Monday, April 7, 2014


The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
Again, it's good to be back.  Back from awe-inspiring places at the edges of the earth from the fin del mundo.  Back from physically crashing last week in the face of a too much, too soon, too busy schedule.
Thanks to a far lighter schedule these past few days, I've had a better than usual chance to reflect – on life, the world, the people and creatures that fill it, and the good God who made and moves it all.  Even activists need to go to the well every now and then.  And, thanks to my enforced leisure, I've also had a better than expected chance to get acquainted with the new creature in my life – a little dog named Prince…a little dog who's obviously never been near a fish pond.  He's fallen in three times.  After his third swim – dogs really do know how to dog paddle – I recalled how Jesus had promised Peter that he would be a fisher of people.  I know Jesus has promised me a lot, but it never occurred to me that "fisher of dogs" would be part of it.
Busy as it was, my trip also afforded me a special opportunity to reflect…beneath a blanket of stars that, for the first time, included the Southern Cross…to the morning call of roosters on a tiny speck of an island called Rapa Nui…and at the foot of the dagger-like mountains in Patagonia called Torres del Paine.  I brought with me and tried to focus those reflections on our reading for today – those very familiar words we just heard from John. 
What would I say when I got back?  What could I say that hasn't already been said about this passage so packed with powerful images known to every Christian?  Who hasn't wrestled – like Nicodemus – with the concept of being born again?  What baseball fan hasn't seen that guy with the rainbow-colored afro, holding up that handmade sign behind home plate: John 3:16?  You know:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
He's right you know – the guy behind home plate.  John 3:16 really does sum it all up.  In its one sentence it does encapsulate the entire meaning of the New Testament, of Jesus, and of what I believe about Jesus as God.
And what might that be?  What I believe about God?  I'm an Episcopalian.  Like you I didn't park my mind at the door when I came in this morning.  If I ever did, I no longer believe in a God who is an old man with a long white beard.  No, I believe in a far more awesome God – the Creator God behind the Big Bang in Neil deGrasse Tyson's marvelous new "Cosmos" series on Fox.  But such a God is unknowable, hard to get our arms around, hard to give our hearts too…easy to fear, but hard to love.
But, unlike Tyson, I also believe in revelation, the kind with a small "r."  And that's where John comes in.  That unknowable God, John tells us, loved us…so much so, that it came to us as Jesus, so that we might know and love the God who is love.  As Jesus promised and as John reminds us this morning, that God remains with us in the Spirit – the Spirit that breathed physical life into us at birth and calls us to spiritual rebirth.
Which brings me to my travelling reflections on the pampas of Patagonia at the foot those awesome mountains of Torres del Paine…mountains so inviting in the soft light of dawn, so intimidating beneath the brooding clouds of night.  I was there four nights in a canvas covered geodesic dome in a so-called eco-camp…all very comfortable, but, oh, so tiny and vulnerable.  How comfortable?  A king-sized bed, a hot shower, and an even-hotter wood stove…and, on a night table, a "Welcome" book that contained instructions for two potential emergencies. Given the wood stove in the canvas dome, I could understand the potential for a fire emergency.  But a "wind emergency?"  What in the world might that be?  More tired than curious, I stopped reading and fell quickly to sleep.
Emerging next morning for a first hike, I got the idea…why some people call this southern tip of the world, not Tierra del Fuego, but Tierra del Venta.  Patagonia, I learned, is lashed by a steady gale force wind and, the book told me, wind bursts of 200 mph had, on occasion, swept through our camp. 
Still, I was not prepared for that second night. Our reading from John still fresh in my mind, I began to doze off.  Then, at the top of the mountain, there was an explosive sound – a cross between a whoosh, a thud, and a thunderclap.  Then, almost like a tangibly physical, finite ball, it raced down the side of the mountain with the roar of an onrushing freight train.  It seemed to explode again, as it raced through the shuddering canvas dome.  And, almost as suddenly… it was gone …replaced by complete stillness, profound silence.
No longer would I have to read about it from a book.  No longer would I need words to describe it.  I knew what I had to talk about today:
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
In talking about this wind, Jesus does so in the same breath as he does in talking about the Spirit, adding "So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  And they are all one – the wind, the breath, the Spirit.  You've heard it before.  You don't have to be a seminarian to know it.  In the languages it was written, the ambiguity is clear and intentional.  The Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma both mean breath, Spirit, and wind.  They are metaphorical words – one for the other – that give rise to countless analogies in the Bible, the first, not surprisingly, being in Genesis. 
