of the community.  What we are saying in this is that the church, to use a common quip, is a hospital for saints and not a hotel for sinners.  Or to put it another way, instead of ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’ the church exists as a collection of well-fed individuals boasting in their own feasting

Of course, this is not to say that the individual life is not important. Our faith, as a Christian community and as individual persons, is mediated through the habitus of living.  Christian faith is to be embodied, and this necessarily involves the acts of living in, and living out, Christ-likeness.  But this does not mean that community formation occurs on the heels of individual formation; in fact it is quite the opposite.  An individual’s formation in Christ-likeness occurs as a function of his or her participation in a community continually undergoing Christ-like transformation.  You cannot be a Christ-like individual and remain apart from the Christ-like church.

Now the question is, what does the Christ-like community look like?  What are its habits and practices? And what is it that sets the church apart from other service-oriented community organizations?  How exactly do we understand community Christ-likeness?  I have some thoughts on this, but that will be for a post at another time.

Leaping wombs: Does Elizabeth hold the key to being church?

For liturgical churches, such as my own, May 31st celebrates The Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth.  It is not a celebration we normally think about, except maybe as a forerunner to the Magnificat as the Gospel of the day includes Mary’s exultant song.  Obviously, thoughts and reflections normally reside here.  And why shouldn’t they.  The song is beautiful, powerful, and triumphant.

But is there anything in the visitation itself that can be of aid in our spiritual lives?  After all, I’m willing to bet that we will never come across a pregnant young woman carrying the Christ child?  And, speaking personally, I’m pretty sure that no baby will leap within my non-existent womb.  So what might this passage say to us as today?  Does this visitation have something to teach us about what it means to be a community of faith?

Luke records the visit in Chapter 1, verses 39-45.  When we boil this interaction down to its basic premise you see a meeting between individuals:  Mary visits Elizabeth.  In this moment, however, the Holy Spirit descends upon Elizabeth empowering her to both bless the person before her, and rejoice in the magnitude of God.  It is not just her child the responds to the presence of Jesus, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth herself respond to Christ in her midst.  Well. . .  it’s more than that isn’t it?  The Holy Spirit prompts Elizabeth to respond to the presence of Christ within Mary.

Could we see, in this interaction between Mary and Elizabeth, a model for what it means to be a church community?  There are two lessons we may learn:

Firstly: We recognise the presence of Christ in the other.

As a community of baptised people we recognize certain truths about who we are as human beings.  For one, we recognize that each person, regardless of who they are, are made in the image of God.  This is fundamental to our identity as people, created in God’s image.  For those within our community we add to this the understanding that each person bears the presence of Jesus.  There are many different ways that we can talk about this; having Jesus in our hearts through faith, receiving Jesus in baptism, being ‘alive’ in Christ Jesus.  But whatever language we use, we are called to recognize that those within our community of faith are themselves Christ bearers.  They have the presence of Jesus within them.  This is what St. Paul claims in his letter to Colossians when he states that the mystery of the gospel is ‘Christ in you.’  This may not mean we agree with everyone, or even like everyone, but it does mean that we boldly and faithfully affirm the presence of Jesus within that person, and thus within our midst.

What would happen if we allowed that to be the basis by which we interacted with others in our church community?  Would some of the petty disagreements end?  Would fellowship be enhanced?  Would our witness become more effective?  How do you think we would feel internally, if we chose to see each other as Elizabeth viewed Mary on that day of visitation?

Secondly: Elizabeth rejoices in God and blesses Mary.

What a fabulous visit!  This visitation is not seem as just happenstance, a meeting of the minds, or a polite gathering of individuals.  Elizabeth sees the visit as a profound moment of God acting in the world.  The visit testifies that God is active and doing something.  Elizabeth’s exuberant exultation is a song of praise itself.  Yet intermingled with this song of praise, testifying to her reception of God’s work in her midst, Elizabeth also recognizes the activity of God within Mary, and so she pronounces a blessing over her.  Simply put, Elizabeth reinforces God’s work within Mary thus encouraging her in her faithful acceptance of God’s word over her.

Of course, Elizabeth’s response to Mary wasn’t simply drawn out of her own effort.  She was empowered by the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth and she responds to the visitation (this instance of community) in a two-fold of act of rejoicing and blessing.

Being Elizabeth: A model of Community

While we may find such a descent of the Spirit prior to Pentecost a unique instance within scripture, we live our lives on the other side of Pentecost.  Scriptures continually testifies to our assurance of the Spirit’s activity and leading in our lives.  Our baptismal liturgy links the rite of baptism with the reception of the Holy Spirit, and thus, as a community of baptized people, we assume we are a community of ‘Spirit-filled’ people.

So what if we acted like Elizabeth and chose to see each ‘random’ instance of community as a divinely appointed action?  How might the Holy Spirit within us call us to respond to the presence of Jesus within the other?  How might we go about blessing each other, and affirming the work of God deep within them? How might the community be affected, or formed, if we actively lived our lives in such a manner?

This demands that we live our lives with a sense of openness and submission to the spirit of God, yet there is to be a beautiful complementarity in this way of community.  While we respond to the presence of Jesus in the other person – through blessing, rejoicing, and encouraging – they too would be acting in similar fashion towards us.  The Holy Spirit in the other person would cause the other to rejoice in God’s work in our lives, and thereby bless and encourage us.

This almost sounds if we would all be in one accord.  Behaving like Elizabeth in this way will only lend itself to the strength of the community of faith, and the effectiveness in our witness and mission.  Christ would be glorified, not as a distant theological abstraction, but as a tangible manifestation of our common life.  If we could just choose this pathway, as a community, than who can tell what beautiful, powerful, and triumphant songs may be sung in our communities.