When the wind of God blows
“Conversion for me was not a Damascus Road experience,” reflected American novelist Madeleine L'Engle. “I slowly moved into an intellectual acceptance of what my intuition had always known.” On the eve of our Alpha Holy Spirit day at St Mark’s, I’ve been reflecting on why do people become Christians in the first place, what motivates this momentous moment? And why do we want to grow as Christians even though we will inevitably experience hassle and sometimes hardship? Jesus promises no less. C S Lewis taught becoming a disciple of Jesus was an essentially a decision of our mind. You simply line up the evidence, present the various proofs for the resurrection of Jesus – and so work your way to the obvious conclusion, to turn to Christ. His own conversion to a robust Christianity required years of intellectual struggle and came only after being convinced that faith was reasonable. I recall all those years ago as a student being asked why I was a Christian. “Because of the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled in the person of Jesus,” I answered. I don’t think at the time I even convinced myself – but it was the kind of answer I would have been expected to give in that context and at that time. Looking back over the decades I'm not sure even today if I am able to give an answer; it certainly wasn’t a simple intellectual decision. The nearest I can come to is that it seemed the right thing to do at the time or in the words of Ms L’Engle, I was following my intuition. This is one area where postmodern thinking may actually be more realistic than the intellect-centred modernism of C S Lewis. Life is often fuzzy and as human beings we are often a mystery even to ourselves. I’ve just come across the author Francis Spufford, who surprisingly is a member of the General Synod. He has an penchant for giving his books mesmeric titles, such as “Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.” Scandalously, at the heart of our faith is the cross of Jesus – which to say the least does not appear to make any sense at all. So Spufford writes: “Some people ask nowadays what kind of a religion it is that chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol, as if the cross on churches must represent some kind of endorsement. The answer is: one that takes the existence of suffering seriously.” For it is in suffering and pain that God can be found and where spiritual growth takes place. Archbishop Justin offered himself for ordained ministry as a direct consequence of losing his young daughter Johanna in a road traffic accident.
On being asked by Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs “if there was a God he wouldn’t let this happen,” Justin replied “Yes that’s absolutely true – and you find that a huge number of people say, 'That was the moment where I found God.’ ” For as Christians we are called to take suffering of – and this in itself is a powerful witness. So going back to Spufford, he writes: “Virtuous and idealistic atheists are at work all over the place, but it is observable that a surprisingly large number of believers are at work with the dying, the demented, the addicted, the institutionalised and the very impaired and afflicted, where the best that can be done is to love for the sake of it and to keep sorrow company.” How we live our lives is hugely important for a watching world but at the same time we are called to explain our faith as clearly and coherently as we can. Our minds are still important: hence this blog. For the record, St Francis of Assisi never said: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” No way he said that, just someone in recent years putting their words into his mouth to make a mischievous point. As the apostle Peter explains: “Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.” Thinking has a powerful role to play especially in conversion: rationality is important because we are rational beings. So tomorrow I will be doing my best to explain who the Holy Spirit is, what he does and how we may respond. I aim for my talks to follow a logical progression, guided – I trust – by scripture. To this end I have spent some time in preparation and getting my PowerPoint slides in a logical order. However, never forget that the key player in all this, of course, is the Holy Spirit, the breath/wind of God himself. Strangely God may choose to work through us but at the end of the day it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit who secures any conversion. As Jesus tells the enquiring Nicodemus: “You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” (John 3:7f, Message translation) In all this there is a sense of mystery as the Breath of God works deep within our operating systems, at a level best often detected by our intuition. Aiden Wilson Tozer in his classic work “The Pursuit of God”, writes, “Why do some persons ‘find’ God in a way that others do not? The one vital quality that they all had in common was spiritual receptivity. Something in them was open to heaven, something which urged them Godward.” So we pray “Come, Holy Spirit.”