January 28, 2009
Breathing In, Breathing Out
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. – Jesus in Mark 12
“[They’re] second nature to me now.
Like breathing out and breathing in.”
– Professor Higgins, lyrics from My Fair Lady
Place your reading on hold for just a moment and pay attention to your breathing. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Breathing in, breathing out. It is the basic labor of living—breathing—and yet how easily we neglect its indispensable nature in the bumbling rush of another day. Consider, for instance, how essential it is that both actions work in concert. What happens to us if we only exhale and do not inhale is obvious to all: We pass out from lack a lack of air! Exhaling needs inhaling in order to replenish what has just been given up. But no less important, if not as apparent, is the reverse: Take in a deep, full breath. Your lungs are now replete with life-giving oxygen. Now hold it. What happens? After a time, you are (again) in danger of passing out. Even satiated lungs need exhalation in order to make room for fresh wind. All day long your body takes care of this rhythm for you. Breathing in, breathing out: the reciprocal gift of life.
So it is, I believe, with the church’s life of gathering in and going out. Each week, dependent as we are on the Holy Spirit, we take in to our lungs of faith the fresh air of scripture. “Love the Lord your God,” Jesus commanded us, and scripture is the chief way we take God’s life into our own. The same wind that hovered over the still-unformed creation, the same wind that blew through those first astonished disciples—it is the same wind that blows through us as we engage the Jesus tale. Scripture feeds us, forms us, and firms up our relationship with the living God. “Take a deep breath,” your doctor is prone to say at a checkup. Your preacher might just as well say the same thing on Sunday mornings.
Yet even scripture alone is not all that we need. The crisp air of the Bible’s witness is likely to burn in our lungs if, after a time, we do let it out into the world. The word of the Lord urges our sure response, and so we cannot help but spend the next six days or so exhaling God’s life wherever we go. “Love your neighbor,” Jesus commanded us, and so we breathe out acts of service: actions (and sometimes words) that point beyond ourselves or our church to the goodness of God. Come Saturday, if its been a week worthy of God’s grace in our lives, we’ve just about exhausted our air supply. And so once again we gather together for Sunday inhalation. Breathing in, breathing out: the reciprocal gift of life.
We need both: Scripture and Service. The congregation that excels at service in the world but does not attend to Scripture and its derivative practices (worship, prayer, reflection, etc.) will likely do much for God and neighbor, but end up exhausted and depressed in the end—virtuous asphyxiation. The body can only go so long without oxygen. Similarly, the flock that gives ample time to engaging its Bible, but does not look for ways to be in service to others (public or private, formal or informal) will find its lungs quite full but its muscles quite atrophied—holy hyperventilation. It is possible, after all, to pass out from too much air. Scripture and Service need one another in the same way that we must breathe in and breathe out in order to live. Over time, our prayer is that of the good professor Higgins. We hope that this sacred rhythm, this holy respiratory cycle, will become “second nature” to us—as effortless as our body’s own life-giving breathing.
If this analogy works for you at all, then you might consider with me the role of your Session—your pastors and elders together in leadership. If, in fact, a congregation is called to engage Scripture (breathing in) and practice service (breathing out), then it is possible to imagine our Session as a group of respiratory therapists. The old Scottish Presbyterians liked to call active elders “Ruling Elders,” by which they meant not ruling with a heavy hand, but “ruling” in the sense of measurement and gauge. As a first act of leadership in any season, a Session is charged to ask of itself and its congregation: How is it with our breathing? Are we prayerfully engaging Scripture together? Are we joyfully sharing in service together? As to our effectiveness: How does this or that program, plan, or personnel decision help our congregation breathe in more deeply the wind of Scripture and/or breathe out more effectively the service to which our Lord calls us? If it does neither, is it really ours to take up? How well are we equipping our children and adults to breathe in and out on their own? Are our lungs clear, free of any obstructions past or present?
I invite you to ask of your own life what our elders are asking of our congregation’s: How is it with your breathing? Are you able to breathe in the word of God and breathe out God’s life in your own? Let’s work—pray—to keep the oxygen flowing, until, by God’s grace, it is second nature to us all.
Written by Ralph W. Hawkins