“The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” -Job 33:4
“Don’t forget to breathe.”
My girlfriend used to say this to me quite frequently, most often when she would instinctively know that I was under stress. It is always obvious to her when I need to hear the words and always has been – when it was said very often, even when she would inquire to me if I was okay and I responded in the affirmative, it was glaringly evident that I was withholding some details as to how I was really feeling. As is the case with those who love and care about us, she just has this method of knowing. More often than not, I would hear this when I was dealing with an episode of anxiety or panic – which I suffered from for quite some time in my life – and it was always blatantly apparent when I was suffering from one. It wasn’t just the look of tension and “mental constipation” (for lack of a better term) written all over my face when I would experience one, it was the entire shift in my demeanor. During the times when I would experience these episodes, which were either brought on by something I saw, heard or read which triggered my thoughts to travel to places they did not need to be or should not be, I would suddenly become distant, appearing to be present in the conversation yet withdrawing inside my head. For someone who has never had the unpleasant experience of a panic or anxiety attack, one of the best ways I can describe it is that everything sort of tightens up inside, and suddenly becomes tense – as if your entire body, being and soul becomes taut. My normally calm nature would become exactly the opposite and even though I would not realize it at the time, my breaths would transform from normal to abbreviated, as if somewhere deep inside me someone had located the master control for my inhale and exhale functions and reduced their output by half. But that was just the physical aspect; the mental was far less pleasant. Whatever thought it was that had taken precedence over whatever stream of consciousness I had been on prior was preventing a clear focus or ability to think rationally. Whatever negative thought had latched on to my psyche at that moment was the predominant one at the time, and it would seem for a moment that little to nothing could be done to move forward and past it or alleviate it. This internal imagined fear of feeling trapped or cornered somehow then began a chain reaction which would just make the physical effect far worse, my blood pressure would elevate and my breathing would become shorter and shorter. Taking her advice, I would just start breathing. Slow, deep breaths, fully inhaling and exhaling. One breath at a time, in and out, slowly and carefully, as I would try to just mentally step outside of whatever had created the snag in my thought patterns. As cliché as it might initially sound, just stepping back and taking a deep breath really did work to get me back where I needed to be at the moment. It didn’t stop the panic anxiety attacks from returning – that would not be resolved until years later – but it was key to making their duration shorter and less distressing in the interim as I worked through the deeper issues which they were a symptom of. Every time they had the same types of triggers which brought them on, and all of them in some way related back to old and archaic – not to mention irrational – fears concerning God and Faith. The way my mind would process it during one of these episodes went something as follows: Something would happen that would cause me to become tense and stressed. After the initial onset of dealing with whatever was creating the tension, my mind would search for the cause of it. At that juncture, my subconscious mind would regurgitate old and toxic, fearful thoughts and lies from my past: “It’s happening. Just as they all told you, who you are is not acceptable to God. No matter how much you may think it is, God is against you and this is the result of that. There’s no hope, there’s nowhere to run, you’re trapped.” This would have an even greater impact if during the time I was having one I would look up and hear or see some reminder of my old fear based ideas about God, be it anything from a billboard to something on the radio or television or some other external source. Even though my heart and my rational mind knew all of this was just old residual garbage, it just seemed that my thought patterns had a mind, purpose and intent all their own and just ran away with me, carrying me to revisit old haunts that I had no business or good reason to inhabit and never should have in the first place. Today, from a psychological and clinical perspective, I can attest that the root cause of these fearful ideations and subsequent panic and anxiety attacks that would manifest as a result were many of the things I have experienced in the past and negative conditioning which had simply thrown my cognitive health and well-being off balance. This malfunction in thought processes would set off the episodes, and the physical consequences would follow. And while just stepping outside of it and breathing was absolutely beneficial (as I would slow down and take in more oxygen, the feelings of panic and anxiety would loosen their grasp on my thoughts), there was still a great deal of deeper healing – and a need to take in and to breathe in some fresh air spiritually – that needed to transpire. As a bisexual man with some radically unorthodox and non-traditional beliefs and as a Christian, which I personally define as someone who seeks to be closer to God the Loving Creator through following the affirming, Loving and timeless teachings of Christ, I have had more than my share of experiences in life where I have metaphorically felt as if I were gasping for breath and fighting for air when it comes to spiritual matters. And from experience, I know that there are a great many LGBT individuals who either have or still experience the same types of feelings. As consistently focused on the positive as I consciously strive to be, and for all of the courageous strides towards inclusiveness for all people God has Blessed this world with, I still experience