You are with me

Scripture: Psalm 23- v. 4

When I walk through the valley of the dark, I will fear no evil for you are with me. 

             When we were reviewing the evaluations from our church’s Lenten mental health series last week, a question has stayed with me.  “What do you do with the dark?”  I gave a sigh as I read it, feeling a little overwhelmed.   What do you do with that question?  There could be whole counseling programs or seminary classes devoted to exploring the implications of that question.  What do you do with devastating mental illness, or suffering, or trauma from childhood, or hurt, or death?  We tried to touch on some of the dark in the recent series, but we all agreed, that without the person’s name for follow-up, we couldn’t handle or address all of that question. We turned the evaluation face down and moved on.

Psalm 23 and the Dark

            Yet, the psalmist of the song denoted number 23 doesn’t hesitate to deal with the dark.  The psalmist writes “when I walk through the darkest valley.” We’re used to the King James Version that translates it as the “valley of the shadow of death.” The word in Hebrew actually is “dark”—as in all the dark shadows cast when you are in a valley. Of course, the valley is also a metaphor for life—to be in the darkness of things like depression, or illness, or grief. . . or _______(fill in the blank).  The psalmist connects right to a person’s depth of struggle, to the experience of darkness in life.

John of the Cross and The Dark     

Throughout our Christian tradition there are people who have been unafraid to address the reality of darkness in life.  One was named John of the Cross.  He lived in 16thcentury Spain and grew up poor; his gentleness, patience and caregiving spirit led him to work as a nurse as a teenager in a nearby hospital; the hospital administrator encouraged him to enter the priesthood and serve as a chaplain to the hospital; he chose to become a monk of the Carmelite order and devoted himself to study and contemplative prayer. He became close friends with the mystic Teresa of Avila, working as a spiritual director with her nuns, teaching poor children, and initiating reforms in religious life.  For this, and the threat it posed to the powers that be in the Catholic church, John was abducted, imprisoned, and tortured.  For nine months he lived in darkness, in a tiny room six feet wide by ten feet long, with little to eat and not even a change in clothing. He escaped by tying bedsheets together and lowering himself out of the window. He knew suffering.  John of the Cross knew darkness.

Out of poetry he was able to write while in prison, John of the Cross composed the prose treatises Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul.  The mystical theology displayed in these works details a person’s journey to God—a journey which necessarily included suffering.  John thought that darkness was a necessary part of our spiritual (and otherwise) life.  The dark valley is a given.  For John of the Cross, the dark night is when a soul feels God’s absence.  It is a time of purgification of our attachments, of life as we know it.[1]Sight is lost, God feels gone.

Psalm 23 and You are with me

            What John of the Cross, and the psalmist affirm, is that even in the deepest, darkest valley, we are not alone. After describing the darkest valley the psalmist moves onto affirm, “I fear no danger because you are with me.” You are with me.

The phrase, this “You” to refer to God, comes smack dab in the middle of the 26-word psalm. It comes in verse four, and is bookended by the use of Yahweh in verse one, and Yahweh in verse six, translated in English as Lord.  Significantly, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out, this is the only strong independent pronoun referring to God in the psalms and it may be the reason psalm 23 is so popular—because the second person pronoun feels more personal.  “You are with me.”[2]It is the central word, the most significant statement on one of the most beloved psalms.

An argument could be made that this is a significant statement of the Old Testament.A form of “I am with you” appears in Genesis 15:1, 26:24, Deut. 20:1, 31:8, Isaiah 41:10, 13, 43:5.[3]Isaiah 41 even speaks in the voice of God with the first-person pronoun, “I am with you.” Scholars understand the phrase as a word of salvation, directed to someone in lament.

The power of presence

And yet, this word of comfort doesn’t mean that there aren’t dark valleys.  It doesn’t eliminate the darkness. Rather, it affirms that God’s companionship can transform every situation.  Even in the depth of darkness, God can bring light of presence.

God offers comfort and solidarity in the face of threat.  The relationship with God is capable of ending forlornness. The author of Psalm 23 knows that darkness and hardship is present in the world, but it is not to be feared. The assurance of God’s presence with us offers solidarity and hope.[4]God is with us even when we don’t feel God.

John of the Cross penned poetically, “O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united The lover with his beloved.” The dark night moves the soul in its journey to deeper life with God.  John writes, “although this night darkens the spirit, it does so to give light.”[5]God is always with us, bringing light and love out of the darkness. You are with me.

