As in … we thrive as spirited people by affirming that we are inspired, animated and enthused by the Source of all life, and that every breath is a gift. Including the one you just took.
And that one too.
The sabbatical has begun. Nancy Lee and I are on the road heading east. The car is packed with everything we need for the month of January – including Shelbui, the Wonder Dog, We’ve got gifts for our family “out east;” suitcases full of suitcase stuff and several boxes of “things you just gotta have when you’re going to live in another place in another time zone, in another home.”
It’s a very spirited time, to be sure. Today I want to write about that; about …what it means to be spirited.
When we talk about “spiritual things,” the spirit, spirituality, the nature of being spirited, we’re are really talking about things that are often beyond our capacity to explain, and in many cases understand fully.
And perhaps we don’t need to.
After all, isn’t it always the case that we’re using finite words to describe – or at least, find some expression for the Infinite? At some point in any conversation about spiritual things, we probably need to acknowledge that our language is limited. The meanings of words we use change over time. The nuances shift. The definitions fade. There ways of understanding old words and concepts come and go.
This is true for spirituality.
So when we talk about our spiritual lives, or, as I prefer to say, our “spiritedness” and what that means—to say nothing of what it means to thrive as spirited people, we’re really walking into mystery. We’re walking into one big, beautiful, funky, ancient, poetic, delicious, complicated, gnarly, expansive, and wonder-filled mystery.
And that’s a good thing.
When we talk about spirituality, at some point we’re talking about breath – which in its very essence is spirit. The ancient words of the Hebrew scriptures—when they speak of spirit, are speaking about breath.
Belden Lane is a Presbyterian minister and Professor Emeritus of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. His books include Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, and Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality. In his remarkable new book due to be published in April of 2019, Belden ponders the gift of breath:
“Our first intense experience of the world comes through breathing—gasping for air. For the rest of our lives this happens automatically, without conscious effort, handled by a respiratory control center at the base of the brain. We breathe an average of 28,000 times a day. But breath is more than a physiological function. It represents an interior, spiritual dimension of a life that is more than us. According to the Torah, God’s breathing brought the first humans into existence, filling them with the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). Called by various names—[including the Greek word], pneuma, [and the Hebrew word] and ruach), breath is a divine energy recognized across every religious tradition.”
(Belden C. Lane, The Great Conversation and the Care of the Soul, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.)
But talking about this “divine energy that is recognized across every religious tradition” can be challenging. One of the challenges we often face when it comes to “all things spiritual” is knowing what to hold on to and what to let go of. And that very tension – between the things we hold tightly and the things we hold loosely when it comes to theology, spirituality, religion, etc… and how we understand all of that, is quite a tension for some people.
Maybe for a lot of people.
And the things we hold in tension—when it comes to our spiritual/religious understanding is what I call “our 3×5 card.” It’s as if those of us who grew up in the church were handed an imaginary (and, I suppose in some cases, an actual!) 3×5 card that told us what to think and believe about all manner of religious and spiritual things.
Let me speak for myself: in my family of origin and including my community of origin – my mom and dad and the people around me from pastors and friends to teachers and relatives all had something to say about the wonderfully mysterious world of belief. And what they had to say about all of that went on my 3×5 card. And what got put on my 3×5 card (thoughts, convictions, feelings, ideas, data, doctrine, dogma, etc…) had an air of gravitas to it. And you certainly didn’t mess with it. You didn’t argue with it. I mean, why would you? You got it from people who knew about those things. Right? This is mostly accurate unless you were raised in a family that welcomed questions and doubts and embraced an environment of conversation that included a great deal of questions and back-and-forth debate. My experience tells me that that wasn’t the case for a lot of people.
As I grew, whenever I was in a conversation about spiritual things, I’d default back to that 3×5 card. But as the years went on, some of the things on my 3×5 card began to fall off, or didn’t make sense anymore. And some of those things were replaced with new ways of understanding what I had first been given. It was a long process of discerning what was helpful and what wasn’t. It was a long process of learning to move beyond simply repeating what was on my 3×5 card – parroting what my friends and family told me which led me into the process of critical thinking.
And when I began to use the gifts of critical thinking—learning to articulate what I thought as well as learning to listen to what others were thinking created growth and maturity.
Maybe this has been your experience as well. When we do that, a great deal of things begin to shift and change.
This is a common story. But one thing is for sure: often, the understanding we were handed early on limited us; held us back in our understanding of ‘spirited things.’
When you think about it, there are a lot of important things on that 3×5 card.
