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Finding Your Breath

In preaching classes, they teach you to “preach from your scars; not your wounds.” What they mean is that if the preacher hasn’t healed, she probably isn’t ready to get up and teach about whatever still hurts like an open wound. But anyone with a body can tell you that sometimes it’s hard to know if something is finished healing. And sometimes scars still ache and burn.

I was a very sick child. Breathing, just about the most basic function of a living human, was very hard for me. For the first several years of my life, I was in and out of the hospital. My nebulizer was my constant companion, and even now, the most comforting smell I can remember is the smell of a freshly unpackaged oxygen mask. I didn’t have cystic fibrosis, but they treated me with many of the same treatments, so I can vaguely remember my parents doing percussive treatments on my back to break up the mucus that was making it so hard to breathe. I could tell the nurse which veins were the best for blood draws. My “homework” was to practice with my peak flow meter. And if you don’t know what some of those words mean, good for you and your healthy lungs! I exchanged Christmas presents with my pediatrician because we were good buddies, if that tells you anything about the frequency with which I saw him. The doctors told my parents that they should be prepared for me not to survive childhood. Obviously, I did, and I’m very healthy now. I grew out of all of my breathing problems, to everyone’s surprise.

I didn’t get to do some of the things healthy kids got to do. I started dance once, but I got whooping cough (I was allergic to the vaccine- and many other things) and my recovery took so long that I was unenrolled. I was the kid with the note to sit out during PE, and I never played a team sport. Instead, I lived in a world of stories. I read all the time. I still do, actually. I don’t remember consciously learning to let my mind leave my body, but that was how I survived for a long time. All of my lived experience for a very long time taught me that my body couldn’t be trusted. I believed my body was not a good body, and in fact, it was maybe trying to kill me. Some of you know what I’m talking about. Maybe you experienced it a different way, maybe you are feeling it now as your body is deteriorating, as it seems your body is betraying you as you age.

And I’ll tell you this- my relationship with my body was hurt, not healed by some of what I learned at church. For years, I heard messages about rejecting the physical world, about the temptations of the flesh, about the ways a woman’s body was a problem for men simply by existing, how this world is not our home and our bodies hold us back. It’s bad theology- it’s an ancient heresy, actually, to teach a division of soul and body. It’s a rejection of the God who came in the flesh.

And then of course, there were all of the societal messages about how I should manipulate my appearance to be more pleasing to everyone else. All of it together left me very disconnected from my body. I didn’t trust my body, and I didn’t know how to understand it. I didn’t know what it meant to be created by the Creator. I tell you all of this not because I am wounded. Honestly I didn’t want to tell you any of this and I debated it all week. I tell you all of this because I trust you and I believe in the power of vulnerability. And I suspect that at least some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. You too have struggled to feel at home in your body. You have also felt unsafe in your skin. The story of your body is different than mine- maybe yours is chronic pain or fatigue, abuse, disease or disability, simply old age. Or maybe yours is about the dangerous theology that taught you your body was bad or the harmful societal messages. It’s hard to be a person in a body, isn’t it? And it’s funny, because there is no way to be a person without a body. These are experiences that we must heal from, body and soul.

If you’ve ever been sick, given birth to a child, recovered from an injury, simply been bone tired, you’ve known weakness. So when Paul writes in Romans 8 that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” I have to believe that, at least in part, this includes the weakness of our mortal bodies. Our bodies can be so frail. Verse 26 says that the “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Sighs too deep for words- that noise is the language of pain, of heartbreak, of brokenness. The author John Green writes of his experience with viral meningitis, “…physical pain doesn’t just evade language. It destroys language. When we are really hurting, after all, we can’t speak. We can only moan and cry.”[1] What comfort it is then, to know that the Holy Spirit speaks the language of those who suffer, and intercedes on our behalf, praying for us in the realities of our mortality. Thanks be to God that we do not face our frailty alone; our Creator walks through the valley of the shadow of our own deaths with us.

