Take a Deep Breath

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“Take a deep breath.”

“That’d be nice,” I thought when the doctor put the nebulizer on me; not in a sarcastic “Why do you think I’m here anyway?!” manner but with an overwhelming feeling of, “Yes please!”

I had an asthma attack last Sunday – well more of an asthma ‘campaign’ really; what I mean is I’d been rough all weekend but, like a typical idiot (i.e. 45 year old male) I decided to tough it out, even though I could tell the chest cold I had was really beginning to take a turn for the worse.  If I’d got myself to the doctor or to hospital earlier it might not have ended up with me on oxygen and a nebulizer, getting pumped full of steroids, but I wasn’t going to give in … no, not me!  Unfortunately, my asthma didn’t get the memo and decided to keep getting worse.

It’s a truly horrid feeling when you can’t just take a breath.  I kind of imagine it’s how being squeezed by a boa constrictor might feel; every time I breathed it just seemed to get shallower and shallower – I was almost panting for air and just not able to gulp it in.  I counted, and I was taking 20 – 25 breaths per minute just before the triage nurse called me in.  Sitting here four days later I’m averaging 5 or 6.

Even now, I feel as though I’ve run a marathon or something – I ache all over, any exertion at all leaves me feeling exhausted and although I’m not wheezing like Darth Vader anymore I still have the feeling that the boa constrictor hasn’t quite let go of me.

Mind you, this wasn’t my worst attack – a few years back I ended up sitting in the A&E waiting room after checking in and feeling quite serene as my vision went from full colour to black and white and then started to compress into a tunnel.  A passing nurse literally grabbed me from my seat and bundled me into triage straight away.  I can recall sitting with an oxygen mask and nebulizer on and hearing the nurse giving the poor receptionist what for, saying something like, “Didn’t you notice he was about to collapse?”

Thinking about my asthma attack – well, it got me thinking.  Thinking about how exhausting everything can be.

It’s so easy to get yourself busy – in life, in work, in relationships, in church – so busy, in fact, that you actually never really ‘breathe in’ any of the things you’re doing.  Your whole experience becomes something shallow, brief and snatched at … hurried, harsh, haggard breaths that wear you down instead of fill you up.

It’s usual though, these days, to be that busy – we’re a twenty-four hour a day, seven days a week, ‘can-do’ attitude culture, there’s no way to turn down the volume, to dim the lights and to take some time to just … breathe … Even recreation and relaxation can become an almost competitive event – extreme sports, bungee jumps, twenty-four hour drinking, speed-dating, on-line social networks; everything moving faster and faster until we just can’t keep up …

And yes, there are always going to be times when things are busier than usual, but more and more it feels like the busy times are normal and slower times are rare … if I hear the phrase “work-life balance” once more I’m sure I’ll scream.

Unfortunately for me, I found in the past that it was often the same in church, or in ministry or however you want to frame it.

We fall into the trap of thinking that we’re supposed to be “committed to the faith” or exercising our gifts, or we’re supposed to be “sold out for the Lord” or something equally preposterous and we equate that with being busy and active and doing everything we can – singing “Alleluia” until we all keel over.  There’s the classic 80/20 rule (or Pareto’s Principle to give it the full title) that more or less says you get 80% of your input from only 20% of your people, but sometimes I’ve felt like it’s 90+% from a handful of folks and that I’m fed up being one of the handful!!!

You just get worn out by it all.  Dried up.  Washed out.  Exhausted.  Out of breath.

Recently, I read a book called Punk Monk – which has the strap line, “New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing.”  That strap line stuck with me.

I like the notion that there’s an “Ancient Art of Breathing”, the essential idea being that there might be a way of finding a rhythm to things that allows us to experience a natural ‘ebb and flow’ in our experience, a way of life that recognises the ups and downs of life and understands that you can’t always be on ‘transmit’ mode and that you need times when you are set on ‘receive’ in order to build a sustainable life, ministry or whatever.

Whether it’s through structures like  Lectio Divina, or other disciplines like fasting, or maybe even retreat I’m sure it’s important to find a way to think, and rest, and stop hurrying past the things that just might be important.

For me, I’m trying to find a sense of Sabbath again.  Sundays aren’t often a ‘day of rest’ for us as a family – don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being in church and love being involved in music, in our ‘messy church’ and doing the occasional preach – we’re often involved in something that’s going on and I love that, but it means that I don’t often arrive at church on a Sunday to ‘just’ worship and listen.  (That says more about me and my mentality than it does about our church, by the way.)

Sabbath, for me, would be a feeling of ‘space’ to think, to ponder, to listen, to notice, to see things without the ‘busy, busy, busy’ filter in full effect.

Sabbath, for me, might mean that I think about things and learn things without me necessarily running off to try to tell all and sundry about it.

Sabbath, for me, might well involve me shutting up more, and listening instead.

Sabbath might give me time to breathe in … meaning that when I need to, I’ll be better equipped to breathe out again.

Scripture uses words like ruach in Hebrew, and pneuma in Greek, to talk about the Spirit of God – I don’t think it’s coincidental that these words translate as “breath.”  The obvious inference is that this sense of Spirit is just as vital to us as our breath – in fact, I don’t think it’s inferred at all – it’s implicit.  This Spirit sustains us, brings life, brings a sense of relief from the pinched, harsh, forced breathing that we push ourselves into through our busyness and rushed activity.

The Spirit – to return to an asthmatic analogy – is the mask, the oxygen, the nebulising agent that opens up the airways again, allowing me – you, us – to breathe again.

Sabbath, for me, may well start with …

“Take a deep breath …”

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3 responses to “Take a Deep Breath

  1. ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration [breathing in] of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your Name, through Christ…’ Thus begins our Sunday Service. It’s a good way to breathe…

  2. I’ve been reflecting on your words alongside reflecting on huge changes in life since I was growing up in the 50s and 60s – that’s been triggered by visits to my ailing parents and perusal of photo albums from up to 100 years of family history. Life in my family of 7 with an open house to all and sundry sometimes seemed manic back then, but there really was more time to breathe. It was a gentler era in my experience, or was it just that I was a child? Today, all of life seems to make constant and insistent demands on us, many of which seem impossible to ignore. My own quandary re. leading church is that when I try to find some space and just ignore some of those demands to solve this or change that, or even try to ease the pressure on everyone through church activities… it comes back to bite sooner or later with ever increasing intensity and urgency when things start falling over. Supreme irony! Trying to keep Christmas simple once again!!! Will I succeed? Answers on a postcard in January!
    Hebrews 4:9-11

  3. Plenty to think about there. I struggle breathing, I think I am to scared to rest. I fill almost every waking hour with thing’s to do. Even sitting watching tv and bieng still is hard. Work busy church busy home busy. I think because I spent a large chunk of my life jusy keeping my head above water I get scared of becomimg complacent about all I have now, purpouse wife family great church job. I will pray about breathing. Thanks as always for an interesting post, God bless.

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