As we reflect on the presence and work of the Spirit during the season after Pentecost, this theme of the Holy Spirit as mothering bird is worth exploring. Though originally written as a followup to the Wild Goose Festival, the devotional below may help open some to this image of God the Holy Spirit.
your progressive redneck preacher,
What the Honk is Wild Goose?: Experiencing the Wild Liberating Spirit
I’ve been talking some about my experiences at Wild Goose, one of the biggest gatherings of progressive Christians in the south, as a way of helping people who could not make it have a taste of this experience.
One thing I’ve had a number of people ask me is, “What’s with the name? What’s Wild Goose?”
Its been so long since I first was exposed to the Wild Goose gathering that it is easy for me to forget what a very weird name, at first glance, this is for a Christian conference. When I first heard it, honestly it sounded like the name of a bar from a Western — sort of like “the Oxhead Saloon”. Originally at Shakori Hills with an onside farm with live animals, it also kind of sounded like tipping one’s hat to nature — like the many farms near Chapel Hill that mention Goats, Thistles, and pigs.
I found out quickly when looking into the festival, that in fact “Wild Goose” is an ancient Christian name for the Holy Spirit.
Many Christians remember that an image for the Holy Spirit in the Bible is that of a dove. We see this image most clearly in the baptism of Jesus, when as Jesus was baptized “the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” (Luke 3:22).
What most of us at least who, like me, grew up steeped in conservative evangelicalism don’t know is that this is this image is of the Holy Spirit as a mother hovering or brooding over Jesus. In part its an allusion to how in the creation story, when God speaks over the chaotic darkness that precedes life entering the world, we are told that the Spirit moves over the waters in Genesis 1. Depending on your translation that verse might say the Spirit hovered, fluttered, or brooded. That word translated as moved, fluttered, or brooded is the same word in Hebrew used to describe a mother bird as she broods by resting on her eggs, lovingly and patiently waiting for them to hatch and also for her action of hovering near her newborn chicks to guide and protect them from danger. This image of God the Holy Spirit as a mother dove brooding over the life she is patiently hatching into this world, and hovering near wings at the ready to envelope new hatched life, is one of the dominant images for God the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Notice how Psalm 91 beautifully uses this image for God:
‘Live under the protection
of God Most High
and stay in the shadow
of God All-Powerful.
2 Then you will say to the Lord,
“You are my fortress,
my place of safety;
you are my God,
and I trust you.”
3 The Lord will keep you safe
from secret traps
and deadly diseases.
4 He will spread his wings
and keep you secure.
His faithfulness is like
a shield or a city wall.[a]
5 You won’t need to worry
about dangers at night
or arrows during the day.
6 And you won’t fear diseases
that strike in the dark
or sudden disaster at noon.
7 You will not be harmed,
though thousands fall
all around you.
8 And with your own eyes
you will see
of the wicked.
9 The Lord Most High
is your fortress.
Run to him for safety,
10 and no terrible disasters
will strike you
or your home.
11 God will command his angels
to protect you
wherever you go.
12 They will carry you
in their arms,
and you won’t hurt your feet
on the stones.
13 You will overpower
the strongest lions
and the most deadly snakes.
14 The Lord says,
“If you love me
and truly know who I am,
I will rescue you
and keep you safe.
15 When you are in trouble,
call out to me.
I will answer and be there
to protect and honor you.
16 You will live a long life
and see my saving power.”’
The image of the Holy Spirit as Wild Goose is drawn on this image of the Holy Spirit as a mother bird caring for her young. The ancient Celtic Christians of Ireland however were drawn less to the image of a dove, but to the image of a mother goose to demonstrate two things.
First of all the fierceness of the Spirit’s protective love.
As a young person I used to go down to a particular lake by my house to watch the birds, and then later after I experienced God breaking into my life personally, to connect with God through prayer and meditation. One time I sat down at the lake doing this unknowingly close to a nest where a mother goose was brooding. Very quickly I had to turn tail and run. That goose attacked me head on. It ended up tearing up my slacks, ruining them with an amazing savagery of attack — and I literally left the lakeside bloodied by the goose.
Yet this fierceness also causes a mother goose to be willing to give up her own safety and body heat, to wrap the baby chicks in her own wings under her feathers so they can be safe both from the cold and predators. The following youtube videos beautifully picture mother birds doing this — all but one of which are mother geese:
They were also drawn to this image by the wildness of the Spirit. For many of us in staid churches with beautiful, intricate and predictable rituals, it is easy to forget this wildness. As someone who woke up to the reality of God through a campus club in high school spear-headed by charismatics, it is hard for me to forget that the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 was the bursting forth in the world of a wildness that cannot be tamed — a Spirit whose outpouring of signs was so wild that people began to ask each other “Are they drunk? Are we?”
