The Divine Breath of God

God is close and present to us in every breath we take.

I don’t read the Genesis creation accounts as history or as scientific descriptions. I regard them as myths. But when I use the word myth, the word does not mean for me something that is untrue. A myth does not provide a scientifically factual account. Instead it provides an insight into the truth by means of a story. That’s why myths are such potent vehicles of revelation.

Genesis 2:4b-3:24 provides the second of Genesis’ two creation accounts. In contrast to the majestic poetry of Genesis 1, Genesis 2-3 provides a more homely tale, but a tale laced with some powerful insights into the nature of humanity. Let me highlight one.

Near the beginning of the account, we encounter this description of the creation of human beings: …then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. [Genesis 2:7]

This statement does not envision God snapping his fingers and creating human beings out of thin air. This is not a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). God forms human beings out of the existing dust of the earth. The language suggests the work of a potter shaping a clay image. The image remains inert until God breathes the breath of life into it. Then the material image becomes a living being.

This sentence reveals a fundamental component of the Hebrew mindset that runs through all of the Old Testament and even into the New Testament. Human beings are fundamentally material bodies animated by the breath of life. This breath of life comes from God as a gift. Our lives are always a gift, whether in this life or in the life of the resurrection to come.

This mindset does not deny that human beings are a part of the natural, material world. They have material bodies just like the rest of the living creatures on the earth. And therefore they are subject to the many natural forces that drive the material world of nature.

What keeps them alive is their incessant breathing. They breathe air in and they breathe air out. When human beings exhale their last breath and do not take a new one, they die. This is real fact.

Human Beings as Integrated Persons

Two things move me about this account. First, it suggests an understanding of human beings not as bifurcated persons, but as integrated beings in which body and spirit combine to make a whole person. We have a bodily dimension to our lives, but we also have a spiritual dimension. The two cannot be easily separated. They are intertwined. This means our bodies contribute to our identity as individuals just as much as do our psyches. Truly we are psychosomatic beings.

This contrasts sharply with the understanding of human nature that we inherit from Greco-Roman philosophy. For the Greek philosophers it was a pervasive belief that human beings consist of a divine, immortal soul imprisoned in a material, mortal body. The two are in constant tension, for the soul is the source of a human’s higher nature and the body the source of his or her lower nature.

This conflictive dualism runs as well through human culture and social relations. It has shaped our common attitudes about gender relations, the value of various occupations, and our bodily activities.

For myself, I find the Hebrew concept of human beings a healthier one. Yes, it can see body and spirit in conflict at times, but it does not see the solution as an eternal divorce between body and spirit, but rather their integration in a transforming union. The culmination of this vision is to be found in the Christian understanding of incarnation. The incarnation of Christ foresees the ultimate destiny of all human beings. As the ancient Orthodox fathers put it, “God became a human being so that human beings might become divine.”

God Present in Our Breath

There is a second reason why the Genesis account moves me. It identifies the life-giving force in human beings as the “breath of life” breathed into them by God. The Hebrew word for breath here is nishmat. We find it sometimes in parallel with the Hebrew word for spirit or wind, which is ruach. Both refer to something invisible that is life-giving, powerful, and ultimately beyond human control.

That power comes from God and as the thought of the Bible evolves it is named as the Spirit of God. The Spirit does many things in the thought world of the Bible, but one important function is to breathe the gift of life as we incessantly breathe in and out.

We find another expression of this insight in Psalm 104, where the psalmist expresses awe at the wisdom of God’s creative work as found in all living creatures. The psalmist says:

These all look to you

            to give them their food in due season;

when you give to them, they gather it up;

            when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;

            when you take away their breath, they die

            and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit, they are created;

            and you renew the face of the ground. [Psalm 104:27-30]

All this suggests to me that the presence of God is always with us, though invisible, every time we take a breath. It is through the air we breathe in and breathe out that the Lord breathes the spark of life into our material bodies, and we live. We may feel God is absent from our lives. We may long constantly for a vivid sense of God’s presence with us, when all along God is as close to us as God can be every time we take a breath.

This suggests, says the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, why many prayer practices, especially in the contemplative prayer traditions, place so much emphasis on how we breathe. He writes, “When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly–breathe…And isn’t it wonderful that breath, wind, spirit, and air are precisely nothing–and yet everything.”*

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* Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2015. Page 26.

