If you take away their breath, they perish

If you take away their breath, they perish
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

Psalm 104

A Reflection at Pentecost

The symbols of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost take on new and agonizing meaning: breath and flame.

For months now, COVID-19 has been taking our breath away. The virus itself causes breathing difficulty and many are suffering in ICUs, relying on the help of ventilators to stay alive. Medical personnel can hardly breathe for the pace at which they are working. Essential workers are breathing through masks and shields for much of their days. We are all breathless at the staggering loss of life. We rely on the breath of the Holy Spirit to sustain us.

COVID has also exposed the ways in which people of color in the US have been suffocating all along. “I can’t breathe!” These are the horrifying words uttered by George Floyd in the last terrifying moments of his life. These words, which come to anyone struggling for air, have become the lament and prophetic cry of those demanding racial justice in our society.

It is this breathlessness that we bring to Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is sent to us in the wind at our backs, to keep us going in the long race to achieve racial justice. It is sent in the creative and life-giving breath of Jesus, filling our lungs so that we might cry out in grief and anger.

The Spirit is also sent to us in flame. Fire has recently devastated so much of the earth and its wildlife. Fire is erupting now in the protests for racial justice, scorching neighborhoods and destroying dreams and livelihoods. Let us choose the other flame, the flame that kindles hope. Let the desire for justice burn within us, and be tangible in our actions and choices. The flames of protest summon us to be present to the righteous anger of those who encounter racism every day. They summon me to account and atone for the ways in which I perpetuate racism and benefit from its ugly legacy.

If I accept the breath and flame of the Holy Spirit, and the power that it brings, then I accept responsibility for that gift, and pledge to challenge racism and white privilege in word and deed.

Come Holy Spirit!

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