Last summer, two friends and I went out for a walk that became a hike that became a climb. The trail started at one friend’s house, crossed a road, skirted a park, meandered up a gentle slope. We entered a forest, dense and coastal, canopied with cedar and fir, bedded with salal and fern. It was a hot sky, but those trees sifted sunlight down to cool shade, and the trail, crisscrossing the hills wide flank, climbed so gradually, so innocently, that we talked without breaking a stride or sweat or the rhythm of our breathing. And then, abruptly, the trail veered sharply and went straight up. The trail widened here as well, and faced south, so that the sun fell on it, and us, with a cruel and mocking triumph. As we walked, then hiked, then climbed, my body grew heavy and my breath grew short. Sweat thickened on my neck and back. My legs burned.
And then Rob, one of my friends, told me about walking lockstep.
Rob led several youth snow camps. Snow camps take place in wintertime and require steep long climbs above a mountain’s treeline, into its crevices of ice, up to its narrow ledges of rock, its jagged ridges of snow, its pinnacles, where cunning winds try to push you from dizzying heights. Somewhere up there, you make camp and endure for three days, battling frostbite and hypothermia, risking long free falls to your death. It is supposed to be fun.
It was on one of these trips that Rob learned, from an experienced climber, how to walk lockstep. The man who taught him was ten years older and forty pounds heavier than he was. Rob ran two or three miles daily, played squash several times a week, ate healthy food in moderate portions. But the climb brutalized him and barely scratched the other man. So Rob asked him how he was managing to stay fresh.
Walking lockstep, the man told him. It’s atechnique that forces your weight onto your bones. It has the added benefit of slowing you down, so that you conserve energy and even out your breathing.
And it’s simple.
You just straighten out your downward leg an extra inch or so on every step. You lock, or almost so, your knee. This, as I said, slows you down a pinch and lets you catch your breath. But the greater benefit is that it shifts your body’s girth and heft from muscle to bone. You make your skeleton carry you.
Rob explained this, and I tried it: immediately my breath settled, my muscles relaxed, and the strain of climbing eased.
I reached the top refreshed, not exhausted.
LOCKSTEP IN THE SPIRIT
Is there a spiritual equivalent to walking lockstep? Is there some simple way of carrying ourselves that we might drastically increase our spiritual strength and endurance? That would allow us to go farther up, deeper in? To arrive refreshed, not exhausted?
The answer is obvious, though not easy. The spiritual equivalent to walking lockstep is walking in the Spirit. It’s to learn the art of what Paul describes in Colossians: “I labor, struggling with all His energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). The strangeness of kingdom life is that it is both easy and arduous, agonizing and invigorating. It’s a labor and a struggle, but also a tapping of a powerful energy not our own. Paul lays out the principle behind this easy arduousness: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). This would be the same Spirit that Jesus talks about: windlike, blowing wherever He pleases, unseen but deeply felt. The Spirit is capable of everything from cooling our hot heads to plucking and dlinging our whole houses skyward. One day He’s a breeze, the next a typhoon.
Just keep in step.
This is a variation on the very question Jesus was asked by Nicodemus, a man of the Pharisee sect. He comes to Jesus at night for a theological thete-a-tete (Much scholarly debate has been generated by this detail, Nicodemus coming at night: was he skulking in the shadows, or simply busy during the day, or is this part of John’s grand motif, worked throughout his gospel, of darkness and light? No definitive answer exists, though it’s worth noting that Jesus ends His conversation with Nicodemus by contrasting those who live darkness and those who choose light. But what strikes me most about the detail — Nicodemus coming at night — is what it says about Jesus: He’s available to all and sundry, highborn and lowlife, anywhere, anytime. He’s available in the middle of the night.). Jesus says to him, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear it’s sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus responds, “How can this be?” (John 3:8-9)
Of course, Nicodemus isn’t asking “how” in the way that I am. He means, to paraphrase, “What on earth are you talking about? I can’t make head or tail out of this born-again stuff, this Spirit and water and wind talk. Speak plainly.”
Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for his lack of understanding; he’s supposed to be “Israel’s teacher,” capable of handling heaven’s mysteries, yet here is fumbling earth’s rudiments.
But frankly, I’m glad he asked. Because Jesus’ teaching puzzles me too, and I’m happy that a liberal-minded, maybe slow-witted man was stumped enough to tease from Jesus an explanation of sorts. In that explanation, Jesus not only answers Nicodemus’s question — How can this be? — but He answers mine as well — How can we do this?
How can this be?
