On Breathing Deeply
It's good for many things. Like survival.
This year each one of us will take seven and one-half million breaths, according to Dr. Michael Stephen’s recent book Breath Taking.1 That amazes me.
During that same year, pastors might not keep a single sabbath. That concerns me.
Dr. Stephen notes that we don’t need to be reminded to breathe. We need no command, no religious conviction, no peer pressure. But to breathe deeply, as necessary and as beneficial to well being as breathing itself, requires some level of persuasion. Just like sabbath keeping.
God has built into our bodies a remarkable resilience in the face of stress. Dr. Stephen explains how stress triggers our sympathetic nervous system which shoots adrenaline into the bloodstream. This in turn stimulates all the consequent biological reactions that are a part of our fight or flight instinct. We might ordinarily find socially acceptable ways to channel this heightened physiological state. But over time our bodies can be worn out by the experience and our self-control fractured. We grow short, reactive, even violent, and sometimes we take all of that home.
We’ve been advised to react intentionally to a challenge by pausing to take a few deep breaths. This opens a space between stimulus and response allowing us to respond in a more rational and less reactive way. This is more than good advice.
When we take those often recommended deep breaths, our parasympathetic system is initiated. The hormone thus released calms the heart and encourages the release of serotonin and dopamine with their corresponding positive psychological effects. That the momentary pause of deep breathing keeps me from punching a wall or shouting profanities is a side benefit. It’s psychically and physically good to breathe and to breathe deeply.
This all makes me wonder whether there are similar benefits to the practice of sabbath.
Pastoral ministry is a stressful calling. There is joy, but there are those days, and sometimes prolonged experiences, that leave us depleted and wanting to flee. Sometimes this is our own fault, being driven by perfectionism and a failure to set firm boundaries. Sometimes it is caused by the sin of others around us. Nevertheless, we let our days grow long, we build insufficient margins, we work too hard for the wrong reasons. Pastors talk of having a day off without giving thought to how odd this sounds in a world where most people get two.
To compensate, we take vacations, and struggle to even do that well. We feel compelled to respond to crises or to make an appearance at meetings. We have a hard time letting go even when on vacation.
In a word, metaphorically, we rarely take time to breathe. And that can take a toll on our bodies, on our mental health, and on our spirits.
And so God, aware of all this, gives us the sabbath to remind us that he, and not our work, saves us. God builds into our rhythms this reminder to pause and to breathe. And pastors particularly struggle to receive this gift.
When most are enjoying a sabbath, even if they don’t keep it well, we exhaust ourselves with preaching and teaching and other duties done “for God.” We persuade ourselves that we get our sabbath another day in the week. But then that day becomes the day we mow the lawn and paint the kitchen and help our kids move. At times, try as we might to protect it, it becomes just another day of ministry. We don’t complain. We say it is the nature of the job. To take a true sabbath is a struggle, but in our failure to do so we fail to breathe deeply as we ought.
We who, like the priests in Jesus’ day, profane the sabbath by our calling certainly need help, such as that given by Marva Dawn in her book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly.2 I commend it to you knowing that I will always struggle with these things. As a perfectionist with workaholic tendencies, I’m the kind of person most needing sabbath. And so I’m trying to learn to manage my Sundays better. I schedule less. I read things to feed my heart. I go to a park and watch birds. I sit and allow my mind to wander.
Dr. Stephen’s book has no index listing for sabbath. I wish it did. It’s not a stretch to suggest that he who built into our bodies a pathway from deep breathing to physiological and psychological wholeness has designed the weekly sabbath to the same end.
A couple of years ago I and many other pastors for a time would wake up on Sundays realizing that all our work was done and no duties lay before us. Such days were glimpses of the rich possibilities of genuine sabbath keeping. How ironic that it took a worldwide pandemic caused by of all things a respiratory disease to remind us of the the promise of breathing.
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Michael J. Stephen, Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs (United States: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2021).
Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (United States: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989).