By Shannon Vowell
Many of us picture God the Father based on artistic representation or a beloved earthly father. Our ideas about Jesus can take their cues from Scripture’s description of him. But how do we understand/visualize God the Holy Spirit? Since Pentecost, God has been present to believers – abiding in us, encouraging us, empowering us, directing us. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. Astonishing.
As a new believer, getting to know the basics of the Father and Jesus was mostly a matter of time in Scripture. Learning the truth of the character of the One God as expressed in those two Persons – that was a joyful adventure of discovery for this book-nerd.
But the Holy Spirit? It seemed to me there was no coming to grips with a Person of the Godhead who wasn’t, well, a person.
It didn’t help that my first Bible was an older translation, in which “Holy Spirit” appeared as “Holy Ghost.” A bad habit of horror-movie-watching when I was a teenager predisposed me to cover my eyes at the mention of anything “ghostly.” Honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get better acquainted with this aspect of God.
Beyond my ghoulish, “things that go bump in the night” phobia about ghosts, I struggled with the concept of “spirit.” I discovered that the Greek word for “spirit” was the same as the word for “breath” – pneuma, from which we get our English “pneumonia.” My sister had almost died of pneumonia when we were young. Why would I want to get to know God in the guise of collapsed lungs?
Bottom line, the Holy Spirit seemed to me both nebulously scary and completely confusing.
At such places of fear and confusion, I find that gravity helps me a lot. How so? Because I don’t “get” gravity, either. I don’t understand the principles by which I stay fixed to the surface of a planet that is whirling through space. I don’t understand why rockets have to “break free” from the atmosphere, nor why astronauts weigh less on the moon. The whole thing mystifies me – and totally freaks me out if I think about it too much.
Gravity goes on holding me to earth, though. My comprehension has no bearing whatsoever on its efficacy; me freaking out matters not a whit. Like gravity, God keeps working perfectly without my comprehension (or my permission).
Even better, neither God nor gravity relies on me. For anything. But both God and gravity can be relied on, by me, even in the absence of my “getting” them. What a relief!
In fact, in the un-gettable-ness of God, I have an ongoing reminder of my true identity: God’s child, not “god” myself. I am not responsible for the Universe. I cannot “save” anyone – not even myself – but that’s not my job. When I put my trust in the goodness of the God I cannot comprehend, that place of surrender becomes my custom-fit haven. Rather like this planet, onto which gravity holds me so faithfully, is my custom-fit home.
The liberating truth is that I am not going to fly off into outer space, because I am held safely by the One who made me, and gravity, and outer space, and everything! “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
If gravity has the power to hold us secure on terra firma, the Holy Spirit has the power to lift us to heavenly heights at the same time. Gravity exerts “natural” power; the Holy Spirit is supernatural power. Gravity keeps us physically anchored in the present moment; the Holy Spirit gives us glimpses of eternity and empowers us to live “now” with the “not yet” resident in our very beings.
We see this power especially clearly when the Holy Spirit catalyzes transformation in disciples of Jesus at Pentecost. The second chapter of Acts contains so much that is startling that it’s easy to miss the central miracle: Peter, the cowardly Christ-denier, preaching the gospel to a crowd of thousands in the very city where his Lord had been condemned! The Holy Spirit falling on him had not just loosened his tongue to miraculously speak in other languages – the Holy Spirit had redefined his identity: terrified fisherman to fearless apologist.
The apostle Paul’s transformation – from malevolent persecutor of Christians to church-planting / New Testament martyr for the faith – follows soon thereafter (in Acts 9).
These two men’s experiences exemplify the action of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers: unmistakable change, undeniable urgency, inexplicable effectiveness – supernaturally.
Those who claim that such miracles of transformation are no longer part of Christian experience are missing out on God’s gifts. Lives are still changed, in ways just as radical as Peter’s and Paul’s! Here are a few examples from my own acquaintanceship: my friend Bob, who went from sleeping off Saturday nights every Sunday morning to leading ministries at his church; my friend Lisa, whose legendary sharp tongue and bitter mindset were replaced by sparkle-eyed kindness and evangelical energy; my friend Don, whose decades of alcoholism almost killed him but who walks now in a sobriety so joyful and Jesus-focused that he inspires other long-time drunks to give God a try. These are real people, living in real freedom, thanks to the reality of the Holy Spirit!
Paul encourages disciples not to be “conformed” to the pattern of the world, but rather to be “transformed” by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). Only the Holy Spirit can enable us (as Paul was enabled) to believe that such transformation is possible. And only the Holy Spirit can enable us (as Peter, Paul, and countless others have been enabled) to live into that amazing paradigm of supernatural change.
