Let There Be Light

Scripture: Luke 2:8, 11, Matthew 2:2, 9, John 1: 4-5

“Let there be light.”  This phrase comprises the theme for my church’s worship services for Christmas Eve.  So, in preparing sermons for this most festive night in which Christians celebrate the incarnation, I decided to look at light in the Christmas stories.

In the gospel of Luke, shepherds keep watch over their flocks by night.  Then the angel of the Lord stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shines all around them.  They are then terrified.  The angel is then joined by a heavenly host  that praise God and say “Glory to God in the highest!”

The light in the Lukan story is not a star–it comes from the glory of the Lord.  This glory was brilliant, majestic, awesome–enough to frighten poor shepherds on a dark and cold night. Glory in the original Greek language is doxa, and means “praise” or “worship.” Glory belongs only to God or to Christ.  Glory holds a brightness of solar light.  It can be startling or intimidating at times, as it was for the shepherds.  The majesty of God can inspire fear and awe.  A great definition I discovered was that glory denotes an outward expression of an absolute, inward perfect love.  Glory at Christmas is God’s inner light shining bright with love, shown in the beautiful babe lying in a manger.  No wonder the shepherds felt they had to go immediately and see this baby.  They had been illuminated by God’s glory.  As scary as that was, they now had experienced an amazing love and wanted to go see the source. In Luke, “let there be light”  means let there be love.

In the gospel of Matthew, the light comes from a star. The wise men say, “we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”  They then followed the star they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.   When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

The light in Matthew is that of a star.  This celestial light was bright enough to launch a journey, and then to illuminate the way.  The star showed the wise men the right path, and they followed it until they arrived at joy. The light of the star gave them courage to confront the governmental power of King Herod. The light of the star gave them hope to keep going on an arduous journey of unknown length.  Most of all though, the light of the star brought to them joy.  In Matthew, “let there be light” means let there be joy.

In the gospel of John, the story of the incarnation sounds completely differently than the shepherds of Luke or the wise men of Matthew.  John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The light in John is actually Jesus.  Jesus as incarnate God is life and is light.  This divine radiance is of such a quality that no darkness can overcome it.

I read a reflection from a father whose 18-year old son died three years ago in a car crash at Christmas.  He said that the verse from John “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” sustains him through his grief.  He offered that there is no darkness so dark, even the darkness of a son’s death, that Christ’s light can’t in some way find its way through.  This light in the gospel of John is one of mystery.  It is the light that comes through the cracks and crevices of our lives.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  It is the light that lets us know we are not alone.  In John, “Let there be light” means let there be comfort.

On this Christmas Eve, what kind of light from Christ do you need?  Do you need to be illumined with love?  Awed with majesty? Then shine bright with the glory of Luke’s gospel.  Do you need a softer, but strong light that shows you the way and leads you down a good path?  Do  you need a light of courage that helps you confront power?   Then shine steadily with the joy of Matthew’s gospel.  Do you need a little light to push back on the darkness? Do you need to know you are not alone?  Then shine graciously with the comforting light of John’s gospel.

Whatever light you need, receive the light Christ offers of love, joy, and comfort this Christmas.  Then, shine on. Shine on.

Yoga

This practice will again be restorative.  (The picture included on this post is shoulder stand, which is a more active version of legs up.  We will do this with hips down and legs at the wall)  We will start by envisioning the word light, and bringing it to our eyes.  In a meditation, we’ll then send the light to any area of our body that needs love, joy, or comfort.   I’ll also intersperse the practice with Christmas carols that reference light.

One of my favorite restorative poses is viparita karani.  We’ll do this Legs at the Wall pose while the sound of Silent Night plays. Pose instructions are taken from yoga journal.com

Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose: Step-by-Step Instructions

The pose described here is a passive, supported variation of the Shoulderstand-like Viparita Karani. For your support you’ll need one or two thickly folded blankets or a firm round bolster. You’ll also need to rest your legs vertically (or nearly so) on a wall or other upright support.

