Sunday, March 16, 2014

People of the Wind

The wind blows where it chooses… and so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

I was ordained a transitional deacon on a Saturday morning in June in the year 1987.  It is called “transitional” to distinguish those who will later be ordained to the priesthood from those who are ordained deacons for life by vocation or calling.  St. Paul’s, Akron, where the service took place, is a large church built in the Georgian style.  A good number of people participated in the service – two full choirs, readers, a preacher, presenters, the clergy of the church, clergy from the diocese, clergy from other area churches, both bishops of the diocese, and little old me.  We got ourselves organized on the walk in front of the church before the service began and the line stretched on and on and on. 

A storm was brewing.  As we waited for the procession to begin we could see it and hear it moving in quickly from the west.  We barely got inside before torrents of fury were unleashed.  It was warm that morning and because the church lacked air-conditioning its large windows were open to let it what earlier had been a gentle breeze.  But with the onset of the storm, fueled by much cooler air, that breeze transformed into powerful gusts of wind that whipped around to and fro – not only outside the church, but inside as well.  The air around us was moving and alive.  Some said it was the Holy Spirit coming to be present at the occasion, but I fretted it was God’s last ditch effort to put a stop to my ordination. 

The storm passed after a few minutes and that rushing of air inside the church subsided soon there after.  The ordination moved forward with the kind of quiet dignity and gentle reverence one comes to expect of an Episcopal Church service.  I actually don’t remember much about the service, but if I close my eyes I can still hear and feel the power of the wind rushing through the church.

I suspect that each of us here this morning has had an experience similar to that; most likely not at a church service, but somewhere, sometime, and perhaps many different times.  We know the feeling of stillness giving way to powerful movement, of calm giving way to energy, of lethargy becoming animated.  Jesus, in trying to describe life in the Spirit to Nicodemus, draws on the image of wind.  He suggests that we people of faith are to be animated, energized, and alive.  We are people of movement who are doing more than going through the motions.  Jesus told Nicodemus that the Spirit’s presence in one’s life brings about fundamental change, as if one was born for a second time.

I found myself reading recently a portion of an 18th century book titled Religious Affections written by the revivalist Jonathan Edwards.  He was a leading figure in the Great Awakening that took place in the 1730’s.  Edwards was convinced that a person’s natural state is to be inactive.  It is only when we are moved by what he called an ‘affection’ that we spring into action.  So for example, the affection of covetousness moves a person to seek worldly goods, the affection of ambition moves a person to seek glory, and the affection of lust moves a person to seek sensual delights. 

What intrigues me about Edward’s book is his thinking about religious affections – those things that are the causes of religious action.  He named ten:

1)  Holy Fear – trembling at the thought of God’s holiness.

2)  Hope – hoping in God’s person and in God’s promises.

3)  Love – the affection that rules our relationship with God as well as our neighbor.

4)  Hated – our intense response to sin and evil.

5)  Holy Desire – longing for God as “a thirsty deer pants for water” (Psalm 42:1)

6)  Joy – delighting in the Lord.

7)  Religious Sorrow – a brokenness of heart, which God will not despise.

8)  Gratitude – thankfulness expressed as praise to God.

9)  Compassion – demonstrating God’s mercy in our lives.

10)  Zeal – a passionate commitment to live out our faith in dynamic ways.

In his day Edwards contended with many clergy – including Anglicans – because he was convinced that true religion had to be more than a rational or intellectual affair.  He felt faith must emanate from the heart and that its expression must be “enthusiastic”: 

If we are not earnest in our religion, and if our wills and inclinations are not strongly exercised, than we are nothing.  The importance of religion is so great that no halfhearted exercise will suffice.  In nothing is the state of our heart so crucial as in religion, and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious.

He is describing life as being like a quaint, quiet worship service when if fact it should be like one where everyone is enveloped in a powerful rush of air.  Edwards describes it as having the external appearance of religion – its form – but either not knowing or denying its power.

And that I think this is what Jesus tried to communicate to Nicodemus.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus had mastered religion’s appearance and form, but knew little or nothing of its power.  He knew the affections as holy ideas, but not as an animating force in his life.  I give him credit because he recognized there was something different about how Jesus practiced the faith, and rather than condemn or attack him, he sought him out and asked honest questions.  And I sympathize with his confusion at Jesus’ answer.  “We people of the Spirit”, Jesus told him, “are people of the wind”.

I grew up in an Evangelical environment where as a youth I was encouraged to “give my life to Christ.”  I was encouraged to “come to Christ” through a conversion experience.  That event happened to me when I was in the ninth grade.  It was a powerful, life-changing moment that has been the foundational decision of my life.  And it was an experience that I encouraged others to seek for themselves. 

Now, decades later, I question some of the theology of this approach.  Salvation comes from the Lord, not from a conversion experience and the sacrament that points to this is Baptism.  I also question some of the psychology of this approach.  More than a little bit of it tends to be manipulative, especially when aimed at teenagers and young people.  But here is what I don’t question and what I do embrace about my own conversion… the passion and the power I received from it.  I am not a perfect person or a perfect Christian to be sure, but I am all in.  Religion for me is not appearance or form.  It is life itself.  I have been from that moment years ago a person of the wind energized at my best moments by what Edwards called religious affections.

People frequently ask me why some other church is doing so well.  Why are they growing?  Why are so many people going there?  What do they have that we don’t?  If I answer honestly I say I don’t know.  I don’t get to visit other churches in order to discern what they are doing that is working so well for them.  I suspect, however, that there is one single common trait they all share.  It is not contemporary music or great preaching or drop down video screens or casual clothes and coffee cups in the worship service.  The common thread is that each congregation has a significant number of people who are passionate about living out the Christian faith.  Each has many people who are being blow about by the wind. 

In Edward’s day there were many good and faithful church people who wanted nothing to do with what they called “enthusiasm” in religion.  They were comfortable with and confident in the external expression of religion and its form.  Faith being animated served no purpose at all for them.  But there were others who found that religion’s windy power made them new and energized believers.  And then there were some who knew they were missing out on something, but couldn’t name it.  These were people who, like Nicodemus, saw in the enthused something they lacked. 

The image of wind.  Imagine two kites.  One is leaning against a wall in a closed garage.  The other is soaring high above a beach, caught up in the persistent ocean breeze.  What is the difference between the two?  Both are kites, right?  Neither creates the wind, but one is caught up in it while the other is not.  That kite in the wind… it is living into the fullness of its intended being.  The one in the garage… not so much.  Which one are you more like? 

Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses… and so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”