3/17/19 - Finding Your Breath: Listening to Our Bodies - Romans 8:26-28, 38-39

Finding Your Breath:  Listening to Our Bodies

Romans 8:26-28, 38-39

March 17, 2019

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Albany, NY, Rev. Kathy Donley


One time a mother was waiting for her 8-year-old daughter to come home.  The child was late, and the mother was getting worried.  Finally, the daughter came home and her mother asked where she had been.  The girl said that she had been at her friend’s house and the friend’s doll had broken.  Her mother said, “oh, did you stay to help her fix the doll?”  The girl said, “No, the doll could not be fixed.  I had to stay and help her cry.”

The little girl was wise.  Some things cannot be fixed.  We could tell ourselves “that’s just the way things are” or we could allow that brokenness to call forth from us sadness and grief and lament and tears.

Some things cannot be fixed. Not by human power or not on our timetable. Creation is broken. Paul describes creation as groaning, while it waits for transformation. God’s people share in the eager longing for transformation and we share in creation’s groaning.

We groan when we remember the violence at Mother Emmanuel Church and Tree of Life synagogue and now, we are still groaning at the news of the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Words have poured out about the 50 people who died, their aspirations, their loved ones, their final actions. Words have poured out from politicians and religious leaders and ordinary people.  So many words, but also a sense that there is little meaningful which can be said. Even when we attempt to pray, there are no words, just anguish.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul says that when the circumstances of our lives have overwhelmed us, when the spiritual brokenness of creation seems to overtake our physical bodies, then the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  In the midst of a groaning world, the groaning of God’s people is sustained by the groaning of the Holy Spirit.[1]

We are a wordy people. We read words, write words, hear words, speak words all day long.  We almost always think in words. But there are prayers which lie too deep for words.

A woman named Joanna attended an all-day conference on the biosphere in the 1970’s at the invitation of her young adult children.  She said, “although I learned no new facts, the cumulative effect was devastating. People were talking about the arms race and oil spills and the demolition of the rain forests . . . and it broke through to me somewhere in the middle of the afternoon that this could really be curtains for us all.  I saw this fact so clearly that I didn’t know how I could stand it.”

“For the next year, I lived with despair . . . My grief would break through in unexpected onslaughts.  Working at home at my desk, I would suddenly find myself on the floor, curled up in a fetal position and shaking. . .. the sight of an egret landing by the edge of the marsh or the sound of Bach from a nearby piano would unexpectedly pierce my heart, as I wondered how long it would be before that piece of beauty faded forever.” [2]

It is not always our brains that lead us into prayer.  Often the call to prayer comes from a broken-heart or a full one.  Sometimes it comes as the sucker-punch of shock, outrage, despair or even anger that we feel in our bodies before we can name it.  Part of attending to the inner voice, then, means attending to what our bodies are saying. 

As Frederick Buechner said about tears, “You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. . .  a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.   They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not, God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where. . . you should go to next.”[3]

The prayers that lie too deep for words, the ones that we pray with our bodies are not always sad or angry.  Some of you might remember the movie Chariots of Fire about Eric Lidell, a Scottish runner who won Olympic gold in 1924.  In the movie, he said, “God made me fast. When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”

That was his body prayer. Our spontaneous body prayer might be joy on an Adirondack peak or the rim of the Grand Canyon.  If we are ever privileged to be present at a birth or a death, it might be indescribable awe.  If we pay careful attention, it might happen when we come home at the end of the day and really look at the beloved family member who greets us.    We might have known one kind of wordless prayer at the news from Christchurch and an entirely different kind of response when we saw the images of thousands of young people pouring into the streets of cities all over the world on Friday to demand justice for the planet. If you saw those pictures and your heart lifted or you found yourself cheering them on, that might have been the Holy Spirit in your body telling you how to pray. 

If the idea of wordless prayer is new to you, let me suggest a possible practice you could try. Breath prayer dates back to at least the sixth century.  It begins with words thought in rhythm with inhaling and exhaling.  At first the prayer was “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” during the inhalation and “have mercy on me a sinner” on the exhale.  It was shortened a couple more time and the shortest form is “Jesus, mercy.”  One word as you breathe in and one as you breathe out. That’s a great simple prayer which you can carry around with you.  And I wonder, if after a while, you wouldn’t even need to think of the words. I wonder if simply attending to your breath would bring you to a place of prayer.   I wonder if we might remember that breath and spirit are the same word in Hebrew and Greek. I wonder if we might begin to think of breathing as drawing in the Holy Spirit, or taking a deep breath as taking a big gulp of the Spirit. 

Some things cannot be fixed. Not by human power or not on our timetable. In the midst of a groaning world, the groaning of God’s people is sustained by the groaning of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  Thanks be to God. Amen.



[1] N. Thomas Wright, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), p. 598.

[2] Sherry Anderson and Patricia Hopkins,  The Feminine Face of God, (New York:  Bantam Books, 1991), p. 54.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, New York:  Harper and Row, 1988.