Step 1

Before performing the pose, determine two things about your support: its height and its distance from the wall. If you’re stiffer, the support should be lower and placed farther from the wall; if you’re more flexible, use a higher support that is closer to the wall. Your distance from the wall also depends on your height: if you’re shorter move closer to the wall, if taller move farther from the wall. Experiment with the position of your support until you find the placement that works for you.

Step 2

Start with your support about 5 to 6 inches away from the wall. Sit sideways on right end of the support, with your right side against the wall (left-handers can substitute “left” for “right” in these instructions). Exhale and, with one smooth movement, swing your legs up onto the wall and your shoulders and head lightly down onto the floor. The first few times you do this, you may ignominiously slide off the support and plop down with your buttocks on the floor. Don’t get discouraged. Try lowering the support and/or moving it slightly further off the wall until you gain some facility with this movement, then move back closer to the wall.

Step 3

Your sitting bones don’t need to be right against the wall, but they should be “dripping” down into the space between the support and the wall. Check that the front of your torso gently arches from the pubis to the top of the shoulders. If the front of your torso seems flat, then you’ve probably slipped a bit off the support. Bend your knees, press your feet into the wall and lift your pelvis off the support a few inches, tuck the support a little higher up under your pelvis, then lower your pelvis onto the support again.

Step 4

Lift and release the base of your skull away from the back of your neck and soften your throat. Don’t push your chin against your sternum; instead let your sternum lift toward the chin. Take a small roll (made from a towel for example) under your neck if the cervical spine feels flat. Open your shoulder blades away from the spine and release your hands and arms out to your sides, palms up.

Step 5

Keep your legs relatively firm, just enough to hold them vertically in place. Release the heads of the thigh bones and the weight of your belly deeply into your torso, toward the back of the pelvis. Soften your eyes and turn them down to look into your heart.

Step 6

Stay in this pose anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. Be sure not to twist off the support when coming out. Instead, slide off the support onto the floor before turning to the side. You can also bend your knees and push your feet against the wall to lift your pelvis off the support. Then slide the support to one side, lower your pelvis to the floor, and turn to the side. Stay on your side for a few breaths, and come up to sitting with an exhalation.

 

Grace Binds up Broken Hearts

Isaiah 61: 1-4

As a kindergartener, in a very serious reflective moment, my son said to me, ” The heart is very important.”  I think his physical education class had been studying heart healthy habits that day.  I said, “That is right.  What makes the heart important?”  “Well, Mommy,” he said with utter confidence, “If you didn’t have your heart, you wouldn’t be alive.  It keeps you alive.” “True,” I replied.  “Very true. The heart does keep you alive.”

The prophet Isaiah proclaims to a dejected, demoralized people who have been in captivity for two generations in Babylon that, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted.”  The Hebrew word used for “broken-hearted” is shaver. Its various meanings are “to break, to rend violently, to wreck, to crash, be broken into pieces.” It is also used to refer to sails on a boat that are rent by wind.  This kind of wrecking, crashing, and rending captures the feeling of despair of the Israelites in captivity.  Shavar= the broken-hearted.

Yet Isaiah doesn’t just refer to the broken-hearted and leave them in that shipwrecked state.  The prophet says that God will bind up the broken-hearted.  I looked up the Hebrew word for “to bind up” and it is kahvash.  It literally means to bind up a wound like a physician. God’s Spirit will bind up, will help to heal the wound of exile for the people of Israel.

There is something about having your broken heart bound up when God is the one tending to the wound.  The people of Israel will never have hearts like before the suffering of exile and captivity.  For those of us with our own broken-hearts this Advent, we know that the heart never goes back to the way it was before the grief, before the loss, before the wind broke our sails.  This heartbreak, this shaver, will always remain a part of our story. The person lost, the heartbreak, the exile of whatever kind, is never forgotten or replaced.

