Just breathe. We’ve heard a lot about breathing in recent weeks: about George Floyd’s last breath plea of “I can’t breathe”; about the breathing struggles of those who experience the symptoms of Covid, hospitalized or not; about the fact that our own breath can become an instrument of harm to others with whom we share the air when we fail to wear a mask. Just breathing can be challenging these days.
Just breathe. This was some guidance offered by Pastor Chris Haughhee, chaplain at Intermountain Children’s Home (a Montana Synod ministry partner), with the kids who are experiencing mental health struggles such as clinical anxiety and depression brought about by trauma in their lives. Pastor Haughhee shared this breathing guidance in a blog (found here) and with it a short, 3 minute film called “Just breathe.”
In this film, various children describe in detail their own experience with anger and what it feels like. One little girl uses the image of a jar full of glitter in water. To her, anger feels like that jar being shaken wildly so that all that glitter is exploding through her brain and she can’t see anything but flashing sparks of light. But, the girl says later, when she stops and just breathes, the anger settles down the way glitter drifts to the bottom of the jar when it’s no longer shaken. The film ends with both children and adults practicing the art of just breathing. (Watch the video here.)
Just breathe. This is good advice for us all these days. “And the Lord God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life and Adam became a living being.” (Gen 2:7) “Thus said the Lord God, Come from the four winds, O breath/Spirit, and breathe upon these dead that they may live.” (Ez 37:9). “And Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Jn 30:22)
But how can we stop and sit in the midst of a chaotic world that is shaking our glitter jar and just breathe? How can we inhale God’s Spirit of life and wholeness and the peace that passes all our understanding even as we exhale our anger, fear, and anxieties? How can we just breathe when it seems there are so many voices telling us to just jump?
Over and over we hear, “just jump” back into the social and economic world the way it used to be. “Just jump” off the cliff into the mire of our dysfunctional political system (are you already as sick of the ads as I am?!). “Just jump” in front of the moving train that is Covid-19 racing through our country at barrel-neck speeds, putting our own breathing and the breath of others at greater risk.
I remember when I was a kid standing on top of the high dive for the first time at the Rolla, ND swimming pool. My knees were shaking, my heart was racing, and every instinct I had was telling me to climb back down the ladder. But the kids below were shouting “just jump you scaredy cat!” And my own brain, trying to be brave in its terror, was shouting, “You can do it, you scaredy cat. Just jump.”
And I did. And I survived…but not without experiencing an awful wedgie that I’ve never forgotten and learning my lesson that just jumping, especially when I’m doing it for no other reason than to prove my courage in the midst of terror or get my own way, isn’t often the good or right thing to do.
In fact, it’s well known that Jesus didn’t jump. In the Gospel of Matthew, the devil’s second temptation involved taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and telling him to “just jump.” “If you are God’s Son, throw yourself off and let the angels catch you. You won’t even stub a toe,” the devil says, even quoting scripture at Jesus to prove his point. (Mt 4:5-7)
“Don’t be afraid. It’s not real anyway. Don’t you trust God?! God will save you. Just jump.” Voices in our culture are saying versions of these words to us over and over again, tempting us through shame, doubt and fear to take unnecessary and even dumb risks to prove our bravery, often to try get their own way or seek their own purposes.
But Jesus didn’t jump. And neither should we. Jesus’ response to this temptation is to say, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Don’t test God by putting yourself in harm’s way unnecessarily. Don’t throw yourself in front of moving trains challenging God to save you when you have been given the ability and intelligence to protect yourself. Instead follow Jesus and just don’t jump.
Instead, just breathe. Take a deep breath and release the anger, the fear of being seen as afraid, the anxiety of losing control. Take a deep breath and let the Holy Spirit pray for you with sighs too deep for words. Take a deep breath and fill your whole self and your whole community with God’s life and wisdom and hope.
For yes, God will save us and does save us always! But we cannot receive God’s gift by making bad, unhealthy and unloving choices. We receive God’s salvation by trusting deeply in God’s ever-ready, eternal love for us and then living out that love in all we do and say.
So don’t jump. Instead take some time today and every day to “just breathe.” Learn from the kids in the film and let all the sparkling glitter of anger go to the bottom of your brain. And then just breathe with God, allowing the Spirit to be your diaphragm and lungs, reminding you that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In Christ’s love,
What are the most freeing words ever spoken to you? For me, the words that give me the most freedom in life are, “I am not God.” And a close second are the words, “And I don’t have to be God.”
“I am not God and I don’t have to be God.” Those words have freed me from myself and my need to fix things for people, from my need to save them from their pain, from my need to make everything right for everybody. Ask the congregations I served as an interim…what they heard on my first Sunday was this: “I’m not Jesus and I’m not here to save your congregation. Jesus has already done that.”
As a leader, even as a follower of Christ, not being weighed down by the expectations placed on me by myself and by others and letting God be God so that I don’t have to – that’s the greatest experience of freedom I can have because it allows me the freedom to focus on what I can do and be. I’m now free to be who Jesus calls me to be and to do what Jesus calls me to do.
However, being a human being who is not God and who doesn’t have to try be God does not mean that I get to abdicate my responsibility as someone created in God’s image. I don’t get to say “well, I’m not God so I don’t have to do anything. I can just sit around and let God do all the work.” That is not what it means to not be God. That’s not even what it means to have faith in God.
In Christ, God frees me from having to try be God. I no longer need to turn in on myself and focus all my attention on me being the center-of-the-universe superheroine who has come to save the world. Jesus has already taken care of that.
Now I can be the free me God creates me to be: a person created in the image of the God of love and new life, intertwined in God’s abundant creation with the diversity of all human beings also created in the image of God. I get to be the baptized follower of Christ who is called to participate in God’s mission of love and justice and hope for the world. I get to be free from my need to be God over others so that I can follow the Spirit’s life-giving guidance in the work in which God invites and encourages me to participate.
Also, it is here, in this space of not being God, of not even having to try be God, that I get to most fully live out my freedom to follow Christ and love others. How? Well, in human beings, there is this space between something that happens to or around us and our response to that something. For example, imagine someone says something mean to you. Now, before you respond to that something, there is a moment of freedom when you have the choice to choose what you are going to say or do next. Nobody else gets to make that choice for you; only you.
You can choose to react instantly without thinking or without recognizing the possible consequences of your words or actions. Or you can choose to sit in that moment of pure freedom and remember, “I am not God.” You can choose to stop in that moment and ask yourself “how God is calling me to respond to this moment?” You can take that moment and choose to let the Spirit be your guide into following Christ in love and compassion.
That moment of choice between event and response, that is where the fullness of freedom in Christ lives. For Jesus claimed that moment for himself and ultimately for us, when he prayed to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if possible, take this cup from me. Yet not my will but your will be done.” (Mt 26:39) In Christ, that moment of choice for God is God’s moment and it is in God that our true freedom stands.
“I am not God, thank God! You are not God, thank God! God is God, thank God!” Owning that truth deep in our souls and letting it burst forth every time we face a choice, any choice – that is true freedom. A freedom not found in any bill of rights but finally in the first commandment as God reminds us again and again: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me, including yourself.” (Exodus 20:2)
In the end, the first commandment is not really a command at all; it’s a promise and it’s a gift of a true freedom that comes only in God. So let’s let God be God and live in the truth of not being God, giving thanks always for the freedom that comes in Christ!
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod