In this season after Pentecost, we are exploring the work of the Holy Spirit using Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking. In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tries to describe the way that God transforms our hearts as being born again. That’s just confusing to Nicodemus who takes what Jesus says literally. But that’s okay. A lot of us think more concretely and literally. Jesus explains his metaphor describing God’s Spirit as moving like the wind, playing with the word that could mean breath or wind or spirit. Wind is easy to understand. We can’t see it, but we can see and feel its effects. Wind can literally move objects from one place to another. In a similar way, God’s Spirit can move us to see or think or feel a new way. And because it is God’s Spirit, it always moves us towards love, because God is love.
Most of us hold a lot of different images of God in our heads. God as Creator, ancient and powerful. God as judge, sometimes stern and sometimes arbitrary. Some of our images come from the way we experienced our parents, because we name God as parent. God is Almighty and Holy, with a hint of the parental, “Because this is my house, and I said so.” But if we take the theological statement “God is Love” seriously, we may have to rework or images of God. The image Jesus and Paul used was Abba which Eugene Peterson translates Papa in the message from Romans we heard this morning.
Most of you know that I teach a class in the School of Theology and Ministry for students who are integrating the theology they have learned in classes with the practice of ministry. At the end of this year-long class, they write a paper about one thing they believe, their “This I Believe” statement. I asked Trina Banks, one of my students this year, if I could share part of her “This I Believe” statement with you. Trina interned as a chaplain in the Juvenile Detention Center this year. This is her image of God:
God, the one and only who accompanies me at the King County Juvenile Detention Center, is an African American woman who is old as time, but gets around like an athletic 38 year-old. She has a full head of beautiful gray and black dreadlocks that hang just right above her hips; and her skin is more decadently chocolate than any candy bar could ever be. Most days, she can be found sitting on the front porch slicing okra for a dish that’s bound to be superbly delicious. Though we all know she is older than dirt, she’s sits there like somebody’s baby girl, somebody’s sister, somebody’s friend, somebody’s momma, somebody’s sexy lover, and somebody’s sweet old grandmamma. Nobody has any idea all the skills she has and the things she knows. Your best bet is to always have her on your side; not that she chooses sides. She smells like flowers, trees, oceans, cakes and pies and all sorts of delightful and welcoming aromas. Often she just sits on the porch peeling, slicing, dicing and waiting. Each time someone passes by, she invites them to come and have a bite to eat. She’s always so happy to see each and every one of them, like she made them herself. Truth is she did. She’s always counting on the fact they’ll come in and be fed so that they can go out stronger, wiser, and certain of her love and care. If they come close enough to the porch, it’s hard for them to refuse the invitation. And when they’ve drift away, the rich aromas and flavors have a way of wafting into their dreams and stirring their longing for God’s good company. God is our loving creator. I believe that She is giving, forgiving, and sustaining. She only wants the best from all us. She generously gives us the room to be ourselves and do our own thing with the gifts she has proudly planted within us. She guides us with a gentle hand; other times she shakes us into recognizing our family members, including the earth and all of creation, all around us. She has high hopes for us! She’s counting on us to take care to help one another find our way back home to her front porch. What we are required to do and be in this life is not all about work. And sometimes, it is not all pretty, but she’s aims to keep all her kin close. The Dread-locked woman wants us to find joy in her good company as well as delight in our own lives.
If you’ve read The Shack by Wm. Paul Young, this image may sound familiar. But when the class asked, Trina had not heard of Young’s book. This is Trina’s image. Like many of us, Trina writes that she was first introduced to a “scary God who was always focused on our sin.” The adults in her life were not trustworthy as she was growing up and the church was less than helpful. But God’s Spirit was busy. Listen to what she writes, “But God, the Dread-locked old woman, could only materialize in stages. As I reflect, she has been very busy, for a very long time, uprooting everything that tries to separate me from her love.” That is the Spirit of love, busy uprooting everything that tries to separate us from God’s love.
Trina goes on to describe the Spirit of love’s work in the detention center:
At the King County Juvenile Detention Center, the youth I served could not really see Mamma Dread-lock like I see her. They tell far more painful stories of being physically abandoned, injured, or emotionally smothered by parents. Others tell stories about parents who are unable to provide love, food, clothing, or shelter. Even if the youth find a way to stay out of the juvenile detention system, the system is oftentimes the best parent they have ever had. Mamma Dread-lock is a working frame of reference as I guide these youth in the construction of images of God that work best for them.
I do the work because I am moved to sadness and sorrow. Though I have never been a mother, I see these youth as babies. Yes, some are accused of serious crimes, but that is no reason to withhold care from them. Caring and guidance just might change future behaviors. It’s an experiment I gladly do with God as the most plentiful ingredient in the solution. I am willing to protect and defend their right to be loved and cared for. It bothers me that it’s so hard for them to see their own potential. They are usually far more concern, and ever so happy that someone actually sees them. Most of them have been written off as hopeless by far too many people and too many systems. I am compelled to serve them as chaplain because I can and I do make a difference. This I believe! At times, it is hard to accept that I cannot make meaning for them or force them to love, trust and worship God in an instant. And there is no way I can talk to all of them. One painful reality is that resilience may never be a factor in some of their lives. But by God, I love them. I believe when they don’t believe. I get to listen so they can hear themselves think and feel. I get to invite them to redirect there gaze towards windows or doorways of hope. I get to cheer them on, even if I don’t ever get to see the results of our work together. God will make possible concrete results in their lives in due time. Why do I persist?
Youth say things like:
Look at me. Does God love me? Look at my life. Is God punishing me? Look at where I am. Will God really forgive me? And what difference will it make?
I get to respond with this scripture at the heart of every message and every word of comfort:
For I have every confidence that nothing—not death, life, heavenly messengers, dark spirits, the present, the future, spiritual powers, height, depth, nor any created thing—can come between us and the love of God revealed in the Anointed, Jesus our Lord.
God’s Spirit has the power to transform us, moment by moment. The apostle Paul writes in the second letter to the Corinthians, “We can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord. And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him.” I hear Trina being transformed by the Spirit of love into her image of God as she writes:
I also get the privilege of saying things like:
I am happy to see that you are okay. You know, God will always hang right in there with you. Come and talk to me. I’m right here. I’ll wait for you.