Anthony van Dyck, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Take a deep breath. Slowly let it out. Again. Take a deep breath. Slowly let it out. One more time. Take a deep breath. Slowly let it out.
In Genesis God forms a man out of the dust of earth and then breathes into him the breath of life. In the Old Testament the word for spirit, wind and breath is the same. ר֫וּחַ ruach. In the bible there is a deep connection between wind, breath and the spirit. We see that connection again in Ezekiel 17.
Ezekiel is led to a valley full of dry bones. (There is a short well-done YouTube video that depicts this. It can be found here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dafYxu8cQQ&t=3s ) The Lord asks Ezekiel if the bones can live. Ezekiel tells God, “You are the one that knows.” God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and tell them: “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus, says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Ezekiel prophesied to the bones and the bones came together, sinews and flesh came upon them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. Then the Lord told Ezekiel: “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Ezekiel prophesied as he was commanded, and the breath came into them and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
The people of Israel were saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” God tells Ezekiel to tell the people: “…I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
Take a deep breath. Slowly let it out. God has put his spirit within you. The Holy Spirit is a hard thing for us to understand. We can’t see it. We can’t touch it. It is like the wind. We can’t see the wind, but we can see what it does. We can see it move the leaves on the tress and the tall grain in a field.
The bible tells us the Spirit gives life – and makes us alive. The disciples were cowering in the upper room, afraid – until suddenly from heaven there came the sound like the rush of a violent wind and tongues as of fire resting on them filled them with the Holy Spirit and emboldened them to start speaking about Jesus.
There is something about the Holy Spirit’s presence that is beyond words. The bible moves to analogy and picture language. In Acts on Pentecost there is a sound like the rush of a violent wind. Tongues as of fire appear. In Ezekiel, dead dry bones coming together and are given life as breath comes into them. It is dramatic and other worldly. We know that in baptism we received the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Holy Spirit is a gift to us that continues to be at work in, for, and with us. So how is the Holy Spirit present for us in everyday life?
I just got back from the Saint Paul Area Synod’s annual synod assembly. A speaker at the assembly told a story that may help provide a picture one of the ways the Holy Spirit is at work.
Heidi Torgerson was the church-wide representative at the synod assembly. She is the Director for Global Services in the Global Mission unit. Heidi began ministry as a missionary in Mexico. This is her story. I will try to re-tell her story as accurately as I can from memory.
She said she had accepted a call to be a missionary in Mexico as a newly ordained pastor. Her confidence was building. Her Spanish was improving. She was figuring out how to get things done. She had visited a local market – enough times that some of the vendors had started to recognize her and greet her when she passed by their stalls.
After being in Mexico for only a week, she awoke one morning brimming with confidence and decided to set out for the market on her own. She navigated her way to the market without incident. She had purchased a few items, some eggs, and a few vegetables and decided that she would exit the market from the back rather than retracing her steps the way she had come in.
Only the back entrance emptied onto an outdoor extension of the market. The tangle of streets and alley was full of more venders where you could buy almost anything: a single cigarette from an open pack, a plastic food container that still had a stain in one corner, literally anything.
As she wandered, browsing the items for sale, it didn’t take long before she discovered that she was hopelessly lost. She decided she would have to accept that she may be needing to take quite a bit of time to find her way back home. It didn’t help that the street names were often in the indigenous language of Cuicatec rather than Spanish. She had not yet learned how to speak the street names.
Heidi realized that she may literally have to start asking directions every block in order to find her way home. As she rounded a corner, there was an older woman with grey hair in a thin braid sitting on a blanket selling small candies. Heidi said she must have looked as hopeless and confused as she felt, because the woman motioned for her to come over to her. As she started to ask for directions, the woman took her face in her hands and told her in Spanish, “My dear child, I will take you there.”
Heidi said that experience shaped her experience as a missionary in Mexico and has continued to shape her ministry. The love shown to her from this poor woman selling penny candies on the street has an indelible impression on her. Heidi said she still thinks about her and that experience often.
Was it not this Holy Spirit at work breathing love and life in the midst of confusion and hopelessness? Paul might have said Heidi’s being lost that day was part of the groaning in labor pains that we and all of creation experience. The world continues to be a place where we groan inwardly – longing for what we know could be better. Kilowea erupting in Hawaii – people still recovering from the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Houston last year – school shootings – deadly conflicts in Israel and Syria – health problems – relationship problems – the list goes on and on. If we try to base our hope only on what we see, we are likely to be disappointed. The tangle of problems in our world, like the maze of little streets and alleys that confronted Heidi – they expose our limits – open up our vulnerability – and defy our hope.
Paul reminds us that hope does not rest on what we can see, but rather on God. Who knew that a poor old woman selling penny candies on the street would turn out to be the one to guide Heidi home? Look at the street, who could see that?
Christian hope takes seriously all the groaning and labor pains, and yet has a positive outlook for the future, because God holds the future and is still active through the Holy Spirit. But that does not mean that we will never experience feeling weak. As your pastor, I feel weak as I seek to lead us in the midst of a rapidly changing culture. Or as I try to speak about something as hard to get our minds around as the Holy Spirit. Or when I am called to minister to those in the midst of devastating loss. What words can you say to someone who has just lost a child?
And yet, somehow the Spirit is at work and ministry happens.
When the magnitude of our weakness, hopelessness, grief of pain, leaves us without words, the Spirit prays for us from an intimate personal place – from the depths of our heart. There, in the deepest self which is perhaps moved only by a sigh, the Holy Spirit of Christ is sighing to and for us, speaking to God on our behalf. C. S. Lewis described his groaning struggle to come to terms with God when he lost his wife Joy to cancer. He writes in A Grief Observed:
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”
Take a deep breath. Slowly let it out. Peace, child. The spirit will guide you home.