Stagger Breathing with Jesus

John Pavlovitz is tired.

Pavlovitz writes a blog called Stuff that Needs to Be Said, and he writes from the point of view of his progressive Christianity. On April 24, 2017, he said:

“I think many people in America are exhausted right now. I know I am.

Hateful people will do that to you.

When hateful people have power (as they now do), they embolden other hateful people, giving them license to unleash the God-awful things that they’d otherwise keep concealed and subjecting the rest of us to a regular cavalcade of horrors. This is what our country is experiencing in these days: a Renaissance of open bigotry—and it will level you if you have a working heart.

Lately, many Americans are…coming to terms with this irrefutable truth: Hateful people who are bent on being hateful will wear you the heck out.

Rev. Pavlovitz wrote that over a year ago, and it’s even harder now—and I’m right there with him. I’m tired of feeling outraged, sick of being heartsick, exhausted at being sad to the point of tears so much of the time. I’m tired of grieving over weeping toddlers and parents a thousand miles from each other. I’m tired of hurting for people who are making meager shelters under bridges and in parks. I’m tired of feeling outrage over seeing the sweet smiling face of yet another young black man murdered by police. I’m tired of the despair of waking up to the school shooting of the week. I’m tired of fearing what the Supreme Court will look like next year and what they will do to us.

I want it to stop, I want it all to just stop.

And I know that there are people whose tiredness is more than I can even imagine. People who have been told to choose between safety and their kids. People trying to get through the winter in those tents in the parks. People for whom the flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror can be mortally dangerous. People who now wonder not if, but when there will be a shooting at their school. Some African American writers talk about “outrage fatigue”—the sense of hopeless detachment that comes with witnessing or experiencing one too many awful events. Burnout.

And I also know you are tired too. And so many of you are doing so much. You’re actually out there feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting those who are sick or in prison, offering comfort to the bereaved. You are doing exactly what Jesus told us to do.

Jesus is our teacher, our example of how to be our best selves. Jesus shows us what true humanity looks like when we are filled with the love and justice of God. And in this story from the gospel of Mark, even Jesus is burned out.

He tries to get away from the mobs of needy people who show up anywhere he sits down for a moment. He climbs into a boat, lets the disciples row, and heads off to a deserted beach far from the crowd, where he and his friends can catch their breath, have a little something to eat, rest, maybe even nap…

And the crowds race around the lake, and when the boat comes to shore, thousands of needy people are there to meet it, shouting “Heal me, Jesus! Heal ME! Heal ME!”

Now, this is not the only time this happens. The gospel of Mark is full of these stories. Jesus is constantly trying to find a moment to himself. He gets up early and goes off alone to pray, he heads out across the lake for some quiet time, he begs those he has healed to please not talk about it. And he is interrupted again and again in his attempt to retreat, and so he just moves back into his work of compassion.

And maybe because he takes those little breaks, those scraps of sleep in the bottom of the boat, maybe because he lets someone else do the work for a while, Jesus can open himself again, each time, to compassion. And over and over, he takes up the task of healing and teaching—of mending both bodies and souls.

None of us is Jesus. But collectively, we do the work of Jesus. And if he, who is the best of humanity, needs a respite from the work, how much more does each of us?

And yet, speaking for myself, I feel that I have failed somehow if I don’t stay constantly alert, read the news obsessively, search for some way I can help that will turn this horror around. I feel guilty about not doing all I could be doing.

But what I forget, and what is easy for us all to forget, is that the important word here is collectively. None of us can do it alone. I am not the body of Christ, and you are not, nor you. But together, doing the work of Christ together, that is exactly what we are.

The Bible is full of promises of rest and renewal, just as it is full of calls to action and commitment. They are not mutually exclusive. Listen to Psalm 23, in the Good News Bible.

God is my shepherd;
I have everything I need.

God lets me rest in fields of green grass,
And leads me to the quiet pools of fresh water.

God gives me new strength.
God guides me in the right paths,
As God has promised.

Even if I go through the deepest darkness,
I will not be afraid, God,
For you are with me.
Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me.

You prepare a banquet for me,
Where all my enemies can see me.
You welcome me as an honored guest,
And fill my cup to the brim.

I know that your goodness and love,
Will be with me all my life;
And your house will be my
Home as long as I live.


Those promises are for you, too, you know, and for me. You and I get to lie down beside calm water—a respite from chaos. You and I are invited to drink and eat and be refreshed—a renewal of body and spirit. You and I are assured that even in the worst times we are sustained by a mighty love. We get to be nourished and cherished.

Here’s another promise. “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And another. “His yoke is easy and his burden is light.” See, the thing about a yoke is that it helps distribute the work. You don’t have to do it all by yourself.

Others will keep on with what needs to be done until we’re ready to get back to work. And then we can let someone else take a break.

So—preaching to myself as much as to you, today, I’ll quote Michael Moore. He wrote this in February 2017, just after this president had taken office.

“This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant. Yesterday, I read an article that suggested the administration's litany of bad executive orders […] is a way of giving us "protest fatigue"we will literally lose our will to continue the fight in the face of the onslaught of negative action. Let's remember MUSIC. Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song. With special love to all the musicians and music teachers in my life.”

Here's the key to stagger breathing, though. To do it successfully, you have to listen carefully to your fellow singers or players, to be sure you’re not taking that breath at the same time. Sometimes you even have to talk about who will breathe when. So you have to understand yourself as part of a team—but even more than that, as part of a single giant instrument that does what it needs to do to make the music happen, to keep the music going. You have to be able to experience yourself as part of a greater whole—the body of music, or in the work we are all called to do, the body of Christ. And the body of Christ will go on doing what needs to be done, the work of compassion and justice, even while we, its individual parts, drop out for a little while and then come back in.

And what this means for those of us who aren’t being dragged from our children when we ask for safety, because we are citizens—who aren’t in fear for our lives when the police pull us over, because we are white—who don’t wonder if we’ll still be legally married by next year, because we are heterosexual—who have secure and warm places to sleep because we have a home—what this means is that we are called to keep holding that note so that people who are experiencing those dangers can stop for a moment to take a longer breath. And they need to be able to count on the rest of us to show up, to confront people in power in any way we can, to continue to stand for justice and equity and the power of compassion. They need to know that those notes will go on sounding even if they have to stop for a moment of renewal.

So, now, just so we can all experience what this is about, I’m asking you to sing with me for three minutes. A single pitch—and harmonize if you like—and we will sustain that single note. Hold it until you need to breathe, then let yourself breathe, then come back in to the music. Listen to the people around you to be sure someone is still holding the note while you take a breath.

[Here the congregation sings for three minutes.]


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