40 DAYS WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT: Fresh Air for Every Day. By Jack Levison. Foreword by Eugene H. Peterson. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015. Xx + 153 pages.
Christians are people of the Spirit. Since the day of Pentecost, we have acknowledged that the Spirit of God plays a central role in the Christian faith. It is true that the Holy Spirit seems marginalized in the creeds, and great effort has been undertaken by church authorities to keep the Spirit under wraps, but without the Spirit Christianity is simply a gathering of dry bones. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit stands as a reminder that we are not alone in our journey through life. God is with us, breathing divine life into our human lives.
Jack Levison is a biblical scholar who has focused significant attention on the Holy Spirit. His day job may involve teaching the Hebrew Bible to seminarians, but through a number of books he has explored and exposited on the Spirit. Having read a number of his pieces, I was when Paraclete Press sent me a review copy of his latest book—40 Days with the Holy Spirit. Since it is set up in the form of a forty day devotional, I decided to use the book as my primary devotional resource during the Lenten season, reading one chapter a day. Each of the forty brief chapters begins with a text of scripture, a meditation, a space for reflection, and a prayer addressed to the Spirit.
Levison uses seven verbs—Breathing, Praying, Practicing, Learning, Leading, Building, Blossoming—to organize the forty meditations, with the final meditation set apart under the moniker "Looking Ahead." Levison points out that there is a sequencing to this layout, leading “from deep within to the world outside” (p. xvii). We start with our inner life and gradually move outward into the world. Due to his desire that we finish the course set before us, he offers us directions – first plan out when you will engage the book, find an appropriate place (I don’t think my choice of my desk chair is what he had in mind, but it worked), have a pen (I used pencil), and finally notice the patterns that develop in your spiritual life. Oh, and patience—if you miss a day, he says, don’t worry, just come back when you can. The point is keeping on with the journey.
We start the journey with Genesis 1:1-2, with God breathing the Spirit into the first human being, and we end forty days later with Revelation 22:17, a text that invites us to drink the water of life. These two bookending texts demonstrate that the Levison is focused on the Spirit as breath of life.
There appears to be a common theme that runs through Levison’s books on the Spirit. He wants his readers to fully experience the presence of the Spirit, but he’s concerned that too often we equate exuberance with the Spirit. That is, the focus is often on spiritual ecstasy. While Levison isn’t opposed to either exuberance or ecstasy, he believes that there’s much more to the life of the Spirit than what finds expression in exuberance and ecstasy. These expressions need to be tempered by a life of study and learning and the mundane practices of Christian life. Regarding the latter, on day 14 he points us to Exodus 28, and points out that the Spirit isn’t about overwhelming the mind and inspiring us to actions that disregard mind and skills, as is the case when persons of Spirit are selected to create the Tabernacle and priestly vessels. Then on day 16, we meditate on the story of the choosing of the seven. Here we have seven men called to serve tables, and their primary qualification is that they are filled with the Holy Spirit. Levison writes: Forgive me if I say this too often in this book, but the hallmark of the Spirit is not primarily spectacular miracles but the daily, dogged practice of integrity” (p. 59). In the prayer for the day, he closes:
Breathe integrity into my chores
Vitality into my errands
Wisdom into my drudgery (p. 60).
The Spirit is active in mission, including social justice mission. Thus, the prophet Zechariah tells Zerubabbel the governor that the work of governance comes not by might or power, but by the Spirit. Thus, he writes: Reform, in other words—reform done right and righteously—looks awfully political, but it’s actually deeply spiritual.” Pointing to the work of M.M. Thomas, a Christian and political reformer in India, Levison writes that “it was not spirituality, unhinged from political and social realities, that had reshaped India, but the impact of the life and teaching of Jesus. Spiritual. Biblical. Political. Together” (p. 96). Such is the movement of the forty days. It isn’t ecstasy, it’s not always a jovial experience, but it is life in the Spirit.
Forty days is often linked to Lent, and this makes for an excellent Lenten devotional exercise. It is, as I said, how I read it. That said, it can be used productively at any time of the year. It should prove valuable at any time that one wishes to devote forty days to a journey with the Spirit. In the course of the forty days you will have the opportunity to be engaged the Holy Spirit and learn of the Spirit’s practices and teachings. Because the Spirit is so often linked to Pentecostalism, many Christians are leery about exploring the Spirit and the Spirit’s blessings. With this in mind Levison is an excellent guide to a life in the Spirit that is often quiet in its expression, but which will lead to a deeper encounter with God. As he notes the journey moves from deep within to the world outside. It is a call to grow in faith and practice. It is an experience worth embracing, and I found it a deeply enriching and rewarding experience, which meant that I completed the journey.