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.

 

I am worthy.

Scripture: Matthew 22: 1-14

This parable of the wedding banquet astounds with its violence.  Unlike the version in the gospel of Luke, in which the host’s first invitees reject the party because of their busy-ness, and the host simply invites any and everyone to the table, in Matthew murder abounds. The first invitees kill the slave messengers, and are in turn killed by the king’s troops.  Their city is burned.  The king then invites the “B list” of everyone in the streets so that the wedding hall is filled.  The one poor person at the wedding feast who didn’t have time to change clothing or didn’t own wedding attire is then bound hand and foot and throwing into darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Ouch.  A brutal parable.

Interpreters of this text indicate this parable is a parody of ancient Mediterranean social and political conventions of honor and shame.  The parable was clearly understood from the first readers of the scripture to not be literal because of its absurd, unrealistic nature. Early church fathers such as John Chrysostom (late 300s AD) reflected on this parable as a symbolism for God’s dealings with Israel, in which:

  • The marriage feast represents the marriage or covenant between God and the people of Israel
  • The King is God.
  • First (list A) wedding guests– Israelite elites, who didn’t fully accept God’s invitation to them.
  • slave messengers–These are the prophets of Israel, whom the elites did not hear or mistreated
  • The fire/burning of city- This could reference the burning of the temple in 70 CE by the Romans.
  • Second (list B) wedding guests–This represents Israel’s poor and non-elite
  • Absence of special clothing– The lack of wedding attire by one guest represents the failure to honor God.

Even with this helpful parallel interpretation, God remains a vengeful, violent king and there is seemingly no instructive point to the story.  In the next interpretive move later biblical scholars looked to the setting of the parable for the community to whom the Matthean author is writing.   The Matthean community represents a Jewish minority that sees itself as outside the synagogue and its subsequent power and cultural influence.  Matthew’s Jewish audience understands themselves as marginalized among more powerful, establishment Jews.  They feel isolated, alienated, powerless, alone.  They don’t feel worthy. No wonder violence erupts in such a context as the solution.

Our culture today has seen an eruption of violence from people who feel isolated, alienated, unworthy and alone.  This group has been culturally told that all their worth comes from what they do and how much they earn. Ironically enough, this group represents the one with the most cultural power–white, heterosexual men.  Nationalist, neo-nazi, supremists and mass shooters are overwhelming white men.  In a fascinating article in this past week’s Time magazine,  Jill Filipovic remarks that American white men and the obsession with guns and violence is about a tribal identity, a “deepening identification of self and clan” that “forges an identity and bond with a like-minded community. ”  The gun culture provides white males a place to belong while holding onto power through physical domination.  In a world in which white men feel their status slipping, guns and supremacist communities assure them that they still hold their grip on the trigger of power.  No wonder violence erupts as the solution–as the means of redemption from profound lack of worth and loneliness.

Yet, this parable does point to one who has no cultural power, yet shows us the way of sacrificial love.  You have to lean in and look closely to see who Jesus is in this violent parable.  Who is the one who shows up, who responds, who is present, but that presence isn’t welcome—is harshly critiqued and tossed out, in fact?  The poor wedding guest who isn’t dressed appropriately, who suffers unjustly at the hands of power.  This is what God looks like—poor, beaten, thrown out.  The author of the gospel of Matthew is trying to get his community to see that they can actually resemble Jesus.  A disenfranchised, poor, marginalized community looks like the way God shows up in the world.  Their worth doesn’t come from cultural power or kingship–their worth comes from being made in the image of the one who comes among us as a poor, ‘B list’,  shabbily dressed guest.

I wonder if God doesn’t still call a community to embody God’s worth to people.  I wonder if the church could actually become a place where white men who feel unworthy can come to feel of priceless worth–who can trust in their redemption by a poor Savior rather than through violence.  I wonder if any of us who struggle to have a sense of worth can take a seat at the table of the gathered church and feel we belong.  You are worthy, not because of anything you do or what you earn, but because you are made in the image of a wedding guest who invites us all to a feast of grace.  You are worthy.

Yoga Practice

The yoga practice for this class focuses upon postures that embody worth.  Of course, this means warrior poses–poses where we ground into God’s strength and worth, and shine that out into the world.  The following description of the pose is taken from Yoga Journal.

Warrior II Pose: Step-by-Step Instructions

Step 1

Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). 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.