[1]John of the Cross, The Ascent to Mount Carmel,,in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.:  Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1964), 65.

[2]Walter Bruegemann, The Message of the Psalms, 155.

[3]James May, “Psalms” Interpreters Bible Commentary.

[4]Brueggmann, 156.

[5]John of the Cross, 204.

Yoga

To ground into the sense of God’s presence with us in the valleys, I offer for the class an “earth salutation” (instead of a sun salutation) that incorporates malasana, depicted above.  In rooting down to earth (or the “valley”) we open our hearts (and our hips!) to the presence of God.

Stand at the top of the mat with a wide stance (almost as wide as the mat). From tadasana (standing mountain) inhale the arms up to the sky, exhale and fold into uttanasana (forward fold). Turn the heels in, toes pointing out, bend the knees, and sink the hips down toward the ground.  Wedge the forearms on the inside of the thighs below the knee.  Place the palms together. Roll the shoulder blades on the back.  Lift the head and heart.  Open to the God who is with you.

 

 

Practicing good table manners

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26

“The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Learning Table Manners

         I continue to work with my son on his table manners. He is learning, on his better days, how to set the table—how to prepare the table for the meal.  He has several blessings in his repertoire and is saying his own unique blessings, too. He knows that we say the blessing before we begin eating (on his better days).  Of course, his favorite stand-by is “God is great and God is good.  Let us thank God for our food.  By God’s hands, we are fed. Thank you Lord, for our daily bread.” Good table manners bring us together to offer thanks.

Good table manners also include conversation; my son knows that time at table means we share our days and our lives with each other.  Good table manners mean we respect and listen to each other.  We say “please” and “thank-you.” We don’t leave from each other until we’ve asked to be excused. Practicing good table manners means we eat in a way that honors and respects each other and the food before us.

 Corinthian Table Manners

         The church community in Corinth struggled with their table manners.  This congregation was composed of people from a wide spectrum of social and economic classes, from prosperous elite persons down to slaves.[1]  This diversity caused difficulty in their eating together as a church.  The wealthy wanted to retain their status and superiority when at the Lord’s Table. The poor were left out.

Their church gathered in a private home of a wealthy person, and those who had means were feasting on food and wine, while others in the community went hungry.  This practice of division is described in vv. 20-22-right before our text for today.  In their Greco culture, excluding the poor made perfect sense to the wealthy—in fact, they probably didn’t even think twice about what they were doing.  The nine or ten wealthy would recline at the table, while the poor of the community stood in the atrium.[2]  The wealthy would enjoy the best food and drink, without sharing it with the poorer members of the community.

The apostle Paul is trying to teach them in our letter today that the prosperous members’ practices comprise poor table manners—not acceptable for those who propose to be one family in Christ Jesus.  This egregious shaming of the poor is much worse than not saying ‘please’ or ‘thank-you’.  The wealthy of the Corinthian church are completely disrespecting their family in Christ.  Paul will not stand for such atrocious table manners.[3]

In response he reminds them about Jesus’ last meal in our text.  The Corinthian church is to take the bread, bless it, break it, and share it in the way that Christ taught.  By practicing the table manners of Jesus, the community will remember who and whose they are.  The apostle Paul highlights twice that they are to do this “in remembrance of me.” By all sharing in the meal, they point to the Christ whom they follow and remember his acts of salvation. By all eating the same bread and sharing in the same cup, they uphold good table manners—manners that reflect the love and justice of the kingdom of God. By all eating the same bread and sharing the in the same cup, they are literally “re-membered” from separate people into the one body of Christ.

Methodist Table Manners

         John and Charles Wesley practiced good table manners among the early people who were called Methodists.  They would often eat at table in the large residence they helped to create that provided housing for widows (often who were single moms) and their children.  John Wesley rejoiced in the communion they shared there. Charles Wesley’s hymn “Come, Sinners to the Gospel Feast,” expresses these good table manners.  Wesley writes, “Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.  Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.”  What a wonderful statement of Pauline theology to the Corinthians—all are welcome at the feast, rich and poor, prosperous and not.  Good table manners for the early Methodists meant that all were included and welcome at the sacrament.

