I remember the cold rush of relief that came as soon as they opened the door and carried me, bundled, out into the stinging winter night. I remember that first gasping breath–sharp air coming into my lungs in a hurry, abating the tension I’d shouldered just seconds earlier. I was little. Three or four or five, and no stranger to the steam bath, this late night mid-winter routine, the scurrying into the car on the way to the hospital for another holy, life-giving breathing treatment. Croup and pneumonia loved to take up residence in my tiny body. I could tell any doctor that the dynamic duo was back before the tests would prove it.
What I didn’t know then was that this pattern–this strain for deep breath and the desperate need for relief, time after time, was something my body would overcome. I didn’t know that my lungs would grow strong, that too many nights of breathing treatments would come to an end. I also couldn’t see back then that these very clear memories from childhood would someday serve me metaphorically in adulthood.
Holding Our Breath
I don’t always notice it at first, but in the tense moments of my life, I hold my breath. Subconsciously, I stop allowing air to fill up my lungs. I put a hold on this very natural and necessary pattern in my body, instead restricting life-giving, essential air from moving through me. When I do breathe, my efforts become shallow–I stop receiving the fullness that my body was created to involuntarily accept. I can only imagine what this does to everything within me…systems operating on less power, blood flowing without the same clarity that it should, my nervous system going into fight or flight mode instead of existing in a restful, peaceful state.
Without meaning to, I send myself back to that place of desperately needing that late night gasp of cold air. I’ve grown so accustomed to this that often, I don’t even realize I’m tensing up in every way.
I go back to old patterns and behaviors because I’ve not yet conditioned myself to step out of them–to find sweet breath in what I know, and to accept sure footing over instability.
Saturday Morning Yoga
In the depths of winter this past year, I was trapped in another season of perpetual breath holding. Jason had been hit by a truck only months earlier, and we were still recovering from that when my doctor told me we needed to run a whole host of testing to rule out two different types of cancer in my body. I’d never felt more completely like the wind had been knocked out of me. I waded through weeks of unknown, holing up inside of myself, lacking breath, begging God not to allow this type of circumstance into my life when I was so committed to mothering our two small, precious babes.
I’m not sure how my body hung on through this season. By a thread, I think. My shallow breathing and the restricted air that defined those days made everything feel dark, shaky, in desperate need of restoration. In a place of total brokenness and instability in my soul, I said yes to a Saturday morning Holy Yoga class for some hopeful relief. My dear friend had recently become certified, and she promised this time on Saturday mornings would be set on worship and prayer and seeking out God. I needed all of those things, and so, with a new mat and a struggling spirit in tow, I wandered, broken, into class that first, chilly Saturday morning.
Having done yoga a handful of times at this point, I had no idea whether I’d love or hate it. I felt completely vulnerable in every way. As it turns out, this was exactly how I’d needed to come to my mat that day, and it’s been exactly how I’ve needed to come to my mat so many Saturdays since. It’s hard to describe what happens in a Holy Yoga class, because there is nowhere else in my life that I lay mere inches from strangers and pursue God in such a deep and reverent way. (Ok, there is nowhere else in my life that I lay mere inches from strangers, period, which I figure is probably a good thing.)
On my mat, I am completely focused on letting the rest of life fall away while I welcome healing and filling up from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I
cry weep. I feel stripped of pretense. And I breathe. Not only do I take in breath and push it away, but I do so deeply. It’s an exercise I think my body had completely forgotten.
As with any healthy habit, I have to practice this deep breathing day in and day out. Yoga has helped me to figure out how to do this, but I still have to go back each week and ingrain the pattern a little deeper into who I am. I believe it’s working for the reason that it isn’t just a physical work. These deep breaths come along with me giving up what I know to be true about myself and my circumstances, instead replacing thoughts about my reality with meditations on the reality of Christ.
As it turns out, and despite any realities I may face on a given week, the truths about who God is–his character and how he sees me and loves me–are way stronger than the fears and truths I believe about who I am, about this fleeting life here on earth.
In order to be physically human in this world, I must breathe. But in order to live in the fullness of life I’ve been given this side of eternity, I must breathe in Christ.
