Our normal resting rate of breath is between 12 and 25 breaths per minute. If you’re doing something, almost anything, it goes up. And you’re usually doing something.
That means if you’re older than 72 you have likely taken over a billion breaths. Most often we don’t even notice it – unless you’re asthmatic, have some form of lung disease or dysfunction or during exercise.
And we never breathe just to breathe. It’s always for another aspect of living – be it simply carrying oxygen to every part of our body to make it work or to smell a particular scent, like the crisp air after a thunderstorm.
We don’t live to breathe, but we have to breathe to live. Nothing else works without it.
Breath, wind and spirit are same word in each of the biblical languages. In Greek (the original language of the New Testament) the word is pneuma, as in pneumonia or a pneumatic drill, and in Hebrew (original language of the Old Testament) the word is ruach.
That connection between breath, wind and spirit is very old. That’s important to remember about these Genesis stories. They are old. Scholars think they were written down say 3,000 years ago, but the stories are much older than that. How old, no one knows. And they were told and kept and refined for maybe thousands of years before they got written down. They were and are very important in understanding who we are, not just as Christians but as human beings. For example:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)
Here we see that Spirit of God at the start of all things. They aren’t talking about the big bang, they had no idea about a big bang, but they had a very deep memory that before the creation, God was. (How could they have conceived of the formless void, and that be the first memory, except by divine inspiration?)
A little further along, that same word is used as God breathes life into Adam and Eve. Again, this is a deeply shared memory that breath – life – comes from God.
I’m going to skip ahead a bit to this story of the Tower of Babel, but you hopefully remember that Adam and Even got into trouble, and so did their children, then there was Noah and his ark and the rainbow, then he had some trouble with his kids, which brings us to this Tower of Babel.
This isn’t just a story made up to explain why people were scattered all over the world and had different languages. (Which is an interesting point. Other animal species don’t have that issue. Their language is genetically encoded. We learn language by hearing it.)
The Tower of Babel is also a very old, deep and shared memory that recognizes that a long time ago we had a shared language. Logically and biologically, that has to be true. And where does the ancient shared memory say that was? Babel later became Babylon, which much later became Iraq. It’s Mesopotamia, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers create a fertile region.
And it’s where archaeologists think civilization began, the city of Ur.
And God saw that collectively, “…nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them.” Nothing will be impossible for them. Among our deepest shared memory is recognition that together we can do anything. (They had no idea that for a mere $58 million, you, yes you, could visit the International Space Station.) So, rather than see them collectively fall into the original sin of putting their own will ahead of God’s will, he scatters them and confuses their languages.
That isn’t a punishment. What happens after they scatter? They prosper! And they go everywhere.
The next story in Genesis is about Abram, who will become Abraham when he enters into the covenant with God and God promises him that, “Through you I will bless all nations (or all peoples).”
The Day of Pentecost is a major step in God fulfilling that promise. It is not a reversal of the Tower of Babel – everyone continues to speak different languages. But we see that through faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit they are able to understand each other and thus are made one, even as Jesus and the Father are One.
The church was born – not out of establishing community. They were already gathering. And not even just because of their shared witness to the risen Christ. The church as we know it was born because the Holy Spirit ignited their hearts and imaginations as with tongues of flame.
And that Holy Spirit drove them out of Jerusalem and across their known world to share their witness to Jesus by word and deeds. That is who we are, that is why we are here.
It’s like sailing. You put your sails up, catch the wind and you can glide almost effortlessly across the water. You need to pay attention to the wind’s direction and adjust your lines and rudder accordingly, but the wind is really pushing you along. If you get out of the flow, get distracted or disinterested, you’ll lose momentum and maybe even capsize your ship.
What if you gave the Holy Spirit as much attention and care as a sailor does the wind? How? Prayer! Study! Share your thoughts and questions with your friends in Christ. It’s real. It’s true. Babel’s got nothing on us. We are so wired to follow our way instead of his. Try it and see. The waters are going to get rough, that is life, but eventually you’ll come to realize the boat isn’t the most important thing. He is.
Which brings us to these beautiful children. By God’s grace they’ve got over a billion breaths to breathe, and God knows where they will go in this life and what they will do. We know that “nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them.” Our hope and prayer is that through it all, especially when the seas get rough, they will be blessed by the Holy Spirit, as wind at their back, and guided to a life filled with purpose and meaning.