Yet, when God’s grace binds up the broken heart, there is the possibility of new life that comes out of the pain.  The scripture goes on to say that the people of Israel will be given the oil of gladness, an anointing oil of olive oil mixed with frankincense. They will be given a garland of flowers rather than ashes, they will be given a mantle of praise rather than a weak spirit.  This is all truly amazing, and shows the power of God’s transforming grace through suffering.  Howard Thurman, a great theologian at Boston University in the mid-20th century, said that people who go through times of suffering and allow themselves to be bound up by God are profoundly changed.  He writes that “into their faces has come a subtle radiance and a settled serenity; . . . such people look out on life with quiet eyes.  Openings are made in a life by suffering that are not made by any other way.”  This subtle radiance is what the prophet Isaiah describes in the anointed, shiny faces of the people of Israel–faces that witness to their bound up hearts.

So, in this season of often manufactured cheer and commercialized joy, hear instead this word from Isaiah.  Your broken heart can be bound through the wondrous grace of God. In that healing you will experience a new life, a life with a deeper, richer meaning.  In due time, you will shine forth a subtle radiance, a testimony that living through pain is worth it. You witness that, as my son said, a heart does keep you alive.  Alive even more so when it has been broken and bound up.

Yoga

This yoga class will be focused on restorative poses–poses in which the body is supported by various props like blankets, straps, and blocks.  Of course, at the end, I’ll offer an anointing of the forehead of an oil of gladness–olive oil mixed with frankincense.

Supported Child’s Pose (have a blanket available)

Come to all fours on the mat, placing hands under shoulders, and knees under hips. Bring the big toes to touch, taking the knees out wide to the edges of the mat.  Place a folded blanket on top of the soles of your feet and shins.  Slowly sink the hips back to the heels, until they rest on the blanket.  Stretch the arms out in front of you.  Soften the heart down to the ground.  Open up to God’s grace, binding up your heart.

Unearth Your Potential

Matthew 25: 14-30

The Parable of the Talents is set in a section of discourse in which Jesus is instructing his disciples on how to endure through difficult times and how to live in anticipation of the Lord’s return.  This parable is an allegorical tale for how the disciples are to live in the meanwhile between the “already” of Jesus’ resurrection and the “not yet” of his promised return.

In the parable, two slaves are entrusted with pretty vast sums of money, and both of them double their master’s investment upon his return.  They have performed according to their potential and have been faithful with what was required of them. They enter into the Lord’s joy.

The third slave, however, is not so fortunate.  He buried the money given to him (which was a common practice of the time).  He didn’t take a risk, didn’t use his abilities, and didn’t increase his master’s wealth and estate.  The master, upon return, is furious with him and threatens gnashing of teeth and darkness.

In the end we are left with a difficult parable that seems to promote effort and risk in serving the kingdom until Jesus’ return.  Yet, this parable is worrisome on many levels.  The master is very harsh, and shouldn’t be a representation of God.  Not only does this man own slaves, but he distributes his wealth to them according to each person’s ability, but then condemns the one slave who doesn’t earn money, even though that slave really didn’t possess the ability to do better.

Some interpreters suggest that the third slave is Jesus.  Others render this into a totally capitalist tale, in which the one who invests wisely reaps the benefits.  Perhaps a gentler way of looking at this story is to remember it in the context of the gospel of Matthew.  The story is trying to show how we demonstrate faithfulness while we wait on the return of God.  We are to go about the work God has called us to do. . . to visit the sick, the prisoner, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger.

In this work, rather than burying our abilities, we are to unearth them for service to God.  This unearthing of our potential is not for our own glory, but to share more of God’s love in a world that needs it so much.  What might be buried potential of yours, that God is inviting you to awaken, and put into service?

Yoga

In this yoga practice we will focus on awakening our potential through the use of breath and some strong standing and core poses.

In plank, we will gather the strength of our own potential, and shine that out into the world!  (pose directions taken from Yoga Journal website)

Start in Downward Facing Dog.  Then inhale and draw your torso forward until the arms are perpendicular to the floor and the shoulders directly over the wrists, torso parallel to the floor.

