Have you ever stood outside in a field or in the forest and felt the breeze dance around you, rustling leaves and your hair? Have you every stood on the beach of the ocean and struggled to remain upright against the persistent force of the wind? Have you ever felt the gentle dancing breath on you cheek from a child, parent, or partner, when they are so close you can feel their rising chest and the tiny hairs on your face feel the fluttering breath. How might you describe this? Is there one word that would adequately express all of these? How might you explain the feeling to someone who hasn’t experienced it? Sometimes our language is so limiting. The words available in the english to us are wholly inadequate sometimes.
The native Eskimo’s of Alaska have fifty different words to describe snow. We here in the pacific northwest employ the use of many words to describe different kinds of rain. Drizzle, mist, heavy fog, sunny with a chance of showers, cloudy with a chance of showers. Off-and-on rain. Downpour. We’ve had enough rain this winter that I could go on. If I try to explain the difference between drizzle and showers to a mid-west friend they would have trouble understanding me. The language we use is important and it can get complicated we try to translate it for another culture, community or language.
What we’ve come to read in our translations of the Bible as “spirit”, “wind” or “breath” are translated from one Hebrew word, ruah. Walter Bruggerman says; “The Bible struggles to find adequate vocabulary to speak about and name this unutterable, irresistible, undomesticated force that surges into history to liberate heal, remake, and transform. We are left with this code term, ruah, to speak about what we know but cannot say.” Ruah is the wind that parted the waters and created dry land, it is the very breath that God breathed into humans in our creation, it was this spirit that parted the seas and allowed the people to escape from slavery in Egypt, it is the same sprit that Jesus claims and empowers the early church in Acts.This ruah is active throughout our sacred stories.
To complicate matters, our english biblical translations are inconsistent in the translation of ruah. Expressed as wind, sprit, and breath, it is easy to miss this connecting force throughout the stories.
The first text that was read if from Ezekiel, he is one of the Hebrew prophets writing during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE, before the common era. The Israelite people are displaced from their homeland, they are displaced from their promised land, where they believe that God resides. So not only are they far from home, but they believe and feel that they are far from God as well. Earlier writings talk of this separation from God and their homeland as feeling as if they were dried up and dead. A valley filed with dried bones. Lacking flesh and sinew, lacking breath, lacking ruah.
How often have we felt like a pile of dried bones? We have all experienced seasons where we feel bone tired, lacking in connective tissue and strong flesh, times when we lack breath, spirit, ruah. Ezekiel’s prophetic vision speaks directly to the people displaced people lacking spirit. God tells Ezekiel to talk to the bones, to talk to the people, and God will put flesh back on the bones. God tells Ezekiel to call on the wind, the breath, to breath on the bones so that they may live. Saying “I prophesied to them as God commanded me, and the breath (the ruah) came into them and they lived…” The ruah, the spirit of God, the breath of God is present no matter where you are even a valley far away from home.
Ezekiel is speaking to a pile of dusty bones, metaphor for a people, made from dust of the earth and enliven with with breath of God, ruah. I know that I need to hear these words, I imagine we all do, reminding us that we are filled with the breath of God, the wind of spirit, filled with the unutterable, irresistible, undomesticated ruah that liberates heals, remakes, and transforms from the inside out.
We are, inescapably, filled with the holy spirit, from our first breath to our last. As Paul reminds the early church in Rome in our second reading, “you are not in the flesh, you are in the spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Paul is reminding the early followers of Christ that they too are filled with the breath of God and so should choose life accordingly.
I remember in high school at some youth group or in conversation with some friends this text being thrown around as a warning and threat to “not fall prey to temptations of the flesh”, don’t have sex was their basic message. It never sat well with me, using Biblical text for shaming and threatening, but I also doubted that Paul was talking about sex in this passage, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time.
I believe that Paul is saying to the people, you are filled with Divine Breath, live like it. We are not just flesh and bones, we have Divine holy breath within us. Just as in Ezekiel the dried bones did not live until the four winds of spirit had filled them, we cannot fully live unless we fully recognize that we are also filled with the holy breath of God. A mind set on flesh is death, a mind set on sprit is life and peace. A mind attuned to body only, physical or metaphorical, is not life, a mind attuned to the ruah within and within all people and living things brings life and peace.
It is this Divine breath, this ruah that fuels our passions and animates our life. It calls us to action and elicits compassion and love. Bruggerman says of this ruah, “it is a shaped, purposefully, intentional force:
"A wind of wisdom and understanding, paying attention to the hidden connections and process of life, refusing to reduce reality to beneficial techniques and strategies - that’s what wisdom is about.
A wind of council and might, able to harness intention to the capacity to make a difference, to exercise power in saving ways - council and might.
A wind of knowledge, skill and expertise, mobilized for the things of God, full, glad, acknowledgement that Yahweh’s voice is a voice of newness, even again our old tired, vested interests”
This is no ordinary breeze, this is no ordinary breath.This is our life breath, it is the life breath of all living things. At the beginning of our Lenten journey we looked at the Genesis 2 creation narrative in which God takes the dust of the earth and breaths the holy breath of life into the human. This divine breath connected us throughout history as Children of God. It connects us to our creator, to Jesus and to each other.
I invite you to place your hands on your belly, and take a deep breath. Fill your lungs, with a big deep breath, breath into your hands, feel the breath rush into every inch of your body, feel the divine breath filling you up, hold you breath for just a moment and the let it out, feel it leave your body, rushing back out, taking anxiety and stress with it…push all the breath out and hold it for just a moment, then allow your lungs to fill with fresh breath of God. Every breath you take began with the breath of God. With every breath you take you are filled with the spirit of God, filled with ruah. The Spirit of God dwells in you that you may live. Amen.
Using God's Resources Wisely: Isaiah and Urban Possibilityby Walter Brueggemann