by Alec Rowlands, senior pastor of Westgate Chapel, Edmonds, WA
Fresh Air by Jack Levison is, as the title of the book suggests, a refreshing, perspective-expanding and worthwhile read on the person and work of the Holy Spirit in our day. The subject of the Holy Spirit is clouded by the views of polar opposite camps, in North American Christianity in particular.
On the one hand there are segments of my heritage in classical Pentecostalism who have relegated the Holy Spirit to either a labor-saving shortcut to spiritual maturity or to extravagant experiences that a friend of mine in Hong Kong calls, “this present weirdness.” But on the other hand, the person of the Holy Spirit is malignantly neglected, given only lip service in a creedal statement. Both of these extremes unfortunately leave the church of Jesus ill-equipped to truly experience God, to be transformed by his power, or to engage in his mission.
Gordon Fee wrote in Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God:
“If the church is going to be effective in our postmodern world, we need to stop paying lip service to the Holy Spirit and recapture Paul’s perspective: the Spirit as the experienced, empowering return of God’s own personal presence in and among us, who enables us to live as a radically eschatological people in the present world while we await its consummation” (p. xv).
I believe Fresh Air puts practical tools in our hands to do what Gordon Fee believes is so needed in our times: to recapture a biblical view of and practical approach to life in the Spirit.
A Change of Perspective
Jack seeks to change our perspective on the person and work of the Holy Spirit by shaking up some of the presuppositions. One way that Jack did that for me was his insistence throughout the book that name of the Holy Spirit need not be capitalized.
The ESV Bible also refuses to capitalize the personal pronouns for God or Jesus because, they point out, the manuscripts do not call for capitalization. I am enough of a purist that I understand the reason behind the practice, but enough of a traditionalist that I have no intention of making the change myself. I found, however, that this practice in Jack’s book did succeed in disengaging the Spirit from the restrictive confines of the church walls and practice and helped the reader to discover (in Jack’s own words) God’s “presence in the world, where we least expect it—in every breath we take, in social transformation, in community, in hostile situations, and in serious learning.” (p.5)
Another way Jack shakes up our theological presuppositions is his suggestion that the Holy Spirit does not just reside in Christians, but in fact acts on behalf of God’s agenda in all of creation. Many are familiar with the biblical narratives of God working his purposes through the occasional non-Israelite king or the pagan prophet, Balaam, who couldn’t help but speak blessing over the people of God. But I find it too easy to dismiss those situations as rare, exceptional, and with little bearing on my life.
In Fresh Air, Jack opens our minds up to consider the activity of God all around us every day by the Holy Spirit, which challenges me to
• anticipate his activity in all the people and circumstances of my life every day.
• seek greater discernment because God could be surprising me with how and through whom he is speaking.
• be more responsive to the work he is doing all around me.
The Habits of a Lifetime
Besides changing our perspective on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, Fresh Air sets the bar higher for those who desire to walk in the Spirit. This is where my classical Pentecostal heritage has frequently missed the mark. We have too often presented the filling of the Spirit as an instantaneous and painless leap to spiritual maturity. Throughout the book, Jack insists that the Holy Spirit is not a short cut to spirituality. Using Elihu’s specious counsel to Job as an example, Jack explains that an overpowering experience of God doesn’t automatically result in wisdom (p. 49). Jack sets the life of Daniel in sharp contrast to that of Elihu, and explains that “the habits of a lifetime have an inevitable impact on our experience of the spirit-breath that inspires us for a lifetime” (p. 58). Using Simeon at the dedication of the infant Christ as another example of the fruit of a lifetime of steady faithfulness, Jack points out that “the holy spirit rises from regular devotion, with an eye toward that single significant moment when all that we have studied will come together, and we will recognize the long-awaited yet unexpected salvation of God…” (p.74)
I don’t know if this is your experience as well, but God will frequently use a book or a graduate course or a seminar to teach me one lesson that I need at that moment in my life. I think that Jack would like the reader to expect these lessons as we approach life every day with the breath of God within. But for me that moment came on page 114, at the end of the chapter on Joel’s dream.
Jack used the chapter to reflect on the work of the Spirit in Peter, guiding him one step at a time through a huge shift in thinking from nationalistic Judaism to a Gospel without borders. I won’t recite all of the lessons of that chapter, but here is a personal reflection that I wrote in the empty space below the print on the last page of the chapter:
“Understanding the past, but holding it lightly before God allows the Holy Spirit to re-interpret and re-shape His call on my life as He moves me forward in the fulfillment of His mission in me.”
I believe every good book spurs the reader on to further exploration. For me that subject needing greater understanding was Jack’s perspective on the work of the Spirit in creating holiness in a community of faith versus a strictly privatized view of sanctification. Jack referred to “the metaphor of a spirit-filled temple, of a unified community whose holiness transcends mere individuals” (p.134). As a pastor I would like to understand more about what that looks like and how I can help our community of faith get there. I want to see the Spirit actively working within his temple established in a profane world to be salt and light and purified for the glory of God.