I never knew before having kids that I would one day become a bubble solution connoisseur. After a few run-ins with poor quality bubble solution and the tears that ensued (Tristan’s, not mine to clarify) I’ve been taking notes on which brands perform the best and asking family and friends alike who their dealers are for the best performers. You learn quickly with kids there are few things more deflating than going to blow bubbles and nothing coming out of the wand. As a parent you have to be prepared and stocked up with the highest quality solutions. And for those that are wondering, Sun Burst, Fubbles and Disney brand bubble solutions all seem to take the prize.
Well over this past summer I think we probably used at least a few gallons worth of bubble solution. That means watching our kids blow A LOT of bubbles. And I began to notice something…
While the wind may carry all of them in a general direction, the individual flight patterns of each varies considerably. Up, down, left and right, forwards and backwards. Almost always following the prevailing wind direction but occasionally going against it too. You can’t anticipate with certainty which way they would go next.
And it reminded me of this interesting verse from John 3:8. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
wind, spirit and breath
The original Greek words for “wind” and Spirit” used in this verse are pneuma and pneumatos respectively. I’m no scholar on ancient languages, but we can see that these two words are clearly related in the original language. In fact in both the Old Testament and New Testament, the words wind, spirit and breath are, as far as I know, almost always used interchangeably. While we see them as being distinct from one another, our ancestors saw them as synonymous.
Let’s consider school spirit. It’s not a material object you can touch, move, or see with your eyes. It cannot be reduced to atoms bouncing off one another. It cannot be modeled by empirical formulations. And it isn’t bound by the laws of physics. Yet, I think all would agree it exists. School spirit animates students and teachers alike. It has the ability to breathe life into kids. It can move through a body of students much like the wind.
It’s why the word spirit shares the same root as words like inspire (“to give breath”), respire (“to breathe again”), and conspire (“to breathe together”). We still have remnants in our language of a former way of seeing the world. A way of perceiving that we still see in part.
Or consider the wind motif that is still in many of our movies. It often represents this subtle force that moves characters and pushes the plotline along. It’s found all throughout Disney movies like The Lion King, Frozen II, and Pocahontas. It’s difficult to articulate the exact purpose wind plays within a story, yet we all intuitively understand its role. Here’s a scene from the Lion King that captures that essence beautifully.
Much in the same way, we can intuitively understand how spirits govern the actions of individuals, schools, communities, families, and entire nations for good or for bad. Yet, they often go unseen and unrecognized just like the wind unless, like Rafiki, we’re attuned to discerning them.
the social sciences and the discernment of spirits
Recently I have started taking interest in topics pertaining to the social sciences. Personality disorders, counseling and therapy, mental health, family systems, the rise and fall of ideologies, religions and nations… it’s all relevant to the social sciences.
The social sciences is a field of study I would have scoffed at in my high school and college days for being something of far less value than the hard sciences. And yet, here I am a bit older and realizing just how crucial these studies are and the value they can provide when done well.
What is so baffling is that you begin to see that the behavior of groups start to follow patterns in a similar fashion to the traditional sciences like biology, physics, and chemistry. Political factions, dysfunctional families, churches, work environments, and even the lives of individuals tend to play themselves out in patterns that those in the social sciences can track and monitor with relative predictive ability. In many ways the social sciences have helped elucidate what has long been considered opaque. One could say what was once considered the unpredictability of spirits, has to to a large extent with the help of modern social sciences become predictable.
And yet, I can’t help but notice that more often than not the consensus in the social sciences is regarding that which is pathological. Around how to live the good life, it seems very much that the jury is still out. It’s easier to identify addiction, personality disorders, dysfunction, cults, or what constitutes something like poor school spirit than the alternative. It’s easier in many ways for modern movie makers to depict villains than it is to create an engaging hero. It’s easier to see where things went wrong than to know how to fix them let alone articulate what the ideal is. And I think this is one of the points Jesus is trying to express to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, when he makes the aforementioned statement regarding the necessity of being born of the Spirit.
Jesus and the unpredictable spirit
Pharisees have a bad reputation for being hypocritical. And yet, on the other hand you have to recognize their attempt to live an upright life, even if hypocrisy was at play. In contrast to many around them, they were at least expressing an intent to lead a righteous life.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus for a conversation because he recognizes that Jesus could not perform the miracles he had, if he were not from God. Nicodemus is essentially trying to confirm that they are both laboring for the same team. And yet Jesus responds in a surprising manner. He doesn’t openly embrace Nicodemus but instead states that even Nicodemus still needed to be born again of the Spirit if he wanted to see the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus, like the Pharisees in general, was predictable, following a set of rules and operating in absolutes. Jesus however lives by a different Spirit, and one that – like the wind – often surprises people. He zigs when others expect him to zag. Much of the gospels can be summarized as different individuals and groups thinking Jesus is on their side, trying to recruit him to their cause only to find out that he operates in ways that confound them. Jesus is, in a way, unpredictable. Not erratic. Unpredictable in the sense that he is able to hold within himself in perfect harmony what we often perceive as conflicting virtues.
And for 2,000 years individuals, families, communities and nations have been altered and animated by this Jesus and the Spirit by which he lived. Part of what makes him such a captivating person is his ability to avoid being compartmentalized. He’s unpredictable like the Spirit that moves him. He sets impossibly high standards yet communes with the sinful. He made bold claims to his own divinity and authority yet he humbled himself to the point of being unjustly hung on a cross. And he chastises his disciples for having little faith yet has the utmost patience and grace.
Even today, Jesus is used as a model for both inclusion and holiness. Both grace and judgement. Both perfect service and kingship. The lion and the lamb. The first and the last.
Yes, the path the Spirit calls us to may be to take the narrow path and avoid the wide path to destruction. Some look at that life and say it’s restrictive. And to a certain extent, yes the prevailing wind is predictable and he does ask us to bear his yoke. But beyond that narrow path are wide open vistas of a life that to many will seem as “unpredictable.” The type of unpredictable that leads to admiration in the greatest of saints, and perfected in this Jesus of Nazareth who has captivated so many for so long. And he offers his Spirit to continue to breathe new life into this world.