feelings of frustration with the present state of things, primarily the fashion in which those who I share a sincere belief in God and a commitment to following the teachings of Christ to the best of my ability with seem determined to cut off certain people from fully breathing in the Spirit of God. It seems as if there are some who define themselves as being Christians who seem to want to choke off the airways of others, instead of fostering an environment conducive to us all being able to breathe in the life-giving Spirit of God’s Unconditional Love. Although I don’t make as much of a habit as I once did of browsing message boards – these days, I simply don’t have the time or the patience as I once may have to do so and have attempted the concept of civil discourse with unsuccessful results due to the lack of cooperation of those who suggest it as a viable option – I still read comments on matters people have posted. The fact that there is still such a prevalence of homophobic, as well as bi-phobic and trans-phobic sentiments being scattered like refuse is distressing enough as it is. But these days, at least to me, it seems that the majority of it is expressed is by those who claim to speak for God and attest that they are blessed with the authority to do so on Biblical grounds, with absolutely no sense of apprehension in doing so. Even more unfortunate is that many of those making these allegations have such a wide platform and reach via the media. For the most part, I have learned to tune it out, as I thankfully learned a long time ago that even though we all have the option of electing to not allow ourselves to internalize negative accusations made upon us by others, just avoiding it as much as we can results in elimination of the temptation or tendency we might have to do so. But I saw one not too long ago that just set me off. It was in response to concern over a high suicide rate for LGBT youth due to bullying, and although the majority of the comments were supportive, there was an allegation – and the only perspective from a professed Christian – from an evangelical Christian promoting the idea that these youth took their lives and were suffering because they “refused to turn from their lives of sin.” The insinuation was that the youth who took their lives had somehow been “given up by God” to suffer at the hands of others. Their being mistreated by others was indicative of some sort opposition by God to who they were. I think the factor which irritates me the most of all about this line of thinking – other than the sense of personal offense that I take to the idea that the Loving God I Know and Worship would condemn, judge, forsake or outright abandon anyone for something as personal and individual as their sexuality or sexual orientation – is the fact that this person was shifting the blame for the types of tragedies their very thoughts and actions caused to those who are victims of it, and even worse, trying to place the blame on God or equally as repugnant to me, to use God to justify their own or anyone else’s prejudices as sanctioned. To me, it’s bad enough that there still exists so much condemnation and misunderstanding of the LGBT Community in general – even given the great progress which has been made in recent years – but to continue to attest that God, the very Source of Life and Love is the reason for that is infinitely worse. To me it is all just spiritual air pollution, a dense smog and smoke screen of fears that only serve to not only obscure God for many but inhibit them from fully breathing deeply of peace and joy of the Holy Spirit. I feel certain that many others of us who are LGBT can relate to what I am attempting to convey. Anytime I hear of any other LGBT individual feeling hopeless and suffering, or feeling as if the entire world condemns them or is out to get them, and especially that God who Created them is against them, I want to tell them with the utmost amount of faith and confidence that it really does get better. I want to be able to articulate to them how critical it is that they learn to seek God themselves rather than allowing others opinions of what God thinks to influence them, and encourage them to never give up hope or resign themselves to the fears that God is somehow opposed to them. I want to express the importance of looking within to find God, instead of letting others define God for you and learning to love the person God Created you naturally to be. Although I do my absolute best to move forward and never look back and “should have” over past mistakes, I sometimes wish I could meet up with myself when I was younger and explain to that scared and lost guy who was repressing himself, hating himself and drowning in a sea of depression, alcohol abuse and aimlessness that he should not be running from himself or from God and especially not avoiding God, but trusting with blind faith in God and accepting himself as God made him. I want to shake him out of his self-hating fog, and encourage him to stop seeking God externally and learn to find God within. To arrive at the place where I now find myself in life-able to fully embrace the person that God Created me to be with a sense of confidence, joy and gratitude and able to breathe in the Spirit fully and freely and know with all of my heart that regardless of what another may say or do to attempt to make me feel as if I am somehow undeserving of God’s Love and Grace that I am Loved as I am with an Unconditional Love and that God is the Source of all of the joy I know in life – took years of soul searching, spiritual growth and perseverance with to accomplish. But it is possible. I cannot tell anyone exactly how to do it or go about it. I can only say that it begins with developing a sense of knowing it is possible, or even merely having one instant of sincere faith that it is possible. I think back on times when I was struggling and gasping for air in a spiritual sense. I think back to a time when I would be feeling down and desperate and wondering if there truly was a place for me with God. I recall one time sitting next to the stereo during a long drunken night alone, attempting in vain to quench a deep spiritual thirst with the drink in my hand, when the song “Imagine” by John Lennon came on:
