If I find Him with great ease, perhaps He is not my God.
If I find Him wherever I wish, have I found Him?
If He can find me whenever He wishes, and tells me
Who He is and who I am, and if I then know that He
Whom I could not find has found me: then I know
He is the Lord, my God...
Thomas Merton from No Man is an Island
(Nothing I am about to write is nearly as profound as the above quote. So the best use of your time may be to just read the quote again and think about it. If you decide to read on, then make sure you go back and read the quote again after reading my meandering thoughts.)
Recently I was participating in an ecclesiastical discussion. Someone commented that they were sure the Spirit would guide us, to which I said, "I highly doubted that." One person kind of laughed and another kind of gasped and we moved on. My guess is that they thought I was joking, but I wasn't. It was my most serious contribution to the whole discussion.
My comment was not intended to be a judgement against the group; it was more of an expression of my growing conviction that the Holy Spirit is not an extension of our collective or private activity. It seems to me that most Christians pray, vote,think, and feel their natural prejudices and proclivities and then afterwards tag on "the Spirit's leading" as justification. For instance, I do not think that the Holy Spirit was behind the recent changes in my denomination's polity and ordination standards. I do not think the Holy Spirit was necessarily preserving the old standards either. Maybe God is in changing demographics, shifting mores, and presbytery fatigue, but my guess is these dynamic are generally under the domain of Adam and Eve's prodigal children.
The same issues can be found in the realm of prayer. We cannot help but speak to God "just as we are" and certainly the Psalms illustrate that God does not judge prayer by its theological content or intent. But if we rise from our prayers the same way we knelt, then we have missed something and that something is the Holy Spirit. You can manufacture a feeling, meditate an ecstasy, and maybe even psyche a healing, but you cannot produce Spirit. Only God can give God's self.
I think we are "Ss"piritually weak, because we have not cultivated the discipline of "waiting on the Lord to renew our strength." I think this is part of what Merton is saying in the above quote. We pray to ourselves, bless ourselves, and sometimes we even act as if we have given ourselves absolution. We equate our "spirit" (whatever that is) with the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures and the Tradition do promise that the Holy Spirit dwells in all Christians and that through the work of the Holy Spirit we are maintained "in Christ." But no where does it collapse human intuitions and feelings into the Holy Spirit. While there maybe infinite possibilities of understanding the Holy Spirit as the immanent principle of God in the finite, if we are to remain Christians, we must never forget that God is God and we are not.
I do trust in the church's ability in the long haul to get things right. The Trinitarian debates were messy, and the Christological debates often tragic, but in the end I think Nicaea and Chalcedon got it right. From the accounts of the councils, it was as hard to see the work of the Holy Spirit on the ground then, as it is now. Yet God's freedom is not obliterated by humanity's freedom to be wrong. Just recently, I experienced a profound sense of the Holy Spirit guiding our elders through a difficult discussion. The result was both surprising and faith affirming and much better than what we could have come up with on our own. In retrospect, there was a collective waiting for God to help us find our way rather than the need to have one's convictions win the day.
Contemporary American Christians of all brands are way too confident in their convictions that their ways are God's ways and that "Spirit" is leading them. We have a lot of liberal and evangelical gnostics running around promoting a religious version of "tea party" faith. Good theology is humble theology; deep prayer involves spending a lot of time in silence waiting to be found. One must never gets beyond realizing that to proclaim Jesus as Lord is to constantly remember we need him as Savior. And to be led by the Spirit entails "being led" by an infinitely free being, not an earnest praise band or a moving social cause. Of course, an infinitely free being is free to use an earnest praise band or just social cause to move us, but we must be careful not to equate what moves us with the move of the Spirit.
I feel led to go home now and enjoy this beautiful day. I am agnostic as to the source of the inspiration.