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Breath, justice and the name of God


Your breathing reflects the very name of God. Rev. Brian Tillman reminds us that God is present in the very breath we take. And then reminds us that injustice is mistreating all those who speak the name of God. Imagine what happens when people breathe the name of God while standing for justice. For more resources on spiritual practices and standing for justice:

Presenter: Rev. Brian Tillman

Videographer/Editor: Rev. Joseph McBrayer (see more: )

Video transcript

Do this with me. Stop anything else you are doing. Close your eyes. Now, take in a deep breath and let it out. Let’s do it again. Take in a deep breath and let it out..

Now, I want you to keep your eyes closed, and think back to the time when you were first learning how to read. The first thing you probably learned were your ABC’s.

A, B C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z

Remember that? Hopefully, you have positive memories from that time. Perhaps you even remember who taught you. Maybe a parent, another relative, or a teacher.

After learning the alphabet, you probably learned how to write the letters along with learning the sounds those letters make. Shortly after that, you learned which of the letters were consonants and which were vowels. Who could forget that the vowels are A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y? But, do you know the formal definition of a consonant and the formal definition of a vowel? 

What is a vowel?

I remember vividly my days as a college student. One of the classes I had to take was at Spelman college, though I was endrolled at Morehouse. I was excited about this class and it was not because it was at Spelman where all of the students would be females. In fact, the reason was because of the teacher. Her name is Christine King Farris, the esteemed profession of education at Spelman College who also happened to be the older sister of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In order to begin to learn to teach children to read, Dr. Farris taught us some of the intricate details of reading which included clear definitions of what consonants and vowels are. A consonant is a basic speech sound in which the breath is at least partly obstructed

A vowel is very different. A vowel is a basic speech sound which is produced by a comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction, and which is a unit of the sound system that forms the nucleus of a syllable. In short, it’s the letter sounds that are consistent in not obstructing the breath on its way out of the mouth.

Now, in English, I already affirmed that the vowels, the letters that do not obstruct the breath, are A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y. 


That’s English. Now let’s talk about Hebrew. The language was written as all consonants. So, in the oldest manuscripts of the Torah, there are no vowels. After some time, written vowels were added that look like dots and dashes beneath consonants. This was true for every word except for one… That one lone exception was the formal name of God. This created a problem when they wanted to speak the divine name of God which is spelled Yod (י), Hay (ה), Vav (ו), Hay (ה) and is generally pronounced Yah-weh. Yah-weh.  (יהוה) (Also helpful to know that Hebrew reads from right to left instead left to right like English.)

In the English, we would use the letters YHWH. Yod (י) is like a Y in English. Hay (ה) is like an H. Vav (ו) is like a V or W. Yod Hay Vav Hay.

The Hebrews so respected the divine name of God that they did not want to risk the possibility that they misspelled or misspoke it. So, in the Hebrew Bible, no vowels were added to the divine name and when reading the divine name aloud, they don’t attempt to pronounce it. Instead, they substitute the divine name for the word, Adonai (אדוני), which translates to mean, Lord. So anytime they see Yod (י), Hay (ה), Vav (ו), Hay (ה) written in the text, they automatically say Adonai instead. In our English translation of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament, we simply see the word LORD in all caps in places where the divine name, יהוה, is actually present in the Hebrew.

Here is how Ezekiel 37:1-6 reads with the Yod Hay Vav Hay reinserted.: (Saying the letters not pronouncing the name)

1 The hand of יהוה came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of יהוה and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord יהוה, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of יהוה. 5 Thus says the Lord יהוה to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am יהוה. 

Saying the name of God

In the scripture, we find the prophet Ezekiel in a valley of dried up bones that signifies the hopelessness of the people. The bodies had decomposed until the only thing left were the bones and it seemed that there was no hope for resurrection or life.

The time in which this was written was a time of great trouble for the Jewish people. They had been conquered by Babylon during which time many were killed. Those who weren’t killed and had skills the Babylonians wanted and needed were taken to Babylon in exile. Those who stayed in Jerusalem witnessed terror they thought they’d never see. They witnessed the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

One of the results of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is that the people would not be able to worship as they had before. All they had known was gone or had been changed.

Aren’t we in such a time? None of us could have predicted that we would be unable to gather in worship together. Or gather at tables and share meals together. Or celebrate special occasions together. I don’t know about you, but I long to return to that former time. I miss worshipping with the congregation, and shared meals, and parties. Not being able to be there creates a tiny bit of a similarity to what the Jewish People experienced in the time that God spoke to Ezekiel.

He and the people must have been discouraged. They must have been concerned about their future and the future of the generations that would follow. And this is why God brought Ezekiel to this valley: because God wanted to show Ezekiel that although things look bad, feel bad, and indeed are bad, things are not such that God can’t heal, deliver, or restore.

