O Thou Who Art Closer Than Breath To Us
Updated: 5 days ago
August 18, 2019 Meeting for Worship, West Richmond Friends Meeting
O Thou who art closer than breath to us
Facing bench : Archer Bunner, Cindi Goslee
Hymns - #12 "Spirit of God", #240 The Lone, Wild Bird,
Scripture: Genesis 2:4b-7 and John 4:24
Special music - "Breathe deep, breathe deep the breath of God" (You Tube recording)
Genesis 2: 4b-7 :
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up-for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground- 7then the Lord God formed a human figure from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the human's nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.
John 4: 24: God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.
Young people's message - Michael and I sit side by side in chairs in front of them, and I ask, "What is Michael doing?" If they don't guess, can say that I am doing the same thing as Michael, and so are you and so is everyone in this room. Invite them to put their hand on his chest or their own and see what they feel. And then he will blow into a balloon and slowly let the air out (toward them so they can feel the air.)
If you look closely at a person, you might be able to see their chest or stomach rise and fall as they breathe, but we cannot see breath itself. Maybe you have noticed that sometimes in the winter when we breathe out, the moisture in our breath condenses and makes a little fog in the cold air just past our mouth, but even then we are not seeing our actual breath, we are seeing the fog from the water droplets it contains.
A few minutes ago, Cindi read a story from the Bible that describes God forming a human being out of dirt and then breathing into the human being to make it come to life. I can picture a child long, long ago asking an adult, "How did the first person come to be?", and the adult telling this story to explain how that might have happened. It was also a way of saying that, however the first human being came about, God is as close to us as our breath. God is not with us in a body like Michael is, and I am, and you are, and everyone else in this room. God is a spirit, so God cannot be seen, just as we cannot see our breath. But we can remember that God is with us just as our breath is always with us, even when we are not aware of breathing.
Message : "O Thou who art closer than breath to us"
Some of you may know that, a few years ago when I had my hair cut short after having worn it long for most of my life, my favorite thing about short hair was being able to eat an ice cream cone in the wind without my hair getting in my ice cream. As Michael can attest, I am very fond of ice cream cones, and I especially enjoy eating them outside, so this is not a small thing.
My hair is rather thin, so on a windy day it blows around like crazy. Even more common than my hair getting in ice cream is the experience of having just combed my hair and then heading out the front door to walk to work or to Meeting, only to have the wind make my hair fly around in all directions, undoing all the effects of it having been combed, so that I arrive at my destination looking wild and messy.
Similarly, today the focus for the prepared part of Meeting for Worship is breath, wind, and spirit - things that we cannot see, except by their effects - which is a wild, unclear, untidy, ungainly topic. It is my hope that you will let this feel a bit wild and messy, resisting any sense of pressure to try to make it tidy.
This summer I have been reading a book on the Holy Spirit (The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to the Holy Spirit: Hand-Raisers, Han, and the Holy Ghost) written by my colleague Grace Ji-Sun Kim, who, you may remember, brought us a message a year ago on this topic. Grace's book, and the thoughts which it has engaged in me, are the inspiration for what I am bringing today.
I hope that you will allow the various aspects of Meeting this morning to blow into and through you, trusting that there will be value even if there is not tidiness or clarity. In John 3, verse 8, Jesus reflected this when he spoke about being people who are "born of the spirit", saying, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." May we open ourselves more fully to that mysterious and uncontrollable wind of the Spirit.
L et us return to the brief biblical passage which Cindi read from Genesis 2, that I spoke about in the Young People's message. This passage comes from the second of two creation accounts in the book of Genesis. The first creation account is mostly in the first chapter of Genesis and is told in the form of God speaking the world into being, one aspect a day, over the course of six days, declaring each aspect good, and then resting on the seventh day. In this second creation account, God is depicted in a more "hands-on" manner. This particular story (Genesis 2: 4b-7) describes God forming a human being out of earth and breathing into this figure the breath of life, so that the human became a living being. This is typically translated into English as God having formed a "man", but, as biblical scholar Phyllis Trible explained in her landmark 1978 book,God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, in the Hebrew no gender is identified for this human figure (pages 75-81). The words for "earth" and "human" are connected in Hebrew - "earth" is "ha-damah", and "human" is "ha-adam". One even can get a bit of the sense of this in English in that dirt/earth is also known as "humus", and "humus" relates to the word "human" similarly to the Hebrew connection between ha-dama and ha-adam. God breathed into the nostrils of the ha-adam God had formed from ha-damah, the human formed from the humus, and the human came to life, was no longer just a figure made of earth, but a living being.
