Learning to Exhale: Breathing as an Act of Surrender

(Cross-posted at The Inward and Outward Journey.)

Confession: When it comes to Sabbath practices, I am so bad at this!

This was most recently evidenced by the fact that, for the umpteenth time, I stayed up too late last night.

It wasn’t the first time this year, or even this week. It was just the latest iteration of what for me has become an undesirable and frequent pattern: I get stressed out by day, then stay up late worrying by night. This, of course, becomes a vicious cycle: I’m stressed, so I stay up late, so I get less sleep, so I’m tired the next day, so I’m less efficient, so I feel more overwhelmed, which stresses me out, so I stay up late…

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now that the coffee has kicked in and I’ve had a little time to reflect, here’s part of what I think is going on for me: refusal to exhale.

Our scripture this week is very timely:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:1-3)

On page 5 of Wayne Muller’s amazing A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, Wayne notes that in the original Hebrew, the word for this rest can be read as “And God exhaled.” And Wayne goes on to pose the question: When do we exhale?

When I’m stressed out, when I feel like I’m holding a lot of stuff, I feel physically tight. The muscles in my neck and shoulders become tense. I feel emotionally tight as well. My mind races from one thing to another, as if I’d drop all the things if I spent too much time thinking about any one of them. And I feel spiritually tight – it’s hard work trying to maintain all this control, you know? Who has time for spiritual renewal when I’ve got so many things to worry about?? I hardly have time to breathe!

…And that’s what I mean by refusal to exhale: physically, emotionally, and spiritually refusing to breathe…

or open

or widen

or relinquish

or release.

I gain something out of refusing to exhale: the illusion that I ultimately have control over all these things I’m worrying about. But the utterly terrifying – and liberating – truth is, I actually don’t have control over the things that give me the most stress. And so for me, stress management isn’t about somehow seizing more control, but rather the opposite: letting go of my desire to control those things. In spiritual language, this is the discipline of surrender.

A curious thing happens when we breathe deeply: our bodies relax. Our heart rates slow down. Our thoughts become clearer. We become more attentive to the things around us. We gain the ability to sustain our focus on one thing at a time. Viewed in this light, breathing itself is an embodied act of surrender: Inhale: allow the oxygen into my body, and hold it there… Exhale: …then surrender it back out.

In the coming days, as we explore the practices of physical, emotional, and spiritual Sabbath together, let’s please be sure to take time to breathe… and relax… and let go of that which we cannot control. Let’s try to do this not only in our designated “Sabbath times,” but when the stress is at its highest points. I’ll keep you posted about how that works out on my end…

Breathe with me?

Schedule break-in

Our church has a big sign out front that says “COME AS YOU ARE”. Today, this guy came in as he was, which necessitated changing my plans for the afternoon: from office organizing to serving my neighbor. My office was messier than I wanted when I left for the day, but I just saw the sign on my way out, and I’m kinda grateful that we can, in fact, come as we are to this place, messiness and all.

On “gender-neutral parenting”

There’s been some flurry recently about the hetero Canadian parents who are raising their youngest without revealing the biological sex of the child.  They seem to want to resist the way people typically gender children (and adults), treating them differently according to their gender.

At this point, I’m fully on board.  For whatever reason, we (Western? American?) human beings often act as if we are entitled to know the gender of others, such that it stresses us out if we can’t tell for certain.  We want to know this apparently so that we know how – and to what extent – we might relate to one one another.  Maybe this goes back to wanting to find the best possible mate. I suspect it has to do with being able to treat people differently, or expect different things from them, or apply any number of other social norms upon them according to their privates, and frankly, how many of us really believe that it’s important for us, as individuals, to make such genitalia-based considerations?  I know I don’t.  Yet, by default, I gender people all the time, and seek to “know” other people’s gender when the lines are blurry.

But I am in no way entitled to find out this information about others, now am I?  What a strange pattern of behavior.  We should really question our underlying motivations for wanting to know the biological gender of others as prerequisite for interacting with them.  As a parent, I can understand not wanting other people to ‘gender’ my child and treat her according to whatever crazy notions they hold about how girls should be treated.  I get that.

Be a gender superhero!

And, having said that, I think that “gender-neutral parenting” is problematic.  It seems akin to people who profess to be “colorblind” when it comes to race.  Only a small fraction of people are actually colorblind, and I’m betting that even most of them are capable of discerning between different shades of skin color.  We have color.  And our color is often different from others.  And most significantly, the reality of different skin colors has been imbued with tremendous social meaning for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  By declaring ourselves to be “colorblind,” all we are doing is playing “let’s pretend” so that we might ignore the painful reality that our society still doles out unfair advantages and disadvantages based on color to this very day.  We have color.  And that matters.

