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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Beyond the Blanket-Word 'Spirit'


It was in the course of an electoral synod (i.e. a synod in which we nominate someone to be a bishop) that I heard a speaker talk about a nominee’s faith, it went something like this:  “I asked (N) how he nourished his faith and he said ‘each day I try to fall in love with Jesus’.”  That is truly a beautiful answer, a beautiful thought.  Another candidate was quoted as saying simply ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’.    The effect of hearing these things is heart-warming; the name, the thought of Jesus draws us back into the heart of the great story and our way of thinking about the mystery of God is firmly framed by Jesus.

Now on the day of Pentecost there is a sense in which we (almost) stop speaking of Jesus and must instead speak of the Spirit.  In that moment we become more conscious of how we speak of Jesus because he has always been the way we comprehend and speak of God and humanity.  The humanity of Jesus so naturally and substantially frames our humanity and our world in relation to God, whereas the word Spirit does not. In fact mostly the term Spirit feels like a kind of blanket-word that covers a wide range of vague concepts and diverse experiences and phenomena; it is a cloudy word that is difficult to examine.

The thought of ‘Spirit’ is unsettling!  At their core the metaphors of wind (and fire) are images of power and unpredictability; a power that can take hold of us and change us, beyond our imagining – and certainly beyond our natural capacity; as with the disciples on the Day of Pentecost.  The other word associated with Spirit is ‘breath’ a most intimate and fundamental sign of life – in our breath is our essential reality, the mystery of life and the mystery of our origin.  The biblical words that express the spirit are the Hebrew ‘ruach’ that has at its root the meaning ‘air in motion’ and, similarly, the Greek root pneu that connects to both wind and breath.  The unsettling aspect is that Spirit, while so central to us is essentially beyond us and our control.

In the life of the Church, the Spirit is an unruly and untidy aspect of our faith.  Points of doctrine, matters of ethics and details of faith may all be contested as Spirit and Word are played against each other; an evolving Spirit-led faith against a certainty grounded in scripture.  When encountered this sort of tension is extremely painful and difficult to navigate.  Yet as the experience of  the Spirit ‘ignites’ the disciples at Pentecost, so the experience of the Spirit is always to draw us into an enlarged awareness of God; it may be a troubling and diverse experience – but that is part of the journey.  The Spirit moves us beyond false dualisms into the mystery that flows through all that is: we are made aware of  God beyond all our mental and spiritual constructions.  

Few writers have expressed this insight more concisely than James K Baxter in his poem ‘Song to the Holy Spirit’ (printed in the New Zealand Prayer Book in the order for Midday Prayer, p.157).  Through the enlarging vision of the first stanza and then in every stanza that follows, Baxter’s metaphors provide ever more images from the natural world to ground and enlarge the ways we think of God.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,
Inside and outside the fences,
You blow where you wish to blow.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the sun who shines on the little plant,
You warm him gently, you give him life,
You raise him up to become a tree with many leaves.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are as the mother eagle with her young,
Holding them in peace under your feathers.
On the highest mountain you have built your nest,
Above the valley, above the storms of the world,
Where no hunter ever comes.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the bright cloud in whom we hide,
In whom we know already that the battle has been won.
You bring us to our Brother Jesus
To rest our heads upon his shoulder.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the kind fire who does not cease to burn,
Consuming us with flames of love and peace,
Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.


Lord, Holy Spirit,
In the love of friends you are building a new house,
Heaven is with us when you are with us.
You are singing your song in the hearts of the poor.
Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to the Father.


The rustling of the olive trees speaks of the movement of the wind. The Greek work for spirit has the suggestion of breath or wind; the Hebrew word - Ruach - actually means the desert-wind, that powerful unseen force that sweeps across the face of the earth, none knows whence or whither. The wind - the Spirit - it bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest its voice, but thou knowest not whence it cometh and whither it goeth. But you can feel its breath on your face if, hearing it pass, you go out and stand in its course. So is everyone that is born of the Spirit. Don't ask for credentials. Don't wait till you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you, or its destination before you spread sail to it. It offers what you need; trust yourself to it.

-William Temple 1881-1944
Readings in John's Gospel
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