Psalm 150 and John 20:20-21
A spiritual mentor of mine, psychiatrist Gerald May, regularly taught workshops on the theme of “Appreciation.” Just as radical amazement was at the heart of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s spiritual vision, appreciation – a sense of gratitude, valuing, noticing, and treasuring is at the heart of all religious experience. So many things in life, we take for gratitude because they are normal, everyday, and regular in our experience.
Remember how many people were excited by the eclipse just a few months ago. It was headline news, and people traveled across country to find the best places to see the total eclipse. But, to repeat the words of naturalist Rachel Carson, if the stars only came out once a year, we would celebrate their appearance, but since they are visible most evenings, it’s nothing special and we forget to notice them. But, what if they disappeared or were eclipsed regularly by clouds or smog, and they only came out occasionally.
Air and breath, and the sky above, are among the most dependable elements in life, and yet we often forget about them until we have a health crisis. We simply breathe and don’t notice it, until….as I experienced a number of years ago, our breath becomes labored and uncertain. Out of the blue, one weekend, I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t get a full breath for a whole weekend. I don’t know the reason – was it an anxiety attack, an allergy, or just one of those things, but I was frightened. By the time I went to my physician on Monday, I was beside myself – I could work that weekend, but I was anxious virtually every waking moment and had trouble sleeping because I still couldn’t find that deep breath we depend on to feel healthy and whole. My doctor couldn’t find anything wrong, and although I left with a prescription for an anti-depressant, my symptoms ended that afternoon and haven’t returned. But, since that time, I give thanks regularly for the simple, ordinary process of inhaling and exhaling.
We take breath for granted until it’s in short supply and we find ourselves heading to the emergency room. The same applies to the air we breathe. How often do you notice it? Healthy air is tasteless, colorless, takes on the smell of our environment, ever-present, and yet unnoticed until it becomes polluted and noxious.
In the first year of our marriage, almost thirty nine years ago, Kate and I shared a summer youth ministry in Idyllwild, California. As we looked down on the Las Angeles basin from 5000 feet, we couldn’t see anything. We realized that we were breathing poison each day, and decided to leave Southern California in search of healthier air. We can be grateful, in the wake of Southern California’s smog crisis, that the state of California enacted some of the most rigorous air quality policies and has vowed, given its previous experience with smog alerts and unhealthy air, to comply with the Paris Climate Accords regardless of what the national government decides.
Our spiritual parents knew the value of air and sky. They didn’t know physiology or astronomy or meteorology, but they recognized that without breath, life ceases. They hadn’t seen photos from the Hubble telescope but they delighted in the heavenly lights that guided their nighttime adventures.
In the poetic vision of creation, found in Genesis, God breathes on the dust God has molded and humankind comes to life. In Psalm 150, the breath of life fills all things, and all creation gives thanks – Let everything that breathes praise God. Spiritually dead on Easter night, the disciples are revived when Jesus comes into the upper room where they are hiding and “breathes on them, and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Scripture counsels us to take a breath, and give thanks for every breath and the glorious sustaining power of the atmosphere, the amazing protective shield that allows us and all creatures to live on this good Earth. There’s nothing in solar system like our atmosphere – protective, nurturing, life giving, and deeply in danger by human pollution. What took hundreds of millions of years of divine providence and gradual evolution to create, we are putting at risk in just a few generations. We deplete the atmosphere, threaten the polar ice caps, and threaten what has been described as the “lungs of the Earth,” the Amazon rain forests, for short term profit and fast food meals. And, again we need to repent, to turn around, to change our ways, and take a breath.
It all begins with breath. It all begins with appreciation and wonder that leads to protection and healing of our planet and its most vulnerable people. The incarnation of Jesus reminds us that God sacrifices – God experiences our pain – so that we might have abundant life. That same sacrifice is asked of us. Christianity is not about consumption and how much we have. Christianity is about caring – about sacrificing for a greater good than our well-being, it’s about remembering what’s really important – love, family, health, beauty, growth, and simple things like air, water, skies, and seas.
The Psalms close with the words “let everything that breathes praise God.” That’s God’s call to us – let every breath be prayerful, let every act involve care for others, let us inhale with gratitude and exhale with love, and take our role as God’s companions, committed to healing the Earth and its creatures.