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The Kiss of God: 27 Lessons on the Holy Spirit

The Kiss of God: 27 Lessons on the Holy Spirit

by James C. Howell

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In 27 brief lessons on the Holy Spirit, James Howell introduces us to the third person of the Trinity, "this personal, elusive, invisible, powerful Spirit."

Who is the Holy Spirit? What is the work of the Spirit? How can I connect with the Holy Spirit in my life? What would that look like? These are just a few of the questions believers may struggle with as they


In 27 brief lessons on the Holy Spirit, James Howell introduces us to the third person of the Trinity, "this personal, elusive, invisible, powerful Spirit."

Who is the Holy Spirit? What is the work of the Spirit? How can I connect with the Holy Spirit in my life? What would that look like? These are just a few of the questions believers may struggle with as they attempt to come to a fuller understanding of the Holy Spirit. Drawing on his own experience as well as the wisdom of other writers, Howell invites readers to know and experience God the Spirit.

The title of the book comes from a quotation by Bernard of Clairvaux that it is appropriate to think of the Holy Spirit as a kiss. The author explains that Clairvaux "is imagining God the Father loving his son Jesus so tenderly that God would kiss the son, and the Spirit then would be that kiss."

Some of the lessons are: The Spirit in the Trinity, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, The Spirit and Creation, The Spirit in Us, Culture and the Spirit, The Spirit in the Church, Sending the Comforter, The Spirit and Freedom, and The Spirit and the Future. Each lesson begins with a prayer written by the author. A study guide is included to assist small group leaders.

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The Kiss of God

27 Lessons On The Holy Spirit

By James C. Howell

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-3790-9



Who Is the Holy Spirit?

Come, Holy Spirit, elusive, powerful Wind,
Breath of life, closer to me than I am to myself:
show Yourself, yet in a way that reminds me
that You have always been there, and will always be.
So take possession of me; I wait eagerly to learn. Amen.

In the very beginning, we need to think through the logic of the question: Who is the Holy Spirit? Many might ask: "What is the Holy Spirit?"—as if it is some thing, some experience, something you could measure or get your hands on. The Spirit is personal, closer to you than you are to yourself. Grammatically, the Hebrew word ruach is feminine, and it means "breath" or "wind." The Spirit is personal, very personal, as personal as your next breath, and yet as elusive as the wind, as invisible as the wind, yet with powerful, noticeable effects.

The very question "Who is the Holy Spirit?" implies another answer: I am not! The Holy Spirit is not me and my spiritual self. I may have had profound, wonderful feelings about God; but the Holy Spirit is far larger than my feelings. I may have had a moving experience authored by the Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is far beyond my experience. The Holy Spirit may (and will!) be the catalyst for startling changes in my life. The Holy Spirit may and will nurture a whole new set of attitudes, will be the spark to ignite an unforeseen passion for God. The Holy Spirit will stir my heart to obey God, to be holy, to be assured of God's unfailing presence. The Holy Spirit will lift me out of my petty life into a heightened consciousness, a delightful intimacy with God that may tempt me to blush, that issues in a sigh.

But the Holy Spirit is not the same as the passion you feel, is not the knee-buckling intimacy. The Holy Spirit is not anything you "have." For the Spirit is too big, too marvelous, too treacherous, to be boxed inside me or you or even the most spiritual person on this planet. The Spirit radically changes my life, precisely because the Spirit is something I can never possess. The Spirit isn't "in" me so much as the Spirit is way ahead of me, behind me, around me, inspiring me and you and the next person, and the space between us. Indeed, the Spirit isn't "in" me because the Spirit is moving all over the universe, creating beauty and light and goodness and love.

This personal, elusive, invisible, powerful Spirit is not something God hurls down from on high. The Spirit isn't a neatly wrapped little package God gives to you, or to me, or to some select group of people. The Spirit ranges widely, showing up everywhere, or the Spirit is nowhere at all—because, again, the Spirit isn't a thing located here and not there. The Spirit isn't something you grab hold of—because the Spirit is God.

