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In a postmodern world words and images and a new awareness of nature itself enliven the spiritual journey for those who know Christ and those who have yet to engage with God.
Spirit like water
Outside my window is a wooden fence. On wet winter mornings I wake to the steady drip of my overflowing gutter. One day, unable to sleep, I got up and went seeking the source of this noisy drip. I discovered that the gutter dripped onto my wooden fence. Climbing up, I saw a two centimetre hollow in the wood.
This is the power of water. A drop at a time, the hardness of our lives is eroded by the love of the Spirit of God.
The Bible has a number of images of Spirit as water. Nicodemus must be "born through water and the Holy Spirit"2 while in Isaiah and Joel, the Spirit is to be poured out on all. Like water, the Spirit is to immerse us in the grace of God.
The Spirit like water has also been a helpful image for Christian growth throughout church history. The early church cried:
Wash what is unclean
Water what is arid
Veni, Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit)
This ancient prayer reminds me of my barrenness and of my layers of dirt. Equally, the steady drip of water into my fence is a reminder that no matter how hard my heart and how deep my dirt, the Spirit can water me.
Go and pour yourself a glass of cold water.
Reflecting on all that is dry in your life and relationships
First drink half the glass
Then pour the rest out on some dry earth.
was travelling with a friend over summer. He has been badly burnt by fundamentalist Christianity. Now an adult, it was a chance for us to talk about our Christian pasts and what it meant to follow Jesus today.
We wound our way through the tight turns of a high country road. Rounding a corner, we plunged out on the broad expanse that is a South Island braided river plain. A feature of the South Island high country, braided rivers are usually more like a stream of small fingers that meander over a bed. Sometimes flooding up to a kilometre wide, streams of water entwine as they please, moving year by year. The banks contain the flow, but give wide opportunity to roam.
I wondered aloud to my friend if the braided river is another image of the Spirit as water. Is my spiritual life a braided river? Might my spiritual quest meander over this earthed New Zealand landscape, exploring and searching?
The streams of water spread and entwine, guided by the river banks. The Bible is a constant resource, the historical Jesus is an earthing Saviour, and the Spirit surrounds, guides and energises my exploration. My friend nodded, appreciated this very Kiwi insight into the Spirit as water.
My friend had a further insight. He reflected that the fingers of the braided rivers often flow back over old ground. So some of the insights from previous learning about the Spirit will come in useful down the track. Thus the Spirit as water is at work redeeming and reclaiming our past.
The Spirit as water comes as a biblical image of the excessive flow of God's grace. It is a reminder of God's steady persistence and the God-given freedom to search for the full flow of God.
Spirit like wind
Spirit as wind is also an important image in New Zealand spirituality. We are an island nation, and thus uniquely open to be shaped by the wind. Whether it's the Canterbury nor'wester howling through the trees, or the Northland cyclone driving campers home, the Spirit as wind can be an important Kiwi image.
The wind is unpredictable. In John 3: 7-8, the wind blows where it will. So will everyone born of the Spirit. It's a slightly disturbing image. Me, unpredictable? The church, blowing where it will?
In Hebrew the word for Spirit is ruach. It is the wind that howls down the desert wadis and drives sand thousands of miles. There is a raw, naked power to this Spirit. New Zealand poet James K Baxter wrote of the Holy Spirit
You blow like the wind
In a thousand paddocks
Inside and outside the fences
You blow where you wish to blow3
This image warns me of the dangers of domesticating my faith. It reminds me that I need to be disturbable. This gets harder as I age. My patterns and my habits, my friends and my career become more settled. The Spirit as wind reminds me at Pentecost of unpredictability.
Take a walk in the wind
Reflect on areas where you would like to see signs of fresh life.
Spirit like fire
Fire is most commonly linked to the birth of the church at Pentecost. "They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them."4 The neat thing is the way fire is for all. The barriers are down. Women and children are empowered.
Flames come in different shapes and sizes. What sort of flames were they? Fragile candle flames? Great gusts of wildfire, leaping from tinder-dry tree to tree? I wonder what sort of flames would have topped heads in Acts 2?
Fire can destroy. We have all seen images of the power of bush fires in Australia. Yet those who study nature tell us that this fire has been essential for new life in the outback. In a similar way, New Zealand Maori used to burn off bush, allowing new growth to emerge. The resulting unfurling fern fronds are a reminder of the close link between fire and new life.