John Wesley, in keeping with Paul and with Anglican theology, thought that the sacrament helped us to remember and to actually represent the sacrifice of Christ for us.  Wesley affirms that the bread and wine hold the real presence of Christ  (though it is not transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ, as in the Catholic view).  John Wesley teaches in his sermon on the “Duty of Constant Communion” that believers should partake of the sacrament of communion as often as they can, for it “pardons our sins and strengthens and refreshes our souls.”  Jesus commands us to do this “in remembrance of him” and the Lord’s supper offers us infinite mercy.[4]

Our Table Manners

          For this mercy we can only practice good manners, and say “thank you.” In our own practice of table we are called to welcome all to the table, rich and poor, sinner and saint.  In a culture of sharp socio-economic divides, where common tables are few, we proclaim that all are welcome here.  Good table manners mean that no one is left behind, no one is left out in the atrium, all have a place around the table.

Even more, we come to the table with folks in our own community with whom we may not always enjoy rubbing elbows.  The mercy at the table is for all of us to feast upon, that we might try the hard work of being one body in Christ.  In remembrance of Christ’s actions of love for us, we try to love those in our own church community whom we would rather exclude. Practicing good table manners means we eat in a way that honors and respects each other and the food before us.  We don’t take leave from each other, to be excused from the work of being Christ’s body. We allow Christ to “re-member us” into Christ’s own body. We offer thanks. “By God’s hands, we are fed. Thank you Lord, for our daily bread.”  

[1] Richard Hays, 1st Corinthians in Interpreter Bible Commentaries, 7.

[2] Murphy-O’Conner, St. Paul’s Corinth, 153-61.

[3] Hays, 197.

[4] John Wesley, John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, 505.

Yoga

In our practice we will engage in partner yoga.  Partner yoga utilizes the strength of community to enhance each person’s practice.  We will pair up in twos to do some poses and offer support.  We will also practice as a community vrksasana, or tree pose, in a circle, utilizing each other for balance and finding that we grow more stable when we stand together.

In this Maundy Thursday yoga practice, we will end in a circle with a celebration of Holy Communion.

From judgement toward mercy

Scripture: Ephesians 2: 3-7

“All of us once lived in the passions of our flesh and senses and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

As the scripture indicates, all of us have places of brokenness within us.  The text names us as “children of wrath.” Another way of saying this is that we all have parts of us that need healing. We have voices of judgement and critique within us  that are often based in early experiences of shame or hurt.

Over those hurting parts, broken places, and harsh, judging inner voices God offers to us rich mercy.  The Spirit sees through to all our judging parts and embraces them with love.  God offers to us grace and mercy in abundance without us having to do a thing.  Such an amazing grace is called prevenient grace.  It names the grace that God offers before we do anything; God takes the first step toward us to be in relationship.

John Wesley, the founder of the people called Methodists, resonated with this kind of grace.  Wesley had a very harsh inner critic, a judging self-voice.  It drove him to be incredibly productive and a hard worker, but kept him from softening to a sense of God’s assurance in his life. Prevenient grace became central in his understanding of our way of life with God.  He wrote a sermon on Ephesians 2:5 (by grace you have been saved_ called “Means of Grace.” In that sermon he writes,:

So little do they understand that great foundation of the whole Christian building, ‘by                 grace ye are saved.’ Ye are saved from your sins, from the guilt and power thereof, ye are restored to the value and image of God, not for any works, merits, or deservings of yours, but by the free grace, the mere mercy of God through the merits of his well-beloved Son.  Ye are thus saved, not by any power, wisdom, or strength which is in you or in any other creature, but merely through the grace or power of the Holy Ghost, which worth all in all. (Wesley, Sermons, 161.)

Wesley offers here a beautiful movement from judgement to mercy–from guilt and brokenness to the restoration of the image of God through grace.  What a huge gift.  Our challenge is to open to the grace that is already there and waiting for us–taking the first step toward us.

Julian of Norwich, a wise Christian mystic from the fourteenth century, wrote in her work Revelations of Divine Love on God’s mercy and grace to us in our brokenness, our failings.  She notes that when we fall, God is always with us, encouraging us in grace.

“God allows us to fall, and in his blessed love we are preserved by his strength and wisdom; and through mercy and grace we are raised to a greater abundance of joys. And thus God wants to be known and loved now and forever in his righteousness and in his mercy.  And the soul that truly sees this through grace takes pleasure in both and rejoices without end.” (Julian of Norwich, Selections from Revelations of Divine Love, annotation by Mary C. Earle, Skylight Illuminations, 33.)

