Excerpt from: The Sound of our Breathing

By Jason Gray

Originally posted at the Rabbit Room

Take a breath and breathe it out.  Do it again, slowly, and try to mean it.  Breathing – of all things maybe we take it most for granted. Do we ever wonder why we are built this way, this soft machine of ours always pumping oxygen in and out?

In sadness, we breathe heavy sighs. In joy, our lungs feel almost like they will burst. In fear we hold our breath and have to be told to breathe slowly to help us calm down. When we’re about to do something hard, we take a deep breath to find our courage.  When I think about it, breathing looks almost like a kind of praying.

I heard a teaching not long ago about the moment when Moses had the nerve to ask God what his name is.  God was gracious enough to answer, and the name he gave is recorded in the original Hebrew as YHWH.

Over time we’ve arbitrarily added an “a” and an “e” in there to get YaHWeH, presumably because we have a preference for vowels. But scholars have noted that the letters YHWH represent breathing sounds, aspirated consonants that in the Hebrew alphabet would be transliterated like this:

Yod, rhymes with “rode”, which we transliterate “Y”
He, rhymes with “say”, which we transliterate “H”
Vav, like “lava”, which we transliterate “V” or “W”
He rhymes with “say”, which we transliterate “H”

A wonderful question rises to excite the imagination: what if the name of God is the sound of breathing?

This is a beautiful thought to me, especially considering that for centuries there have been those who have insisted that the name of God is so holy that we dare not speak it because of how unworthy we are. How generous of God to choose to give himself a name that we can’t help but speak every moment we’re alive. All of us, always, everywhere, waking, sleeping, with the name of God on our lips.

In his Nooma video, Breathe, Rob Bell (a pastor whose obvious gifts of curiosity and a knack for asking provocative questions can get him into trouble) wonders what this means in key moments like when a baby is born – newly arrived on planet earth, must they take their first breath, or rather speak the name of God if they are to be alive here?  On our deathbed, do we breathe our last breath? Or is it that we cease to be alive when the name of God is no longer on our lips?

The most ironic of his questions is also the most beautiful: he wonders about the moment when an atheist friend looks across the table at you and says, “there. is. no. God”.  And of course what you hear is “Yod. He. Vav. He.”

There are few better illustrations of both God’s largesse as well as his humility, his omnipresence as well as his singular intimate presence within each of us.

Breathe in. Breathe out. “He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs… the word that saves is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth…” (Romans 8:28, 10:8 The Message)


The Sound Of Our Breathing

Jason Gray, Doug McKelvey, Seth Mosely

Everybody draws their very first breath with Your name upon their lips

Every one of us is born of dust but come alive with heaven’s kiss

The name of God is the sound of our breathing
Hallelujahs rise on the wings of our hearts beating

Breathe in, breathe out, speak it aloud Oh oh, oh oh
The glory surrounds, this is the sound Oh oh, oh oh

Moses bare foot at the burning bush wants to know who spoke to him
The answer is unspeakable like the rush of a gentle wind

The name of God is the sound of our breathing
Hallelujahs rise on the wings of our hearts beating

Breathe in, breathe out, speak it aloud Oh oh, oh oh
The glory surrounds, this is the sound Oh oh, oh oh

In him we live and move and have our being
We speak the name as long as we are breathing

So breathe in
Breathe out…

Doubters and deceivers, skeptics and believers we speak it just the same
From birth to death, every single breath is whispering Your name

Paradox is Normal

Paradox is part of the nature of theology.  Not theology as a study of God, although that is included.  Rather theology as the definition of the nature of reality.  Paradox is an element that we cannot understand.  We cannot reconcile it with our logic.  Yet, it is as much a part of reality as grass and trees and love and sadness.  There is one God, yet there are three.  It’s a paradox that we can’t understand.  Our only options are to deny this reality because we can’t reconcile it or accept it, not by logic, but by faith.

Consider eternity.  When God redeems the world in judgment, it is commonly believed that time will cease to exist and eternity will begin (if it can be said to have a beginning).  The redeemed will live with God for all eternity… in timelessness.  Yet, Scripture tells us of the streets of heaven.  It speaks of our reuniting with loved ones and conversations with the Lord.  How can these things occur in a “world” without time?  Will it not take time to walk down heaven’s streets?  Will time not pass as we converse with the Lord?  Time must pass if we are to experience these and other things in heaven.  There can be no “experience” without time as its context.

