The Breath of Life: The Killing of George Floyd

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In these extraordinarily troubling times, I find myself reflecting on the act of breathing.

Breathing is so basic and fundamental to life, but it also calls forth our connection to God in a very powerful way. The book of Genesis says: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” In Latin, spiritus means “the breath of life.”  The very spirit of God breathed into us at the moment of our Creation.

Using breath as a form of prayer is an ancient Christian practice. The Hebrew words for “breath” and “spirit” are the same. When we’re breathing, we call forth the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. We’re using our bodies to focus on the essence of our connection with God—our own moment of Divine creation when God breathed the breath of life into our nostrils.

In practices like yoga and mindfulness, we focus on breath to center ourselves, to calm our minds, to relieve pain. How easily we take for granted the simple act of taking in oxygen to sustain life in our human bodies.

Then came COVID-19 with its insidious attack on our respiratory systems. We realized how fragile life can be.  As conversations swirled around chest pain, ventilators, and intubation tubes, we watched this virus cruelly suffocating people, resulting in death, after death, after death.

But it wasn’t COVID-19 that killed George Floyd. His life was taken by a cruel act of violence at the hands of a police officer. His words “I can’t breathe” should haunt each and every one of us as we confront this vile sickness of racism that plagues our country and robbed George Floyd—and so many other Black citizens—of their breath and their lives. Systemic racism is a contagion that has been around far longer than COVID-19, and has taken life and liberty from countless numbers of God’s children.

For those of us with privilege, doing our part to rid the world of COVID-19 was in many ways easy. All we had to do was stay home. We made donations from the safety of our computers, we sewed masks, and we supported our local businesses.  But we also took long walks, played board games, baked bread, and organized Zoom gatherings with our loved ones. We spent more time than ever before outside, breathing in deeply as winter gave way to spring. We worked hard to manage our anxiety as we prayed for God’s healing for all those who were sick, and we prayed for God’s protection for all those bravely serving on the front lines of this virus.

For those of us who are white, doing our part to rid the world of racism will not be as easy. It will make us uncomfortable and ask more from us than we may currently be giving. We must begin by examining our own assumptions and behaviors, and this can be a painful process. We must speak up in ways that may feel scary. I have been guilty of this for many years.  I stayed quiet for fear of “making waves,” turning people away, saying the wrong thing, or offending someone.

Remember, Jesus came to challenge the status quo. He wasn’t afraid to speak out, to call out hypocrisy, to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed. If we believe in a God of love, we cannot remain silent. If we believe in the sanctity and dignity of human life, we must actively speak out against the loss of Black lives from systemic racism and acts of hatred. In the words of Fr. William Wallace, O.S.A., J.D.­As members of the one Body of Christ we must stand in support of all those who are understandably outraged and who feel that they are not being heard. We must affirmatively choose the more difficult, but more right and just, path of engagement and action, instead of the easy path of indifference and inaction.”

I am more conscious of my breathing now, recognizing each breath as a gift from God. A gift that belongs to each and every one of us. I will use my breath to thank God for sparing me and my loved ones from the terrorizing reality of COVID-19. I will use my breath to talk about the fact that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by this virus and are losing jobs at a higher rate. I will use my breath not only to pray for an end to racism, but to actively work to be part of the solution, speaking out against the racial violence that has been perpetrated against Black Americans for hundreds of years. I will use my breath to listen, to educate myself, and to stand in solidarity with the Black community.

“And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Fully Known By God

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Background photo by Aaron Lee on Unsplash

Who is the person in your life that knows you best?

Most of us reveal ourselves to others in bits and pieces. Depending on the setting, the circumstances, or the nature of the relationship, we let people see only parts of us. We hold back things that we don’t want others to see, for any number of reasons. For most of us, it is a rare few individuals that truly know us. And even then, there might be things we still keep to ourselves, even from those we are closest to.

