zthe Cross

Sermon: Listening to the Wind

One of my college art professors at Wichita State University, who grew up on a farm outside of St. Louis, told me that the first time he drove into Kansas he was fascinated by the fact that all the trees and vegetation were leaning toward the north. “It really baffled me,” he said. “Until I lived here [that is in Kansas] for a while; and then I figured it out.”

Kansas, where I grew up, has often been called `Land of the South Wind.’ “If you can’t do it in the wind,” residents will say, “then you can’t do it in Kansas.”

If you grow up in Kansas, you learn at an early age to at least respect – if not always appreciate – the awesome power of the wind. Particularly right now in the height of tornado season; to ignore the reality of that power could potentially jeopardize your life.

When I was about five years old, we lived on the edge of the Wichita city limits, and at the end of our street opened up into fields where we’d run and romp and play; Chisolm Creek was just a half mile away where we’d routinely go `crawdad huntin’. It was a wonderful place to grow up as a child. And, as children growing up in Kansas, we were taught – especially in the summer – to keep our eyes on the sky. And if the sky started turned dark, we should hightail it back home.

Well, on this particular day, my friend and I were so engaged in crawdad hunting – or whatever it was we were doing out there in field that day – that a storm front kind snuck up on us. We heard thunderclap, and looked to see one of those greenish/grayish skies looming overhead. My friend and I looked at each other and started running for home; but we were too late. But the time got to the end our block, we were running into 50-60 mile-an-hour head wind. I watched my friend –who was fast runner – disappear in the cloud of dust that was rolling down block towards us. Unfortunately, the wind was so powerful, every time I picked up a foot to try to move forward, I was blown back a few feet. The wind was roaring in my ears like a freight train. So, I did what I was taught to do: laid down in the gutter, covered my head with my arms, and started praying. You know the kind of prayer, “God if you get me out of this one, I promise never again to . . . hit my sister, tease the dog . . . you can fill in the blanks.

As I lay there in fervent prayer, I suddenly thought I heard a voice from above, as if from a great distance, say my name, “Tom…Tom.” I remember thinking out loud, “Lord, is that you?”

“Tom, dang-it! Get up and get into this car!” Which I immediately recognized to be my earthly father’s voice. I looked up to see my Dad in his blue `55 Chevy, the passenger side door swung open, Dad waving madly for me to jump in. Which I quickly and gratefully did. He drove us back up the block to our neighbor’s house across the street (who had one of few basements on the block) where half a dozen other families were taking refuge.

In spite of that somewhat traumatic experience – or maybe because of it – I grew up with a certain reverence for the wind – and a kind of affinity for it.

As a child, especially at this time of year, I used to love lying in bed at night just listening to the wind. I could learn so many things about a world beyond the four walls of my little room; about a vast heaven that soared above my ceiling.

The wind harkens coming of spring; bringing sweet honeysuckle on its wings. And it tells you, with frosty breath, when the season of growth has ended. The wind makes temperate the cold artic air; and refreshes the spirit on hot summer days. It bears up the lonely refrain of a distant train. And advises when a skunk is passing nearby. If you are listening, the wind will instruct you about a home that needs attention: a loose window shutter to be mended; or a tree branch to be trimmed.

Growing up in Kansas, you learn that the sound of the wind – or its sudden stark absence – can alert you to seek out shelter. And, at other times, it can guide you in choosing a direction to unfurl your sails.

I believe we lose something vital when we neglect to listen to the wind.

The Kaw tribe, Native Americans who gave Kansas its name, called themselves, “People of the South Wind;” Kansa in their native tongue.

They more commonly referred to themselves as, “Wind People.”

The Kansa had lived long with the South Wind and the South Wind with them. They knew how to listen to the counsel of the Wind.

Their tribal history declares, “The Wind travels far and fast and knows the movements of the Buffalo and other foragers. The Wind conducts reconnaissance on enemies and carries messages to and from allies. The Wind knows where nuts, fruit and grains grow and the hiding place of the squirrel, rabbit and turkey. . . “

The Kansa people would constantly consult the South Wind: warriors before going into battle; women for guidance in gathering food; instruction for the proper placement and construction of their lodgings; peace-makers in their deliberations with adversaries.

