Tag Archives: David Benner

Breathe it in: Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

One of my clients became so anxious they could not drive to work. We began collecting tools to put in their “go bag” when they felt the symptoms of panic rising up in their body. One tool was simply being aware of their breathing. Turning our attention to the rhythm of our breathing almost always settles us down. If we can concentrate on nothing else but the movement of air going in and out of our nose, moving way down to the deep parts of our lungs and out again slowly, our heart rate is likely to go down and the adrenaline will recede. This kind of disciplined breathing works well with several of my dear, anxious clients.

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Others, and this might be you, never get into it. When elementary school teachers ask their classes to do a breathing exercise, quite a few kids just might refuse or might feel unable. Calmness can feel like a straight jacket to people used to chaos. Being told to “calm down!” often ramps up people who lust for freedom. If you are accustomed to controlling things with aggression or being controlled by it, a breathing exercise might seem unbearably passive. Terrified people in Ukraine would think more clearly if they at least “took a deep breath.” But I suspect a lot of them won’t ever think of doing that.

How is it with you? Most people who read this blog are Jesus followers to some degree. Does the breathing that brings peace to your body also bring peace to your soul?

Breathing is a basic way we connect with God

I think attending to how we breath should be elemental to how we go about our day. Especially if you are a Jesus follower, you should see breathing as a basic way you connect to God. You’ll remember how Jesus, after he rose from death, surprised his anxious and grieving disciples when they were locked away for fear:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. — John 20:19-22

Jesus breathed his Spirit on them. I don’t think they imagined that happening before it happened. You might not know what to expect before you attend to the possibility that Jesus might breathe on you and you breathe him in!

Breathing is not just a way to calm down, it is a way to commune. For me, the communion starts with turning away from what preoccupies me, like climate change, relationship issues, or that unattached anxiety and attending to what is happening in my body and soul in this very moment.

There are many ways to learn to breathe

Many people around the world know a lot about how such disciplined breathing works. I began to think about breathing by Googling “breathing” (of course). Sure enough, this is what came up.

We’re all about breathing exercises these days. Somehow, we all got stuck on the left-side of our brain, for the most part, and are terribly inept at basic human functions, like having a holistic view of what is happening at any given moment. We need to learn about breathing, live in the present, and settle down. All sorts of people are teaching us. You can get apps to help. [Here is an exercise I have used: Anxiety: A letting go exercise with Jesus].

[I did not snip off that last Google entry because I was so happy to discover a foundation based in Elkins Park devoted to helping people get through their cancer treatments. These folks raise money and offer other support to give victims some “breathing room” during one of the most anxiety-provoking experiences we can have. Look them up, they might encourage you.]

I find apps to be distracting, so I still use books, which I find a lot less controlling. I have been slowly working my way through Soulful Spirituality by David Benner (when I am not mastering Wordle and other apps :)). He offers another example of how many people know about the basic spiritual discipline of turning into our breath, which many Christians think sounds kind of “new agey.”

Benner had an opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with a Taoist professor in China who used attention to his breath as a central feature of his mediation. He writes:

I was struck by how important paying attention to his breath was to his practice. More striking was his surprise that I, as a Christian, did not make this a central part of my own spiritual practice. He asked, “Am I not right that Christians understand their origins to lie in the infusion of divine breath into the dust of the earth?” I assured him that was correct. “And,” he continued, “am I not right that you understand each breath to be a gift from God?” Again, I said he was. “And,” he pushed on, “am I not right that you understand that the Spirit of God is with you, moment by moment breath by breath?” Again I agreed. “Then how can you fail to see,” he asked, “the immense spiritual value in attending to those moment-by-moment expressions of the presence of God?” I was convinced, and soon found ways to make this a regular part of my own practice.

