This is the text of the message preached on Sunday, June 7, 2020. I’m moved to share it here as I continue to wrestle personally with our country’s unrest.
I can’t breathe.
Those three words are big. They have history. In 2014, Eric Garner was being restrained by a New York City policeman, and said, “I can’t breathe,” just before he was choked to death.
Protesters immediately grabbed that line because it speaks to something deeper than just the words. That line became a by-line of the movement aimed at bringing awareness to the oppression people experience because of the color of their skin. It stuck because it captures something more than the final words of a dying man. It spoke something real.
I can’t breathe.
And then it happened again. When George Floyd was being held face-down in cuffs, with a knee on his neck, he could be heard saying over and over again, “I can’t breathe.”
And maybe the first time we heard it, we as a country didn’t really hear it. That first time, when Eric Garner choked out those words, we could hear it but too much of the world went on for most of us to stop.
But this time, when George Floyd repeatedly signaled his distress — without struggle, just asking for the knee to come off his neck — this time he spoke those words into a climate and country that is also gasping for air, a country that can’t “just go on,” a country caught in the triple-layered crisis of a pandemic, economic devastation and political dysfunction.
This time, we can’t get away from it.
I can’t breathe.
We can’t collectively go on with our lives, and expect this pass like so many others. And with three inexcusable deaths back to back we can’t excuse this away as an isolated incident. We must admit that as a country we might be surviving but we aren’t breathing.
Another phrase making headlines in recent weeks is “running while black.” That’s a thing. I’m sure I intuited that before, but after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, now we all know it is a thing. Athletes across the country have written eloquently raw stories of what it is like to be suspected of being up to no good just for jogging, for using their bodies athletically. A black man has to consider a lot of risk if he is going to go for a run.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase lately: “running while black.” Like “I can’t breathe,” it captures something much bigger than those three words. It speaks to the razor-thin line we all have to walk when we let racism lead. A black man can’t run without suspicion. A Latina woman can’t speak without someone questioning her English or her citizenship. That is a sad truth and a great weight we all bear. All of us. We have to admit that the black experience is different from the white experience, that the experience of one person of color is different than others’, depending on economics and culture. Too often that difference is exploited and unjust systems emerge. I was thinking this week as I devoured books and blogs and listened to learn that preaching while white is the very small needle many white pastors are having to thread as we stand to speak — need to speak, want to speak, have spoken before, but can only speak from our place in this skin.
I speak from this place not as an expert at anything (not even what it means to be me). And I am preaching while white into a community and country that can’t breathe. In this space, where I can empathize but not live another person’s experience; in this space, where I have to acknowledge and confess that I was born into and raised in a racist culture; in this space where I have to acknowledge that I have cared but have not been consistent; in this space where the message isn’t about me or my experience but about an evil in desperate need of deliverance; in this space, we have to cling to the Word of God.
We must root this experience scripturally just as surely as we did when it was a virus we were talking about two months ago, because whatever the issue these facts remain: the Kingdom of God is our country, King Jesus is our leader, and his gospel is our worldview. Our worldview is not primarily formed by a political party or by any national-but-secular voice. Our worldview cannot be primarily formed by whatever biological or cultural circumstances we were born into. Our worldview must be shaped by and radically altered by the Word of God. In a country fighting — literally fighting — for its breath right now, the gospel of King Jesus is our life and our way and our truth.
In a previous post, I shared some more practical and pastoral thoughts about how to become more active in the midst of this crisis. There are practical suggestions there for how to listen, learn and pray. Today, I am going to turn to the Word of God for the people of God. And the passage I’m led to is Psalm 139, which paints for us as well as any word in the Bible the value of life, and then calls us to search ourselves or orient ourselves around God’s heart for all life. Now would be a good time to read that psalm.
The structure of this psalm is so rich. It begins and ends with “Search me.” Search me, Lord. Search me before I open my mouth or take another step, and search me when I’m done, so I can learn where I missed it.
Then in verses 5-12, we find out we are surrounded. We’re told there is no escaping. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”
There is no escape hatch, and there also is no rejection. There is no place we can go that is outside the love, mercy and care of God. This feels a lot to me like the prophet’s point in Isaiah 1:18. “You want to argue about that?” God says, “Come on, I’ll argue it out with you. But the bottom line is this: no matter how deep the stain of your sins, I can remove it. I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow. Even if you are stained as red as crimson, I can make you as white as wool.” That’s how God deals with us. God is building a spiritual family not out of highly talented, well-adjusted, woke people, but out of people in deep need of mercy and grace.
Verse ten is for we who feel alone or inadequate or paralyzed. “Even there,” the psalmist says, “your hand will guide me. Your right hand will hold me fast.”