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How Did You Receive the Spirit?

A vivid religious experience lies underneath one of Paul’s strong debate points

Scripture text: Galatians 3:1-5
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (RSV)

In his letter to the Galatian churches, we find Paul employing a number of rhetorical tools to support his argument that Gentile Christians do not need to adopt Jewish practices to establish their Christian identity. Those tools include personal invective as well as rabbinic and Hellenistic approaches to interpreting the Old Testament.

But I find the most curious argument he makes in Chapter 3, verses 1-5 (see quotation above). In this argument, he appeals to the Galatians’ religious experience. How did they receive the Holy Spirit? By practicing the Jewish law or by hearing the gospel with faith?

What is curious about this argument is his assumption that his hearers will know exactly what he is talking about. His argument would carry no water if his hearers had scratched their heads at this point and asked: What do you mean about receiving the Spirit?

Apparently these Galatian Christians had had some powerful religious experience that they knew without question was an experience of the Holy Spirit. What we modern readers would like to know is just exactly how had they experienced the Spirit.

Did they experience the Spirit in the kind of emotional phenomena that today we associate with the Pentecostal tradition? Did they experience the Spirit in terms of dramatically changed lives, maybe in terms of dramatically changed consciousness or dramatically changed behavior?

Or did they experience the Spirit in terms of witnessing miracles in their midst, possibly dramatic healings? In verse five, Paul makes a reference to miracles. Is that how they had experienced the Spirit?

I don’t think the text makes at all clear just how the Galatians had experienced the Spirit. But that they had had some kind of vivid experience of the Spirit is certain. Otherwise Paul could never have used this argument in his debate with them.

I’m fascinated by Paul’s rhetorical turn in these verses because I question that this kind of argument would work with most Christians in churches today. I suspect that most Christians today (unless they came out of a Pentecostal environment) would have no idea what Paul was talking about. The Holy Spirit is simply not a vivid experience for many believers today.

Is that because our churches have done a very effective job at quenching the Holy Spirit? Or is it that we have so identified the Spirit’s presence with highly emotional phenomena like speaking in tongues that we completely miss the Spirit’s presence in other ways? Or is it that we have done such a poor job of teaching about the Spirit that we cannot recognize the Spirit’s presence in our midst?

I ask these questions during this week that follows Pentecost Sunday. I ask them because I wonder what it would be like in our churches if we had such a vivid experience of the Spirit in our individual lives and in our congregational life that we could respond with clarity, conviction, and enthusiasm if Paul stood in our midst and asked: How did you receive the Spirit?

Sexual Outsider Becomes Spiritual Insider

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One of my favorite books on prayer is Beginning to Pray by the Russian Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom. Bloom makes a statement that has always shocked me. He says: “To meet God means to enter into the ‘cave of a tiger’—it is not a pussy cat you meet – it’s a tiger. The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not seek information about it.” (Paulist Press paperback edition, 1970, page xv)

Bloom is speaking about the need for the Gospel to reach beyond the intellect into a person’s whole being. But what I have always taken from this statement is the insight that God is not someone we can contain into our intellectual or theological cages. God remains free. Whenever we try to domesticate him, he is likely to break out of our cages and surprise us, if not shock us, with his saving actions.

A prime example is the story that the evangelist Luke tells in his Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 8:26-40, he recounts how God led an early Christian evangelist named Philip to walk onto a desert road in southern Palestine. There he encounters an Ethiopian who had been to Jerusalem to worship.

On his return trip, the Ethiopian is seated in his chariot reading a scroll of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. What he is reading mystifies him. When Philip offers to explain the text, the Ethiopian invites him to join him in his chariot.

Philip gives Isaiah a Christian interpretation. The text is about Jesus, Philip says, and uses this opportunity to tell the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. The courtier is moved to believe. As they pass some water, he asks Philip to baptize him.  Philip does. The Ethiopian becomes the first black African to become a Christian.

Why It Was Daring to Baptize This Ethiopian

But there is much more going on in this story than a surface reading indicates. The black African was a well-educated man. He was reading. He is also probably what was known in the first century as a God-fearer. This was a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism, its monotheism and high ethics, but did not officially convert. Many early Christian converts came from this category.

