“Our Souls Restored”
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Acts 2: 1-21
When we baptize a child, one of the things we are saying, although we don’t say it in as many words, one of the things we are implicitly saying is that this child is a soul. This child is more than its biology or psychology or sociology or destiny. This is a God-given soul.
When a young person or older person steps to the front of the church to be confirmed, one of the things they are saying implicitly, not in so many words, but by the act itself, they are saying I am a soul. I am more than my biology, more than my intellect, more than my emotions, more than my relationships, more than my future vocation. I am a God-given soul.
The reason we put so much energy into confirmation here at Foundry is because for someone to know that she or he is a soul is a big deal. If we know that we are a soul, we will need to live our lives differently than if we are merely a body or a mind or a heart or a job.
We are eternal.
Philosophers have argued throughout the millennia as to where the soul is located inside of us. Where is the seat of the soul? There have been those who argued that the mind is the seat of the soul. The mind is our doorway to eternity. The ability to think is the image of God in us.
Others have believed that the heart is the seat of the soul. The ability to feel and to have emotions and passion is our link to eternity.
The Israelites who wrote the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, had a different idea.
The Hebrew word that we translate soul, is a variant of the Hebrew word for “breath.” In the 23rd Psalm where it says “He restores my soul,” the Hebrew word for soul is Nephesh (pronounced neh'-fesh) which is a form of the word Naphash (pronounced naw-fash) which means “to breathe.”
The second creation account in Genesis 2 talks about God shaping the first human being, out of the mud of the earth like a sculptor and then kneeling down to breathe into the mud the breath of life. (Genesis 2: 7) The soul is God’s breath in us. And because for the Israelites breath is life, the soul is life itself.
In the Israelite way of thinking, we become souls when we draw our first breath. We may share our mother’s soul until then, but when we take our first breath, we become a soul. When we breathe our last breath, our breath returns to God.
Birth and death have become very private things in our society. I guess that is good in many ways, but the downside is that it is rare for most of us to see a baby born or an old person die.
There is something very powerful about the moment a baby breathes his or her first breath. If you are in the room, you yourself stop breathing and just wait for that first breath. Then you can start breathing again. It is a stunning moment. Something changes when that baby breathes for himself or herself the first time. It is a holy moment.
And there is something very powerful about the moment an old person breathes their last breath and there is not another. You sort of sit there and wait and suddenly there is not another. You don’t want to leave the body because it is the body of someone you love, but the realization just comes to you that when their breath has left them they are not there. As much as the body reminds you of them, they are not there. That last breath is a holy moment.
The ancient Israelites believed the breath is the seat of the soul.
And breath is life itself. Life is the seat of the soul.
So when the 23rd Psalm says that the Lord, my shepherd, restores my soul, in the Hebrew context, it is an affirmation of resurrection. The shepherd resurrects my life.
W. Phillip Keller, who wrote the little devotional classic A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm, says that this line of the 23rd Psalm reminds him of his experience as a sheep rancher with sheep that became cast. One of the great concerns of a sheep rancher, he says, is cast sheep.
What happens is that a sheep lies down in some little hollow or depression in the ground. If it rolls into the hollow too much, especially if its wool is heavy and matted and full of mud as wool gets, it may turn on its back far enough that its feet can no longer touch the ground. Sheep can’t turn their legs sideways. It can become impossible for the sheep to regain its footing. It will kick and struggle for a while, but if a sheep is cast, it will do no good, and they will get tired after a while and just lay there. .
Then, Keller says, gases will build up in the sheep’s stomach, this will cut off blood circulation to the extremities of the body, especially the legs. The sheep may lose its breath. If the weather is very hot, a cast sheep can die in a day’s time. In cooler weather it may take a few days, Kellor says.
The only way, according to Kellor, for a cast sheep to be saved is for the shepherd to rescue it. This is why a good shepherd checks on her sheep at least twice a day.