Step 2

Press your outer arms inward and firm the bases of your index fingers into the floor. Firm your shoulder blades against your back, then spread them away from the spine. Also spread your collarbones away from the sternum.

Step 3

Press your front thighs up toward the ceiling, but resist your tailbone toward the floor as you lengthen it toward the heels. Lift the base of the skull away from the back of the neck and look straight down at the floor, keeping the throat and eyes soft.

Deeply inhale and exhale.  Unearth your potential!

 

When I am living in the present, I am able to keep promises.

Scripture: Joshua 24: 1-3, 13-26

In this story from the Old Testament, Joshua has gathered all the tribes of Israel at Shechem, a sacred site where Joshua had previously enacted a covenant with God and the people.  Now advanced in years and long past the great battles of Jericho, Joshua takes in a deep breath, and then speaks forth in the voice of a prophet.  “Thus says the Lord,” Joshua says, and then narrates all the mighty acts God has done for the people of Israel, from Abraham through the conquest of the land. He speaks of God’s faithful presence with and action on behalf of the people.  Joshua, very kindly, doesn’t mention all of Israel’s failures–their lack of faithfulness, or their forgetfulness of the covenant.

After narrating all the good God has done, Joshua charges the people to revere and serve God alone, and not all the other false gods the people had worshipped prior to Abraham and while in captivity in Egypt. “Choose this day whom you will serve; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, ” Joseph famously commands. The people, inspired by the words of their leader, respond with full heart, “We also will serve the Lord.” Joshua then makes a covenant with the people and their God.

With the sights of that holy place filling their eyes,  and with such sacred language running through their ears, the people of Israel make full-hearted promises to be faithful to God, which is what a covenant is.  To make and keep a promise requires a full presence, and a potent attention.  The people held that in Shechem.  Israel, however, would soon be distracted, and break their promise to God, as they had done in the past. They would worship false gods once again. God in God’s lovingkindness, will continually call them back to be present to God’s love again.

The people of Israel are so human, and so prone to distraction and the breaking of a promise.  Thank goodness, for it shows us how to receive forgiveness for our own distraction from the true God.  False gods call, and their allure and our inability to be present leads to broken promises. How easy it is to be distracted by screens of any kind, or the false gods of money, prestige, or success. God’s forgiveness and mercy offers the capacity to commit anew to our promises.  By being fully present in the here and now, we can make and keep our promises.

Yoga Practice

The practice of presence, of being fully in the very now rather than lingering in the past or stretching anxiously to the future, enables us to keep promises and be true to the one true God.  The invitation in the yoga class is be practice being present.  We do this by connecting deliberately to our inhale and our exhale.  The breath invites us to be fully present in this moment.  This attention then enables us to keep whatever promises we might have made to God or to people whom we love.

In this practice, we will do the pose Janu sirsasana, and will practice deliberate breath work while here to call us to be fully present to the moment and to our promise.

(Pose directions are taken directly rom Yoga Journal’s website) https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/head-to-knee-forward-bend

Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend)

Step 1

Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Use a blanket under your buttocks if necessary. Inhale, bend your right knee, and draw the heel back toward your perineum. Rest your right foot sole lightly against your inner left thigh, and lay the outer right leg on the floor, with the shin at a right angle to the left leg (if your right knee doesn’t rest comfortably on the floor, support it with a folded blanket).

Step 2

Press your right hand against the inner right groin, where the thigh joins the pelvis, and your left hand on the floor beside the hip. Exhale and turn the torso slightly to the left, lifting the torso as you push down on and ground the inner right thigh. Line up your navel with the middle of the left thigh. You can just stay here, using a strap to help you lengthen the spine evenly, grounding through the sitting bones.

Step 3

Or, when you are ready, you can drop the strap and reach out with your right hand to take the inner left foot, thumb on the sole. Inhale and lift the front torso, pressing the top of the left thigh into the floor and extending actively through the left heel. Use the pressure of the left hand on the floor to increase the twist to the left. Then reach your left hand to the outside of the foot. With the arms fully extended, lengthen the front torso from the pubis to the top of the sternum.