Talking to the woman at the well in Samaria on the subject of what satisfies our thirst, Jesus said, "God is Spirit" (John 4:24). Who is the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is God, and God is love.



The Spirit Is Love

Come, Holy Spirit, bearing Your best gift,
Yourself; for there is nothing else I need or desire.
You loved me though I was unaware, so now I ask
You to surprise me once more with that Kiss
that tenderly brushes away all loneliness. Amen.

The Spirit is God, and God is love. When 1 John 4:8 declares that "God is love," we need not infer that everything that pretends to be "love" in our world is somehow divine. "Love" is corrupted, demeaned, cheapened all the time—but our very awareness of this, our intuition that there must be such a thing as genuine, true, eternally unfailing love is a hint about the existence of love, our craving for love, our need to love.

It is no mere coincidence that the first "fruit of the Spirit" is love (Galatians 5:22). But before we get cozy and thank the Spirit for giving us love, or making love happen, we need to refocus our hearts and turn our admiring gaze toward the Holy Spirit, and let ourselves be moved to adoration of this Holy Spirit who quite simply is love, long before love is given or received or even noticed. God the Holy Spirit is love, has always been love, will always be love.

St. Augustine's words move me: "'The gift of the Holy Spirit' is no more than 'the Holy Spirit.'" Before I plunge into thinking about the benefits of the Holy Spirit, before I weigh the effects of the Holy Spirit in my life or the world, I can be still and revel in the one and only gift of the Holy Spirit that matters, and that is the Holy Spirit itself, herself, himself. Love is like that. When you love someone, you may wrap up a gift and place it under the tree, or you may send flowers, or spend thousands on a diamond ring. But these are mere trinkets, losable, dispensable really. The real gift you give, the only gift you are able to give, is your self.

God the Holy Spirit is like that, loving us, giving us not this or that, but something of immeasurably wonderful value—the Spirit's own self. This kind of love spells the destruction of loneliness. The Holy Spirit's great delight, her consuming passion, his reason to get up in the morning, is to overcome isolation, isolation between me and God, between you and God, between you and me.

Bernard of Clairvaux provocatively suggested that it is appropriate to think of the Holy Spirit as a kiss. He is imagining God the Father loving his son Jesus so tenderly that God would kiss his son, and the Spirit then would be that kiss!—which leads us to consider the Trinity.



The Spirit in the Trinity

Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
inviting us into the love of Jesus and his Father:
Take my hand and pull me into the glorious dance,
the largesse of fellowship that cannot be contained
but must be shared. I want to dance in Your circle. Amen.

Saint Augustine taught that the Holy Spirit is the bond of love between Father and Son. The whole notion of the Trinity (God as three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but still just one God) may befuddle us. But the Trinity is not a mathematical riddle to test our faith. The Trinity is a mystery, but this does not mean the Trinity is irrational. The earliest Christians tried to name their experience of God and to understand the actual story of the Bible as it unfolded.

For instance, when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, God the Father was overheard speaking from heaven saying "This is my beloved Son." Then at that moment, the Spirit descended on him, like a dove (from Matthew 3:13-17). Jesus, who was quite clearly God in the flesh according to the Gospel of John, spent much time talking about his intimate relationship with his Father in heaven (John 14:10, 16:15, 17:24). Yet he also encouraged the forlorn disciples by promising to send the Spirit once he has gone (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:7). To understand this threefold, divine love, read John 14 through 17 slowly, and with imagination.