Sharon Vowell, a frequent contributor to Good News, blogs at shannonvowell.com. This is the third of three installments on the Trinity from her new workbook entitled Beginning … Again: Discovering and Delighting in God’s Plan for Your Future, available on Amazon. Image: Mosaic of Pentecost. Photo taken by Holger Schué, Pixabay.
By Terry Teykl
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37).
For many years, I have taught about the parallels between rivers and aspects of prayer. For example, rivers bond us geographically and historically to other people, giving us a place in the bigger picture of life. Year after year they pour out of the headwaters and flow across vast regions of land eventually pouring into the vastness of the ocean. Rivers are rich in history and are speckled with events that have shaped nations. Likewise, the river of prayer is connected. The life of God has flowed from its headwaters through time and history. All prayer empties into the vastness of God. He is like an ocean compared to the volume of rivers in the world.
Rivers are in many ways exciting and playful, meant to be enjoyed minute by minute. Their past and future are important, but what really matters now is the pleasure they provide us. They offer us an unlimited supply of recreation and refreshment up and down their banks. Similarly, the river of prayer is now. God is able and willing to help us if only we ask. Prayer is effective when “on sight with insight,” reaching out to immediate and felt needs of the moment. We must be ready to pray at any time and place so that God can pour out his love and meet needs on a day-to-day basis.
Rivers are life giving. They infuse everything they touch with energy and vitality. They provide essential nutrients and water for plants and animals in and along their banks. There are over 3,000 species of fish in the Amazon River. Civilization seems to prosper in relation to rivers, which provide many things like transportation for people and their products. Likewise, the river of prayer is life giving. It is the source through which the love and mercy of God has flowed. Deeply relational, prayer touches the hearts of those who are hurting with the salve of God’s grace and unconditional acceptance. Centuries bear witness to this through the acts of intercession when people pray and stand in the gap for those who are lost and plead their cases before the Father until his purposes are fulfilled in their lives. The sheer volume of this river is the rich and never-ending love of God.
Rivers are mysterious – sometimes hidden beneath the earth’s surface, and sometimes flowing on top – they are incomprehensible and esoteric. What lies beneath them is unknown. We never completely understand what makes a river flow fast and slow, wide and then narrow. We can never grasp how a river can cut and form the Grand Canyon with immense size and beauty. As you look at the history of prayer, we realize how mysterious it is. During the monastic years prayer seemed to flow less visible as in the practice of solitude. Yet, it flowed all the same to merge in public expressions of prayer. Prayer is so simple yet opens us to the experience of his presence and exalts him in his majesty.
Rivers are cleansing. Always flowing downstream, rivers are nature’s own waste removal system. They eliminate contaminants from the earth and carry them to the ocean. The rushing waters of a mountain stream can be abrasive, smoothing and refining stones as it continually rubs against their jagged surfaces. Rivers have no discretion; they confront everything in their path, carrying away anything which is not secured. Prayer is also cleansing. The river of prayer is vital in spiritual warfare. Satan is a dangerous foe and prayer in the name of Jesus is our main weapon. Through prayer we have the power and authority to enforce the rule and reign of Jesus on the earth, setting captives free and establishing holiness. It is our mighty weapon of war against the principalities of darkness.
Rivers are unpredictable. Twisting and turning at will, they cut a path across land that is distinct at every point. Rivers are dynamic, never static, changing constantly as the water flows. Even the same spot along a river’s edge is made new moment by moment as the water continually runs through it. Rivers have the potential to be destructive without warning when they spill over their banks and run wild. In the same way, the life and deeds of God are new every morning, and in prayer we must seek God for his direction to stay on course. Prayer has proven time and time again to be a holy rebellion to the status quo. Bold new ideas come into play when we pray.
Rivers are manageable. They have great power that can be harnessed to create energy as in the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. The dam is the largest hydroelectric producer in the world. It produces 22,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to run over 4 million homes. Rivers can be very productive if the right strategy is applied and implemented. They are one of nature’s finest resources. The river of prayer has been manageable over the centuries. Implementing proven methods and organizing resources yields maximum fruitfulness because it promotes longevity in personal and corporate prayer.
Learning from Jesus. The headwaters of Christian prayer begin with Jesus. He set the example and practice for us by the prayer in his own life. He would go off to lonely places and pray. Sometimes he would draw apart to a mountain and spend the night praying alone. He prayed in public and he prayed with his disciples in John 17. He taught the importance of praying, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11).
Tommy Tyson, a famous Methodist evangelist (1922-2002), summed up the Master’s prayer life by observing: (1) Jesus prayed to know God, (2) he prayed to know God’s will, (3) he prayed to receive power to do the will of God, and (4) he prayed to persevere in doing God’s will.
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). I call this form of prayer seeking God’s face, not just his hand. Scripture admonishes us to do this, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek” (Psalm 27:8).