The fact that we “experience” anything at all is not a concept that conveys a fixed timeless point.  Rather, it conveys a linear and temporal backdrop for the events that take place that allow us to have the experience.  Yet time will not exist in heaven.  This is a paradox.  If the primal purpose of God’s plan is the eternal redemption of humanity so that He and we could spend eternity together, then paradox must be a core element of theological reality.  What other paradoxes are there in God’s reality?  That Jesus could be both fully God and fully man at the same time?  That our works save us, but we are saved by faith alone?  That we are told to have faith, but that faith is a gift from God that we could never conjure by our own will?  The arrival of the Kingdom has not come to pass, yet it is already here?

God’s reality is full of paradox.  This is one reason it is called a “mystery” and why it confounds those who are not humble enough to dismiss their logic.  For we have only two options: deny this reality because we can’t comprehend it or accept it in faith even in the midst of incomprehension.  Such a faith itself is a paradox for how can one believe in something he cannot understand?  Yet faith we have because it is a gift of God.  And we cannot claim any credit for it.  Look for and enjoy the paradox.  Revel in the mystery of God.

Understanding and Expression

At birth, we awaken to find ourselves placed in a world – untrained, unknowing, unaware and off-balance.  Each of us tries to find orientation and a stable base of understanding upon which we can endeavor to make sense of our existence.  In this context, the universe of God has revealed a mystery of meaning and our life journey is destined to its understanding.  Yet the tools for comprehension that exist within us are so limited.  We start  the journey by looking inward; with self-awareness and self-understanding.  We look deeply within. We dive into the universe of who we are.  We try to sift though the seemingly inexhaustible darkness of thoughts, feelings and experiences in order to form some comprehensible matrix of our personal reality in the attempt to create some firm footing from which we may observe and launch out in other discovery.  We try to receive external information from our environment and harmoniously assimilate it into our personal construct to better make sense of the world setting we exist in.  Through all of this there is movement, flux, history – nothing static, always changing.  The world swirls around us as do our ideas and experiences requiring us to ever adjust our reality construct in order to account for the new information.  Between each breath, we are in a constant state of change and evolution.  And we try to make sense of it all.

In this personal, autonomous experience and in our interactions with other sentient beings, we are significantly and utterly limited by our humanity in two ways.  We are challenged to understand and express using tools that are finite.  We find ourselves given tools that have a limited capacity to remember and recall. Tools that require rest and rejuvenation. Tools that have a limited ability to process information in both scope and complexity.  Tools that are deficient in transforming thoughts, ideas, and emotions into adequate forms of expression and communication to others and even to ourselves.  Even if we are able to make some sense of the swirling maw within ourselves; given the desire to express our ideas to others, we are never able to choose exactly the right words or other mediums to form a complete representation of our ideas to those outside of our minds.  Even as I write this I realize the woeful inadequacy to find the choice combination of words that will express the meaning that exists within the cloud of my conscious mind.  Even the most talented poets manifest the sheer inadequacy of their expression.  Yet, somehow, some form of their meaning comes through in their words.  That some meaning escapes into the consciousness of another who finds and recognizes its value gives me hope and also draws me closer to an understanding of my deficiency in relation to the infinitely expressioned God.

In realizing these limited capacities for understanding and expression, I also conceive that each sentient being, experiencing the same inabilities, is universally bound to each another.  We are a collective of individuals inextricably unique and tied together.  We exist within ourselves, but never apart from one another.  We are together on a common path to make sense of a life that none of us asked for, but find ourselves in.  We find greater degrees of meaning through each other – through our communication across and because of our limited medium and capacity.  And it is only in the chaos of our togetherness, in conjunction with the God of experiences, that we come to a more expressive and fully realized comprehension of the divine mystery.

We Were Created… to Create

C.S. Lewis stated the following in his book, Christian Reflections,

“In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation: can we, believing this, believe that literature [or art] which must derive from real life, is to aim at being “creative”, “original”, and “spontaneous.”  “Originality” in the New Testament is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone. If I have read the New Testament aright, it leaves no room for “creativeness” even in a modified or metaphysical sense. Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours.”

This last sentence is a reference to 2 Corinthians 3:18.

“We with unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the glory of the Lord.”

I agree with Lewis in that our motivation for our art (our lives) should not be to glorify ourselves and that we should not think that we possess any sort of creative power that is unique and distinctive to ourselves. However, I believe we do have creative power within us and that such power is one of the gifts God endowed us with when He created us “in His image”.