In one brief verse, this story responds to the universal question of human origin, reflects awareness that a person needs to have breath to be alive, and describes people having a direct connection to God through having been brought to life by the very breath of God being breathed into the first human being. The song we heard/saw on the YouTube video, "Breathe Deep the Breath of God", giving lots of specific examples of identities, asserts that "everyone everywhere" - nobody left out - can intentionally "breathe deep the breath of God" which is right here in and with us all.
This idea also connects to the quote I chose as the title for this message "O Thou who art closer than breath to us". This is a line from one of my favorite songs, "Live Up to the Light", written by Quaker singer/songwriter Susan Stark based on a quote by a 19th century British woman Friend. It is an expression of Friends' affirmation that God is available to us, not distant or inaccessible, but present, able to be known and a source of direct support and guidance.
In both Hebrew, the primary language of the Old Testament, and Greek, the primary language of the New Testament, one word is used to indicate breath, spirit, and wind. In Hebrew the word is ruach, and in Greek it is pneuma. Translations of these words into English will use different ones of these three English words, but in Hebrew or Greek, they carry this sense of breath, spirit, and wind being connected.
One of my most powerful experiences connecting spirit and breath occurred in April 2006 when my sister Nancy and I sat with our beloved "Grandma F.", Stephanie Freivogel, our mother's mother, in the final hours of her life and in the moments she took her last breaths. There was a period of time when there would be long pauses between Grandma's breaths and we would think she had stopped breathing, but then she would take another breath. It was a holy experience, with a strong sense of her spirit and God's spirit being present. When it became clear that she had indeed taken her final breath, and there were no more, I had the sense that I heard a very far-off brief strand of singing. Life, breath, love, and the wind of the Spirit came very close that early morning in a quiet room at Friends Fellowship Community.
I have gained another form of appreciation for the connection of breath, spirit, and wind through learning about meditation several years ago when I took a course of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at the IU Cancer Center in Indianapolis in the fall of 2013 as part of my journey to learn how to manage the deep fatigue I had developed the previous year. Part of our practice of meditation focused on different aspects of breathing, such as noticing the details of the sensations it made in different parts of our body, such as paying attention to the coolness of the air in one's nostrils as we breathed in, and the warmth of it as we breathed out. I learned that when I was feeling stressed- and anxious, I was likely also to be breathing shallowly and rapidly, and that by intentionally paying attention to my breath and choosing to breathe more slowly, I would become calmer and more centered.
Intentionally slowing breathing is also very helpful when tense emotions hit, especially anger, or to find the courage I need to do something that scares me. I was reminded of the year that I was a student chaplain at Reid Hospital and, as a shy person who dislikes initiating conversation with strangers, would take refuge in the women's restroom between patient visits in order to gain the courage to walk into the next patient's room and start a conversation.
I also think of the connection between breath and spirit in the terrible account of Eric Garner, who died 5 years ago, on July 17, 2014, after being put in a choke hold by a New York City police officer. Eric Garner's final words were the desperate cry "I can't breathe", recorded by someone nearby as his spirit slipped from his body. That cry has been taken up by thousands of protesters bearing witness to the tragic reality of the racism through which young Black men in our country are more than 20 times as likely to be killed by police than White men. (Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America , p. 1.) What is the Spirit of God calling us to do to become aware of the ways in which our thoughts and actions are affected by our formation in an America captured by racism, and to push back against it within ourselves and the groups and organizations, systems and culture of which we are a part?
The other verse which Cindi read is from the Gospel of John, chapter 4, verse 24: "God is spirit and all who would worship God must worship in spirit and in truth." As a Quaker Meeting we seek to pay attention individually and as a body to the guiding presence of God as Spirit, most particularly in our time of open worship. In our personal understanding of the Holy, focusing on God as Spirit can be a source of strength and inspiration. This can be especially powerful for those of us needing distance from images of or ideas about God or Jesus which we find unhelpful, constricting, or which separate us from a sense of connection to the Holy. The wild windy untamed unruly spaciousness of God as Spirit invites us into relationship. Some connect Spirit with Sophia, or Wisdom, providing a female dimension as well. Or we can use the Hebrew term Ruach as a name, or one can just say "Spirit", or "You".
As we move into the stillness of waiting worship, let us quiet our thoughts and open ourselves to the One who is close as our breath, Spirit blowing into and through us. Let us breathe deep the breath of God as Spirit, bringing her unruly refreshing wind to clear out that which is stagnant, refresh us to the depths of our being, and make way for new life to be breathed into us.
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