Exhale and extend forward from the groins, not the hips. Be sure not to pull yourself forcefully into the forward bend, hunching the back and shortening the front torso. As you descend, bend your elbows out to the sides and lift them away from the floor.

Step 5

Lengthen forward into a comfortable stretch. The lower belly should touch the thighs first, the head last. Stay in the pose anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes. Come up with an inhalation and repeat the instructions with the legs reversed for the same length of time.

 

 

 

 

From Grief to Blessing

Scripture: Matthew 5: 1-12

This Sunday is All Saint’s Day, a time in the life of the church in which we remember those beloved who have died in the past year.  In my current church, we read the names of members who have died, toll a bell, and light a candle.  As the musical bars of “Blessed are They” begin to ring out through the sanctuary, sniffles and coughs get blended in as the congregation both grieves their loss, and acknowledges their hope.

In such a context, the line from the scripture  in Matthew 5: 4 “blest are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” seems apropos. All Saints Day provides a sacred and holy time to acknowledge grief and to offer comfort.

Yet, I also wonder if our communion of saints might also teach us something about life–about the life of blessing expressed in the rest of Matthew 5:1-12–the text known as the Beatitudes.  I wonder if in the situation of privilege that many of us dwell within, it is most often in situations of terminal illness and death that we realize we are not in control, that we can lose power, that we can be more like the poor, because we can’t take the accoutrements of life with us into death.  Our sainted dead teach us this, and point us to the blessing, which is what the word Beatitude means. The saints reveal the significance of a life of mercy, or peace, of being pure in heart, of righteousness.

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) comprise nine blessings.  In the context of the imperial cultural of Rome that prized power, wealth, and status, these blessings instead reveal God’s favor is found among the poor, the powerless without resources or options. God declares blessing upon behaviors that manifest God’s empire–meekness, peace, purity, righteousness.

As we do this practice, I will encourage students to light a candle in memory of a saint who has taught them about humility, or peace, or purity, or righteousness.  We will dedicate the practice to them, and seek to be inspired by the blessing they lived in their life.  By so doing, we will move from mourning to comfort, from grief to blessing.

Yoga

This practice is dedicated to the saints who teach about how to live lives into the blessings of humility, righteousness, peace, and purity of heart. We will do a asana that helps us to embody each of these blessings.

For “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” we will practice pigeon, a humble pose of prostration on the ground.  Instruction for the pose is taken from Yoga Journal.

Step 1

Begin on all fours, with your knees directly below your hips, and your hands slightly ahead of your shoulders. Slide your right knee forward to the back of your right wrist; at the same time angle your right shin under your torso and bring your right foot to the front of your left knee. The outside of your right shin will now rest on the floor. Slowly slide your left leg back, straightening the knee and descending the front of the thigh to the floor. Lower the outside of your right buttock to the floor. Position the right heel just in front of the left hip.

Step 2

The right knee can angle slightly to the right, outside the line of the hip. Look back at your left leg. It should extend straight out of the hip (and not be angled off to the left), and rotated slightly inwardly, so its midline presses against the floor. Exhale and lay your torso down on the inner right thigh for a few breaths. Stretch your arms forward.

Repeat step 1 and 2 on the left side.

May I be love

Scripture: Matthew 22: 34-38

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest” He said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In this scripture, Jesus is quoting the great Old Testament scripture known as the Shema (which literally means ‘hear’ in Hebrew) from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which says: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.”  The command to love God is distinctive, in contrast to offering awe or fear in worship. Israel, and then through Jesus, Christians, are commanded to fully and wholeheartedly love God.  Out of that love, Christians are then to love neighbor as self.

How do we fully love God, and then our neighbor, though?  Easy answers might be to pray, to regularly worship, to study scripture (loving God) and then go out in our community and build relationships with our poor neighbors.  These kind of answers already make me feel a little tired and guilty, because I missed my centering prayer sit this morning, so I’m not sure I loved God well (it was a rainy Monday morning and hard to get up!)  My son also asked me not to use my annoyed voice with him as he diddled getting dressed for school.  I also seemed to miss the mark on loving neighbor.

