Ok; this is a story that I wrote when I got bored with the sermon I was writing on 1 John 4:1-6. Behind John’s instructions to his little churches in Asia there was a major problem going on with the (pre-)gnostic teachers; their very ‘spiritual’ approach to knowledge, and the consequent detachment of ethics from Jesus. But just lecturing about all that seemed very dry, so I made the attempt to give those bones a little flesh. Given the conflation of two distinct (but all too often related!) forms of abuse in the story, several in the congregation found it a very uncomfortable reading. The question I asked at the end of the story was, “At what point did the pastor clearly leave the path?” What do you think?
Ali is feeling good, and tomorrow is going to be even better. She’s moved towns, successfully, shifted into the little sleep-out behind her elderly aunt’s house, started her new job, and got through orientation week without any very embarrassing mistakes, and she’s going to a new church tomorrow.
Sarah, the girl at work who’s been training her, had invited her to come and Ali had leapt at the opportunity; so much better than turning up alone!
Ali is feeling good because she hadn’t been sure she could do it; all her life she’s been plagued by uncertainty; unsure about her own abilities and unable to completely trust people around her.
Perhaps it’s because her dad left when she was little, or maybe it’s just her personality, but trusting other people doesn’t come easily. Nor does Ali trust herself so much. Despite what everyone tells her, she still blames herself for everything; for her parents break-up, for her older brother’s bad behaviour, for her mother’s anxiety and stress…
There’s one person, however, she does trust, and that is Jesus.
Since she encountered him a few years ago, since he’d made himself present to her during that amazing midnight conversation with her best friend, she’s known at the very centre of her being that she is loved, and that she can absolutely trust Christ to stay with her always. She has learned to pause, to step back from whatever uncertainty she’s facing, to slip within herself and to reach out to him, and simply discovering, again and again, that he is always there for her, that his love is unchanged, that he is still who he claims to be, has helped her to overcome her fears.
She had found herself more able to concentrate on schoolwork; had done well enough to get good marks, and go on the training course, and now, here she is, a new graduate in a new job, in a new town, making new friends.
And all because Jesus loves her.
Ali is feeling good.
And tomorrow, she will find out about this new church.
Now it’s tomorrow, and Ali is facing an enormous table, loaded with food; on her left, Mrs Rhees, (“Call me Esme, dear, there’s a love.”) is piling potatoes and corned beef onto her plate, and to her right, Mr Rhees, (“We just call him ‘The Major’, mostly”), is telling her about his years in the territorials, and promising that later, she should see his collection of old medals. Opposite her is their middle-age daughter, Rosie, and her husband, Paul, nodding and smiling as they hear again the stories that are part of the family furniture. And at the end of the table, Pastor Austeer is spooning white sauce onto his mounded plate.
Ali thought he looked especially hungry; not surprising after all the energy he had put into his preaching that morning. She’s not used to sermons that go for more than fifteen minutes, and this one had taken almost an hour – but she’d barely noticed the time flying past, he was so animated and engaging, and, although she couldn’t remember much of what he’d said, she remembered that it had been very interesting. Not surprising that he is staring at his pile of pink beef almost as though he’s about to dive into it teeth first.
His gaze suddenly lifts from his plate to her face, and she feels slightly scorched by the intensity of his stare, before he flicks his eyes away, and, taking Esme’s hand from beside him, and her daughter’s with his other hand, leads them in a prayer of thanksgiving – shorter than the sermon, thankfully – and they begin eating.
Conversation is general at first – they chat about Rosie and Paul’s children, and about a new business opening up in town, and about Ali’s home and family (“So few couples seem to hold together these days”, sniff Esme. “I’d never know what to do if The Major, here, left me.” “Leave you!” he replies. “And have to eat my own cooking!? Not likely, love!”) and then about her new job.
“How are you finding the work, Ali?” asks the pastor. “Not too strenuous?”
“No, the work isn’t too hard at all – yet, anyway. And Sarah’s a real help while I get used to everything.”
