The Fruit of the Spirit
When I was in my late twenties, I served as the vicar of a very small start-up Episcopal church that met in a warehouse. We had folding chairs instead of pews, a piano instead of an organ, a simple table for an altar, a bowl of water for a font, and a small, wooden stand for a lectern and pulpit. Behind the lectern was the bathroom, and when little boys made their way there during my sermon, I just hoped they would remember to close the door behind them. I was the only full-time staff person, but we had a young jazz pianist as our music director – he loved traditional hymns, and he sometimes showed his appreciation by getting lost in some colorful riffs on the piano that had worshipers swaying.
A few of my parishioners in that church spoke in tongues. Yes, in an Episcopal church; and I never doubted the reality of the phenomenon, even though the gift of tongues was either not given to me or I have successfully repressed it, all my life. A few other parishioners in that little church would raise their hands in the air, close their eyes, and tilt their heads back, when they sang a particularly moving hymn. That wasn’t how I grew up, so displays like that sort of embarrassed me at first; but again, I never doubted the sincerity or authenticity of their worship style. But parishioners in that start-up church also loved “high church” traditions, so we chanted much of the Eucharistic prayer and the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. They wanted me to schedule times for private confessions. Daily Morning Prayer, Monday through Friday, was important to several, and the pastor of a nearby, evangelical mega-church was a regular attendee during the week.
At one point, Cherry and I were talking with a few of those parishioners about whether we might be called to more communal living, emulating the early church. According to the Book of Acts, the earliest Christians seemed to have been overcome by a spirit of gratitude and generosity: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Could it be that God was inviting us to such a life, to a more trusting and communal life, to such glad and generous hearts?
It was about that time that we had our second child. Our families and church friends were great, of course, always offering to help. But suddenly it seemed that it was all Cherry and I could do just to take care of our own children, and our marriage was starting to feel seriously stressed. The church was growing rapidly, and I wasn’t home enough. Cherry had a good but demanding job as a nurse practitioner, and still we could barely pay the bills, much less sort out how to save for college. It was the perfect environment for misunderstandings and the cultivation of resentments. We stopped talking with parishioners about emulating the early church. Now, it seemed that Cherry and I had our hands full just learning about how to be grateful and generous with each other.
Thanks to a few passages in the Bible, and to the very real experiences of faithful people like some I have known, the Holy Spirit is often associated with spectacular displays – fire, tongues, rushing wind, dramatic healing. And in worship, the Spirit is often associated with theatrics, spectacle, and “loud, crashing cymbals” as one of our Episcopal hymns puts it.
But there are other passages of the Bible and other Christian witnesses who attest to other ways in which the Spirit shows up and moves us. And I admit that I am more drawn to the spiritual gifts of stillness and quiet, reverence and awe, simple gestures of kindness and gentleness, early morning birdsong and a Bach cello suite. These, more than tambourines and glossolalia, have been vehicles for the Spirit in my life.
One of my favorite passages in the New Testament is from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “The fruit of the Spirit,” Paul says, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” I return to this passage often. Sometimes, I’ll write the fruit of the Spirit on a scrap of paper that I can slip into my shirt pocket, appropriately near my heart: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Although I’m frequently drawn elsewhere, I believe this fruit is always possible in my life.
In this passage from Galatians, Paul is contrasting the fruit of the Spirit to what he calls “the works of the flesh,” all of which seem pervasive today: “…enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions…” These things are opposed to the Spirit, Paul says, and all one has to do is open one’s email, Twitter account, or Facebook page to see all of them alive and well. But the truth is that the seeds of these “works of the flesh” are not just “out there” in the world, they are inside me, also.
Paul puts “the works of the flesh” and “the fruit of the Spirit” side by side, perhaps to help us ponder the idea that at any moment in our lives, we can choose to focus and dwell on one or the other. We can choose to cultivate either – “works of the flesh” or “fruit of the Spirit” – the potential for both is within us all. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I value the discipline of regular church-going, just to remember.
A friend of mine sent me a dramatic picture of a Barnum-and-Bailey-like fire breather standing in the center of an Episcopal church’s sanctuary on Pentecost Sunday. His arms are outstretched, and a tremendous flame is shooting straight up, fifteen to twenty feet into the air. “This is what we need more of in the Episcopal Church,” my friend was saying. “We need to spice up our worship on Pentecost. At least we should read the Gospel in several different languages, have a bunch of red balloons, or process in waving those doves with red streamers on the ends of long poles!” My friend might be right. Maybe we need more drama in worship to wake us up to the power of the Spirit.
But as I pondered this, I was drawn again to my favorite passage and the gentler, subtler fruit of the Spirit: love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. And an image came to mind, one that a volunteer had written about after he had worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta decades ago. Every morning, the volunteer wrote, he would walk past the little hospice chapel where Mother Teresa would be silently kneeling before the reserved sacrament, with her head tilted slightly to one side. And one day, the penny dropped for the volunteer, when he saw Mother Teresa later in the afternoon, comforting an emaciated, dying man in his last hour, with her head tilted lovingly, in just the same way, on the man’s breast.
I can’t get the image of the fire breather in the Episcopal church out of my head. But today is our 36th wedding anniversary, and before I left home this morning, I scribbled the fruit of the Spirit on a scrap piece of paper and put it in my pocket, with gratitude and hope for an increasingly glad and generous heart.