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Groaning With the Spirit

Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24 & Romans 8:18-23, 31-39

Trinity Sunday/15th June 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

I would love to know what was going through Paul’s heart and mind when he wrote what we call the eighth chapter of Romans.  (One day I’m going to ask him.)  There’s so much passion and energy, so much movement and conviction in these verses.  They build with an increasing intensity so that when he reaches “there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” it seems like he’s about to explode in an ecstatic state of wonder and delight.  I think Paul was privy to something very special.  He saw something. He caught a glimpse of something that most mortals do not get to see.  Paul saw into the future.  He had his eyes fixed on the horizon that God was preparing for him.  He could see far into the future and see the culmination of history in the realization that all will be well in Jesus Christ.  Because he saw into the future, he had hope, and from this hope he preached the good news of Jesus Christ with passion and conviction to the day he died in Rome at the hands of an empire that could not tolerate the truth about Jesus.  But it was that vision, that future, that hope that defined his life.[1] And he offers it to you and me, in love, in the hope that we, too, might live from that vision and then move.

To be a disciple of Christ means to be someone on the move into the future.  There is no room for nostalgia about the past.  Paul wrote in another letter, “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the mark of the upward call in Christ Jesus.”(Philippians 3:13-14).  Like a sprinter, you cannot run the race by looking behind you, or by trying to return to the past, or by worrying who is on your right or left, or by staying in one place.  You have to keep your eyes focused on the finish line.  In fact, the status quo, the way things are, is never definitive for the person claimed by Christ.  You can’t stay still.  You can’t hold back time.  In fact, history had very little value for Jesus or the early church.  It’s the new thing that God is doing in our time that is more important.  In Isaiah, God says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.  Even now it appears.  Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)  And in Revelation, at the end of the Bible, Jesus says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).  It’s the new thing that God is doing in the future that’s important. You have to set your eyes on the mark.  You can’t stay in one place, you have to move - just like the people Israel had to move through the wilderness in order to make it to the Land of Promise.  You can’t stand in one place and become comfortable.  You have to move into the future that God is preparing for you.  But what is that vision?  Where are we going?  

Even if we weren’t people of faith, it’s fair to say that to be human means to be people driven toward a future.  Proverbs tells us that without vision people perish (Proverbs 29:18).  And this is true.  We are driven people.  We all have our personal goals, our dreams, our aspirations.  We have a vision of what we want our lives to be, the types of families we hope to have, the types of fathers and mothers we would like to be, the types of citizens we would like to be.  We have dreams of what college will be like, of what it will be like to share a life with the one you love, dreams of career, of retirement.  We have our hopes.  Sometimes they include God; sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes we “use” our religion or faith as a tool to achieve our goals, making God a means to an end instead of an end in Godself.  There was a time (in the 1940s and 1950s)  when people became Presbyterian or Episcopalian in order to move up the career ladder.  You couldn’t get very far being a Baptist, Methodist, or Roman Catholic.  Faith was a tool used to fit-in or to get ahead.  Those days - thankfully - are over.  Functional faith is faithlessness, it’s an expression of sin.

To be human means to have an openness to the future.  Certainly, to be an American means to be obsessed with the future as being better and brighter, of increased production, progress, and wealth.  There is a drive within us to succeed, to achieve, to accomplish, to progress. There’s nothing inherently wrong with all of these goals.  But I also think we are searching for something else.  If we are honest, courageous and still long enough, we will realize that there’s another voice longing to be heard in us - it’s the voice of our true self.  Not the voice of the false self that we put on for everyone to admire and respect.  Not the self we put on in order to get ahead or to be popular.  It’s the voice of the true self.  I think a lot of the unhappiness in the world and the generally depression-causing spirit of this age is because far too many people are ignoring their inner voice, the true self.  The true self is the inner child, the voice of wisdom buried underneath the so-called wisdom of adulthood and the reign of reason.  The true self is the voice of the artist and the imaginative child who wants to play and create and enjoy life.  

But the voice of the false self says be realistic, be serious, concrete, you have a career to build, after all, a portfolio to manage, a retirement for which to plan.  These are the expectations of the age, what Jesus calls “the world,” the system,  the matrix of distortion that wants you to believe all these things are true.  But it’s all a lie.  Jesus’ life and ministry exposed the lies of the system and it got him killed.  That’s why he said you have to become like a child (Matthew 10:15), with an openness and naivete in order to be a citizen of the kingdom.

When Paul talked about the groaning of the human spirit I believe he was giving voice to that struggle within himself to realize the purpose of his life, it is the groaning that comes when one is stretched by the Spirit and opened up to the future God intends.  When the Holy Spirit moves in our lives, the Spirit speaks at the deepest levels of the human spirit, at the level of the true self in order to free the true self from enslavement to the false self.  The false self is life as a lie which is exposed by the Spirit who is the giver of all truth.  When the Spirit moves us, shakes us, blows through us, convicts and loves us, and we feel the pain that comes with growth, we can give thanks to God because something new is being formed in us.  Like Paul who had a glimpse into the future and realized his destiny in Christ and because that destiny was calling him forward he begins to groan.  He needs to break free from his past and his present and emerge into a new way of being.  He’s given a glimpse of what resurrection life looks and because the present life looks nothing like that, he begins to groan.

We need to pay attention to the groaning in our hearts and minds.  Very often our dreams and desires, the deep longings of our hearts and minds are signs that God is powerfully moving in your life.  You discover that your present life is not the life God intends for you, because you know something now is missing.  And yet because you know that it can be different, your spirit begins to move, searching after that which you do not now have. 

