I came across people with two opposing emotions lately, and the emotions are unusually strong comparing to the previous times around the presidential inaugurations I have seen. These strong emotions reveal the state of the American spirit, and prompted me to give this State of the Spirit Address, or it may be called the Spiritual State of the Union Address.
This Friday, we will have a new President in the Whitehouse. Whether you like him or not, I’m sure all good Americans expect a peaceful transfer of power between the outgoing government and the incoming one. This is what makes America exceptional, and for the past 240 years, America has set an example in the world with a grace-filled regime change every four or eight years.
However, the past one and a half year has been quite bloody in spirit, in words, and in deeds. This election has brought the worst out of the Americans. I see many of my friends have lost their rationality, and what’s even worse is that they think others have lost their rationality.
At many occasions, I had to check my own sanity to make sure I was not the one losing my mind. It’s quite unfortunate that I’ve lost some friends during this election, and I think you might have too. Many of those friends I have lost prioritize their ideology above all. Christian term for such attitude is “idolatry.”
This election has made me seriously concerned about the state of the spirit. How do you measure the state of the spirit of a society, you might ask? I have a simple method—using the fruit of the spirit as the lens to see the state of the society. As we have been taught, “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23a).
Let’s take a glance through this lens together? Do we see more love or hatred in our society today? I see more hatred than love. Vicious words have been spoken. Violent acts have been conducted. Meanest schemes have been plotted. Do we see more joy or sadness? Do we see more peace or contention? Do we see more patience or short fuses? And so on.
We now see a spiritual wilderness on this land. This reminds me of the spiritual desolation around the 6th century B.C.E Israel as described by the Prophet Isaiah. He used a metaphor of a vineyard to describe the situation:
“I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard, on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones, and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it, and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” (Isaiah 5:1-2)
America has been a fertile land where God has dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. It might be a little too strong to say that we are yielding only bad fruit, but we are on the way there, based on the current state of the spirit.
We need more prophets to see the situation and speak up against the spiritual bareness in our society today, just like Isaiah did in his time, and just like Matin Luther King, Jr. did in his time. As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this week, we need to be reminded about our Christian duty in our society. We are called to be prophets and transformers. We must not be complacent.
What must we do and what is the prophecy for our time and place. I believe it’s time for a Spiritual Reformation. We had a Theological Reformation 500 years ago, but today we need another reformation that I would call it Spiritual Reformation. It’s a restoration of the fruit of the spirit in our personal lives as well as in our society.
We will go beyond judging people by the content of their character but by the fruit they bear. As Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.” (Mat. 7:16a). My dream is to see the fruitful lives flourishing in our society soon and beyond.
There’s a Burmese fable called The Bitter Rain: “A wise man foresees the upcoming rain to be toxic. He informs the villagers not to drink from the rain water or they would become insane. The villagers do not listen and when the rain comes they drink it and they all go insane. As he walks through the village to unsuccessfully dissuade people from continuing drinking the rain water to prevent worsening of the situation, the villagers ridicule him as if he is the one that is insane.
At last, he could not stand being accused of insanity by the insane people, so he opens his mouth to the sky and let the rain fall into his mouth and joins the crowd.”
Today we need to look at this fable from a different perspective in terms of the need for a Spiritual Reformation in our society. I see three types of people in relation to the Bitter Rain. Those who drink it, those who dissuade others from drinking it, and those who do not drink but, in the same time, do not care if others do—complacency.
I see that our society has drunk the Bitter Rain that makes us spiritually barren—may it be ideology, political correctness, or simple ignorance. As the fable teaches, if we don’t influence them, they will eventually influence us. If it is not now, it will be our children, or the future generations. We cannot be complacent.
As Christ followers, we are called not only to cultivate a fruitful life, but also a fruitful society, or we will end up being crushed by the thorns and thistles.
One of the reason for our complacency is “What if we are wrong? Who are we go judge?” I assure you that nothing can be wrong to cultivate the fruit of the spirit because Galatians 5:23 says, “There is no law against such things.” (Ga 5:23b). The reason there is no law against such things is simply because they cannot go wrong.
Now what is involved in Spiritual Reformation. I see three steps: repent, receive, and reform.
1 – REPENT WITH AN OPEN HEART
All prophecy calls for repentance. To repent (μετανοώ in Greek) means to change one’s mind or heart. It implies the change of mind from being egocentric to theocentric. We must repent from our own complacency—may it be due to fear or laziness. This is how the Prophet Isaiah urged the complacent:
Rise up, you women who are at ease, hear my voice;
you complacent daughters, listen to my speech.
In little more than a year
you will shudder, you complacent ones;
for the vintage will fail,
the fruit harvest will not come.
Tremble, you women who are at ease,
shudder, you complacent ones;
strip, and make yourselves bare,
and put sackcloth on your loins.
Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields,
for the fruitful vine,
for the soil of my people
growing up in thorns and briers;
yes, for all the joyous houses
in the jubilant city. (Is 32:9–13).
John the Baptist also called out for repentance as he laid the way for Jesus to launch the original Spiritual Reformation. Jesus also began his ministry calling for repentance. “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17).
So let us first prepare our own hearts and minds by repenting from being egocentric to theocentric.
2 – RECEIVE WITH AN OPEN MIND
There is a disturbing truth about bearing fruit. We cannot bear the fruit of the Spirit by ourselves. The fruit is the outcome the Spirit we receive. We cannot squeeze out fruit, but we can cultivate a life to be fruitful because when it comes to bearing fruit, we are only branches.
Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:4-5).
“Abide in me, as I abide in you” (v.4) means being present at his presence. In the context of this passage, we are called to receive the Holy Spirit which brings his presence, power, and pruning to bear much fruit.
How do we receive the Holy Spirit? I have four suggestions:
a) We receive the Holy Spirit by Breathing the Spiritual Breath
The word Spirit is translated from the Hebrew and Greek words meaning “Breath” or “Wind.” As Jesus told Nicodemus, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Jn 3:7–8).
The Holy Spirit is invisible. It is like the wind around us that we cannot see it but we can sense its presence. It is the breath of God, so when we breathe with mindfulness of God’s presence we receive the Holy Spirit and, when we do, we feel warm and peaceful in our heart.
The warmth we feel when we are filled with the Holy Spirit is the evidence of God’s presence in us. That’s why the Holy Spirit is also symbolized by a flame of fire.
We must note that human beings are created to enjoy this warmth, or we will substitute it with other substance, such as alcohol that generates artificial warmth in us. That’s why Paul warned us, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.” (Eph 5:18).
This verse implies that being drunk with wine is similar to being filled with the Holy Spirt but it’s fake and abnormal (as debauchery is translated from Greek ἀσωτία, meaning sick or abnormal). Then it gives instruction on how to get the real result—by being filled with the Spirit. The rest of the passage gives us the second way to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
b) We Receive the Holy Spirit by Singing the Spiritual Songs
Let’s break down this passage, “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 5:18b-20)
Three types of songs are suggested—psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We can sing aloud or sing “in our hearts.” We can be singing all day long in our hearts. Imagine a heart fill with songs all day long. We sing them with the attitude of gratitude. Counting the blessings brings us to God’s presence, fills us with the Holy Spirit, and makes our hearts warm.
c) We Receive the Holy Spirit by Reading the Spiritual Words
All scriptures are inspired (i.e. in spirit) by God. When we read the spiritual words, the Spirit of God enters our minds and enlightens our paths, as the psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps 119:105). The Prophet Jeramiah said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart.” (Je 15:16). All prophets enjoy God’s word. We are called to be prophets and God word is our food.
There are three different kinds of spiritual words—written word, spoken word, and living word. The scriptures are the written word, the sermons are the spoken word, and Jesus Christ is the living Word. Therefore, we read the scriptures, we listen to the sermons, and we commune with Jesus Christ. All these activities will lead to a spirit filled life.
d) We Receive the Holy Spirit by Worshiping with the Spiritual Community
Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18:20). Whenever you cannot get the warmth of the Holy Spirit by yourself, get together with a few friends in Jesus’ name.