What holds this Ethiopian back from converting to Judaism? It was not his African ancestry. It was that he was considered a sexual outsider. He was a eunuch. And by the dictates of the Torah, eunuchs were barred from membership in the people of God, or at least barred from full participation in the Temple worship.

This rule was based upon Deuteronomy 23:1, which prescribed: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”

The eunuch was sexually mutilated and therefore an outsider denied access to the gathering of God’s people in the temple. This was the letter of the Torah. And because devout people would regard the Torah as divine law, presumably it could not be changed.

But try to tell that to God. The Deuteronomy passage was not the final word of God on the subject of eunuchs that we find in the Bible. Through the mouth of a later prophet, recorded in Isaiah 56, God speaks a word of hope to eunuchs. The day is coming when eunuchs will be included within the gatherings of God’s people.

Says the Lord in Isaiah 56:4-5:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

                        who choose the things that please me

                        and hold fast my covenant,

            I will give, in my house and within my walls,

                        a monument and a name

                        better than sons and daughters;

            I will give them an everlasting name

                        that shall not be cut off.

In this word of promise, God breaks out of the letter of Deuteronomy. He is not to be contained by it.

This gives deeper meaning to the Ethiopian eunuch’s question to Philip: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip answers the question by baptizing the Ethiopian. The sexual outsider becomes a spiritual insider.

All this, Luke says, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. The story begins with a command coming to Philip through an angel. And twice later in the story, Luke mentions the Spirit’s direct action in the movement of the story.

Welcoming the Ethiopian eunuch into the circle of God’s people is a saving action of God. For as God says in Isaiah 56:8, his saving work is gathering outcasts into the circle of his people. “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:8)

Respecting the Wild Tiger

Now what fascinates me in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as well as in the Isaiah passage is how God does not confine his actions within the letter of Deuteronomy. God freely moves outside the boundaries of the cage. He remains, in Bloom’s vivid image, the wild tiger.

This is not the only example in Scripture. The supreme example is the Holy Spirit’s leading the infant church to incorporate Gentiles as equal members into the church.

This struck the earliest Jewish Christians as a shocking innovation. The Old Testament had envisioned that Gentiles in the last days would come to Jerusalem to be instructed in the ways of God (see Isaiah 2:2-3). But the implication was that Gentiles would be subordinate members of the people of God, not equal members with the Jews.

The Spirit’s action caught the infant church totally by surprise. That is clear throughout the New Testament. Luke captures that sense of surprise in his recounting of the conversion of the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10).

The letters of the apostle Paul bear witness to how the movement of the Spirit roiled life in the church for decades to come. (And to some degree, the reverberations continue into our day through the long and ugly history of Christian anti-Semitism. As if they have not learned the deeper meaning of the Spirit’s action on their own behalf, Gentile Christians have practiced reverse discrimination in their relationship with Jews.)

What these actions by God say to me is that God cannot be domesticated, not even by the written words of the Bible. I say that not out of any disrespect for the Bible, but because of the witness of the Bible itself.

Every time we think we have caged God into our expectations of how God should act, we have set ourselves up to be surprised. That was true for the generations living in Biblical days. I believe it remains true for our generation as well.

Additional Note:

I know that my discussion of Deuteronomy 23 and Isaiah 56 ignores a source critical approach to reading these texts. In that approach, we would explain the differences in attitude in the two texts to their having different authors/editors writing in different eras of Israelite history. They would then represent different theologies.

The canonical form of both texts, however, presents them as words of God. And that is how a good many Christians will read them. If we read them that way, then God seems to have changed his mind between Mosaic times and the post-exilic times when the author of Isaiah was writing. My discussion is particularly directed to those who will be reading the Bible in that way.

The Spiritual Revolution in One Single Word

Bible text: Galatians 5:22-23

When I read the Bible, I like to pay close attention to the text. For example, I try to be alert to the choice of words the Biblical author uses. Sometimes that choice of words can create a revolution in my spiritual understanding.

One passage that did just that several years ago is Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Revised Standard Version)

This verse falls in a passage where the apostle Paul is contrasting life in the Holy Spirit with life in the flesh. In verse 19, he lists a series of vices: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, and carousing. He calls these vices “works” of the flesh.

