And God said, "Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water." So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so.
God called the vault "sky." And there was evening, and there was morning - the second day.
Genesis 1:6-8 NIV
My extended family – about 20 cousins, aunts, uncles, and Grandparents – descended on our ranch-style home in the suburbs of Milwaukee one summer afternoon. I was eight years old and standing at the top of the metal slide of our very rusty play-set shouting directions at anyone who would listen (let’s just say my leadership gifts were evident at a young age). It was contained chaos – kids everywhere and parents desperately trying to have a conversation while nursing the babies, wrangling the toddlers, and monitoring the leadership styles of the older ones.
Something caught my attention down on the grass so I plopped my butt down and shot down the slide. Except by the time I reached the bottom (approximately .05 seconds later), the adrenaline had turned to panic. Something had gripped my throat and I couldn’t breathe.
I tried to suck in more air but it was like a boa constrictor had wrapped itself around my airway. Trying to make sense of what was happening to me, I recalled the piece of gum I had chewed and swallowed that morning (against the advice of my mom) and now that gum was returning to punish me, lodging itself in my airway so I would choke and die!
Clutching my throat I raced inside, grabbed my mom’s arm and hoped the terror in my eyes and tears streaming down my face would tell her what I couldn’t say but desperately needed: I couldn’t breathe. I needed air. If I couldn’t breathe I wouldn’t live.
What happened next is less clear in my memory, but what does stand out is her relative lack of panic compared to the sheer terror I was feeling. I was one of those kids with a flair for the dramatic so I’m sure by this point in my life, she’d weathered many other I’M DYING acts when in reality, I was fine. I don’t know how she knew this wasn’t a Life or Death Situation and more of a The Kid Just Needs to Chill situation (I’m hoping that’s a superpower you inherit when you become a mom), but she sat me down, told me to put my head between my knees, and rubbed my back. Sure enough, over the next few minutes, my throat released and I could breathe fully again.
Not being able to breathe was the most panic-inducing thing I had experienced. Read another way, panic induced a physical response that felt like the life was being squeezed out of me.
When I reflect on God’s second act of creation, the act of separating the waters that enveloped the earth, I think about how God created space for us to breathe.
God’s first act of creation was to will light into existence because, while darkness has a place and purpose, no living thing can grow into full maturity without light.
In the same way, without the perfect cocktail of gases and vapors, chemicals and their compounds, life would not be possible without this divinely created spaciousness.
And yet, how do we talk about it? How do we name something we cannot see? Something so simple and pure yet also active and powerful?
The writer of Genesis was writing to a people, in a culture, at a point in time vastly different than the one we live in today. The Hebrew word used to describe what was created on this second day translates to expanse or firmament. Many of the Old Testament writers use poetic imagery to try and capture what it was God created.
I like to imagine God had a giant cheesecloth and scooped it across the water and suspended it over the water, creating this separation between the water below the earth and the water above the earth. In doing so, I like to think the writer of Genesis was telling us something important:
We humans were not created to live underwater
Nor were we created to live among the clouds
God set up boundaries and in between, an expanse that sustains life.
And yet, how often do we live like we’re underwater or afloat in the clouds?
How much of our days do we spend holding our breath or constricting our breath or rushing our breath?
What if we didn’t need more or other but just a deep gulp of the divine permeating the air around us?
You’ve always given me breathing room,
a place to get away from it all,
A lifetime pass to your safe-house,
an open invitation as your guest.
You’ve always taken me seriously, God,
made me welcome among those who know and love you.
Psalm 61:3-5 MSG
There will be moments or even seasons in life where we need an oxygen mask or prescription to help us breathe when our throat closes up and our lungs constrict. When the panic starts setting in, it’s important to know help is available and we can ask for it.
There will also be seasons where we feel our heart start racing as fear grips its claws around our airways but all we really need is to sit down, put our head between our knees and concentrate on calming ourselves.
Doing more, being more, having more is not the antidote in either of these scenarios. Adopting a posture of submission and breathing deep the air already available to us is.
You were born into a world perfectly suited to your thriving. Light, air (and subsequently earth and its inhabitants) willed into existence by and for the pleasure of God.
Fear, anxiety, busyness, oppression, disease, overwhelm, escapism – all of these thieves can steal our air and try and choke out life.
But with God, in God, face-to-face with God, there is always room to breathe.
I hate all this silly religion, but you, God, I trust. I’m leaping and singing in the circle of your love; you saw my pain, you disarmed my tormentors, You didn’t leave me in their clutches but gave me room to breathe.
Psalm 31:6-7 MSG