And then at the center of Psalm 139 (vv. 13-18) — framed on either side by this vulnerable intimate confession of God with us — is the most glorious love letter from God to all of us who breathe.
We are … all of us … fearfully and wonderfully made.
God creates life. God has allowed the killing of animals since the fall, but we’re not animals. We have God’s spiritual DNA. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Life is sacred because we bear a spiritual likeness to our Daddy. And Genesis 2:7 says that, “The LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”
So every human being has life because God chose to give it. And every one of us has His fingerprints all over us.
Dante Stewart is someone I’ve been following lately. He is a football player from Clemson who now works with kids in Augusta and speaks and writes. He has had experiences of “running while black,” of being singled out because of the color of his skin. In a recent Christianity Today blog about one such experience he wrote,
“Not long before I was accosted during my run last summer, I had written in a journal how I wished that when I stepped out into the world, the people around me would see me as fundamentally Christian. But the truth is that no matter how many Bible verses I quote, how many great books I read and post, how morally excellent I am, what degree I hold, or any other trait that is ‘successful,’ none of that can shield me from the tragedy of being black. We have witnessed once again the public display of what Eddie Glaude calls the ‘value gap’: the belief that black lives are less valuable than others. The black experience with COVID-19 has revealed inequalities that have been there all along—in health care, power, wealth, education, income, and incarceration.”“Ahmaud Arbery and the Trauma of Being a Black Runner.” Christianity Today, May 8, 2020.
I read this from a man who knows the danger of running while black and I know that right now I need to preach right now as a white person especially to white people who feel a little defensive about words like this, or who want to say, “I’m not the one who did this.” I understand those feelings. In some ways, those feelings are us doing the exact same thing as those who make us feel defensive. It is us doing what we’re wired to do, which is to fight for our value and hunger to be understood.
But listen: what if this collective groaning — this visceral response from any person struggling to be heard, as people who want their lives to count, who want their pain to resonate and their deaths to devastate us — what if this response is hard-wired into us by the Creator of life, whose enemy is death and who has called us into life and whose breath sustains us?
What if, when someone says, “I can’t breathe,” that is actually a prophetic cry coming from inside the holiness of God against everything that stands against the heart of God?
God breathes his breath into us. We ought to be outraged when someone takes it away — physically /spiritually/ emotionally — from anyone. To acknowledge another person’s pain, to hear their breath pleading to be valued with a value of one, whole, precious, God-formed, God-sustained life does not diminish ours.
When one of us can’t breathe, we are all denied a breath of God on this earth.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote (Jeremiah 1:4-5), “The word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.'” In Moses’ final instructions to the Israelites, he said: “Choose life.” In Leviticus a year, we discover that all of that odd book is about the Kingdom value of life. Jesus brought that core truth of the Old Testament into his message. “The very hairs of your head are numbered,” he said, and he testified to God’s absolute commitment to life. “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy, but I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Friends, God is on the side of life. When we stand with those who can’t breathe, we are standing on the side of life.
After this section of Psalm 139 that preaches the value of life … the psalmist goes on to share a hard word. In verses 19-22, the psalmist, by modeling it, shows us how to hate what God hates. He shows us there are some things that deserve a righteous anger and a holy battle. “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?”
This reminds me of that part of Jesus’ prayer where he teaches us to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” If we’re going to pray that prayer actively, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to teach us what is in Heaven that we ought to be praying down to earth. We need to start asking things like, “Is there racism in heaven?” And if not, then we need to actively pray against racism on earth. Is there unholy discrimination in heaven, or unholy privilege? If not, then we need to begin praying actively against those things on earth. By praying this way, by asking and listening, we gain a sensitivity to the things of the Kingdom. We learn to love what God loves and hate what God hates. Without that kind of prophetic informed intercession (Dr. Petey Bellini’s term), we will find ourselves unable to see what God sees. We will want to over-simplify what is remarkably complicated, and we know it is complicated because that’s how the enemy works. He bleeds into nooks and crannies and complicates and confuses.
Planned Parenthood is by far the most influential voice in the pro-choice movement. While most people today associate Planned Parenthood with women’s rights, most are not aware that Margaret Sanger, the founder, traveled in a circle of social workers influenced by a popular pseudo-science of the early 20th century known as eugenics. Eugenics is about breeding. It is the idea of controlling population by breeding out — and I’m quoting actually from someone Sanger studied — “the physically unfit, the materially poor, the spiritually diseased, the racially inferior and the mentally incompetent.” People who supported the eugenics movement of the early 1900s, when Sanger was beginning her work, believed these groups of “inferior” people should be controlled through segregation, sterilization, birth control and abortion.