In Psalm 139 we encounter a God who knows everything about us. When we sit and stand. A God who knows our every thought and where we are at every moment. A God we cannot hide from…who is always there. “How can I get away from your Spirit? Where can I go to escape from you? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I lie down in the deepest parts of the earth, you are also there.” (Psalm 139:7-8)

When I was young, the idea that God knew everything about me made me nervous and uncomfortable. It felt like someone reading my diary. With my immature understanding of sin, I felt like God was watching me, waiting for me to do something wrong or make a mistake. I wondered if God was listening in on my unkind or jealous thoughts. I could pretend to be this perfect person to those around me, but God knew the truth.

I didn’t like that feeling.

Maybe there are some of you who still feel that way. Catholic guilt is very real! Our images of God from childhood (as a stern judge or a scolding parent) stay with us through the years.

As I matured in my faith, I no longer saw God as an administer of shame but as a source of mercy and forgiveness. Like the line from the Pretenders song, “Nothing you confess, could make me love you less.”  That’s how I began to see God…and gradually the idea of being fully known by God was something that I welcomed. Now it gives me incredible comfort. The act of surrendering all that I am to God feels like the strongest safety net. The firmest foundation.

I encourage you to challenge the view you may hold of God as “law enforcement,” who only makes an appearance in our lives when we do something wrong. A picture of God waiting to dole out punishment. A God who is trying to “catch us” in moments of sin. Challenge this view and spend some time with the God who created you, chose you, blesses you, and calls you.

What does it mean to be known by God?  

“God, your thoughts about me are priceless. No one can possibly add them all up. If I could count them, they would be more than the grains of sand. If I were to fall asleep counting and then wake up, you would still be there with me.” (Psalm 139:17-18)

You were created to be loved by God. When you are feeling alone, and hopeless, God is there…loving you still. Nothing you confess could make God love you any less. God offers us prodigal mercy and radical grace. More than we deserve or could ever earn. When you struggle with doubt or fear, bring those feelings to God, who will not flinch from your angriest thoughts or your most desperate questions.

Christian author Kelly Minter writes: “To be known more wholly than we can know ourselves. To be known more deeply than others can know us. This is the knowing with which God knows us. But do not be afraid…for He loves us wholly still.”

To be fully known and still fully loved is an incredible gift. You don’t have to earn it. It’s not like getting picked for a fraternity, being chosen for a job, or having someone choose you on an online dating site. God wants to know each and every one of us. We are His beloved children. His chosen ones. Our names are written on the palm of His hand.

Your name is written on the palm of God’s hand.

As you ponder this amazing thought, my prayer for you is that you will surrender to God, who knows you and loves you unconditionally. A love that is beyond measure. A love that is faithful and unshakable. Live in that love. Wake up each morning telling yourself: “I was created to be loved by God.” Amen!

Tiny Moments of Resurrection

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What a glorious spring day! For all my complaining, I’m glad this winter was long and hard. The warmth of spring is that much more treasured when it comes. Most of the time, the storm is my preferred metaphor for hardship and suffering, but I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t always come to us like storm… quick and violent and then spent. Sometimes pain is slow. Like a long, hard winter. Icy cold, relentless wind, bleak landscape. It takes patience to endure.

I hate that people have to bear this kind of stretched out suffering. Chronic illness. Bottomless grief. Profound loneliness. With no rhyme or reason or end in sight. Easter Sunday has come and gone, but for many people, their daily struggles feel more like a never-ending Good Friday. When someone I care about struggles with these burdens, I can only pray:

Please reveal yourself to me, O merciful Lord. Show me that you are active in the midst of this pain. Help me to remember that resurrection and new life come to everyone in your time. Lord, in your tender mercy, awaken us to little moments of everyday resurrection – like tiny, early signs of spring in the midst of the harshest winter.

Sometimes the tiny resurrections are the only things we can see through the haze of agony and ache.

