John 3:1-21 Wind & Spirit
Reflection by Mart the Rev
Last week Anne and I had a lovely weekend off with our daughter Hana, Will, her husband, and of course, with the star of the show, Mr Finn.
Mr Finn is seven months old this week. A lot seems to happen in his development in a very short space of time. The highlights of the week since we left have been as follows: blowing raspberries for hours on end drenching his clothing in saliva, his first tooth poking through, rolling wherever he wants to across the floor (and in the bath where he doesn’t want to), and, eating vegetables twice a day which he particularly loves.
I photographed him and Hana as we were saying our goodbyes and Finn was full of laughter. The first photograph gives no indication why. He was just roaring his head off. The second photograph tells the full story – the wind was howling. Wellington was doing its windy thing, which was a matter of no comfort to people about to board a plane!
The wind. How long since we revelled on the wonder of it? I was pleased to capture one of those moments in Finn’s little life where he celebrated the sensation and wonder of the wind. He rejoiced in it without the hindrance of either familiarity or superiority. Familiarity breeds contempt: it is rare for most of us to experience something entirely new, thus we have to work all the harder to touch base with wonder. Superiority: it is too easy for us to take the little things for granted when our day to day has become dominated by our attempts to control every minute. Unfamiliarity and humility are features of almost all of Finn’s days… he approaches his days in awe and delight…he is a completely unqualified teacher, but here he is teaching if we are open!
The wind. Eugene Peterson tells a story of John Muir an explorer in the late 19th century. Peterson describes him as a ‘worshipful explorer’. Muir tramped up and down the west of the North American continent observing, reporting, praising and experiencing – he entered into whatever he found in his travels with childlike delight and mature reverence. At one period in 1874, Muir visited a friend who had a cabin snug in a valley in the Sierra Mountains – a place from which to venture into the wilderness and then return for a comforting cup of tea. One December day a storm moved in from the Pacific – a fierce storm that bent the junipers, pines and fir trees as if they were only blades of grass. It was for just such times that this cabin had been built: cosy protection from the harsh elements. It is easy to imagine Muir and his host wrapped up in sheepskins, safe and secure with a fire blazing. But Muir doesn’t fit into such pictures. Instead of staying in the cosiness of the cabin, Muir strode out of the cabin into the storm. He climbed a high ridge, picked a giant Douglas fir as high as he could go, tied himself to the tree, and rode out the storm lashed by the wind, holding on for dear life, relishing the weather – taking it all in – its rich sensuality, and its primal energy.
The wind. There would be no Canterbury plains if the wind didn’t blow from the west bringing deluges to erode the mountains of the main divide. I watched a documentary about the geological formation of Aotearoa and it claimed that if those mountains hadn’t been eroded they would have soared much higher than Everest – maybe even stretching up into the stratosphere.
The wind. Our forebears, be they Pacifica, Asian or European, would never have got here when they did without the wind. Can you imagine the European explorers rowing their way around the world?
The wind. Cooling us in summer. Chilling us in winter.
The wind. Ruach – as in ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the 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.’ [Gen 1:1-2] Pneuma – as in ‘suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house…’ [Acts 2:2]
The wind. ‘The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.’ [Job 33:4]
The wind. Lord, Holy Spirit, You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks, Inside and outside the fences, You blow where you wish to blow. [excerpt from Song to the Holy Spirit by James K. Baxter]
The wind. ‘Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night… “Very truly, I tell you,” said Jesus, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”’ [John 3:1-9]
It is so adult to ask ‘how can these things be?’ It is so cerebral. It is so adult to ask ‘how can these things be?’ that we either have long stopped asking, or we ask in a tone of disbelief. We need characters like Mr Finn and crazy old John Muir to remind us that the things we have categorised as ordinary things to explain away, or complain about, or shut ourselves away from, are also things to delight and awe us.