Hundreds of theologians have authored thousands of thick books trying to analyze this three-in-oneness in God. But for the believer, what matters is that the Bible suggests that there is an immense, marvelous love within God that spills over into our lives. The Holy Spirit is the outpouring of the love God the Father has for his only Son onto us. The Holy Spirit is the invitation to us to join in the profound love Jesus had (and has) for his Father. There is a beautiful icon by a Russian painter, Andrei Rublev, picturing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sitting around a four-sided table enjoying each other, with the clear implication that you, the one looking at the painting, you are invited to join their circle. My destiny, your purpose for being, our reason to live: Life is about the privilege, the delight of being invited into the eternal love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A kiss is like that. A kiss gently shatters our loneliness, or as Ann Patchett phrased it, a kiss is "like a hand pulling you up out of the water, scooping you up from a place of drowning and into the reckless abundance of air." The Spirit, God's kiss, scoops us up into the air breathed among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Back in the early centuries of Christianity, theologians like John of Damascus and Gregory of Nazianzus, when extolling the wonder of the Trinity, used the image of perichoresis, which can be translated "dance." Dancers move, but together. Dancers allow space, but relate happily to one another. Dancers aren't static, but dynamic, delighting in their mutual, respectful, beautiful, concerted movements. Every time we speak of the Holy Spirit, we must remember that the Spirit is never separated from Jesus or from God the Father. If we believe things about the Holy Spirit that are at odds with what Jesus taught and did, or with what we know about God throughout history, then we are misunderstanding the Spirit. For the Spirit, perhaps uniquely among the divine three, seems determined not to stand out on his own, seems determined never to go her own way, but instead is modest, always diverting attention to Jesus, to Jesus' Father.



The Beauty of Anonymity

Come, Holy Spirit. You are beautiful, Lord;
You are Beauty. Your shyness moves me to adore You.
Weave into my soul that same humble anonymity
that looks out from the shadows and into the light,
noticing beauty, reveling in humble service. Amen.

While we are still on somewhat mysterious reflections (and we will move next into more practical matters like how to access the Spirit and the effects of the Spirit), we may ponder the notion of beauty. Think a few minutes about beauty, something you saw that made your jaw drop, some moment that made you sigh, that stammering ah-h-h that floats up out of you, tears at the climax of a film: When we are awestruck by beauty, we find ourselves right at a window pane through which, if we turn and look, we may catch a glimpse of God.

The Holy Spirit draws our attention to what is beautiful, partly because the Spirit wants to share her delight in the tender wonders of God's glorious world, but also because God is beautiful. I spoke at a gathering of Pentecostal ministers, and during a joyful, chaotic period of spontaneous prayer, the man next to me swayed as he rhythmically repeated over and over, "You are beautiful, Lord, you are beautiful, Lord...." Jonathan Edwards wrote, "The Holy Spirit is the harmony and excellency and beauty of the Deity.... 'Twas his work to communicate beauty and harmony to the world." The thought of God looming over the Milky Way, the memory of the Holy Spirit hovering over creation and your soul, the story of Jesus ... How does the old German hymn phrase it? "Fairest Lord Jesus ... thee will I cherish ... Jesus shines purer than all the angels heaven can boast ... Beautiful Savior! ... Praise, adoration, now and forevermore be thine."

But mystics and theologians over the centuries have noticed a peculiar beauty in the Holy Spirit. Notice we never see the Spirit; we have no gender to describe the Spirit; we have no name, few artistic images. Even God the Father has frequently been painted, by Michelangelo, by William Blake. The Holy Spirit is somehow elusive, mysterious, seeming to prefer to draw attention to others. Frederick Dale Bruner once called the Spirit "the shy member" of the Trinity. If we look to the Spirit, the Spirit defers, directing our attention to Jesus or to the Father to whom Jesus prayed. Mystics who have known the Spirit intimately have taught us that the Spirit is humble and modest, seeking no praise or adoration, but serving others, laying down her rights, serving us by enabling us to praise and adore Christ, to worship and serve God. Clark Pinnock captured this thought: "The Spirit does not wish to be focused upon but to remain anonymous, a servant.... The Spirit of love effaces himself in order to bless others. The flame of love is humble.... Like a mother in the service of life, the Spirit is disinterested and does not look to personal advantage."

Perhaps then the Spirit enables us to be humble, to serve, to efface ourselves, not looking to personal advantage. In short, the Holy Spirit stands in the background of our lives, yet never far away, always right over our shoulders, pointing us toward the grandeur of God and the story of Christ, nudging us lovingly to discover our lives in God's story. How do we grasp that story?



The Inspiration of Scripture

Come, Holy Spirit, Midwife to the Word.
You breathed; and the pages of the Bible stirred,
fluttered, flew, sang, winging us into God's story
that is the story of my life. Instruct, correct my mind;
inspire me through the Word You generously inspired. Amen.