Most praying is asking God for something. In seeking his face, we pray with an open heart to know him more intimately. We want to know his ways and not just his acts (Psalm 103:7). We seek his face to know his identity, his beauty, his holiness, his good pleasure, his perspective, and his voice in all matters. We want his favor on our children, home, church, and nation. Plus, the essence of this kind of praying is a process whereby we are being conformed into the image of God. The ultimate purpose of prayer is to become like Jesus (Romans 8:29).
Jesus prayed to receive the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the will of God. We read in Luke 3:21-22, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” Note the phrase, as he was praying the Spirit descended on him. Again, on the Mount of Transfiguration it says that “as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (Luke 9:29). In Luke 5:16, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed … and the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick.” Prayer is a welcome mat to the Holy Spirit. Often, we can know the will of God but without power to accomplish it we come up short.
Sometimes rivers – like the Niagara, which is only 36 miles long – have a great waterfall. So as with this river called prayer, we pray, and the Spirit brings a waterfall of grace over a city or an area. History bears witness to this in Acts 2, and the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Other revivals in history bear witness to this spiritual phenomenon because they happened after prolonged periods of prayer.
We pray to persevere. In this world there is resistance to the kingdom of light. Prayer is our weapon in spiritual conflict. Jesus modeled this for us and taught us to pray and prevail. In the Garden of Gethsemane he travailed in prayer facing the cross. As he prayed angels came and strengthened him (Luke 22:43). Then he told us, “Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36).
In John 17, Jesus prayed for a number of important things: that the Son would glorify the Father, that his disciples would be protected by his Name, that we might have the full measure of joy, that we be protected from the evil one, that we would be sanctified in truth. He prayed for them and those who were to believe in him, that we would be brought to complete unity in order that we may be one, that we would be like him now and forever, that the Father’s love for Jesus might be in us.
The Amazon River is the largest river in the world. It stretches 4,200 miles across a basin the size of five states of Texas. On any given day it has a volume of 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply. And when it empties into the ocean it dilutes the salt water for 100 miles. The sustenance and volume of the river of prayer over the past 21 centuries has been in the name of Jesus. This is the unique and distinctive factor of the Christian tradition. It is the one common utterance that we have that other religions do not have. It sets our praying apart in so many ways. From St. Augustine to Martin Luther to John Wesley and Bill Bright this has been the common thread their praying.
Jesus said, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13-14) Praying in Jesus’ name is based on his righteousness. We pray according to his track record and not our own.
God’s reputation is at stake by the way his followers pray and live. We are his hands and feet in the world. We are his ambassadors. We represent God to a watching world.
Terry Teykl is a United Methodist clergyperson who has devoted his life and ministry to prayer. He is also the author of numerous books, including Pray the Price, Blueprint for the House of Prayer, and Making Room to Pray. This essay is adapted from his new book Chronicles of Prayer: Praying in Jesus Name for 21 Centuries. Photo: Shutterstock.
By Jenifer Jones
The northern European country of Estonia is bordered to the west by the Baltic Sea, and to the east by Russia. In the last several months, thousands of Ukrainians have either passed through on their way to other places in Europe, or temporarily settled there as they wait for the war to end.
TMS Global international partner Hindrek Taavet Taimla (pictured here) lives in Estonia, where he pastors a church and teaches at Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary and a basic school. Both the membership and normal attendance at the church are around 20 people. But on recent Sundays there have also been 8-12 Ukrainian refugees in the pews.
“The little sanctuary is packed,” Taimla notes. “Like the Bible says, the nations have come to us, to our light, and now even that little tiny countryside congregation has the chance to do missions. And everybody senses that this is what really counts, this is what’s really important: to clothe the naked and to feed the hungry and to preach the gospel to the poor.”
The seminary and school where Taimla teach are doing their best to take in and support Ukrainian students as well. About 25 percent of people living in Estonia are ethnic Russians. Taimla notes that his seminary has always been home to both Ukrainian and Russian students. “So we have a great opportunity there to unite them,” Taimla says.
There is some friction now between Ukrainians and Russians in Estonia, Taimla notes, as more Ukrainians enter the country. He says the Church in Estonia has an important role to play in building peace. “The Church, I think, really has to take on the ministry of reconciliation, like Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5,” Taimla says.
There’s also an opportunity for the Church in Estonia to put aside personal dramas, conflicts, and politics for the sake of the gospel and help people in need. “Now that lives are on the line, it’s a matter of life and death for many people,” Taimla says. “Now it’s time to get serious. I think that has hit the church as well. Until now, we had our own opinions and differences. But for now, for this reason, we can come together. And now we do come together to seek God and pray and fast and do everything we can to host the Ukrainians.”
