The Elemental Spirits, III: Wind

HomeThe Elemental Spirits, III: Wind
January 26, 2020

The Elemental Spirits, III: Wind

Passage: Genesis 2:4–7; John 3:1–8

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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.
—John 3:8


For the ancient Greeks, Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water were not only the basic building blocks of everything we can touch and see in the universe but also demigods or quasi-divinities that helped Zeus govern the world. Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water were so important to the Greeks, practically and theologically, that they personified them. They gave them names.

We still do this today. You know that piercing blast that assaults you when you’re walking down one of the east-west Skyscraper Alleys in the Windy City during the Polar Vortex? It has a name. It’s called The Hawk. The fierce gale that heaved the 728-foot Edmund Fitzgerald to the bottom of Lake Superior in 1975 is called The Witch of November. That breeze is so terrifying she gets a name.

The Hebrews were arch-monotheists and didn’t deify anything but Yahweh, so for them Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water became images for the one true God.

The Pharisee named Nicodemus was what Thomas Wolfe would call a Master of the Universe. He is not only an attorney, but also a member of the Board of Trustees at the Jerusalem Temple and a Congressman for the Jews. He was Meg Revord; he was Jon Van Gorp, an Attorney/Trustee successful at everything he ever tried, but for Nicodemus, something is missing, and when he asks this new, controversial rabbi what’s wrong, Jesus is glad to tell him: “You must be born from above,” says Jesus. “You must be born of Water and the Spirit. The Wind bloweth where it listeth. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from and where it is going.”

You can see why Wind is the perfect symbol for divinity, can’t you? In all these ancient languages, Wind and Air and Breath and Spirit are virtually synonymous. The Hebrew word for Wind and Spirit and Breath is the guttural, onomatopoetic Ruach, way back in the throat–Ruach.

Genesis tells us that the Lord God shaped Adam from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath—the Ruach the breath of life. And Adam became a living being. The air in our lungs is the breath of God.

In Latin, Wind and Air and Spirit are—surprise!—Spiritus, from which we get English words like ‘respiration’ and ‘inspiration’ and ‘conspire’ and ‘conspiracy’. ‘To conspire’ is literally ‘to breathe together.’ In Greek it’s Pneuma, with a breathless, silent ‘P’ at the beginning, related to English words like ‘pneumatic tube’ or ‘pneumatic drill’, driven by air; or ‘pneumonia’, a disease of the lungs.

In these three antique languages, Wind or Breath or Air were more than metaphors for Spirit. Wind and Breath and Air ARE Spirit. To say Ruach or Pneuma or Spiritus was to say “God.”  “Wind” wasn’t a metaphor for the Spirit; “Wind” was “Spirit;” “Wind” was “God.”

Go ahead. Take a deep breath. You’ve just filled your lungs with God. For the ancients, God, God’s Spirit, was, like the air, the medium in which we lived and moved and breathed and had our being. Air is to human beings what water is to fish. GOD is to human beings what water is to fish. Air is invisible; we can’t see it; we’re just in it. If we could see the air, we could see nothing else.

You’ve heard the story of the kindergarten teacher who asked her class to draw a picture of anything they wanted. After she gave the assignment, she wandered around the room to see what her students were creating, and she stopped by one little girl’s desk and asked her what she was drawing. The little girl answered, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher said, “But, Sarah, nobody knows what God looks like.” The girl said, “They will in a minute.”

It was God who invisibly but tangibly rustled the tree branches, gently brushed your cheek on a sweltering summer day, danced with your first love’s golden hair at the beach and made it shine so splendidly in the sun you caught your breath in wonder, delivered the life-giving rains, swelled the sailor’s spinnaker, and sometimes wrecked his ship on the unforgiving rocks. Wind was Spirit, Wind was God. It’s not a bad way to think about it.

So Wind is an apt image for God because Wind or Air or Spirit is the invisible medium in which we live and move and breathe and have our being. Also, Wind is a clever Sculptor of the landscape. Almost all the contours and elevations of our topography were shaped by wind over eons of time, eroding rock away and shifting soil from mountains to valleys and back; a little bit from water and around here from glaciers, but mostly the Wind.

You notice this when you see the improbable rock formations of Arches and Canyonlands in Utah, or the towering sand mountains at Indiana Dunes or Sleeping Bear. All that sand was once solid rock. Over the eons, it was the Wind that relentlessly assaulted apparently invincible rock and pulverized it into piles of silicon micro-crystals 450 feet high at Sleeping Bear.