Imagine there’s no heaven It’s easy if you try No hell below us Above us only sky Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too Imagine all the people living life in peace
You, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one I hope someday you’ll join us And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can No need for greed or hunger A brotherhood of man Imagine all the people sharing all the world
You, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one I hope someday you’ll join us And the world will live as one
It’s a beautiful song, and although at that stage in my life I wanted nothing to do with God there was a deep longing for God as I listened to it. While on the surface level, I wanted to be free of anything to do with religion, the words resonated to me as being hopeful for a world based on peace and love rather than division – which today I feel to be congruent and synonymous with the very sentiments that Jesus Taught. What I recall thinking as I listened was imagining: “What if all of the fearful things I had been taught about God and Christ were in fact not true, and God was not all about legalism and rules and restrictions but God was a Loving, Creative Presence in all of Life? What if being a Christian was not about having the “right” sexual orientation, political affiliation, or assimilating and conforming to a narrow mold, but rather about living as we know God Made us to be while being a caring and loving person? What if everyone could just agree that God is Good, despite all of our differences, and learn to accept one another and live in harmony?” It would be later that I would actually further explore that line of thought, when I would sincerely reach out to God with a spark of faith and hope, my own “mustard seed” of faith that would eventually lead to my discovering God on my own for the first time and coming to know the Loving God I do now through the spiritual teachings of Christ, but that took place later as well, at a time when I had hit bottom. It only took being open to the possibility and sincerely asking the question, “If I knew that I was Created and Loved Unconditionally by God, and that I was made as I am, how would things be different?” It was approaching the idea of God with a “What if?” child-like sense of wonder that eventually opened my eyes and prompted me to begin breathing in the spiritual fresh air that I now know that God wanted me to replenish my soul with. Fast forward through many years of challenging spiritual growth and seeking to the point where I had grown a great deal spiritually and was well on my own faith journey. I had found peace with God, and come to accept my sexuality as a gift to be embraced and enjoyed with love and responsibility, and knew it was natural for me regardless of how “unnatural” others might accuse it of being. I had come out to myself and others as the bisexual God had Created me to be, rather than seeking to “choose a side”, or unsuccessfully repress it, or worst of all, pretend be someone I was not meant to be. And I had also arrived at the place of knowing that for me, bisexuality means that I have the need for honest and committed relationships with both a woman and a man and I had arrived at a sense of peace about that as well. I was also at peace with the fact that I consider myself as a Christian, however unconventional many things about my life and beliefs are. Yet I was still experiencing these occasional episodes of panic and anxiety. I still had moments when those old fears would catch me, and prevent me from fully being able to “take a deep breath and relax” on both a spiritual and a literal level. These moments were not constant; they would come and go. They would usually only take place if I was already exhausted or under some sort of pressure, stress or duress, but that was problematic as those are the very times when I feel we should be able to comfortably feel the absolute closest to and most trusting of God. Those are the times when it is critical to me to be able to experience a complete sense of trust, even when it seems as if it could be very difficult to find. I would be fine at first, but when it came down to being able to take that one deep breath and relax it would catch on some residual fear I had. Sometimes it was my internalization of something someone else had said to me, sometimes it was my own internalization of homophobia or bi-phobia I had falsely bought into and thought I had cleaned up and thrown out with all of the other old negative garbage but missed a spot somewhere. Something would trigger it and my mind would go off. Or I would be in prayer and meditation and not be able to fully focus and relax, which only served to complicate matters even further. Rather than listen to my girlfriend’s reminder to breathe, or just pretending to by doing so physically but not following through on the concept mentally and spiritually, I would just endure it until I finally decided to take the idea to heart and really put forth a concerted effort. The dots connected one morning, of all places, at the gym when I was in the middle of a cardio session on the elliptical machine. I was tense that morning, as I had worked late the night before and had a major project going on at work I was feeling anxiety over. It was one of those days when the temptation was strong to go home, call in sick and procrastinate facing the day until the following. Yet, I knew I always feel better and clearer once I work out, and it does wonders for my cognitive health as well as physical sense of well-being, so I pressed on. However, rather than continuing to take my frustration out on the machine, I elected to remember to breathe. I set a smooth, solid and comfortable stride, and focused on fluid motions while breathing in and out deeply. As I was working out and breathing, working up a sweat and feeling the adrenaline flowing, I chose to be present in the moment. I put aside any anxieties about work, and other issues which had been plaguing my thoughts, and focused