22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23 – The Message)
In the fall of 1988 I was a freshman at Concordia. I lived in Park Region hall. I loved that dorm and made some of my best friends to this day over there. The rooms were so small that we spilled out into the hallways and found our own little community there– talking, ordering pizza, listening to the Indigo Girls,10,000 Maniacs, and John Denver, and figuring out life together day by day.
Some people have wild and crazy college memories…but my friends and I enjoyed quieter pursuits – camping, biking, a lot of baking cookies. One particular night my friend Mary and I wanted to make cookies and so we went down to the tiny kitchen in Park Region. We had most of the ingredients except for sugar – it was a blizzard outside, and so we didn’t want to go all the way to the store – we decided instead to go to the neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of sugar. So, we walked over to President Dovre’s house, rang the doorbell, and like good neighbors he and his wife gave us a cup of sugar. On the way back, Mary was carrying the cup of sugar and she slipped on an icy patch – the sugar flying into the air and swirling with the snow. So we did the only thing we could do, we picked up the measuring cup and went back to President Dovre’s house and asked for one more cup of sugar.
We laughed so hard that night.
But there were difficult times, too, of course. I was an avid journaler, so I have piles of pages I wrote then. I was just looking back over some of those in the last week. I kept thinking as I was reading that I wish I could sit down with the girl who wrote all those pages, that girl who was a professional worrier, and who felt so out of place and ill at ease – and invite her to breathe, invite her to lean into the things and people that bring her joy and life – to do more of those things rather than work so hard to fit into some arbitrary mold she thought she should work her way into. I’d tell her that she is lovely – just as she is – stop it with the dieting. And I’d look her in the eyes and say to her, “for heaven’s sake, stop obsessing about finding true love. It finds you when the time is right and there is no stopping it. In the meantime – enjoy your friends, talk, listen to music, adventure, be.”
Of course, it is easy to dole out advice with the advantage of a few more decades of life lived. The truth is that there’s so much we can’t know until we live into it. This last week I preached at an evening service at Concordia and they told me the theme for this year for Campus Ministry is “Seeking”. I thought a lot about how college is such a seeking time, but so is the rest of life. Every single stage – we are simply viewing life from different vantage points…finding our way…living into it.
We are always asking ourselves big, important questions: Should I go down this path or that one? Should I take the new job or keep my old one? What does God want me to do? How do I know where God is leading me? We are finding out what suits us and what doesn’t. What brings us joy and what doesn’t. What brings us life and what doesn’t – that is a big one. Do you ask yourself that – “what brings me life?”
These questions, seeking, searching – it is a holy task. Jesus talks repeatedly about seeking, finding answers through prayer, the guidance and presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Life. He knew that we would feel lost sometimes, that we wouldn’t always know the direction to go, the choice to make, and assured us that we aren’t alone. God’s Spirit is with us and in us, guiding us, yet oftentimes we need help listening for the guidance of that Spirit.
There is an old prayer practice – the Prayer of Examen – that can help with this. This practice helps us pay attention to times of consolation (what gives us life, joy, peace, love – or any of the fruit of the Spirit) and to times of desolation (what brings us anxiety, worry, fear, anger).
When we notice feelings of desolation we begin to have a sense of what the spirit of God is leading us away from. When we notice feelings of consolation, the fruit of the Spirit, we are noticing what the Spirit of God is leading us toward.
In this prayer practice, you choose a period of time to examine. It can be a day, a week, even a specific event.
As your mind wanders through that time, ask yourself some questions – like:
What am I grateful for during that time?
When did I feel a sense of love, peace, joy, life?
When during that time did I feel exhausted, dead, drained, angry, mean?
When did I notice God during this time? What felt like a time of God’s absence?
Take notice of your answers to these questions – because those answers give you important information. Those things and people and places that bring you life and joy – lean into those. Because where we sense any of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – the Holy Spirit works through those things to tell us more about who God is, and what we are being called toward. As Paul writes, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” The Holy Spirit is in motion. God loves us just as we are – but too much to leave us perpetually the same.
When I was at Concordia earlier this week, it was the first time I had been in the chapel there for many, many years. It’s funny, isn’t it, how when you walk into a place you haven’t been for a long time, you expect it to look just like it did before. I had pictured it all in my mind how it was going to be, a plum full chapel, the hushed lights of the evening service, I’d be up on the podium in the spotlight just like the esteemed campus pastors when I was a student there.
But it turns out evening communion services are not much the same as they used to be at Concordia anymore. There were about fifty there and they said that was good attendance these days. There was no podium, no spotlight, not even a microphone. Gone were the older, established campus pastors in their full robes and stoles – replaced by flannel-clad campus ministers – one of whom is significantly younger than me. I found myself feeling dismayed right at first. This was not the way I remembered it!
But as my time there went on, I was reminded that different does not mean bad and the Spirit is at work. While Pastor Elly with her long blond hair and bubbly laugh is very different from Pastor Carl Lee who served there when I was a student, that chapel remains a place where God’s name is praised and the Word of Life is shared. As she sang a new liturgy I had never heard before with her crystal-clear voice and I saw her laughing joyfully with the students before and after the service – even as she was sharing Holy Communion, I remembered different can be very good. Indeed, different can be holy.
At Concordia, at everywhere, at every season of life we have to listen for the motion of the Spirit – because it is never calling us to stay exactly the same. We don’t have to fear changes. We can embrace the changes, trusting God is guiding us as we notice where the Spirit is bearing fruit – around us, and in us.
What are you good at doing?
What do you enjoy doing so much that when you are doing it, you lose track of time?
What moves you, stirs you, brings you joy, inexplicably beckons you to something greater than yourself?
Listen to these questions and answers – listen your life and trust this is holy work…because the Spirit is speaking…whispering to you all that is yet possible, all that you might still become.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.