The story is told of a wide-eyed enthusiast who visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta. Over the last century, Mother Theresa has been admired by Christians worldwide for her dedicated, self-giving work for the poorest of the poor in India.
The young man approached Mother Theresa and said, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what you do.”
Mother Theresa, not missing a beat, replied, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what I do either. I do this because I was made to do it.”
When we speak about the Holy Spirit in this season after Pentecost, we speak about the breath of God breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.”
Breathing is one of those automatic, biological responses that we don’t even have to think about. It is natural and does not really take any effort at all. We are seldom aware of our breathing. And yet, it is vital to our health. Breathing is critical to our very life and purpose.
You could say, we are made to breath.
And yet, though breathing is integral to our life we may forget the gift that is in us: The gift of the Holy Spirit. We forget that living in the Spirit is as natural as breathing.
The Spirit of God is like our breath. “God’s spirit is more intimate to us that we are to ourselves,” writes Henri Nouwen. “We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a spiritual life. It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.” (1)
Breathing is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. When disease, shock or accident leaves us without breath. When breathing becomes laboured. When oxygen levels are critically low in our bodies. When something we have taken for granted for so long no longer works, then what?
The way to arrive and remain in the Holy Spirit of God is both very simple and very hard: We have to remain in love. Breathing the Spirit of God’s love nips negativity, hatred and violence in the bud. It begins by retraining our initial thoughts.
We can’t risk walking around with a negative, or resentful, or gossipy, or critical mind. Because if we let the mind operate in a paranoid, angry, and resentful way, we aren’t going to breathe the Spirit of God. We won’t be breathing. We can’t be God’s usable instrument.
That’s why Jesus commanded us to to love. It’s that crucial for life. Like breathing. That love can begin in the mind. As Eleanor Roosevelt apparently said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” (2)
In Jewish tradition only the consonants for Yahweh were printed in the Hebrew text – YHWH. As such, this most holy name for God was unspeakable. Interestingly, even the Hebrew consonants used in YHWH do not allow you to close your lips when you try to speak them.
We cannot confine God in one place as much as we cannot contain breath. We cannot point to one specific place and say, “God is there!”, turn around, point in the opposite direction and say, “And God isn’t there!” We can’t dare try to close our lips over breathing and pretend we have God all figured out! Identifying with God since ancient times was simply the intake and exhalation of breath. The great “I AM” was the breath itself.
It is the great mystery we enter into when we follow Jesus. Someone said, “life is a mystery to embrace, not a problem to be solved.” God is always beyond us but totally around us, within us and outside of us. And we all share in that same air and that same breath. It is the first thing we did coming out of our mother’s womb, and there will come that moment when we will do it for the last time.
But in between, we continue to take in the breath of God and exhale the breath of God – the totally accessible One, the totally given One, who like breath just waits to be received. Waits to be engaged. In bold acts fuelled by love for the other.
The late Swedish Lutheran bishop, New Testament scholar, and pioneer in Lutheran-Jewish relations, Krister Stendahl, gave helpful advice in this regard. How is it we can love others who are so different from us, so unlike us? Because it is easy to ignore, write off, dismiss and be critical of them.
To Christians living in a diverse and multi-religious environment, Stendahl encourages us to cultivate an attitude of ‘holy envy’ (3) towards the other. That is, we first recognize the gifts, the positives, that the other offers by their life. Rather than thinking first we need to persuade them that ‘they are wrong’, we first seek understanding based on admiring a gift they have. What does the other offer that I/We do not have? Because others have gifts I/We do not have. So, what is it the other has, that is good?
In such a way we begin to see the image of God reflected in creation — in others who are different. We begin to practice seeing Christ in the other. We begin to see the unity we share in the purpose of God, the mission of God. It takes us working together, each with their gifts, to make it happen.
This mysterious God we worship chooses to self-reveal as the Trinity — three persons in one. In other words, this one God we worship is a holy relationship. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit must function together by nature.
So, too, we must learn, practice, be intentional, about being in relationship with one another: working together, breathing in together and breathing out together the love and purpose of God on earth.
Once there was a Washer-man (a man who washes others’ clothes for hire) who was raising two donkeys. One he called Donkey-A and the other Donkey-B.
Donkey-A felt he was more energetic and could do better than the other donkey. He always tried to get the Washer-man’s attention by taking more of the load and walking as fast as he could in front of him.
Donkey-B was just a normal donkey. He tried as hard as he could, but he couldn’t carry as much as Donkey-A or impress the Washer-man by walking in front of him.
One day Donkey-B was crying and asking Donkey-A to help. He said, “Dear friend, it is only the two of us. Why do we compete against each other? If we worked together we could carry an equal load at a normal speed.”
Donkey-A became even more competitive after that. The next day he boasted to the Washer-man that he could carry more and run faster than Donkey-B, and he did.
Under the pressure Donkey-B collapsed in great fatigue and quietly passed away. As a result of the collapse, Donkey-A felt like he was on top of the world, having proved his superior skills and abilities.
But now he also had to carry Donkey-B’s load.
For a short time Donkey-A was able to carry both loads, but he eventually became fatigued and weak. Finally the day came when the Washer-man was tired of this fatigued and no good donkey. He put him to pasture, and went searching for some other pack donkeys to get his work done.
The moral of this story is, you can’t do it alone. If we are made to breathe the Spirit of the triune God, we are by nature ‘relational’. It is important to learn how to work well together.
Worrying more about individual performance, taking all the credit and trying to do more than you are capable of doing eventually comes back and bites us one way or another. Christians, at their best, are team players.
Donkey B may not have been the strongest nor the fastest, but he was consistent. Everyone brings something valuable to the table. And so do you. Just because you may be different from others, doesn’t qualify you or them to be in competition nor be shunned.
Stronger together. Better together. This is what we were made for.
(1) Henri Nouwen, “Bread for the Journey; A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith”, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, May 18
(2) cited in “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation” Centre for Action and Contemplation, May 19
(3) cited in Kristin Johnston Largen, “Interreligious Learning and Teaching: A Christian Rationale for a Transformative Praxis” Fortress Press, 2014,page 4