Disciplined breathing may already be part of your practice and this post feels like a Taoist professor assuming you are stupid. I’m mainly talking to Jesus followers who carry a principle of faith in their brains somewhere and have very little expression of it in their bodies. You might not have any kind of prayer happening every day, much less moment by moment! Like Benner discovered, Christians may believe Jesus breathed on his first disciples, but they have yet to open up to breathing in the reality of that themselves — as in  right now.

Prayerfully making each breath an act of drawing God in and breathing God out onto the world is an ancient Christian practice. I go with my ancestors who call it “breath communion.” [Try this recent liturgy]. Just as Jesus followers open themselves to God through eating the bread and drinking from the cup during our special meal, so each breath provides an opportunity to receive the Spirit.

When I attend to my own breath, and attend to the breath of God moving in and out of my body, nourishing me with life from my toes to my heart to my brain and on into eternity, I not only settle down and become grateful to be alive, I make space to be aware of God and my true self. I relate Spirit to spirit, Savior to saved. Parent to child, Creator to creature. From that place of peace I will find whatever resources I dare to bring to the work of making peace.

Freedom for the word “religion”

What is the difference between religion and spirituality?

I’ve been thinking about that questions thanks to David Benner. The members of my spiritual direction cohort, by and large, love Benner’s book Soulful Spirituality. In it he is working on reinforcing how everyone’s spiritual life is embodied –– like our older brother Jesus, we are also incarnations of the Holy Spirit in our unique and dependent ways. I am not as big a fan of this book as my friends, so far. I’ve been told it gets better. (Even if it doesn’t, we will always have The Gift of Being Yourself, which is one of Benner’s gems).

I may have been in a mood when I was reading, but I became fixated on Benner’s persistent binary assumptions regarding “religion” and “spirituality.” The words are often grouped, these days, in a common dichotomy, so I don’t know why it began to bother me. It’s not like I haven’t heard it all before.

For instance, at Psychology Today’s site, a contributor talked about the same issue. She wrote:

The purpose of religion, in general, is to unite a group of people under the same values and principles and to facilitate their collective and individual communication with a Higher Power and/or philosophy. In other words, religion was meant to enhance spirituality.

That said, it must also be said that it is entirely possible to be a very religious person yet be totally out of touch with spirituality and its essential connection to an authentic Self. On the other hand, true spirituality unites a person with his or her authentic Self.

By the way, I think the author, Andrea Matthews, capitalized “Self” because her interest and writing leans into finding “the territory of the Self” and “differentiating between the authentic and the inauthentic” living, which will lead to a “peaceful internal home.” Psychoanalytic and Jungian people, in particular, use a capital S Self to differentiate from the false, unrealized, unintegrated, lower-case self. (Me too, sometimes.)

You don’t need to hear all my arguments about her Christless musings. She’s just an example of how people think about religion vs. spirituality. I just want to offer one argument about “religion” that made me feel better.

Religion is a modern invention

I decided to find out when people in the so-called “West” started using the word “religion” in the way Benner and Matthews use it. As when Matthews starts with “the purpose of religion” and she assumes we all understand the abstraction called “religion” and can sort various groups under that definition. I had never studied it, but I had the idea that “religion” is probably a modern invention, like a lot of powerful things contributed by the Enlightenment and Europe’s project to colonize the world and remake it in its own image.

Brent Nongbri

I came up with a very interesting book that confirms my suspicion: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013) by Brent Nongbri. He is now a professor at the Norwegian School of Philosophy in Oslo. But he was raised in Texas and got his doctorate at Yale.

My thought was: the way Benner is talking about religion does not match the Bible’s worldview. Like so many things, the word “religion” had been redefined to fit the straight-jacket of European (and now American) thinking that posits a unifying theme and then collects like things under it. We are all being fitted into abstract categories as if that is important. I often squirm under the abstraction “identity,” which comes from the same thinking; now we all must choose an identity to become authentic. On the map we are all wrestling with the abstraction “nation,” defined by lines which cut through family systems and language groups and create endless conflict in service to a European imagination; the U.S. wall along the border with Mexico is a visual reminder.