One of those things, for me, was the way I viewed God. Sometimes God seemed strangely “out there”—disconnected and disengaged with us; disinterested in who we are and what we are doing here. At other times, God seemed close. But all of that so often was tied into how my life was going at any given moment. When things were going great, God seemed close. When things got dicey or challenging, I would wonder where God was.
The biblical writer, Paul, writing in the book of Acts 17:28 spoke into that. Paul wrote: “God is the one in whom we live, move and have our being. There is no disconnection, there is no disengagement, or disinterest on God’s part because God is in us we are in God. God is all in all.” Another way to understand that is to say that God is the oxygen that we breathe. God is the water in which we swim.
Some call this spirituality. Some call this religion. Again, finite words to describe infinite things. Those words – religion and spirituality are freighted with meaning and shades of meaning.
For some, religion carries a sense of “doing.” A friend of mine uses the word “protocol.” There’s a list of particular steps to follow. There’s no intended judgement in that. For some, this is a very helpful method of dwelling in the larger mystery. Consider the original faith community, the early disciples, and then the early Christ-followers in the decades following the Jesus event, and then the followers of The Way who, through the centuries practiced religious disciplines and discovered comfort in the regimented, formulaic ways of doing certain things which led those who practiced them to deeper expressions of being spirited people.
For others, spirituality is way of “being.” They experience this “spiritedness” in a way that moves beyond method and structure. For instance, some talk about singing as a spiritual practice which leads to a certain kind of transcendence. Others find a deeper awareness of their “spiritedness” while celebrating communion. Something spirited happens when a priest, a pastor, a minister recounts the original communion or Eucharistic story. Something moving happens when Christ’s presence in bread and wine is proclaimed.
For still others, an awareness of the Spirit happens by simply watching the community of Christ participate in communion. This is the power of community: to be witness to the presence of Christ which is always end essentially an act of community—joining millions of Christ followers around the world who experience the Spirit of God among them through bread and wine.
As people come to the table there are expressions of spiritedness: heads bowed, empty hands held out, laughter, tears, the sign of the cross, a blessing shared, etc. These are all reflections of the Spirit’s presence; our experience of being spirited.
Religion, at its best, is incorporation of the many into one; the many people gathering around the One who is present in bread and wine. Religion, at its best, which is an expression of the Spirit, allows for a community to experience together the unique and personal – but never private – expressions of spirited-ness: creative prayer, silence, singing, confession, forgiveness
praise and gratitude, connection with one another, being present, expressing generosity, living into mission (the seven rhythms). Too often though, religion is reduced to having to behave, and believe, and agree with, proclaim allegiance to certain set of rules and dogma with the sense of needing to get it all correct, or to experience (suffer) the wrath of an angry God.
At the end of the day – or at least at the pause in the conversation, I wonder if it’s just enough – for now, to acknowledge ourselves as spirited people. That is to say, people who have been breathed into – breathed into my the Source of all life, God.
I wonder if it’s just enough, for now, to tap into the ancient story: the creation poem from Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures when God scoops up some of the humus, the dirt, the soil of the ground, the earth, the ground level of creation and fashions and shapes it, molds and makes it into something. And then, (here it comes), breathes into it – wind, oxygen, breath, the animating force, the essence, the inspiration, the enthusiasm of the Spirit – and then from that moment and in every moment after that we are constantly being inspired, animated, enthused by the source of all life. And when we know that and when we let that fill us up we begin to live in such a way as to affirm that every breath is not something owed us, not something that we earn or deserve – but rather something that is itself the very gift of a thriving life.
And isn’t a thriving life in the midst of this One, big, beautiful, delicious, complicated, gnarly, expansive mystery is what we’re aiming at?
So friends… this week, let’s think about what it means to say that we thrive as spirited people by affirming that we are inspired, animated and enthused by the Source of all life, and that every breath is a gift. Think about these words:
- enthuse (in-theos)
What happens when you, being filled with breath, the Spirit of the Divine, experience inspiration, animation, enthusiasm?
Describe a time when you have felt really alive or full of the Spirit. What were the circumstances? How did all of that come about?
God has been understood in many ways and by many names. G-d, God, the Divine, Ground of Being, and even Blue are just a few. How do you understand the Source of your own spiritedness?
Think of a time when you paused to marvel in the beauty of something that left you feeling inspired. Did you do anything to act on that feeling of inspiration? What lasting impact did it have?
Think about what it means to say that the breath you just took is a gift.
And that, my friends, is my story and I’m sticking to it.