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I learned my first Greek word the same day that I learned my first Hebrew word.
I was a sophomore in college, and recently enrolled in a course entitled, “The Holy Spirit and Christian Spirituality.” One day our professor, Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger, uttered those sacred words that students love to hear, “Let’s hold class outdoors today.”
He led us out into the center of Hope College’s campus, aptly called The Pine Grove, and shushed our happy chatter. He told us to stop there. We should listen, look, and feel. Respectively, the Greek and Hebrew words for spirit, used throughout scripture, are pneuma and ruah. They mean not only spirit, but commonly signify words like breath, and wind.
Standing there in the Pine Grove that day, many a religion major wanna-be could see, hear, and feel the breathing, sighing, moving wind of the Spirit of God. In those moments, I recognized the Spirit above me, whispering through pine needles, and I could feel the nearness of God around me, gently and persistently nudging my shoulder and caressing the skin of my face. My understanding of God’s presence in my life changed that day.
Wind became a demonstrable reminder of God, present and active in my life.
During a January retreat in my first year of seminary, I stood one evening on the shore of a frozen pond and watched the wind scamper across the surface of the ice. I could see the wind because it picked up light snow pellets and swirled them in tendrils and whirly-gigs. I thought about the Spirit hovering above the waters at creation. I saw God’s Spirit that night as beautiful creator.
Again beside the water, but this time at Lake Sacandaga during the summer, after campers had gone to bed, I listened to the lapping of the water at the shoreline as the wind blew ripples across the lake. I knew that in the stories we told that day, the miles we hiked, the crafts we constructed, the prayers uttered, and the songs sang, the Spirit was there, enlivening it all. I knew I was but a vessel, with God being poured out into the lives of children by way of story, song, and prayer.
But then, wind is not always gentle, or quiet, or even kind. In our old house, with the ancient, ill-fitting storm windows, the wind would rattle and shake things. It was a fierce, challenging chatter. In our new house, the wind can whistle with sudden and wild desperation around the corner by our bedroom window. From inside my homes, I have heard the wind cry and groan, wail and sigh in the most expressive ways. God knows so much about what we feel, and the Spirit gives voice.
Last March our puppy got the most severe case of diarrhea imaginable. During the middle of the night I would be awoken by her urgency to GET. OUT. SIDE.
If I was fortunate, I would remember to pull on a sweater as we raced down the stairs and out the kitchen door. Such a small, sick dog, she needed me there beside her, and I would stand in the driveway, hunched and shaking as the biting wind blew through me and cold tears streaked down my face at the icy blasts. I would gasp in the cold air, and shudder at the whipping force. My puppy’s fluffy fur was plastered flat against her face as she squatted. Oh, then, God’s presence was wild, an active force during our 3 AM winter potty breaks.
Just a few weeks back I worshipped in a pristine chapel nestled among the leafy green trees of the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. We were in a crowd of people newly known to each other from the weekend’s retreat, and we were singing worship songs together at the Sunday morning service. For me, there was that unique, somewhat displaced feeling of not being with my own familiar church community, but accompanied by the reassuring knowledge that all of us gathered were there for the one singular, common practice of worship.
I looked out the front windows and saw those solid, majestic mountains. I looked to my right and saw a gentle flutter of leaves at the lowest part of the trees beside the chapel. I could neither feel nor hear that wind, but its visible action was an affirmation of God’s presence and agreement with our unity of purpose across the congregation.
Most days my life feels anything but even-keel, and lately, my future feels if not unclear, at least hazy or gray. But, every day, in some way, the Spirit of God blows in and through my life. In every season, and in so many ways I am reminded that God made me, God gets me, and God is near to me.
Pneuma and ruah are words that act like evidence of God’s presence in the world and in my life. Sometimes this comforts me, and I suppose sometimes I am left gasping at God’s brazenness. More than anything, though, I am able to keep going every day, enlivened by the presence of God’s breathing, blowing Spirit.