Julian understands that we will fall in life, that suffering and brokenness will happen. Like any wise parent, God gives us the freedom to fall and fail, to grow from the failure, to try again.  God is always there to catch us up in grace and mercy, so that we might more fully know God’s love in our human experience.

Yoga

We will practice difficult balance poses, that will cause us to wobble, and maybe even fall.  These poses offer us the chance to explore how our inner judgement voice rises up in times of challenge and failure.  The balance poses invite us on a journey from judgement to grace, to fall, as Julian of Norwich says, and through mercy and grace be raised to greater joy.  As we fall and wobble, we come back down to the ground and open to grace.  So, after a beginning class focused on balancing postures, we’ll end the practice in restorative poses that invite us to rest in God’s prevenient grace and mercy.

We will do the standing balance pose featured in the picture for this post.  Balance poses are really difficult for me with my neurological condition.  I always wobble and often fall out.  I usually need the assistance of a wall, or here, a tree, to help me with balance.  I sometimes hear an inner critic of my body and its physical limitations and challenges rise up in me as I do balance poses.  Julian of Norwich teaches that it is indeed the fallings and failings (for me in balance poses) that God catches in grace and raises us to joy.  I love that in the picture here, I’m smiling big even as I wobble!

Extended Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose: Step-by-Step Instructions

(from https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/extended-hand-to-big-toe-pose, accessed March 9, 2018)

Step 1

From Tadasana, bring your left knee toward your belly.

Step 2

Reach your left arm inside the thigh, cross it over the front ankle, and hold the outside of your left foot. If your hamstrings are tight, hold a strap looped around the left sole.

Step 3

Firm the front thigh muscles of the standing leg, and press the outer thigh inward.

Step 4

Inhale and extend the left leg forward. Straighten the knee as much as possible. If you’re steady, swing the leg out to the side. Breathe steadily; breathing takes concentration, but it helps you balance.

Step 5

Hold for 30 seconds, then swing the leg back to center with an inhale, and lower the foot to the floor with an exhale. Repeat on the other side for the same length of time.

 

 

 

 

 

From Foolishness to Wisdom

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25

(this Lent my church is doing a focus on mental health: this is the scripture and theme for this Sunday)

Paul writes in this scripture with antitheses–posing opposites to one another in the style of Greek rhetoric.  Antitheses elaborate the alternatives: the world’s wisdom versus God’s wisdom; stumbling block (scandal) and folly versus God’s power. Satirically, God at the most “foolish” and weakest, as seen in the crucified Jesus, trumps the greatest human wisdom and strength.

Paul is not against wisdom, but is against the practice of claiming status over someone else who is also called and being saved. Some in Corinthian community were wealthy, powerful, of noble birth and thus “wise” by human standards.  Most were not.  Paul is speaking into tensions in the community and pointing them to Christ. As the great teacher for the early Christian community, Paul points out the human tendency to try to elevate oneself over others for the sake of one’s own sense of self-esteem or importance.  Paul is naming human status-seeking as foolish, and the incarnate One who became crucified on a lowly cross as wise.

Paul’s words continue to speak into our own human ways of dividing our humanity, of seeking status instead of the wisdom of the cross.  In what, perhaps subtle ways, might you seek to feel better about yourself because of your job, your socioeconomic level, your race/ethnicity?  How might God be calling you away from the “foolishness” of the wisdom of the world (with its focus on status) and toward the wisdom of the cross–in which our value and worth comes from Christ?

Yoga

We will practice some “foolish” poses–poses that look funny or invite a playful spirit like happy baby and falling tree.  Then we will move into some yin poses so that our bodies can open up to their wisdom—and by so doing tune us into God’s wisdom.

Yin yoga usually consists of a series of long-held floor poses that work the lower part of the body–hips, pelvis, legs, and lower spine.  The poses are held for up to five minutes, which allows for an enriching stretch to the connective tissues.  Yin has lots of great benefits:

  • Calms and balances the mind and body.
  • Reduces stress and anxiety.
  • Increases circulation.
  • Improves flexibility.
  • Releases fascia and improves joint mobility.
  • Balances the internal organs and improves the flow of energy (from https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/the-benefits-of-yin-yoga)
 We hold yin poses in this class in lunge, ardha hanuman, upavista konasana, supported bridge, and paschimottansana.  By tuning into breath and staying present, we might just here God’s wisdom to us.
Paschimottanasana
Take a seat on your mat, preferably on a folded blanket.  Extend your legs out in front of you with the thigh bones hugging together.  To be supported in this yin pose, place a block or blanket on your shins to provide a place for your forehead or shin to rest.  Fold forward from the hips.  Settle into your breath and remain for at least 2 minutes.  Unfold with an inhale, rising up into a deep sense of God’s wisdom.