And also- if it is true that to be human is to be weak and frail, to live in a body that is constantly aging, deteriorating, failing, it must also be true that everything good that has ever happened to you has happened in your body. It must also be true that to be created by the Creator is to be wonderfully made. It’s in this body that you watched trees blossom, smelled your grandma’s cooking, touched a baby’s velvety skin, heard the wind through the trees, clinched at the delicious tart taste of blackberries. This body has seen you through every crisis you’ve ever encountered; it has protected you. When I think back to the ways that my childhood experiences left me feeling divorced from my body, I wish I could go back to my child self and say “look, look how hard your body is fighting to keep you here. See how brave she is?” To escape the physical world is to abandon the Creator.

You see, God does not just exist in the spiritual world as some of us have been led to believe. God made the physical world; in fact, that is the very first thing we know about God. God created all that we can experience with our senses, which, by the way, is the only way we can experience anything. There is no separation between the spiritual and physical world- it is all sacred and holy because it was all made by God. The author Cole Arthur Riley, in her book This Here Flesh, writes, “The chasm between the spiritual and the physical is not greater than that between a thought and a word. They cannot be disconnected. And it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins, perhaps because there is no such place.”[2] For right now, for the entire duration of your earthly life, you do not exist separately from your body. There is nothing else. And when God looked at creation, when God looked at you, with all your freckles and aches, your bad hearing and gray hair, with those extra pounds and arthritic fingers, God says “it is good.”

Here's how we know that God is in the physical world- Jesus came in the flesh. Jesus came in a body just like ours- a perfectly imperfect human body. Jesus had hangnails and stomach aches. He got tired and sweaty. Probably he cut himself in a clumsy moment with his tools. Maybe his vision was imperfect. If God came to us in the form of a human body, your body is not your enemy. Your body is good. And what’s more, God still comes to us in the flesh. Every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we remember Jesus’ bodily life, his death, and his resurrection. And we take the bread and the wine into our bodies at Jesus’ command. It’s not simply a symbol. We believe that we swallow God’s grace. God is present to us in our bodies, coursing through our blood stream.

Both in the Old and New Testaments, the word for the Holy Spirit is the same as the word for breath. At creation in Genesis, God’s breath hovered over the waters, God’s breath met Elijah in the cave as we learned about last week, at Pentecost, God’s breath swirled around the room, filling the apostles. God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, is no farther from you than the air in your lungs right now.

The title of this sermon and our theme for the week is “Finding your Breath: Listening to your Body.” Knowing, believing, trusting that God’s Breath, the Spirit of the Living God is in this room, I invite you to take a deep breath. In through your nose and out slowly through your mouth. Relax your facial muscles, drop your shoulders. Take a moment to experience being your body. Give thanks for this flesh, this means of experiencing grace and hope, the experience of peace, of love. Perhaps by truly listening to your body, you can find the Holy Spirit.

The Apostle Paul concludes this section of his letter with this enduring hope: “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.” Not life nor death. Not our own shame or embarrassment, not our aches and pains, not our dimming vision or our failing hearts. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God. Love, the love that you experience in this body, in this moment, is never going anywhere.

The magnificent writer and theologian Cole Arthur Riley writes, “On the day the world began to die, God became a seamstress…When Eve and Adam eat from the tree, and decay and despair begin to creep in, when they learn to hide from their own bodies, when they learn to hide from each other- no one ever told me the story of a God who kneels and makes clothes out of animal skin for them…In the garden, when shame had replaced Eve’s and Adam’s dignity, God became a seamstress. He took the skin off of his creation to make something that would allow humans to stand in the presence of their maker and one another again…God went to great lengths to help them stand unashamed…Maybe the same hand that made garments for a trembling Adam and Eve is doing everything he can that we might come a little closer. I pray his stitches hold.”[3]

What a powerful image, a powerful reminder. The same hands that sewed clothes for Adam and Eve is extended to you, pulling you closer, bringing you in wholeness and healing, bringing you into this gift of love. God doesn’t want to be separated from you, not spiritually and not physically. So find your breath, find comfort and refuge in your body, be nourished by the gifts of communion, worship the embodied God. Amen.

[1] Green, J. The Anthropocene Reviewed (2021), p. 200; in reference to Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. [2] Riley, C.A. This Here Flesh (2022), p. 60. [3] Ibid., 13-15.

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