“Yes, lovely girl, isn’t she?” says Esme. “Such a pity she had to rush away afterwards and couldn’t join us. You know her mother once helped me with that Drama we did…” and the conversation moves on to the drama society politics, and then on to local body politics, and then turns to the sermon from that morning.
“I didn’t quite get it,” the Major is saying. “What was that you were saying about the Spirit?”
“What God teaches,” replies the pastor, “Is that we all have the Spirit, and the Spirit gives us all truth, and so we all have all truth.”
“I find that hard to get my head around,” comes the objection. “If we have all truth, why are so many Christians so blinkin’ wrong!”
“Clearly,” comes the cool, quick answer, “not all who claim to be Christian actually are.”
Across the table Ali notices Paul fidget uncomfortably for a second, and then go still again.
The pastor continues, “and though we can quickly see that some are false Christians simply because they embrace error in their doctrine, others among us merely need to learn how to hear the Spirit’s voice.”
“So you say I’ve already got all truth, but maybe I’m not listening to it?”
“We all have all truth, but not all of us are able to hear every word of the Spirit. It takes … practice … to learn to recognise that still, small voice.”
“How?” Ali is surprised to hear her own voice enter the conversation. “I mean… sorry, I’m new. How do you practice?”
Pastor Austeer considers her for a second as he dabs sauce from his lips, and then says, “There are various spiritual exercises that help us to ‘tune in’. Would you be interested in learning?”
“Ooh. Say, ‘yes’, Ali, do!” says Esme. “Rosie and I did this course, and it’s really interesting!”
“What does it involve?”
“Mostly conversation, and some guided meditations,” said the pastor. “Don’t worry, nothing spooky. It’s just a useful way of getting rid of stuff from the past that might be blocking our spiritual ears. I have some space in my schedule at the moment. You’d want after hours time, right?”
“Well, yes, if it wouldn’t be a bother…”
“No bother at all. It’s what I’m here to do and I’m glad to do it. Would you like to meet on a Thursday?”
And just like that, Ali finds her life taking a new direction. Her home life is flat and uneventful, as she cooks and cares for herself in her little room, seeing her aunt only as often as she needs to pay her rent. Work was at first challenging and stimulating then became more predictable and even tedious as she quickly masters her tasks. Most of her workmates are older than her, other than Sarah, but Sarah, while friendly, is deep in preparations for her wedding, and lives for the weekends when her fiancé is in town. With no other friends, and certainly no romantic relationships, Ali finds an unending diet of wedding talk grating, and is glad, on Thursdays, to walk home in a different direction, and knock on the frosted glass door of the pastor’s study behind the church.
At their first meetings he’d greet her with a warm handshake, and then seat her on a couch, provide her with a coffee, and take up station behind his desk. Once there he talked at length about ‘doctrine’. He covered all sorts of topics; the responsibility of Christians to tithe and to give, the importance of strong fellowship and regular attendance at worship, the necessity of showing the world how pure their faith was, and the dangers of the world – how the world could distract and confuse young believers, and how the world must be rejected like a rotten apple; good for nothing but compost.
Ali asked an occasional question, or sometimes he asked her something, but mostly she simply let his words wash over and around her, like she was a rock in a stream of words. It was sort of restful and a little bit flattering that he should give her so much individual attention. He talked a lot about obeying the Spirit; he talked of how Saul had been so drenched in the Spirit that he had lain naked and prophesied before Samuel, but also how Saul had disobeyed Samuel, and been rejected by God. He mentioned others, too: Tamar who was moved by the Spirit to dress like a prostitute and so gave Judah the children from whom Jesus was descended, Ruth, who obeyed Naomi and uncovered Boaz’s ‘feet’ (She blushed when he explained that this was a euphemism) and became the grandmother of King David, and Solomon who sought nothing but God’s wisdom and was rewarded with great wealth, many wives, and long-lasting peace as well as world-renowned wisdom, and how God had entered into the temple Solomon had built. “And now YOU,” he declaimed, staring intently at her, “are the temple of the Spirit into whom God has entered!”
