By Steven Norris
Have you breathed today? I’m guessing that if you’re still reading, the answer is “Yes.” But, when was the last time that you went outside in the cool of the evening, inhaled deeply, and felt the cool night air hit the back of your throat and expand your chest?
My fascination with the lungs started in fourth grade. Mrs. Reynolds gave us the opportunity to do a special project for extra credit. I remember filling that trifold board with diagrams of bronchioles, lobes, a diaphragm, ands alveoli.
In subsequent years, I remember working with intention to develop those lungs as an athlete and musician. I remember the feeling of “sucking wind” at the end of a 400-meter dash. I remember training my lungs to measure my breath as I blew air through the metal tubes of a trombone to carry a musical phrase to its completion.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that the lungs and breath are also inherently theological in nature. Sure, there is the sense that the human body is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the Psalms put it, but it’s more than that.
Both Hebrew and Greek (the original languages of the Bible), contain a similar nuance when translating the English word “breath.” In Hebrew, the word is ruach; in Greek, it is pneuma. Both of these words could be accurately translated as “wind, breath, or spirit.”
In the poetry of Genesis 2, human life began when God blew into man’s nostrils the “breath/wind/spirit” of life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection and “breathed on them, saying, ‘Receive the breath/Spirit.’” In the book of Acts, the church was born among those disciples who heard “a mighty rushing wind” and received the outpouring of the Holy “Spirit.”
For most of us, breathing happens without any conscious awareness. The body takes in oxygen, a necessary component for life, and exhales carbon dioxide, a gas that is poisonous to the human body in large amounts. Typically, we only become aware of the process when it ceases to function properly (as those with COVID-19 have painfully experienced).
I cannot help but think that this simple act of breathing is an appropriate metaphor for our day. Without thinking, we breathe in the cultural air around us – air that contains toxins in the form of destructive emotions, thought patterns, and habits. We also breathe in life-giving, life-affirming oxygen in the form of grace, generosity, or a simple smile from a stranger.
The danger comes when we forget to exhale – when we forget to release those things that threaten to suffocate us. We see it all around us: friends and neighbors choking on the anger, fear, and turmoil that characterize our day.
It should be no surprise, then, that intentional breathing has been a vital spiritual practice for numerous world religions. Coupled with meditation, we can take time to fill our lungs, minds, and hearts with those things that enhance life (with the Spirit of God) and exhale that which brings death.
Maybe what the world needs more than anything right now is for more people to go outside, take off their masks, and breathe deeply. In fact, our very lives depend on it.