A coal cannot burn for long by itself, but it can become red hot in a pile of coals. A worshiping community is a powerhouse for rekindling the inner fire. Christians are not meant to be lone rangers. A long ranger Christian will sooner or later become ineffective and powerless.
With the above four ways, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and we will not seek other substitutes to quench our thirst, look for alcohol to heat our hearts, or set up idols to worship.
3 – REFORM WITH AN OPEN TONGUE
The previous Reformation is a theological reformation, which is mainly intellectual. While a theological reformation was to correct the digression of the church in the 16th century, it does not address the spiritual depravation of the 21st century, as revealed in our current state of the spirit. Head knowledge of doctrines, no matter how right it may be, does not quench the starvation of the heart.
Now, as mentioned above, we have a bitter society because they have drunk the Bitter Rain. The Bitter Rain maybe the idolatry of theological correctness, political correctness, or ideological correctness. It’s the first century all over again. Our society has become like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus time, totally blind to the spiritual truth and barren of spiritual fruit.
If Jesus were here today, will our society, including the religious leaders of our time, recognize him? Will he be crucified again? Based on the current state of the spirit, I think the history will repeat, unless we renew the Spiritual Reformation that Jesus started.
He came to baptized us with the Holy Spirit and brought us to a higher level of consciousness above the idolatry of theological, political, and ideological correctness. He commissioned us to extend his movement to the end of the world by being his witnesses.
A witness is someone who has seen or experienced what he or she is testifying about, or it will be false witness. That’s why the above two steps are important to prepare for the Spiritual Reformation. A witness tells a story of himself or herself—this is my story, this is my song!
Witnessing today also needs us to speak in the tongue that this generation can understand. In the movie “The American President” played by Michael Douglas, we hear the following metaphor during a heated argument between President Shepherd and his staff Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox):
Lewis: People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
President: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.
This metaphor reveals two layers of the problems we are facing. First, people drink the sand because there is no water. In our Bitter Rain metaphor, we can say that people drink the Bitter Rain because there’s no living water. Second, the president believes it is not the lack of water that is the problem, but the lack of knowledge and understanding is. In our case, people drink the Bitter Rain not because they don’t have water, but they don’t know the difference.
These two layers are not mutually exclusive. They indicate two types of people: those who don’t have access to the living water and those who don’t know the difference. That means we must solve two problems: providing the living water, and educating them to know the difference.
Jesus said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:38b). The context of this verse explains that the living water represents the Holy Spirit, which permanently quenches our thirst. Many leaders nowadays are delivering ideology rather than the living water because ideology—the Bitter Rain—is all they have. They cannot give away what they don’t have.
Those of us who have the living water might find ourselves like the president “who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight.” However, Professor Leonard Sweet has provided us with the tongue of the postmodern generation, and he calls it EPIC—Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, and Connective.
To speak to the postmodern EPIC generation, we must provide an “experience,” as oppose to mere information as we used to do with the modern generation. We must provide opportunity for them to “participate,” creating a dialogue rather than a monologue. We must provide an “image-rich” presentation because they grew up in an image-rich environment. Lastly, we must provide a “connective” environment as today’s social media is all about constant connections.
The Holy Spirit provides us with hope and happiness and the overture to witness. “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pe 3:15). It is gentle and respectful to recognize the EPIC tongue and speak accordingly so that they can understand.
Telling our story in EPIC language may not be easy, but just because it is not easy, the power of the cross is revealed, as Paul said, “For Christ did not send me to … proclaim the gospel … with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. (1 Co 1:17).
The EPIC tongue is still only a means for communication. What’s important is not to lose the focus of the Spiritual Reformation. The 16th century Reformation is “faith focus,” which is necessary for its time and space, but Jesus’ Spiritual Reformation that we must renew for the 21st century to address the current state of the spirit is “fruit focus!” Amen!