Yoga offers a helpful practice for those of us who do a fantastic job of feeling “not enough” when it comes to living into these commandments. It’s called meta yoga, or a lovingkindness meditation.  This meditation invites us into the love of God and love of self, so that we then can love neighbor.

I’m going to do this practice, delineated below, now.  Then, filled with the love of God, I will go forth and teach yoga to children at a title one school, who participate in my church’s literacy program.  It will be full of crazy-fun energy. . . and quite possibly love of neighbor.

Yoga

Loving Kindness Meditation

  • Take a posture in sadasana, seated on the ground with ankles touching and knees out to the side
  • Breathing in, be aware of connection between sitz bones. Sense the way your spinal column rises up through crown of head.
  • Inhaling again, the shoulder blades rise. Exhale, palms down on thighs, attention to flow of breath.
  • Attend to this present moment, to your pure sense of being in the love of God. Eyes close, feel your  body present and relaxed.  I am fully present, aware, and relaxing.
  • Repeat these words slowly to yourself as you inhale, and on the exhale let the words inhabit your body:
  • 1. May I be safe and loved.
  • 2. May I be loving to God.
  • 3. May I be loving to neighbor
  •  

    4. May I be healed

  • 5. May I be whole
  • 6. May I know that all is well. 

     

 

 

 

 

By replenishing my energy, I can be loving kindness in the world

Scripture: Micah 6:8

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah, an 8th century BC prophet from a tiny village south of Jerusalem, tries valiantly to  cajole Judah (also called the southern kingdom) to greater faithfulness.  The people knew the Northern Kingdom (Israel) had fallen to the Assyrians in 722BC; Micah reminds them that they must obey the covenant with God, or they too will experience doom and exile.  What God really wants, Micah offers, is the Hebrew people’s loyalty and love.  God desires holy relationship with God and among people.

In this verse for today, Micah is referencing an offering.  However, instead of a material offering on the altar, Micah indicates that the offering is to be one of self, of character and behavior.  Micah urges his people to offer acts of justice, kindness, and humility to God.

How do we now, in 2017, offer justice, love kindness, and walk humbly, in a world that so desperately needs this kind of offering? Do we march on the streets for an issue, do we put on hardhats and volunteer for Habitat, do we sit with a second grader and help them read?  Surely these are all good things to do.  Perhaps, though, one unconventional answer might be to tend to our kidneys.

In Chinese medicine, the kidneys hold our vitality.  The kidneys are our reservoirs of blood and therefore contain our energy or chi. In combination with the adrenal glands that sit atop them, the kidneys support our ability to be aware–which is key to being kind, to seeing the other, to doing the work of justice.  The kidneys are responsible for our detoxification, while the adrenals regulate our hormones.  When these organs and glands become dysfunctional, we literally become toxic. Our kidneys often become compromised from so much sitting and have a hard time then producing a flow of vital energy.

The scripture calls for action in the world, but we need to have full reservoirs to act with integrity and out of wholeness rather than depletion.  We need to replenish our reservoirs, our kidneys, in order to be able to be just, to be kind, to be humble.  By replenishing our kidney energy, we can be the loving kindness the world so desperately needs to receive.

Yoga

This practice is geared to the restoration of kidney energy and flow.  It will be a hybrid of  restoration and action.

Beginning meditation:  Take a seat on two stacked blankets.  Allow the shins and knees to drop downward.  Ground your two buttock bones evenly into the cushion. Exhale deeply a few times, exhaling out all that has depleted you this week.

Place the heels of both hands on your back, below the last rib bone, with fingertips extending down extending down past your waist. Direct your breath and attention there, to the place where your kidneys reside.

Buddha Konasana– Bring the soles of your feet to touch, knees open out on the blanket.  Press your thumbs on the point below your big toe mound. Pump your thumb into this upper middle foot region.  This is an acupuncture point for the kidneys and brings vitality to them and to the spine.