In her book Breathing Space, Pastor Heidi Neumark tells of an apparently healthy tree, standing in front of her Bronx parsonage, that falls unexpectedly one morning. Upon examination, the pastor discovered that the tree was rotting from the inside, most likely the result of fumes and toxins in her Bronx neighborhood. The tree simply could no longer breathe enough good air to sustain itself.
We all know the feeling of having our breath constricted – perhaps due to a cold, asthma, COPD, or anxiety. We search for a deep breath but just can’t get it. We yearn for one deep breath that will tell us that everything is alright. When it finally comes, how joyful it is when we can breathe again, freely and fully. How joyful it is when we can take a leisurely deep breath and rejoice in our personal well-being.
That night, as the women and men who followed Jesus gathered in a locked room for fear of the authorities, they too struggled to breathe deeply. They had been through so much in the past few days that they didn’t know what to believe or how to respond – they had experienced the joy of Palm Sunday, the uncertainty of the Passover meal, the arrest and crucifixion of their teacher, their own fear and betrayal in his hour of need, and then the news that Christ is Risen.
Amid their breathless anxiety, Jesus appears – somehow locked doors cannot contain his resurrection body, and he greets them with the words, “Peace be with you.” Not just once but twice, Jesus says “peace be with you,” awakening them to a peace greater than their fears, and a peace that sustains them even in difficult and uncertain times. Jesus greets them with a peace that beckons them to go out into the word as good news givers. Jesus’ affirmation changes their outlook completely: they now realize that all will be well and that they have a life of mission and service ahead of them.
And, then Jesus breathes on them, and with this spiritual resuscitation, he revives them body, mind, and spirit. He gets them breathing again, now on their own, and proclaims “receive the Holy Spirit.”
God’s Spirit is the breath of life. It is the resuscitation of the dead. It is the inspiration that leads to inspiring others, and God’s Spirit is ours and just a breath away.
A few breaths can make all the difference in the world. When a young child is anxious or afraid, we invite him or her to breathe slowly and deeply, and rediscover a sense of calm. When we are anxious, we can stop and breathe deeply and feel a deeper peace amid life’s trials. Today, schools promote calm by mindfulness meditation, a few minutes to stop, breathe gently, and notice how you’re feeling. According to studies, such mindfulness activities, including calming breaths, are associated with stress reduction, greater focus, decreased hyperactivity, and reduction in behavioral problems.
Jesus breathed on them, and gave them new life. As spiritual teachers tell us, “peace is just a breath away.” We just need a little space to breathe and discover God’s spirit of wisdom and guidance within.
Out of that moment of peace, Jesus gives his followers a mandate to be agents of forgiveness. We all need to be givers and receivers of forgiveness. There are times when we know we have hurt others or have turned our back on our best selves. We may have intended good, but our sins of omission and commission have hurt ourselves and others. We all need forgiveness. We need to know that in the midst of pain there is hope for new life. We need to know that we can begin again, despite our past mistakes.
We need to seek forgiveness, and we also need a community of friends willing to mediate God’s forgiveness to us; not cheap forgiveness but forgiveness that leads to a transformed life and changed values.
Perhaps, that’s the gift of breath – breath that lifts us out of fear, restores our spiritual center, and helps us find our way home.
Take a moment right now to close your eyes and breathe deeply….just a few breaths….imagine that each breath fills you with God’s Spirit. Like those first followers of Jesus, you can breathe in the Spirit and be free once more.
Today, let us find room for breathing space – let us receive God’s Spirit with every breath. God’s inspiration is with us, giving us the energy and calm of God’s spirit, and room to breathe, forgive, and serve.