(Odes of Solomon 6:1, Genesis 1:1-2, John 3:8)
Before I went to seminary I was living in Santa Fe, NM, which is a magical place, and a troubled place. Whenever I was feeling troubled there, I would go to a place where you could hear the music of the wind.
I worked downtown, within walking distance of the long narrow road that had become the art gallery alley. On that road was the studio of a couple of artists who made wind sculptures. They had this enclosed courtyard where you could sit. It was quiet, it was removed. This courtyard was presided over by these tall and stately sculptures that wheeled slowly in the wind. When you sat here, you soon discovered that the air hummed. It was often a low hum, just on the fringe of your awareness. But when the wind rose, the hum rose and would blossom into overtones that just shimmered. It was like the way sunlight plays on the surface of water when a breeze picks up. This music was from wind harps, or Aeolian harps, which are metal harps installed in the open air, that are crafted in such a way that it takes just a breeze to make the strings sing.
The effect is magical. These billows of shimmering overtones. However you were feeling when you walked into this courtyard – as I said I’d come here when I was feeling troubled – however you felt, this music would make you sit down and slow down and listen. The closer you listen to the music of these wind harps the more you absorb into it the more you begin to sense what’s beyond that music, the wind itself.
All we know of wind is its effects on other things, we hear the vibrations of strings, we feel the coolness on our skin, we see the billows and shimmerings of leaves. But the wind itself? It’s ineffable.
In the beginning, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deeps. In the beginning, the wind of God hovered over the surface of the waters.
The word for wind here is Ruach. And it is Ruach that the Creator blew into a being formed of clay – Adam – to bring that being to life. Ruach.
This Ruach, this Eternal Spirit, passes in and out of beings, in and out and out and out, beyond even the great winds high above the earth. No one owns their breath, no one captures the wind, so it is with the Eternal Spirit.
Jesus said, “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.”
“Born of the Spirit.” When Jesus says this about the wind and the Spirit, he’s in the midst of his famous teaching about being born again. Born again, an old self dies and a new being is born, which is something like the wind. A transformation of ourselves, a transformation beyond ourselves, we surrender ourselves to be transformed by the Eternal Spirit, that is like the wind and like the breath: it is ineffable, it comes and goes, moves in and out, it cannot be possessed, cannot be captured, and it flies beyond boundaries and off past the horizon.
Now, when we talk about the Holy Spirit from God, and we talk about surrendering ourselves to that spirit, we need to also talk about discernment. Discernment of what is the Holy Spirit and what isn’t. Just ’cause something sweeps us into some kind of ecstasy, just ’cause something feels spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good kinda spirit. Being in a football stadium with 10,000 people doing the wave, that can sweep us outside of ourselves, but you better believe that’s not the Holy Spirit. We can be in parades and rallies that can make us feel like we’re part of something that’s bigger than ourselves, that can feel like a religious experience, but it’s really all about human powers. False idols that we worship as gods – political power, money, fame, violence, what have you – they all have their false spirits that can sweep us up. False idols have false spirits. I’m sure it’s a rush to be on the trading floor in Wall Street, but that’s no reason to bow before that golden bull.
But the true Spirit, the Holy Spirit, can come to us at any time. It is in that Spirit that we live and move and have our being. So, how do we discern that it’s the Holy Spirit and not something else? The Quakers ask, “How do you know it’s the Spirit and not just indigestion?” When we feel the stirring of something that could be the Holy Spirit, there are a couple questions that are good to ask. Two, basically.
One: What is this coming from?
Two: What is this leading to?
What is this coming from? Honestly. Is this stirring coming from someplace just in me? Am I creating this? Or if it’s coming from outside of me, is it coming from another person and their charisma, or some human power or human agenda? If so, then let it pass by.
But if not, is this coming from someplace mysterious, is it a beaconing from someplace that’s beyond what I know? If so, then consider saying yes. But ask the next question:
What is this leading to? You may not know until you go with it for a bit. But another way to ask this question is, what kind of fruit will this bear?
Jesus said, “by your fruits you shall be known.” Religious people can talk a good game, or can have all kinds of impressive experiences that we like to talk about, but it is by our fruits that we shall be known. What kind of fruits are the fruits of the Spirit?
The Sermon on the Mount, in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7, this is the core of Jesus’ teaching: blessed are the humble, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Love your enemies, love your neighbors, love your God, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, be merciful, forgiving, don’t be led by anger or lust or vengeance or judgment, don’t hide your light, but let your light shine. These are good fruits, from the true Spirit. These are the marks of the Way of Jesus.
Fruits of a false kind of spirit lead to hate and judgment and pride and anxiety and ultimately disaster and tragedy.
After Jesus gave these teachings, he said in chapter 7, lots of people cry out “Lord this” and “Lord that,” but if you’re not doing what I’ve just been talking about and bearing these kinds of fruits, then all this “Lord this, Lord that” is a whole lot of hot air. So beware of that.
This is about discernment: is this hot air, or is this holy wind?
It is the holy wind, the Holy Spirit, that will move us beyond ourselves into becoming more merciful and more loving, more free from our wounds and our fears and our anxieties, more acquainted with God and committed to God. The more we say yes to this Holy Spirit, the deeper it works on us. We may discover that there are some ways praying and some times and some places where it’s easier to say yes. These are those magical places, where the wind harps dwell. I pray that this can be such a place for you and for all of us. Whether you’re feeling troubled or feeling inspired, I pray this can be place to settle and listen to the music of the wind, sing along or breathe quietly and be swept up and transformed.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered April 17, 2016 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)