The United Churches
Second Sunday of Lent – February 25, 2018
Romans 8: 26-28; 38-39
Likewise, the Breath helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Breath intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Breath, because the Breath intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Then the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living soul.
Breathe. Just Breathe. Where have we heard that instruction? As I have been thinking about this over this past week, I’ve been noticing where I hear the word and paying attention to memories about breathing.
Of course, we breathe all of the time without thinking about it, apparently about 26,000 times a day we take a breath. We don’t think about it until we have to, like when we cannot breathe due to illness, asthma or anxiety.
This week I was visiting a church member in the hospital who had to call 911 because she was in so much pain. While in the ambulance, overcome with pain, her thoughts went back to another time of great time of pain in her life, when she was giving birth to her child, and then she remembered the instruction she had been given to breathe. She started intentionally to try to take deep, calming breaths to reduce her pain.
For a year Tim and I were parents to four foster children: siblings who were 6, 7, 8 and 9 when they came to live with us. The youngest had asthma. I remember many nights sitting on our couch using a nebulizer with albuterol to relieve his suffering. I remember making sure he had his inhaler for school. This attention to his breathing did not, however, keep us out of the Emergency Room.
It was difficult to watch him struggle for breath. Many of us in this room have had the privilege of watching someone take their first breath or their last breath. It is a powerful experience. Once the breath goes, the person no longer looks like themselves. Breath – spirit is definitely animating.
Breath – Spirit – wind. In both Hebrew and Greek the word is feminine and translates all three ways depending on the context. In Hebrew: the word is Ruach – Spirit, wind, breath. In Greek the word is Pneuma. You’ve heard it as the root word for pneumatic or pneumonia. Again, this word translates to spirit, wind or breath. It is powerful to interchange them.
Wind is potent! A week ago Saturday we had some wind here in the Thurston County area. Subsequently like some of you, we had no electricity at our house. By the same token, the sailboat that Tim races on won their race. We have seen the constructive and destructive power of the wind. Hurricanes destroy, and wind farms generate electricity. Breath is also powerful. After a couple of minutes without breathing, we lose brain function.
The power of wind, the power of breath can help us understand the power of the Spirit. That is why for the second reading of this passage from Romans, I changed the word from spirit to breath. It is absolutely Breath that animates life. Just as we read from the second creation myth in Genesis 2: Then the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living soul. It is Breath that calms us and Breath that connects us to one another and to the divine.
My daughter Megan went to graduate school in Hawaii. The first time that we visited her, she told us about how native Hawaiians greet one another. Hawaiians often greeted each other by sharing ha, or their breath. This exchange of breath is done when two people press together the bridge of their noses while inhaling at the same time. It’s a Hawaiian greeting that welcomes the other person into their space by sharing the breath of life, which was sacred to the culture. Ancient Hawaiians recognized that their breath was the key to good health and believed it possessed spiritual power. Before an elderly person died, he/she often passed down wisdom to the chosen successor by sharing ha in this fashion. (As a side note, many believe that this is how the word haole came about, meaning “without breath.” The first western settlers to reach Hawaii did not know the Hawaiian custom of exchanging ha. They, instead, withdrew their heads during the exchange and extended their hands in a formal Western way of greeting.)
It is our Breath that connects us to one another and it is Breath that connects us to the divine. I think that Paul wanted the church people in Rome to get out of their heads and breathe. Many of the people in Rome that converted to Christianity were Jewish. As Jews, they already had many religious practices that they observed. They strove to follow the laws. Then they layered Christian practice on top of that and thought that other followers should do the same. Topping that off there was apparently some religious infighting around theology. The letter to the churches in Rome is densely packed with theology, but in the little snippet we read today, things become very simple. Breathe, just breathe. Breathe and trust the breath. We don’t need words when we commune with one another and with God, we only need to breathe.
In this reading from Romans, the Apostle Paul is speaking of something more than just not knowing what to say when you feel the urge to pray, or when you are called upon to pray, or when you are so overcome by anxiety that your chest tightens. Paul is talking about prayer in a much deeper sense. When it comes to communicating with the divine, words fail. We look at the world around us with such a limited lens. With our limited lens, we perhaps only see limited possibilities.. We may only see the world like a television with bad reception. But, God sees from one horizon to the next. God sees infinite possibility.
So no, we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But, that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. The Breath intercedes with sighs…big deep breaths. Prayer. Really, it has nothing to do with the words. But, real union with God comes not from words but from the sighs that are too deep for words.
I don’t know what drives you to pray. I say daily prayers, but what drives me to pray is that feeling of intense anxiety, that feeling of not being able to control a situation, that feeling that everything is completely out of my hands…I can’t fix it, I can’t change it, I can’t stop it. What drives me to prayer are things that break my heart…children dying in mass shootings, children and adults dying of war…of continuous bombings in Syria, watching parents whose children run away, seeing teens recover from trauma, watching someone die. That is my time to pray and prayer looks mostly like deep breathing…sucking in very deep breaths because there are no words…sucking in very deep breaths like sighs and then letting the sighs do the work.
Just breathe…practice deep breathing…keep breathing…that is where God is.