“Breathe and Push”

Sometimes, the Spirit shows up at surprising times. One night last week, I opened my computer and set it on the kitchen counter, as Jen and I cleaned up after dinner. I tuned in to the General Synod, our United Church of Christ national meeting. Keynoter Valarie Kaur was literally in the middle of a sentence, about halfway through her hour-long speech. Her voice drew me in, even as I cleared the table and put away food. I kept turning up the volume so I could hear better across the kitchen, and over the sound of running water. Washing the counters and sweeping the floor, I listened more and more intently. By the end of her talk, I was sitting at the kitchen table, spellbound. I was absolutely inspired and amazed at how the Spirit was moving through her words, her presence, and her call to our churches.

Kaur is a social justice activist, lawyer, educator, and mother. She is the author of See No Stranger. While she is a member of the Sikh faith, her ideas certainly resonate with the teachings of Jesus. “Revolutionary love,” she declares, “is the call of our times.” On her website, Kaur describes her vision of revolutionary love.

The future is dark. Is this the darkness of the tomb – or of the womb? Some days are so deadly, I can taste the ash in my mouth. Other days, I see glimpses of the nation, the world, wanting to be born. A society awakened to the truth of our interdependence. I believe that we can birth that world together. Sound government is necessary but not sufficient to transition us. We need a shift in consciousness and culture. A revolution of the heart. A new way of being and seeing that leaves no one outside our circle of care. A love without limit. Revolutionary love.[1]

Kaur has developed a tool she calls the compass, which is printed on the cover of the bulletin. And, I’d ask the tech folks to show it on the screen now for those who are online. The compass addresses three areas: Love for Others, Love for Opponents and Love for Ourselves. Each of these areas, and the ten practices held within them, are important, and interrelated. I believe this framework is incredibly relevant as we continue to “cultivate intentional spiritual connections, work toward healing and justice, and reimagine how we are church.” I am making plans to share this tool and the curriculum that Kaur has developed with our ministry teams and to see how we might use it to shape our work this year. However, in relation to today’s scripture texts, “Love for ourselves” is what struck me most. Kaur says:

Loving ourselves is a feminist intervention: It is choosing to care for our own bodies and lives as a priority. In all of our various labors—making a life, raising a family, or building a movement—we can care for ourselves by remembering the wisdom of the midwife: breathe and push. We can breathe to draw energy and power into our bodies and let joy in. We can push through fear and pain to become our best selves, including through healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. And in the most convulsive moments of our lives, we can summon our deepest wisdom and find the bravery to transition, undertaking the fiery and life-giving labor of moving from one reality into another. Laboring in love is how we birth the world to come.[2]

Breathe, push and transition. I’ve never participated in the physical labor of childbirth. So I know I don’t fully understand. I don’t mean to romanticize something that is excruciatingly difficult and painful. And at the same time, it seems important for people of all genders and life experiences to heed the feminist wisdom of birth.After all, birth is a universal human experience. I find that the rhythm of labor—breath, push and transition—is central to our scripture texts today. And I am smiling at the possibility that Jesus and Paul are a couple of men who may be more feminist than we give them credit for.

Paul writes: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Paul says this in the larger context of contrasting life in the Spirit with life in the flesh. Life in the Spirit is connected to the divine and to everything. Life in the flesh is isolated and small. Life in the Spirit is freedom; life in the flesh is slavery to fear and greed. Paul goes on to explicitly use the metaphor of labor and birth in the coming verses.What I hear in today’s poetic sentences is that the birth of something new is so amazing, so glorious that we hardly notice the labor involved in getting there.

In our reading last week, Paul likened life in the Spirit, to the experience of adoption. Adoption is complicated, and so is the family we make with God and with our true selves. Teresa, I appreciated the way you described yourself “looking and seeking” amid a connection with the Spirit that feels “intermittent.” The children of God are those who open themselves to the Spirit, who actively cultivate their desire for a connection with God. That’s our human part. It’s up to God to do the rest. And often God is at work in us even when we don’t know it, can’t sense it. In the face of all the challenges and the chaos of life the children of God are those who know how to breathe, and push, care for themselves and care for others, receive and give, allow themselves to be healed and to become healers. And the whole creation is longing for these children of God to emerge, to find each other, to support each other and to labor together.

Two weeks ago, we heard how Jesus sent his disciples into the wider world to be in ministry in his name. In today’s passage, the disciples return from their travels. They are eager to tell Jesus what they’ve accomplished. Jesus recognizes this homecoming as a moment for breathing. In Mark, Jesus regularly needs to take a break. Again and again, he goes off to quiet places by himself. And he knew his followers couldn’t care for others unless they cared for themselves. Pushing requires breathing. And, in our spiritual lives, breathing is very intentional. Breathing is not the same thing as entertainment, distraction or indulgence. Breathing involves meeting basic needs of the body with health, food, sleep, and exercise. Breathing means claiming time and space to nurture our spirits.

Even as Jesus and his disciples seek their rest, the crowd continues to press on them, to chase them. So the disciples get a bit of quiet time out on the water, and that is all. A brief breath will have to be enough for now. I can totally identify with this situation as a person who tries to cultivate a daily centering prayer practice with an early-rising 7-year old in the house. I get lots of taps on the shoulder and whispers in the ear. I have to choose to ignore plenty of noises. My prayer time is not a retreat in the wilderness away from the pressures of life. The thing is, there is no perfect, right moment to breathe. There’s always something else that needs to be done. Distractions, excuses, and interruptions abound. However, the invitation is to keep breathing, to let the imperfect be good enough.

Following Jesus, we live with a sense of urgency. Even as we are breathing, we are also pushing. When Jesus sees the crowd, he doesn’t say, “go away, we need our rest.” He has compassion for them because they are like sheep without a shepherd. Here, Mark contrasts the leadership of Jesus to that of the Roman-appointed ruler of Galilee, Herod. Jesus cares; Herod doesn’t. The crowd lives in the world Herod has created – a world of the demons of scarcity and greed, fear and violence. Jesus is pushing toward a new world. Children of God, followers of Jesus, the world is eager for our revealing. Let us do our part to seek the Spirit. Let us breathe and push and transition. And may God, who labors alongside us, bring to birth a new world grounded in revolutionary love – love for others, love for opponents and love for ourselves. Amen.

[1] https://valariekaur.com/about-valarie/

[2] https://valariekaur.com/learninghub/an-introduction-to-the-compass/