This spirit was wonderfully expressed by the early Christians in Ireland and Scotland, from the 6th to 10th centuries.  For these Celtic Christians, the human journey in Christ was understood as a search for “our own place of resurrection.”[2]  The Celtic Christians were explorers and pilgrims.  These courageous women and men traveled all over Ireland and Scotland, Wales and Northumbria, even to the continent of Europe preaching the gospel, establishing monasteries and schools.  Sometimes they ventured out from their homes with no destination in mind. They just knew that they had to go - they would discover what God desired of them in the journey.  Sometimes they failed miserly.  Sometimes they died.  There are stories of the Celts getting into small boats, called coracles (about twice the size of our communion table), and sailing off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland into the North Atlantic or the Irish Sea, going wherever the Holy Spirit would lead them.  They had no particular goal other than to find the place where they would meet God.  They risked failure and even their lives for the sake of exploration.  Other times they didn’t venture very far but stayed close to home, yet went on a pilgrimage deep in their heart of hearts, to wrestle with their inner demons (what we would call neuroses today), to face themselves and to listen for the voice of the true self.  Whether inward or outward their lives were marked by a sense of journey or searching after the place of one’s resurrection, the place where you encounter the life-giving presence of Christ even in the midst of death and suffering.

Today the Celtic sense of journey is alive and well in the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892-1973) The Lord of the Rings, with its strong Celtic influence. The fulfillment of your destiny is made when you leave the shire, when you leave home, and venture into dangerous, unknown, potentially life-threatening situations for the higher cause of humanity and the redemption of the world.   What matters is the journey.  And the journey is not in a straight line between two points, it will take you all over the place, like a Celtic knot, taking you forward and back and under and around and through and forward – but the point is the movement.  Tolkien wrote, “Not all who wander are lost.”   Tolkien’s imagination is also being fired by his faith (Tolkien was a devout Catholic).  We cannot be static. We have to move to discover our place of resurrection.

That’s why we need to pay attention to the groaning of the Spirit within. We need to pay attention to the longing of our hearts and minds, because very often they are the means through which God is about to do something new in your life.   But you have to pay attention to these feelings – because the future of the world might just hinge upon them.

It also means paying attention to the pain that comes with growth.  It will be different for each of us.  Especially the pain.  We must not be afraid to learn what it will teach us.  The well-known mythologist, Joseph Campbell(1904-1987) once said, “Follow your bliss.”  All religion, he felt, flowed from this desire for bliss or happiness.  But I think Campbell is wrong (I’ve had heated debates on this point with my Christian friends).  I think Campbell is wrong, as least for the Christian experience, because at the center of the faith is a cross.  For me at least, I would say, “Follow your ache.”  It’s the ache of the soul crying out to be healed, groaning for redemption, that’s where the Holy Spirit of Christ is most powerfully present.

When I was three or four I can remember vacationing at the Jersey Shore with my family(the shore, as we say in New Jersey, not the ocean!)  – Seaside Heights, NJ.  I remember walking down to the edge of the water holding my mother’s hand.  We stood there as the waves crashed and the water washed up over our feet.  I stood on my toes and stretched my neck and strained to focus on the horizon.  I was searching for the coast of Scotland and became frustrated because I couldn’t see it.  I was not happy when my mother explained to me that at that latitude Spain and Portugal were directly west of New Jersey, not Scotland. But I wanted to see Scotland and that hope has fueled me ever since.  There’s no surprise that I love Scotland - especially St. Andrews.  The fact that, Lord willing, I’ll be graduating from the University of St. Andrews a week from Tuesday with a doctorate in theology just blows my mind.  But Scotland represents so much more.  It’s difficult for me to articulate this.  There’s something about the place and the people that are healing for me.  But I would never have known this, would never have had the experiences that I have had if I had ignored the ache, the desire, the hope.

Scotland has an attraction that has pulled me into its orbit.  St. Andrews is one of the most beautiful places to live.  But my soul is filled and healed and the presence of God became so powerfully real and tangible when I go up into the highlands - up the Great Glen through the Cairngorm Mountains, up beyond Aviemore and Inverness, across the bridge over the Moray Firth into Wester Ross and then west towards Loch Maree on a single-track road, through desolate, bleak, vast, wild, open terrain, past Achnasheen and into Glen Docherty with its steep, high mountains.  It’s there in that place of apparent absence that the ache of my soul is met by the Holy One, the Wild God of Israel whose presence dwells in deserted places and atop remote mountains – that’s when all the world becomes transfixed and transfigured and transformed.  It’s the place of resurrection for me and I feel alive, where my spirit groans for redemption and healing.

That’s my story.  What’s yours?  What or where is your “Scotland”?  What is your ache? Where are you groaning?  What are you yearning after?  Where is the Spirit leading you?  George Macleod (1897-1991), Presbyterian minister, prophet, theologian, founder of the Iona Community, whose prayers and music we are offering to God today, challenged the church years ago to step out and really trust Jesus Christ to take us where we need to go, to stop worrying about whether it’s safe or dangerous, biblical or unbiblical, known or unknown, traditional or unorthodox, conservative or liberal (all these are irrelevant categories to Christ).  What matters, instead, is that you step out.  He wrote:

Follow truth wherever you find it.
Even if it takes you outside
your preconceived ideas of God or life.
Even if it takes you outside your own
country into most insignificant alien places
like Bethlehem.
Be courageous.  But concentrate on your search.
Truth is one.  All roads lead to home.[3]

Jump into your own coracle and go where the Spirit is leading you.  Jump in and Godspeed.


[1]Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: Dum spiro spero. (While I breath I hope.)  This is the motto of the Royal Burgh of St. Andrews, Scotland.

[2]See Ian Bradley, Colonies of Heaven: Celtic Models for Today’s Church (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000), pp. 197ff.

[3]Printed in the Coracle, published by the Iona Community (November, 1994).