My husband Stuart is 3,904 miles away from me today. I know this because I am tracking him on the iPhone app Find My Friends. You might think this is controlling and I would agree with you. I like to think I have control over my life and tracking Stuart gives me that feeling. He left on Mother’s Day to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or the Way of St. James in northern Spain. It is a 500-mile trek and he wanted to walk alone, without distractions, to think and reflect on his life. I made a deal with him that he could do that if I could track him. In his first week, he lost his passport in the Madrid train station. This week, he fell and spent two days in the hospital getting stitched up. He apparently is now fine again but has to wait another week to get the bandages off his head in order to get a new passport picture. Providentially, his sister was within a short drive to Spain and picked him up. What did I do on the day that I got the text that he was in the hospital with a head injury? I rearranged our pantry, top to bottom, complete with sticky labels from A-Z. If I can’t control something 4,000 miles away, I will have mastery over my spices and cereals.
This week was a week when I have had at least three experiences talking to people with cancer. I listen to how shocking it is that your body can betray you, that you can have no idea of the mutiny that is taking place in your glands, bones or organs. The feeling that you thought these things happened to other people, but not to you. The question I am asked by those facing an unknown physical future is, “What can I do to make this go away? Is there a prayer we can pray or confession I can make that will heal me?” If only we can get God to listen to our case and heal us. The unspoken question is, what did I do to deserve this and what can I do to appease God so that He will make it go away. How can I be a chosen one?
Kate Bowler says that, “Control is a drug, and we are all hooked, whether or not we believe in the prosperity gospel’s assurance that we can master the future with our words and attitudes.” She talks about how the prosperity gospel gives us a message that it is up to us to change the compass needle of our fate. “They are addicted to self-rule and so am I,” she shares.
Control is very closely linked to certainty. We want to be certain of the outcome of our actions before we act. We need assurances that we have some control over the things that scare us.
If I can be certain of what caused my cancer, I can be cured. If I were certain that my children would grow up well, I could give up being a snow-plow parent. I were certain of my future after college, I could relax and enjoy the search for a job. If I were certain that Stuart is ok, I could stop rearranging my kitchen. If I were certain of love no matter what mistakes I have made, I could relinquish control.
That is why today’s text from John practically undoes me every time. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Most translations use Spirit instead of wind. The Spirit blows where it chooses. I feel uncomfortable and uncertain about this windy Spirit.
I want a Spirit who makes an appointment with me and tells me what the game plan is. I want a Spirit who shows up when I want it to, armed and ready for action. I want a Spirit who I can send to far-away places to get people out of the hospital and on their way safely. I want a Spirit who banishes cancer, saves every child and gives me some guarantees about life. But this Holy Spirit who blows “where it chooses and you can hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” makes me uncomfortable to say the least.
Nicodemus sounds certain about who Jesus is when he says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” He is keeping Jesus in the box he can understand yet Jesus is not just a teacher but the Messiah. Jesus tells him, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” Theologian Meda Stamper helps us understand this by writing, “Jesus shifts the conversation from the smallness of Nicodemus’ view to the largeness of life in God, from the signs on which Nicodemus and others base their hope to the invisible mystery of the Spirit/wind which can give him birth into the truth that he is missing.” This is a birth that we have experienced whether we recognized it or not.
As I talked to parishioners dealing with grief, cancer and uncertainty, I also heard moments of the wind blowing. A wordless moment of love, a feather that appeared in an impossible place and time leaving a residue of peace, a knowing that passes all understanding. Ineffable moments that rarely get shared because they are so powerful and intimate that the bearers are afraid they will be labeled crazy.
When I was chaplain in a nursing home, had a sharing day of strange coincidences, things that happened that we couldn’t say for certain were God sightings or not. What happened convinced me that if you make the space safe enough, you will hear the Spirit blowing. The first woman shared about walking home from 1st grade through a field when she felt a sense of love and caring enfold her. She was punished by her grandmother for telling tales. After that, the flood gates opened as people told of moments they felt they ‘knew’ that God existed, but they couldn’t express in words what had happened to them. They didn’t know where it came from or where it went, but they were sure something happened.
Karen Wright Marsh in her new book, Vintage Saints and Sinners, shares, “I am oddly hesitant…to speak about my raw, honest connection with God. I resonate with Søren Kierkegaard when he says, ‘My inwardness is too true for me to be able to talk about it.’”
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a God that we can’t predict or manipulate, one who is too big to comprehend and yet intimate enough to come to each one of us. When I was scared about what was happening with Stuart, I walked into the field near our house praying that he would be ok. Suddenly I noticed blinking lights in the fields—the June bugs (or Lightening bugs) had arrived. I felt a well of hope. If God can put a light in a bug, I can trust Him to be about his business without my giving him any orders.
Karen also shares a prayer that Kierkegaard said at times like these; “Father in heaven, help us never forget that you are love. This conviction will triumph in our hearts, even if the coming day brings inquietude, anxiety, fright or distress.”
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Spirit is saving the world, not condemning it nor us, and we can trust in that certainty without having to have everything else nailed down.