The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2003-2004

The Spirit of Obedience
Year C - 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time John 14:23-29

Nowadays keyboards and touch pads dominate our written form of communication. With so many people composing their school reports, business memos and correspondence on these electronic devices, writing in cursive is a dying art. 

Cursive writing was refined and standardized by a monk, Alcuin of York, in the 8th Century. (This Wednesday is the 1200th anniversary of his death) Charlemagne had become distressed by the state of education in his empire. Learning had retreated to the monasteries. The royalty could not read and even bishops could not spell. The monks who were responsible for copying books also could not read and had poor handwriting. They were quite literally distorting the text prompting Charlemagne to commission Alcuin to set up schools of instructions. The monk established writing standards that are still in use today: 1) uniform spelling, 2) well formed lower case letters, 3) capitals to begin a sentence and lower case to continue, 4) space between words, 5) standard punctuation, 6) Division into sentences and paragraphs.1

Some will not shed a tear the day that cursive writing becomes extinct. They are not concerned by the misspellings and grammatical errors that litter most emails. They do not believe that the inability of college graduates to write readable reports is important. They will argue that digital communication is better because it is faster, easier, more efficient-the triune god of our time.2

Cursive writing is a demanding skill even if you only want to have legible handwriting. You could say that it builds character and that is why I do not believe that it is a good thing for us to lose the skill. The student must master the design and alignment of each letter, the proportionate spacing of words and a consistent style. It requires patience, practice, perseverance and discipline. It teaches obedience to a prescribed format. Maybe that is why people are so eager to see cursive writing go the way of the dinosaurs. Obedience to a set of prescribed rules is difficult. Rules inhibit behavior. Regulations restrict response. Rules define what is right and what is wrong and the consequences for wrong behavior. 

Our distaste for writing is merely reflection of a much deeper problem-our aversion for rules and laws. By nature, we are free spirited people. We long to escape the restrictions others place on us. We enjoy the freedom to make our own choices and live our own lives. 

Jesus tells us that those who love him obey him. Those are difficult words. Obedience requires limitations. It restricts behavior. It demands conformity to a standard. Obedience acknowledges that boundaries have been established and are not to be transgressed. Love assumes obedience. It assumes that we are willing to do whatever the other person wants and needs. Love calls us to change our behavior to conform to the desires, wishes, and needs of another person. Obedience to the Law is a demonstration of our love to God. However, it is not without it's rewards. Jesus says that if we obey his teaching, the Father will love us and will send the Holy Spirit. 

The third person of the Trinity is the most misunderstood person of the Godhead. Much of the popular literature talks about either the power of the Spirit or his comforting presence. In a world that seems out of control, we long for some influence, some power. The popularity of TV shows and the Harry Potter books is evidence of this inner longing to tap into a resource that can overcome the physical world.

Another distortion of the Spirit's role comes from the translation of the Greek work paraklete. Literally, it means, someone who comes alongside. It was often used to refer to an attorney who would come alongside the defendant and advocate for his innocence in a court of law. It has often been mistranslated as comforter.

We prefer a comforting God to an advocating Sovereign. We want someone who will stroke our bruised egos, wipe away our tears and tells us that they love us even when we have made a mess of things. That is not the intended role of the Spirit. 

Our Spiritual Guide
Throughout the NT, the characteristic designation of the Third Person of the Trinity does not draw attention to the power or the Spirit, or his greatness or his skills in massage therapy. For the early church, one word captured the importance of the Spirit, not power, not comforter, not councilor, not advocate, but holy. The word is used to refer to items that have been separated from the common sphere and designated to serve a religious purpose. The wood used in the construction of the baptismal fount is now holy because it has been set apart to serve one purpose. We do not use it as a wash basin or a laundry bowl. The fount serves to hold the water of baptism.

The Spirit also has been set apart. It does not determine its own course of action. It does not set its own plans. It does not create a new system of spiritual truth. The Spirit is sent by the Father and Son for one purpose, to teach believers by reminding them of the things that Jesus taught. The mission of the Spirit is to guide us into truth. 

