When we think about our spiritual lives – when we think about our relationship with God – each one of us will have special moments that stand out for us. Each of us will be able to think back to particular moments when we felt a special closeness to God. Moments when we were particularly aware of God’s love; moments when we were particularly aware of Jesus’ voice calling us; moments when we were particularly aware of the Spirit’s gracious moving in our hearts and lives.
I’d like to begin this morning by describing one of these moments that I have experienced.
I was on a retreat with a group of students from Regent College, more than 15 years ago. This retreat was taking place on Galiano Island, which is one of the Gulf Islands just off of Vancouver Island. And as a part of this retreat, a small group of us rowed from Galiano Island over to uninhabited Wallace Island. The rowboat we used was actually a replica of an 18th century Spanish boat. As you may know, the first European explorers around Vancouver Island were Spanish, and so this replica rowboat was a reflection of that European heritage.
In any case, about twelve of us rowed over to uninhabited Wallace Island. And when we got out of the boat, our professor sen each of us to find our own place on the island to sit and to pray and be silent and reflect. So I walked some ways through the thin forest and found a little spot looking westward out over the water. About 8 feet down below my feet there was the shifting and wavy salt water. I could see blue starfish clinging to the rocks under the waves. Up above me it was a sunny, near cloudless day. There was a breeze blowing in from the open channel that I was looking out over.
As I sat there in silence I could feel the wind on my skin and my face. In my ears there was the sound of the wind in the leaves and through the grass – the sound of water lapping against the rocks. The sun was warm on my face. Perhaps my deepest awareness in that moment, however, was of the wind – feeling it on my face and body; hearing it move in the grass and leaves around me. In my time of silence and reflection alone at the waters edge, I felt a deep sense of the God’s presence in wind and water and sea and starfish. I had a deep sense of the Spirit’s nearness to me – blessing me and touching me and renewing me.
That brief time on Wallace Island was an intimate experience, for me, of the presence of God – a profound experience of God’s Spirit with me in wind and water and touch and sound – the presence of God’s Spirit with and around my colleagues scattered for their own moments of silence and prayer on that island.
But now stepping back from that experience, here’s a question that would immediately be raised in our culture. A simple, but significant question: Was the Spirit of God really present with me there in the wind and in the beauty of creation? Is that even possible? Was I just fabricating that idea?
It’s safe to say that in our culture there would be profound doubt that God’s Spirit was with me there in the wind and sunshine and water. In our culture there would be profound doubt about any claim that God was present to me in the natural realities I experienced.
Now it would take a long time for us to answer how and why our culture has reached this point of skepticism – how and why our culture has reached this point of doubt about God’s presence in the natural world. In some sense this conclusion is actually the result of almost 800 years of cultural development. Ideas that began to take shape centuries ago have led by a meandering route to where we are today – have led to this place where we think that the natural world must be understood only in terms of itself; to this place where we think that the everything has a merely natural meaning; to this place where we think that the natural realm is utterly cut off from the heavenly or spiritual realm.
Let’s go back to my moment standing on the edge of Wallace Island. There I am looking out over a wide channel – the water splashing against the rocks below my feet – starfish moved across the face of rocks – the wind moved against my face and my skin. Thinking about this in terms of the common sense of our culture, what would we say was going on?
Well, maybe this is what we would say. The water splashing against the rocks sent vibrations through the air – my ears, with their fine membranes and picked up those vibrations, those sound waves, and transmitted them to my brainstem. And in that moment I experienced, I heard the splashing of water.
In terms of the wind, the sensory receptors in my skin were picking up the pressure and movement of air molecules – those sensory receptors on my skin then transmitted that pressure and movement through my nervous system to my brain. In that moment I was personally aware of the wind on me and around me.
All of these sensations I experienced there on Wallace Island may have been pleasant to me. I may have been very present to those sensations and that experience. All of this might have made me stop and think about what it means to be human – might have made me stop and think about what it means to be a creature aware of the world, and part of it.
But from the point of view of modern common sense – that’s it. From the point of view of modern common sense – that’s all that was going on. I’m a physical creature alive in a physical world – that’s it – full stop. Certainly we humans have sophisticated brains with which we can try to explain what we see, and explain what happens in the natural world – we can try to make sense of it. We can try to create meaning.
But modern common sense insists that all of this is just part of the closed natural world. In other words, God was not there with me. The Spirit was not present to me. The Spirit was not blessing me or speaking to me. It was just me, in a physical encounter with the world, with some friends not too far off on the island.
From this point of view, if there is a God – if there is a Holy Spirit– and that’s a big if in the modern world – then that God is only out there somewhere – in no way present in the creation with us. And what’s particularly interesting for us, and even troubling for us, is that our form of modern Protestantism has often given exactly same message. If God is present, God is not present to us through the created, natural world. If God is present, it is not by his Spirit blowing through the world. Rather, too often in our tradition God is only out there somewhere, removed from us, distant from us, looking down on us – not to be encountered her in wind and water and sunshine and starfish.