Nongbri’s thesis is straightforward. For the past two centuries people have assumed “religion” is “a universal human phenomenon, a part of the ‘natural’ human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history.” This modern notion has been criticized in the last thirty, postmodern years. The main criticism comes from the fact that no ancient languages have a term that really corresponds to what modern people say when they mean “religion.” In fact, the names of supposedly old religions can be traced back to the recent past. “Hinduism” for instance, starts showing up named around 1787 and “Buddhism” in 1801.

The isolation of something called “religion” as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics and science is not a universal feature of human history. If you take a look at the Bible, no one is thinking that way. If you look at the Bible from a European Protestant lens, through which all the past looks like a projection of European thinking, then you can find the separation. But once you begin to imagine a world in which God is present in every activity and, indeed, enlivens the planet, then these abstract separations can’t be found.

James Tissot — The Tribute Money (Le denier de César), 1886-1894.

It is not in the Bible

For instance, in Matthew 22 Jesus famously says, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The modern lens sees a dichotomy in the verse between the secular government and the religious establishment, or between the realm of humans and the realm of God. I find the stultifying arguments that Bible students have had my whole life over this quote pretty tiresome, much as I was finding Benner’s dichotomy between religion and spirituality. The endless arguments about abstractions are a modern imposition.

I don’t believe Jesus or the writers were seeing the world through such a corrupt lens. Nongbri notes that Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, reflected 1 Tim. 2:1-2 when he interpreted what was “owed to Caesar” were prayers on his behalf. In the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan understood Jesus to be encouraging people to give up their property and lead an ascetic life like he was living, free of Caesar’s things.  No one in the Bible thought Caesar’s things should be religion-free (like John Locke) or thought religious things would be threatened by secular authorities (like Roger Williams).

I don’t like being an abstraction in the lens of some powerful leader corralling me into their Eurocentric organizing principles, especially when they do it in the cause of religion or spirituality. On the contrary, I like trying to walk with Jesus in the light of God’s revelation in the Savior. When I am suckered into seeing through the eyes of modern thinkers — and that is not unlikely since they made the situation we are in, I feel caught. I think Jesus is still calling us out. Paul says, in Col. 2 (and Gal. 4)

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces (basic principles) of this world rather than on Christ.

I suspect Benner is going my direction and also wants me to be close to my Savior. But I would like him to tighten up his thinking. The idea of religion is a recent abstraction that has become a debilitating “basic principle.” I think people fill the idea with good meaning and use it in good faith to good ends. But I don’t want to live under it and I do want to get in touch with what the rest of the church in history taught and what many non-Europeans intuitively know.

Five Reasons Holy Week Might Be Hard For Us

Walking with Jesus will be hard this week. It is hard to walk Spirit to spirit every day, but this week is the “discipline week” that often brings up everything that makes it hard to walk with Jesus every day. You may not think Holy Week is going to be hard, but I, and most others I think, will be struggling a bit.

At a conference full of evangelicals last week the worship leader started out a plenary session with “At the Cross” (an example sung robustly here). It reminded me of my childhood experience of Christianity. I can’t really defend our skeptical reaction, but my sister and I always lampooned this song when we sang it (robustly!) in the front row of the Baptist Church. We were tickled because of this line, “At the cross…it was there by faith I received my sight and now I am happy all the day.” Even then, we knew that most of the people in the room were not happy all the day and that the song made promises it wasn’t keeping.

What I mean is that the story of “At the Cross” should have stuck with Jesus and not included somewhat narcissistic declarations of how happy Jesus has made his followers as evidence that his work has efficacy. The burden of sin has rolled away, but I am still rising from my tomb. Dying is still easy and living is still hard. Everyone who knows me, especially my intimates, can tell you that I am generally a happy-all-the-day kind of guy who still shoots himself in the foot all the time. I will be happy to limp through Holy Week, following after Jesus, who saved me and is saving me, with whom I am suffering as he is suffering with me. That’s harder and better than pretending “it’s all good.”

