The Long Slog
“So how long is Pentecost season supposed to last?” I asked my worship-wonk husband the other day.
“Well, Pentecost isn’t really a season. It’s a feast day.”
“So you mean everything after Pentecost is actually ordinary time, all the way to Advent.”
“Well, yeah, officially.”
This was news to me, since at our church we have fashioned for ourselves a several-week period after Pentecost that we handle with nearly as much seasonal fanfare as Advent or Lent. We bring out the flame-themed liturgical art, we string up banners with Galatians 5:22-23 written out in numerous languages, and we sing through our repertoire of songs about the Spirit.
Maybe we are kidding ourselves. That outburst of Spirit-energy we managed to whump up on Pentecost is tough to maintain, especially for your average, mild-mannered Reformed congregation. Maybe we should admit that what we’re really facing starting the Monday after Pentecost is ordinary time, the long slog of the liturgical year.
I’ve been thinking about long slogs lately, mostly because of my elderly parents and their incremental but recently accelerated decline. Those of you who have just returned from RCA General Synod, discouraged and lamenting, might be feeling how much of the church’s life together feels like a long, trudging slog through conflict and setback. Probably everyone experiences some private long-slogs in their spiritual life, times of dryness and absence when the path feels lonely and the burden heavy.
We seem to associate the Spirit either with giddy excitement, miraculous power, and sudden change—or with the gentle breath of God, the still small voice, blessed assurance. Those are all actions of the Spirit, of course, but when Paul writes that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, I think he is talking about what the Spirit does in those long stretches of ordinary time that make up most of our lives.
A couple weeks ago, fellow Twelver Jason Lief quibbled with the word “nice” in Scott Hoezee’s post and in my comment on that post. Jason pointed out that nice-ness can be used to evade the issues and maintain a surface veneer of propriety. Fair enough. Jason then stated that he preferred authenticity. As I thought about what authenticity means, it occurred to me that authenticity can also be a form of avoidance. Some people use authenticity as permission to assert their ego, unedited, upon others: “I get to state my opinion and exhibit my feelings, no matter how immature or ignorant, no matter how hurtful or disrespectful, because hey, I’m being ‘authentic.’”
As I’m sure Jason and Scott would agree, neither nice-ness nor that kind of knee-jerk authenticity even approaches the threshold of sanctification. The deepest wisdom traditions in all religions observe that the ego-self in its unredeemed state is banal, crude, and often delusional; each of us must submit to a painful process of self-emptying before we can offer genuine authenticity to others.
With that in mind, I wonder if Galatians 5:22-23 is a trail map for that sanctification process. And I wonder if the Apostle Paul—who understood a thing or two about ego-stripping—has given us the map in backwards order. Because it seems to me that self-control is a first and necessary step, and in its own way the easiest, being as it is about deeds and words rather than inner states. Self-control is what enables us to turn aside from unfaithfulness, quell the angry retort of the wounded ego, bite the nasty tongue, count to ten, and do the good deed even when the warm feeling isn’t there, just because it’s right. Daily repetitions of kind deeds and gentle words sooner or later add up to patterns, and patterns eventually mature into qualities—gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, kindness. All that tough spiritual labor, in turn, develops patience as surely as months of regular training develop endurance.
The last three fruits, I suspect, are the most advanced because they describe not just choices or qualities but inner states. Who of us can claim more than fleeting moments of deep, divine peace? Or joy, for that matter? Or perfect love: who can claim that? Yet peace is the necessary prerequisite for joy, and joy makes up the largest portion of the fullness of love. And love is the fullest expression of God’s presence, by the Spirit, in the human soul.
This is advanced spiritual stuff for sure, and those few people who get that far on the path tend to radiate with God-power and we tend to call them saints. Yes, I know: we don’t achieve or work for the fruits of the Spirit. They are gifts. But I think they come, when they come, not so much in the rush of mighty wind and flame, nor in the serenity of a Taizé chant or a quiet moment—but through thousands of small and ordinary Spirit-promptings in the long slog of our ordinary days.