Several things: approving the ministry candidacy of Dan Gibbens-Rickman along with the called charge conference on Aug. 17, the current sermon series on “The wisdom of sensuality” focusing on the bodily knowledge of God, and a podcast that a church member shared with me recently,
have brought to mind the glimmer of a memory of one of my answers given to a doctrinal question 11 years ago as part of my own process for preparation to be commissioned for ministry. I’ll share it with you:
- d) What is your conception of the activity of the Holy Spirit in personal faith, in the community of believers, and in responsible living in the world?
During the fall term of my last year of seminary, I had the opportunity to take a course called Pneumatology: The Quest for the Spirit in the Modern Age. This course, instructed by Dr. Philip Clayton, quickly became my favorite at CST. As the subtitle to the course indicates, our class explored various conceptualizations of Spirit that have been developed in Christianity and in other world religions. I was attracted to the Biblical witness of Spirit as the Breath/Wind of God and as the Wellspring of Life. I appreciate these particular metaphors for the Holy Spirit, or Ruach, because they celebrate God’s activity in the natural world in ways that we may at times overlook in our “search for God.” When I feel the breeze against my face or when I sit in front of a waterfall and take in the sound and sight of it, God’s Spirit is there!
The Breath of God imbues every created thing. We all have a deep, bodily relationship with our breath—it is so natural to us that our brain is wired to “relate” to our breath even when we lose consciousness. The Breath of God is inhaled and then it enters our lungs and into our bloodstream—it literally gives us life! Even as we are often not conscious of breathing, we always do, and though we’re not always conscious of God’s presence, God is always there.
In the John 3, Jesus speaks of the need to be “born of the Spirit” in order to “see what he is pointing to,” (The Message translation) which is the Reign of God. During my seminary career, the members of a group that I founded called “Community of Faith for Healing the Earth” dedicated a plaque that we placed at the foot of a cedar of Lebanon that existed on our campus. A retired faculty member that was instrumental in the landscape design of our campus had shared with our group that the tree was planted to remind future ministers that part of our task as ministers is to plant new possibilities in the world. As Solomon stripped the hills of Lebanon to build the Temple, our group wished to proclaim our duty to reforest the hills to build the sanctuary for God. On the plaque is a statement that “we believe ecological justice is a foundational element of the Basileia.” Peterson says that Jesus reiterates what he means by saying, “Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind hovering over the water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into new life—it is not possible to enter the kingdom.” Unless we open our eyes to the breath of God in the creation, we won’t fully wake up to the Breath of God in us. This is the Holy Spirit’s presence that leads to “responsible living in the world.”
The Holy Breath not only gives us life, it connects all of life together! Many of us have had “ah-hah” moments that many people describe as a great sense of interconnectedness. We circulate the Holy breath among us and in this circulation we share in God’s presence. The reign of God begins with the acknowledgement of this circulation and our common destiny. We are tied to creation in a very real and beautiful way. This same breath that “gives shape to the person within us” is connected to the breath within another person—it’s connected to the breath that stirs the trees and ocean—the same Breath within howling coyotes and singing nightingales. The time when we all know the Breath of God in us and are able to see that this breath of God is interwoven in the whole cosmos—I believe that living in this awareness is the Basileia—all the justice and peace in the world that comes with the Kingdom of God is rooted in this concept.
This interconnection is what I witnessed and then captured in this photograph. It was symbolized for me in the unification of earth and sky to create the completion of something we might expect—but there is a slight twist. This wind-swept tree’s foliage is the very cloud itself in the picture. I was walking through the mountains in central Wyoming, along some string of pearl glacial lakes, when I felt an intuitive tap on my shoulder. When I turned around—this is what I saw—and the world was crystal clear to me for a few brief moments.
There is a story about St. Francis coming upon a tree in the winter and shouting up to it, “Tell me of God!” According to legend, the tree immediately burst into bloom. Perhaps the miracle is not the actual bending of the laws of nature, but instead the recognition that Francis had that indeed that tree was in bloom—it was participating in the Breath of God and was on fire with the Shekinah of God’s presence. I was blessed to receive this vision and doubly blessed to have my camera around my neck so that I could preserve this encounter and be able to witness to its truth.
A recognition of the unity of the Divine Breath is also recognition of the violence that we are doing to God by our insistent and selfish pillaging of the natural world for our own gain. In many cultures past and present, a person who took from the natural world first thanked the Spirit that dwelled within that part of Creation. Whether it was a buffalo or a redwood tree that was about to be felled, a recognition of the deep connection that existed between “us” and “them” was first acknowledged.
It is idealistic to affirm our utter connection with this world without acknowledging that we have a lot of pain and suffering in this world as well as a great tingly sense of euphoric “connection.” I believe one reason the Holy Spirit is called “Paraclete,” or the “Comforter” by Jesus, is because the Spirit of God goes with us and experiences life’s cruelties with us. The Shekinah in Hebrew literature (which is a manifestation of the “Spirit of God”) is said to be God in transit with the Hebrew people. The Shekinah accompanies the Hebrews into exile in Babylon, and the Shekinah suffers with the people. We are never alone in this world! Even in the midst of our suffering, when we do not feel the utter excitement and vitality of a deep and profound connection with creation and our brothers and sisters. Even then, God is as close to us as our breath.
In my personal Bible study, I am in the middle of reading the book of Acts. In this book, the Holy Spirit is the guiding principle of the direction of the church. The apostles are people in the church who observe the stirrings of the Holy Spirit and decide how the body of believers should respond. Through Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the church broadens its scope and mission to include the Gentiles because Peter observes the Holy Spirit’s activity among them. The Holy Spirit is the vivifying presence of God in the world. As Ezekiel witnessed the Breath of God entering into the valley of dry bones and resuscitating the lifeless into life, I believe the Holy Breath continually gives life where we might never imagine. As a witness to the fantastic pulse of life given by the Holy Spirit, I am excited to explore God as “Pure Spirit” who is manifest to my senses in the Living Christ and in the Holy Breath of God.