 

From Despair to Hope

Scripture: Romans 4: 13-25

(My church is doing a mental health focus throughout the season of Lent.  This was our scripture for Sunday, and the focus was on moving from despair to hope)

Romans 4: 18 “Hoping against hope, he had faith in the hope that he would become the father of many nations, in keeping with the promise God spoke to him”

This scripture tells the story of Abraham, and describes his ability to hope in God’s promises, even when all seemed impossible.  God had promised Abraham descendants.  Now 100 years old, Abraham knows his body, and his post-menopausal wife’s Sarah’s body, are beyond the conception of life. Yet, he didn’t despair.  He didn’t hesitate with lack of faith.  He remained fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. Abraham trusted that somehow, someway, God would fulfill God’s promise. He hoped against hope.

As the story goes, God did keep the promise; Sarah gave birth to a son and named him Isaac. Hope took on arms and legs and a face and a name. God was faithful.

This is a great story of hope.  What about those who struggle with infertility, though, and an “Issac” never comes?  Are they not hoping enough?  Are they not as faithful as Abraham?  What about those who suffer under devastating diseases for which there is no cure?  Are they not hoping against hope enough?

Perhaps such ponderings require a shift in the understanding of hope.  Hope isn’t getting what we earnestly desire and long for.  Hope is really trusting in God.  Hope is the expectation that God will fulfill promises, even if we don’t see it in our lifetimes. Hope is expectation that God will be with us.  Hope is faith in the midst of the unknown.  Hope takes legs and arms and work and heart. Hope often looks like someone coming alongside of us in our pain, and helping us to keep going.

John Wesley, the founder of the people called Methodists, believed in the power of hope. He thought that hope could strengthen mind and body against even most inveterate condition, whether physical, psychological or spiritual. Wesley sought to offer hope in his book Primitive Physic for those suffering from chronic, intractable disease by offering home remedies for those without access to healthcare. He thought that hope offered a powerful aid to physical recovery and encouraged that all should engage in prayer for spiritual and emotional nourishment. In that spirit, he wrote a letter encouraging a friend to hope:

“Expect that God will do nothing but good both to your soul and body. Look up!  Is health not at hand, both for soul and body? You have no business with fear.  It is good for nothing.  We are ‘saved by hope.’  You have every good reason to bless God for the continuance of your health, and expect from him every good thing.”  Letter to Alexander Knox(1775)

Wesley came alongside a friend who was struggling to hope against hope, and exhorted him to hope again.  Sometimes, God uses us as merchants of hope to someone desperately in need of such a good.  We offer our arms and legs and arms and work and heart. . . and someone else feels encouraged that they can keep hoping on, even when all seems impossible.

Perhaps God is urging you to be a merchant of hope to someone today who is in despair and in desperate need. Perhaps God is sending a messenger to you to bring hope when you can’t find it yourself.  Keep on hoping against hope.

( my thanks to my colleagues Bill Roth and Ray McKinnon for their sermons yesterday on this passage)

Yoga

In the yoga class for this scripture, we did lots of backbends and inversions to stimulate hope in our bodies.  We worked through a practice of handstand.  Handstand always calls forth a gritty hope for me.  Due to my own inveterate health condition, I’m not able to kick my legs into handstand on my own.  I need an assist from another person, or in the case of the picture for this blogpost, a tree. Handstand embodies hope to me, not only because it naturally invigorates and refreshes, but because it means I must seek support outside of myself.  This is the invitation of hope–it seeks community for support.

(pose directions taken from Yoga Journal, https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/handstand)

Handstand: Step-by-Step Instructions

Step 1

Perform Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) with your fingertips an inch or two away from a wall, hands shoulder-width. If your shoulders are tight, turn your index fingers out slightly; otherwise arrange them parallel to each other. If you’re uneasy about this pose, you’re not alone. To ready yourself for and secure yourself in this inversion, firm your shoulder blades against your back torso and pull them toward your tailbone. Then rotate your upper arms outward, to keep the shoulder blades broad, and hug your outer arms inward. Finally spread your palms and press the bases of the index fingers firmly against the floor.

