It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who’s ever been part of a congregation I’ve served as pastor, but when it comes to preaching/teaching Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, my “go-to” illustration will inevitably involve sailing. This realization hit me during our Pentecost Sunday worship this past week while talking about this very subject with the children of East Church, which involved showing them the wooden model sailboat I keep in my office; along with probably giving them far too much information as to the names of each sail and discussing how one steers such a vessel (although in my own defense, one of the kids did ask!). What I hoped to impart, however, was something about how the movement of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives is much like the wind that can move a sailboat across the water: mysterious, powerful and, when we’re ready and willing to let it take us where we should go, utterly amazing.
To feel the “rush of the wind” in this way is a glorious and, might I add, an intensely spiritual experience, and something I know a little bit about. I’ve been sailing since I was a teenager, mostly on the lake where our family’s camp is in northern Maine; though, thanks to friends and parishioners who share my passion I’ve had a few incredible opportunities over the years to sail the ocean waters of Penobscot and Casco Bays. With no disrespect to those “Blue Water Sailors,” however, I’ve always found ample challenge and great satisfaction in spending summer afternoons simply tacking up and down our own little pond.
Our lake is actually surrounded on all sides by hills and notches, and so the wind tends to be rather gusty; whipping down through the valleys and across the lake. So sometimes, quite literally, the wind just seems to come out of nowhere – it makes for great sailing, but the thing is, you have to pay attention (you can’t ever be “complacent” when sailing!), lest you be caught off guard, and you and your boat end up capsized (and yes, that has happened to me from time to time, but those are stories I’ll save for another blog post)!
There are times when those gusts of wind are so intense that the jib and mainsail lines pull on your hands and make them burn; and you feel the force of it push the boat both ahead and to the side. You hear the sound of the bow slicing through the waves, and once you’ve begun to pick up a bit of speed, the shudder of the bilge boards below you. You can’t help but feel the sheer power of it; and not just in your arms that have grown tense and tired as you’ve worked to trim the sails, so to harness the wind to its best advantage; nor even across your back and shoulders as you’ve leaned out over the high side of the boat to keep it from heeling over too far. In that moment of perfect sailing, it’s almost like your whole body has been picked up and carried by some invisible force! You want to yell – and trust me, you do (!) – but mostly, you just keep focusing on the task at hand, doing what you have to do so that the wind will take you where it will. In that moment, you really do feel caught up by the rush of the wind!
Then, of course, there’s the other side of lake sailing, and that’s when the wind dies; when you’re out on the lake and there doesn’t seem to be a breath of breeze in the air! When that happens, you either start paddling or you simply sit and wait… for the wind to return. Over the years, Lisa and I have done a fair amount of waiting whilst sailing upon glassy waters sometimes for hours at a stretch, and usually at the other end of the lake and far from home!
But here’s what sometimes happens on days like that: you think there’s nothing, and yet you look up and see that the sails have begun to move; first they flutter and “luff,” then they begin, ever so slowly and gently, to billow out. Then you look down at the lake and see that your boat is just beginning to cut through the mirror image of the water. It’s barely perceptible, but you are moving, and there is a breeze at work! Just a little breath of hope, but I can vouch for the fact that being caught up in those little wisps of air can bring you home in a way that’s every bit as incredible as the rushes of wind you experience on a gusty afternoon.
Two different kinds of experiences but the same wind; two bursts of power from the same source moving us in a single direction. A mighty wind, and a gentle breeze; which actually, when you think about it, is the way of the Holy Spirit; God coming to us both on the rush of a mighty wind and the breath of a single breeze.
During this season of Pentecost we celebrate that God’s Spirit comes with creative and renewing power, and that the wind of that Spirit continues to blow in and through our lives. Even today, God comes to us with the power of a gale force wind, stirring and lifting us up in one, incredible moment, making us part of his own powerful presence of love. And yet, at other times, God also comes to us so quietly that at times it seems almost imperceptible, as unnoticed yet as intimate as breathing itself; the realization that that we are embraced, sheltered and lifted up in love, and so often moved along pathways we weren’t anticipating! But that’s what happens when we’ve been caught up by the gift of the Holy Spirit, coming in power and bringing peace.
It’s a gift, this Spirit, one that’s “free as a breeze,” as it were; a gift given to you and me in divine love. The best thing we can do in light of such an incredible gift is simply to open ourselves to receive it with gladness and win great anticipation for what God wants to do with it in and through our lives.
Who knows how the wind will blow today; can we even imagine how we might get caught up in its blowing? What do you think God wants to do next, and where will the wind of God’s inspiration lead us?
Who knows for sure, except for God alone? One thing we know for sure, however; the journey will be amazing if only we have the courage to raise our sails and follow where the wind blows!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry