Psalm 150, John 20:19-22
In her inspirational book on ministry in South Bronx, Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark tells of a tree in front of her parsonage that toppled over one day without any warning. On further examination, Neumark discovered that the tree had rotted from within, suffering from a type of arboreal cancer, resulting from the poisonous air of its urban neighborhood. In pondering her own challenges of finding time for renewal, refreshment, and healing, Neumark concludes that both she and the fallen tree needed breathing space.
Today’s passage is about finding that breathing space. It’s Easter night and the disciples are still overwhelmed by the events of the past 12 hours. The finality of death has been defeated in resurrection but they are fearful that Jesus’ opponents will take revenge. They huddle in an upper room, sheltering in place to recover their bearings for the uncertain future that lies ahead.
Out of nowhere, Jesus appears. Walls and doors can’t confine him. In his resurrection presence, he breathes on them and proclaims, “receive the Holy Spirit.” His breath fills them, and they come to life, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Now they can breathe again; now they can take a deep breath, and now they can exhale trusting that God’s energy and wisdom will guide their steps.
How many of us are struggling to get a deep peaceful breath these days? How many of us, in the spirit of a movie about African American women, are waiting to exhale? Waiting for the all-clear breath, which comes after the storm has passed?
Breath is at the heart of spiritual vitality and overall wellbeing. Many of us have learned various breath prayers as ways of centering and grounding our spirits. Pastor Pam’s evening vespers have centering breaths at their heart.
One of my spiritual mentors, Allan Armstrong Hunter, taught graduate students and seminarians at Claremont, now over forty years ago, a simple prayer:
I breathe the spirit deeply in
And blow it gratefully out again.
The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a similar prayer form:
I feel calm
RIGHT NOW CLOSE YOUR EYES AND TAKE A FEW DEEP BREATHS
Where there is breath there is life. And, when our breath is constricted as it may be, due to an anxiety attack, fear, nervousness, or a physical ailment, we feel at the mercy of negative forces within and beyond ourselves. We may feel a catch in our breath, or shortness of breath as we look at the growing death toll, reminded that the pandemic attacks critical pulmonary functions.
The resurrection is a form of spiritual CPR. What has died is now revived. What we fear, we can live with and grow through, knowing that divine energy and power flow through us. John’s account of Jesus’ breath prayer doesn’t give us forceful winds and tongues of fire like the Pentecost accounts from Acts 2, but for John this spiritual resuscitation represents the coming of the same Holy Spirit, that gives life and joins us with all creation.
The reading from the Psalms with which we began worship proclaims, “let everything that breathes praise God.” These are powerful words on Earth Day week. They proclaim the reality of an energetic and connecting breath that joins past, present, and future; flora and fauna; human and non-human animals. Even in our time of sheltering in place, we depend on a healthy environmen for our short and long term survival and the health of future generations.
The Psalmists’ poetry proclaims what ecologists have discovered – the Earth breathes. We humans are part of a great and enveloping lung, constantly replenishing itself, but also shaped by our acts of earth care or destruction. We all know how smoking can constrict and darken our lungs; yet, by our unbridled consumption and pollution of the atmosphere, we darken the lungs of the earth, and then indirectly poison ourselves, our children and grandchildren, and generations to come. We can’t help influencing the environment and climate – the question is, will our influence be creative or destructive? Will our impact be minimal or excessive in terms of harm? Will our wanton destruction of the earth lead to the next global crisis? That is the choice we – and our leaders make – not just for us, not just for the young children of our church, but for decades to come.
We all need breathing space. We all need to breathe deeply refreshing and clean air, and fill our cells and souls with God’s wise energy. We all need to remember we are not alone – as individuals, as a nation, or as humans – but are part of great and holy breath, the manifestation of God’s Spirit, the giver of life, the bringer of hope and community.
Let us practice resurrection by breathing deeply, feeling our unity, and then discovering in our daily lives, ways we can contribute as individuals and citizens to the health of that great breath -this good Earthly breath – in whom we live and move and have our being.