Friday, July 16, 2010

Breathe Deeply and Live Again

"[Christianity] has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them".

Pope John Paul II (1988)

Human beings need air to live; our lungs provide play a pivotal role in keeping us alive. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide about 20,000 times in an average day. Imagine how many times you’ve done it just while reading this paragraph. J

We usually don’t think consciously about breathing unless for some reason our ability to breathe is impaired. A frequent expression we use to indicate that after you practice a given activity for a while, it becomes easy to do—e.g., riding a bicycle—is to say: “it’s as natural as breathing”. When you think about, is any activity is more natural than breathing? It’s so fundamental to whom we are that, most of the time, we do it without conscious though.

Human beings have two lungs, and we are designed such that we function best when both of them are functioning at full capacity. While we can survive with only one functional lung (or even less) we cannot operate at our full capacity. We learn to compensate for the reduced airflow; we adjust our lives accordingly—but it gets harder to breathe.

As an example, my wife has mild asthma. Most days she is fine, but her breathing capacity is more limited and thus she has to pay more attention to breathing than the average person does. It’s much harder for her to do aerobic exercise than it is for me, a non-asthmatic. There are days (such as when air quality is poor) her breathing is more impaired; she even occasionally has to use an inhaler to help clear her lungs. Colds and other respiratory ailments impact all of our breathing, but they are especially challenging for those with asthma. Again, it’s harder to breathe when our lung capacity is limited.

There’s another organism that breathes. It has two lungs and it functions at its best when it breathes deeply from both of them. But for a very long time it has been only using one of its lungs. It’s been going on so long that the organism has learned to compensate and get along “pretty good” on the one lung; it doesn’t even realize what it’s missing. In fact in many cases, the organism is living on just a small portion of one lung. It could breathe in so much more life and vitality if it simply recognized and learned to utilize the full capacity of the one lung—much less if it actually realized that it was born with two fully functional lungs and made an effort to reconnect to the missing one.

You’ve probably guessed that the organism I am speaking of is the Church. The two lungs I refer to are the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity[1]. The Western lung has been carved up into Roman Catholicism and the many Protestant denominations—hence I say that many Western Christians actually breathe from only the small portion of the Western lung that constitutes our particular denomination. Truly, we are handicapped! The Eastern lung comprises the Orthodox Church and while it has remained more unified over the centuries than the Western lung, for over 1000 years it too has been breathing with limited lung capacity.

The two lungs of Christianity have been separated for so long, that for the most part, we have all but forgotten that we ever had two lungs. Most of us living in the Christian West have very little concept of or contact with Orthodox Christianity—including the author. Likewise, Orthodox Christians aren’t familiar with Roman Catholic and/or Protestant practices. Like the human being who loses the use of one of their lungs learns to compensate for the handicap over time, so we Christians have learned to compensate and “make do” with the limited lung capacity we had. Each branch developed independently and had different theological emphasis based on the culture in which they developed[2]. There is much to commend (and yes, criticize) in both Eastern and Western Christian thought and practice. But overall, considering the limited lung capacity of each, both branches of Christianity have done remarkably well.

Many of us realize that our churches are less than we wish they were; many are a shadow of their former selves. The reasons for the decline, especially in mainline churches, are complex and multi-faceted. We have lost members, we struggle to attract youth and young adults, and we struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing post-Christian world outside our doors.

Can this damage be repaired? As God once asked the Prophet Ezekiel: Can these bones live again[3]? Those of us who have been in the church for many years ask the same question. We hope the answer is Yes, but to be honest, we aren’t sure what the future holds for Christianity[4].

Consider this: Is it possible that our limited breathing capacity has contributed in some way to some of the long-term decline in our churches? Consider what might happen in our churches if we all learned to breathe more fully? What might we learn from other denominations that could enrich our experience of God and breathe new life into “dry bones”? What buried treasures might we unearth as we study the beliefs and practices or our own denomination in greater detail?

For Christians in both the East and the West, the other lung has lied dormant for so long that it’s hard to imagine learning to breathe through it. It wouldn’t be easy to learn to breathe through a lung that we’ve never used before. Like anything, new it would take some getting used to—and lot’s of practice! But imagine the good that might result if we did—for us and for our world. Do you think it might be worth putting forth the effort to learn?

This summer, the churches I attend are doing a preaching series based upon a book called Christianity’s Family Tree: What Other Christians Believe and Why? In this series we are looking at what a couple of United Methodist congregations in Southeast Baltimore might learn from other Christian denominations—as well as from our own.

We’re hoping, as a result of this series, to gain a deeper appreciation for our fellow Christian “family members”. Some of them are already fairly familiar to us—like close relatives we see fairly frequently—wile others aren’t nearly as familiar—they are more like distant family. However, if we go far enough back on the family tree, we discover that all Christians share common “ancestry”—i.e., we have common roots in Christ. In fact, as we get to know these more distant family members a little better, we might find that we have more in common than we ever realized. And even those things that are different don’t have to divide us. (It depends on what we choose to focus on.) We can learn from them—and they can learn from us—and in the process, perhaps we can all embrace a more generous orthodoxy[5] without ever compromising our unique identity.

Perhaps your church could benefit from the kind of study that our churches are doing right now. You may wish to consider doing something similar in your faith community. Surely every one of us could stand to “stretch” ourselves theologically and develop a more generous orthodoxy—to use the terminology we have used in this article, we could all stand to have our lung capacity increased.

So I encourage you to take a deep and cleansing breath. Ask God to open your lungs and help you breathe more fully. Try to exhale all the preconceived notions you may hold about those “other” Christian denominations; open yourself to what God wants you to learn from them. I hope by doing so we will begin to discover the beautiful diversity of God’s family, and the unity we all share in Christ, and that this helps us each appreciate our unique place on Christianity’s family tree all the more. As we inhale deeply, I pray that the Holy Spirit will breathe life into us again, transforming our desolate valleys of dry bones, where the stench of death and despair abound, into places teeming with life and hope that carry the sweet and unmistakable aroma of Christ to all the world around us.

Can these bones live again? With God’s help and by God’s grace let it be so…

[1] I borrow this terminology from Pope John Paul II (see quote at top of the article) who actually put forth considerable effort during his tenure as leader of the Roman Catholic Church to heal the centuries-long breach between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that has existed since the Great Schism of 1054 AD.

[2] Differences between East and West have been present since the very beginning, but became exacerbated after the fall of Rome in ~476 AD and climaxed with formal separation between East and West in 1054 AD.

[3] See Ezekiel 37:1-14 for the story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones.

[4] To be clear I believe God’s Church will go on, but I think many local churches will not survive as presently constituted. To frame this more positively, when the “dry bones” come to life, the walls of our existing churches won’t be able to contain them. “Church” is perhaps returning to its roots; it is less about a place we go and more about a life we live

[5] Orthodoxy means correct belief. In this context, I refer to what we believe and why, and how those beliefs shape our perception of God. The term generous orthodoxy—from Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy—is just another way of suggesting that exposure to the beliefs and practices of other Christian denominations—and maybe even other religions—doesn’t have to be a threat to our identity, but rather can help enrich us, broaden our perspective of God, and give us a better appreciation of our unique identity.

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