He emphasised how God wanted nothing but the best for his children; that was why he gave the Spirit! He was fond of Jesus’ saying about fathers, who were evil, knowing enough to give their children good things, so surely God would give his children good things, too, or, as Luke put it, surely the Father would give the Holy Spirit.
This led them to a discussion about fathers and the first of those guided meditations he had mentioned. He sat beside her on the couch, asked her to close her eyes and relax, and stepped her back, slowly, through her memories of her father. Eventually, painfully, she opened her eyes to find them swimming with tears that slowly trickled down her cheeks, and she quickly looked down so that her hair fell forward to hide them, but he reached out and, very gently, wiped one tear away, then turned to his desk for a box of tissues, and a small pamphlet with a meditation on God’s divine father hood. Then, when she recovered a little, he simply said, “See you next week” and let her out.
She felt that she floated home in a soft mist; slightly cut off from the world around her by the release of that old sorrow, and also strangely touched, intensely aware of the feeling of his fingertip on her cheek.
Their next meeting, he greeted her as warmly as ever, and moved his chair to sit in front of his desk as he spoke about God’s love, and his command that we should love one another, and how love was the greatest gift of the Spirit, but he didn’t mention her tears, and she was grateful for his sensitivity.
Each week she meets more members of the church, and is always impressed by how they all call each other sister, or brother, how they treat each other with obvious affection, and how they could ask each other the most searching questions; “Are you giving as you should be, brother?” “Sister, how are you getting on with disciplining your Jacob, now?” The Major and Esme, however, always make a special point of catching up with Ali, and Esme always asks how the course is going. “Are you hearing the Spirit, yet, dear?” she asks.
“I’m not sure – I mean, Jesus is always with me, I know, and I love to stop and …I don’t know, just be with him, I guess, but…”
“No, no, dear, not Jesus – we’re talking about the Spirit! Have you heard that still small voice, yet?”
Ali blushes and mutters that she’s not sure.
Esme looks at her steadily, and said, quietly, kindly, but very firmly, “You’ll know when you do.” And then she looks around and asks, “Where’s Sarah, today?”
“Oh! She said she was going to go see her fiancé this weekend, and that they were going to go to his church, this time. She’s never been, and he’s been asking her so she said she would.”
Esme looks startled at this, and turns to the Major, behind her. Ali is surprised to see that he is frowning deeply, but he says nothing to her, simply turning and walking away. Esme hesitates a moment, looking as though she might say something, but then just hurries after him herself.
At her next meeting with the Pastor, he greets her with a stiff hug; he’d started to do this each Sunday, and she’d noticed that many people greeted each other with a hug, so thinks nothing of it, and they continue as previously. This time he starts by asking her if she has anything on her mind?
She hesitates, and he quickly says, “You look troubled…”
“Oh. Well, it’s nothing really. Just, Esme was asking last Sunday, could I hear the Spirit yet, and, well, I’m not really sure…”
“Would you like to be more sure?”
“Then sit down, here,” and he moves to sit beside her, again, on the couch. “What you need to understand,” he says, in a low, earnest voice, “is that the Spirit is not of this world, and so the voice of the Spirit can seem quite strange. Even odd. And that is why our obedience is of the utmost importance. If we waited until we understood everything then we would never do anything. We need to be ready to obey even before we understand, no matter how odd the Spirit’s command might be. Do you understand this?”
“Yes, yes, that makes sense.”
“And so, when you begin to hear the voice of the Spirit, you must obey without hesitation. You must not quench the Spirit!”
“Sometimes, what the Spirit asks might even seem wrong, but that is because we are infested by the lies of the world.”
Ali looks at him. He seems to be waiting for some response from her.
“I’m …I’m sorry. What do you mean?”
“Well, consider. If the Spirit said to you to kiss someone, not a member of your family. To kiss a man. What would your mother say?”
“Well …she’d say it was wrong. It was … dangerous.”
“I think you said your mother …she’s not a Christian, is she?”
“No,” Ali admits, in a small voice.
“Then she’s from the world, and “you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.””