This Spirit who cannot be tamed is alluded to in Jesus’ words in John 3 when he tells us the wind blows where she will, and so do all born of the Spirit. Liturgies, prayers, times of meditation, song services, rituals, communion, baptism, revival meetings — these are all just ways we set up to open ourselves the wild Spirit as She moves, blowing where She will. Yet the Holy Spirit cannot be contained by any of these rituals.
For me a verse that always beautifully pictures this is Joel 2, where God promises “After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves.” Like water splashing over us from a rising ocean wave, God promises that the wild Spirit will pour Herself over all kinds of people. This is a picture of wildness because this is the Spirit coming to all people, not just to people who are the right gender, the right class, the right education level, the right sexual orientation or race. The Spirit who blows where She will, and pours Herself over all kinds of people.
At Wild Goose I think this is a part of why there is this emphasis on tearing down walls that divide people, by giving space for people of all backgrounds to give voice to what the Spirit has placed in their hearts. There are areas where the gathering is not perfectly doing this which I may address later, but the clear desire and focus is allowing the wild Spirit to blow where She will unhindered.
This image of the Wild Goose Spirit as water that pours over us cannot but make me think of where Wild Goose was this year. We camped along the French Broad River. Throughout Scripture this image of water pouring over us, whether in rain, the seas, or a river, has come to be a key image for the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John Jesus envisions the Holy Spirit as river of living water that flows up from each of us to bring healing — and Revelation pictures the Holy Spirit as being that river of healing water flowing through the center of the heavenly Jerusalem.
The image of the wild Spirit of Christ as boundless river connects with another way people experience the Holy Spirit at Wild Goose — in interfaith encounter. In Scripture the Holy Spirit blows where she will, so throughout Scripture people outside the covenant, in what we would all other faiths experience the Spirit moving through them and speaking through them. In Genesis we see this in Melchizideck, the mysterious priest to whom Abram offers a tenth of his war booty. We see it in Jethro, Moses’ uncle who is a priest but not technically a descendant of Jacob. We see it in Job, who is praised as the most righteous man in his time in Scripture, yet it is fairly clearly not a Jew but an Edomite. We see it in even the Magi who come to Jesus’ birth to honor him — for the Magi was the name for Zoroastrian priests who were not Jewish or Christian but also worshippers of one God. These examples from Scripture show that the Spirit who blows through all creation is not bound by creed, ritual, or doctrine but at work in people of good faith throughout the world.
‘Meister Eckhart … says that ‘Divinity is an Underground river that no one can stop up and no one can dam up.’ There is one underground river — but there are many wells into that river: an African well, a Taoist well, a Buddhist well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, a goddess well, a Christian well, and aboriginal wells. Many wells but one river. To go down a well is to practice a tradition, but we make a grave mistake (an idolatrous one) if we confused the well itself with the flowing waters of the underground river. Many wells, one river …’ (p.4-5).
At Wild Goose we were invited this year to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is not bound by any one faith through a number of speakers and presenters. J. Dana Trent shared in a presentation about her book Saffron Cross about her marriage as a Baptist pastor to a Hindu monk, and what his faith taught her about God. Other speakers included Father Scott Elliot of the Lindisfarne Community who shared about ways in which Christians can learn from Buddhist practice in their own contemplative life. Other speakers I did not make also shared about insights from their Jewish and Buddhist faith backgrounds.
One river, many wells indeed.
As a celebration of this Wild Goose Spirit’s presence in our life, I want to conclude this blog by sharing a poem I wrote about this experience of God as life-giving river, as well as a few songs about this experience of the Holy Spirit.
This first song for me is a good description of the invitation I felt the Holy Spirit giving me this year at Wild Goose, an invitation She gives all of us.
Here is a poem I wrote about my experience of river as a metaphor for the Spirit:
River I ran to
Water flowing free between the twisting branches
To you I’d flee in my childhood
When the heat of yelling and threats, argument and fear,
Would raise and the air of home
Bubble and steam like a pressure cooker
About to blow
I’d run through the path of falling leaves
And let your voice bubbling up between the rocks
Wash away the tension
Cleanse off the filth of fear
As I watched your swirling eddies
All would stop
And I would know I was embraced
I remember many a day sitting before your banks
Coming to forget
The fear, the angst, the pain
The terror that stalked me by day
Coming to remember
My true name
Who I am
And whose I am
When life buried it
Still in the chaos
When pressure rises
Heat making my soul steam
When I let myself listen
I can hear the flowing waters
Call out my name
And whisper peace to me
And here’s a final song celebrating the experience of the Holy Spirit coming upon us like a river, poured out over us:
Wherever you are and whatever lies in front of you, may you experience the Wild Goose Spirit sheltering you under Her wings like a mother dove; and pouring Herself over you like rivers of living water.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!
Your progressive redneck preacher,