Since the early days of our relationship, Katie and I have spent countless spring and summer weekends on Lake Martin in Alexander City, Alabama. Mornings usually begin with the sounds of clanking pans, the biting hiss of sizzling bacon, and the responsible on-and-off rush of the kitchen faucet as friends who are basically family clean breakfast dishes as they prepare. A few yards off the pier, fishing boats speed by with their morning’s catch, the yawning cool water hurriedly splitting from the edges of their jumping, misty bow to their frothing, growling stern, the wake rolling across the sun kissed surface where it meets the shore, lapping and sloshing against the edges of the dew covered bank. The deep breath of the first morning stretch intertwines with the comfortable warmth of baking cinnamon rolls and brewing coffee as their perfectly wed aromas swell into every corner of the house. All of this is a prelude to the midmorning cruise to a little forested cove on the other side of the lake, a slow ride along the edges and contours of the banks of the little reservoir of the Tallapoosa River that has been an escapist’s paradise for us for nearly a decade.
One Saturday morning as we drifted steadily toward the cove, I glanced off the starboard side of the boat and across the water to a little inlet just beyond our wake. Hovering along the line where the trees met the sky was a bald eagle out fishing for brunch. I didn’t even know that bald eagles came so far south, and I’d never imagined seeing one in the wild. It was only a moment, but it was awe-inspiring. I’ll never forget how cool and unexpected it was seeing that majestic (there really isn’t a better word) bird fluttering over the emerald surface, peering deep into the waters, seeing what my weak eyes could never see, hunting for a fish that I, as the world’s worst fisherman, could never hope to catch.
The Bible opens with this:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2 ESV).”
In the original Hebrew [let the reader note: I don’t speak or read ancient Hebrew. I only read and listen to theologians who do (primarily Tim Mackie of The Bible Project and Exploring My Strange Bible)] the word “Spirit” comes from the word “ruakh” (let the kh clear the back of your throat), which generally means “breath”, but can also be defined as the creative energy that gives life to and animates everything (think of the omnipresence of the breeze that causes the swaying of trees and grass). As Chapter 1 continues, God’s animating breath, His Spirit, proceeds from his lips in the form of words that bring everything out of a fluid, formless wasteland and introduces light that overcomes the dark chaotic abyss of pre-Creation existence. Prior to this God-breathed Creation, the author of Genesis says God’s ruakh (animating breath) hovered over the face of the pre-Creation waters. The Hebrew here is “rachaph” (clear your throat on the ch this time, and it means “to brood” or “flutter” and, of course, refers to the movements or behaviors of birds.
So, much like the eagle from the mid-morning boat ride, God’s animating breath fluttered over the primordial waters, and, transcending the image of the eagle, was released in bursts of creative speech that brought all somethingness out of dark nothingness.
As Christians, we believe this animating God-breath flows into and (ideally) out from us. This breath speaks to us and can speak through us. We call this God-breath the Holy Spirit. We believe that He is a part of the one God, but still plays His own individual, separate role apart from the other two members of the Trinity, the Father and the Son. That is all more than a little confusing, but I have experienced each together and separately, so I have to accept the truth of the doctrine of a Trinitarian God and move on.
That’s a lot of words, so let me get to the point.
How do we, as Christians who believe that this God we seek relationship with uses His animating energy to speak to and through us, hear what God wants us to hear in order to move in directions God wants us to move, and, by the power of His breath within us, bring new, Resurrection life to people and places swallowed whole by the formless void of death and evil that pervades the world as we know it?
As I was preparing to write this, I was drawn to this story about Elijah’s encounter with God in the wilderness after running for his life from Ahab and Jezebel and sinking into a deep depression:
“Then he was told, ‘Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. Godwill pass by.’
A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.
When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there. A quiet voice asked, ‘So Elijah, now tell me, what are you doing here?’ Elijah said it again, ‘I’ve been working my heart out for God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, because the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.’ (1 Kings 19:11-14 The Message)”
I identify with this so much, not only because I’ve been at the end of my rope a lot lately, but because every time I’ve heard God speak, it was in “a gentle and quiet whisper” and so often it’s in moments of desperation — when I feel completely forgotten and abandoned. And when I say I’ve heard God speak, I don’t mean audibly or even as an internal realization or epiphany or transcendent moment of enlightenment. I have experienced that, but I find that those moments are extremely rare.
Most often, when it feels like God has been far too silent, I find His voice again through the simple act of showing up. Most of the time God speaks when I’m immersed in community. It’s like the fluttering, whispering presence of the Holy Spirit shows up most often and most potently when I’m with other people. And not even just other Christians. It’s the strangest thing to me.
God’s Spirit breathes through the voices and presence of other people. He’s shown up through others ministering to and counseling me. He’s snuck out across my lips and fingertips when I’ve been given the opportunity to minister to and counsel others. He’s shown up in the kindness of meals being prepared for me when I couldn’t prepare meals for myself. He’s shown up when a meal needed to be provided by me. He shows up (the how of it still baffles me) when I’ve been given the opportunity to teach, and He shows up when I manage to let go of my pride long enough to be taught. He shows up in hugs I don’t want, prayers I find hard to accept, and encouragement I don’t feel worthy of. His echoes reverberate through the literary voices of those who gave us our scriptures. He shouts to us the songs that have been written about Him. He completely engulfs me when I’m mixed into the congregation and only mouthing the lyrics of the songs because the beauty of God’s church singing together is too powerful to miss. He overwhelms me when I’m standing in the choir and mouthing the words to the songs because if a sound comes out of my mouth I would completely fall apart in front of everyone. He’s there on date night when Katie and I plan for the future. He’s there when Florence and I dance together in the middle of the living room floor. He was there as we watched her take her first breath. He was there when we watched her grandmother breathe her last. So often is right there in the cracks of the everyday and seemingly mundane, always reaching out, always speaking.
One of the most astounding, paradoxical truths about this omnipotent, good God I’ve bet my life on is that He uses us, the most broken of vessels, to carry His animating presence. And more times than not, He finds it easiest and most useful to seep out through our most vulnerable spots, our cracks, our most broken places. We only have to open ourselves and allow whatever words He speaks to be heard and whatever movements He inspires to be taken.
In this crazy, hard, and, often-times, messed up life, God’s Spirit is fluttering just above the dark, potential-drenched surfaces of who we are, peering deep into what we’re capable of, seeing what our weak eyes could never see, hunting for and breathing into the fishermen we were all created to be in a world that’s desperate for love from one another, whispering the Voice from outside us that’s here to create new, Resurrection life within us and through us. Watch. Listen. Pray. Trust. Act. You, for all your brokenness and imperfection, are much desired. It might not feel like it sometimes, but God’s still there. He’s still speaking to you.