The Untameable Breath of God

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd             Romans 8:14-27                       Jan. 28, 2018

Where is God in this crazy world? It’s no wonder that people are doubting the existence of God more than ever. Love seems more fleeting than ever. Or is it? We are addicted to bad news and the media knows it. We will read about disasters more attentively than we will read about kindness. The stories of kindness and love are still there, but the tragedies are what make the news and we lose sight of the love-bearers.

There may be another reason that God is going out of fashion. We in the first world have become too strong and self-reliant. We don’t need God anymore. The problem with this is that our self-reliance turns into myopic self-centeredness where we can no longer see into the eyes of our sisters and brothers—even with their pictures in the media. Last week, we listened to the Song of Faith’s definition of sin as “the delusion of unchecked progress and limitless growth that threatens our home, the earth.”  A denial of the existence of God may be a denial of our own limitations; a denial that there is something much bigger than any one of us—a denial of “Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love,” as our Song of Faith states.

Quite frankly, for me it is a relief that there is something, someone beyond us who can lovingly embrace our entire world. My hope lies in this belief. But where’s the evidence for this divine being? For me, the Holy Spirit is key. Process theology paints a picture of Holy Mystery, of God as Holy Other, who is constantly sending us impulses of love through the Holy Spirit. I call them Spirit-nudges. Have you ever had a sudden urge to do or say something that you later found out was a blessing? These urges may not be strong—they are usually more like a still, small voice niggling at the back of your conscience. They are easy to shove aside in order to keep to our schedule, but I’ve learned to listen to them. I don’t always follow them, mind you, much to my detriment. These are Spirit-nudges, where something, someone outside of myself, is drawing my attention to something I’ve missed. It’s no coincidence that the people who I’ve found are most perceptive to the needs of others are the ones who also have a regular spiritual practice of prayer. The Spirit nudges everyone, but we need to be open to receiving them.

I was visiting someone in the hospital who was dying. We had organized a 24 hour vigil for different people in our church to sit with this man, whose only family was our congregation. There were a few hours in the early morning that were not covered, so I popped in very early, just to check on him before returning later that day. He was sleeping and seemed to be quiet. I left, without saying a prayer, only to be stopped at the door by some gentle force. I turned around, puzzled, and walked backed to his bed. At that moment, his breathing began to change and so I told him that I wouldn’t be leaving after all and stayed beside him. I then offered a prayer and shortly after, he died. It was as if he needed a prayer to accompany him on his final journey and the Spirit gave me a significant nudge to keep me there.

I have found that I need to be centered and grounded to be receptive to these Spirit-nudges. If I am frantic or hurried, I don’t make the space to listen or attend to the Spirit. I remember being at St. Benedict’s for a 24-hour silent retreat, where I had no excuse to be in a hurry. I lost track of the time and was late for supper, so I was hurrying downstairs when I passed a sister and she gave me a stern look with a reprimand, “Slow down.” I am still haunted by visions of this sister continuing to remind me to slow down.

I had another vision decades ago, which I also link to the Spirit. This vision refers to the second part of our reading from the Song of Faith, in which the Spirit both inspires and challenges our reading of scripture. It reads, “The Spirit breathes revelatory power into scripture, bestowing upon it a unique and normative place in the life of the community.” In the United Church, we believe that scripture is human testimony to the experience of God. As such, it is holy and inspired. But scripture should never be confused with the infallible Word of God with a capital “W”, who is Christ Jesus. We sometimes say after our scripture reading, “This is testimony to the Word of God”. By Word, we are referring to Jesus Christ. Scripture, as human witness to the Word, is full of inconsistencies and should never be worshipped as God. This would be “bibliolotry”—setting up the Bible as an Idol. Only God is perfect. This leads us to the second sentence of the Song of Faith, which reads, “The Spirit judges us critically when we abuse scripture by interpreting it narrow-mindedly, using it as a tool of oppression, exclusion, or hatred.” We must remember that the literal interpretation of scripture was used to enforce slavery in the deep south.

This takes me to my vision. I was a student at a Southern Baptist seminary in the 1980s and was struggling with my own sexual orientation. How could God have created me with such feelings when I was trying so hard to follow Jesus? I looked over at my roommate one day, who was sitting on her bed reading the Bible. Suddenly I saw prison bars come crashing down between us. I was stunned and told her what I had just seen. As we talked, I realized that I was struggling with a narrow interpretation of scripture that had become a death-dealing prison for me. I believe that it was the Spirit of God who was helping me understand God’s much wider acceptance of humanity in all of its diversity, as God created us to be.

As the Song of Faith reads, “The Spirit challenges us to celebrate the holy not only in what is familiar, but also in that which seems foreign.” The Spirit is “creatively and redemptively active in the world.” This last phrase comes from a radical document on World Missions approved in 1966, which stated, in the exclusive language of the time, “God is creatively and redemptively at work in the religious life of all mankind.”[1] But this understanding that the Mission of God is larger than Christianity went back to the United Church’s inception in 1925, when it recognized God’s revelation in other faith traditions besides Christianity. And so we, in the United Church, believe that God, Holy Mystery, is much bigger than ourselves, than our own familiar world, than our church, than even our Christian faith.

The Holy Spirit is untameable, moving where She will, lending courage and inspiration for love in the most unlikely of places. Our call is to be still long enough to hear that still, small voice that nudges us to be love-bearers. As well, we are called to see with new eyes the breath of God in the unfamiliar, for God is not bound by creed nor faith.

[1] World Mission: Report of the Commission on World Mission, issued by the General Council of the United Church of Canada, November, 1966, p. 137.