It is no surprise that the Kansa consult the South Wind still today: Tribal Attorneys before going into court; Tribal Housing prior to selecting and securing home sites; Tribal Council and Staff conducting business and entering into new enterprises; Tribal members at the beginning and during the course of meetings of the Kanza General Council.

The Kansa people still live in the wind and the wind still lives in them.

Before we learned contemporaries dismiss such behavior as primitive or uncultured, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the Kansa people have something to teach those of us who spend so much of our time looking for ways – and reasons – to get out of the wind; those of us who have so effectively insulated ourselves from the wind’s effects; and isolated ourselves within the walls and ceilings of our own existence; those of us who now find it difficult to imagine a world beyond; beyond our walls, beyond our experience, beyond our sight.

Maybe there is something to learn anew from that ancient tribe about living in the wind and listening to the wind.

Personally, I have found that, as I’ve gotten older, it’s become much easier to take the wind for granted. And much harder to stay still long enough to listen.

Today, I have to be much more intentional about creating the space needed listen to the wind. There just seems to be much less time or space available on the landscape of post-modern life to do so.

Contemporary Kansas landscape painter, Joan Parker, described the Flint Hills (which stretches through the central prairie grasslands) an `intimate emptiness;’ one, says Parker, “which seems to wrap itself around me and stretch into infinity.”

As one who’s spent many a night camping in the Flint Hills, that description resonates.

Listening to the wind whisper, moan, or howl while being wrapped up in its boundless presence can be an awesome – sometimes even fearful – experience. And the notion of surrendering one’s self – yielding one’s time, one’s attention, one’s control, one’s personal power – to the whims and wishes of the wind can leave one feeling both vulnerable, and at thr same time, exhilarated.

Because there’s always the possibility that the wind might shove you out of your comfort zone, move you off dead-center, propel you in a direction you’re not sure you want to go.

When you add to all that the boom and the buzz of mass communication technology and its ability to keep us connected with others virtually every second of every day— it’s conspired to create a world which has a growing aversion to ever being alone; and an increasing co-dependence upon others to provide a constant distraction.

In his book, Making All Things New, the late, great Henri Nouwen reflected, “As soon as we are alone—inner chaos opens up to us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.”

We need to be intentional about making time and space for the Wind to do it refreshing, renewing, re-centering, re-creating work.

And, ultimately, wrote Nouwen, “The spiritual life does not remove us from the world, but leads us deeper into it.”

In other words, we spend that vital time alone listening to the Wind so that we can then ride that Wind where it wills in the world.

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

There’s nothing particularly subtle about that message. God made sure that the full, undivided attention of the people gathered in that room was given to the Holy of holies. No mere whim of a breeze, this. The Wind came rushing in like a freight train. It represented the power of God to bring together differing people of vastly diverse backgrounds. To unite – in one Spirit – people of different tribes, nations, and languages in order to make them into one people; the people of God. People of the Wind.

While the Kansa tribe had dozens of names for a wide variety of different kinds of winds; they called the power of the south wind akazhiga.

The ancient Hebrews called the “wind of God, which, in the beginning of all things, swept across the face of the [chaotic] waters”: ruach. (You have to spit a little to get the sound right)

The Greeks referred to the Wind as pneuma. Wind of the Spirit; Breath of Life. The Holy Spirit of God.

The old theologians of the Celtic church (where Presbyterianism has its roots) thought the symbol of a dove for the Holy Spirit was way too gentle of an image. A better symbol, they said, was a wild goose. Because the Spirit of God is lively, energetic, powerful, unpredictable; it stirs things up, changes things, enables something new and unexpected to happen.

The Church is in transition. It’s in transition at the local level, at the presbytery level and at the national level. In fact, things have been up in the air for the Church for some time. And I know that sometimes we feel like a kite in the proverbial Kansas wind, that’s been capriciously torn from the hands of our grounded pilot. And I share the sense of uncertainty and vulnerability which that creates. But I also believe in the power and providence of the Wind.

I believe the Wind is blowing us towards something new and exciting. And I believe that, if we abide in the Wind and let the Wind abide in us, it will surely bend our lives in a direction according to its own will; lifting us closer to the Heavens that exist beyond these four walls.