We offer a Holy Week observance that is harder and better and I think that is good. I need it.

Now, I am not writing this to make non-participants feel stupid or bad. The school district has made this week a vacation and some people will take advantage of that and miss the whole thing. Some people work at night, when we are holding our meetings, and there are not that many jobs to be had. Plenty of people have not figured out how to have spiritual disciplines that actually help them connect to God and aren’t merely more things to do; they don’t need more obligation. So don’t take this the wrong way.

Paolo Veronese, c. 1550 "Christ with the Doctors in the Temple." We mark this on the Monday of Holy Week.

I am just writing to you in the spirit of Jesus, who tells people to follow him even when they make a lot of good excuses why they can’t do it. He meets people who are honest enough to admit that it is hard to follow him, and Jesus is honest enough to tell them that he knows it is hard and they have to do it anyway. We need to die, too, in order to live. Paul says he wants to share the Lord’s death so he will share the Lord’s life. Our audacious determination to follow Jesus through his last week, in whatever way we can, hopefully using the community’s observances, is the kind of focus serious disciples keep. I think it is life-giving.

Five reasons that it will be hard. That’s OK:

1) You might be called in to work or have classes. There are very few people in power and probably no corporations or universities who will recognize your obligation to follow Jesus through his last week, especially if it costs them any of your time or devotion. They are against such divided loyalty to their money. They will make it hard. The younger you are the harder it will be because the unemployment rate for the young is something like 14-20% according to Sunday’s Inquirer. Holy Week calls for focus on the master, so it brings up the other masters on whom we are called to focus.

2) We will have to work on it. Having devotion that calls for scheduling outside our “ruts” for an entire week is work. That’s why we do it. Some people honestly love the whole thing and not only look forward to Lent but also Holy Week all year. Most people don’t. Most people think good things happen to them, or not; they don’t feel like one should work for them. Their marriages disappoint them as soon as they are “work,” so do their churches, jobs, whatever. Holy Week breeds agency – a sense that we have value, that we make a difference when we show up, that doing something can build something.

3) We will do it together. The way we observe Holy Week, a lot of the process is communal, not just individual. That makes it even more inconvenient and even more subject to being messy and inept. New leaders will lead the meetings and they may be great or awful. We’ll have to deal with that. Jesus, after all, is visibly making himself subject to humankind throughout the week. We need to do that too — we’re even going to follow him as he carries his cross through our neighborhoods and experience what it is like to be observed by the neighbors! Being spiritual as people among other people is one of our greatest challenges. Holy Week breeds humility and patience.

4) The whole idea requires surrender. First, it requires surrender to love. Like David Benner says: “It is possible to know God’s love personally, beyond simply knowing about it. The fact that I am deeply loved by God is increasingly the core of my identity, what I know about myself with most confidence. Such a conviction is, I am convinced, the foundation of any significant Christian spiritual growth.” Living in that love means surrender of time, surrender of attention to other things, other pursuits, maybe even surrender of wages or visits with important people, or pleasure.  Holy Week breeds waiting expectantly for the fullness of love.

5) It is all about Jesus. That makes it hard, in itself. Holy Week makes it plain that following Jesus is not an ideology one can hold in one’s brain, it is an embodied faith that happens in real time. Jesus did not die in the abstract; he died in time and space. We are called to die daily, too. During Holy Week we enact faith that is about our whole lives. Being deeply involved in doing something that is all about Jesus, that is devoted to relating to Jesus and being like Jesus, that even leads us to be public about following is hard and very good for us. Holy Week nurtures a character that can be a true self day by day.

Focusing on the master, showing up because what we do makes difference, developing humility and patience in community, learning to wait expectantly, nurturing a character that reflects our true selves – all those are good reasons to do something hard. I am trying to talk myself into it. Jesus already came to town last night. I don’t want to miss the whole thing for the nothing I somehow consider more important.

