Last week, as people recessed from the church, I received lots of comments about the way I looked on Sunday. Several folks asked me about the change in my hairstyle. Others mentioned that I looked somehow younger. A few people suggested that I looked happy and well rested; while others said that I was “radiant”. Dick Mullen marched into my office on Monday to talk, took one look at me and said, “Wherever you just were, go back there! You look great kid!” I do not share this to brag, or to suggest that more of you should make it a point to shower me with compliments as you leave church. In fact, I was SO surprised by these comments that I went home and peered into the bathroom mirror—trying to see what had caused all the fuss. And what I saw was the face of a person in love—new love—giddy love—head over heels-its all I can think about love: the bright eyes, the flushed cheeks, and the strange open-heartedness that you can’t quite put your finger on. Now all of you know my wonderful wife Piper—and she certainly makes my heart jump on a regular basis, but on this occasion she was not the cause of my inner glow (sorry honey).
For those of you who may not know, I spent all last month doing Continuing Education at a center in the Berkshires called Kripalu where I was trained to become a certified yoga instructor. On June 1st I moved myself into an un-air-conditioned dormitory with seven other women stacked into metal bunk beds. Each morning I had to be up by 5:30 to be on my yoga mat by 5:50am. The days were long and rigorous: physically, mentally, emotionally… and spiritually. Class wrapped up at 6pm on the early days, and then there was still homework to be completed. There was lots of yoga, but there was even more sitting: perched cross-legged on a floor cushion with no back support. This is not how I would typically define a “relaxing trip” and yet 27 days later, as I re-packed my things into our car, I felt like a woman transformed.
So what is the Kripalu secret? As simple as it might sound it came down to three central components: silence, awareness of breath, and stemming from these two: prayer. Not the kind of prayer that is a self-consciously composed set of words spoken in your mind, but the kind of prayer that wells up when the mind is quiet, sometimes revealing things about the person praying that they didn’t even know about themselves. And I can honestly say that I have never prayed so much in my entire life—and that is saying something given that I recently spent three years studying at one of the preeminent seminaries in the world. In seminary I learned how to love God with my mind—how to pour over carefully argued textual analysis, how to uncover the historical implications of dogma and creed, how to delve into the historical underpinnings of scripture and the context in which our sacred texts were written etc. I certainly learned a lot about how humans have understood their relationship with God and I learned it from the best and brightest in the field. But I did not spend much time quieting my mind, in order to open my HEART to God. After all, that seems so personal, how do you really teach something like that?
Well, those of you on boards here at South Church know that we observe a minute of silence at the beginning of each meeting—but for those of you who have not participated in this practice, I want to give you the opportunity to do so now—right here in the pew, or at home where you are listening. So close your eyes, or if that doesn’t’ feel comfortable, find a space in front of you to fix your gaze and let your eyes gently come out of focus and get hazy. (Lead a one minute guided meditation) Now, before you open your eyes, pause and notice what you are feeling—whatever it is pleasant or not. And then gently open your eyes and come back into this space.
Now imagine taking that minute and multiply it by 10 or 20 and then do it over and over again throughout the day. Between yoga poses and anatomy lessons, we came back to silence, between philosophy and teaching tools we came back to our breath. No matter what we had to learn, there was always time built in for reflection and integration. There were moments that I worried that I might float away with so much deep breathing.
And yet, the more space that I created in my lungs and in my mind, the more my interior landscape began to match the externally imposed silence. I was not worrying about the future, or rehashing the past. I wasn’t trying to come up with the next clever thing to say or obsessing over what people were thinking of the last thing I said. I wasn’t generating negative self-talk, or judging the people in my life for not behaving as I want them to. I wasn’t checking out with food or Facebook, with TV or texting. I was just breathing and being—and the more that I did that, the more comfortable it felt to just exist in the moment, exactly as I am, with nothing to do or change; noticing what I was feeling, relaxing into whatever emotions arose, and then being open to it all transforming with the next moment. That is the beauty of really being in the present—it is always changing. If you have ever spent time with a toddler, you have seen what it means to be absorbed in the present moment. One minute they are wailing with all of the passion and pain they can muster, and moments later they are giggling and ready to play. When the moment shifts, they go with it—not stuck in the past or attached to the future. But we adults have a harder time with this. And while I am grateful for all of the analysis and planning that the pre-frontal cortex of my adult mammalian brain allows me to do—it can also be a real pain. Figuring how to utilize this part of the brain, but not allow it to hijack the present moment takes intentionality.
Now, prior to the training I would have told you that being intentionally present was a good idea. I would have agreed that breathing and meditation were beneficial practices; after all in seminary I studied all about the desert fathers, mystics and monastic communities. And yet, I didn’t make this a regular part of my life. Just a short month ago I would have told you that I didn’t have TIME for that kind of intentional practice. I would have told you that it was a luxury that I was simply too busy for—do you know how late I work some nights? And then there is the grocery shopping, the errands, the time at the gym, the need to check in with family. And yet despite this busy American schedule, I still find plenty of time for watching shows that I love Netflix. I spend ample time reading articles online, checking in with whatever people are posting on Facebook, listening to repeating iterations of the day’s news from various news outlets. But even more than that, I have historically spent lots of time worrying—mostly about things that aren’t actually in my control: the weather, the future, the choices other people are making etc. And between the constant information input and the worry it stirs up within me, my head is often too full for silence to be comfortable. But at Kripalu, little by little, 20 minutes at a time, my internal tapes began to run themselves out, until I was left…with space. And into that space, God arrived.