Is this what John the Baptist means when he announces in Matthew 3:11 that Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire? A Holy Spirit of purity and of passion is essential to new life.
A further dimension of fire is the power of a spark. Thus James K Baxter wrote:
You are the kind fire who does not cease to burn
Consuming us with flames of love and peace
Drawing us out like sparks to set the world on fire5
As a kid I used to love poking a smouldering fire with a stick. Sparks would fly. Caught by the wind, these tiny pricks of light would race across the darkened night sky. At Pentecost I want God to poke my fire and the fire of my church family. I want the sparks to fly.
Light a candle
Enjoy the warmth
Reflect on how a small fire
Can start a bigger blaze.
Spirit as earth's healer
Christianity has had a troubled relationship with the earth. The breath of God (another link with Spirit as wind?) ensured that we as humans were created from dust. Yet as a consequence of the Fall, Christians have lived dislocated from the dust of the earth. We till a hard earth full of weeds.
In Christ, however, the journey of healing is not only for humans, but for the earth as well. As it says so wonderfully in The Message:
So spacious is Christ, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe people and things, animals and atoms get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood poured down from the cross.6
Christ died to integrate both people and creation. Creation and humanity are now plotted on a trajectory toward the new heaven and new earth of God.
In the book of Romans earth and Spirit groan, yearning that this journey will be completed.
The whole creation groans in labour pains
We too, who have the first fruits of the Spirit
Wait eagerly to be set free.7
Thus the current environmental degradation can be viewed as the earth groaning, reminding us of the distance yet to travel to enjoy God's new heaven and the new earth.
And so the pain of the earth becomes an echo of the intercession of the Spirit. Listening to our planet connects me with God. It reminds me of the brokenness of the human condition.
It causes me to wonder at the depths of the cross, at Jesus who in death commences the integration of God, human and planet. It calls me to participate in God's dream. Listening to the earth, reflecting on the Spirit as earth's healer, becomes a profound experience for me at Pentecost.
Take a walk in the garden
Roll some soil between your fingers
And reflect on all that can grow.
A final word
Jesus asks me to consider creation. I am enriched and challenged as I apply biblical images of wind, water, fire and earth's healer to the Spirit. Considering creation, as Jesus invited, has deepened and challenged my Christian journey.
Alongside such thinking I continue to treasure the Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus. "But if I do go away," says Jesus, "then I will send the Spirit."8 So the Spirit revealed in creation is always the Spirit of Jesus.
Jesus goes on to say that the Spirit gives Jesus glory, because the Spirit will take what Jesus says and tell it.9 Creation points us to the Spirit and the Spirit points us to Jesus.
This has been my journey to Pentecost. I have been enriched by Spirit as wind, as fire, as water, as earth's healer. In turn, at Pentecost:
May the Maker of water
And air and fire
Who walk the earth.10
HOW DO PEOPLE connect with our love for God outside our Sunday worship?
At Graceway Baptist Church we wrestled with this question through last year. So much effort goes into Sunday. What did it mean for us to offer our Christian spirituality beyond one hour a week?
One response was to place Spirit postcards in cafés around Auckland. These used the elemental symbols of creation — earth, wind, fire, and water — in relation to the Spirit. Each postcard offered Bible verse, a quote from Christian history and a spirituality exercise.
AS THE SPIRIT is active in the world, so we trusted the Spirit to engage with people as they attempted the exercises or read the Scriptures. The aim of the postcards was that anyone, anytime, anywhere, could pick up a Spirit postcard from a café and so connect with Christian spirituality.
The postcards were supported by a website, www.graceway.org.nz. This allowed people to continue to explore Christian spirituality. They could explore our exegesis of the Bible text or read more about the Christian history. They could download further spiritual and worship resources.
Pentecost celebrates the birth of the church and the Spirit pushing the church outside its four walls, into the street and marketplace. The Spirit postcards proved a helpful way for Christians to start spiritual conversations with their friends and saw unchurched visitors dropping by to partake of our Sunday spirituality.
I wish to thank Helen Bergin for a paper at Talking Theology, 2001, that provided the framework and the spark for this reflection.