Against all of this – against 800 years of thought culminating in modern atheistic assumptions – against all of this the Christian tradition insists there is an intimate link between God and the creation that God gives. That doesn’t mean we believe the creation is somehow divine in itself. We aren’t saying that God is somehow confined to the natural world and can only be found there.
Yet there is a profound and intimate link between God and the creation that God gives as a gift. To be a part of the natural world – to be in touch with the natural world as we necessarily are – is in some sense to be in touch with God’s life and being. Of course there is always a lot more that will need to be said, but we can and should say that God comes to us in and with and around and under the creation God gives.
In these five weeks before I’m off on holidays, we are exploring the identity of the Holy Spirit; what the Holy Spirit does; what it means that the Spirit is alive in the church and in the world. And so we draw this morning’s conversation back around to the moving of the Spirit in the natural world. We read in the opening chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God, the Spirit of God, swept over the face of the waters.” The Spirit is there, hovering over the chaos that precedes giving and ordering of creation. But the Spirit isn’t only there as some brooding presence – the Spirit isn’t there only as spectator before the creation of the world.
In Psalm 104 we read a long litany of the ways in which God cares for the creatures of the natural world. And then in verse 30 we read these beautiful and remarkable words: “When you send forth your Spirit, the creatures are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”
Throughout the scriptures, the moving of the Spirit of God is associated with wind and with fire – associated with the natural world. The prophet Ezekiel has a grand vision of the wind of God coming in the wind from the four corners of the earth to restore and revive his people. At Pentecost, the Spirit comes in the form of something like wind and fire to bless and to fill the children of God. Before the birth of Jesus, the Spirit comes upon Mary in her humanity and her identity as a woman, giving the gift of the messiah in her body. At his baptism, the Spirit comes upon Jesus himself in the form of a bird – a dove – that descends to equip and to bless.
The Spirit is intimately related to the creation – brooding over the creation, giving the gift of life in creation, animating men and women through wind and breath and fire. The Spirit of God is a life-giving presence at work in the world, for the world.
A couple of weeks ago I read Joseph Boyden’s latest novel, The Orenda. It tells a particular story that is embedded within a wider 17th century conflict in North America – a conflict that saw the Huron people decimated by European diseases, and then defeated by the Iroquois. It seems to me that The Orenda has had wide appeal – it won CBC’s Canada Reads program – because it captures aboriginal life at a moment when Huron history may have gone in a very different direction – when that people’s history might have unfolded very differently, if only their European “guests” had taken a different and respectful approach to aboriginal peoples.
In any case, one of the main themes of the story is the difference between the spirituality of the Huron characters and the Christian faith of their Jesuit guest Christoph. Now I am not familiar enough with aboriginal spirituality to go into any detail here – nor do we have the time – but The Orenda portrays an aboriginal spirituality in which the natural world is alive with spirits – a spirituality which sees the great spirit coursing through the whole natural world. The Jesuit priest perceives many of the Huron practices as superstitious and misplaced – and in his engagement with his hosts he gives expression to the arrogant and colonial mindset that was commonplace among Europeans arriving here. For their part, the natives couldn’t get their minds around Christoph’s easy dismissal of their animated view of the natural world.
Now there are important and even decisive differences between Christian faith and traditional aboriginal spirituality. There are real differences between Christian spirituality and aboriginal spirituality. In past decades, and today, those differences are finally being explored in meaningful and respectful ways, in different institutions and communities across Canada. Today there is finally some possibility for the dialogue that was inconceivable to Europeans during their first decades and centuries in North America.
I raise all of this simply to say that in some ways a faithful, Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit – this understanding of God’s Spirit as giving life and sustaining life – this understanding of the Holy Spirit meeting us in wind and waves, in sunshine and starfish – this understanding of the Spirit as nourishing us and blessing us in and through the natural world – in some ways this understanding of God’s life among us by his Spirit is closer to traditional aboriginal spirituality than it is to the common sense of our modern, atheistic western culture.
In many ways, the trajectories of modern western culture have led us away from a right and faithful understanding of the life of God’s Spirit in the world. The Spirit is intimately related to the creation – brooding over the creation, giving the gift of life in creation, animating men and women through wind and breath and fire. The Spirit of God is a life-giving presence at work in the world, for the world.
As each of us dwells in the good creation of God – as we experience wind and trees, sunshine and cloudy skies – as we encounter rivers running and rain falling, birds calling and deer running, rocks imbedded in earth or tumbling down mountainside – as we dwell in the good creation of God, we have an invitation to see and to experience God’s Spirit, present in creation to bless and sustain and speak God’s word to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.