Step 2

Now bend one knee and step the foot in, closer to the wall (we’ll say it’s the left leg), but keep the other (i.e. right) leg active by extending through the heel. Then take a few practice hops before you try to launch yourself upside down. Sweep your right leg through a wide arc toward the wall and kick your left foot off the floor, immediately pushing through the heel to straighten the left knee. As both legs come off the ground, engage your deep core abdominal muscles to help lift your hips over your shoulders. Hop up and down like this several times, each time pushing off the floor a little higher. Exhale deeply each time you hop.

Step 3

Hopping up and down like this may be all you can manage for now. Regularly practice strengthening poses, like Adho Mukha Svanasana and Plank Pose. Eventually you’ll be able to kick all the way into the pose. At first your heels may crash into the wall, but again with more practice you’ll be able to swing your heels up lightly to the wall.

Called to Joy

Scripture: Mark 1: 16-20

What is your calling? Many of us might respond to this question with what we are dong vocationally, or what we dream of doing as a job someday.  We often associate “calling” with our life’s work.

Jesus uses it a different way in our story today.  In verse 20 Jesus calls brothers James and John to him. The Greek word attributed to Jesus is kalew.  It means to call or summon in the literal sense, as in, “Son, come here. You’ve got to get your homework done”—that kind of call.  Kalew also retains a deeper meaning though, in Greek.  It can mean the giving of an attribution to someone, also translated to mean “giving a name.”  What Jesus did to those fishermen by calling them to follow him was to give them a new name—disciple.  This calling, this naming, changed the trajectory of the rest of their lives.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John stepped into a new life story when they decided to follow Jesus.  Jesus named them, and they couldn’t resist the loving power behind such an adoption.  Fishing nets drop from their fingers.  They step out of the boat, mud gushes between their toes, and they turn to follow the one who named them.

How then, do we follow Christ?  How do we follow in the footsteps of the disciples—who had as much or more than we have to lose by dropping their nets–and live into the name of “disciple?” Our own nets of obligations, commitments, and just plain stuff entangle us; we drag our feet in following because we think we might need some of that old baggage on our new journey with Jesus.[1]  How do we live into his call, his naming of us?

The founder of Methodism and one of my own spiritual fathers, John Wesley, teaches that the call to follow Jesus can happen in a moment on a lakeshore, but more likely is to be the work of a lifetime.  A distinctive mark of the Wesleyan heritage is the understanding of life as a spiritual pilgrimage deep into the heart of God.[2]  For Wesley, the life of faith consisted both of significant “lakeshore moments” in which we offer our lives to Christ—moments of justification—AND daily ongoing times of commitment—moments of sanctification.  Wesley understood his following of Christ best as a journey of a lifetime that he committed to walk daily.  Wesley wrote in one of his letters on the kalew, the calling of Christ on our lives.  He stated “the hope of our calling [is] to know that our hope is sincerity, not perfection; not to do well, but to do our best.”[3  As Wesley understood calling, the attempt to “drop the nets” and live into the name of “disciple” is  both lifelong, and a daily commitment to do our best—such a following of the call ultimately brings great gladness.

The well-known pastor and episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Tayor, writes of a time in her life when she was struggling mightily with how Christ might be calling her.  She simply didn’t know what she was to do and be.  So one midnight, in great frustration and exasperation she fell to her knees in prayer and said, “Okay, God.  You need to level with me.  What do you want me to be?  What do you want me to do?  What are you calling me to do.”  She says that she felt a powerful sense of God saying “Do what pleases you.  Belong to me, but do what pleases you.”  She says it struck her as very strange that God’s call could actually touch a place of greatest joy within her, that she could be called to do the thing that pleases her the most.  Following God’s call means doing that which brings us the greatest gladness.  Joy is the biggest measure of how we discern our calling, of how we are to use our gifts.[4]  As Wesley understood it, our calling is the journey of our lifetime, made up of daily commitments to do our best with joy.

Another Christian writer, Frederick Buechner says, “Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s hunger meet.”  Think about that.  “Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s hunger meet.”  Jesus’s call to you on the lakeshore is ultimately about bringing you into joy as you serve this church, this community, this world.  Perhaps deep gladness is what made Peter, Andrew, James, and John drop their nets.  Perhaps deep gladness is what could make you drop nets, too.  Pull your feet out of that mud.  Step into Jesus naming you as a disciple.  Christ is calling you into joy.