Step 2

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

Step 3

Exhale and bend your left knee over the left ankle, so that the shin is perpendicular to the floor. If possible, bring the left thigh parallel to the floor. Anchor this movement of the left knee by strengthening the right leg and pressing the outer right heel firmly to the floor.

Step 4

Stretch the arms away from the space between the shoulder blades, parallel to the floor. Don’t lean the torso over the left thigh: Keep the sides of the torso equally long and the shoulders directly over the pelvis. Press the tailbone slightly toward the pubis. Turn the head to the left and look out over the fingers.

 

In the midst of insecurity and anxiety, God provides what we most need

Scripture: Exodus 16: 2-15

The story in this scripture begins with complaining.  The Israelites have left the land of Egypt only to find themselves in a dry and barren wilderness. Hunger, insecurity, and anxiety swell up from their guts and out their mouths in vocal spewing. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger, ” the Israelites spit out at Moses.

God hears their complaints, and acts. God responds to human lack and need. God acknowledges the insecurity and anxiety of the congregation and the connection to their material, embodied needs.  God says to the people, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you and each day the people will gather enough for that day. On the sixth day it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”

This gift of bread did indeed rain down.  The people looked at the white, flaky stuff of the wilderness ground and they said, “What is this stuff?”  The Hebrew translation for that question is man hu or manna.  Manna meant they no longer would starve.  Manna meant that in their time of complete anxiety, God provided what they most needed.  Manna meant that they now lived in an economy of sufficiency, rather than one of lack.  Manna also meant that they need not acquire or overwork;  “what is it” would be there day after day, and enough on the sixth day that they could rest on the seventh.  The Jews began their significant practice of Sabbath based upon having enough; they could rest knowing that God would provide.

As Stephanie Paulsell says in her book Honoring the Body: Reflections on a Christian Practice God’s gift of manna reveals a God who loves to feed God’s creation and loves those made in God’s image.  This is a story of God’s provision, of having enough when we rely on God and the rhythms of God’s creation.

If you are walking in a wilderness today, I wonder if there might be some manna in your dry and barren place.  It’s only natural to ask “what is it?”  Trust that some manna will be there for you. Offer up whatever anxiety or fear swirls in your gut.  Open to receiving what you most need.  Trust that you will have enough for today–that you don’t need to hoard or accumulate.  You can rest.  You can practice Sabbath. God will provide what you most need.  Manna from heaven, in whatever form it takes.

Yoga

In the class we will physically move from one place to another in the body.  From a place of insecurity, we will move to a place of fullness and enough.  We will literally twist away from anxiety and fear that binds us, and open up to fullness and abundance.  So this class is going to have twists of all sorts! We will take lots of mini-pauses of Sabbath, and then end with some restorative poses.

Our peak pose will be Parvritta Trikonasa, described below with instructions from Yoga Journal.

Step 1

Stand in Tadasana.  With an exhalation, step or lightly jump your feet 3½ to 4 feet apart. Raise your arms parallel to the floor and reach them actively out to the sides, shoulder blades wide, palms down. Turn your left foot in 45 to 60 degrees 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 kneecap is in line with the center of the right ankle.

Step 2

With an exhalation, turn your torso to the right, and square your hip points as much as possible with the front edge of your sticky mat. As you bring the left hip around to the right, resist the head of the left thigh bone back and firmly ground the left heel.

Step 3

With another exhalation, turn your torso further to the right and lean forward over the front leg. Reach your left hand down, either to the floor (inside or outside the foot) or, if the floor is too far away, onto a block positioned against your inner right foot. Allow the left hip to drop slightly toward the floor. You may feel the right hip slip out to the side and lift up toward the shoulder, and the torso hunch over the front leg. To counteract this, press the outer right thigh actively to the left and release the right hip away from the right shoulder. Use your right hand, if necessary, to create these two movements, hooking the thumb into the right hip crease.

 

 

 

 

Holding My Head High

Scripture: Exodus 14: 19-31

Exodus 14: 29–“But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”

I love that in the midst of a miracle, the Israelites walked.  After having endured slavery, plagues, an arduous journey through the wilderness, and the onslaught of Pharoah’s army after them, they moved with resiliency and dignity through the parted waters.  They didn’t scurry and run like a people afraid.  Nor did they stand still any longer, and gape at the wondrous wall of water.  They walked.

I imagine their gait to have purpose and strength.  The Israelites walked with confidence, for they now knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their God was with them.  They knew that they were beloved.  They knew their lives really did matter.  So they walked, with a steady gaze and their heads held high, spines steady and straight.