And here’s the thing: God was actually there all along. Buried underneath all of the other noise, was a gentle knowing, a deeper compassion, a quiet awareness of who I was created to be… I just couldn’t slow down enough to hear it. Now, I am not suggesting that I heard God speak in the way so many Old Testament prophets did. I did not hear an otherworldly voice beckoning me. It was more like a clearing of my vision, something coming into focus. In the yoga sutras, it says that the purpose of yoga is to still the churning waters of the mind. Our thoughts are like violent waves crashing against the shores of our consciousness. Once those thoughts are stilled, and the mind is quieted, you can see more clearly through the waters of the mind into the depths of your own being—And there you may encounter the place where Spirit is guiding you.
Now perhaps this sounds really etheric or hard to grasp, but it is actually shockingly simple. The pathway to God is to be present with who you are in this moment—and the tools to arrive in this moment are silence, breath and whatever prayers spontaneously arise within you, mirroring you back to yourself more clearly.
Episcopal Priest and Spirituality Professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insights of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason that so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot, is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company…The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.
Earlier this year we talked about Jesus going into the wilderness for 40 days, and how that time transformed him and birthed his ministry. This past December we talked about Elizabeth’s husband Zacharias being struck dumb for months until he could curb his ego and understand what God was asking of him. And then we have story after story of people who encounter God or an angel when they are alone in the wilderness—often in a moment of great personal struggle: Moses, Hagar, Jacob. Silence, presence, and some degree of self-reflection seem central to revelation. But while these practices are hinted at in scripture, I would wager that they might have been so deeply a part of life, that it didn’t seem worth harping on. People spent long hours engaged in manual labor without an iPod or radio on. They traveled great distance by foot, accompanied only by the rhythm of their breath and their footsteps. Communication of any sort with people outside your field of vision took patience and uncertainty as you waited for their response. And while I am sure that in EVERY age there were ample ways to stay busy, or get drawn into gossip, or lost in mental chatter, I do think that for much of human history there was considerably more unstructured time for thinking. It is only very recently that technology has created a context where one can have almost constant mediated input. And unfortunately, I think it makes the practice of intentional presence an extra challenge—it takes discipline to carve out intentional time for prayer whether alone or in community.
For some of us this—our Sunday morning at South Church—is the ONLY time in our week when we slow down. And that is okay. I am not criticizing that choice—honestly even an hour of intentional spiritual time each week is a win—and I love that you choose to spend it here. But think about it: there are 24 hours in a day, and 168 hours in a week. Even if you subtract a full 8 hours for sleep each night and 40 hours for work each week, you are left with 60+ hours for the rest of your life to fill. And while there are things you MUST do during that time: cooking, household chores, caring for family and for your home etc. Each of those things, if done with intentionality can be a place to practice presence and prayer. That’s right, you don’t have to be on a yoga mat or in a church, every moment holds the potential for prayer. In almost everything we do the possibility exists for breathing and being present in the moment—rather than having the body in one place while the mind is off in the future or stuck in the past. Because when we are present, really truly living into whatever we are doing at that moment, that action itself can become a prayer. Washing dishes, if you are really present noticing the sensation in your body, the feeling of the water against your hands and the soap slippery between you fingers, that can be a form of prayer—a way of acknowledging where you are and appreciating the simple goodness of those actions. Chopping vegetables with great presence might tap you into the love you feel for the people for whom you are cooking, or the gratitude you feel for the abundance we receive from the earth.
Our text from today was from the Song of Solomon—one of two books in the entire Bible that does not contain the WORD “God”—and yet the absence of that word does not mean that God is not present in the pages. This juicy, love poem between two characters is so romantic… and sensual… that it could bring a blush to your face as you read it. And yet thousands of years ago, as they compiled the cannon they chose to include it—alongside all of the other stories, histories, parables and lessons, they chose to include this love note. And I would like to think that they did this for two reasons: the first is that everything about our bodies and the way we love has the potential to be sacred. This poem is chock-full of descriptors about the human body—and why we would celebrate that beauty and goodness. But the other reason is that one could also read the Song of Solomon as a love note to God. The beloved could in fact be the Divine. There are many Christian mystics like St. Teresa of Avila who experienced prayer as ecstatic love for God. But whether you read it as a poem between two human lovers, or a love poem to God, this text serves as a reminder of the wonder of our own embodied experience. The painful, the pleasurable, the mundane—be with it all—because every moment has the potential to be a new love note to God, AND a love note from God back to you.
So, before we move to the table I want to leave you with a few more words written by Barbara Brown Taylor about the importance of embodiment in the Christian faith. She says:
“Wearing skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls. It is what we have most in common with one another… The daily practice of incarnation – of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh—is to discover a (teaching) as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper? With all of the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to THINK about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do—specific ways of being together in their bodies—that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself… The disciples were going to need something warm and near that they could bump into on a regular basis, something so real that they would not be able to intellectualize it… Jesus gave them things they could get their hand on, things that would get them close enough to touch one another.”
As we move into this sacred feast, I invite you to be present. And if you mind drifts to your to do list, or a worry about the past or future, I invite you to notice it and then come back to this moment…to this table… to these people gathered here… to this communal love note that we are writing to God. Amen.
 Brown Taylor, B. (2009). A Geography of Faith: An altar in the world. New York: Harper Collins., xvi-xvii.
 Brown Taylor, B. (2009). A Geography of Faith: An altar in the world. New York: Harper Collins.43-44.