Monday, December 8, 2014

Impossible Advent: Remembering to breathe in the world of "I Can't Breathe"

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts

Over the past week, I've been telling a lot of people to take deep breaths.

I double-dip stress around finals time. I work with college students, and I'm a seminary student myself, so there's a lot of anxiety happening for most of the people I spend time with on a day-to-day basis. Not to mention that for church folks, Advent--which was supposed to be a season of preparation and contemplation--has turned into a season of over-programming. All of us students sort of need to take care of each other around this time of the year.

The advice rings differently in my own ears this year, though. "Take deep breaths," I say. "You can do this."

"I can't breathe," a voice echoes in my head.

"I can't breathe."

Eric Garner said it 11 times.

I tell people to breathe. To take deep breaths. And I wonder if for millions of people in this country, including friends of mine, colleagues, professors, pastors, those words sound like a sick joke. How do you breathe when the system is designed to choke you? How do you breathe in a world of "I can't breathe"?

My position is one of privilege. And so I write this, not as condescending advice to the righteously angry, but as a reminder to myself: that holding my breath does not help Eric Garner get his back. That holding my breath won't amplify a single voice.

I've got to remember to breathe.

I used to think that I could force my voice out, that if I buckled down and tried harder I'd be a better person, a better activist, a better Christian. I forced that voice out, and before I knew it I was trying so hard that I was gasping for air, holding my breath to try to make it through.

Even in the world of "I can't breathe," I've got to remember to breathe.

Leigh recently posted this article called "The Activist as Contemplative: Resting for Social Change." What with all its talk of burnout and campus ministers, I have a sneaking suspicion it might've been a bit of But it's a powerful reminder, and well worth the read: prayer and rest are not the opposites of action. They are essential to it. They are the fertile ground out of which it grows.

It seems like an odd contradiction, perhaps even like an excuse. But then again, there's an intuitive link between the inner stillness and the outer activity, the deep breath and the loud protest. There's an oft-quoted scripture verse, from Psalm 46, that is often offered as a comfort to people in times of stress: "Be still, and know that I am God." It's a reminder to still the racing of thought and heart and to relax back into the presence of God. But look at the previous verse, and you'll see this: "Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations God has brought on the earth. God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with fire." Only then, after all the desolation and the breaking and the shattering, does the psalmist declare, "Be still!" There's an exclamation point. A more recent translation says, "That's enough!"

"Take a deep breath" sounds like lame advice. But it's a bit of a gentler way of saying, "That's enough!" "That's enough of the interior monologue of anxiety and insecurity, enough of the feelings of inadequacy! That's enough of the self-hatred! That's enough injustice"

"Be still." "That's enough!"
"Take a deep breath." "Let him breathe!"

Probably the only thing I'm worse at than being an activist is being a contemplative. But in this season, I am remembering: we have to breathe.

For the sake of a world where "I can't breathe" becomes unimaginable:

We have to breathe.

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