If the shepherd discovers a cast sheep, Kellor says the shepherd has to roll the sheep on its side and talk to it gently and calm it to relieve the pressure on its stomach. Then the shepherd has to lift the sheep to its feet and rub its legs to restore circulation again. This may take some time. Then the shepherd has to make the sheep walk around even if the sheep doesn’t feel like it. The shepherd has to keep watch over the sheep for some time because often it will stumble and stagger and collapse again. And it has to be helped up again, and talked to calmly and firmly, Kellor says, so that it will keep trying to regain its feet.
This is the image that Keller, a sheep rancher, thinks of when Psalm 23 says the shepherd “restores my soul.”[i]
Life can put us on our back, especially in tough times. And it can do it without much warning. One day life is fine enough and the next day our funds are halved, or there is a pink slip in our office mail box, or our house isn’t worth what we paid for it, or the test comes back positive. It can knock the breath out of us.
Ever talk to someone who has to drag their portfolio around from one interview to another, facing rejection time and time again, because the jobs just aren’t there?
Ever know someone whose memory is going and their conversation that used to be so quick and sharp has become halting as they try to remember what they want to tell you but can’t and they really would just rather watch TV anymore?
Ever know someone who wanted to changed the world but somehow their idealism has just gradually faded away, and they’ve became cynical and bitter because the hoped for changes have been too few and too slow?
Life can deplete our souls, especially in tough times.
I went to a chiropractor years and years ago – I imagine 30 years ago. I was a campus minister at the time and a peace activist and active in homeless ministry and an adjunct faculty member and a parent. One day I had severe back spasms, very painful. The chiropractor must have done good work because the spasms have never come back. She gave me some exercises to do, which I did. But she also said that I needed to learn how to breathe.
I thought that was a little kooky. “I know how to breathe,” I’d tell her. “No you don’t,” she’d say.
She wanted me to lay on my back a half an hour every day and breathe. She’d ask me every time I had an appointment if I’d been breathing. And I’d say, “I’m too busy too breathe. I’ve got to house the homeless and prevent nuclear war and teach classes and help students stop hating their parents. I don’t have time to breathe.”
Our breath is the seat of our soul. I think Judaism has survived everything it has survived because deep within Hebrew scripture is the commandment: “Keep breathing. Keep breathing. Keep breathing.”
Anne Tyler, whose novels I love, entitled one of her novels Breathing Lessons. It won a Pulitzer. The main character is a sort of irritating middle-aged woman Maggie. She is certainly irritating to her husband Ira. Ira says about her: "She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her view of them." A reviewer says: “Though everyone criticizes her…Maggie's ability to see the beauty and potential in others ultimately proves that she is the only one fighting the resignation they all fear.”[ii] I think Maggie is a symbol for God in Breathing Lessons.
God restores our breath. God resurrects us. God gives us our lives back.
In the story of Pentecost, part of what happened on the day of the first Christian Pentecost is that there was a great wind. In the Bible, the same word is translated both breath and wind. So what the biblical text might have meant to say is that there was the rush of a great breath…a violent breath.
On Pentecost God gives breath and life and soul back to a people who are cast. This is our job as the church…to give the world its breath back when it is on its back.
As part of my preparation for this morning’s sermon I downloaded to my iPod a copy of Sam and Dave singing: “I’m a Soul Man.” I’ve been listening to it all week. All week I’ve been walking around the church singing “I’m a soul man. Huh!”
Moore and Dave Prater grew up singing in Black church choirs in the south, in
Georgia actually, and they, along with people like Roberta Franklin and Ray
Charles, took the energy and vitality and life of the music of the southern
Black church and took it into the night club and dance hall and onto the
radio waves and helped invent soul music. They took the breath and life and
joy they had learned in church and took it out into the world. During a tough
time, through their music they helped restore
This is the job of the church born on Pentecost: to allow the shepherd to get us off of our backs and to get our circulation going again, to restore our souls, and then to take it out into the world to restore the soul of all humanity. You are a soul woman. You are a soul man.