Paula Northwood March 1, 2020
Scripture: Galatians 5:13–23
One of the questions I would ask Confirmation students is “Do you think you are a human being who can have spiritual experiences, or are you a spiritual being that is having a human experience?” The reason I asked was because I think it makes a difference in how a person lives their life. For much of my life I thought I was a human being who could have spiritual experiences, and I sought them endlessly. Even as a teenager, I was always exploring different religious experiences—retreats, and so forth—trying to find something that not only made me feel good but really made a difference in my life.
I thought Jesus was the only person who was a spiritual being who had lived a human experience. It seemed that Jesus knew where he came from and knew where he was going and was able to express what it was like to be a spiritual being during his human life.
And since I didn’t think I was very much like Jesus, I thought I was a human being working hard to be a spiritual being. The harder I worked at this the more discouraged I became because I never achieved it. Over time, the more I examined Jesus’ life and teachings, I realized I was wrong. Jesus never claimed some special identity different from mine, it’s just that he knew he was a spiritual being and manifested it in the way he lived. I began to understand more fully that I am a spiritual being and have always been. I am a child of God in the same way Jesus was. It was simply acknowledging my true identity and learning to live into it that made the difference. As Franciscan Richard Rohr has said, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”
There is a ritual that author Paul Smith in his book Integral Christianity (Paragon House, 2012) suggests we remember:
I have a body, but I am not my body. I am grateful for my body. It is a gift from God. I am not my body. I am a spiritual being who is aware of my body.
I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I am grateful for my mind and thinking ability. It is a gift from God. I am not my thoughts. I am a spiritual being who observes my thoughts.
I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. I am grateful for my feelings. They are a gift from God. I am not my feelings. I am a spiritual being who is conscious of my feelings.
What I truly am, have always been, and will always be is a spiritual being. I don’t have a spirit—I am spirit!
If we understand our beings as spirit, how is this manifested in daily living? Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.” It’s what our lives produce that indicate whether we are living as spirit.
We have this incredible verse in Galatians that lists what those fruits are. It describes what our lives look like when we live as spiritual beings. During the season of Lent, we will be looking at these fruits, these virtues and characteristics of a spiritual life. I think we will find that if we can embody them more fully, if we can live them, they will inform, infuse and inspire us as we face whatever the future has in store for us.
One writer, reflecting on this quotation from Galatians, suggests that the fruits of the spirit are “planted inside you in seed form,” and that our duty is to grow these “fruits” to full beauty and maturity in our daily living. I like this seed imagery because my fruit doesn’t have to fully formed, I just need to nurture the seeds.
This morning, we will focus briefly on one of the fruits: faithfulness. In the coming weeks, my colleagues and I will explore these other fruits of the spirit. Faithfulness implies deep loyalty and trust. It seems like a complicated word these days. It would appear we don’t value it much, let alone try to live it. We see such a lack of faithful behavior in the leadership of our government and in the relationships around us.
Maybe you have heard the story of the man who was trying to sell his dog. The for-sale sign read: Faithful Dog for Sale. Someone called and said, “Hey, I saw your ad about a faithful dog, I have a couple of questions.”
“Okay,” the owner answered.
“Is he good with kids?” asked the potential buyer.
“Very. He’s kind and gentle and has endless patience,” answered the owner.
“Is he a yard dog or house dog?” the buyer continued.
“He’s house trained but loves the yard as well,” the owner responded.
“Great. My last question: is he really faithful?”
The owner said, “Oh yeah, very faithful. This is the fifth time I’m selling him.”
If only we were as faithful as our pets. But I imagine that you have had people in your life who you would describe as faithful. For me, that person is my grandmother. No matter what happened to me, no matter what I did or didn’t do, I could count on her motherly embrace. She felt like home in a very deep way.
I think faithfulness has a threefold relational implication. We are faithful to others, to ourselves and to God. I think we know what being faithful to another person looks like, and we know what being unfaithful to another feels like. We know the raw hurt of disappointing someone when we are not faithful to a promise. Some of us know this better than others. When it comes to being faithful to ourselves, we act with integrity and congruence, in accordance with who we are. Sometimes, to be faithful to one’s self feels like betrayal to another person. I am sure many of us have experienced this. Faithfulness gets messy. It seems to me that it’s our egos that get in the way when trying to be faithful. That’s what the writer of Galatians is saying. We have a freedom in the spirit if we live faithfully from our selfless hearts.
Our egos often keep us from the healthiest things in life. We stuff ourselves with gossip, fear, cynicism and things we consider creature comforts. We will chose comforting the self over dying to self every time. Unless we have a tradition that reminds us to keep working on the ego, it will go unchecked. That is why a season of Lent is so important. The Lenten season invites us to get some exercise through spiritual practices. Lenten practices invite us to die to self—in other words, our ego—in order to live more fully.
What does faithfulness look like? In the Bible we read hundreds of stories about faithfulness. God is always faithful, but humans struggle and sometimes get it right. Noah trusts God and builds an ark. Mary trusts God and brings into the world an illegitimate child. Jesus trusts God and submits to torture and physical death. In the moment of pathos and impending doom, persecution and death, they embodied faithfulness. Faithfulness is often counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. Faithfulness is having hope amid despair. Faithfulness is radical trust in God when there seem to be no answers.
When we are faithful to God, we pay attention to the relationship. We live deliberately and intentionally within that relationship. It becomes a spiritual practice of intentional connection with God. Putting radical trust in God is what can free us from that self-preoccupation and anxiety that mars our lives and boxes us in. Radical trust frees us for that self-forgetfulness of faith, for that willingness to live our lives in a way that is spent in the name of a larger vision, that willingness to spend and be spent. That’s what comes out of living faithfully. We each have a seed of faithfulness inside. Let’s nourish, water and tend to this seed. Let’s begin to grow it! May it be so. Amen.