So, God went to Ezekiel to show him just how special is the name of יהוה.

God, יהוה, sends breath into the bones and causes them to live.

Nothing lives without the ability to breathe.

What’s interesting is that when you look at those 4 Hebrew letters, יהוה, although they are consonants, they function as vowels when pronounced.

In a study by Rob Bell called Nooma, he shares that the ancient rabbis believed that the very name of God was like that of vowels put together. Vowels don’t make multisyllable words or names. But the sound of God’s name could only be described as the sound of breathing… יהוה.

Yah -Weh

Yah -Weh

Yah -Weh

So, to breathe is to say the very name of God!


You’ve heard that God is with you. God is with you and God is with me. But, in a real sense, it’s even better than that!

God, יהוה, is IN us. It is יהוה that we breathe into our lungs that brings life to our bodies, sends oxygen into our hearts and then transports it through the arteries to the rest of our bodies. I hope you are getting this.

Our body’s don’t just run on their own. But, it’s the very name of God going into our body’s that causes us to live.


YHVH is in us

Think about this… The first thing any living person does when they are born is to breathe…

or do we have to say the name of God? יהוה

Do we die when we can no longer breathe?…

or when we can no longer say the name of God? יהוה

Imagine someone who find oneself in a place where they are questioning the existence of God and they may say with their words, “There is no God.” But, every breath they take, they are saying יהוה.

Imagine someone who feels that God has left them all alone to face a tough challenge and trial but in reality, God is right there flowing through them depositing life into them and has never ever left them because they are still saying יהוה.

Imagine a person who is grieving. They say all the right things when friends call to check-in but they hide that they feel empty inside because of the grief and they want God to show up to bring them comfort. But all the while God has been there as they breath יהוה.

Imagine someone experiencing a traumatic and crippling event to the point that their voice fails them and they can’t scream “stop!” or cry out for help, but they breathe יהוה.

I hope you find it to be good news that God is in the very breaths we take and that those breaths we breathe come with power.

Take a moment to YHVH

So, why does it matter that we breathe in and out יהוה?

It matters because it’s not accidental. It matters because having the breath from God in you. And to know it, makes a difference in how we live, and why we live. It makes a difference in how we treat our sisters and brothers. You ought not to mistreat someone as they speak the name of God. You should not stand idle as someone else works to mistreat someone speaking the name of God.

This is why we cannot rest until we right what is wrong in this world and until we right what is wrong in this nation. There is a reason God is in us. God is in us so that we never feel that God has abandoned us or that God is incapable of restoring us. Even if you have to walk alone, live alone, and quarantine alone, the very real spirit of יהוה is not only with you, but יהוה is in you every time you breathe.

There is power in your breath even if you are by yourself. But imagine what happens when people work together breathing the name of God while standing for justice and righteousness.

Imagine the power of people marching together, standing in line together, and casting ballots together while being keenly aware that יהוה is with them. The same יהוה that was with Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones and then was inside of the bones that caused them to have flesh, skin, and breath is the same יהוה  that is with you and in you right now.

The same יהוה that was in Mary as she bore the savior inside of her is the same יהוה that is in you right now.

The same יהוה that was in our grandmothers who cleaned homes for white families, cooked their meals, made their clothes, and endured their bigotry so that your parents, you, and I could have a chance for something better,,, that same יהוה that was in them, is in you and me.

The same יהוה that was in the breath of our ancestors who endured unimaginable pain, suffering, dehumanization, and someone worse than Trump at every plantation, is the same יהוה in us right now.

So, don’t you start thinking this is the end. Don’t you start thinking you can’t go on. Don’t you start thinking we will never make it out of this. Don’t you start thinking that God has forsaken us. Don’t you start thinking there is nothing you can do.

Even if our people are counted as unworthy of justice by this nation.

Even when white vigilante’s walk around with AR15’s to terrorize peaceful protesters.

Even when black women and men are slaughtered by so-called law enforcement officers when they’ve committed no crime.

Even when grand juries grant civil rights to walls while failing to acknowledge civil rights for a black woman who’s only apparent crime was the crime this country has codified in its legal code as being black in America.

Even when this nation’s political system has fallen to depths we have not seen since before the civil war.

Even when your loved one becomes deathly ill and dies…

Even as all of these things seek to take our breath away…

If we just take a moment.

If we just remember that when we breathe, we aren’t just taking in oxygen. Oxygen can’t do what we need. When we breathe, what we are doing is calling out God’s name and God is doing something to us, in us, for us, and through us. And if we allow, God will be doing something with us!

This is why Psalm 150 says,

Let Everything that has breath praise יהוה

This is why no weapon formed against us shall prosper

This is why we just can’t give up now!

This is why after we’ve done all we can, we can stand!

This is why we can lift every voice and sing!

This is why we don’t have to wait for the battle to be over!

Because if God is for us, who cares about who is against us!

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