Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent Three: Love is the Air We Breathe

In my early twenties I had a case of viral pleurodynia, a strange disease I’d never heard of before and haven’t encountered since.

I woke up one day with extreme pain in my lungs, so sharp I felt like I couldn’t breathe. In the university clinic, my health provider at the time, a nonchalant resident told me I had a cold, and to come back in a week if I wasn’t feeling better.

I was in too much pain, and too short of breath, to argue that this was more than a cold. I went home wondering if I’d be alive a week later.
Jos Speybrouck, Postcard reproduction
"The Offering of Sacrifice",

Lying flat on my bed, I found myself focusing on my breath.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

If I kept my breath slow and shallow, the pain wasn’t quite so bad.



Try not to think. Try not to feel. Just focus on the breath.

Somewhere in the middle of that, I began to think of Jesus.

Jesus on the cross.

Trying to breathe.

I’d heard a bit about crucifixion: how the likely cause of death was suffocation, as the victim struggled for breath and fluids began to fill the sufferer’s chest.

I’d heard somewhere that the pain of the nails in limbs, dislocated shoulders, would eventually be focused to the searing pain of lungs struggling for breath.

In the fog of my own pain, I found myself praying “Jesus.”

Breathe in: Jesus.

Breathe out. Jesus.

He went willingly to face that death. Stood patiently while accused. Refused to be an enemy.

I had never really thought about the painful cost of love that held him there.

It was love he breathed, as his life slipped away.

My own breathing, and prayer, slowly shifted, as I thought of his struggle for breath.

With every breath in: love. I am loved.

With every breath out: love. I am loved.

The pain came and went, sometimes lasting for hours. The next day, my young husband Whitney went to church, determined to ask one of the doctors in our congregation to come and check on me. I stayed flat on our bed, breathing in, breathing out, until there were voices at the door, and cheerful Dr. Chip (still practicing at HUP, all these years later) appeared with stethoscope in hand.

Viral pleurodynia: an infection of the lining of the lung. Not fatal, but in some cases terribly painful. He prescribed some anti-inflammatory medicine, the strongest pain-killer he could think of, and said he’d be back to see how I was doing. Whitney followed him out on the way to the corner pharmacy and I went back to my focused breathing, still in pain, more certain than ever that love was the air I was breathing in and out.

You can read through the scriptures, or sit in our churches, and think the message is judgment.

But read again, with a quiet heart, and there’s the refrain, again and again: love.

Jos Speybrouck, Illustration from Bijbelische
 Geschiedenis by Jos Keulers, 1937 Belgium
Love delighting in the beauty of creation.

Love forming each of us with care and intimate interest.

Love leading an embattled people out of slavery into a land freedom.

Love warning of the suffering that would come from injustice and misuse of gifts.

Love offering restoration.

Love gathering, carrying, singing, shepherding.

And then – the love we celebrate on this third Sunday of Advent, and again on Good Friday, and Easter, and beyond:

Love putting on human form, to walk dusty roads, heal abandoned lepers, struggle for breath through searing pain. Rising again to invite us into everlasting love.

How often we miss that love.

How easily we forget it.

How badly we misrepresent it.

Yet that love breathed, then and now, into the hearts of the most forgotten, abandoned, desperate, bewildered.

It speaks gently in dreams to women caught in brutal marriages in countries where they have no rights, and those women wake to find themselves proclaiming “Jesus.”

It calls to convicts in cells around the globe, and angry, broken men find themselves gathering to sing the praise of Jesus.

It bubbles up in places of suffering, giving courage to those who serve the sick and hope to those whose breath is slowly fading.

What a comfort to know that when our breath here ends, that love we’ve been breathing goes on, welcoming us to a fuller, deeper knowledge of that love.

One of the tasks of Advent is to slow down enough to feel that love again.

To sit somewhere still, and breathe it in.

Then breathe it out.

We are called to love others, yet that’s hard to do when our own souls are empty, anxious, hurried.

It’s easy to find ourselves with nothing to offer but impatience and irritation.

Too busy to listen.

Too preoccupied to care.

Too depleted to do much more than go through the motions of good will.

Inside, that little voice cries “I need.” “I want.” “What about me?”

There have been times – too many to count  – when I’ve found I have nothing more to give. Nothing. Nothing at all.

Then I need to go find a quiet place: a back staircase in a crowded building, the moss path behind my home, a path through the woods, a chapel kneeler.
Jos Speybrouck, Illustration from Bijbelische
 Geschiedenis by Jos Keulers, 1937 Belgium

And I need to wait, and breathe.

Not pray. There are times when even prayer is too hard.

I just breathe:



Jesus in.

Jesus out.

Sometimes it happens quickly.

Sometimes it takes a while.

The haze in my head begins to clear.

The panic lifts.

The accusing voices fall silent.

My breath becomes calmer.

Sometimes I feel as if a warm blanket has been wrapped around me. The warmth radiates through me: skin, muscle, bones, soaking in heat like the warmth of the sun.

Sometimes I feel as if there’s a warm hand on my head: a hand of blessing, or protection. Of love.

Sometimes words come to mind: words of scripture, reminding me of love.

Or words I’ve never read or heard: a father’s words of love to his anxious daughter. A close friend's words of counsel and challenge to a a fellow-traveler on the way. 

Sometimes I can feel the weight simply lift: it was there, then gone. Done. Not your worry. As simple as that. Miraculous.

Sometimes the weight remains, with a new resolve and courage to face it. A sense that it isn’t mine to carry alone, that a stronger, wiser friend is walking right beside me.

Sometimes just a quiet sense of peace, so warm and still I could float off into sleep.

And always: love.

Love breathed in, and ready to breathe out.

Who would we be, if we spent more time in silence in the presence of that love?

What would our churches look like?

How would our witness and worship change?

Jos Speybrouck, Illustration from Bijbelische
 Geschiedenis by Jos Keulers, 1937 Belgium
Here’s an Advent prayer this season, for me, for you, for all who dare to claim the name of Christ and all who wait in pain for a healing breath of love:   

For this reason I kneel before the Father, 1 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Breathe it in.

Then go breathe out.

modification of Velden Floating Advent Wreath, Johann Jaritz, Austria, 2009
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Austria license.

This is the third in a four week Advent series.

Earlier Advent posts on this blog:

Advent One: What I'm Waiting for, Nov. 26, 2011
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011 

Advent Two: John the Baptist,  Dec. 12, 2010
Mary's Song,  Dec. 19, 2010
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 

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