Date: March 21, 2021
Bible Text: Isaiah 58:1-12, Mark 1:29-39 | Bart Smith
A long, long time ago I went scuba diving for the first time. It was also the last time. What could go wrong? Well, it turns out, plenty. No, I didn’t get stung by the Box Jellyfish that had turned that other tourist’s leg black. No, the baby shark kept on swimming past me and didn’t chomp on my foot. No, I didn’t slice my arm on a coral reef. What really ended up freaking me out was the whole “if you ascend to the surface too quickly, one of the air sacs in your lungs might rupture and you could die” thing. “Air embolism,” they call it. The mere knowledge that that could happen caused me to deplete my tank.
Spoiler alert: I made it up OK, but everyone else ragged on me because I had the lowest tank level on the boat. And that’s embarrassing! But what are you going to do? I was nervous, so the pace of my breathing accelerated. But guess what makes one even more anxious? Quick breathing! And what else makes one even more anxious? Watching the needle on the pressure gauge creep toward empty! Shallow breaths made the problem worse. I’d like to try diving again one day; whenever that happens, I’ll hopefully remember how important it is to pace myself and breathe deeply.
Obviously, that’s a very privileged story, but hopefully we can all relate to the need for deep breathing, especially when we’re nervous, scared, angry, or otherwise in a state of panic. And not just while we’re under duress, but it’s wise to regulate our breathing during positive activities like exercising (yoga, running, etc.), singing (I’m sure Nicky and the choir could tell us something about that), praying (it helps focus). Quick, shallow breaths aren’t helpful most; deeper, slower breaths are.
In this scene from Mark’s gospel, Jesus is clearly in need of some deep breaths. He’s in such desperate need that he shoots out of bed before sunrise to sneak off to pray. To be by himself with his Heavenly Parent. After banishing the fever from Simon Peter’s mother in law in the afternoon, in the evening the disciples bring all these crowds to the poor woman’s house. And not just those weighed down with sickness or under demonic (and political) oppression, but the whole town. Maybe Jesus rises before sunrise because he hadn’t been able to fall asleep in the first place after such a head-spinning day. I’d love to be a “fly on the wall” in this moment. Does he pray with words? Does he have a conversation with God? Does he replay in his mind the names of those he had healed? Does he say nothing at all? Whatever shape this communion with God takes, it’s clear he needed some space to breathe.
After his followers tracked him down, they took the show on the road doing the same lifegiving work in other villages. And occasionally Mark and the other gospel writers interrupt the whirlwind tour of Galilee with moments like this one in which Jesus withdraws to breathe deeply. By example, Jesus shows us how to be what Charles Ringma calls “the contemplative activist.” From Jesus we learn that:
“When we seek the face of God, God will always draw us back to [God’s] concerns for the world. Involved in the concerns of the world, we are always called back to be nurtured and loved and sent out again cloaked in greater wisdom. Reflection and action, service and prayer, work and Sabbath are amongst the most basic rhythms of the Chrsitian life.”
But it’s a fair observation to say that many individual Christians and Christian communities tend to emphasize one activity over the other, or ignore that rhythm altogether. In the “respiratory system” of faith, there’s often a lack of balance; we tend to “breathe in” more than we “breathe out,” or vice versa. The emphasis falls on loving God or loving neighbor. That last one is, in sum, what the prophet Isaiah is railing about in the first reading: worship that is hollow without justice, performing the love of God without practicing love of neighbor. We compartmentalize worship and mission, spirituality and justice, the mystical and the prophetic, contemplation and action. Our breaths are shallow.
[I say “we.” The “we” I’m referring to are Christian communities of primarily European descent. Our tradition compartmentalizes these things; indigneous communities, religious traditions of people of color, in my opinion, do a better job of integrating these facets of the life of faith. Friends of mine, clergy who are white, who went to Standing Rock to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline left that experience profoundly moved and changed by the spiritual groundedness of the Sioux’s resistance.]
So what then does it look like to inhale and exhale deeply, to “pace our breathing,” spiritually speaking?
