Walking through the woods, I can’t feel any air moving — not the bite of a stinging winter gust, nor the refreshment of a summer breeze. But suddenly, my ears awaken to the sound of the wind high in the tree tops, shaking the branches and twirling the leaves. That particular noise has always prompted me to notice, to stop walking, stand still and listen. It feels like a message, like the Spirit’s way of calling me to be alert, to sense the holiness of all things, to remember that God is ever at work in nature and in the human heart.
I’m a big believer in the Spirit, actually. I don’t mean that to sound like hocus pocus. Marcus Borg proposes in “Speaking Christian” that: “…the word God does not refer to a being separate from the universe, but to a sacred presence all around us – a reality that is more than the space-time world of matter and energy, even as it is also present everywhere and permeates everything in the space-time world.” (page 65) I think of the Spirit as a pulse of God flowing through events and relationships, never forcing its way in, but working in those situations in which people allow for its possibility and welcome its guidance. I see the Spirit as one who heals and makes whole, one who gives power to overcome barriers, one who nudges toward creative new ways to move ahead.
As I studied the scripture texts assigned for the season of Epiphany this year, I noticed that the Spirit is a major character. The Spirit is definitely everywhere in today’s Gospel lesson. John the Baptist proclaims that Jesus will baptize not only with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. And Jesus, according to John, is all about letting the wind do its work. He is like the farmer who throws the grain in the air with a winnowing fork and lets the air currents separate the chaff from the grain. That’s how the Spirit works: naturally, elegantly, with subtle yet incredible power. Finally, as Jesus prays after he is baptized, the Spirit descends on him in bodily form, like a dove.
I’ve been reading the novel The Healing, by Johnathan Odell, which is set on a slave plantation in the pre civil war South. It is the story of two women whose lives intertwine. Granada, or Yewande, as her mother named her, is a young slave girl. As an infant a few days old, she was stolen from her mother’s arms, re-named by the mistress of the plantation and raised in the master’s house. Polly is a faith healer who sees the gift of healing in Granada and claims her as an apprentice. Polly tells Granada that the work of healing is about remembering.
As Granada nears womanhood, she begins to dream powerful dreams. One night, she dreams that she is in the river. “As the water courses over me, my body, my flesh and bone, seem to dissolve and flow with the current, and I finally understand that there was never a part of me that was unknown. No part unclaimed. The rushing of my blood, the pulsing in my heart, every breath I take is reaching back to long before. I have been thirsty for the water, and the water has thirsted for me. I rise up from the river and the water rains down my face and breasts like gentle kisses. Polly takes me by the shoulders and faces me upstream.
We are not alone anymore. I am now looking into the glistening eyes of [my mother,] the woman from whom I have been running. Her face glows like a dark sun, her hair woven into intricate plaits. The woman called Ella reaches out to me and puts her hand on my breast. ‘They are touching you and you are touching them,’ Polly says. ‘The water never forgets. It never dies. It rushes and whirls from the very mouth of God. Women are things of the river, creatures poured out onto the earth.’ And then my gaze is drawn to another woman, who has risen from the river upstream from Ella. I know her to be Bessie, my grandmother. And behind her, Yewande, Bessie’s mother, the one out of Africa, whose name I bear.
‘God spoke the Old Ones into this world, and [God] still must be speaking because we keep coming,’ Polly says. ‘Look!’ Polly points, her arm strong and straight above the water, the silken sleeve draping down to the river surface like the shimmering wing of a bird. ‘All the way back to Creation, you are being touched.’ When I look up, there are women as far as I can see, standing in the river one behind the other, generations going back to the beginning time, from the very womb of God.” (From The Healing, a novel by Johnathan Odell, p. 238-39)
Baptism is not just a churchy ritual. Through the work of the Spirit, it is a river that never forgets and a wind that ceaselessly stirs. When Yewande stands in the river, she at last understands the significance of the name her mother gave her before they were separated, her real name. Like Jesus, she refuses the inauthentic voices seeking to claim her life– the voices within and the voices all around. She hears and gives credence to the divine voice, “You are my child, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” She takes her rightful place in the chain of her ancestors. She remembers who she really is.
In Baptism, the Spirit casts a vision and issues a call. John’s baptism of water and his preaching of repentance filled the people with expectation. And to these peasant people who came to the river in need of food, work, healing from illness, and lives of dignity, John promised results. Jesus will not only baptize with water, he claimed, but with Spirit and Fire. The words and ways of this beloved one will not fall idle. They will actually change things. They will separate wheat from chaff, reality from delusion, They will make clear to the world what is bondage and what is freedom. John promised all this and then fell victim to Herod’s violent ways, foreshadowing Jesus’ suffering in the hands of Pilate.
Today, we have our own Herods and Pilates and Plantation Masters. We, too, are caught up in webs of lies and distorted reality. But the stories of Jesus and Yewande anchor us, speaking a deeper truth. The power of oppressive forces may seem to prevail, but cannot define us. The Spirit is a River that remembers and a Wind that stirs. The Spirit is hope, integrity and freedom.
Over the past few months, members of the Council committed to engage in daily prayer, in any manner of our choosing. At our meeting this week, we shared our experiences of this discipline. Some of us confessed to the barriers that got in the way of our prayer (myself included!). But what I found most interesting, most inspiring, is the diversity of ways in which people pray. One person had begun the habit of naming people at the end of the day, and placing those people in God’s hands before sleep. Another had chosen to take lunchtime walks, devoting the walks to prayers for whatever rose to the surface that day – he said he spent many lunchtimes thinking about the families in Newtown, CT. And finally, someone described using the the flight simulator on google earth – prayerfully surveying the wonder of our planet’s geography— mountains and oceans and deserts.
Jesus’ response to his own baptism is not to preach a sermon or a perform a miracle or launch a protest—it is to pray. And it is this prayer that evokes the bodily presence of the Spirit, that provides a visible, tangible sign of renewed hope for all creation. It is prayer that connects Jesus, and us, with the reality of a divine presence whose effects we can touch, taste and see. Prayer is powerful, more powerful than we know. As CS Lewis said, we pray not because it changes God, but because it changes us. We pray to invite the Spirit to help us to remember who we are. Amen.