  • The first buds of spring ready to open to new life
  • The sweet laughter of children as they play with fierce joy and bubbling enthusiasm
  • An unexpected compliment from an unlikely source
  • A moment of connection with someone who understands my struggle. That comforting realization that I am not alone. That dawning understanding that I am NEVER alone, for God is with me always.

Open our eyes and ears, O Lord. Make us attentive to your love and compassion in all those we meet today.
In your mercy, Amen.

Finding God in the Storm

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My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

We hear this well-known scripture verse at the cross, when the Earth was covered in darkness, and Jesus uttered these words moments before he surrendered his spirit and died. But that’s not the first time we hear it… the line first appears in Psalm 22. Although the specific reason is not known, the author of the Psalm is clearly suffering. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The passage goes on to say:

Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.

Have there been times, when you’ve felt like the author of this Psalm… that God was very far away? Perhaps during a time when you were experiencing personal suffering. Or maybe from the nagging worry that suffering may be just around the corner. We live in a world FULL of uncertainty and fear. Worries about our personal health and well-being and the well-being of our family members. Worries about the economic climate… will we keep our jobs? Can we “stay afloat” financially? Worries about global threats, war, and violence – terrorism, shootings, natural disasters, contagious disease.

How easy it would be to collapse under the weight of all these worries. How often do we feel like that’s exactly what we might do? How does this fear manifest itself? Sleepless nights, stress, anxiety. Living in this state of perpetual worry… how do we pray? 

Dear God, PLEASE don’t let me get sick.
Dear God, PLEASE don’t let anything happen to my children.
Dear God, PLEASE don’t let my husband lose his job.

We lovingly and a bit desperately bring our laundry list of fears to God… praying that He will protect us from anything bad. Dear God, don’t let this happen! We fear that if the worst did happen, we wouldn’t be able to handle it.

These troubling times can make us feel like we’re in the middle of a raging storm… beaten down by winds and rain, feeling like we might drown or be swept away. In the everyday trials and tribulations of life, the storm may not seem as life-threatening, but it still can be relentless and exhausting. The Scripture that always comes to my mind when I’m in the middle of one of these stormy times comes from Mark’s gospel:

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Mark 4:35-41

It comforts me to know that the disciples behaved exactly like I would have in this situation. They were freaked out. They wanted the storm to go away. They didn’t trust that they would survive it. Jesus was right there in that boat with them… but still they didn’t trust. And can you really blame them? Here they were… caught up in a “furious” squall, and Jesus was SLEEPING ON A CUSHION! I love this translation, because that image of Jesus fast asleep on a comfy cushion perfectly captures the way the disciples must have been feeling. That God was far away. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

When I teach this Bible story to my Faith Formation students, they love it. It’s so exciting. They can picture being out on that stormy sea, and how awesome it was that Jesus calmed the storm with a simple gesture of his hand. It really shows his power and might. My students see him as a superhero. What I’d like to suggest to my students, and anyone who focuses on the ‘Jesus as Superman’ aspect of the story, is that maybe we’re missing the point. Those disciples weren’t going to survive because Jesus calmed the storm… they would survive simply because He was with them.   He would keep them calm and safe and secure in the midst of the storm. That’s what Jesus wanted his disciples to realize and that’s why he called their faith into question. I think the same point holds true for us today. What we should take away from this gospel reading is NOT that Jesus is here to calm the storms in our lives and make them go away. We don’t need Jesus to do this in order to survive… although, admittedly, it would be nice. But we need to know and truly believe that Jesus is with us in the midst of every storm… to help us get through it.

So maybe, instead of going through the laundry list of prayers that nothing bad will happen to us, we should simply pray that God will be with us if and when it does. For reasons we will never understand, God doesn’t always take away the storms in our lives. He gave us a world with free will, human choice, science, and laws of nature. What God can promise is to help us weather the storm. To ride it out. To get through to the other side, where the sun will once again shine upon our faces.