One window into what that might look like through the work of Thomas Merton. Merton, the last of the figures in our “Spirituality of Staying Put” series, is probably more widely known (in this country). He was born in France to a highly educated international family that later moved to the United States. As a young adult he became active in peace activism during World War II, and later converted to Catholicism and joined the Trappist order at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. He was a prolific and acclaimed writer. In Merton’s life and writing, it’s easy to trace an evolution from seeing the spiritual life as one thing over here and the life of activism as another over here to them being integrated parts of the same whole.
Merton lived and worked during some critical periods of the Twentieth Century, from the end of WWII to his premature death in 1968. His books start out fairly tow-the-line Roman Catholic, but by the end of his life he was seriously engaging Buddhism. And from his “perch” at the abbey, he wrote about the spiritual aspects of some of the most pressing challenges of the era. He integrated them. He was a “deep breather” and engaged issues of justice from a spiritual perspective. For him, much of what afflicts the world is rooted in the ego, what he termed the “False Self.” Here’s a tiny sample. Merton wrote:
“Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed - but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”
For Merton, the “True Self” was the image of God within us. Connecting with the love of God helps us to see that image within ourselves and then, in turn, see it in other people. The problem is, as we know, so many of the systems and “isms” of life distort that image. That’s why contemplation was so important for Merton, because it helps us see past the distortions. He also wrote:
“Prayer does not blind us to the world, but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see it, all [people], and all the history of [humankind], in the light of God.
Is what Merton saying, “Pray and it’ll all be better”? Absolutely not! Prayer, contemplation, a spiritual approach, mindfulness — moving through life with “deep breaths,” if you will — focuses our attention on what is real and what is true. Rather than “burying our heads in the sand,” a prayerful posture focuses our attention and helps us move through life more intentionally. Contemplation is not disengagement, it’s more profound engagement.
Attention, deep attention, is at the root of love. That’s what prayer is, ultimately: the conscious turning of one’s attention toward God, toward others. That’s how Jesus walked through Galilee, with eyes and heart open. And that is, I’m willing to bet, why he stepped away in prayer: so he could continue to see people, to see the truth of their sickness and oppression and need… but not just that, not only that, but more importantly, their belovedness. The very image of God under all the labels and layers that a cruel world piles on top of God’s children.
As I say this, I’m thinking of course of the murder victims in Atlanta this past week, the latest in a series of violent acts directed at the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Their names need to be said, but I’ll admit that I’m reluctant to say them because, in my ignorance, I’m not yet sure how to pronounce them properly. But I commit to learning how to say their names, and praying for all those who love them and are left shattered in the wake of their murders. I hope you will join me in those prayers.
We live in a world that objectifies people, that turns humans into utilities, that attempts to make people invisible. White supremacy functions in this way. Cultivating a contemplative stance helps us to see clearly, to see people as they are in the fullness of their humanity, and over time helps us see the humanity we share… and how the patterns of greed and dominance in which we participate diminish that humanity. In prayer we encounter God so that we can encounter God in one another.
So in all that we seek to do — to show mercy to one another, to offer compassion and generosity and understanding to those around us, to work for justice in society — in what ways is all of that grounded in Spirit? And how does our grounding in the Spirit propel us back into our works renewed and with greater insight?
My invitation to practice: pray, then act; then pray. Whatever is on your heart this day to do: donate to a grassroots organization; make dinner for a neighbor; call your Congressperson; sign a petition; call someone with whom you have conflict and make peace. Pray before it and after it. Spend time in silence before choosing your actions or your words. Purposefully make action and contemplation a rhythm, like breathing in and out.
God knows there is so much these days that needs attention, so much that is wrong and in need of fixing, so much hurry, so much distraction, so many things that are necessary and pressing and urgent. It becomes all the more important, then, to “breathe deeply.” To pace and balance our breaths. To move through life intentionally. To see one another, to see ourselves, in the light of God. This is our invitation this Lenten season, and beyond… Amen.