on my heartbeat and breathing. And as I did, and progressed through what I needed and wanted to do despite nearly allowing a poor attitude to sabotage the promise of a great day, something very interesting clicked in my thought patterns. Just as I felt my body have more energy and strength build and feel better as I focused on breathing in and out and allowing enough oxygen in to renew and replenish my energy, I visualized breathing with my mind and soul as well, inhaling and exhaling calmly and slowly. As I would exhale, I would imagine all of the old negative thoughts and ideas which were likely still littering my subconscious causing old fears to be triggered being blown away and envisioned myself breathing in fresh clean air in a spiritual sense to revitalize my soul. I imagined the breaths I was taking in being akin to spiritual caffeine, living water, and full of Spirit, renewing the life to my soul just as the oxygen I was taking in physically was giving my body energy and making me feel stronger and refreshed as I worked out. By the time it was complete, not only did I feel physically exhilarated and renewed rather than tired and frustrated, I had gleaned a far healthier outlook mentally and spiritually. The entire experience was, if you’ll pardon the expression, a “breath of fresh air” to my thinking about what it really means to “breathe” on multiple levels. And from that point forward, in addition to adopting that discipline when I go to the gym daily of both physically and mentally “breathing”, I have practiced that same type of visualization when it comes to prayer and meditation. As I pray or reflect, I visualize my soul exhaling any old and stale air and breathing in the Spirit to replenish me. And should I ever begin to experience the type of anxiety which once prompted my girlfriend to remind me to breathe, I just imagine each breath I take drawing me closer to God, know that God is Present in every breath we all take, and simply close my eyes, draw on my faith and relax. I visualize God Breathing new life into me, the oxygen my soul needs to grow stronger and flourish despite whatever tribulations I may feel life is throwing at me. Whatever hardship I seem to be facing, or circumstance I am dealing with, I no longer do as I did years and years ago and engage in false worry that God is “sending me tests” or giving me a difficulty to draw me through some metaphorical refining fire; I stop looking for reasons why and just put my faith and trust in the Love of God to help me through it, while seeking the guidance to do my part in the process and the sense of clarity and discernment to realize what that might entail. For all of the diverse ways we seek to know God, I am led to believe that we, more often than not, allow our tendency as spiritual beings having a human experience to overcomplicate things which are best approached with simplicity and sincerity. Yes, life is very complicated – although the extent to which it is may often be exacerbated by our own actions and reactions. But in my experience, I honestly believe that our faith and personal relationship with God need not be. It can be as simple and natural as breathing. For example, as vast, wonderful and complex and diverse as God’s Creation is, faith itself and developing a connection with God is often overcomplicated, but when I reflect on it, it all really seems simple to me. As human beings sought to understand God in the times of the Old Testament, it only takes a simple reading to acknowledge all of the soul searching and seeking to comprehend that which cannot be understood fully by us that went on. Lists of rules and regulations and all manner of legalistic approaches were scribed. But then along comes God in Jesus, and later in the Holy Spirit, with an entirely new and simplified approach: Love God more than anything, through striving to love one another with the same fashion of Unconditional Love, compassion and mercy God Has for us. I am aware that simple Commandment entails a great deal, but at its core, it is so beautifully natural and simple to me. Even when it relates to matters of how diverse our individual understanding and path to God may be, I still view it as simple, and natural as breathing should be. Everyone views God a little differently, despite more common ground than we might initially acknowledge. There are others in life who may fervently disagree with your beliefs about God, but that does not invalidate your faith as an individual and never has to create a barrier which should be detrimental to your own faith. I know there are a great many Christians – both conservative and liberal, who might believe things contrary to what I believe in my heart. Yet no matter how much I may disagree, I pray to not judge (not always an easy task, but one I feel compelled to always practice as best I can) but rather accept them as an equally cherished Child of God, and realize that differences of opinion need not cause me to feel disconnected from others, or from God. It seems overly simplified, but I honestly feel that the challenge is to strive to discover common ground where we can and work towards living in peace. Regarding the issues of differences we may have with others concerning whatever our sexuality or sexual orientation is, I feel that is simple as well. I personally believe a person’s individual sexuality and sexual orientation is how they were Created, and is just as natural for them as breathing. Whatever it is for each person is to me between them and God, and it is not my place to render any type of judgment about whatever it may be or how it manifests so long as they are being caring and respectful of others. I do long for a day when we as a society makes whatever a person’s sexuality is exactly what I feel it is for God: a non-issue, something that like God, simply “is.” Yes, I certainly feel we should embrace the gift of our God-given sexuality responsibly, lovingly and always respectfully of others, but I truly wish we could move past making it such an issue rather than just letting it be an integral aspect of who we are, and get on with whatever special purpose God may