From the Gospel according to John:
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 3:8 (NRSV) – August 11, 2014)
I wasn’t going to mention this, really, but the mind makes strange associations and when I read the Gospel lesson this morning, particularly this line about the wind blowing where it will and us being unable to tell its origin or its destination, the image that came immediately to mind is an automobile turn signal.
It may be that that happened because in the past several days there have been three incidents at intersections where other drivers have failed to signal their turns and I, anticipating that they would be going straight, have nearly collided with them. Yesterday’s near-collision, I thought, was the worst.
Since moving to Ohio eleven years ago, my wife and I have several times commented a local phenomenon of driver behavior that we have not previously encountered living in other states. We have lived and been licensed drivers in Nevada, California, and Kansas since marrying, and driven in many other places, and we’ve never seen this phenomenon with the same frequency that it occurs here. The phenomenon in question? Drivers signaling their turn after beginning their maneuver.
This is what happened yesterday: I arrived, northbound, at a four-way stop-sign-controlled intersection simultaneously with a southbound vehicle; neither of us were signaling a turn. There was one eastbound vehicle, which proceeded through the intersection as the southbound vehicle and I came to a stop. When the eastbound vehicle cleared the intersection, we both started, the southbound vehicle beginning a left turn into my drive path and at that moment turning on its turn signal. Of course, we both slammed on our breaks and the other driver began yelling at me. I yelled back and proceeded through the intersection.
That incident was still on my mind when I read about the wind and the Spirit’s unknown movements. I thought, “How silly and ridiculous! I’m not going to write about that!” But I couldn’t shake the image from my mind, so I resolved to write nothing in the way of a reflection or meditation until this evening when I would read the other lessons and the evening psalm and, perhaps, have a more “spiritual” take on things.
And then this happened . . . . On the way to the office this morning, northbound on a major roadway through the southern part of our town, I was nearly hit by an historical Jeep (I know it to have been “historical” because it had a license tag that so proclaimed it). The historical Jeep whipped around the corner of an east-west side street, neither stopping (or even slowing down) at a stop sign nor signaling its turn. Fortunately, I was able to (again) slam on my breaks and avoid a collision, the Jeep proceeding ahead of me, the driver completely oblivious to our near-collision; I don’t think he ever saw me! (But I got a good look at his historical vehicle license plate.)
I wonder if Jesus might have used this as alternative metaphor if he were talking with Nicodemus today: “Other drivers go where they choose, and you hear the sound of them, but you do not know where they come from or where they are going, because they do not signal or stop. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Probably not. It lacks the ambiguity of the wind/spirit image inherent in both Hebrew and Greek where the same word is used for the two words.
Nonetheless, it reminds me how dangerous the Spirit can be! The danger of a ton or two of steel headed down a city street piloted by a driver who fails to obey traffic laws cannot compare to the danger presented by the Holy Spirit! I am reminded of a favorite quotation from Annie Dillard’s 1982 book Teaching a Stone to Talk:
Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
It also reminds me how irresponsible God can be! These drivers who fail to signal, who fail to stop, who aren’t obeying the rules are simply irresponsible. Like the wind in Jesus’ metaphor they go where they choose and the rest of us have no idea where that might be; we just have to be on our guard or get out of the way. And Jesus says that this powerful, uncontrollable, unknowable, freely-changing-direction behavior is shared by those who are reborn in the Spirit. Have you taken a good, close look at the people that are so empowered? Have you really looked closely at anyone to whom God has given the power to make unsignaled turns in life?
If not . . . grab a mirror and do so.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.