O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…
These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
(Psalm 104:24, 27-30)
Pentecost is a time for renewal.
It is a time for spirit-moving, community-building, radical-loving transformation.
And it is not just humans who are transformed and renewed, it is all of creation, according to Psalm 104. When God feeds the earth, the earth is nourished. When God takes “breath” (ruah) away from the creatures of the earth, they lose their own ruah, their own lives. God’s spirit is the power of sustenance; it is the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
God’s renews the very face of the ground, the Psalmist tells us. This word “renew” is the same word used by the Psalmist who implores God to “renew a steadfast spirit within me.” In the same way our spirits are upheld and refreshed by God, all of living creation is made new.
I think there is deep significance to this idea that God renews the face of the ground. Living in a non-agrarian society we have perhaps lost touch with the crucial and delicate complexity of soil. In “Two Economies,” Wendell Berry writes:
We cannot speak of topsoil, indeed we cannot know what it is,
without acknowledging at the outset that we cannot make it.
We can care for it (or not), we can even, as we say, “build” it,
but we can do so only by assenting to, preserving, and perhaps collaborating
in its own processes. To those processes themselves we have nothing to contribute.
We cannot make topsoil, and we cannot make any substitute for it;
we cannot do what it does…
For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities,
a handful of the real thing has life in it; it is full of living creatures.
Soil itself is alive, made up of the myriad of tiny organisms that work together to create its magical, life-giving abilities. It is part of the life and death cycle which God creates, sustains, and renews.
Flying like humans
And Berry tells us something important: we cannot make soil like nature can make soil. That is to say, we cannot make soil like God can make soil.
Later in his essay, Berry writes:
We cannot do what the topsoil does, any more than we can do what God does
or what a swallow does. We can fly, but only as humans—very crudely, noisily, and clumsily.
Humans have profound creative power, but that creative power is not infinite. There are some things humans can create beautifully — like music and art, relationships and communities, praise and poetry — but there are other things they cannot — like rivers and mountains, storm clouds and sunsets, soil and grain.
This Pentecost, may we be reminded of both these truths:
the truth that we have important creative power we are called to live into fully; that we bear the mark of God’s fingertips on our beings; that we — like all of creation — breathe with the ruah of God; that we have an ever-present advocate in God’s spirit
the truth that we can fly only like humans, not like swallows; that we depend on God to renew the face of the ground, to meet our hunger and need; that our lives are for the magnification of God’s glory; that even when we cannot find the words, God’s spirit will speak into our speechlessness
Friends, go find some soil and admire the complexity of its life. God, thank you for your renewing spirit that moves in ways deeper than we can even imagine.