Praise the LORD!: A Spirituality of Breath

Readings for the Second Sunday after Pentecost:

1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)

Psalm 146

Galatians 1:11-24

Luke 7:11-17

This sermon was preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on Sunday June 6, 2010.

A few years ago, American journalist and author A. J. Jacobs published The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. In his attempt to obey every single rule of the Bible, Jacobs grows out his hair and beard, dons a biblical robe, carries a staff and even purchases a ten-string harp. And although it is not planned, Jacobs and his wife obey the Bible’s first command to “be fruitful and multiply” when they give birth to twins at the end of the year. Besides being a pure pleasure to read about the author’s hilarious escapades (which frequently test his wife’s patience), the book offers insight into one of the most repeated commands in all of Scripture: “Praise the Lord.” In fact, there are six references to this command in today’s readings alone. It is a command that we often overlook in Scripture and often fail to obey in our day-to-day lives. In his memoir, Jacobs writes about praising the Lord (and giving thanks) when he says, “It’s an odd way to live. But also kind of great and powerful. I’ve never been so aware of the thousands of little good things, the thousands of things that go right every day.” “[Praise and thanksgiving],” he writes, “[serve as] a reminder to myself: ‘Pay attention, pal. Savor this moment.’”[1] Today’s readings also serve as a reminder to pay attention, to savor each moment and to praise the Lord for every breath that we breathe, for every breath that God breathes within us.

All of the readings share a God-inspired movement from death to life that climaxes in praise. In First Kings, the prophet Elijah resuscitates a man who has “no breath left in him” by performing an ancient form of CPR. The Bible says, “He stretched himself upon the child three times.” The Septuagint says, “He breathed upon the child three times.” Upon receiving her resuscitated son, the widow of Zarephath gives thanks and praise, saying to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” The Psalm calls us to praise the LORD as long as we live and have our being and reminds us to not trust in earthly rulers who simply return to earth when they “breathe their last.” Paul recounts his God-inspired transformation from a violent persecutor of the faith to its most zealous preacher, teaching that God is the one “who gives us all life and breath” (Acts 17:25). Paul then concludes, “They glorified God because of me.”  And clearly resembling the account in First Kings, the Gospel story presents Jesus transmitting his life-giving spirit to another (apparently) deceased son of a widow. When his breath returns to him through Christ’s touch, the widow’s son begins to speak as the onlookers glorify God. God-inspired movements from death to life, climaxing in praise.

Where are our God-inspired movements from death to life? And are we obeying the Biblical command to “Praise the Lord”? We do not need to be resuscitated from near-death to experience God-inspired resurrection. The theme of breath, which permeates today’s readings, invites us to pay attention and to savor each breath that God has given us to take. We experience resurrection every morning when we wake up breathing. Every breath we take is God-inspired. Every breath we take is reason enough to praise the Lord.

Yet breath is more than a reason to praise the Lord. Spiritual traditions and teachers have taught us that paying attention to our breath is deeply connected to paying attention to God. The mystic poet Kabir was asked, “What is God?” And he answered, “He is the breath inside the breath.” The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, who was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, said, “God is thy being.” God is thy breath. The Hebrew word for “breath” is “ruach” which is the same word used for “Spirit.” (The Holy Spirit is the “Ruach haKodesh”). And the very name of God in Hebrew, some have argued, represents the sound we make when we breathe: “Yah-weh.” The very name of God calls us to pay attention to our breath. And taking God’s name seriously means taking our breath seriously and not breathing in vain.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zin, Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, writes about the health benefits of mindfulness and meditation. He teaches that paying attention to our breath leads to less stress, anxiety, pain and illness and to more health, wellbeing and compassion. He knows that 90% of our energy comes from breathing and that 70% of our body’s toxins are released in breathing. He invites his students: “Taste the breath, smell the breath, drink in the breath, allow yourself to be breathed, to be touched by the air, caressed by the air, to merge with the air in the lungs, across the skin, everywhere the air, everywhere the breath in the body.” Pay attention to “the apex and trough, the apogee and perigee of each full swing of one breath. Feel the breath, ride on the waves of the breath like a leaf.”[2]

These practices make us aware and mindful of the God-inspired life happening at each moment within us, moving us from mindlessness to mindfulness, from death to life, leading us to be grateful and to praise the Lord for each and every breath.

The prophet Elijah teaches us about this healing power of breath and the Psalmist calls us to praise the Lord as long as we have breath. As we read the words of the Creed, as we pray, as we sing, as we celebrate the Eucharist, let us remember to breathe and praise the Lord for the vital gift that is our breath.

Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my breath. Amen.

[1] A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 269.

[2] Jon Kabat-Zin, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness (New York: Hyperion Books, 2005), 284.


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