[1] Cynthia D. Weems, “Reflections on the Lectionary”  Christian Century January 11, 2011, 21.

[2] Richard Heizenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995), 321.

[3] John Wesley, Letters, 25: 318.

[4] Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, “ Where You Never Expected to Be”  30 minutes.org aired on Oct. 22, 2006.  Accessed on January 17, 2012.

Yoga

Backbends bring a sense of joy.  Ustrasana, or camel pose, is a backbend with varying degrees of challenge, so even newcomers to yoga can explore some form of it. The description below is from yogajournal.com, accessed January 14, 2018.

Ustrasana

Step 1

Kneel on the floor with your knees hip width and thighs perpendicular to the floor. Rotate your thighs inward slightly, narrow your hip points, and firm but don’t harden your buttocks. Imagine that you’re drawing your sitting bones up, into your torso. Keep your outer hips as soft as possible. Press your shins and the tops of your feet firmly into floor.

Step 2

Rest your hands on the back of your pelvis, bases of the palms on the tops of the buttocks, fingers pointing down. Use your hands to spread the back pelvis and lengthen it down through your tail bone. Then lightly firm the tail forward, toward the pubis. Make sure though that your front groins don’t “puff” forward. To prevent this, press your front thighs back, countering the forward action of your tail. Inhale and lift your heart by pressing the shoulder blades against your back ribs.

Step 3

Now lean back against the firmness of the tail bone and shoulder blades. For the time being keep your head up, chin near the sternum, and your hands on the pelvis. Beginners probably won’t be able to drop straight back into this pose, touching the hands to the feet simultaneously while keeping the thighs perpendicular to the floor. If you need to, tilt the thighs back a little from the perpendicular and minimally twist to one side to get one hand on the same-side foot. Then press your thighs back to perpendicular, turn your torso back to neutral, and touch the second hand to its foot. If you’re not able to touch your feet without compressing your lower back, turn your toes under and elevate your heels.

See that your lower front ribs aren’t protruding sharply toward the ceiling, which hardens the belly and compresses the lower back. Release the front ribs and lift the front of the pelvis up, toward the ribs. Then lift the lower back ribs away from the pelvis to keep the lower spine as long as possible. Press your palms firmly against your soles (or heels), with the bases of the palms on the heels and the fingers pointing toward the toes. Turn your arms outwardly so the elbow creases face forward, without squeezing the shoulder blades together. You can keep your neck in a relatively neutral position, neither flexed nor extended, or drop your head back. But be careful not to strain your neck and harden your throat.

Step 5

Stay in this pose anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute. To exit, bring your hands onto the front of your pelvis, at the hip points. Inhale and lift the head and torso up by pushing the hip points down, toward the floor. If your head is back, lead with your heart to come up, not by jutting the chin toward the ceiling and leading with your brain. Rest in Child’s Pose for a few breaths.

 

 

 

I am wonderfully made

Scripture: Psalm 139

“Yes, you shaped me first inside, then out, you formed me in my mother’s womb. I thank you. High God—you’re breathtaking. Body and soul, I am wonderfully made! I worship in adoration—what a creation! You know me inside and out. You know every bone in my body; you know exactly how I was made, bit by bit. How I was sculpted from nothing into something.” — (translation from The Message, Eugene Peterson)

Psalm 139’s insight that “I am wonderfully made” is somewhat difficult to imbibe.  We dwell in a culture suffused with advertising that profits by instilling within us insecurity about our bodies. People are categorized simply by body characteristics (racism) or by gender (sexism). To add to this, Christianity offers deep ambivalence on the body, with some key doctrines affirming that we are indeed wonderfully made, while the Church’s practices and history reveal otherwise.  For example, Greek philosopher Plato’s dualistic affirmation of the soul as preferable to the body profoundly influenced early Christian theologians, yet they still affirmed that God created the body good and in the image of God (doctrines of creation and “imago dei”).  The church canonized the stories of God (Jesus) becoming incarnate in the body of Mary (doctrine of incarnation), yet engaged in practices that oppressed women. Theologians affirmed the body as the site of redemption (doctrine of the resurrection), yet Jerome, an early church father, wrote that the body was “a perilous mudslick” and Augustine, the great  fourth century bishop and theologian, wrestled with the body as a source of temptation and lust.  With such an inheritance on the theology of the body in the midst of a culture that constantly denigrates bodies (especially people of color and women’s bodies), understanding ourselves, body and soul, as wonderfully made, requires some significant hope.

