Leave room for the Holy Spirit

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Leave Room for the Holy Spirit.”]

Meadowkirk Tree at Sunset

“Leave room for the Holy Spirit.”

The first time I heard this phrase, it was in relation to a middle school dance and about not getting too close to the opposite sex, it actually carries a deeper truth than that. Zechariah 4:6 says:

He said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts.”

Zerubbabel was the governor of Judah and the task before him was the rebuilding of the temple, the restoration of the house of the Lord, and this was both daunting and tremendously important because the temple was seen as the place where heaven and earth met, the place where God dwelled among his people.

The word “holy” (as in “Holy Spirit”) means “set apart,” and it refers to the holiness of God, the otherness of God, the set-apartness of God. But “holy” also refers to the work of the Spirit, which is a setting apart, and so I want to make two points:

  1. The Holy Spirit sets us apart from the world.
  2. The Holy Spirit sets us apart for God.


When God spoke to Zerubbabel through Zechariah, he said, “You will accomplish this rebuilding not by might, nor by power.” Might and power were how the world worked in those days: whoever had the largest army, the most chariots and horses, whoever had the greatest wealth or the largest empire, this person was seen as the most powerful.

The people of Israel had been on the wrong side of this kind of power: they were returning to a place that had been demolished by the Babylonians, they were returning from an exile they had been carried into by force. They would have understood from their experience that might and power talks, so to speak, and they may even have begun to think that way too.

It’s a perspective that we see even today: the United States spends more on its defense budget than the closest nine countries (including China, the UK, France, Japan) put together. Might and power is still, in many ways, how the world works.

And yet, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel reminds us:

The prophets were the first men in history to regard a nation’s reliance upon force as evil. … The prophets proclaimed that the heart of God is on the side of the weaker. God’s special concern is not for the mighty and the successful, but for the lowly and the downtrodden, for the stranger and the poor, for the widow and the orphan. The heart of God goes out to the humble, to the vanquished, to those not cared for. (The Prophets, 212)

The Holy Spirit sets us apart from the world, not in the sense that we’re siloed into little Christian enclaves, physically apart from other people, not in the sense that as Christians we’re called to stop hanging out with non-Christians, but in the sense that the Spirit of God sets us apart from the way the world does things.

Jesus said:

The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to become first must be your slave. (Matt. 20:25-27)

We’re called to do things differently.

How does the world do business? In a free market economy, everyone is encouraged to seek the best for themselves and to trust that market forces will keep things in balance. Not so with you: in the perspective of the kingdom of God, everyone matters, and you will be held accountable for how you treated the poorest and most vulnerable—how your business decisions impacted them.

How does the world do romantic relationships? Well, you find the person that’s most compatible with you, you find the person that will be the best for you, and you date as many people as you need to until you get there. (Gross overgeneralization, I know.) Not so with you: in the perspective of the kingdom of God, how we treat each other’s bodies and how we treat each other’s hearts reflect our understanding of what Jesus has done for us, and actually maybe our goal in life is less about finding someone who will make us happy than to allow the Spirit of God to make us holy.

“Might and power” also speaks of our own strength. God says to Zerubbabel, “You will not accomplish this mission in your own strength.” And that’s a message we need to hear too: we have a tendency to think we can accomplish anything—that’s part of the American Dream narrative: “if you work hard enough, if you try hard enough, anything is possible. Whatever challenge you’re facing, whatever problem you’re trying to deal with, whatever mission stands before you, if you do X enough, you will succeed, you will triumph, you will overcome.”

But God does things differently. The foundation of our faith is that we can’t.

We can’t.

The prerequisite for trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord is the acknowledgement that we need a Savior and Lord, and we need a Savior and Lord because we can’t save ourselves, we can’t rescue ourselves, we can’t pull ourselves out of our own sins, heal our own sicknesses, free ourselves from our own addictions, repair all of the damage we cause other people. We can’t.

God says to Zerubbabel, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit. You will complete this rebuilding, you will accomplish this restoration, but it won’t be in the way that the world does it; it will be because of my spirit, because of my presence and involvement with you.” The Spirit sets us apart from the world.