But Taimla wishes the Church would unite before times get hard. “People just become very devout during their hard circumstances,” Taimla says. “But I would like to see Christians become desperate for God even when circumstances aren’t bad. How do you experience revival and growth and really healthy church life in fairly good circumstances? I think that has to come from some kind of inner desperation. If the situation is not desperate, then you have to become desperate.”
While Estonian Christians host refugees, the Estonian Church is encouraged by stories of how God is caring for people in Ukraine. Taimla shares a story from Mariupol, a city that’s been devastated by weeks of shelling from Russia. A group of family and friends in Mariupol took shelter together underground. For one week, the 10 people had one package of cookies, and one 17-ounce bottle of water to share between them. “Everybody would have a little bit every day,” Taimla says. “And every day there would be new water and new cookies in the package. There was supernatural multiplication of food and they survived and then they were able to evacuate.”
The arrival of more Ukrainians is spurring the body of Christ in Estonia to lay aside division and focus on what’s truly important. Taimla says the war between Russia and Ukraine is causing Estonian Christians to pray more, seek God, and come together as they work to become ministers of reconciliation.
This story was originally written in the spring of 2022. Today, most Ukrainians have moved on because there are no jobs in the area. But a few have stayed and now run a local pub with a special Ukrainian menu. This is the sixith article in a series by TMS Global introducing voices and stories in global Methodism. Jenifer Jones is a writer who serves on staff of TMS Global; Taimla is a TMS Global international partner.
By B.J. Funk
The Beatles released a song in 1966 that spoke of loneliness: Ah, look at all the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?/ All the lonely people/ Where do they all belong?
Are you plagued with periods of loneliness? Do you feel sometimes that you cannot go on another day because life has lost its meaning? Has your best friend died, your companion walked away, and you are left with unbearable darkness? You are not by yourself.
It’s not just an elderly father or mother who is lonely. Not just the widow or widower. The rich and the famous are lonely. The popular and unpopular. Seventies rock star Janis Joplin had the world at her feet, but just before she took her own life with an overdose of heroin in a Los Angeles apartment, she said to her friend, “After I come off the stage, all I do is sit around and watch television. I am so very lonely.”
The movie, Judy, brilliantly played by Rene Zellweger, vividly shows the unhappy life of Judy Garland who died at age 47 from an accidental barbiturate overdose. The tabloids made much of her suicide attempts, addiction to uppers and downers, alcoholism, bankruptcy, a string of heartbreaking marriages, and mental health issues. She was so popular but so lonely. She once tearfully asked this question. “If I am a legend, then why am I so lonely?”
Henry David Thoreau reminds us that being in a crowd does not change our feelings of loneliness. He wrote, “A city is a place where hundreds of people are lonely together.”
Kay Arthur gives us of a beautiful antidote to loneliness. “Snuggle in God’s arms. When you are hurting, when you feel lonely, left out. Let him cradle you, comfort you, and reassure you of his all-sufficient love.”
Human beings are made for relationships. The movie, Castaway, with Tom Hanks vividly points to our need for companionship. Hanks, stranded on an uninhabited island, found a volleyball in a Fed Ex package, and he made this volleyball his friend. He named him Wilson from the brand name, and Wilson served as Hanks’ only friend for over four years until he was rescued. No movie shows the necessity of having just one good friend more than Castaway. It is doubtful if Hanks’ character would have made it without Wilson. Being made for relationships, when there are none we suffer. We hurt. We feel left out, and loneliness covers us like a thick, dark blanket.
Playwright Thomas Wolfe said, “Don’t think of loneliness as some curious abstraction or rare phenomenon. Loneliness is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” A website on loneliness tells of the Epidemic of Loneliness. The writer goes on to submit that the crisis of loneliness poses as grave a threat to public health as obesity or substance abuse. It cuts across generations and reaches around the world.
In every Sunday morning service there are some very lonely people. It is the responsibility of the church to try to give answers in a society filled with the disease of loneliness. The answer lies squarely in a dynamic, loving, and life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. We don’t merely need one more outfit, or to spend a lot of money, or go to party after party to fill our lonely needs. Those answers will not satisfy permanently. Loneliness can teach us how to walk by faith and not by sight. Allow loneliness to strengthen your faith in Christ. Ask the Lord to teach you during your lonely times and worship him even if you don’t feel like it.
Elisabeth Elliot gives solid advice when she wrote, “Loneliness is a wilderness, but if we can receive it as a gift, accepting it from the kind hand of God and offering it back to him with thanksgiving. It may become a pathway to holiness, to glory and to God himself.”
How can the church help all the lonely people? As God’s ambassadors, we offer them our arms to snuggle in. We cradle them, comfort them and remind them of God’s all sufficient love.
B.J. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of It’s A Good Day for Grace, available on Amazon.