In two months I turn 63 and almost all the 23,000 days of my life so far have been graced with energy, enthusiasm and good health. Until this point I have been spared the major maladies of cancer, stroke and heart attack, for which I give God thanks. Despite these marvelous blessings I am increasingly experiencing the mortality of this present body, a model neither intended nor equipped to function forever. Several episodes of atrial fibrillation remind me not to take the heart’s steady rhythms for granted. My early stage Parkinson’s disease testifies to the complexity and precariousness of the brain and neurological system. Last year my wife insisted that I have a hearing test, then urged me to get hearing aids when the test revealed a 50% deficit. I turned a half-deaf ear to her pleas, noting that I have worn eyeglasses since age 10, a decade of sinus problems has robbed me of taste and smell and I have a numb foot following back surgery several years ago. “I already have impaired senses of sight, smell, taste and touch,” I reasoned cheerfully. “I’m not about to admit that I can’t hear either.”
My present teachers in mortality and the frailty of life are actually a team of respiratory ailments and illnesses including asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, from whom I have learned in previous courses. This current term began about 5-6 weeks ago and its chief exercise is a cough that interrupts any prolonged sleep and permits brief periods only in a chair (on good nights) or kneeling on the floor in front of a chair with my head in the seat. It is an excellent posture for prayer, which I occasionally do during waking moments throughout the night when I am not coughing. My pulmonologist has tried to expel these unwelcome instructors with three rounds of antibiotics, home breathing treatments, steroids and narcotic cough syrup. The tutorial team is quite stubborn, however, and so far refuses to pack up and go.
These ailments teach me afresh that we are holistic beings, functional bodies composed of physical elements and animated by what the Bible calls “breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Although our English language provides three separate words for “wind,” “breath” or “spirit,” the two major biblical languages use just one word for all three — pneuma in Greek and ruach in Hebrew. In the poetic picture of the Genesis creation saga, the same divine wind/spirit that originally blows over the chaotic waters to create order and cosmos (Gen. 1:2) is the breath of life that God later breathes into Adam’s lifeless dust nostrils and very literally “inspires” into existence a whole living being (psyche, nephesh, “soul”). Our life, like that of every animal (from the Latin word for breath) is God’s continual gift — when he withdraws our breath (spirit) we expire and return to dust (Psalm 104:29).
Remembering this, I bless the LORD our creator for his many benefits: he pardons our iniquities, heals our diseases and redeems our lives from the pit. He crowns us with lovingkindness and compassion and satisfies our years with good things (Psalm 103:1-5). Although he is eternal and almighty, he knows our frame and is mindful that we are but dust (Psalm 103:14). I thank him for the breath of life. I ask him to overthrow the powers of illness that threaten it. I want to live so I can serve God and enjoy his company, and for that I again need his Spirit. So I also pray: “Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from thy presence, and do not take thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10-12).