Feeling the Spirit outdoors
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:1-2)
According to Acts, Jesus’ followers were inside on the day of Pentecost. The congregation of St. Stephen’s, however, gathered outdoors this year at L.E. Ray Park in Grand Island. We baptized a teen-ager and three babies in the lake, celebrated the Eucharist using a picnic table as the altar, and had a picnic afterwards instead of the usual coffee hour. The weather forecast when we went to bed Saturday night was terrible for the next morning – an 80% chance of thunderstorms, possibly severe – but by Sunday morning a good breeze (as opposed to a violent wind) pushed the clouds to the south and east, the sun came out, and it was a lovely morning for an outdoor worship service.
The people who came said we should do this more often; there was something very special about our worship that morning. As I’ve shared our experience with others this week, it’s obvious that lots of people find something in worshiping together outdoors that is missing when we worship inside a building. People remarked on how peaceful it was; the sounds of the birds and lapping of the water, and the sights of the water sparkling in the sunlight and the trees moving in the wind contributed to that feeling of peace. People also seemed more joyful (not that we are lacking in joy when we are indoors); being outdoors and trying some new things was simply fun!
There are advantages, of course, to our usual space: we are sheltered from extremes in temperatures and from precipitation, the acoustics are better, and we don’t have to hold down the fair linen and the pages of the altar book with rocks to keep them from blowing around. But indoors we also can’t feel the sun beginning to warm the morning air, we don’t hear the birds sing, and, most notably on a day like Pentecost, we can’t feel the wind blow.
The Greek word for the wind (not a violent wind, but the sort of breeze we felt on Sunday) is pneuma; like the Hebrew word ruah this means wind and spirit and breath. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus (John 3: 7-8), the Spirit/wind is a moving thing. We experience it, but we don’t control it. We feel it, but we don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. We Nebraskans know about the untamed nature of the wind perhaps better than some other people would!
When the wind blows strongly, and especially when the wind turns very cold or very hot, it’s almost instinctive to shelter ourselves from it, but if we always avoid being out in the wind, we miss an opportunity to more fully understand the meaning of what Scripture tells us about the Spirit. Remembering the connections between wind and Spirit might help us see whether we are also trying to shelter or hide from the Spirit. We know that’s ultimately impossible to do – the Spirit rushed right into the house where Jesus’ followers were gathered – so on one level our attempts to hide don’t matter, but an openness to the Spirit can give us peace that evades us when we are trying to evade the Spirit.
A well-designed indoor space can provide sights and sounds that enhance our worship, but it’s good to occasionally leave those spaces and experience sights and sounds that we don’t control. During the homily Sunday morning, I watched a goose walk through the lawn chairs where the congregation was seated and on into the lake, where it swam out into the lake and then came back closer to the shore behind our temporary altar. It was so good not to have a wall separating us from that sight! It was a reminder that as much as we try to do everything in what we consider to be “good order”, God’s ideas of good order might be different from ours.
In The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis makes it clear that while Aslan is good, Aslan is not a tame lion. God is not a tame god and doesn’t always fit into the spaces – physical, intellectual, and spiritual – that we design. The wind blows where it will; the Spirit blows where it will. I’m thankful for our outdoor worship reminding us that the Spirit that brings us peace is also an untamed Spirit, a Spirit that blows where it will, leads us where it will, and fills us with the sort of power we experience when we pay attention to God’s creation.