Did We Make the Advent Journey Body and Soul? Not Sure.

Our theme for Advent at BW was “Becoming Fully Human – the Inward and Outward Journey.” I have to admit, I don’t think we got the point across too well. This is about making a point, not about making cookies or music or firends, or what we usually do well at Christmastime.

For the sake of comparison, Kanye would have stayed up all night making art out of the whole process to make  a point. He would have made the video about making the art that made the theme album, would have provided matching merch that allowed people to get in touch in the ways people get in touch these days. We, in comparison, are still using words with a little visual. Our music randomly attaches. Our art is somewhat last-minute. If we don’t have the relationships and the relating is not consistent, it is hard for us to get anywhere, content-wise.

For the people who get into the relationships, what we do is great. For the rest of you, I apologize. We don’t know how to get the most important thing in the world across to you very well, I fear. I’m sure quite a few people got the whole thing, but I am also sure it is important to fear that they won’t.

The book upon which much of what we were trying to do during Advent is even more remote than what we presented: Soulful Spirituality, by David Benner. I won’t even recommend the last half of the book. Most of my friends don’t have a lot of time for books, anyway, so I don’t have to worry. That’s not meant to be an insult. But it is true. I got into the book because he talks about two main problems that Advent should help people solve. I used it to inform our theme because it responds so well to the main problems people have with being a full-on Jesus follower:

1) I think people who are having problems following Jesus are often disidentified with most religion and they have good reasons to be so. The Boko Haram bombings on Christmas Day are just more examples of appalling things done in the name of religion. Benner says, “Too often religion seems to produce or support dogmatic rigidity, prejudice and small mindedness, intolerance and chronic – even if religiously disguised—levels of anger and hatred. Too often religion seems to contribute to the problems rather than being part of the solution.” Too true.

2) Even more, the people I care about have the main problem Benner wants to address in the book, and for which Advent should be an antidote. They have a disembodied Christianity. Benner says that “spirituality” teachers often describe us as “human beings on a spiritual journey…But I think it is equally true that we are spiritual beings on a human journey. Both journeys are crucial and each should complement the other…Humanity is not a disease that needs to be cured or a state of deficiency from which we need to escape. The spiritual journey is not intended to make us into angels, cherubim, seraphim, gods, or some other form of spiritual beings. It is intended to help us become all that we, as humans, can be. How tragic, therefore, that some suggest that the spiritual journey should head in precisely the opposite direction. Spiritual paths and practices that distance us from what it means to be a human are not good for humans.” Also true.

We tried. We even had a weekly heartbeat meditation to get us into our bodies. We never got it turned up loud enough to make its full impact (yes, we have an art attention deficit disorder), but we tried. Some people really got it. But I’ve got a feeling they were the most properly identified and already appropriately embodied. The disidentified were not there, of course. And the disembodied spent a lot of time feeling a bit suspicious and uncomfortable. I am not sure how much we convinced either needy group.

I read books like Soulful Spirituality so I was into the whole thing. But, like I said, I’m not sure how much impact we made on the rest. One incident that gives me hope, however, was Christmas Eve. Of all the songs we sang, two songs were sung with the most comfort and enthusiasm. The first one was the first one: “Let It Snow.” Who knew everyone even knew that song so well? I turned it into a song about yearning for what all humans yearn for: just being held tight in the warmth. Our bodies and souls are all set up for God to be with us. The second one was “O Holy Night.” Who knew the hardest-to-sing Christmas song is the favorite? For me the most moving line in that song was “He knows our need. Our weakness is no stranger. Behold your king.” Our bodies and souls are moved in the direction of being saved by holy nights. I honestly think Kanye would agree, even if he was snubbed for best album in 2011.

While I am very challenged by the present day and what people think and what they are becoming. Advent has renewed my convictions and has somehow been a filling station for new energy to do what I can do to tell the story of Jesus in a way people can hear it and become part of it. I’m looking forward to 2012.