As the Wind sculpts the landscape, so the Holy Spirit sculpts your soul, if you let it. Who or what sculpts your character? Is it the world or the Spirit? Be careful about that. Ordinarily good people who let the group, or peer pressure, or the zeitgeist, or unworthy taskmasters shape their character can do horrible things. You ever let your fraternity brothers talk you into something stupid or mean? You ever let the mean girls at high school convince you to clique up and exclude the odd?

In the 1930's under the leadership of Adolph Hitler, a cheap, racist nationalism shaped a whole culture’s soul into a warped monstrosity, with tragic, appalling results, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer answered to a higher influence. The landscape of his character was sculpted by the Holy Spirit of God; to change the metaphor, he constantly sailed his tiny sloop toward the far shore of justice.

Platoon loyalty convinces young soldiers to stay silent about war crimes, in Iraq or in Vietnam, but not all of them. Some of them find that they answer to a higher influence and refuse to participate in this malice.

At My Lai in 1968, ordinary young Americans participated in or stood idly by and later kept silent about the massacre of an entire peasant village. Their souls were misshapen. But there was that pilot and his gunner who landed that helicopter right in the middle of the slaughter and stopped it and brought it to the light of day. I don’t know if those airmen followed the Holy Spirit of God, but their character was sculpted by the Wind of Righteousness. Who or what shapes your character?

So Air or Wind is an apt image for God because it is the invisible medium in which we live and move and breathe, and also because it sculpts the landscape, and lastly because it is given, not earned. You can’t earn it; you can only receive it. You can’t call it up or shout it down. The Holy Spirit is like Wind because it cannot be summoned. It is beyond our control. As Jesus himself famously put the point, “The Wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound of it, but no one knoweth from whence it comes or whither it goes” (John 3:8). Or to translate that King James language into modern idiom: The Wind blows where it goes.

Inspiration cannot be achieved; it just comes, or not. That’s why art and authorship and creativity and ingenuity and shrewd corporate problem-solving are such difficult pursuits; it’s because great ideas are mostly given, not earned.

Newton, bopped on the head by an apple: gravity. Darwin, playing with turtles and finches in the Galapagos: Origin of Species. Einstein, what would a beam of light look like if I were running beside it?: relativity. Bill Gates: folders, files, Windows, a trillion dollars. Steve Jobs: an elegant, minimalist device with one button: iPhone, iPod, iPad, iTunes, another trillion dollars.

When we were in Edinburgh we saw The Elephant House. It’s just a humble little pub, but it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Scotland because it’s the neighborhood Cheers where J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. She was so poor she was on public assistance, went to the Elephant House to escape her modest, chilly flat. When she finally found a publisher, they paid her an advance of $2,500. At her first public reading, only two people showed up. Bookstore employees had to help fill the empty seats. Now she’s a billionaire, the richest woman in the UK, more money than the Queen, though now that the Queen has to support two fewer adult but dependent grandchildren, maybe she’ll catch up.

Did you ever wonder where Hogwarts came from? How’d she get that genius idea? She says that she was on a train to London, and she was looking out at some cows in a pasture, and she just thought to herself, “A boy doesn’t know he’s a wizard; goes off to wizard school.” She does not know where that thought came from. “I think that idea was just floating along on that train looking for someone, and my mind was vacant enough, so it decided to zoom in there.”[1] Inspiration, great ideas, given not earned. The Wind blows where it goes.

Harry Emerson Fosdick says that on the coast of Maine a little boy asked an old sailor “Can you make the Wind blow where you want it to go?” The old man answered, “No, I can’t, young man.  But I know how to hoist a sail.”[2]

“The Wind bloweth where it listeth,” says Jesus. “No one knows from whence it comes or whither it goes.” You can’t call it up or shout it down. But you can be in the way. You can hoist a sail.

At any moment, a fresh breeze might flick your cheek. In any instant, you might find yourself ready to love your enemies, say no to the crowd, put a stop to some dishonor you can’t be a part of, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, mend the broken heart, love the unlovely, welcome home the wandering prodigal. At any instant, it could happen.

[1] Garrison Keillor, Writer’s Almanac, July 31, 2019.

[2] Harry Emerson Fosdick, Riverside Sermons (New York: Harper, 1958), p. 137.