Lewis uses the term “image bearers” referring to mankind as not only containing the image or signature of God as a part of our inherent properties as creations of God, but also as call to duty. Being an image bearer means that our purpose and our obligation is to act in such a way that God is glorified by our lives – that God’s goodness is manifested by our choices.

I believe that God endowed His own creative power within us and that we each have a choice to exercise that power in a way that points to God or in a way that points only horizontally to and about the world.  Taken as a whole, our lives can be distilled down to our choice to either fight against our created purpose – to struggle against the current that is trying to pull us to God – or our choice to surrender to that spiritual current and allow God to take us safely to the place He has prepared for us.

When we choose to exercise our creative power in such a way that points to God, projecting and reflecting to goodness of God, we act as partners with God in His on-going creative process. God finished His initial creation at the end of the sixth day, but by no means was God finished creating. The whole of history manifests God’s continuous process of creation – to make what was dark and sinful into something radiant, pure, a redeemed reflection of Himself for His glory.

When we exercise our creative power vertically we yield to the stream that carries us and reveal to the world “pictures of God” that point to His goodness, mercy and grace. We add new beauty to the world casting forth a light that brings joy and awareness.  As such, our creations are balanced with the divine creations God made and thus, reflect the same holy and sacramental quality that God’s does.

Our awareness of the endowment of creative power God gives us should put us in awe of His grace. To think that God would give us the same ability, like Him, to bring something into existence out of nothing should give us pause and be amazed at his generosity and faith in us. God past to us this spiritual genetic marker and this power connects us directly to Him as His offspring.

When we exercise our creative power vertically glorifying God, we do so not as ourselves, but as those who are redeemed and being ever transformed into the image of our Creator. What honor God gives us.  What great responsibility as well.

Limited Expression

I often think that no matter how hard I try to accurately express my thoughts, the words I choose always come short of the meaning I intend to convey. As a human, I don’t have the ability to fully communicate or express what ideas are going on in my head. In my mind, the ideas swirl around and are not logically organized. Rather, each idea “lives” independently of all the other ideas. Yet, within my mind I am able to coalesce or string together these independent ideas into a coherent pattern of thought. But when I try to translate these thought patterns into transferable words, I always fall short. Some of the meaning gets lost and some of the thoughts that do escape my mind get framed with an incorrect emphasis that skews the intended meaning I am trying to communicate. And this describes only the process of me crafting and sending my thoughts to someone else. An equal or greater complexity exists for the person receiving my thoughts who is trying to interpret them.

When reading the book of Romans, the thought occured to me that seemed to support the theory that the writers of the Bible were inspired in the sense that they wanted to write about their experience and understanding of God, but were not given the exact words to use in order to communicate a clear, comprehensible, accurate and complete concept of God. Rather, they suffered the same human limitation that I suffer – the inability to fully form their understanding in human vocabulary.

If this theory is true, then it would contradict those who claim that the Bible’s meaning is clear and easily understandable. Rather, the theory would support the notion that the Bible is anything but simple. Instead, it is full of confounding and ambiguous statements and difficult to understand concepts just like the rest of human literature because it was written by men having the same limitations as secular authors.

This conclusion has the ring of truth to me because my own experience supports it. But this conclusion doesn’t pass judgement at all on the nature of God and our ability to understand his nature. Rather, it supports the belief that in all things God moves by grace to make his work complete in us. We can make our very best effort to add to our understanding of God by meditating on Scripture, but in the end, it is God who “gifts” us with the understanding of his nature and will.

Ashwin, RSV and Prayer

My six week old son, Ashwin, spent this entire week in the hospital due to RSV, Respiratory Stress Virus.  While this virus is relatively harmless in older children and adults it is particularly threatening to infants because it affects their ability to breath.  During the ordeal, my wife and I were very worried, fatigued and emotionally exhausted.  But during this week I grasped a greater and more personal appreciation for God and the function of prayer.

So many of our friends and familiy, spread out across the country came together to offer prayers on Ashwin’s behalf.  Each time someone told me they were praying for him and us, I broke down emotionally and felt an overwhelming gratitude.  Never before had I experienced prayer at this level.