But it’s just not about being different for difference’s sake; it’s about being set apart for something greater. It’s about being SET APART FOR GOD.

In the Old Testament, the understanding of the Spirit of God was that God would send his Spirit on a person at a specific time and for a specific purpose. For instance, when David the shepherd boy was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel, “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13). Any time the Spirit of God came upon a person, it was to accomplish something that would require a lot of help: leading a nation, repelling invaders, prophesying a difficult word. In Isaiah 61, the prophet says:

The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me … to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners …

Think about it: what the Spirit calls Isaiah to do is no walk in the park! But the Spirit of God doesn’t come upon us so that we can live more comfortable lives; the Spirit of God comes upon us so that we can live more God-filled lives.

The Holy Spirit sets people apart for God, and in Zechariah’s time, the Spirit only came upon certain people at certain times. But the prophet Joel, who we learned about back in the fall, looked forward to a time when God would do something even greater, 2:28:

In those days, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

This was the promise of God to his people, that he would not reserve his Spirit, his presence, to a small number of chosen ones, but that he would instead “pour out”—imagine that picture of abundance—his Spirit freely and lavishly to all people in all places, on men and women, on young and old.

But, before all this could happen, something else had to happen: the coming of a man named Jesus.

That passage from Isaiah 61—“the Spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me …”—Jesus took that as the manifesto for his ministry, his inaugural address, and he actually did all those things—bringing good news to the poor, setting the prisoners free, giving sight to the blind.

Now, it’s easy for us to think that Jesus did all that because he was God but the gospels tell us that he did it by the Spirit of God. It was the Spirit of God that connected him with his Father; it was the Spirit of God that enabled him to heal sickness and cast out demons and discern what people were thinking; it was the Spirit of God that empowered him to live the best, most pure, most beautiful life anyone’s ever lived; and it was the Spirit of God that gave him the strength to say to his Father, “Not my will but yours be done. Not my strength but yours will accomplish the mission you’ve set before me.”

Before he died, Jesus said to his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

And when the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, they began to prophesy and to heal people and to proclaim the truth of the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ; they began to love in such a way that the divisions of gender and race and past hurts no longer divided them; the rich shared with the poor; people realized that there was no need to be ashamed any longer, that there was wholeness in honesty, and they confessed their sins to God and to one another and found forgiveness and restoration. The world has never been the same.

Any time the people of God allow the Spirit of God to set them apart from the world and to set them apart for God and his purposes, the world is changed.

In summer 2002, I went to Uganda on my first mission trip with a group from my church. I had just come back to faith, just said to God, “Let’s do things your way.” It was a charismatic church, something I wasn’t used to, but I was learning more and more about this Holy Spirit, and learning that life with God is an adventure. I remember, one day, we were visiting a school, speaking to these students about Jesus, and at the end we asked if anyone needed prayer for anything. Kids formed lines in front of each of us—there were seven of us—waiting to be prayed for. Some wanted to know the wonderful love of Jesus for themselves—we prayed and invited Jesus to make them new; others had physical ailments: colds, chest pains, eye conditions—we prayed and they were healed.

In light of my experience, I wonder why I’m so often afraid to trust in the Holy Spirit, to go out on a limb and talk to a stranger, to ask a sick friend if I can pray for healing, to share how much I love Jesus with those who don’t yet know him. I could say it’s fear of rejection, fear of not knowing what’s going to happen, fear of looking weird. But ultimately, it comes down to control. It comes down to the fact that I have to give up control over the way I want things to be; I have to give up control over my life, over my comfort, over my rights. See, I want to be safe and comfortable; I want the path of least resistance; I would rather not have to face risk and uncertainty and difficulty.

But the word for ‘spirit’ in the Bible—ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek—also means “wind.” The winds in the eastern Mediterranean would seemingly appear from nowhere and cause havoc—think of the storms that we read about in the Bible; they were completely uncontrollable. It’s not for no reason that Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). There is something uncontrollable, unpredictable, about God, about his Spirit, about the life that is available to those of us who commit to following him. How sad that we often settle for predictable, comfortable lives!

God says:

I want so much more for you! I have a challenging and difficult mission for you; it is the work of restoration. And you will not do it with the methods of the world or in your own strength, but by my Spirit.