“That was the apostle John said that, wasn’t it?” Ali asks.
“Yes. Well recognized. From his first letter. Do you read the Bible much?”
“Yes. Well, most nights.”
“So you know that Paul said that we are “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”?
“What did he mean?”
“Simply that we shouldn’t let the scriptures bind us, my dear. It is the Spirit that gives life, not dead letters.”
“But, surely the Bible…”
“Oh, yes! The Bible is a voice of the Sprit, too – it is the Bible, after all, that tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss, despite what your worldly mother may think – but it isn’t the only voice of the Spirit, nor even the most important. The most important, is right… here.” and he lays a long finger on her chest, above her suddenly thudding heart. He lets it rest there a moment, as he gazes at her, then returns his hand to his lap, turns slightly away from her, and looks into the distance. “Shall we practice listening to the voice of the spirit, today, then?”
Ali becomes aware that she is barely breathing, and says, in a whisper, “Yes,” without taking her eyes from him.
“And if you hear the Spirit speaking, are you willing to obey him? Are you willing to put aside the distractions of the world, to reject the advice of the world and obey only the Spirit?”
She nods, and he turns back to her, and smiles. “Then relax, and close your eyes, and wait.”
Ali waits, and hears nothing except her heart beating and her breathing slowly returning to normal, and when she opens her eyes again, after perhaps five minutes, it is to see Pastor Austeer smiling at her.
“Don’t be disappointed if you heard nothing. The voice of the Spirit comes as it wills and no-one knows where it comes from. Keep listening throughout the week, and remember, Obey! Even if it seems an odd thing – especially if it seems odd! Even if just a little thing. Don’t ask to understand; just obey.”
He smiles again, and sees her to the door.
Throughout that week, Ali tries her hardest to listen for the voice of the Spirit. She starts to notice lots of little thoughts running through her mind. “Kick the cat,” is one, when a cat crosses the road in front of her. She’s fairly sure that isn’t the voice of the Spirit. When she is brushing her teeth one time, she thinks “Upside down.” as she gazes at her toothpaste. It isn’t upside down, but she practices obedience anyway, and turns it upside down. Going home from work one day, she is waiting at the crossing, and thinks “Go,” though there is a car coming. She closes her eyes, gulps, and doesn’t go. The car roars across in front of her and she walks home in confusion. If she had stepped in its path, would it have stopped? Or is she meant to have been injured and hospitalised, and maybe killed? Is that God’s plan for her life?
What with her wondering, and her listening, and her confusion, she is not as focused on her job as usual, but she’s startled out of a fugue at her workstation on Wednesday, by Sarah saying, “Ali. Ali! ALI!”
“Oh. Sorry, Sarah. I was… daydreaming.”
Sarah grinned. “You’ve got up to the bit about listening for the Spirit, haven’t you?”
“Yes! Is it obvious?”
“A little bit. You should have seen Rosie when she did it. It was a few years ago, now, and I was just a junior in the Youth Group, but I remember her wandering around in a total daze!”
“Have you done the course?”
“No. I don’t know that it’s for me, you know? I’ve talked to a few people who’ve done it, and they say that he just talks to them a lot. Well we get that on Sunday! I’d rather do something in a group. Like a Bible study. Hey! Why don’t we start one? You and me?”
“Ah, maybe. I don’t think, right now, though – I mean, I’d like to finish this course, first…”
Sarah rolls her eyes. “Alright, whatever.”
Ali feels herself flush. It sounds like Sarah doesn’t like hearing Pastor Austeer talking! “I just want to see if I can hear the voice of the Spirit.”
“Well, I guess if you hear the Spirit all the time, like the pastor seems to, then you wouldn’t really need to study anything, would you? The Spirit gives life and the letter killeth, right?”
Ali’s jaw drops open. “How did you know that he…”
“Did he say that to you? Well, he does say it a bit. Usually when someone else is quoting the Bible.” Sarah grins. “Anyway. I still think a group is a cool idea. I think I’ll talk about it to Esme and the Major. They’ve invited me around this evening.” And off Sarah goes, leaving Ali more confused than ever.
