Early this past week, my daughter and I were watching an anti-bullying video. Not only did the video talk about how to handle bullies, the video also talked about how to avoid being a bully. The video described ways in which to handle anger so that the anger would not be deflected towards others. My favorite suggested method was to take several deep breaths to help calm oneself. I have tried teaching my daughter deep breathing on various occasions, so I was proud to learn that I was using an endorsed method for dealing with anger or stress.
Two days after watching our video, I was rushing off to the post office, and took what I thought would be a faster shortcut. Midway through my shortcut I had to stop in the middle of the road for a tractor trailer that was backing into a loading dock. The truck was taking up the whole road, but I figured he would be out of the road momentarily since he probably does this work all the time. Much to my chagrin, I must have encountered a newbie truck driver because I swear the man must have backed up and pulled forward five or six times. A line of cars was backing up on each side, and I found my aggravation and frustration rising quickly. There may have even been some grunting or choice words offered in the safe confines of my car. I had just given a huge exasperated groan when I remembered the video I had watched with my daughter less than forty-eight hours earlier. So I started breathing deeply. As my chest filled and my diaphragm rose, my mind began to quickly clear. I began to see how ridiculous I was being – surely the extra three to five minutes were not the end of the world. And if they were, I needed to seriously rethink my priorities. And then I began to feel empathy for the driver. I know when people are waiting for me to parallel park, I often panic and mess the parking job up a couple of times. And then, a really funny thing started to happen – I began to pray. I began to think about all those people who have been weighing on my heart, and I thanked God putting a literal roadblock in my way so that I could connect with the One through whom all things are possible.
In some ways, I have been thinking that suggestion about breathing is exactly what Jesus does in our Gospel lesson today. In order to understand what is going on, let’s look a little more closely at the text. Jesus has already raised Lazarus, Mary has anointed Jesus’ feet, Jesus has triumphantly entered into Jerusalem, and now the festival of Passover is underway. Needless to say, there is a lot of noise around Jesus right now, as the responses to these events are intensely divided – from attraction, to anger and frustration, to reverence.[i] In the midst of this chaos, some Greeks come up to Philip and say, “We wish to see Jesus.” A phone tree of sorts starts – the Greeks talk to Philip, Philip talks to Andrew, and Andrew and Philip talk to Jesus. Then Jesus answers with what seems like a non sequitur. Instead of telling the Greeks yes, they can see him, or no, they cannot see him, Jesus launches into a speech about how his hour has come, how he must die in order bear fruit, and how those who want to follow him must be willing to lose their lives. In the midst of this jumbled response, Jesus breaks through the chaos – the chaos of losing a friend and raising him from the dead, of having a friend extravagantly anoint him, of having the masses both shower him with palms and plot to kill him, of never having a moment of peace from people who want to see him, of trying to get the disciples to understand the price he is about to pay and the price they will also pay to follow him. Into this chaos, Jesus stops and confesses a truth to God. “My soul is troubled,” says Jesus. Though he knows he cannot ask for his burden to pass, he at least asks God to intervene by glorifying God’s name. In other words, Jesus cries out to God, “I am burdened God. My soul is troubled. Speak a word to your servant.”
Who among us has not gotten to this point with God? Your boss is asking for more changes to something, your coworkers are not pulling their weight, you are still processing the argument you had with your mother or child, and the copier machine breaks down. You stayed up late trying to finish your science project, you forgot one of your assignments at home, your best friend’s parents just told her they are getting divorced, and the teacher gives a pop-quiz on that book you did not have time to read. Or you fought the alarm to get up in time for Church, in your rush to leave the house you forgot your wallet which means you cannot put money in the offering and you are driving without your license and credit cards, you get asked about the meeting minutes that you have not had time to type up, and before you walk in the door to Church, you get a call saying that your friend who had been fighting cancer died that morning. In these moments we cry out to God, “I am burdened God. My soul is troubled. Speak a word to your servant.”
When Jesus cries out, when Jesus takes that deep breath, Jesus is given the gift of clarity. In the hubbub of life, in the midst of people clamoring for his attention or trying to bring him down, everything falls away and Jesus hears God as clear as a bell. In fact, that word to Jesus is so loud that even those gathered hear something like thunder in response. In the thunder, in the clarity of calm breathing, Jesus is able to remember things of utmost importance. Jesus is able to see with clarity that the noise does not matter – only what God has intended for Jesus matters – only who God intends for Jesus to be matters. Jesus could have snapped at those Greeks wishing to see him. Jesus could have taken on more burdens and agreed to let more people in to his overburdened life. But instead, in the face of being totally overwhelmed, Jesus stops, takes a breath, and is reminded with great clarity what is really important.
In many ways, that is what Lent is all about. Lent is a time to take a deep breath to re-center on what is most central in life – on the God who created you, who sustains you, and who beckons you out into the world. Now many of us are quite good at centering ourselves. I know many people who are able to identify in themselves when their anxiety or frustration has gotten too high, and who can within themselves take a deep breath and refocus on what God is calling them to do. But many of us struggle with that practice. We just keep pushing harder or start lashing out, assuming we can muscle our way through the anxiety. Those of us with those struggles are like the ones in our gospel lesson who hear God’s voice like thunder. God has to almost shout at us before we are able to really give attention to God. That clap of thunder is like God’s clapping hands in our face saying, “Wake up! I am talking to you!”
The good news is that either way – whether we are able to actually stop and quiet our minds and listen, or whether we are the ones who need God to more dramatically shake us up, God will speak to us. God will remind us of whose we are. And God will remind us of what we were created to do and be. Now if you do not prefer being shouted at with the force of thunder, there are certainly easier ways to find that clarity. Perhaps you work on that meditative breathing – either with a yoga class, by joining our new Contemplative Prayer Group, or just by committing to finding moments to breathe. Perhaps you work on that meditative breathing by just showing up to church. There are moments, especially in Lent, where you can find those quiet moments to listen to God – at the confession, during an especially moving song, or maybe as you sit in your pew before or after communion. But just taking that hour for church can be your first step toward hearing God more clearly. No matter where you make room for God, the promise is that when you do make room, the gift is a sense of calm that can make everything else melt away. Those deadlines, those clamoring people in your life, that burden you have been carrying all fade into the background. And your purpose – perhaps that part of you needs to die so that you might bear much fruit – becomes not only clear, but also refreshing, calming, and burden-lifting. That is the promise for us today. Whether you can take a deep breath or whether you need the jolting thunder – either way, God is breaking into our lives today and giving the gift of clarity. Amen.
[i] Margaret A. Farley, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 140.