He contrasts these with what he calls the “fruit” of the Spirit. Now what catches my attention is that he calls these Christian virtues “fruit” of the Spirit, not “works” of the Spirit. I expect him to write “works.” So why does he write “fruit” instead? That was the question I asked myself.

I suspect he used “fruit” instead of “works”, because the word “works” can be misleading. It suggests that these virtues are something we must work hard to acquire or express in our life. It would put the focus on what we do. That in turn would feed scrupulosity or guilt feelings as we try to live out these virtues and fail over and over again. We would make our Christians lives an exhausting affair.

That is how I once read this passage. I felt these virtues were something I had to work hard at acquiring. This feeling was fed mightily by the legalistic spirit of the Christianity in which I was raised. And it produced a fruit of bitterness and indeed exhaustion.

But that is not what Paul is saying. He is not saying these virtues are a result of our hard work. They are the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. They are the “fruit” or by-product of living a deeply spiritual life.

The apricots on an apricot tree are the end result of the life process of the apricot tree. If the tree is healthy, if it is planted in good soil and fertilized and well watered, it will ultimately produce its apricots as a result of the life forces of the tree rising in the tree and producing its flowers and then its fruit.

If the tree is healthy, it will produce good fruit. If it is diseased, it will produce no fruit or diseased fruit. This is the point that Jesus too makes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:16-20. Jesus and Paul are at one in their viewpoint.

Now the secret to producing these virtues is not our hard work, our exhausting work to produce these virtues by an act of sheer will power. No, the secret is to root our lives in the Holy Spirit. As we seek to lay down roots in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will begin to work in our inner lives to transform our motivations, our desires, and our mindsets. And as those motivations, desires, and mindsets change, our behavior will follow.

I read Galatians 5:22-23 in linkage with Psalm 1. There we have the image of a righteous person as a sturdy, mature tree that is well rooted by streams of water. It stands firm in the many storms that life brings. It produces its fruit in due season.

And what is the secret of its stability and fruitfulness? It is that the righteous person roots himself or herself into a daily meditation upon the Torah of God.

Jesus picks up this image of streams of water and sees it as an image of the Holy Spirit (see John 7:37-39).

What Paul would have us do is not work so hard at trying to achieve the virtues of the Christian life. He would have us work hard at rooting ourselves in the Spirit. If we work hard at trying to become more and more open to the Spirit in our lives, the Spirit will transform us.

That transformation may take some time, even a lifetime. But if we are maturing spiritually, we will begin to express the Christian virtues naturally, just as a tree produces its fruit.

When that truth dawned within my consciousness, it turned my religious life upside down. Instead of spending so much energy trying to be good, I found I was called to spend my energy trying to become more open to the Spirit.

And the time-honored way to do that in the Christian tradition is through the practice of what has come to be called the spiritual disciplines. They are many: prayer, especially more contemplative styles of prayer, careful reading and meditation on Scripture (lectio divina), frequent participation in the Eucharist, hospitality, spiritual discernment, fasting, confession, practicing the presence of God, and so on. Even weekly attendance at worship in my church is a spiritual discipline, for we can meet the Spirit of Christ in the communal body of his disciples.

You will find all of these practices and others described in the multitude of books on the spiritual life that we find in bookstores today. These practices, as I have come to practice them, have indeed changed my life in some dramatic ways.

I may be far from perfect in expressing Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in my way of living. But I don’t worry about that much. If I am faithful in working to become open to the Spirit in my life, those virtues will come, just as the apricot comes on the apricot tree.

For the fruit of the Spirit are the by-product of living a spiritual life. They are not that life’s primary focus. “Seek first God’s kingship and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:33). “All these things” includes the virtues of the Christian life as well as the physical and material necessities of life.

This is not to say that the Christian life is a purely passive affair. We just lie back and let God do all the work. Just two verses later in Galatians, Paul will also say, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25).

We have a responsibility to try to live out these virtues as best we can. We try to walk the way we talk. But our actions in essence become a kind of prayer. By our efforts we appeal to God to work that transformation within us where these virtues become natural expressions of who we are and what we are becoming, new creations in Christ.

This understanding emerges from paying close attention to the choice of words that Paul uses. There is indeed a spiritual revolution encapsulated in that one word “fruit” versus “works.”