So too – we have gender.  And that matters.  Gender is one way that we are different from one another – and it is a particularly embodied way at that.  To try to minimize and hide this difference from others, no matter how grand the intention, strikes me as an attempt to ignore or push aside a difference that is very real, maybe even important, and, by the way, one which is perfectly fine.  It’s okay, it turns out, to have a vagina, and not a penis.  Or vice versa.  Or something in-between.  The particularity of each human body is perfectly wonderful, according to God and nature.  Where there are problems, they belong to us, and it is up to us to adapt our social norms, roles, and expectations accordingly.

All that is to say, I am more in favor of abolishing the traditional limits associated with masculinity and femininity then with abolishing gender outright. There’s nothing wrong, in my view, with claiming and celebrating the particularity of one’s own gender. But there’s a lot wrong with imposing norms on others based on their gender.

On TyRy’s imminent arrival

It’s the “all baby, all the time” show in my head these last couple of days. Even yesterday morning, as all the last-minute details were coming together in the hours leading up to worship, I was more relaxed about all that than I’ve ever been. All I could think was, “My wife is getting ready to PUSH OUT A BABY. 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 :D…!!”

At this point, TyRy is two days past her due date. Her head seems to be solidly planted in low, which means it could be hours, days, but also even weeks at this point. We surrender to the process as best we can. And meanwhile, my life is already being radically reoriented, and I haven’t even met this kid yet…!

So very exciting.

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It’s not about the Constitution.

President Obama released the ‘long form’ version of his birth certificate yesterday.

He didn’t have to. No other president in U.S. history, or contender thereof, has been subject to the kind of xenophobic, racist, bigoted scrutiny that Barack Obama has. There’s no “you must provide a copy of the long form of your birth certificate to your detractors” clause in the Constitutional provisions determining eligibility for presidential office. But this foolishness has gotten out of hand, with four in ten Republicans believing that Obama wasn’t born on American soil, despite his having already produced a birth certificate – and an affidavit – to the contrary. So the president evidently decided, here ya go, crazies.

With the release of the additional, ‘somehow-much-more-convincing-than-the-first-one’ birth certificate, this non-issue can finally be put to rest, hopefully (right? right??). But while the additional documentation “solves” the issue for reasonable folks, it won’t solve it for those who can’t reconcile themselves to the reality of having a president whose race/cultural experience/multicultural upbringing makes him an exotic, perpetually-unknown, mysterious “other.” For those folks it ain’t about facts, proof, citizenship, good faith, logic, or any of that noise. To them, Obama is so clearly not-“American” that no matter what technicalities permit him to be the legal president, he just can’t be. There’s no possible way.

So, in the aftermath of new and improved proof that the president is a citizen, I feel just as unsettled about the reality of racism in America as before. I feel just as unsettled about the reality of xenophobia in America as before. I feel just as unsettled about the reality of religious bigotry in America as before, and I feel all of these things because throughout all of this we still are too cowardly to acknowledge the reality that racism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry are at the heart of the “Where’s the birth certificate?” nonsense that has crippled our public discourse for years. And they’re at the heart of Donald Trump’s “where’s the report card?” nonsense, and probably at the heart of the next thing he comes out with too.

We need to start calling this out plainly. The endless efforts at ‘otherizing’ Obama aren’t about reasonable disagreement. Barack Obama is a American, a Christian, and our president. Refusal to believe that he is American – talking to you, 4-in-10 Republicans – is plain xenophobia. Refusal to believe that he deserved to attend the ivy league schools he excelled in – Donald Trump – is plain racism. Refusal to believe that he isn’t a secret Muslim – armchair warriors – is plain religious bigotry. I’m sick of standing by while xenophobic, racist, bigoted nonsense permeates our public discourse as if it were legitimate. It isn’t. It’s time for the media – or the rest of us in the meantime – to start calling things what they really are.

Update: A hard truth from Baratunde:

On hijacking the racial pain of others, or why we white folks need to stop thinking about “race issues” as if they were external from ourselves

Here’s something that just happened on Facebook. One of my friends, a woman of color, shared an article that named 10 Conversations the author wanted to stop having with white people. In response to her post, a white male Facebook friend of hers left a bunch of comments in which he shared personal experiences of having been the target of racial prejudice, and lamented the unfairness of people judging him just because he is white. And from that point, everyone, including myself, thus became engaged in an extended back-and-forth with this guy about his self-proclaimed victimization as a white man. He was able to do something I think happens quite a lot, which is when a person of privilege ‘hijacks’ a discussion which in some way calls out their privilege, changing the focus from the unfairness of the privilege, to soothing the feelings of those who are privileged. Which demonstrates how privilege allows us to escape from the implications on injustice.

Here’s the thing: white people should be processing our pain which stems from racism. We should certainly bring to light our feelings of sadness and discomfort and grief and shame and all else that dwells just under the surface of our white skins, sure as the nose on your face, despite our best efforts at suppressing all that shit. We should be processing these and other issues precisely because they get in the way of our relationships with people whose skin and privilege do not look like ours. We should process these and other issues precisely so that we aren’t inappropriately trying to process them on other people’s turf, or in the midst of other people expressing their pain.