As she walks home that evening, she strains her ears for the voice of the Spirit and eventually, throwing open the door to her little room she slumps onto her bed in disappointment, and flops backwards onto the pillows. “Oh, Jesus, help me.” She says to the presence in the quiet behind her eyes, and suddenly, she feels completely at peace. Without knowing how she knows, she knows that it is ok. Jesus is still there for her, despite her inability to hear this voice that the pastor talks about, and Jesus will never leave her. She turns her face to the pillow and sobs, and the next day feels much better.
That afternoon, as she sits on the pastor’s couch once more, she tells him about the cat and she tells him about the car, and she tells him about the toothpaste, and she tells him about her prayer and the immediate relief she had felt in Jesus’ presence. She doesn’t tell him about Sarah, however; she just doesn’t know how to say what she feels.
He is interested in everything she does say, and most of all in the tooth-paste! “That was excellent, Ali, excellent! That was wonderful obedience! Well done!”
“But the car…”
“Maybe that, too, was the voice of the Spirit. Who knows what may have happened! Certainly it was a test of your faith, Ali, wasn’t it?”
He looks at her so intently, she feels her breathing hitch again, and whispers a “yes”.
Without taking his eyes from hers, he pulls his seat up and sits directly in front of her as she perches on the edge of the couch. “Let’s try to hear the Spirit again, now, together. No – keep your eyes open this time. Listen – and obey.”
Ali listens, and finds her mind beginning to fill with the many words spoken here, washing around her; “Love one another…” “What they say is from the world…” “A holy kiss..” “The letter kills…”
And then, blazing to the forefront of her mind, the words, “Kiss Him!”
Her eyes drop from his to the thin lips beneath, and then up again as she replays those words in her mind and hears again their insistence, and so she obeys, leaning into his kiss as he reaches out for her and takes her into his arms.
That evening, as she prepares for bed, and all the next day, she feels like she is in a Rosie-like daze, as she replays in her mind those few, fervent moments. The pastor had confirmed that he, too had heard that command, and that though it didn’t matter what the world thought – they were free in their obedience to the Spirit – it was best to avoid all appearance of evil, and not put any stumbling blocks in the way of weaker brethren, so not to mention it to anyone else just now. Rather, wait, and see what the Spirit might command next time they met.
They see each other at church on Sunday, of course, and Ali blushes slightly as he gives her a warm embrace, and places a chaste peck upon her cheek. He says nothing, but she sees anticipation in his eyes and spends most of the sermon wondering what, exactly the Spirit might say when next they meet.
Afterwards, however, as she talks with the Rheeses, her thoughts are turned in quite a different direction. After asking about Rose, who is pregnant again, Ali remembers that Sarah had been going to see them last week; “How did your evening with Sarah go? Did she tell you her idea about a Bible study?”
The major’s pleasant face turns thunderous again, and he turns away, leaving Esme to answer; “Well, yes, dear, she did, but we don’t think it’s right. You see, she doesn’t hear the Spirit. Her Bible study would be quite wrong. And besides; we can’t meet with someone who’s been dis-fellowshipped.”
“Dis… what? Sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. I’m sure she’ll come around. Pastor will explain it to you later this week.” And that was all she would say on the subject.
Sarah wasn’t at church that day, and throughout the following week, Ali gets the impression that she is avoiding her at work. Finally she finds her seated at her workstation, doing data entry. “ ‘Scuse me, Sarah. Where does this account belong?”
Sarah takes a quick look at the file in Ali’s hand, mutters “Give it to Fiona,” and turns back to her work.
“Sarah,” Ali tries again, “Is there something wrong?”
The previously bouncy bride-to-be glances up at Ali, opens her mouth as though to say something, then snaps it shut again. With her lips pressed together in a thin line, she turns back to her screen once more, and shakes her head mutely.