Late one night in the middle of the week, my wife went down the hall to stretch her legs and I was alone in the room with Ashwin.  I walked up to him, looked down on his hurt body with countless tubes and wires running out of it and I placed one hand on his head and the other on his chest.  I prayed.  During my prayer, I felt like I was a conduit for all the prayers that we being offered from afar.  It was like all the prayers from the countless believers were streaming laterally into me as tiny threads.  And as I prayed, with tears in my eyes, those threads combined to form a bright and thick cord of vertical energy that launched its way up to the throne of God.  It was a powerful image.

I know that to God, there is neither time nor space.  Therefore, there is no contradiction to say that a prayer offered two days ago could also be streamed through me to God during my present moment of prayer.  All of the prayers coalesced into a combined unity thread that pierced into heaven shining the spotless glory of the Redeemed.  These things are real, but one must have the eyes of the Redeemed to view them.

Awake, oh sleeper

The Holy Spirit is at many times connected in scripture through analogy with breath, wind, air. Likewise, the spirit is the aspect of the trinity that gives life – animates that which was dead. We see this in Genesis 1 when the Spirit vibrates, hovers, or broods over the face of the waters and fills the oceans with life. We see this in genesis 2 when the father “breathes” into Adam’s nostrils the “breath of live(s)” and man became a living soul. We see this in the New Testament in that the christians are raised to walk in newness of life – to be “born again” (Rom 6 and John 3). We see that the Spirit begins to indwell the believer at the time of faith and begins the work of transforming the new “child of God” increasingly into his image so that he looks like his heaven father and brother more each day.

In Acts 17, Paul, describing the nature of the on true God to the Athenians said that, “in him we live and move and have our very being (existence)”.

We know God filled the world with many signs designed to point us to him. I believe one of the most impacting of these signs is the air we breathe.

As humans, we live within the atmosphere. It is our sustaining habitat. We cannot live underwater or in outer space. We must have oxygen to breathe. The air touches our skin and fills all the crevices on our body. We breath it into our bodies and it fills our lungs. In filling our lungs, the life-giving oxygen is transferred to our red blood cells which in turn circulate the oxygen throughout our entire body. This oxygen is converted into energy, it helps regulate our core temperature, it allows us to live.

Additionally, we cannot be alive unless we are “in the presence of” the air. It surrounds us and we cannot escape it no matter how hard we try. When we cease to breathe the air, when it ceases to fill us, we die.  We become separated from this world – this place created by god as his domain.

Think of God as the freshest air you could breathe – clean, crisp, cool. When we unknowingly or unwillingly breathe polluted air (from factories etc.) We experience the taint of sin and the fall of man because it poisons our bodies. When we willingly breathe polluted air (smoking) we demonstrate our fallen nature and our ability to choose poison over God.

As Paul said in Athens, the one true and living God is not a God who lives “far away ” from us. Rather, he surrounds us with himself. We exist inside him just as we are enveloped with the oxygen-filled atmosphere of the earth. As we move through  his creation, walking to our offices, playing at the park, sitting in our living room – with every breath we take we are taking god into ourselves and receiving life. He surrounds us, and fills us and binds us to himself and to each other.

Most of the time I don’t even realize or think about my breathing. It just happens. Thousands of times per day, I inhale and exhale the life-giving air and I don’t even think about it. Maybe this is also a sign of god. Perhaps it tells us that go is so embedded within us and our world that we should think of God and the world as two separate things – disconnected and independent. Rather, perhaps we should think of God and the world as connected like two dancers – intertwined and moving together to a complementary rhythm. As time and creation move, so does God. He is deeply woven into the fabric of us and our world. Just as it is natural for us to not think about our breathing, it is just as natural for us to not consciously recognize God moving around us in this world. It is simply the way the world works and we have grown used to it and are not distracted by it.

However, because of our sinful, fallen nature, we have progressed past the point of no longer being “distracted” by God’s movements in the world. We have progressed so far as to have forgotten his movements all together. This is why the bible is filled with the phrase, “give me eyes to see and ears to hear.”  As a species, we humans have given up out ability to see and recognize God’s movements. We have chosen to forget him, so much so that we no longer realize what is symbolized when we breathe. We desperately need to remember, to wake up from our long sleep – to open our eyes once again to the glory of the lord that fills each of our life’s moments. We need to recognize that when we breathe, we are being given another breath of life that heal, feeds and quickens our bodies. We need to understand that as believers we are also continually inhaling and exhaling the breath of god which is the spirit who continually gives life to our personal spirit and regenerates us evermore into his holy image.

There is much going on around us that we fail to see and recognize. This is one of those things. Open your eyes and see.