We tend to do stuff like hijacking racial teachable moments because we don’t create these other, more appropriate outlets for this kind of racial processing. That stems from us thinking about race only insofar as it applies to others, but not ourselves.

Talk about it, white people. Don’t just horn in on other people’s discussions about race and racism. Let’s get together – on our own time – and let the whiteness tumble out.

On Lazarus: While We Wait

We started a three week sermon series on the story of Lazarus today.  I preached the first part today.  It went well.  First, the scripture:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin,said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 11:1-27, NRSV)

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Permutations of Philippians 4:13

I can do all things through [Christ,] who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13, NIV)

  1. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  2. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  3. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  4. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  5. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  6. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.
  7. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.
  8. I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.

Today I’m feeling compelled by #4 in particular: all the things I need to do, I can do through Christ, the living, embodied, incarnate presence of God.  And boy am I seldom actually looking for God in the midst of my workload.

Which one’s speaking to you today?

On the future of Christianity (and values, Rob Bell, and God)

I recently spoke at a rally for Michigan workers here in Battle Creek.  I said some political stuff (in a values and hypocrisy kind of way, not so much party-line kind of way.  You can see the video here).   One of those who attended the rally found me later on Facebook and thanked me for being a Christian leader who was willing to “address the issues that most skirt around.”  It got me thinking, and I responded that it saddens me that progressive people of faith have not been effective at articulating a faith-based vision of social justice and love; and that in this vacuum, much more extreme voices have dominated the public discourse. Consequently, “Christian” has practically become synonymous with “asshole” in recent years, and I am very eager to chip away at the walls my co-believers have erected, wherever and however I can.

But it is also true that for what it’s worth, things are actually changing rapidly among Christians. On the one hand, progressives are getting bolder and better at naming their values,  but there is also an emerging debate raging among evangelicals themselves these days as seen in the recent storm of controversy over Rob Bell‘s new book, Love Wins. On the surface, all the uproar is about whether and how to interpret the doctrine of hell, but in the wise words of my CPE director, “the issue is not the issue.” In this case, the underlying issue is ultimately about whether or not the Christian church can finally embrace a God who is capable of acting in ways that are beyond our imagination:  can we keep God in a box or not?  Because it is our precisely our declaration that we’ve got God figured out and you don’t, that allows Christians to adopt a posture of violence and exclusion toward the rest of the world.  But on the other hand, if we are finally ready, after 2,000 years and counting, to concede that people are in relationship with God in ways that are not ours, and that we need not necessarily embrace, understand, condone, nor condemn, just imagine how different  the world could be?  What if the majority of children grew up in a society (and faith tradition) that is both profoundly faithful yet acknowledges the reality of different beliefs and understandings?  What if the response to difference was not to try and establish that which is ‘true’ or ‘correct,’ but rather to get curious about it, and to get curious about the beliefs we ourselves hold true?

Anyway, I’m glad to be part of a changing world, in relationship with a God who is ever breathing new life into our dusty lungs.

Bungy-jumping, blizzards, and control

Andria and I haven’t quite made it back from New Zealand.  We’ve been stranded in southern California due to a massive, midwestern blizzard.  We’re staying with some very lovely people, friends of friends in the area.  I’ve gotta say, if you’re going to get stuck somewhere due to bad weather, getting stuck in southern California is probably the best option.  We just read a report of Chicagoans who were actually stuck last night in their cars, on Lake Shore Drive.  The wind must have been horrific.  For the upteenth time I am again humbled by the raw and awesome and unrestrained power of this world.  It is only matched by the raw and awesome and unrestrained power of God.

Nearly two weeks ago, I went bungy jumping in Queenstown. The physical shock to my body of being suddenly very unable to control my circumstances was very transformative and empowering. I had thought it would be a way to practice facing my fear and pushing through it, then surviving, but it turned out to be more about recognizing that I ultimately have no real way to prevent that which is inevitable, be that death, be that the coming reign of God. And for people of privilege, and I have much, there is scarcely anything more undoing than being confronted with the reality that our illusions about “power,” “control,” and “safety” is but shifting sand as time marches on.

Bungy jumping is just one way – albeit bourgeois, completely safe, and manufactured – to experience total powerlessness. This storm in Chicago and elsewhere, causing people to experience helplessness in their cars for twelve hours at a time, is obviously much more dire. But the central confrontation with helplessness is the same. The recognition of not being able to control our circumstances may come a lot more suddenly and easily when you’re plummeting off a bridge or freezing in your car, but it is true even at times of much more calm. One way or another, we are inching ever-forward in our lives, aging one day at time, as if on a very slow moving conveyor belt. We have exactly zero capacity to control this process. Yet, how much of the crap in our lives is devoted to the illusion that this steady march is in fact under our control, even reversible?

Whether we must march on, day by day, is not under our control. But how we do so, is. We will do well to surrender to the inevitable and embrace that which is indeed within our locus of control within every moment of every day: our choices.