We speak of the Bible as being "inspired." Inspiration need not mean the Bible is the literal, dictated words of God. After all, the Bible is not the Quran (the Koran), which claims to be the actual words of God, repeated verbatim by Muhammad. The Bible claims to be human words about human interactions with God. Luke says he wanted to write about Jesus, so he interviewed people and got the story down as best he could.

Not that this means the Bible is less authoritative, or less relevant. On the contrary, precisely because of the human element in Scripture, we discover in its pages an utterly realistic, believable, accessible story about God and human life, not someone else's long ago, but mine, yours, ours. The word "inspired" means "breathed in." The Holy Spirit, the living breath of God, breathed into these stories, poems, and letters the life of God so that the Bible might live with us, so that we might grasp the universe from God's perspective, so that we might read and understand what living with and for God is all about.

So inspiration isn't some radioactive property emanating from this book. Rather, inspiration is how God uses this book in our lives. Pay close attention to 2 Timothy 3:16: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that [you] may be complete, equipped for every good work." If you imagine the Bible as inspired, then expect to be educated, reprimanded, disciplined, readied by the Spirit to charge out and do good in the world.

How generous of the Spirit, how fortunate for us, that the Spirit enabled people in biblical times to "get it" when God was acting before their eyes, that the Spirit motivated them to remember and to tell and retell the story, that the Spirit nudged somebody to write it all down, that the Spirit nagged editors to gather the writings onto longer scrolls, that the Spirit nursed the birthing of the collection of scrolls into what we think of as the Bible, that the Spirit prodded translators to render the Scriptures into modern languages, and many languages, so people like us could read, know, understand, wrestle, think, reflect, and discover God acting in our lives.

Martin Luther perceived a double kind of inspiration by which the Scriptures become a passable bridge into God's heart. The very Spirit that inspired the biblical writers is the same Spirit that inspires you and me when we read, when we listen. The Holy Spirit opens our minds, teaches us through the words on the page, leading us to understand and interpret what the Bible means today, here and now, for me, for us. The Holy Spirit rescues the Bible from the museum of religious relics and makes it real, vital today. And the Spirit does so not just by quickening our minds to understand, but by challenging us to quicken our steps, to get busy with our hands, to live out, to perform the Scriptures—or even to be laid aside for God's glory. When the Holy Spirit makes the Bible "happen" in what we as Christians do, and even simply in who we are, then we are the Body of Christ. For at the end of the day, what Scripture is about is Jesus.



Jesus and the Holy Spirit

Come, Holy Spirit, bearer of Christ to the world:
You were with Jesus always, empowering, comforting,
fully intimate. You are with Jesus as I pray right now.
Usher Jesus out of the Scriptures and into my life
so I too may be with him and You always, intimately. Amen.

Why did the Holy Spirit bother inspiring the Scriptures? What was the goal? Not just so we could have an admirable holy book to be proud of. The Spirit's purpose was that we might know Christ. Martin Luther once said that the Scriptures are "the swaddling clothes in which Christ is laid." Jesus himself, when debating the Pharisees who knew their Bibles backward and forward, said, "You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me" (John 5:39).

If we want to know about the Spirit, we look to Jesus; if we want to know Jesus, we look to the Spirit. Jesus was on unusually intimate terms with the Spirit. Choose a single chapter, like Luke 4. "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit ... was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness." Then "Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee." He then went to Nazareth and spoke: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me." As Clark Pinnock wrote, "The Gospels go out of the way to connect Jesus with the Spirit on all kinds of occasions in his life—birth, baptism, temptation, preaching, healing, exorcisms, death and resurrection. Overall they reveal Jesus as a gift of the Spirit."


Excerpted from The Kiss of God by James C. Howell. Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James C. Howell is the senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC, and adjunct professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School. He is co-author of Preaching the Psalms (Abingdon, 2001) and author of The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray (Abingdon, June 2003). He is also author of Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs and Yours are the Hands of Christ (Upper Room Books)

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