For you, God might be asking you to listen and obey when the Spirit says, “Get out of your comfort zone,” whether that involves getting to know your neighbors, joining a small group for the first time, committing to learn about your neighborhood and your city, committing to live in such a way that the kingdom of God comes a little bit more through your life. 

God has poured out his Spirit on those of us who want him. He has made available a life more full than we could ever imagine; he has promised to grow in us the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; he has offered to partner with us to forge a new and better and more whole way of building friendships, of being in relationships, of loving our neighbors, of making peace with our enemies, of finding fulfillment in our work, of seeking reconciliation and restoration.

This is the work we are called to, the adventure we are invited into, the story we are being written into, if we allow God to be God and by his Spirit to work in and with and through us. So the invitation this morning is this: be filled with the Holy Spirit, and then live by the Holy Spirit. God gives his Spirit to us in order to partner with us to accomplish his purposes; we have a part to play, and God wants to help us fulfill our role. And all we have to do is ask. That’s it.

And whatever lies before us, whatever mission or challenge or mountain God may bring us to, the word of the Lord says that we will not accomplish it by might nor by power but by the Spirit of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Seeking silence

“After the earthquake came fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (1 Kings 19:12)

You, O Lord, are the subtle inspiration hidden in our deepest instincts to seek out goodness and love and content us with the whisper of truth and presence.

Lord, if we desire you to be a part of our busy lives we need to find some cave of Aloneness where we can heed your voice and ponder your word with a clean heart.

Enable us and our children not to be afraid of silence.

Only from silence can come the depth of expression, the well-spring of beauty and common language that will help us interpret all the sounds of our noisy world.

Lord, help us to keep silent so we may listen better. Help us to abide in the silence of prayer so prayer can live in us—now and forever. Amen.

– Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin,
prayer at the opening session of Congress, April 23, 2009

(From Josh Dubois’ The President’s Devotional.)

God always knows what you need

The Me I Want to Be[God] always knows just what each person needs.

He had Abraham take a walk, Elijah take a nap, Joshua take a lap, and Adam take the rap.

He gave Moses a forty-year time out, he gave David a harp and a dance, and he gave Paul a pen and a scroll.

He wrestled with Jacob, argued with Job, whispered to Elijah, warned Cain, and comforted Hagar.

He gave Aaron an altar, Miriam a song, Gideon a fleece, Peter a name, and Elisha a mantle.

Jesus was stern with the rich young ruler, tender with the woman caught in adultery, patient with the disciples, blistering with the scribes, gentle with the children, and gracious with the thief on the cross.

God never grows two people the same way. God is a hand-crafter, not a mass-producer.

John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be, 49

God is good: the challenge of goodness

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Trusting in the Goodness of God.” Part 1.]

When we encounter passages in the Bible that talk of the  desolation and devastation that God is going to bring, or that speak of the jealous and avenging wrath of God, we can get a little uncomfortable. And I think wrestling with these issues and our discomfort is a really good thing, but I think a lot of it has to do with our more nuanced understanding of good and evil.

  • We realize that it’s usually not a simple case of “I’m good; you’re bad”—Jesus addressed this when he said, “Take the plank out of your own eye before you try to point out the speck in someone else’s.”
  • We understand that good and evil are not always as clear-cut as we were taught through fairy tales and nursery rhymes and Disney movies.
  • We understand that people have differing motivations—that even the best person may do awful things and that even the so-called ‘worst’ person may be redeemed.
  • We understand that seeing from another’s perspective is at the heart of Jesus’ commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We think that we understand good and evil better. Which can be dangerous, because I think our generation, with all of the information available to us, is actually more in danger of falling into the same trap as Adam and Eve in Genesis, thinking that we are the arbiters of what’s right and wrong, thinking that we know enough of the story of the world to be able to judge between good and evil.

We take our standard of good and evil, and measure God against it, rather than the other way around. God, not us, is the standard for goodness.

Here’s what I think: if goodness is really goodness, it will challenge us; specifically, it will challenge the parts of us that are not good.