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
And that life-giving, life-changing wind – God's Spirit - has continued to work God's will in the world and fill it – unbidden, unexpected – with countless graces. 
The pages of the Bible are full of examples.  Remember Noah and how the flood ended?  "God caused a wind to blow over the earth and the waters receded."  Remember Moses at the Red Sea?  "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.."  Remember God's challenge to Job?  "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  3 Remember the mighty day of Pentecost?  "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting."
These, of course, are all analogies for the workings of God's Spirit in the world and, again, it's more than just coincidental that the authors of these stories used the same Hebrew word – ruach – or, in Luke's case, the Greek word pneuma - to describe both wind and Spirit.  Every Jewish scholar of Jesus' time knew this and it is for forgetting it that Jesus chides Nicodemus.
Let me turn then to the third, very related, and most important meaning of those words – breath.  Most important because our breath is the very stuff of our being …the Spirit of God that animates the dust of our physical being, the soul that will return to God. 
As Genesis tells us, "The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."  Analogy perhaps.  But it also a reality any mother can attest to, hearing her baby's cry after its first breath – a cry that says "I'm alive!  I'm a human being!"
And, in the end – the end of our earthly life - the spirit will leave the body.  As, Ecclesiastes tells us, "the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it."  So it was when Jesus died.  His last words on the cross were "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." "Having said this," Luke reminds us, "he breathed his last."
But at the resurrection, at the end of time, that breath will return, as body and spirit are reunited.  Probably the most dramatic earnest of this is contained in Ezekiel's metaphorical vision of being commanded to prophesize to a valley full of dry bones…metaphorical for the reestablishment of the exiled Israelites in their homeland.  He was, God said, to tell the bones "I will put breath in you and you will live. Then you will know that I am the Lord." 
He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, – prophesy, son of man – and say to the breath: 'This is what the sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these corpses so that they may live.'"  So I prophesied as I was commanded, and the breath came into them; they lived and stood on their feet, an extremely great army.
It was against the background of these understandings that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus and to us.  It is in this sense that we are to understand being born again, being born from above, being born of the Spirit.  It is in this sense, that Jesus would have us appreciate the wind – the wind as spirit – that cannot be seen but whose effects are so readily apparent – the wind-tossed waves across a primordial sea, stirring the chemicals of life; the wind-shaped landscape of Patagonia where all the trees are bent toward a rising sun; the fluttering wings of a butterfly, sending tiny waves around the world; the chill wind of winter; the warm breeze of summer.  If we are to be born of the Spirit, we must be open to such stirrings, such intimations of God's Spirit. 
Richard Averbeck, an Old Testament scholar, using old gender stereotypes, puts it this way:
We need to take this biblical analogy seriously in both understanding the nature of God's Spirit and in welcoming and engaging with his work. Wind is a mysterious and powerful force. We cannot always predict what it is going to do, and it is not under our control. The same is true of God. We cannot always predict what he is going to do, and he is not under our control even if he has told us what he is going to do. He is God. We are not. All this is true also of the Spirit of God. However, although we cannot completely understand and control the Holy Spirit, we can draw upon his power. Using the analogy of a ship driven by the wind, we can "put up the sails" in our lives and thereby take advantage of the blowing of the Spirit in and through our lives. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit as long as we have our sails up.
It's Lent.  Put up your sails.  Keep them raised and open to the winds of inspiration that the Spirit sends our way.  Take time to reflect on these unexpected graces in our lives.  And give thanks – thanks for having been created, for being sustained, for being alive.
Might we begin by closing our eyes and concentrating mindfully, thankfully, on our breathing – on the animating Spirit of God – without which we would be unmoving, soulless lumps of clay…our breathing that some take for granted, but that others with COPD, emphysema, or, like myself, asthma, are acutely mindful.
Let's try it a few times.  Close your eyes.  Take in a deep breath.  Hold it a couple of seconds.  Exhale.  As you do, say a silent prayer: "Thank you!"
Once again.  Inhale.  Hold it.  Exhale.
One more time.

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