On Friday I went to a class at the gym. One of the benefits of taking a class is that you get to spend an entire hour looking at yourself in a full-length mirror. Consequently, as I was driving into San Luis afterwards I wondered what exactly it is going to take for me to lose weight again. Clearly, I thought, I am going to have to re-examine what I’m eating because I don’t have time to exercise more.
My first stop in San Luis Obispo was Coast National Bank. They serve coffee and on Fridays, treats.
I had two.
As I got back into my car enjoying the sweet chocolaty-ness of the brownie, I remembered my earlier conversation with myself. There was a significant disconnect between what I thought on my way into town, and my eating that delicious treat.
We all have disconnects. We intend to embody the gifts of the Spirit but then we get negative and annoyed; we mean to save the planet, but it’s so inconvenient to carpool…
I think that’s what this Gospel reading is about. Jesus has his mind and his will set on going to Jerusalem, knowing that it’s going to end badly and that he’ll be killed. The Samaritan village is simply a distraction – the people there do not receive him, because visiting with them is not part of his current mission.
Each of the people who says they will follow him has something that is distracting them. They aren’t quite ready to focus on their spiritual journey because they think need to do something else as well. They are easily distracted from their intention, just as I was easily distracted from my stated intention to lose weight. These people are very different from the disciples who left their nets and their boats to follow Jesus.
Most of us want the spiritual journey to be easy. We think that following the path of the great teachers will lead us to peace and contentment. And the good news is, it will. The bad news is that it will take us into a great many unpleasant and difficult moments as well. Jesus never promised us an easy path. In fact, it only takes a quick look at his life to realize that following in the footsteps of Jesus will have its uncomfortable if not downright painful moments.
What we don’t always realize is that the spiritual path requires a commitment of will. We have to intend to be disciples; we have to commit to the path; we have to use our wills, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit to keep going. Which is why Paul describes “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” as the fruits of the Spirit. These are fruits. Fruit comes at the end of a long cycle of growth and development.
We cannot expect ourselves or each other to suddenly overnight be able to demonstrate all of these fruits, but if we are, like Jesus, setting our face for the journey then we can look for them to increase in our lives. We can also use them as a spiritual tool, praying for the ones that we see (or our friends tell us) we most lack and asking how to develop in that area.
But it takes our active involvement, our willingness, our use of our own wills to grow spiritually. If I want to increase in patience then I need to take responsibility for it and notice when I am not patient. And not merely notice, as if I am a passive observer, but use the experience to see what needs to change in me so that I can be more patient, and then choose to make those changes.
And as we continue along the path to which we have set our faces, the Holy Spirit will reveal to us more areas that need attention. Even as we see fruit developing, we will see new areas of needed growth, often ones to which we were previously oblivious. Or the Holy Spirit will present us with difficulties which we can learn through, difficulties which will draw us closer to God, through which we may become more Christ-like if we choose to use them that way. Many people think of these times as the pruning that will lead to new growth and more fruit.
Eileen Caddy, one of the founders of the Findhorn Community in Scotland was a deeply spiritual woman. She prayed to be taught how to love unconditionally. The following week her husband left her for another woman!
This was an opportunity for great anger and an experience of great pain, but it was also an opportunity for her, as she had requested, to learn how to love unconditionally. The choice was hers. Often the choice is ours – are we going to use what happens to us as an excuse for bad-temper and feeling like a victim, or are we going to use it as the spur for spiritual growth. This is the difference between putting one’s hand to the plough and keeping going or putting one’s hand to the plough for a few yards then turning back.
On the spiritual path every minute is an opportunity to praise God and to be loving and growing closer to the divine, or an opportunity to stay stuck where we are or even wander off for a while. The difference is in our own commitment and our own use of will.
You don’t need me to tell you that it can take an act of will to love your neighbor as yourself.
But it can also take an act of will to love God.
If it were easy, then the first four of the ten commandments would be unnecessary. It is actually very easy to put something in the place of God. It is easy to make your small ego, or another person, or an ambition, or a substance, or even an abstract idea into your god. Loving God with all your heart mind and soul can be tricky… particularly since we equate love with warm soft feelings and for many of us it’s hard to have warm soft feelings about someone we can’t see or touch.
But loving God is not actually about warm fuzzy feelings, though sometimes we have those and it’s wonderful. Loving God is about the way that we live and the choices we make. Loving God is about prayer, it’s about service and it’s about living simply. Loving God is about committing ourselves to God’s service and asking to be shown the way. It takes a degree of humility, of acknowledging that we may not know the best way.
Because if God is the energy that connects all things, loving God means putting ourselves consciously and intentionally in that same energy stream so that we are going the same way, the way that increases connection and increases positive outcomes for all beings. But we don’t know what that way is. We humans so often do something with the best of intentions and it turns out to have negative consequences. Smoking cigarettes and burning fossil fuels are two major examples that come quickly to mind. We don’t know the way or the consequences.
We don’t really know how to produce the fruits of the Spirit. We can make some good guesses and we can learn from each other and from spiritual teachers in many traditions, but as Christians, our spiritual teachers are Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will guide us once we set our face towards the goal of following Christ.
But true discipleship is not just about coming to church on Sunday, receiving communion and singing great hymns, though those are important. It is not just about enjoying God’s unconditional love, though that is there for each of us. It is about choosing to be transformed by the renewal of our minds; it is about aligning our wills with Christ so that we truly become co-creators with God; it is about consciously seeking to become Christ-like.
May God give us each the will and the commitment to put our hands to the plough we are given and not turn back.