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A breath of air

A breath of air

by Donald Schell

Conquering kings their titles take

From the foes they captive make;

Jesus, by a nobler deed,

From the thousands he hath freed.

Yea, none other Name is giv’n

Unto any under heav’n

Whereby souls in mortal strife

Rise to gain eternal life.

Let us gladly for that Name

Bear the cross, endure the shame,

Suffer with him joyfully,

Death, through him, is victory.

Jesus, who dost condescend

To be called the sinner’s Friend,

Hear us, as to thee pray,

Glorying in thy Name today.

Nevers Breviary 1727, Hymnal Version, 1940

I had been a priest for fifteen months, and was visiting my old friend Joe Doss who’d just recently been made the rector at Grace Church. New Year’s Day 1974. He asked me to preach and preside at a New Year’s Day/Holy Name of Jesus liturgy in the Grace Church’s chapel. I was hurting and confused. My marriage was coming apart and in dark moments I counted myself a failure as a priest and as human being. So I was deeply grateful for my friend’s invitation to preside and preach.

We opened singing this wonderful old hymn with its older tune (Orientis Partibus, c. 1210), a gem that didn’t make it from the 1940 Hymnal to the 1982 Hymnal.

As I’ve often done since, I preached what I needed to hear myself. That day I preached that we were celebrating the name of Jesus, Yeshua, an ordinary enough Jewish name in First Century occupied Israel, but a name that carried an astonishing promise, “God saves.” “Saves from what?” I asked with probably too evident feeling.

-from whatever takes life from us.

-from all that makes us less than God means us to be.

-from our worst fears.

Preaching my own confusion and fear, I offered a list like that.

As I preached, a young woman began sobbing. There were only six or seven or us gathered. Her crying was very public, so she said to everyone, “I’m fine,” she said. “It’s all right. Really all right, just what I needed to hear.” She was smiling and nodding as she continued to cry. “It’s all right,” she said more quietly.

She came up to me right after the liturgy. Her husband had his arm around her. She was still crying a little, but smiling as she cried. “God saves. I know it. Yesterday, I was racing my boat on Lake Pontchartrain. The wind was really strong and the boat was pounding the chop on the lake. I was excited and pushing hard to overtake the lead boat, and then I was in the air as my boat capsized. I hit the water and plunged into the cold. I went completely under and came up with mainsail on top of me. Then I was flailing and couldn’t find the edge of the sail. “It’s over, “ I thought, but I prayed, just “Jesus!” and made one last, desperate reach and found the edge of the sail and pulled myself out from under and gasped the sweetest breath of air I’ve ever tested.” She paused in her telling, out of breath. “It didn’t have to end that way. I know that. But yes, God saves.”

So began my New Year. A moment of grace and touching a stranger’s life with joy and gratitude when I felt little hope and much failure in my own life. I felt a sprout of my own gratitude. She was so right, truer and more graced in her hearing than I’d been in my preaching. God saves. Jesus.

Hear us as to thee we pray,

Glorying in thy Name today.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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Olivia Kuser

Donald,

I sure miss your preaching. Since you often (surprisingly often) preached what I needed to hear, it is interesting to me that sometimes you also preached what you needed to hear yourself.

Olivia

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