breathe on me


    Sometimes, the way we look at the world swings on a sentence.

    A small, well chosen collection of words can change not only what we are reading or hearing, but also how we see and hear everything around us. The Great Gatsby holds (at least) one of those sentences for me, as Fitzgerald describes Gatsby looking across the bay at the green light that has mystified him and that he now knows shines on the dock at Daisy Buchanan’s house.

    Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to a moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock.

    And then comes the sentence:

    His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

    In nine words he shows us Gatsby’s slide from the heights of romance to the edge of despair and reminds us enchanted objects are fragile and fleeting. There is a certain sadness in love, in dreams, in being human that we all know to well and he named it in a sentence. One of the draws to reading the Gospels is they offer several such sentences that give glimpses of Jesus beyond what is readily apparent. They are bends in the road where we have to stop and think about what we have read, where we have to let the story dig a little deeper into our hearts and minds. One is Jesus’ encounter with the man at the pool who had been there for thirty-odd years hoping for his turn to go first into the angel-stirred waters that he might be healed. His physical handicap meant he moved slower than the rest and, thus, was never first. Jesus came upon him and, before he healed him, asked one question:

    “Do you want to get well?”

    The very asking reveals the answer might not be so readily apparent. Another favorite of mine reads almost like a throwaway phrase. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus goes off to pray and the disciples go fishing. Sometime in the middle of the night, a storm blows up on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples look up to see Jesus walking on the water in their direction, but the narrative reports:

    He looked as if he would pass them by.

    Yes, they called out to him and he climbed into the boat and calmed the waves. And I wonder if there isn’t something else to learn from this story that seems to say Jesus was out there walking for some other reason than saving his followers from a good soaking.

    My favorite is in the foot washing scene John describes as part of the last night Jesus spent with his disciples before his crucifixion. He begins:

    Knowing he had come from God and was going to God, he took a towel . . .

    In eleven words, John articulates the context of all that we are and all that we do: we have come from God and we are going to God. That arc of life is what enabled Paul to claim nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from God’s love shown to us in Christ. As they gathered that night, Jesus knew he was a dead man walking. He knew what was coming next. He also knew from whence he had come and where he was going well enough to care for his friends and to rest in the Love that held them all.

    Yesterday, my friend Terry preached at our church and showed me another sentence that I had not seen before, even though I had read the passage many times. He read from John 20 about one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances when he came through the locked door and found the frightened disciples in the Upper Room. Terry pointed to this sentence in the story:

    And with that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

    He went on to wonder how to unpack the sentence, which he described as a “Christian Breathing Ceremony.” Did Jesus say the words as he breathed? Did he breathe on them one at a time, or as a group? Did he breathe, and then speak? He went on to challenge us to consider the possibility of instituting a Sacrament of Breathing, much in the same way we have imitated Jesus’ words and actions in Communion, or for some in foot washing. And then he smiled.

    “A little too intimate for you?” he asked. “Are you scared of halitosis?”

    For both the Hebrews and the Greeks, the word for breath was also the word for spirit: ruach and pneuma, respectively. (The parallel exists in many other languages and religious traditions, I’m learning.) God breathed the universe into existence, breathed life into the lungs of the first humans; Jesus breathed the Spirit into his disciples. Hear Henri Nouwen:

    The Spirit of God is like our breath. God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a “spiritual life.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy. Let us always pray: “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”

    As Terry described the scene, I imagined Jesus blowing gently into the faces of his followers, each one closing his eyes and letting the breeze, if you will, fall across his face and into his heart. And I thought of a scene I had not recalled in many years from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, where Aslan breathes on all the creatures the Snow Queen had turned to stone and they came back to life in Narnia as the endless winter began to thaw.

    There is power, power, power in the breath.

    In most every moment of our lives, we breathe without thinking. It is what gives us life. Were we to stop breathing, we would stop being, just as poets speak of those who “breathe their last.” Meditation practices passed down across the centuries teach us to focus on nothing but our breathing as a way of centering, of letting the distractions fall away, of finding ourselves and God. What is most mundane is also most profound. At our church, Ginger begins the service each week by asking us to get comfortable in our seats, to relax, and to breathe.

    “Inhale slowly,” she says, “and then exhale. Breathe in the breath of God and breathe out the love of God.”

    We inhale the Spirit and exhale Love; we are coming from God and we are going to God. Every breath we take, if you will, every move we make can be an act of the Spirit and a breath of fresh air. Or, not. As my mind often does, it has wandered back to a hymn of my Baptist days that comes on a fresh breeze today:

    Holy Spirit, breathe on me until my heart is clean;
    let sunshine fill its inmost part, with not a cloud between.

    Holy Spirit, breathe on me, my stubborn will subdue;
    teach me in words of living flame what Christ would have me do.

    Breathe on me, breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe on me;
    Take Thou my heart, cleanse every part, Holy Spirit, breathe on me.

    Holy Spirit, breathe on me, fill me with pow’r divine;
    kindle a flame of love and zeal within this heart of mine.

    Holy Spirit, breathe on me till I am all Thine own,
    until my will is lost in Thine, to live for Thee alone.

    Breathe on me, breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe on me;
    Take Thou my heart, cleanse every part, Holy Spirit, breathe on me.

    (If you want to sing along, you can hear the tune here.)



    1. This made me think about what a contrast is found in the dynamics of a breath and the concept of power. We are so foolish, such small thinkers. Just as the First Nation people couldn’t put their minds around “selling” or “owning” land, we take each breath for granted and try to turn all things spiritual into product. We don’t have to think about breathing – it’s a perfect metaphor for grace, isn’t it? Great post!

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