The resiliency of the Israelites speaks to us today, particularly to those who have endured much of late through the power of water.  People of Houston and of Florida, of Mexico and of Caribbean islands have moved with resiliency and strength.  With much of their former material life ruined, they have nonetheless found the grit to hold their heads high, and vow to start over. The survivors of hurricanes are walking with heads high, spines straight.

Those of us who haven’t been as affected have the opportunity to be God’s love to them.  Through our acts of generosity and kindness, we show that their lives matter to God and to us.  We walk with them.

If you would like to hold your head high by helping someone else to do the same, you may go to our church’s website:  www. myersparkumc.org .  There you will find ways to give financially, and also learn information on how to serve on a team.

Yoga

The yoga class today will focus on the upper spine to help us to walk with strength and steadiness.  This practice will help us to hold our spine erect and our heads high, so that we might embody this resiliency in a world that needs it.

Virabhadrasana I (warrior 1)–Root the right foot into the earth, and the left foot ground down, especially with the outer edge of the foot.  From this strong and steady foundation rise up with the arms.  With the inhale bring the ribs back toward the spine.  Exhale and lift the crown of the head high. Lift the collarbones up, curl the shoulder blades onto the back, and rise up high.  Keep your head high!

 

Finding calm in the midst of chaos

Scripture: Exodus 14: 1-14

The Israelite people in our scripture are refugees, fleeing from slavery in Egypt.  They are camped in a sandy, gritty place on the seashore.  They’ve got sand in their hair, sandals, and clothing. They are sunburnt and hot. They are scared, sleep-deprived and hungry, or at the very least, really wanting some leavened bread.  The Israelites are, admittedly, not going to be their best selves in this moment.  They probably don’t have the resources to go to a calm, inner place when things get crazy.

Things get crazy.  They look in their rear view mirror and see the army of Pharaoh, the best military in the world, advancing upon them.  Clearly, they are doomed to die.  So, they get reactive.  The Israelites yell at Moses for dragging them through the wilderness to a sandy grave.  They are livid and terrified all at the same time. Utter chaos reigns.  Their whole lives swirl around them, a sandstorm of hardship, regrets, dashed hopes.

Into this crazy chaos, Moses speaks the words, “Don’t be afraid, stand firm, see the deliverance the Lord will accomplish for your today.  The Lord will fight for you.  Only stay still.”

Standing still in complete stress and chaos seems not only counterintuitive, but downright impossible.  The Israelites don’t have any idea at this moment that they are on the cusp of a miracle, that the sea before them will part.  They are only envisioning their death.  Yet here, in the potency of the moment, Moses calls for stillness.  It’s like a yoga break in the midst of one of the greatest dramas ever told. “Take a breath,” Moses is saying.  “Stand firm, both feet on the ground, hip distance apart.  Don’t be afraid.  God is with you.”

It’s a good reminder for our own lives, when we feel surrounded in chaos and we can’t even imagine a miracle happening.  When we are tired, sleep deprived, hungry, scared, and not our best selves.  When we get reactive because death in whatever form is encroaching on our lives.  Moses says to us, “Stand firm.  Don’t be afraid.  Take a breath. Despite all evidence to the contrary, God is with you.”

When we don’t know that a sea will be parted, when we are tired of sand in our eyes and grit in our teeth, standing still and taking a breath seems unhelpful.  Yet, if we can do this, if we can practice a moment of stillness in the chaos, the chaos itself might recede. We might feel God delivering us from our own stress and angst.  We might just see a way forward that we had never dreamed possible.  At the very least, we will have a strong stance and a steady breath. . . and know that we are not alone.

Yoga

This yoga practice works on standing firm with a series of standing poses, but also some stress reducing asana like the two below.

Succhirandrasana or Eye of the Needle pose:  On your back, bend both knees, keeping the feet on the floor.Place your right ankle below your left knee.  Open the right knee out.   Place your hands underneath your left thigh, lift your left foot off of the ground.  Press your right elbow into the right knee.  Connect to breath.  Repeat on the other side.

Viparita karani: sit as close to a wall as possible, with the hips against the wall.  Swing both feet up onto the wall as you extend on your back on the floor.  Remain for several minutes, enjoying the release of the blood flow.  You may add variations by bring the heels of the feet together for a form of baddha konasana on the wall.