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We Exhale Together

Mark 8:31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[j] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Every Sunday, we start our time together by taking a deep breath. We do this to acknowledge the presence of God’s Spirit in our midst, and to slow down our minds and our bodies. As I always say, we have a lot going on, and those thoughts and worries and cares and joys alike can all move really quickly through our minds, and so the slowness of a deep breath is one tangible way to shift into a different mode of perception.

But a few years ago when I was dealing with my health issues that were related to anxiety, I found that I was fighting for that shift, for that release, and so sometimes when I was praying or meditating, I was trying to force myself to breathe deeply, which was actually making things worse. It was during that time, not coincidentally while I was on sabbatical, that I remembered there are two parts of every breath. In fighting to inhale, I hadn’t considered the importance of exhaling. Even physiologically, it’s the exhale that activates the relaxation response in your nervous system—it’s the exhale that allows your muscles to relax to take that deep breath. It’s the practice of letting go that really shifts our perceptions. Those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives will save them.

I think that’s worth contemplating during this season of Lent, our forty days of fasting and lamentation mimicking Jesus’ forty days in the desert. Lent is a time where we pause and choose some way of letting go of our normal routines so that the Spirit of God can give us a heightened awareness of our world and our place in the world. This season is a communal exhale.

I bring that up, because I know that’s not how everyone has been taught to work with this time. When we start talking about repentance and fasting and lamentation, many of us tighten up. It can put us on edge. We have these automatic reactions, like when you get pulled over and you feel in your body that you’re supposed to react in a certain way, or when you get called into your bosses office, or when someone close to you says “Hey there’s something I need to talk to you about…” (It’s so funny how now we usually add ‘It’s nothing scary’ after sending a message like that, because our default is, Oh, I screwed up.)

In a similar way, when we start talking about “repentance,” I think a lot of us have this subliminal, subconscious response that’s like, “[Breathe through teeth] OK, right, I’m bad. Very bad. In some ways that I’m aware of, and probably even worse in some ways that I’m not aware of at all. So I gotta really focus on how bad I am, and maybe if I feel bad enough about it, I can be good again.” As Lent is time out or detention, a debt we pay, if you will, that gets us in good standing again. The point of repentance is to be good.

We want to be good, and ironically, self-hatred seems to be the technology we’ve been taught to use to establish our righteousness. We know we can’t actually be good, but we can feel superior at least in knowing how messed up we are, and maybe that makes us righteous. On the one hand, there’s something true about this, that humility is preferable to narcissism and self-reflection is an important part of being fully human, but in our world I feel like most of the people I know who feel deep shame, I wish they wouldn’t, and most of the people who are shameless could probably use a little. I know I’m talking around this a little bit, but I’m trying to describe this contradictions in being human in our alienated world, especially where there are so many ways to display our goodness and righteousness: there’s this back and forth between self-hatred and self-adulation and they’re both feeding each other like two snakes eating each other’s tails. Or it’s like trying to breathe deep without exhaling, so we just get tighter and tighter and tighter and more starved for life.

The Spanish theologian John of the Cross wrote of what he described as “spiritual gluttony.” He was talking about the temptation for people who engage in spiritual practices like fasting, that the superiority or righteousness they feel in doing these stringent spiritual practices are actually more dangerous than just eating, drinking, and being merry. Whether its through self-hatred or self-righteousness, something “off” sneaks in to our desire to be in control of narrating our lives.

I wonder if this is part of what’s happening with Peter and Jesus in this scene. There’s been a lot of writing about the righteousness of God. The Roman Empire’s occupation of Palestine seems like it was a real problem for the various first-century Jewish groups because if God is good and righteous, why is God allowing this vicious empire to continue occupying and oppressing (it’s a perennial question, really)? And so people’s hope for a messiah or anointed one, was deeply tied to their desire to see God vindicated. And there were a bunch of figures who rose up claiming to be messiahs, and one by one they were defeated, and often crucified, which was the proof that they weren’t righteous, they weren’t who they said they were. Getting crucified invalidated their projects.

So when Jesus tells the disciples that he’s going to be crucified, it seems like they can’t even hear the part about him rising again. That’s just incoherent, so they don’t even assimilate it into their thoughts. All they hear is that he’s saying he’s gonna lose, and to their ears that means he’s admitting defeat before the battle’s even happened. He’s been saying the kingdom of God is at hand, but if he gets crucified those claims are invalidated rather than vindicated. He’s not just weak, he’s a liar, he’s unrighteous. That’s why Peter takes him aside, as if he doesn’t want to embarrass him in front of everyone, and is like “Hey, you can’t say that. You need to prove your righteousness. Take control of the narrative, man.”

And this is when Jesus responds, “No, no, I’m calling all of us to take up our crosses. If you try to save your life you’re gonna lose it, and what does it profit any of us to gain the whole world and lose our souls?” So Peter wants to place Jesus within this binary or righteous/unrighteous, good/bad, winner/loser, so when Jesus says, “no we’re all gonna take up our crosses,” he’s not saying, give yourself detention so that you can know you’re good later. Tighten up, take control. He’s utterly rejecting that binary, because that binary belongs to the powers of this world.

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “When a [person] really gives up trying to make something out of [themself] - a saint, or a converted sinner…a righteous or unrighteous person...and throws [themself] into the arms of God...then [they[ wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is [repentence] and it is thus that they become…a Christian.”

The kind of lives we want to live, the kind of lives that are abundant, aren’t going to come from satisfying some narrative put on us about who we’re supposed to be, because those narratives always serve the powers of this world. They’re designed to keep us tentative or ashamed so that we’re never sure enough of ourselves to act, to change our lives. Jesus is inviting us to reject that need for the assurance that we’re righteous. The lives we want, and the kind of lives that join with our neighbors and that contribute to justice and liberation, as the kind of lives that let go of the need to be righteous.

I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I’m amazed by how much cruelty I’ve seen from people who are so worried about doing things in a certain kind of way, according to a certain kind of book, that they end up dithering around in order to uphold the way things already are. This is the logic of politicians and CEOs, that we want the same things but we have to go about them the right way. This is a logic that would rather have injustice continue and appear righteous than win justice and be seen as rowdy or unruly or too radical. This is the way of things that would gain the whole world and lose it’s soul.

I think the opposite of that would be what I experienced on Thursday afternoon, when I was out in Raleigh with Jewish Voice for Peace, and some folks staged a die-in, laying down in the street in front of the courthouse to symbolically demand that Rep. Deborah Ross sign on to congress’s ceasefire bill. They did so knowing that they risked arrest, and members of our group were bringing water and grabbing bags from the people in the street. People were taking videos when the police showed up, which they did, almost 50 of them for 25 people in the street. And when they declared the whole gathering illegal and made the rest of us disperse, we stayed in view so we could make sure the people being arrested were OK. It was scary and tense at times—it seemed like the police might start kettling people—but there was so much love and care, for each other and for the people of Palestine. And while that was happening, we were singing, “We breathe together, we breathe together, stop the occupation.” In letting go, in not worrying about being righteous, but in joining each other however we can in solidarity, there is life. Life that is really life. Everlasting life that the powers of this world will do everything they can to discipline but there will still be more of it they can’t control.

Friends, this season is for us to practice letting go, to take a break from the need to narrate our lives according to polite, respectable standards. This season is for us to practice breathing together, to practice exhaling together, to loosen this worlds standards from our wrists and our necks, so that we can breathe deeply again of God’s love and our love for each other. Amen.

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