25 June 2008

Winds of Change

In the Bible, and later Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is often compared to wind. A mighty rushing wind prepared Elijah to be in the presence of God while on Mt Horeb. Likewise, the sound of a mighty rushing wind filled the house of the apostles when the Holy Spirit was sent to them on Pentecost.

We carry that idea forward still today. We often use wind as a metaphor for God: We cannot see the wind, but we can see what it does, just like we cannot see God, but we can see what God does.

We are fascinated by the mysterious power of wind. We sing about it, we write about it, we talk about it. We study it and the weather patterns that cause it and are moved along by it. We know a great deal about it. We can tell you why the wind blows, why there are areas of different air pressure, and how the high pressure areas send wind to the lower pressure areas, and we can tell you that this mechanism is responsible for our weather patterns. We can tell you that for some reason, way up high in the sky, there is a "highway" of wind current, faster by far than the air around it, and that this current pulls along different weather systems.

But all of this knowledge is different that actually being in the wind. We've seen the guys on the Weather Channel getting knocked over by the wind, we've felt a cold, brutal wind blow down from the frozen Canadian wilderness, we've felt the oven-like wind through the Grand Canyon. We have also felt the calm, gentle breeze of a calm, gentle summer day. In the ancient Greek language, breath was the same word as wind, and we have also felt the close breath of our spouse sleeping next to us. Experiencing wind is something different that knowing all the information about wind.

For pilots, weather takes on an urgency it doesn't have on the ground. We study the weather, we check again and again the wind speed, we watch like hawks anything flapping in the breeze. For flying is wholly dependant on the weather. If the wind is too strong, I cannot fly my airplane well, perhaps not at all. If the wind is blowing in a certain direction, I will need to take off and land on a runway aligned with the wind. Even when airborne, I need to check the wind, monitor the wind, and make sure that I fly accordingly. The wind can blow me wildly off course, and I need to make constant adjustments to ensure that I end up where I want to be.

When I was learning to fly, I was taught about crosswinds. Crosswinds are generally any wind that is blowing across the path of the aircraft. My instructor took me up to about three thousand feet, and made me line up on a road that was going north and south. I was to hold the aircraft straight north along this road for as long as I could. So I pointed the nose of the airplane straight north, and followed the road. Immediately, I could see that we were drifting. I was not able to stay with the road. I was flying straight north, but the wind was blowing from the west, and blowing me to the west with it. What I needed to to, in order to stay along that north-south road, was to point the airplane into the wind slightly, to compensate for the crossing effect it had on the airplane.

God is like the wind. We can learn many facts about God, we can study theology and philosophy much like we study meteorology and weather. We can discuss endlessly the theological nuances and subtleties in different religions and ideas.

But all of this is different than experiencing God. Experiencing God is something that cannot nearly be described. It is a deeply moving experience that transcends rational thought, much the same way as learning about wind in school is vastly different than standing outside your hotel in Miami as Hurricane Whomever comes ashore.

What we fail to consider most often is what we will do with the experience. When I talk about wind as a pilot, I talk about what I'm going to do about it. Wind demands action of a pilot. When I experience a crosswind, I have to use different techniques than the ones I use when there is no crosswind. I have to point my airplane in a different direction to get to my destination. I have to land differently than I would otherwise.

We don't talk about God this way either. We talk about experiencing God, but usually the conversation just lingers there, as if the experience is the end goal. But that is not the case. When we experience God, we are asked to act. In the beginning of the Book of Acts, Jesus' earthly ministry has just ended, in a brutal and hope-crushing way. His disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, and are wondering what to do now. It seems as though the "rulers and powers" that Paul would speak of in Ephesians have won. The Rabbi is dead, and the leaders of society are concerned with flushing out the rest of his radical followers. Then something happens. The apostles hear a mighty rushing wind. They experience God, and are driven to action.

Learning about God is one thing.

Experiencing Him is completely different.

But the experience alone is not the goal. Just like a pilot flying in a crosswind, if we experience God and do not act on it, we will be blown off course.


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