Holding Our Breath

Over the past week, many of us have held our breath as we awaited results from the election. In the agonizing period between Tuesday and Saturday, I must have hit refresh on the blue-and-red map a thousand times. Never have four days felt longer.

Yet, many in our communities have been holding their breath much longer than that. My colleague and friend, Jennifer Maxell, shared that it was only after the AP called the election on Saturday that she became aware that she had been holding her breath for the past four years.

Holding our breath – what a striking image. It captures the anxiety and exhaustion that is an everyday reality during a global pandemic. It speaks to a feeling of desperation that comes from not knowing when we will make our way back to the surface after being so long submerged under the waters of loss, grief, and pain. It reminds us of those whose breath has been taken from them through violence and injustice.

At a time when we all long to breath more easily, it’s good to remember that the Bible has a lot to say about God’s breath.

In the first creation story, God’s breath (ruakh, often translated “wind”) sweeps over the face of the deep, bringing forth light and life from a dark and chaotic void. Just a few chapters later, we find God breathing that same breath into the first human, the adam, animating what was once the dust of the earth (the adamah). This same verb, naphakh, appears again in Ezekiel 37:9, where God breathes upon a valley of dry bones so that they could live once more.

We hold our breath in the face of uncertainty and injustice, but we believe in a God who gives his breath as a source of life.

There’s another Hebrew verb, naphash, meaning breath. Related to the Hebrew noun, nephesh, which is often translated as “soul,” this verb captures the idea of breathing freely, especially in instances in which one is weary. To breathe freely is to be re-souled, to have the breaches in our hearts repaired, to trust that there might well one day be a balm in Gilead.

Scripture calls us not only to receive God’s life-living breath, but also to engage in the soul-care of others. In Exodus 23:12, the Israelites are invited to give sabbath to those marginalized in their community so that they, too, might be refreshed (naphash).

There’s one additional dimension of the biblical notion of breath that is worth noting. This is captured in the verb sha’aph. (Notice how all of three of these verbs – naphakh, naphash, and sha’aph – all have a breathy quality to how they sound; one literally breathes out these words in Hebrew.) This verb, often translated as panting, has the connotation of breathing with short, quick breaths, often from painful exertion. We see this in Isaiah 42:14,

For a long time I have held my peace,

I have kept still and restrained myself;

now I will cry out like a woman in labor,

I will gasp and pant (sha’aph).

Here the prophet evocatively portrays God as a woman in labor. In the context of childbirth, gasping and panting are ways of managing excruciating pain. So, too, according to Isaiah, is it the way God manages the pain of bringing Israel out of exile. As Lauren Winner puts it in her wonderful book on biblical metaphors, “The work of bringing forth new life does not come without effort and cost on God’s part” (Wearing God, p. 140).

God, like a woman in labor, does not fight or suppress the pain that comes with birthing something new and hopeful into existence. God embraces it. May it be so for each of us, as we labor to bring about churches and communities where all have the space to breathe.

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