From Response Magazine
…As long as my breath is in me and the Spirit of God is in my nostrils… Job 27:3
The Hebrew word for Spirit – rûah – means breath. The Spirit of God is the breath of God. When we breath in, the air that fills our lungs in the very Spirit of God, taken into our bodies to sustain life. At the moment we die to this life, we are said to breathe our last breath.
The hymn, “Breathe on Me, Breath of God” captures the sense of God as breath:
Breath on me, breath of God
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love,
And do what thou wouldst do.
“Fill us with life anew.” What a complete prayer! With each breath, we are asking God to be in our very beings. When we call on God to lead us, to heal us, to be with us, we are asking that we be able to breathe freely and fully. We are seeking God’s presence with us in the essence of life: our breathing.
When I was learning to ride a bike, I remember my father saying to me, “Soon it will be as easy as breathing out and breathing in.” In biology, we learned how some functions of our bodies are involuntary – they happen without our even thinking about them. We may only think about our breathing when it becomes labored after a brisk walk or run or an uphill climb or jog.
Such exertion makes our breathing faster and shallower. We feel its accelerated rhythm in our heads and chests and may ask companions to give us a moment to catch our breath.
Returning our breathing to its normal pace brings a sense of comfort as does focusing on breathing in meditation. When my son was young and would get angry about something, I would suggest he take three deep breaths. I initially gave this direction because someone had disciplined me in a similar fashion.
Soon I found this exercise worked. To encourage my son to take the three deep breaths, I would take them with him. I quickly learned that regardless of the impact on him, it was a valuable exercise for me as a stressed-out parent. Imagine. Something as simple as three deep breaths can bring calm.
“Breathe on me, breath of God. Fill me with life anew.”
It actually works!
The Present Spirit
Let us pray together, inspired by Psalm 103:
Dear God, I praise and bless you, O my soul. With all that is within me, I praise and bless your holy name. I will not forget all your benefits, that you forgive my iniquity and heal my diseases. God, you redeem my life, my relationships, my body and my soul. You offer me steadfast love and mercy. You satisfy me with good throughout my life so that the energy of my being is renewed like the eagles and I soar on the breath of the Spirit. Amen.
In giving us breath, God asks us to join in caring for life around us. In Genesis 2:7 we read: Then God formed a human form from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the human’s nostrils the breath of life and the human became a living being.
From the beginning, God has given us breath. With that breath comes a covenant that we be co-creators with God and stewards of God’s good creation. It is easy to see the many places where we have not kept the covenant: rivers filled with chemicals, land eroding because it has been stripped of vegetation, habitat for God’s creatures drained for shopping malls. In our air, we especially see where we are failing as stewards of creation.
Gas emissions are warming our earth, changing weather patterns and threatening whole eco-systems with extinction. God has given us breath but we are fouling the air we breathe – the same air that sustains plants, animals and oceans.
Across the United States and around the world, we are seeing increased rates of asthma. Close to 11 percent of the U.S. population has asthma, the 15th highest rate of 74 nations ranked by the World Health Organization in 2004. The organization’s records show the highest asthma rates in industrialized nations with increasing rates in many developing nations. For example, asthma rates among schoolchildren in Barbados increased from 1 percent in 1970 to 15 percent in 1996.
Asthma rates worldwide are generally highest in urban areas and often concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods. For example, children in the South Bronx have a higher incidence of asthma than their counterparts in surrounding suburbs. We are literally taking away our children’s breath, even our children’s lives.
Around the world, lack of emission standards for vehicles and industries are fouling the air. With babies’ first breath, they begin to absorb contaminants into their developing bodies. We are only beginning to understand the full impact of breathing unclean air as we watch friends and relatives, who were smokers before we fully knew the danger, dying from lung cancer. We hear more and more about secondhand smoke and its devastating impact on those who live with smokers. We see people clinging to life breath by breath until they take their last breath.
Breath That Stings
A popular song among United Methodists “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” inspires images of a quiet, meditative breath in our midst. As we sing “Sweet Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly Dove, stay right here with us,” we long for cool, calm breezes that will, as the hymn says, revive us as we go from worship into the world.
But God’s breath does not always feel so gentle. By the 27th chapter of Job, we have seen Job suffer one loss after another. He has debated the goodness of God endlessly with his friends even as they point to evidence to the contrary. It is amazing then that Job reminds them that it is God who gives life when he says in Job 27:3:
…As long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils…
Even after suffering calamity after calamity, Job maintains the integrity of his steadfast belief in God’s goodness.
The God that breathes life into us is a God who loves us. Even when all around us seems to go wrong, the breath of life remains. When we feel God is absent, we sigh and in sighing, we next draw in a deep breath. God does not desert us but goes with us and surrounds us with the breath of life.
It is hard to believe in things we can’t see and can’t hold. Reach out and grab the air. It isn’t possible, is it? The air we seek to hold flows out freely in all directions to all God’s people.
If it is cool where you live, go outside and breathe into the early morning or night air. Watch as your breath appears before you and then dissipates. Breathe in deeply and feel the coolness of the air as it goes into your body. Imagine multitudes of others doing the same thing. God is present for each of us and all of us even to the point of being in the air we breathe.
None of us feels good 24-7. Some of us are dealing with the growing pains of the teen years when our bodies spurt to new heights too quickly for our joints and puberty leaves us in strangers’ bodies. Some of us have the aches and pains that come with ageing and the unfamiliar behaviors of menopause. Some of us have respiratory illnesses or digestive distress. Others are dealing with cancer, chronic neurological conditions, physical disabilities, mental illness, and terminal illness. The list of disabilities and disease in our communities, our nation and our world is long. Wellness can seem elusive.
The God who breathed life into the first humans, breathes life into us today. Let us ask God to breathe on us, giving us life anew to meet the challenges we face as souls housed in bodies that get sick, bodies that sometimes fail us and the ones we love. God’s breath is all around us.
This article appeared in Response Magazine in the November 2005 issue
United Methodist Deaconess Dana Jones of White Plains, N.Y., was the editor of Response magazine for 15 years and now coordinates an arts-justice ministry in her community.
Copyright © 2005 Women's Division of the United Methodist Church. Used by Permission.