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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

"I Can't Breathe," The Pastoral Prayer from Pentecost 2020, by Claire Helton

As we so often do, let’s begin by breathing in deeply.

Breathe in, and know that God is love.

Breathe out, and release the fear that binds you.

Week after week we have gathered here together

and begun our time with the gift of breath.

Lately, we’ve been jarred into a recognition of the gift that breath is

by all those in this pandemic who are deprived of it,

whose lungs are failing them,

whose bodies are ravaged by this disease of the breath.

O God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer for our sisters and brothers

who struggle to breathe;

for their mothers and fathers, their children, their loved ones

who long for nothing more than to breathe a prayer

over them in a hospital room

in a time when even that has been denied

to so many.

Hear our prayer, O God,

and then may we take action,

to do our part to slow the spread,

even when it’s uncomfortable,

even when we feel silly,

even when we would rather act as if

“back to normal” were already here.

For a hundred thousand lives lost,

for a hundred thousand families this morning,

many of them – too many – the families and loved ones

of people of color

disproportionately affected,

disproportionately served,

disproportionately dying:

we offer up our prayer and lament.

O God,

week after week as we have gathered here,

we have gathered in a nation, in a state and a city,

in which our brothers and sisters of color

were already struggling to breathe.

For too many, the crisis of this virus

is nothing new, just one more pebble

on a mountain of injustice

of unexamined privilege

of unrestrained exploitation and abuse and death-dealing.

“I can’t breathe,”

the words of George Floyd ring in our ears.

“I can’t breathe,”

the same words of Eric Garner before him.

“I can’t breathe.”

O God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer for our sisters and brothers

who struggle to breathe.

Hear our prayer, O God,

the One who breathes life,

the One who animates, who creates us and calls forth humanity

to co-create with you.

In truth, we, the created ones, are those who must now breathe life

into this broken and bleeding world.

We are the ones who must act

to become the answer to our prayers.

Why are we looking at the sky?

As long as there is breath in our lungs

let us recognize it for the privilege that it is and give thanks to God, and then use the breath we have been granted

to lift up our voices

to amplify the voices of those whose lived experience

is different than our own,

is so often oppressed by our own –

and isn’t that the whole point of Pentecost, anyway:

this day when we celebrate the ruah,

the wind,

the breath of God rushing in and ruffling feathers,

causing those who had never had ears to hear one another before

to somehow find the gift of listening,

the gift of understanding.

Let everything that has breath praise the God of love and mercy;

for every blessed one who doesn’t:

who has had the breath choked out of their lungs,

whether through force

or through unjust systems,

through mass incarceration

or the cycle of generational poverty,

whether through the malicious intent of one bad apple

or through the malignant cancer of

the slow and steady gait

of the white moderate,

O God, we lift our voice

in anguish and lament.




I usually try to end my prayers on a note of hope. No matter how dark or how long the night, we are a people who trusts that joy comes in the morning. But sometimes we just need to lament.

And sometimes, even in the act of lamenting, in the telling and retelling of tragedy, in speaking their names and telling their stories over and over again, we find that hope sneaks in; and in fact, it’s the only way true hope has ever been found. In the words of composer and playwright Anais Mitchell, “It’s a sad tale; it’s a tragedy, but we sing it anyway. ‘Cause here’s the thing: to know how it ends and still begin to sing it again as if it might turn out this time…” It’s the only way we’ll be able to see how the world could be, in spite of the way that it is.

And so in the spirit of how the world could be, while yet acknowledging the way that it is, we’ve asked Justin Havard and Chad Sonka to lead us in singing “Lift Every Voice And Sing” as our song of response. It’s a hymn we’ve sung before at Northminster, and as powerful as the music is, we’re careful when we sing it to acknowledge that as a song that emerged out of black tradition, out of the black struggle, for most of us here that means this is a song we sing in solidarity with our sisters and brothers. We don’t pretend that the words are ours or that we fully comprehend their meaning or pain, but we can lift our voices in unison to amplify these words of their cause.

As our prayerful response, I invite you to fight the feeling of being overwhelmed and instead to focus in on what one step, what one action, you can take in the next week to move us forward from the way things are to the way God dreams they could be.

Let us listen.

Let us dream.

Let us sing.

[Justin and Chad's rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" can be heard at]

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