Thank goodness God is a God who deals lavishly in hope with and for our bodies. Genesis 1 describes our bodies as good (tov- in Hebrew).  In Genesis, our bodies, not just our spirits or souls, are made in the image of God. The Christian doctrine of the imago dei teaches us we are a reflection of God’s very self in many different ways, including in our bodies. Understanding this simple truth that even our bodies are made in the image of God can undo the damage of advertisers, of our dualistic culture, of our heritage imbed with Platonism and Gnosticism. Our bodies aren’t containers for the soul, they aren’t just dust; our bodies are imbued with divine fingerprint, in all their beauty and fragility and vulnerability.

Seeing hope in the fragility of our bodies is a challenging task.  My own body holds within it a chronic, rare, neurological disease called neuromyelitis optica. The disability and destruction this awful disease (with an equally terrible name) brings is in no way a “good.” It is not a good God’s desire for me to walk with a limp, or for someone to suffer with cancer.  Yet, for example, the practice and teaching of yoga that came out of my suffering is a “good”. The commitment to greater love and service that can come out of the body’s fragility is, in fact, how we more closely resemble the body of Christ.

Truthfully, the Church is socially constituted of all of our many bodies into one corporate body of faith.  Our individual bodies are formed by, shaped by, and interdependent with other bodies in the community of Christ.  Being with others in the community comprises part of our Christian hope. We are in this body together—young, old, black, white, male, female, able-bodied, disabled.  As a body of faith, we are comprised of all different shapes, sizes, sorts, and we come together as a body to eat and by nourished by the Body of Christ that is broken and poured out for us.  Our body image, to borrow from French philosopher Michel Foucault, is always communal.

Therefore, we are called to see our own individual body and the body of everyone else as sacred and sculpted by God. Karl Barth, in his Church Dogmatics, states, “everyone should treat his existence and that of every other human being with respect. For it belongs to God. It is His loan and blessing. And it may be seen to be this in the fact that God has so unequivocally and completely acknowledged it in Jesus Christ.”  I am wonderfully made.  You are wonderfully made.  We are wonderfully made–together.  This is ground for significant hope.

Yoga

We will begin with a meditation focused on being wonderfully made.

  1. Begin by focusing on the breath and the rhythm of your inhale and exhale, filling and emptying
  2. Deepen your inhale to at least the count of four, and then as you exhale, land in your body. Begin to notice what might be sore, or tight, or in pain.
  3. As you inhale, breathe in the words “I am wonderfully made.” On the exhale, send the breath to the place of tightness, soreness, or pain.
  4. Continue this breath for several minutes, allowing the breath to open a pathway for healing in your body.

A peak pose in the practice will be trikonasana, or triangle pose.  This pose opens our heart to being wonderfully made.  When you arrive in the pose, one option is to place your top hand on your heart, to invite a deeper connection to being wonderfully made. (pose directions taken and adapted from Yogajournal.com, January 13, 2018)

Stand with your feet parallel. With an exhalation, step or lightly jump your feet 3 1/2 to 4 feet apart. Raise your arms parallel to the floor and reach them actively out to the sides, shoulder blades wide, palms down.

Watch this video on Extended Triangle Pose

Step 2

Turn your left foot in slightly to the right and your right foot out to the right 90 degrees. Align the right heel with the left heel. Firm your thighs and turn your right thigh outward, so that the center of the right knee cap is in line with the center of the right ankle.

Step 3

Exhale and extend your torso to the right directly over the plane of the right leg, bending from the hip joint, not the waist. Anchor this movement by strengthening the left leg and pressing the outer heel firmly to the floor. Rotate the torso to the left, keeping the two sides equally long. Let the left hip come slightly forward and lengthen the tailbone toward the back heel.

Step 4

Rest your right hand on your shin, ankle, or the floor outside your right foot, whatever is possible without distorting the sides of the torso. Stretch your left arm toward the ceiling, in line with the tops of your shoulders. Keep your head in a neutral position or turn it to the left, eyes gazing softly at the left thumb.

Step 5

Stay in this pose for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Inhale to come up, strongly pressing the back heel into the floor and reaching the top arm toward the ceiling. Reverse the feet and repeat for the same length of time to the left.