As it ties in with this season of Pentecost and, in its own way, Pride-tide with its celebration during Pride month of how who we are is a gift of the creator God to the world, I wanted to share some notes I used for a Pentecost Bible study I led last year at the church I attend, the United Church of Chapel Hill. Also I think it speaks to a few huge issues we face in this moment: the ecological crisis which our leaders in the US have chosen to ignore by backing out on our agreements with other countries about the environment, the attempts to pull out of providing health care for all Americans, and also the recent violence done by terrorists in various parts of our world.
Unlike much of what I share, this is pretty rough and disorganized — very much notes! But I hope some of the thoughts included help you discover your own connection to the Spirit and your own sense of connectedness with others & all of of life.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
2 wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
3 you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
4 you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.
5 You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
6 You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
8 They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
9 You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15 and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.
24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
27 These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!
I want to welcome everybody here this week, as we continue our late spring Wednesday night series on getting to know the Holy Spirit, who often is the Person of the Trinity about whom we know least. Each week leading into Pentecost, the Sunday the church celebrates the gift of the Spirit to the church, we will look at a different Scripture that looks a little bit both at who the Spirit is and how we experience the Spirit in our lives.
Before we look into tonight’s Scripture does anyone remember anything that stands out about what we learned about the Holy Spirit last week? We also discussed some practices we can engage in to get to know this aspect of the Holy Spirit last week. Was anyone able to try one this week? How did it go?
We’ve got a pretty lengthy section of Scripture we are going to look at tonight – Psalm 104. I was wondering if we could each take turns reading a few verses at a time. As we do, let’s pay attention to where the Holy Spirit or God’s Spirit is described at work.
What stands out to you about this Psalm?
Where do we see the Holy Spirit at work? What is the Spirit doing?
Here we are told of the Spirit that God sends forth God’s Spirit and the earth and life on it is created. This psalm provides gives a rich beautiful description of the places and ways the Holy Spirit is at work in every living thing, giving it life. The Nicene Creed, an ancient Christian declaration of faith, describes the Holy Spirit as “the Lord and Giver of Life”, because of many texts like this one that connect the Spirit’s presence with God as God is present in all of nature, giving life to each creature.
The word we translate Spirit here, ruach in the Hebrew, is related to the words wind and breath. This connects this text with Genesis 1 where the Spirit is described in some translations alternately as like a wind blowing on the chaotic waters from which life is born in the beginning and as brooding over the lifeless earth in the beginning like a mother bird resting on her eggs, waiting them to hatch. Likewise Psalm 104 shows us when the Spirit blows over nature like wind or breath, nature comes to life, all its creatures fully flourishing. That connection is also important because ruach, the name for Spirit is feminine in Hebrew, just like the image of the Spirit as like a mother bird. This imagery of the Spirit as mother of living things is something that occurs again and again – with the Psalms talking about believers being placed under the wings of God like baby birds under their mother’s wings, the prophets likening God to a mother, and even in the New Testament when the Spirit appears over Jesus at his baptism like a mother dove brooding over a newly hatched chick. Jesus even draws on motherly image for the Spirit when he says “you must be born again” because he talks about being born of the Spirit, not just our earthly mothers. Wherever life is renewed the Spirit is present in a motherly way.
What are ways in which you have encountered God the Spirit as life-giver like the Psalm describes? How about renewing life when it seemed to be missing?
How does seeing God the Spirit as feminine or mothering relate to your own experience of God?
The heart of what the Spirit is pictured as doing is being life-giver. But this is more than just making creatures physically alive. It is also helping everything become full flourishing. What are ways the Spirit makes creatures full flourishing?
Notice the things the Spirit brings into the lives of Her creatures to help them flourish:
The Spirit gives all creatures space to stretch, grow, live, and move. This is beautifully pictured by God stretching out the sky like a tent, the earth like a foundation, and placing the elements and sky like pillars. The air, the land, the water, even the trees all end up becoming elsewhere in the Psalm the space for living creatures to flourish and grow.
Some theologians consider this making room the key way in which God makes live happen. Instead of thinking of God up there, high above us, somewhere in the sky, creating everything out of nothing rather like this Psalm these theologians describe God as present with, in, and under everything, so God is all about us and within us. They picture God’s creating as God making room in God’s self – like a mother making room in her body for their child to conceive, grow, be born. And so it is in God we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17) and there is never a place in which God is not (Psalm 139). It is also why experiencing God’s presence is described in the Psalms as finding a broad place in which there is no cramping (Ps. 18:19).
What does it mean in our lives that the Spirit is God as God gives us space to stretch, grow, live, and move? What might it mean to our relationships to others and even other creatures that the Spirit does this? How can we participate with the Spirit in the work of making room for other people and other creatures to stretch, grow, live, and move?
The Spirit gives all creatures sustenance, enough food and water from God’s hand to thrive. What might it mean that the Spirit does this for us personally? What might it mean that the Spirit can be found in this being provided for other people? For other living things?
An article in Huffington Post makes an important point: “Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day — most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land — can’t afford to buy this food.
“In reality, the bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.”
