One church planter’s challenge to follow the (untameable and unpredictable) Holy Spirit
I love going to the park with my kids. One of my favorite things to attempt—and one of their favorite things to watch me attempt—is to stealthily sneak up on the animals that we spot along the way. Even though the creatures aren’t that exotic—mostly turtles, squirrels, or geese—there’s something exciting about being near an animal in “the wild.” The problem, however, lies in that I’m not satisfied with being close to the animals; I also feel this uncontrollable urge to see if I can touch them. I have grandiose visions of being the squirrel whisperer, of taming the turtle.
I’ve actually succeeded in my own little domestication of many animals. But not the goose. Trying to corner a goose has left me with a pretty strong fear of getting bitten, mostly because, well, I’ve gotten bitten.
The Celtic Christians had a symbol for the Holy Spirit; it was a wild goose. The Spirit of Jesus was unable to be tamed, moving this way and that, slightly unpredictable and, actually, a little dangerous to try to control.
Until recently, I hadn’t spent much time trying to understand the role of the Holy Spirit in my life. But now, I feel like I’m learning to identify with the Celts on this one. I’m discovering that, rather than a passive or predictable force, the Holy Spirit is much more like a wild goose—surprising, free, and possessed with an astonishing sense of direction.
Confronting illusions of control
For much of my life, my theology of the Spirit has been fairly anemic. I believed that the Spirit of God was working in me, but it was more like a conscience, a Jiminy Cricket–type character, giving me encouragement or telling me not to do bad things. That was about it. I never dabbled much with inviting the Spirit to play a larger role beyond the “still, small voice” in my life.
However, two years ago, these conceptions were challenged as I encountered the huge task of planting LifePath Church in Newark, Del. I realized that, deep down, I’m a control freak, especially as I seek to see people come into life with Jesus. It’s easy for me to begin to think it all depends on me, and so I spend huge amounts of time and emotion, working hard to get someone to “progress” spiritually. And the harder I work, the more I rely on my own charisma and persuasion over the Spirit’s role in drawing people to the love, grace, and way of Jesus. I’m learning that an ongoing journey with the Spirit often means following rather than leading, trusting rather than controlling.
I love how Paul explains it to the disciples at Corinth, saying that he came to them without persuasive words but with a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” I’m not always sure what that means, but one thing seems clear: When we share the good news of Christ and follow Him with our lives, there’s something going on beyond our control, and that’s a good thing.
Glimpses of the Holy Spirit
Here at LifePath, we’re seeing the Spirit moving in a number of ways.
Sometimes, the Holy Spirit seems to work outside of our efforts. A few months ago we had an experience with a guy who was on the fringes of connection to our church. We’d been praying for him, but he was actually walking away from the community at the time, not seeking after God. Then, late one night, he had an inexplicable experience. My friend heard, in almost an audible voice, words of God’s love and affirmation, overwhelming the guilt and heartache he felt for past mistakes. It was so crazy that he called a few of us up and said, “Come over now. I need you to explain what happened to me, and who this God is that loves me so much.” We shared the story of Jesus with him, and he realized that it was Jesus’ voice that he’d heard. That moment was a turnaround for him. He rejoined our community, and now he’s being discipled by a couple of guys, getting to know Jesus better. So we keep praying.
We also pray for “people of peace” (Luke 9–10, Matthew 10), trusting that the Holy Spirit is going ahead of us and preparing hearts of those that we’ll come in contact with. We expect to run into people who are unnaturally open to us, to Jesus in us, and have a desire to serve.
So one morning, we randomly strike up a conversation with a young lady at the library, and several weeks later she attends one of our gatherings. We hear the story of how she and her family had been wondering if they’d made the wrong decision to move into the area, since they felt so alone. That was the morning she took her kids to the library, she told me with tears in her eyes. So we keep praying.
At other times, we are surprised by the miraculous ways the Spirit opens doors and provides leaders for our community. We often pray for God to bring workers into the field, like Jesus told us to in Luke 10. And He has. A couple on our leadership team shared about LifePath with their friends in Texas. This family felt stirred by the Spirit to move 1,500 miles to serve alongside us. Then, of course, a house next door to the couple became available, and the family was able to move right in! This kind of stuff happens. It’s wild.
We’ve welcomed new families with pasts in full-time ministry who are now starting to use their gifts again. Families and individuals have joined us who are seeing themselves as missionaries to our neighborhoods, workplaces, and networks. Some had no connection with anyone in LifePath, and they just showed up at the door to a house one night. So we keep praying.
And we’ve seen the Spirit work through us in the long, trusting, patient relationships we seek to build with those around us. Neighbors who had no interest in “religion” are drawn by the Spirit’s partnership with us through simple acts of love and begin to ask for prayer. People who were once completely against anything that reeked of faith or church, begin engaging in thought-provoking conversations. We’re seeing that sometimes the Spirit works through us, and sometimes, the Spirit just works.
When the goose takes flight
As I reflect, I think my own increased openness to the Spirit stems from a very clear realization of all of my own inadequacies. To plant a new expression of God’s kingdom in northern Delaware, with the approach that God has laid on our hearts, is way outside of my abilities, resources, and leadership. Most days, I pray out of sheer desperation. And maybe, that’s the spot that I need to be in order to trust the Holy Spirit.
I am frequently reminded of the words in Psalm 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” If my plan was airtight, then there’d be no space for God to get in there and do His transforming work. I’m learning that God wants me to listen, to watch, and to trust a little better. Especially in the moments that I’m not sure where we’re headed next. After all, when the wild goose takes flight, I don’t want to miss the direction it’s heading.