my most recent back page column for youthwork magazine (UK) came out a few weeks ago (just got my physical copy that swam all the way over from england). i wrote it in december, soaking in all that wonderful pre-christmas warmth and cheer and spirituality. but i knew the readers would read the column in january. so:
The Festive Spirit
At a recent youth ministry training event I spoke about what real change and transformation looks like for a Christian. Somewhere in the middle of the talk I commented off-handedly about how I feel like it’s only been in the last three years that I’ve begun to experience the Holy Spirit, rather than merely acknowledging, understanding, or conceptualising the Holy Spirit.
A friend of mine wrote me two weeks later: ‘You said something to the effect of “I didn’t really discover what life in the Spirit really meant until the last few years.” What changed for you? I imagine you as someone who seeks God deeply and honestly. I was taken aback by that statement. I wonder if that is something that can help me in my own walk.’
Here’s how I responded:
‘Yeah, I don’t mean to say I was unspiritual or anything prior to a few years ago. I just think that I mostly saw my faith as an intellectual pursuit that outworked itself in my actions. But I didn’t ‘get’ the role of the Holy Spirit. I felt broken in my departure from my last ministry position, and wondered so deeply if I would ever have any value again (sounds dramatic, but that was the state I was in). It was then that the Holy Spirit broke through that in a powerful and affirming way, starting me down a new road. It’s not been a complete ‘charismatic renewal’ or anything. I’ve just grown in experience and practice and believe that God actually speaks to me. That is what has reformatted my understanding of the Spirit’s role in leadership.’
I’m only sharing that exchange with you to set the table for this: I think we have had (and I have had) a less-than-full embracing of Emmanuel (meaning ‘God with us’).
It’s December as I write this, and I’ve been reflecting on that interchange above, and what God is doing in my life. But while I’m unavoidably Christmassy right now (I’m even listening to Christmas music as I type this!), I realize you will be reading this in the decidedly non-festive post-Christmas months.
And here’s where my mind went (or was lead): How come we only talk about God entering into his own creation (which, of course, God did through the birth of Jesus) at Christmas? I mean: I love, love, love the word Emmanuel (am I allowed to have a ‘favorite Bible word?’). It’s pregnant with the entire gospel. That single word summarizes every aspect of Christianity that keeps me tethered when I’m feeling hopeless for the church or annoyed by my brothers and sisters or disgusted with my own inability.
But, treating Emmanuel as a Christmas-only word, well, that’s a rip off. In a sense, it’s as if we pack up Emmanuel with the ornaments and lights, and shelve it for 11 months.
For me, that mirrors how I treated the Holy Spirit for most of my life. ‘There you go, Spirit – you’re a good theological concept, and I have a high appreciation for you. Now, it’s time to get back into your storage box until you’re called for again.’
God with us. 12 months a year (not just one). At Christmas we hold expectation of Jesus’ coming. What if we had that same expectation that God could powerfully show up at even the most mundane and ordinary moments of our day-to-day lives? If we truly believe that; if we really lean into that; if we really remember that the power and intimacy of God is with us at every moment; our experience of the Holy Spirit will be revolutionised.
Maybe that’s the bottom line of this whole thing: what’s it look like for you and me – as children of God, and as youth workers – to live with an Advent expectancy that the Spirit can move powerfully all the year around? Let’s dream big ‘Christmas-sized’ dreams about what God can do with us today and in the coming year. How about a little infusion of anticipation in your faith today? I’m telling you, it’s like a booster shot of Christmas pudding.