So if the Holy Spirit produces enough sustenance to provide for all who live, but some die in poverty famished, another way we see the Spirit is we see the Spirit as present in people and communities as they address the inequities in society that keep some going without what they need while others grow unhealthy from over-abundance.
What does it mean to you that the Spirit is God as we encounter God giving us sustenance, nourishment for our lives and for the lives of other living things? Are there people or situations where you’ve seen the Spirit do this? How can we participate with the Spirit in this work of giving sustenance?
The Spirit draws us into a deeper sense of our interconnectedness
One of the key themes of the Psalm here is how all the parts of nature God births into the world through the Spirit are interconnected. The space of sky, earth, the waters, become the places in which life thrives. The plants so poetically described as growing are aided in growing by the wind, earth, heat and light from fire and sun. Those plants and the waters nourish animals, which also sometimes find sustenance in each other.
Unlike Genesis 2, which puts human beings as the center of this web of life, here God as God plays with Leviathan is the center-piece of nature. We are placed firmly within nature, as but one part of a great web of life. The Spirit is like the thread that connects all creatures including rocks, plants, animals, and even people.
This interconnectedness of life is beautifully pictured by Sufi poet Rumi when he writes:
“I spent millons of years in the world
of inorganic things
as a star, as a rock…
Then I died and became a plant–
Forgetting my former existence
because of its otherness
Then I died and became an animal–
Forgetting my life as a plant
except for inclinations in the season
of spring and sweet herbs–
like the inclination of babes
toward their mother’s breast
Then I died and became a human
My intelligence ripened, awakening
from greed and self-seeking
to become wise and knowing
I behold a hundred thousand
intelligences most marvelous
and remember my former states
And when I die again
I will soar past the angels
to places I cannot imagine…”
Ultimately Psalm 104 joins Rumi in reminding us that all of life is of a piece.
In our society, often we are very atomistic, imagining ourselves as able to live most by being autonomous, pulling ourselves up by our boot-straps. But Psalm 104 paints a different picture. We find true life as we are able to find ourselves as connected in a web of community – whether the community of nature or family, society, church. Ultimately without our relationships with the earth, with other animals, with plants, with nature, we would not be able to stay alive let alone thrive.
Its message mirrors that of Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King:
“A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are. A person is entitled to a stable community life, and the first of these communities is the family.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Not recognizing our interconnectedness is a part of where we get our environmental problems & our social ills.
What ways have you experienced the Spirit helping people discover their interconnectedness with each other or with nature? What are ways you have or can participate in this work of the Spirit?
A final part I see is:
The Holy Spirit ushers in full life by inviting creatures to play, joy, and pleasure
Psalm 104 depicts this by imagining God as present in the Spirit frolicking together with the Leviathan. The Leviathan is some kind of sea monster – we aren’t sure if it is viewed as some kind of dragon, a giant kraken, a giant crocodile or alligator. It was sort of like the first Godzilla. In the ancient world, including some other texts of Scripture, it was pictured as a symbol of all the forces working to drag the world back into chaos, death, and destruction with which the gods had to battle.
Instead of being a symbol of death and evil it is pictured as the largest and most powerful animal. In Hebrew this reads like God and the Leviathan have the relationship between pet owner and pet. The Leviathan was made for the purpose of God playing with this Leviathan. Joy, play, and wonder are the signs of being fully alive.
There is a sense of that joy, play, and wonder that a full life gives.
This is a big counter to the common picture of the Protestant work ethic, but is at the heart of the image of life the Bible depicts. In the Hebrew Scriptures, even God stops work one day out of 7 to enjoy what has been made and challenges Israel to regularly let the land rest while also not requiring people to work non-stop as slaves but have rest to enjoy life as well. Jesus models this by going alone to solitary places away from work and also through celebrating through parties in the community. Without embracing joy, play, pleasure, and wonder, we fail to fully experience life.
Where do you find these things? How have you experienced the Spirit helping you and others embrace joy, wonder, and play? How can you participate with the Spirit in helping others experience the Spirit’s gift of play, joy, and wonder?
Do you see any other things the Spirit brings that bring life here?
To conclude I invite you to share a way you have come to know the Spirit more clearly tonight, and then join me in praying together this prayer of St. Hildegard of Bingen to the Holy Spirit:
Prayer to the Holy Spirit (Hildegard of Bingen)
Holy Spirit , you animate all, move all, root all, forgive all, cleanse all,
erase all our past mistakes, and then put medicine on our wounds.
We praise you Spirit of incandescence for awakening and reawakening all creation.
Oh Spirit of fire, Paraclete, our Comforter,
You’re the Live in alive, the Be in every creature’s being,
the Breathe in every breath on earth.
Holy Life-Giver, Doctor of the desperate,
Healer of everyone broken past hope,
Medicine for all wounds,
Fire of love, Joy of hearts,
fragrant Strength, Sparkling Fountain,
in You we contemplate
how God goes looking for those who are lost
and reconciles those who are at odds with God
break our chains!
You bring people together.
You curl clouds, whirl winds,
send rain on rocks, sing in creeks,
and turn the lush earth green.
You teach those who listen,
breathing joy and wisdom into them.
We praise You for these gifts, Light-giver,
Sound of joy,
Wonder of being alive,
Hope of every person,
and our strongest Good. Amen.