Our Need for Air
A week ago last night, we were going to bed late when we heard Eloise breathing over the monitor. The sounds coming from her little body were all too familiar. Just after midnight, I climbed our stairs to find her awake and struggling for air. I brought her down to our bed to keep a closer eye on her, hopeful that her lungs would resolve and she could get a peaceful night’s sleep. Instead, after a little while of watching her patterned breaths become more and more shallow, we decided she’d need to go to the ER. Her little legs tremored. The look in her eyes was pleading and scared. I flashed back to those nights as a child, remembering that feeling of desperation and the way my parents came to the rescue with help each time. We bundled her up and I took her in.
Right up to the ER doors, Eloise was panicked. She shook as I took her out of the carseat, reminding her over and over that she was ok and that the doctors would help. No sooner did we cross the threshold than her breath became even. Her struggle slowed. Her body relaxed in my arms. Even at two years old, it seems, we recognize where help comes from and we can rest when we know we’re in good hands. Observing the change that came over Eloise that night, I realized that, inherently, we all just want to know how the next breath is going to come.
Feeding Fear or Breathing Love
I’m currently reading Sara Hagerty’s book, Every Bitter Thing Is Sweet: Tasting the Goodness of God in All Things. I’m taking it in as I’m able, a chapter here and a chapter there, and this morning her words blessed me so deeply as I’m working through this idea of breath and breathing rightly:
“Adoration is exploration. The Father loves to be explored. We underestimate the power that our knowing Him has in moving His heart. We underestimate the power that our moving His heart has on our lives.
Fear loses oxygen when every moment suspends itself under the purpose of bringing Him glory, of knowing His name and His nature.
Sometimes, instead of leading us up and out of those fears, big and small, He lets us live them. He gives us over to them. Because it’s in this giving over to our fears that we find the perfect love that frees us from them. Forever.”
Fear loses oxygen when we live our lives for the purpose of bringing God glory. Isn’t that beautiful?!
I don’t know about you, but in the wake of recent events in Paris and all over the world, I have struggled to fight back fear and, in moments, to pursue the perfect love that frees us from it. I hate the evil that swirls around us–sometimes so obviously, and sometimes so subversively that we might miss it if we’re not pressing into God when it comes lurking.
But here is what I know. We were created to breathe love, not fear. God doesn’t offer us a spirit of fear at all. He offers us life-giving, life-saving breath. Just like that rush of cold air in the middle of the night, just like that feeling of walking past those ER doors and closer to help, the breath of life offered to us is just beyond a threshold. We make choices in our thoughts, in our conversations, in our prayer lives, that dictate how close or far away that relief might feel.
There are millions…billions of people in the world right now who are holding their breath. Or they are taking in shallow air because they don’t know how their next breath is going to come. They are broken, grieving, worrying, lost, homeless, displaced, ill, alone, confused, enslaved. And they are men and women and children, all made by a Creator who loves them and grieves with them–who wants to meet them in their places of pain and offer them life-rescuing breath.
Sometimes it is our task to be the hands and feet that usher this new breath into life. Sometimes this breath comes through prayer, but more often than not, I think it also comes with a desire to help and the call to pursue tangible ways of offering Christ’s love to our brothers and sisters.
The globe is so divided at this moment about what “help” should look like. I think we’ve made this so much more complicated than it needs to be. We are called to breathe love and not to feed fear. When we ask God how we should respond to others, we must check our spirits and ask whether we’re operating from a position of fear or freedom. If we truly believe that God know our days, our breath, our hearts, than we must trust him with them, too.
In another season when shallow breathing could easily become my M.O., I have to get on my knees again and ask for air. I have to ask God to carry me over that threshold, to meet me on my mat. And I have to steal oxygen away from fear and put it in it’s rightful place–deep in my lungs, where the Creator of the Universe has offered me–has offered all of us, breath.
In through the nose, out through the mouth. This is how we begin. I pray we are all able to find and to offer deep, deep breath to ourselves, to strangers, and to one another in the days to come.
For a little more encouragement, I have loved the following over this past week. I hope these links bring lightness to your soul:
- “Let the Heavens Open” This song has ministered to my heart recently, and again today
- “The World is Scary as Hell. Love Anyway.” Jeremy Courtney of Preemptive Love lends his thoughts on having new eyes in the midst of today’s world crises and pain
- “You Will Not Have My Hatred.” The husband of a Paris attack victim shares his heart
- A Hope College student studying abroad in Paris reflects on her experiences living in and among others in the City of Light
Affiliate links used in this post.