Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Breathe Deeply…

Nowadays, people talk a lot- and for good reason- about brains. Over the past century or so, we’ve learned many important things about how brains work and what they do. Much remains to understand, but we’ve got a handle on one critical fact: Our brains control our lives. When they function optimally, they allow for blood circulation, speech, memory, creativity. In other, we think brains make human life possible. By contrast, when they cease functioning properly, life diminishes. For instance, post-traumatic stress disorder, of the kind endured by some combat veterans or disaster victims, is a brain injury, we’ve learned, when something malfunctions upstairs, and the results can be sad. Altered personalities, higher rates of depression, isolation, and in extreme cases, suicide. That’s why care for people suffering PTSD is so critical, and needs to be taken seriously.

And, of course, when the brain stops working altogether, life ends completely. I imagine none of this strikes you as controversial or new. The brain is the seat of the soul, many now imagine. In previous eras, however, smart people weren’t as aware of the brain’s critical role in life. They recognized that acute head trauma could incapacitate a person or end her life, of course. But not having our advanced research techniques and imaging machines, they couldn’t peak under the skull for a fuller picture. Instead, they observed life’s outward effects, and came to an alternative conclusion. They saw that when life ended, breathing stopped. Always. We now describe that as a function of brain activity; neural connections that control the lungs and heart no longer tell those vital organs to work. But our ancestors didn’t know that. They simply noticed that breath seemed decisive. With it, life endured. Without it, life was no more.

Perhaps for that reason, the authors of Hebrew scripture made a profound (and holy) leap of imagination. Wondering how to describe the incredible, divine force of Creation and life, they turned to breath, joining the two together. We use two words: Spirit and Breath. They used one: Ruach. What that meant was that the Spirit (Ruach) of God, which they claimed in Genesis created life out nothingness, order from chaos, was nothing less than the Breath (Ruach) of God. One and the same, spirit and breath. By extension, the breath within in each of us was our own special portion of life itself- spirit/breath. And it makes a beautiful, poetic kind of sense, I think.

After all, we still believe, in some fashion, that spirit and life are intimately connected. What that has to do with our brains, how they interact, well, I won’t even begin to guess! But they matter in some conjoined way. Likewise, pre-scientific humans, who put breath above brains, simply comingled this source of life with spirit. Who can blame them? Remember that the next time you take a big breath. In comes spirit, in enters life. Your exhaling, then, is your releasing of spirit and life’s power to go beyond yourself in the world God created.

Anyway, awkward descriptions of ancient psychology/anthropology aside, I bring this up for an important reason. This summer, I’m hoping we Plymouth Creek folk will breathe deeply together all season long. A Servant Leader told me a few weeks back, “Shane, we should take the upcoming summer to explore rest. God knows I’m tired!” I get tired too, and I love the idea that we’d dig into our spiritual tradition to learn its wisdom about recreation, relaxation, Sabbath.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit for us to encounter. Not only does the Bible compare breathing to Spirit and Creation, but God even commands God’s people to think about Time as a balance between work and inactivity. Jesus retreated from teaching and healing into prayer. Few things matter more to Scripture than peace. So when you come to church this summer, expect to learn about resting and reenergizing; i.e. proper breathing. And don’t forget to breathe deeply. After all, our ancestors believed that’s the Spirit you just may be bringing in. They didn’t know about the brain’s role in all of that, obviously, but I bet they were onto something…

Grace and Peace,

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