I’m thinking about how we do church. Does the wind of God get to blow where it chooses? Do we revel in the wonder of it? Doing things ‘decently and in order’ was a mantra in the Presbyterian Church I grew up in. I wonder if a way too much weight has been applied to that little extraction from 1 Corinthians 14:40. Did the apostle Paul really intend for the church to squash imagination and daring? The phrase was often used to neutralise enthusiasm and innovation. It was always spoken by old men of the church. It was the phrase used to squash debate. It was the phrase used by the kind of person who likes to stick a pin in someone else’s balloon. Actually, if you read the preceding verse in his letter, Paul is encourages something that would have given those old men, with their particular idea of decent and order, a hernia: Here is v39… ‘So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues…’
The wind. I wonder if we need to be vigilant to avoid becoming static in how we do church. Wind to blow out the cobwebs. Wind to speak new into the old. Wind to turn dreams into reality. Wind to carry this old ship to the horizon and beyond it and into the future.
Anne’s and my trip home on the plane from Wellington this week was kind of eventful. As Andrew Souness said when I was telling my story, ‘everyone has a Wellington airport story.’ Ours involved wind and rain and lightning and hail! I know it is a lovely idea to have big windows overlooking the tarmac but the view out the terminal window was disconcerting as we sat there eating some food before the flight. The rain was falling in horizontal sheets – maybe the rain wasn’t actually falling, maybe it had become a stream before it touched the ground. The planes on the tarmac were wobbling as if they were already flying in the turbulence. I wondered: can the wind blow so hard that the plane takes flight anyway? I wasn’t looking forward to the flight, but the boarding signal came and on we hopped anyway – trustingly. 20 minutes after the doors were closed the plane left the dock and slowly made its way up towards the runway. There were flashes of light out west. After 10 minutes poised on the runway the captain informed us that we would stay and wait for the lightning storm to pass. 20 minutes after that we headed back into the dock to refuel. 30 minutes after that it was safe enough for the ground crew to come out and do the refuelling. 20 minutes later the plane taxied to the runway and took off. Fortunately the worst of the storm had passed.
I don’t like flying. I don’t think we belong up there. But I love what flying enables. I love the views from up high – land and sea and clouds. I love the speed of getting from ‘a’ to ‘b’. I actually love the roar and power of the engines as the throttle is opened. I also find my reflecting on things at 20,000 or 30,000 feet to be quite sharp – literally heightened. I think about death a lot up there, but mostly I think about life. The altitude shifts my attitude towards gratitude.
The wind. If the church is not feeling buffeted, is it unwell? Is it experiencing spiritual deprivation? I don’t care for turbulence, I quite like a windless day. But it seems that our God likes to be closely aligned with wind, even identified by it. Ruach/Pneuma/Breath/Wind/Spirit all part of God’s story of engaging with the world. We are God-breathed creatures. We are to be a wind-buffeted Spirit-filled people. The theologians call the study of church ecclesiology – based on the Greek word ecclesia which means gathering. But there is no study of ecclesiology without also studying its partner pneumatology – pneuma, the Spirit of God… God’s creative love-filled turbulence at work in God’s creative love-filled church.
The wind. One of the things those well-meaning old men who wanted things decent and ordered didn’t reckon on was that the church of their generation would change so much, so quickly, despite their concern and, at times, resistance. The winds of change in society were already buffeting and they felt threatened. Maybe that was what was behind their posture before the approaching storm… stand strong church, stay staunch. But I felt that they couldn’t see that they had become kind of trapped in a wind-resistant cultural cage. They dressed very decently. Suit and tie. I kind of admired that. They gave to God and Sunday their best attitude and attire. But they also tried to put a straitjacket on God through a neat and tidy church where change was to be resisted. They seemed unmoved by the exiting of the generations coming after them who weren’t willing to fit the old wineskins. I don’t blame these men. I look at what they endured – The Great Depression and two world wars, and I understand their need for stability. But the church in its wind-formed essence seems to be required to be more flexible. ‘The wind blows where it wills,’ says Jesus to Nicodemus (who represented the stable old wise men of his generation), ‘and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.’
Occasionally I find myself wearing the shoes of a well-meaning old man. Honestly, some of the ways people out there do church and express the life of God with us drives me nuts! Sometimes I want to close the door to what is next and wrap up tight and hope it all passes. But when I think from that kind of position I know that I am seeing the wind as a threat or something to be endured. I do think there is another way to be ventured into… not to be intimidated by something different, not to be closed to something new, and not to be fearful of where the wind might be blowing us. It took the laughter-filled delight on the face of my grandson this week, as he was buffeted by gale-force Wellington winds, to help me to once again see the wind as friend, as helper, as gift, and teacher.