History of Hymns: ‘Spirit of God, Bright Wind’
By C. Michael Hawn
‘Spirit of God, Bright Wind’
By Steve Garnaas-Holmes
The Faith We Sing, 2117
Spirit of God, bright Wind,
breath that bids life begin,
blow as you always do;
create us anew.
Give us the breath to sing,
Lifted on soaring wing,
held in your hands,
borne on your wings.
Alleluia! Come, Spirit, come!
© 1987 Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Steve Garnaas-Holmes (b. 1953) is a United Methodist elder. He served churches for twenty years in Montana and twenty years in New England, retiring in 2020. For 37 years, he wrote and performed with the Montana and Logging and Ballet Company, a quartet doing music and comedy around the country and on National Public Radio. Many of his compositions were comedy songs written for this context. Drawing upon his experience as a pastor, performer, and composer, it was not unusual for him to use a tune he had written for both worship and political satire.
Steve received his education at Rocky Mountain College (BA, 1976) and Pacific School of Religion (MDiv, 1986). He began writing poetry and songs in high school and has composed more than one hundred worship songs to original tunes and scores of songs for existing hymn tunes. “Spirit of God,” composed in a gentle folk style of the 1970s, was written for a worship service at the Yellowstone Annual Conference (1986). The original publication at the conference appeared in a yellow hand-printed copy:
The five stanzas, each exploring the role of the Holy Spirit, are replete with biblical allusions. Stanza 1 begins with the “bright Wind” (ruah) in Genesis 1:2: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (NRSV).
Stanza 2 echoes the “bright Dove” at the Baptism of Jesus described in the synoptic gospels (Matt 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23), alluding to the nearly universal association of the dove with “peace and love.” The composer combines this image with the image of “healing upon your wings” (Mal 2:17). The stanza concludes with a reference to the “good news” that heralded the beginning of Christ’s ministry: “captives will find release” (Luke 4:18–19).
The third stanza acknowledges the far-reaching “bright Hands” of the Spirit that “hold[s] all the human race / in one warm embrace.” The pervasive reach of the Holy Spirit reflects the psalmist who asks, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence (Ps 139:7, NRSV). Stanza 4 recalls the “bright Flame” at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4). The universal reach of the Spirit returns as she empowers us “to heal, / to share love everywhere.”
The final stanza sees the “Spirit of God in all.” This stanza is one of vision and hope, bidding us to aspire to hear and respond to the Spirit’s call, giving ourselves to “a life . . . that sings, / the power of [the Spirit’s] wings.” The final two lines of this stanza recall our baptismal covenant: “Born of your grace we rise, / love shining in our eyes” (Col 2:12).
Each stanza ends with a unifying theme: “held in your hands, / borne on your wings.” The composer draws the twin images of sheltering hands and wings from scripture. Numerous passages allude to the assurance of safety in God’s hands, such as, “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isa 41:10, NRSV). Of those passages that reference the image of wings, perhaps none is more comforting than Psalm 17:8: “Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings” (NRSV).
The composer provides a refrain that allows singers to express their gratitude to the Spirit ("Alleluia!"), and to utter the petition found in some of the earliest liturgies of the church: "Come, Spirit, come!" This petition is both personal (Ps 51:10–11) and extends to the restoration of God's creation on a planet that is suffering because of human abuse: "You send forth Your Spirit, . . . and You renew the face of the earth” (NKJV).
“Spirit of God” captures a sense of hope and human aspiration that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). The folk guitar (usually acoustic) was the instrument of choice in its portability (not tied to a church building) and accessibility (can be learned relatively quickly). Protest songs by Bob Dylan (b. 1941) often found their way into the church’s worship. When iconoclast Sydney Carter (1915–2004) published “Lord of the Dance” (1963), the richness of the folk idiom contributed a sense of authenticity that many young people were craving. "Spirit of God" shares many compositional features in common with songs from this era, including an easy singing range, memorable refrain, stepwise melodic movement, and guitar-based harmonic structure. The biblical richness of its images makes it as effective in the twenty-first century as it was when composed. This recent recording captures this folk style. The Faith We Sing includes two earlier songs on a related theme in a similar musical style: James Manley’s “Spirit, Spirit of gentleness” (1978) and Gordon Light’s “She comes sailing on the Wind” (1980).
For twenty years, Pastor Garnaas-Holmes has been writing a daily reflection of poetry, parables, and the occasional weather report, as well as songs and other worship materials, called Unfolding Light (unfoldinglight.net). Two additional texts appear in Worship & Song (2011): “Christ, we are blest” (no. 2174) and “You feed us, gentle Savior” (no. 3169). Steve lives in Wells, Maine, with his wife, Beth, also a United Methodist elder, a spiritual director, and a piano teacher. He bicycles, walks in the woods, and kayaks around the Maine coast. He and Beth have three grown sons.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.