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Learning to Breathe Again

Oct. 6th, 2017 | Rev. Don Underwood

I have a long-time friend who is learning to breathe again. Specifically, he is learning how to inhale. A very serious bout of West Nile Virus left his diaphragm and abdominal muscles weakened, and he is literally retraining them to do the job they had done effortlessly for almost forty years. It is a powerful reminder that what we sometimes take for granted can be the difference between life and death.

For the last few years I have also been learning to breathe again. In my case, I have been focusing primarily on the process of exhaling. If a person exhales smoothly and completely, there is this place at what I call the “bottom of the breath” where the body is utterly relaxed and free of tension. In that fraction of a moment it is impossible to experience fear or anxiety or anger. Learning to breathe properly is a way of gradually expanding that momentary experience of serenity into a spiritual state that is present at least subliminally throughout the day.

In the second chapter of Genesis we find this remarkable phrase: “…then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” What else could that mean other than the fact that breathing breath into the human being is the sacred work of God? That when we inhale and exhale we are exercising the most fundamental connection we have with the One who created us and first breathed life into us? From this perspective, there should be no surprise that conscious breathing was at the center of prayer for the desert mothers and fathers and the saints and mystics down through the ages. To become aware of breath as God’s life flowing into us and through us back into the world is at the heart of prayer.

The horrific events of this week defy any explanation. Any kind of theological accounting of the suffering we observe in the world can only summon a God whose mystery and creative power are far beyond our human capacity to understand. Isaiah perhaps said it best: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” Any serious attempt to believe otherwise puts us in the company of Adam and Eve as they reached for the Tree of Knowledge that God had denied them.

And so we are left with the one task that has clearly been given to us: learning how to breathe again. Trusting that those whose lives have been taken in Las Vegas and Puerto Rico and on the countless streets of our cities are now resting peacefully in the bosom of the One who first breathed life into them. Trusting that the breath we breathe comes as a gift from a God who still has work for us to do. Inhaling to find the strength to continue in God’s mercy, exhaling to experience a moment of God’s peace. Learning how to breathe again so that our ever-fragile lives can be centered more and more in that gracious spiritual space that Jesus called the kingdom of God on Earth.