have Assigned us in this life. As with life, sure, it can seem complicated. As a bisexual, I have heard on more than one occasion that I “complicate” matters by my very nature. Yet, it’s very simple to me: some people were Created to be heterosexual, some homosexual, some transgender, and I and many others were created bisexual. Bisexuality has many meanings and flavors for many people who identify as such – sometimes as diverse as a person’s individual sexuality – although for me it translates to the need for intimacy with both a woman and a man. Whereas at one time I might have experienced conflict over who I was internally, that was only caused by the fear and false ideation that I was somehow required to live up to standards others imposed upon me rather than what I truly feel in my heart. Once I was able to determine that any negativity I was experiencing was not from God but rather my allowing myself to internalize fears that others had projected on me, I was able to begin to successfully defeat my fears for the demons that they were, however insidious they might have been for a time. Today, I have been blessed with honest, caring and committed relationships with both a wonderful woman and man in my life, and have come to full embrace my natural sexuality as an integral, balanced and healthy aspect of who I am and a gift intended to be used responsibly, ethically, honestly and with love and respect for others; it simply is. I have been blessed with family and friends who are accepting and do understand as well as those might not always understand, but who love and accept me just the same, and that to me compensates for those who are apprehensive or fearful of me. Who I am, and how I live the truth of who I am might seem unnatural to others, but it is as natural as breathing for me. It doesn’t matter to me as it once may have what judgments others might have, I feel peace with God and I know I am sincere, and that to me is what is truly important. When I let go long ago of the imagined need to seek the approval of others instead of trusting in the joy that God’s Unconditional Love was all that I would ever need, it was the breath of life my soul needed to finally feel free. Sometimes, I elect to visualize this sense of “taking deep breaths spiritually,” although there are ways I have discovered to actualize this, and one is by taking action to do things which I know are enriching to the Spirit: taking time to offer assistance to those in need. Returning a hostile comment with a kind response and breaking the chain of negativity. Even on days when I am feeling tired or pressured, always striving to embrace all of the possibility for good the blank canvas of a new day carries with it rather than brace for a rough ride. All of these methods have proven to keep the air circulating over time for me. Even so, I have my days still as we all can where the burden and the yoke seem heavy, and on those, I just go back to square one and remember to breathe both physically and spiritually. Yes, at times I do still have to receive a verbal reminder, but it is far less frequent. I try to focus on being mindful of it at all times as I am able; it’s a critical point, and in my experience, imperative for not only physical, but spiritual survival and growth. If there is one matter which does at times still distress my soul these days, or has the propensity to stir anxiety in me, and creates in me a spiritual “shortness of breath,” so to speak, it is the frustration I feel over knowing that there are so many who desperately want to know, and yearn to know that God’s Love is the breath of fresh air that they require to restore life, joy and passion to their souls. I wish I could convince those who want to breathe in God’s Love but fear that they cannot to feel the sense of peace that comes from being able to be still and know that God Is, to be able to feel the kind of connection that I have come to feel with God. I want to express that feeling to anyone who is open to the possibility, yet cannot seem to break free from old and fearful patterns of thought and embrace the joy that only comes from breathing in the Holy Spirit and being renewed, refreshed and revitalized – fully able to breathe spiritually again. I want to persuade, encourage and inspire them to take a deep breath, and give God a chance and never give up, but open their heart and soul to the God of Love that can renew them with new life, as yet unseen possibilities, joy, hope and most of all, the knowing that come what may, they are always loved with an Unconditional Love. Just as fear and anxiety can cause us to tense up and become short of breath physically, and create possible threats to our physical health, they can often seem to choke our souls and hope until we are gasping for air. Spirit, the Loving Spirit of God is the breath that can renew our souls, and give them life. In the very same way that our physical bodies cannot survive without oxygen, our souls cannot survive without a fresh influx of the breath of the Holy Spirit to sustain our spiritual health and well-being. So breathe deeply, and take as many long and full breaths as you need to! Just as with the oxygen we breathe, that Spirit is abundant, free to each and every one of us, and ever present. Our embracing the sense of being renewed and revitalized, refreshed and filled with New Life requires only that we inhale and partake of it, knowing that God is not in some far off distant place but as close and as intimate as each breath we take. And God is Ever Present and ready to Guide us and fill us with new life, new hope, and a new beginning – as fresh, clean, pure, renewing and life-giving as the breath of fresh air we are seeking.
Rev. Suzie Chamness served as Senior Pastor of Spirit of Life MCC of New Port Richey, Fla., beginning in 2009, having been a Volunteer Clergy for the Congregational Care Ministry at King of Peace, St. Petersburg, Florida and worked as Chaplain at Bon Scours Maria Manor Care Facility also in St. Petersburg. She completed her Masters of Divinity at the Florida Center for Theological Studies in June 2006 and ordained in August of that year.