Several years ago, we took a vacation along the coast of Lake Superior. We visited Tahquamenon Falls, Picture Rocks National Lakeshore and other beautiful places. We walked along the beaches, strolled through the tours and admired the beauty of the area. We used pamphlets and books from AAA to understand the geology, history and culture. One day we joined a walking tour. Our guide was not just any park ranger, we was a caricature from the 19th century. He told us that he had worked in the lighthouse before they modernized it. He had a beard, a corncob pipe, and wore the clothes of past generation. He told us stories about the settlers who first came to the area, about the men who lost their lives in the shipwrecks, of the townspeople who worked gallantly to save the men from the raging lake. He gave us insight that we would never have found in the books. He made it much more interesting than the printed material. He was so convincing, Jennifer and Sarah actually believed he was who he said he was and were disappointed to learn that he was an actor.

That's what the Spirit does when he comes alongside us. He points things out. He tells us things that know one else knows. But the Spirit intends to do more than entertain spiritual tourist. The truth he reveals requires more of us than the historical sites of the UP. The Spirit instructs us in applying the demands of the law to our social and cultural settings. The Spirit does not come to do the work for us. The Spirit does not take over our mental and physical capacities. We do not become a puppet on a string. The Spirit empowers us to live in faith and obedience but the responsibility to live still rests with us. 

Guded Obedience
Living in faithful obedience, is difficult. Loving the obnoxious co-worker requires effort. It is not shown through avoidance or tolerance but by friendly and kind deeds. Giving generously to the needs of the poor limits how much we can spend on ourselves. Serving on a mission trip prevents us from enjoying a week golfing at a resort. Staying sober means denying ourselves the pleasure of drink and sometimes the companionship of friends.

Living in faithful obedience is also demanding. Force push and pull on us. We feel pressure from people to conform to their expectations even when we know that they are wrong. 

The day had been a particularly demanding one for the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He asked his housekeeper to hold all telephone calls while he took a brief nap. Soon after falling asleep, the telephone rang. President Lyndon Johnson was calling from the White House. He asked to speak to the former Harvard professor and presidential advisor. Emily, the family's housekeeper informed the President that he was sleeping. President Johnson demanded that she wake him. She refused by saying, "No, Mr. President, I work for him not you." When the President called back he could scarcely control his pleasure. He told Galbraith, "Tell that woman, I want her here in the White House."3

Obedience is not about conforming to the expectations of others. It is not about caving in to the temptations that are offered. The Spirit's role is to teach us the teach about the law of God and the destructive consequences of our disobedience but we still have the responsibility to obey. However, with this responsibility comes the promise of peace. We do not often associate the feeling of inner tranquility to obedience. Duty sounds graceless, joyless, and peaceless. But those who have walked the path of obedience will testify to the reality

In October of 2003, Semolina rebels who objected to her work amongst the poor assassinated Annalena Tonelli. She had spent her life setting up tuberculosis centers in Kenya and Somalia. The Washington Post had interviewed her and published the story following her death. They asked her what motivated her to devote her life to some of the poorest and sickest people on earth, especially over such a long time.

She told the reporter that most people give up too early. They do not try hard enough. By patiently serving year after year, she said, you learn that what matters is not short term results but the love you give and receive. But if you are impatient because people are not grateful or you see too many limits, you will never find happiness.4

Inconsistent living will not bring the peace that Jesus promised. Haphazard following will not produce spiritual maturity. It requires a disciplined, intentional life. That's why we need things like cursive hand writing and the Holy Spirit to remind us that the fast, the easy and the efficient are not always the better way.

1 Online:
2 HomileticsOnline, "Cursive Obedience," May 16, 2004, 16:3, 31-35
3 John Kenneth Galbraith, A Life in Our Times, Houghton Mifflin, Reader's Digest, December, 1981.
4 HomileticsOnline, "Cursive Obedience," May 16, 2004, 16:3, 31-35

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