Sin and evil are real; they’re not just value judgments made by individuals. We see them in different forms all around us:

  • when someone goes on a shooting spree in an elementary school
  • flies a passenger plane into a building
  • tries to exterminate an entire population
  • forces a young girl to have sex for money or a young boy to be a child soldier
    treats someone poorly or refuses to help someone in need
  • acts in such a way as to exacerbate or even just ignore the gap between the rich and the poor.

These things are bad; these things are sinful; these things demand justice; these things must be challenged by goodness.

Let’s use love as an example. I define love as “seeking the good of the other.” A parent who lets their child do whatever the child wants to do—whether that may be eating junk food all the time, refusing to share, wanting to stay up super late, hitting other kids—is not loving the child because the child doesn’t always want to do what is good for them. Instead, a good parent will challenge their kid to eat their vegetables, to share with others, to get enough rest, to express themselves in more constructive ways.

Similarly, a good friend will not simply let their buddy get wasted all the time, make self-destructive decisions, feed their addictions, and date all the wrong people; a good friend will love that person not just by supporting every decision they make but by challenging the not-good habits and decisions, by saying, “Can’t you see where this is going? Can’t you see what this is doing?”

That’s how I understand God’s hatred of sin. In our day and age, we may have become desensitized to sin, treating it as a little mistake here or there. Sin is like cancer: it’s killing us. One of my best friends died a couple years ago from a brain tumor. I loved Ashley, and so I hated the cancer that killed him.

If God truly loves us, then he must hate the sin that is killing us; he must challenge us when we sin.  Even if we think our sin isn’t hurting anyone else, it hurts us; and God cares just as much about us, God wants life for us, God wants to be in a life-giving relationship with us. Sin—being apart from God—leads to death, and that’s why God hates sin. The goodness of God requires that God challenge sin and evil; the goodness of God requires that God get angry.

I’m not talking about anger like when someone cuts you off in traffic or when you have to wait in line for longer than you’d like to—there are some situations where we need to learn patience! But there are times when I get angry, and I think God does too. I get angry:

  • when I learn that last year, almost 40,000 people in the United States felt like the only option left to them was to take their own life;
  • at the fact that every year, 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste while 870 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition;
  • that right here in our city, 1 in 5 people is poor;
  • that we treat each other with such carelessness, in our friendships, in our dating relationships, in our encounters with people who are different from us;
  • that we don’t take better care of all of the things that God has entrusted to us: our bodies, our money, our time, our relationships, our world.

And I think God gets angry too because God is good; and if God wasn’t a God of justice, if God didn’t care about what was good for us, if God didn’t challenge us on our sin, by logical extension, that would make God a not-good God.

Sometimes, “God is good” means a hard word for us, a challenging word for us, because the goodness of God will meet us where we are but it can’t let us stay where we are.

God loves us too much to do that.

A few things to start 2014

A week and a half into the new year, and I have a feeling it’ll be no surprise to you that life is busy! God is doing a lot, including much that I’ve yet to fully process; but I’m so excited for what this year will bring (not just for the wedding!). A few things:

1. The District Church continues to grow.
In the absence of a larger space (which we’re still looking for), we’re going to start having THREE services in Columbia Heights, in addition to our East Side campus. Which means that tomorrow I get to preach FOUR times. Pray for me!


2. God continues to use us.
After TIME covered DC127 in the fall, our local paper (well, The Washington Post) wrote this story in late December — “DC127 aims to connect city’s foster children with families.” I’m so grateful to be part of a community that positions itself in such a way that God can use us and be glorified.

3. Catherine continues to heal.
My dear friend Catherine, who was hit by a car last fall, continues her recovery by the grace of God. She shares some of her thoughts on how trauma has impacted her here — “A New Normal” — and I’m so proud of her for putting this out there. I know, from talking to her, that it was difficult, even to post it. As she writes:

“Trauma upends everything we took for granted, including things we didn’t know we took for granted. And many of these realities I wish I’d known when I first encountered them. So, while the work of life and healing continues, here are ten things I’ve learned about trauma along the way.”

4. Wedding planning is full steam ahead.
We’re getting married in July, so it’s all systems go. A number of things have come together already, but there remains much to do. Prayers would always be appreciated. (You can check out some of our engagement pics on Facebook.)