Hear from Ivan Khovacs as he asks ‘Can we find God the Holy Spirit in a gentle rain, or in a storm in the middle of the ocean, or in the freedom of jazz?!’
Rain in Vancouver can be very pleasant to live with. It can be. But it isn’t always. Our last summer there, it rained every day, nonstop, June to September. Vancouver normalises mildew in basement-level flats, and you simply learn to live in permanently wet clothes. (Our friend from Finland used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad raingear.” Thanks, Fin!) After a while, the constant blanket of rain simply becomes backdrop to your day-to-day. One day, you simply stop paying attention. In the Bible, God’s Holy Spirit falls like rain, but it never goes unnoticed. Isn’t that the point in this language of the “outpouring” of the Spirit?
In Isaiah, Spirit is a refreshing, long-awaited and lasting downpour: ““I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your progeny, and blessings on your offspring” (33.4). But let’s not miss this: the Holy Spirit isn’t just for the renewal of faith, but for the renewal of the earth itself, the replenishing of land suffering human abuse and the sins of injustice and greed: “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants: the earth languishes, the drops wither, the skies refuse their rain.” (Isaiah 24.5-7, para.). And so people are urged to repent and pray “until a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field grows to be a forest” (Isaiah 32.15).
‘Coloured Rain’ (2009), Banksy. Trondheim, Norway.
Next time you are caught in a downpour, unprepared, no brolly, no Finnish friend by your side, stand there for a minute, open your arms wide, tilt your head and feel the rain on your face, soak it all in, and pray. And think back to your baptism! In Genesis, the Spirit of God moves over the face of the waters at creation. In baptism, water marks you as a new creation. Let the rain remind you that God’s life-giving Spirit pours over you.
Rainwater falls, gathers in places, soaks deep into the ground and replenishes underground sources; it forms new sources for water to flow into other patches of ground, other spaces, other lands. That’s living water. Remember the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus told the woman that ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
Living water is not water collected in a pond or basin, which just stands there, disconnected from its source—living water is connected to its source: it springs forth, it wells up from the ground, it gushes up, like a stream down a mountain, living water is water constantly flowing from its source. The Holy Spirit is living water because the source of grace is itself given, that is, the Holy Spirit. This is the promise of baptism. Think about that next time you’re standing in the rain: wherever those raindrops come from, they connect you to the sky above. The Holy Spirit connects you to God above and becomes God beside you, God over you, God all around you, God leading you from one water puddle to the next. And yet there is more.
Holy Spirit (2021), Ta-coumba Aiken. The Guggenheim, New York.
Imagine that you yourself then become a vessel for the Holy Spirit. So not only are you filled with the Spirit but become a source of the overflow of the Spirit, you watch its grace spilling over from God to you, from you into others. Jesus said “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7.38, para). No wonder the Holy Spirit is always identified as ‘gift’: “Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38); “…how much more will the heavenly Father gift the Holy Spirit to those who ask!’ (Luke 11, para); and so we have the ‘gifts’ of the Holy Spirit that speak of wisdom, clarity, and understanding; healing and wholeness; faith and the gift of wonder; the gift of speaking prophetically in the midst of confusing times (1 Corinthians). That is what grace means, that whatever God has to give is freely given that you may, in your turn, give away again to the those around you.
We have, of course, the very name of the Spirit, in Hebrew, the word ruach, meaning wind or breath, with the focus being on both the dynamic force of the Spirit, her movement and life-giving power. Wind can be gentle and refreshing: a breeze, a baby’s first breath. God breathe life into first humanity, breathing something truly new, and yet something completely related to its source: human spirit is not God’s spirit, but is not independent of God’s spirit either; human life is not God’s life, but it is not independent of God’s life.
Where there is breath there is singing, and by far my favourite image of the Holy Spirit is music: the Holy Spirit is music. Paul the Apostle urges Christians to “be filled with the Spirit and speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit; sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5.19). Remember that reading we had from Acts we had recently, “At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, and the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.”
This is a most amazing picture: God’s Spirit is unpredictable, ungovernable, unbound. God’s spirit is freedom; the Holy Spirit is jazz!
‘Jazz Blues Colours’ (2020). Leon Zernitsky, Canada
Wind can be gentle, but it can be violent too, as in a tempest. In that prison, the wind of the Spirit, the breath of freedom, bursts through in singing: in their midnight jazz, prison foundations crumble, chains are broken, iron doors swing open. There you are, the Holy Spirit is swing!
Liberation theologies, breaking the chains of poverty and inequality among the poor in Latin America and elsewhere, speak of the Spirit who is freedom, survival, equality, and ecological justice. The Holy Spirit is God’s power piercing and prising open spaces crying out for justice.
‘Slave Ship’ (1840). JMW Turner. The Tate Britain.
I have always found this Turner painting an electrifying bundle of nerves, but I mean in a most disturbing way. It portrays the tragedy of 19th century slavery. The commentator for the Guardian says “It shows how alive [Turner] was to the liberations and oppressions of his revolutionary age.” If this is true, we need to stay with it, enter the storm in the ocean. The fact that this painting disturbs us to this very day makes it a picture of the spaces of sin the Holy Spirit comes to break open, judge, and slay. Pray God it would also be a portrayal of the extremes of human brokenness the Holy Spirit storms through in order to save, to heal, to put back the right way.
The Holy Spirit is the very womb nurturing and gestating in us God’s freedom and justice: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3.17). Wherever the Holy Spirit blows, there is rain, there is grace, there is the breath of life, there is music, there is singing; there is unquenchable freedom and the unstoppable winds of justice.
To say nothing of the myriad other images of the Holy Spirit we have left untouched: fire, dove, oil, seal and pledge; God’s whisper; a widening, healing silence; love given and returned; and always “paraclete,” that is, God the Holy Spirit who is with you here and now! The Spirit who is comforter, advocate, counsellor, encourager, the Spirit of God standing alongside us, and always for us.
Pentecost is God the Holy Spirit behind us when we fall, and ever jazz-swinging before us when we get up again and walk!
‘The Holy Spirit’ (2019). Alfonso Garcia, Tulia, Texas.