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I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY SPIRIT
It's a hot, still evening in August and the sun has just gone down. You're sitting out on the back deck, damp with perspiration, trying to get cooled down. Then, apparently from nowhere, comes a gentle, cool breeze that feels wonderful as it floats over you. These are the times when my Aunt Margie would say, "Oooh, that's a delicious breeze."
A raging storm roars in from the Atlantic. Huge pounding waves tear into the shoreline, knocking over boats and ripping into beaches. The force of the storm knocks over palm trees like bowling pins. Shingles fly from rooftops. Everything that's loose goes flying through the air. When the storm dies down everything is changed.
You hold the one you love in a long, tight hug. You can feel the warmth of her breath against the back of your neck.
The blue-pale body of a young man is dragged to shore and a life guard instantly pulls open his mouth and covers it with his own. He breathes deeply into that lifeless corpse - again and again - pouring his breath into it. Eventually there is a cough, gag, loud choke, then the dead body begins to breathe again.
Breath. Wind. Spirit.
They're all invisible. You can't see a gentle summer breeze, but you can feel it. You can't see the raging storm, only the results of its fury. You can't see the warm breath that comforts, or that saves.
In both Greek and Hebrew the word for "spirit" is the same as for wind and breath. In Greek the word is "pneuma" and in Hebrew it is "ruach." Each one means wind, spirit, or breath.
So when the Old Testament or the New Testament says, "The Spirit of God," it can be translated Breath of God or Wind of God. The Holy Spirit may be the Holy Breath, or the Holy Wind.
At the very beginning of the creation story when there is nothing but a "formless void and darkness," Genesis 1 says, "a wind from God swept over the face of the waters." That could also be translated a breath from God swept over the face of the waters, or the spirit of God swept over the waters - to begin creation.
The Spirit of God gives life. In the second creation story in Genesis 2, the bible says, "Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being." It is the Spirit of God - the breath of God - that brings life. God creates human beings by breathing his Spirit into them. The breath of God gives life, and not just at the beginning of our lives. All along our journey it is God's Spirit that gives life.
Sometimes in our prayers we ask for the Spirit of God to touch our spirits and give us life again. God continues to give us life all through our days. God breathes into us life.
The Spirit of God gives us new life. When life is empty and hollow, God can come like a fresh gust of air and renew us. The dull, boring, hum drum gets a blast of air and breathes again. God's spirit gives life and gives new life. Dead bones breathe.
In our Old Testament reading today we heard about the valley of dead bones. Scattered on the ground are the skeletons of a people who used to be, who once lived. God asks Ezekiel, "Can these bones live?"
Was Ezekiel hedging when he answered, "O God, you know?" Then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and he does. The bones start to rattle and come together and then muscle and ligaments and tendons form. Skin covers the bodies, and they look human, but there's no life in them. God says, "Call to the spirit," and Ezekiel cries out to the spirit, and the dry bones come to life. They stand up and move. Because of the Spirit of God, the dead bones are people again, alive and active.
Maybe you've been through a stretch of time when you felt like nothing but a pile of dry bones. What you hoped for disappeared, what you worked so long for seemed to be falling apart, what you counted on let you down.
The Holy Spirit of God is hope. Over and over again when the situation of God's people seemed bleak, when they'd come to a dead end, the invisible spirit of God breathed new life. The Holy Spirit brought hope, strength, vitality and enthusiasm.
A church seems headed for extinction; the life has gone out of it. But then change happens - a new direction, new mission, new people to serve; and God's people come back to life.
The old, staid elitist downtown church begins to serve the people from the neighborhood. Then the quiet, echoing halls are filled with children's laughter as they go to tutoring classes. The cold, cavernous sanctuary comes alive with upbeat music and the sound of praising people. What were dry bones are people alive. God's Spirit brings new life.
Heidi Neumark is a Lutheran Pastor in the South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States Several years ago during Holy Week the congregation decided they would reenact the events of Jesus during that week for their community. They borrowed a donkey and had someone portray Jesus' triumphal entry as they walked along the streets, passing by dilapidated houses and boarded up businesses. As the donkey meandered along the congregation walked behind shouting, "Hosanna!" and waving palm branches.
They walked around the church building with this procession and when they got to the front door of the church, they found a street demonstration going on, protesting police brutality. So Jesus on the donkey and the crowds with palms shouting "Hosanna" ran into an angry crowd shaking their fists, shouting, and waving hand made placards. Someone seeing all this going on called the police and the event became even more exciting.
Finally, the church group made its way back into the sanctuary where they continued to act out Jesus' arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Then women, portraying those who came to Jesus' tomb, looked in to find it vacant and shouted, "He is risen!" They ran off to tell the other disciples.
The script then called for three members of the church to stand up and testify to the resurrection in their lives. Each one began by saying, "I know that he is alive because he is alive in me," and then telling how Jesus had made a difference in their lives. The first was Angie. "I know that he is alive," she said, "because he lives in me." She went on to tell her story of how she was abused as a child, fell into depression and alcoholism and became HIV-positive. But then one day she responded to the welcome of this church. She began to attend worship and then a little later to a Bible study class. Over time her life rose from the grave and she found new life. She was now in seminary studying to become a pastor. "I am now alive because of Jesus Christ, and I know I am a temple of the Holy Spirit."
The next church member stood up and said, "I know he is alive, because he is alive in me," and then he told the story of how God had changed his life. When he was finished the third church member stood recited the same opening words and told her story.
The script called for the passion play to move on but, not knowing that these people had been asked to speak, a former drug addict stood up and said, "I know he is alive, because he is alive in me..." and told of his years of drug use and the downward spiral of his life, and then the amazing renewal he found in Christ.
When he was finished another person stood, repeated the opening words, and told her story. And then another and another. Nothing could stop them from telling the good news of how God had moved in their lives. Each told a story of hopelessness, despair, being lost, and then the breath of God turning their lives around. It was a celebration of faith and a witness to the power of the Spirit of God to give life, and to give new life (1).
1. From Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), quoted in Thomas G. Long, Testimony:Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), pp 30-31.
© Richard J. Henderson 2009