Ali stands for a second, then, with a shrug, returns to her own work. There is a message waiting for her, there. “Pastor Austeer says half an hour later this Thursday”. She reads it, wonders, and then crumples it up. No doubt he will explain when they meet. But that meeting is starting to look very unlike the one she had anticipated.
As she walks up to the frosted glass door on Thursday, it bursts open and an obviously unhappy Sarah steps out, sees her, and swings around to walk back to the road across the neighbours’ lawn rather than come past her. As Ali stands gaping, she sees tears on her friend’s cheeks, her complexion burning brightly beneath them, as though she is deeply embarrassed – or overwhelmingly angry.
As she turns back to the door, she sees the pastor there, spots of colour on his cheeks, too. He reaches out to embrace her, but then drops his arms as she stiffens, and simply stands aside and says, “Come in.” Ali means to ask him about Sarah, and what ‘dis-fellowshipped’ means, but he raises the subject himself; “Ali, does your work require you to talk much with Miss Massingham?”
“No. In fact, she won’t talk to me at all, now, if she can avoid me.”
“Ah. It would be best if you left her alone as much as you could, now. Can you do that?”
“Well… yes, but why? What’s she done? Is this what ‘disfellowshipped’ means? Is this because of her Bible study idea?”
“No, Not because of the Bible study idea – though that was obviously inappropriate – but because she has chosen to walk, once again, in the ways of the world.”
“What’s she done?”
“She is pledged to keep fellowship with us, here, but she has been attending meetings of false Christians where they teach error and confusion. She must not be double-minded, and she will not commit to stay away from them in the future. She is antichrist: “19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.” If I can quote John, again. She has been avoiding you because she was hoping to weasel her way back into our fellowship by not breaking the rules of disfellowshipping. And I suppose she may have been trying to protect you from any taint. Has she succeeded, I wonder? Are you ready and willing to obey the Spirit in this, Ali?”
Ali sags onto the couch, and squeezes her eyes shut, feeling tears pricking behind her eyelids. What is the Spirit saying?
As though reading her mind, the Pastor immediately quotes from Revelation; “15 ‘ “I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. … You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.’ 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying …” Ali, you can conquer this, you don’t have to be poor and blind, you can sit on the throne with God! With me! Let me lead you. Are you willing to obey, Ali? Are you?”
She feels him, kneeling in front of her, just inches away; his hands upon her shoulders tremble slightly. She’s terrified that if she opens her eyes, she will see again the mouth that she kissed just a week ago. In the dark privacy of her mind, she calls out as she had before, “Oh, Jesus help me.” And immediately opens her eyes to look directly into the face before her.
“I… I’m not sure what the Spirit is saying to me, but… but I wonder – I don’t know – where is Jesus in this?”
“Well, yes. He was always so kind when people came to him. I… this… it just doesn’t feel like something he would do.”
“ Jesus! Jesus was just a man. He died, abandoned by God. It is the Spirit of Christ which matters.”
“Jesus doesn’t matter?”
“No. The Nazareth carpenter was just a disguise God used; a suit of clothing that he no longer has any use for. It is the Spirit not the flesh, that we must obey. Will you listen to the Spirit, Ali?”
“But the Bible says…”
“Don’t get hung up on the dead letter! It is the Spirit that counts.”
Ali reaches into her purse and draws out her little Bible, opening it at the marked page with trembling fingers. “I was reading what we were talking about a couple of weeks ago. Just before he says that we are from God and they are from the world, he says this: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.””
“But the deadly letter…”
Ali stands up. “I don’t know what Paul meant by the letter, but I do know that the Spirit he’s talking about is totally different to the one you’re serving! I’ll stick with the spirit of Jesus if that’s ok.”
She turns in the doorway; “Please say goodbye to Esme and the Major for me. They were kind.” and then she leaves.
Ali is feeling good, and tomorrow is going to be even better. She’s moved towns, successfully, she’s doing well in her new job, and she’s going to a new church tomorrow. Sarah, the girl at work who trained her, has asked her to be her bridesmaid at the wedding, and Ali is glad for the opportunity.
1 John 4, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.
2 Cor. 3:6