When I was on the 2010 Behold The Lamb Of God Christmas tour, I debuted one of the new songs from my upcoming record, A Way To See In The Dark. I was encouraged by how warmly it was received, and people have been asking about it ever since so I thought I’d share it and the story behind it here.
The song is called “The Sound Of Our Breathing” and it was inspired by a teaching I heard a few years ago about how God’s name, YHWH, is comprised of aspirated consonants that, spoken, are the sound of breathing.
It was a big concept that proved challenging to turn into a succinct lyric. I could have written it as a folksy singer/songwriter kind of song with twelve verses that took time to expound the idea, but when I was fishing for a melody and came upon what would end up being the pre-chorus (the name of God is the sound of our breathing / hallelujahs rise on the wings of our hearts beating), I fell in love with the idea of writing it as a pop/rock radio kind of song. That was the most challenging way to write a challenging song, but I get excited about that kind of thing. The kind of songs we’ve come to expect to hear on the radio can sometimes be disappointing, but I haven’t given up on it and its listeners just yet (see my comment 27 below for thoughts about radio singles). So it felt very missional to me to write it this way and it was also an invigorating creative challenge. Pop/rock anthem = less lyrics = really challenging when you have a big idea to convey. I’m not sure it has radio potential – time will tell – but it was an good challenge creatively to write the song in that direction.
I was at a songwriter’s retreat a year ago in Eastern Washington and I brought the song to Doug McKelvey and Seth Mosely who were willing to tackle the challenge and bring it across the finish line with me. “The Sound Of Our Breathing” is the fruit of our labor and I hope you like how it turned out (you can listen to it at the bottom of this post)
For the special edition of the record, I wrote a piece about the idea that inspired the song and I’ve included that for you here. The song follows:
The Sound Of Our Breathing Take a breath and breathe it out. Do it again, slowly, and try to mean it. Breathing – of all things maybe we take it most for granted. Do we ever wonder why we are built this way, this soft machine of ours always pumping oxygen in and out?
In sadness, we breathe heavy sighs. In joy, our lungs feel almost like they will burst. In fear we hold our breath and have to be told to breathe slowly to help us calm down. When we’re about to do something hard, we take a deep breath to find our courage. When I think about it, breathing looks almost like a kind of praying.
I heard a teaching not long ago about the moment when Moses had the nerve to ask God what his name is. God was gracious enough to answer, and the name he gave is recorded in the original Hebrew as YHWH.
Over time we’ve arbitrarily added an “a” and an “e” in there to get YaHWeH, presumably because we have a preference for vowels. But scholars have noted that the letters YHWH represent breathing sounds, aspirated consonants that in the Hebrew alphabet would be transliterated like this:
Yod, rhymes with “rode”, which we transliterate “Y” He, rhymes with “say”, which we transliterate “H” Vav, like “lava”, which we transliterate “V” or “W” He rhymes with “say”, which we transliterate “H”
A wonderful question rises to excite the imagination: what if the name of God is the sound of breathing?
This is a beautiful thought to me, especially considering that for centuries there have been those who have insisted that the name of God is so holy that we dare not speak it because of how unworthy we are. How generous of God to choose to give himself a name that we can’t help but speak every moment we’re alive. All of us, always, everywhere, waking, sleeping, with the name of God on our lips.
In his Nooma video, Breathe, Rob Bell (a pastor whose obvious gifts of curiosity and a knack for asking provocative questions can get him into trouble) wonders what this means in key moments like when a baby is born – newly arrived on planet earth, must they take their first breath, or rather speak the name of God if they are to be alive here? On our deathbed, do we breathe our last breath? Or is it that we cease to be alive when the name of God is no longer on our lips?
The most ironic of his questions is also the most beautiful: he wonders about the moment when an atheist friend looks across the table at you and says, “there. is. no. God”. And of course what you hear is “Yod. He. Vav. He.”
There are few better illustrations of both God’s largesse as well as his humility, his omnipresence as well as his singular intimate presence within each of us.
Breathe in. Breathe out. “He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs… the word that saves is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth…” (Romans 8:28, 10:8 The Message)
[To pre-order A Way To See In The Dark in either the standard or special edition (which features stories like this and 8 additional tracks including an acoustic version of “The Sound Of Our Breathing“, go to jasongraymusic.com. Pre-ordering will give you an instant download of the current single, “Remind Me Who I Am”.]
The Sound Of Our Breathing Jason Gray, Doug McKelvey, Seth Mosely [audio:soundofbreathing.mp3]
Everybody draws their very first breath with Your name upon their lips Every one of us is born of dust but come alive with heaven’s kiss The name of God is the sound of our breathing Hallelujahs rise on the wings of our hearts beating Breathe in, breathe out, speak it aloud Oh oh, oh oh The glory surrounds, this is the sound Oh oh, oh oh Moses bare foot at the burning bush wants to know who spoke to him The answer is unspeakable like the rush of a gentle wind The name of God is the sound of our breathing Hallelujahs rise on the wings of our hearts beating Breathe in, breathe out, speak it aloud Oh oh, oh oh The glory surrounds, this is the sound Oh oh, oh oh In him we live and move and have our being We speak the name as long as we are breathing So breathe in Breathe out… Doubters and deceivers, skeptics and believers we speak it just the same From birth to death, every single breath is whispering Your name