Strange Fruit

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Dear friends,

What would your life be like if God were on your side? This week I’m reflecting on the signs of authentic spirituality in a time of increasing polarization and conflict.

The Neighbor-Love Movement had a very encouraging soft launch at blueMoon last week. Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin wrote, “[The NLM] was without doubt the most incredibly moving event we have ever had… You are my neighbor. I care for you. Period.” Please take a look at our Covenant and consider signing it today. There’s good work ahead.

Yours with gratitude,
Andrew

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What would your life be like if God were on your side? Who would you be? What would you do?

We live in an increasingly religious world. The old prophecies that “God” was disappearing have proven false. The news is full of stories of religion, from Kanye’s conversion to exploding churches in China. With glitz and glamor, the prosperity gospel preachers promise us health, wealth, and miraculous success if only we give our allegiance and money. This doesn’t even mention the explosive growth of non-Christian religions.

So if “God” isn’t dead, what are the signs of God alive in our lives? Think of a rural village that gets electricity. The dark nights only flickering with candles are now lit up with light. What is God’s electricity?

Paul provocatively answers this question in his letter to a community in ancient Turkey. He says that there are nine marks of God’s direct activity in a person’s life and community:

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23

For Paul, these nine qualities are the “fruit of the Spirit,” the stuff that God grows, like grape seeds grow grapes. Jesus said, “You will know a tree by its fruit” (Matthew 7:16). Paul pinpoints these nine fruit as the produce that emerges when God’s sap is nourishing the roots of our being.

I find Paul’s list of God-evidence incredibly strange, counterintuitive, and profound – even religiously and politically heretical given contemporary trends. These fruit are all moral in nature, rooted in what we love and how we live. They have little do with performance and power but rather an inner life that energizes our way of being in the world and relating to others.

Let me comment on just two of these strange fruit.

Paul sees “patience” as a proof of God’s power in a person’s life.

Many of us would assume that accelerated speed is a proof of God, the ability to make things happen – preferably now. Amazon offers same-day delivery. Surely God can do the same. Isn’t it obvious that the person with God on their side gets what they want and gets it now – faster and better than the God-less people? God is the original Prime for the spiritual subscriber.

But Paul doesn’t mention speed. He mentions patience, the ability to wait, the composure to be still yet ready for what may come in its mysterious time. The Greek word is makrothumia. It literally means “long-suffering” or the capacity to endure with one’s passion rather than exploding or rushing forward.

I saw this at the Pacific Ocean. The skill of the surfer is not making waves but having the endurance to wait for a wave and then being ready to be cooperate with it with extraordinary discipline and freedom. The Spirit-cultivated person is paradoxically passive-active like this. They are patient, waiting but ready, enduring and agile.

The God-grown person is patient.

Paul also mentions “gentleness” as a sign of God’s presence.

Again, many of us assume that “effectiveness” and “outsized impact” is the primary proof of God. The spiritual person gets their way and forces change where others can’t. They break through walls and can’t be stopped with an inexplicable magnetism. “How did they do that?!” They impress and awe others.

We see this in our dramatic church services where the preacher triumphantly pushes people over with the sheer force of his words or a swing of his suit jacket.

But Paul sees disciplined restraint – a commitment to nonviolence, a light touch that helps others – as proof that God is growing in you. The Spirit-alive person is gentle. They aren’t harsh and pushy. They aren’t larger than life. They’re modest and focused on how to serve others with tenderness and sensitivity. Yes, they’re powerful. But their power is different, more subtle and service-oriented. They’re marked by a desire for others to flourish, for others to be alive and embraced with love.

An amazing episode happens in Acts 14. Paul and his friend Barnabas are traveling in Turkey. Paul meets a lame man and ends up healing him with a simple word. The people watching are astonished and declare, “The gods have come down among us in human form!” (Acts 14:11). They even bring flowers and sacrifices to honor Paul and Barnabas’s divine power.

How do Paul and Barnabas respond to this “opportunity”? How would you?

They don’t say, “Yes, you’re right! We’ve got special power from God. Do what we say or you’ll be cursed.” Instead, they ask, “What are you doing? We’re only human like you” (Acts 14:15). They insist on human equality and their togetherness with these “pagan” people. “Only human” – that’s Paul’s message.

Paul goes on to add, “God has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). For Paul, God is the one who generously gives gifts and fills our hearts with joy – equally, irrespective of religion.

Kindness is the electricity of God, and it gets manifested in the healing gentleness of ordinary people who reject any special position above others – people who are “only human.” We experience it in rain, food, and laughter, and this grateful awareness makes us grow.

God’s Spirit is like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher that fires flowers. The divine nuclear reactor produces strange outputs like patience and gentleness fueled by kindness. The people humming with the Spirit heal others, insist on equality, and celebrate the joy of easily overlooked gifts. They are patient and gentle and grateful.

What would our lives be like if God were on our side? Paul’s answer is countercultural. And it shows a better way to a more radically spiritual future.

God is alive in the strange fruit of patience and gentleness and kindness – for everyone.

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