Living in Exhale

The physical body is a marvel. We have limbs, cells, plasma, ventricles all working together intricately. It truly is amazing.

Throughout the Scriptures, the biblical writers use the body continually as an analogy to describe our spiritual lives. The most popular being the Apostle Paul’s admonition for the church in Corinth to be united and work together just as a body does, in fact, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12).

Recently I was doing some learning about the human body when I learned something new, which, when it comes to biology, isn’t hard for me to come by. Regarding breathing,

Expiration occurs passively during normal, quiet breathing, requiring no assistance from muscle action.

As one of my friends stated, “This is why it’s so creepy when someone dies—they breathe out.”

What I find very interesting is that when you exercise your body, no-longer is the expiration of air passive, but is active. What is literally effortless during ordinary moments suddenly requires abdominals, internal obliques, serratus posterior, and internal intercostals, which are pulling the rib change down to force the air out.

As I recall how the Scriptures use the body as a metaphor for our spiritual lives, I couldn’t help but think of my patterns of exhaling. I reflected on taking a breather and the differences between the normal pace of my life and the exercise times.

When my spiritual life is in exercise phase I have regular prayer times and spontaneous moments, I’m in the Scriptures, I’m studying, I’m dreaming of what’s next, and I’m diving into relationships in accountable community. I’m working hard. I can feel the growth. The blood is pumping! I can feel the faith sweats of risk and trust. I’m locked in. Within the midst of this pace Sabbath—rest—exhale is hard.

Just as my physical body needs to work, using developed muscles to push the air out, I need spiritual disciplines to force me to exhale. 

It could be easy to buy-in to the idea of a slow pace—no pushing, strive, working hard on our spiritual life. The problem is you never grow. Just as you can’t get stronger, increase lung capacity or stroke volume by sitting on the couch, so it is the same in our spiritual lives.

When I’m at a normal pace, Sabbath is natural. The exhale is effortless. It requires no effort. After all, I’m not pushing, dreaming, falling into regular relationship building with God and others. I sit and get spiritually unfit.

God has not made me to be spiritually unfit. Nor has he made you that way either. 

We were made to be strong and fit. This is the struggle. 

Work too hard; you can have a heart attack. Don’t work at all; you can have a heart attack. We need spiritual disciplines. Bill Hull tells the importance of spiritual disciplines,

Spiritual disciplines are tools that prepare us to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and as it needs to be done.

Hull also points out to us that this isn’t about it always being “go” time. There is a balance within the work.

Jesus practices the disciplines in a healthy and balanced way. We don’t see him have any angst about them. He simply did what met the need of the moment. Some were staples in his spiritual diet, while he only used others on special occasions.

There are times when we need to work those spiritual muscles. Then there are times when we need to stop and take an effortless breath.

Living in the exhale isn’t real life, but neither is always having to work for it.

Let’s take a moment and breathe.

Now, let’s go work for the kingdom knowing that soon we must stop, let our spiritual body rest, and take some effortless breaths.

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What I learned in Africa… and it’s not what you think.

Most people when they go to a foreign country, especially those that have lesser means then their own, are impacted by the poverty, lack of opportunity, and many times, the hopelessness the local people have of ever pulling themselves out of their situation.

For me, it has always been different.

It is not that the aforementioned doesn’t enter my mind, how could it not. It’s just so often we go on these experiences which have a tremendous impact on us, and while we are on the ground, there is an emotional change in us! It’s deep. It’s powerful. It’s potent. However, the effects often diminish over time. It wanes, and it’s completely normal. We return, and our reality instantly begins to shade our experience. We say we will never forget the feeling, but how can we genuinely help it! Our cultures consumerism slams us in the face everywhere we go.

Heck, you can’t even use the bathroom at most restaurants without some tv screen on the urinal wall flashing advertisements in your face.

I have led a few trips and each time, knowing the “life change” amnesia can set in, I’ve tried to take simple life lessons that are easy to apply. When these lessons can be implemented, though they are simple, they can be revolutionary in the long term.

While I was in Malawi last year, I was talking with my missionary friend Jef when he said something that has changed my life, and those around me’s lives, for the better.

“You realize when you come to Africa that they do things on their own schedule. It is hard at first to get used to it because we are always go go go but….”

And this next little comment changed my life.

“You eventually realize that there isn’t a whole lot that actually has to be done right now. Most things can wait.”

WOW. This stuck with me. This lesson did need some help to set in.

Before we get into what came next you need to understand something about me, I’m a high energy, get things done on time, anal, church planter… What that means, I’m not totally sure. What I do know is that Sunday mornings stress me out (I write about this in chapter 9 of my new book Hidden Faces). So often, stressed out of my mind, I can be found storming around making sure everything is perfect as if the seam on the drape facing out is the deciding factor on someone accept Christ…

I needed to hear that lesson Jef taught me.

However, it only sunk in a little. I should say that I had been working on this for nine months, but sometimes we need a few impactful experiences to help expedite the process.

Right before I went, and increasingly after I had severe pain when I found myself in stressful situations. I pushed through. Why? Because weakness is the enemy! About two weeks after I returned from Africa, I started getting tingling in my hip, which turned into a numb spot about the size of a quarter. Then it slowly expanded to a hip that was completely numb with this intense pain that I spoke of earlier. This lasted for about a month until I was bedridden with pain, and small lesions appeared on my back.

I had shingles.

Stressed induced shingles.

I had two months laying in pain (only getting up to do the necessary) to reflect on Jef’s words, my patterns, and where I wanted to go.

“There isn’t a whole lot that actually has to be done right now. Most things can wait.”

Tony Stoltzfus, while coaching a pastor, observed,

“Let’s say that the people you lead follow your example instead of what you say – that they imitate the way you live. Say that everyone in your congregation worked your hours, had your stress level, spent the amount of time you do with your wife and kids, and had your exercise and eating habits. If the legacy of your ministry was that your people took on your lifestyle, what would you think of that.”

If I were helping someone in my congregation who happened to have my stress level (due to anal tendencies and a need to get everything done ASAP whether it needed to be or not), I would tell them to relax, breathe, gain perspective, realize you’re not God. I would ask them to look at Jesus. Was he stressed out?

The Gospel of Mark tells us,

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

The New International Version. (2011). (Mk 1:35).

After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray

The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 14:23).

It seems to me that Jesus took time to relax and refresh his Spirit. It appears Jesus took care of His soul. There were times when He dismissed the crowd, took too long to get to appointments, and went off script and had a meal or a party instead of rushing to His next thing.

For Jesus, as it turns out, most things could wait. Jesus demonstrated for us what the correct life/work balance looks like.

Africa changed my life. It helped me gain perspective. It’s been over a year since I was there, and while I have moments of regression I can honestly say, the cadence of my life is dramatically different.

It’s all thanks to what I learned in Africa…and it’s not what you thought.

Check out the resources used in this post