This can be, Jesus says, only through the Son of Man, the One who has gone into heaven and come from heaven: when Jesus, the Son of Man, is lifted up, everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15). Jesus connects His being lifted up with the episode in Numbers 21, where the Israelites were spared certain death from snake bites when Moses lifted up a symbol of a snake on a pole and the striken gazed upon it. Jesus’ cryptic remarks here — being lifted up, snakes on poles in deserts — refer to His death on a cross, something which John and, indeed, Jesus make explicit elsewhere (See John 12:32, where Jesus the idea of His being lifted up, and John comments that Jesus was referring to “the manner of His death.” But now also, how Jesus broadens the scope of the impact of His being lifted up: in John 3, it affects “everyone who believes”; in John 12 it draws “all men.” I’m not a universalist (the belief, in its extreme form, that everyone is saved), But those who are have some good authority for their position.). So the mystery of being born of the Spirit is accomplished when the Son of Man is lifted up. In that moment, He becomes sin for us, and when we turn to Him, sin in us loses its power. It venom is drawn. At that moment, something breaks in hell, and something opens in heaven, and the impossible becomes possible: old and young, men and women, girls and boys, Africans and Asians and Caucasians and Latinos and Aboriginals, the rich and the poor — anyone anywhere anytime can start life anew.
You can be born again.
But how can we do this? That’s my question: how do we, once we’re born of the Spirit, move like the Spirit? “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you can not tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
So it is with everyone who’s born again.
Now I’m stumped. I’ve been a pastor for twenty years, in two congregations. The churches I served, both of them, and the many more I visited, have been made up of the usual culprits: quirky saints, limping sinners, hungry pilgrims, hair-splitting dogmatists, shout-at-the-devil charismatics. They’ve been a ragtag of mystics and stickers, zealots and tax-collectors, recovering addicts, recovering fundamentalists, recovering liberals. I’ve had those who suspect my every word and move, and those who are in the same divine oracle, sacred gesture.
But few evoke the wind. Few elicit the response, “Ah, what a strange and wonderous breeze blows there. I hear it, I’m just not sure where it comes from or where it’s going.”
And those who do, who evoke the wind, I often dismiss as, umm, questionable. Unstable. Flaky. I don’t invite them to sit on committees. I don’t recruit them for leadership posts. I don’t even, usually, let them hand out bulletins. Because, well, I don’t know where they’ve come from. I don’t know where they’re going. They seem, in fact, to go wherever they please, and I like people with a little more “accountability structure” than that.
How does Jesus intend for us to keep in lockstep with a windlike Spirit? That is, I think, the question Jesus answers implicitly in what He says next (John 3:16-23).
In a phrase: live in the Light.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
Walking in lockstep with the Spirit. I did not understand that until I was totally reliant on God (Running With Christ. . .). All my dreams of being a successful youth (student) pastor were ultimately demolished as I largely didn’t hear from God in the way that He spoke to me, some 4 years earlier. So I continued to pursue what I thought God was calling me too, a youth (student) pastoralship. However, I did hear from God, though, in a dream, about 2 weeks before I graduated from high school.
In that dream (nightmare), I was in the hospital paralyzed and unable to speak. I was in a hospital room in a hospital bed where my friends came to visit me but I could not respond but I was trying too.. That was the most terrifying part of my life up unto that point, but it was only a dream, or so I thought. I had more important things coming up I.e. my graduation, my friend’s outside of school graduations, my 18th birthday. Yet, it was 5 weeks before my horrible dream became a reality. I found myself in a month-long coma due to a traumatic brain injury suffered in that car accident headed down a highway coming back from work.
By the grace of God, God worked in me to see that after my stay in the regular hospital I was transferred into a rehabilitation hospital. And it was God’s grace that I ended up there because I remember (and various others concluded the same thing) that I should have been sent to a place where I would peacefully die or stay in this state of paralysis I was in.
Yet, by God’s grace, I didn’t.
Although it happen young in my life, I realize how with each independent stride that I took, people were applauding me (because I was supposed to be independent) to gain some independence which was robbed from me partly due to my stubborn nature. After the horrifying, almost death-inducing car accident and my initial recovery time, I learned to rely on the Spirit to give me help, over time. But I realize now how much of a dependency I had on God.
The Christian college that accepted me before my accident graciously decided to accept me again an academic year and a half later once I was ready to gain all the information I lost, 12 years of schooling. And, although I was studying to be a youth pastor, I felt an urge by the Holy Spirit to change my major from pastoralship to psychology to get to know the inner workings of the brain.
In the spring of 1997, I graduated with nearly a 3.0 out of 4 point average. Like most new college graduates, I was excited but hesitant to start my new career, but I did, working mainly nights. However, the Spirit was on the move, and I did all that I could to keep up; I started my master’s of science in Community Psychology with working 32 hours a week. And I finished nearly two and a half years later.
I want to tell you this, however. Let the Holy Spirit carry you. But the greater benefit is that it shifts your body’s girth and heft from muscle to bone. You make your skeleton carry you. Let your spiritual body girth and heft shift from worry to Spirit. Let the Spirit carry you by the grace of God.
~ Darren L. Beattie, The Soul Blogger ~