Understanding that language is limited in its ability to describe some things, the ancients often used metaphors to speak of the divine. Three of the most common were fire, water and wind. They are three things that can be quite wonderful: a warm fire on a cold evening, water to grow crops, a cool breeze on a hot summer day. They are also things that can become large and uncontainable: a brushfire, a flash flood, a tornado that uproots mighty trees.
This week in San Francisco, the world’s greatest sailors will gather for the final races of the America’s Cup World Series. They are racing 45-foot catamarans and while they are racing they are learning, because next summer they will be racing for the world’s oldest sporting trophy in a similar design that is 72 feet in length. I was there last August to see them race and they are breathtaking. They are a far cry from the 9-foot dinghy I learned to sail on more than 50 years ago.
With a huge mainsail that is mostly a wing, the wind not only propels these machines through the sea, but also lifts them up out of the water so that they can reach speeds as high as four times the velocity of the wind. Yes, there is great power in the wind, but even the best sailors must never think that they have tamed the wind: it is a sure way to go swimming.
I have learned many lessons while at the helm of a boat, none of them more important than knowing that you are not in control. There is a certain hubris among sailors; a strange desire to go faster, harness the wind and reign her in, push the boat a bit more. That is when we are reminded that we are not in control. And no matter how experienced the sailor, it is a lesson that will have to be learned again and again.
The ancients were sailors. Read the first paragraph of Genesis carefully. There was not emptiness. There was a formless void and a wind from God swept over the waters. The Hebrew word is “ruach” and it means wind, but it also means spirit. In the second chapter of Genesis, God forms a human being from the dust and breathes into his nostrils. Ruach also means breath. We are all inspired; breathed into.
I fell in love with sailing my first time out, but I cannot find words that are adequate to describe the feeling when the sail fills with wind. You cannot see the wind but you most certainly feel it as you begin to move, as the lines tighten, as the rigging creaks and moans, as you and the boat become part of the same thing, as you together become a creature of the sea. The ancients knew. They knew that no matter what you knew of God, you could not fully know God. They knew that no matter how much you thought about and talked about God, God could not be captured or tamed.
God is the wind, the breath, the spirit, alive and moving. It can be a cool breeze on a hot summer day, or powerful beyond description. You cannot see the wind, but you cannot deny its existence because you can hear, you can taste, you can smell, you can feel, and you can see the things the wind does.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.