In January this year I had the heart-breaking privilege of sitting beside my father-in-law in what turned out to be his last days on earth. Frank and I took turns to sit with him through the night. Most of the time, he breathed normally but his lungs were slowly filling with fluid and he would often pause breathing, causing me to sit upright giving him my undivided attention wondering what was going on … then he would gasp and get into a rhythm of breathing again. Days later, as his breathing got more laboured, we knew his end was near. We held his hand as he breathed his last.
“I can’t Breathe” has become a cry we have heard over the last days and the above image comes to my mind as I hear it, the last time I sat with someone who struggled to breathe. I’ve never experienced the horror of being unable to breathe or the pressure of someone’s knee on my windpipe or a choke hold – in a physical sense. But I have felt the choke hold of prejudice and racism. I have felt the humiliation of being called out, isolated for being a coloured woman married to a white man. I fear for my coloured son often, who has a tendency to speak out for justice. What will that cost him?
In Genesis 2:7 we read: “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.”. Our very breath is a gift from God who breathed on us to give us life. As Job said in Job 33:4 “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
“I can’t breathe”, is now the rallying cry for #blacklivesmatter #anti-racism – the hashtags are endless. The numbers of those in marches increase week by week around the world.
Of all the imagery in the world, “breathing/breath” has become the cry to examine our own hearts and attitudes to racism. Isn’t it interesting that this has all happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which affects the lungs and the breathing of the patient? I don’t know how much time or energy you have put into reading, watching about what’s going on right now. For me it’s an important part of our ‘mission’ to face the issues in front of us and examine our own hearts. We need to inform ourselves and start to live as people that don’t just say the right things but work to change systemic inequalities and attitudes towards people of colour – our social circles, our churches, our workplaces, our nation and our world.
How often do you/I/we notice our breathing?
Let’s do some breathing – Close your eyes – inhale slowly … count to five as you do. Hold your breath for a count of three and Exhale slowly … counting to five again. Notice your breathing!
Do it! Do that a couple of times. Keep inhaling slowly and exhaling slowing and as you do, think about the areas of your influence and how are people of colour included or excluded?
Before Jesus left the earth, one of his last words to his disciples recorded for us in John 20:21-22. Let me read them to you: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Lord we thank you for your breath of life in each of us. We thank you that you also breathe into us your Holy Spirit and set us apart for the Holy work of reconciliation and redemption in Jesus name. Take us deeper into understanding who we are in you, that we may welcome, honour and esteem highly, people who are different to us.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what [who] Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.
–Nancy, SIM NZ
(Names changed for security reasons)