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The scandal of incarnation

I was talking to a woman in the YWCA locker room one morning, and she asked what brought me to Minnesota. After I described my work at Augsburg College, she said, “Oh, I’m a very spiritual person, but I’m not at all religious” with some smugness, as if she’d somehow “arrived” at a destination that was way out of my range.

More and more people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, signaling their distance from organized religion and from its perceived fundamentalisms on both the Right and the Left. These “cultured despisers of religion” deal with the spiritual realm on their own, without either text or community to help them discern the spirits (1 Corinthians 12:10).

I admire them, but there are a lot of “spirits” out there. Not all of them are benign – and some of them are outright dangerous.

Martha Stortz

There is the Spirit of Macy’s and Juicy Couture, of Vogue and People magazines, of Oprah; there’s the spirit of Dancing with the Stars, that spirit of celebrity and fashion and 15 seconds of fame; then there are the less benign spirits of fear, terrorism, and the fear of terrorism. How will people know they’ve latched onto the “Spirit of the Lord”?

The prophet Isaiah offers some defining characteristics, and he is not afraid of repeating himself. First, he tells people who the Spirit of the Lord is: “a spirit of wisdom and understanding,” a spirit of “counsel and might,” a spirit of “knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Any spirit that does not fit this description should probably be given a wide berth.

Then, he tells people what the Spirit of the Lord does: This spirit will “judge the poor”; this spirit will “decide with equity for the meek of the earth”; and — my very favorite description — this spirit will “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips … kill the wicked.” This is not just bad breath; this is fatal breath.

Finally, Isaiah describes in vivid detail and lyrical description what life in the Spirit of God looks like:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Who would not long for this Spirit? This side of the rapture, longing is as close as we come. There’s a gap between Isaiah’s idyllic vision and reality, and hope bridges that gap. Now and again, we catch a glimpse of “the world according to God,” but in the main, hope sustains us.

The nature of hope

Often, hope gets pegged to concrete outcomes: We hope for that bike for Christmas; we hope for productive talks in the Mideast; we hope for the troops to be home by 2011. Hope for something fixes on outcomes, which change depending on the situation and mood. Hope for something depends on a healthy amount of superglue or duct tape or your favorite fixative to attach it to outcomes.

Desire supplies that adhesion – and desires are not terribly dependable. They alter according to mood or situation; they flit from one thing to another.

Sometimes we don’t even know what to wish for, as a friend whose husband was dying confessed. He had a fierce infection that threatened to get in the way of terminal brain cancer that appeared to be in its final stages. “I don’t know what to hope for.”

Christian hope reaches beyond outcomes. Rather than hope for something, Christian hope is uniquely hope in something, more specifically, hope in Someone. We do not so much have this hope, as the product of fierce focus or gritty determination or even deep faith, as this hope has us. Why? Because the one in whom we hope loves us — and loves us fiercely, individually, and in all our messy particularity.

The bonding agent in Christian hope is not desire, but love. And hope doesn’t depend on our love for God, but on God’s love for us. That love is not at all abstract, but lodges in the particulars. It lives in the details, those sometimes gritty, sometimes delightful, always amusing particulars that make us the children of God we really really are … when no one is looking.

After all, that is the other edge of the scandal of incarnation. Not only that God took up all the messy details of becoming human, but that God did all for love, so that all of us humans would finally “get” how much we are loved … in all the messy particulars.

Love one another: in all the gritty particulars, unconditionally, and unmeritedly. We can never “pay back” what we have been given. Instead, we “pay forward” the love we have received.

This is the spirit behind Christian spirituality, the Spirit of God in Christ Jesus. And the assignment is to love one another.

Martha E. Stortz is Bernhard M. Christensen Professor for Religion and Vocation at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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