And that’s not just “then.” Today, you will almost always find Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinics in economically depressed areas of a community, particularly in areas where minorities live.
Do you hear it? When we attempt to over-simplify something God hates, like racism, we neglect to hear the prophetic voice of the Holy Spirit trying to teach us all the ways the enemy of life wants to exploit our naïveté for the sake of breeding death. That’s why David prayed at the end of Psalm 139: “Search me, O God,” Because he knew he couldn’t know himself like God knew him and he knew if he was going to succeed, his motives had to be pure. So he would end this psalm with a plea (Psalm 139:23-24): “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my thoughts. See if there is anything wicked in me, and lead me in the way that leads to righteousness.”
This is a call for a prophetic sensitivity to what God is doing in the world, asking him to start with me. Root out anything in me that has become a filter that keeps me from hearing what God wants me to hear, that keeps me from listening to the voices around me of people of color, the voices of those whose lives have been wounded, whose reflexes have been ratcheted tight by racist systems. Help me hear not the loudest voices or angriest voices but the most godly voices.
God, give me an ear for the voices that are bearing fruit.
Esau McCauley is one of those godly voices. He has written that,
“First, we have to recognize that the problem is not just ‘out there.’ It’s in our hearts. The problem isn’t just that racists exist in the world. The problem is that we all in various ways live in rebellion against God and his will for us. The gospel demands a decision from each of us about our own sins. One of Jesus’s oft-repeated messages was, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 4:17).”“A Nation on Fire Needs the Flames of the Spirit.” Christianity Today, June 1, 2020
Search me, God. Repent me. That is a prayer that admits you can’t change yourself and acknowledges that Jesus must do the changing in you. To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and toward maturity. Because the enemy of my soul would rather I believe — I’m borrowing here from Patrick Mitchell who wrote this week for the Jesus Creed blog — the myths about sin that keep me from the reality of it. Myths like: that sin does not exist; or that if it does exist, it is little more than a euphemism for a poor personal choice that we will regret; or maybe we see it as a wrong action or attitude we need confess and repent of. Which is true, but only to a point. That view of sin fails to take seriously the power and reach of it, the complication of it, the confusion wrought by it. The fact is, to the extent that we remain deaf or naive to the reach of sin into systems, we set ourselves up to participate in those evil systems and in the culture of death.
It is not my job to own the experience of a person of another race or color. That’s not my job, any more than it is their job to own my experience and race. It is my job to listen to, empathize with, and understand where my life and behavior does unnecessary harm to another person. It is my job to explore how I can emphasize with-ness over whiteness. Esau McCauley says, “It would mean that, as an act of love, the church says, ‘It should not have to be this way, and I will spend my life beside yours testifying to the values that the Christian tradition places on your black life.’”
The only way I can do that authentically, with integrity, without defensiveness, is by starting where Psalm 139 both begins and ends — with this call to personal searching.
“Search me, God, and know my heart.”
Only then are we able to listen rightly to the stories. Only then are we positioned to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.
In Hebrew, the word for Spirit literally means “to breathe.” Ezekiel makes use of this word in his powerful prophetic picture of dry bones coming to life. God tells the prophet to speak to the bones and they stand up. Then he tells him to speak tendons onto the muscles and skin over the bones, and Ezekiel does it. The bones come together and flesh appears on them. But Ezekiel notices there is no breath in them. That’s exactly how he says it.
Then God says to him, “Prophesy to the breath, Ezekiel. Prophesy and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says, “Come breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.'””
This sounds like the prophetic answer to, “I can’t breathe.” It is a call to for the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, to come and fill us. To come fill our broken spaces and broken systems, to fill lifeless churches, to fill dead and numb Christians, to fill us with the breath of God. Repent us.
Search me, God.
That is the real work of the Holy Spirit. The real work of the Spirit — literally, “breath” — is to take what is dead and make it live. It is to take what is out of sync with the design of God and bring it into the Kingdom and make it live.
“So I prophesied as he commanded me,” Ezekiel tells us, “and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet — a vast army.”
I want to believe that this army Ezekiel saw was the same one pictured by John in Revelation 7:9. “After this I looked and there before me stood a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” This is a vision of the realized Kingdom: an army of souls from very nation, tribe, people and language. Life! Breath! There will be people there we didn’t expect to see. It will be like a cross between the United Nations and the Salvation Army. Every kind of person will be there, all of us healed and wearing the garment of salvation.
And if every person, every race, every tribe is there, then shouldn’t we be earnestly and intentionally praying for, working toward, yearning for that Kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven”? And shouldn’t we be asking God to start with us, to search us, to root out everything in us, that is not fit for that Kingdom?