During today’s sermon, we are going to engage with two of the most central spiritual practices of the Christian tradition. We will begin with Lectio Divina, or ‘divine reading.’ It may be new to you, but it was not new to Jesus. This practice finds its source in the Hebrew method of studying Scriptures called Haggadah. It is an interactive interpretation of the text by listening and asking questions. It was part of Jesus’ own practice. It is also described as a way of cultivating friendship with God. As you hear the text, listen as if you are in conversation with Christ, Spirit, Father, whichever image of the divine is most dear to you. It allows the holy one to suggest the topics of conversation as we listen with our hearts.
Acts 2:43-47 (Lectio Divina)
Buddhism is called a practice and Christianity is called a religion. I can think of reasons why this has come to be true, but it seems to me to be a complete misunderstanding of Christianity. I want us to get our practice back!
The first name for the movement of Jesus-followers was, “the Way.” It is used seven times in the book of Acts to identify the growing community of Jesus’ followers. These few verses from Acts chapter 2 show how the community of Jesus’ followers got their start. It is a very active description! They completely changed their life patterns when they became followers of the Way. They ate together, prayed together, hung out together all the time, they even sold their property and shared it with each other. They changed everything about their lives. Why did they do it? How did they get the courage? Didn’t people think they were crazy? All good questions.
There are those who say that this kind of living was only intended to be temporary. They believed, after all, that Jesus would return in a very short time – weeks, maybe months. But after millennia of waiting, we have to settle into a different kind of life, a long-term life in the Way of Jesus. This seems to have given us permission to live as if following Jesus were not a radical, daily practice of an alternative lifestyle.
From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus called people to follow him – to live with him, to walk in his footsteps, to learn the way of life that he was choosing. And it was this way of life which was the realm of God. It was a simple way, a downward way, a way of blessing.
The Realm of God is not so much about attaining power and control, as many of the early disciples thought. At Pentecost, and as they practiced after that, they came to see that what Jesus was talking about was a spiritual realm – the realm of the Spirit’s presence. The Realm of God is living in a constant connection with the Holy One, who moves in and through us in this life and the next, living in the life of the One who is love.
It is counter-intuitive. It is not the way humans have learned to live in this world. So, if we are going to live in the Realm of God, we have to practice. We have to try stuff, live differently, talk about our experiences, share the load with each other. That is the way of the Realm of God.
How do we get out of our heads and into the world? Practice!
We will be talking about practice for the next few weeks. C. Paul Schroeder, former executive director of New City Initiative here in Portland, has just released the book he has been working on – writing and living – called, Practice Makes Purpose. You have heard the phrase, ‘practice makes perfect.’ This is a nice twist on the phrase. The first sentence is: “This is a book about how to love.” And from there he goes on to explain not what love is, but six spiritual practices for living out the way of love.
Practice! Do something! This is what he is saying. Love isn’t simply and emotion, but also an action. And it takes practice. There are skills we can learn which will help us love in a way which can change our lives and our communities.
It is easy to get stuck on our hamster wheels of opinions, analysis, emotions. We can dream forever. Write blogs, post on Facebook. All good things. But all of these can keep us stuck in an endless stream of analysis, critique and finally burnout and depression. What is the alternative?
This came as a powerful aha this week during the divorce recovery group meeting. A man in the group was complaining that all the talk, self-analysis, reading and effort at getting to know himself was so frustrating that he wanted to explode. Self-analysis, at this point, was not getting him anywhere but exasperated.
So we began to think of self-discovery as a practice. We began to talk through actions we could take which would get us off the hamster wheel of our thoughts. Are you stuck on some aspect of your personal growth? Try a practice which might bring that aspect of yourself out into the open where you can look at it and where we can see how it feels, look at it from another perspective.
One woman described her practice as taking that thought and imagining it on a movie screen in front of her, where she can watch from a detached distance. It gave her courage to look at herself as others might see her, to gain new perspective, and finally to make changes. But she had to get off the frustrating hamster wheel of repeated thoughts.
Byron Katie has developed something called “The Work,” another way to get us out of our mind ruts. It is focused around four simple questions:
1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
The point, clearly, is to get us out of our mental circles. Just these simple questions can open up doors which had never been seen before.
So often being a better person is see as eliminating some vice from our lives. But this negative approach rarely accomplishes much in the long run. Instead, develop a practice, an action, a behavior which can fill the emotional space of the bad habit. For example (this is one I got from my chiropractor), say you have a bad habit of smoking or eating too much candy. Add the practice of drinking 8 ounces of water before having a cigarette or eating the candy. Water is good for your body, and, often when we have a hankering for something to eat, our bodies are actually thirsty. We rarely drink enough water. So you are doing something good for yourself, which your body notices as meeting a need and the urges decrease. My chiropractor saw quite a few people quit smoking with just this one little trick. They developed a good practice to interrupt the bad habit. This is why we need to get our heart-centering practices back.
Another similar practice is deep breathing. There are specific breathing patterns which can help release tension, others which energize the body. And the attention to the breath changes our focus from the emotion of the moment, or the ingrained thought pattern and floods the brain with energizing oxygen.
Breathing is one of the best spiritual practices you can ever learn. You can take it with you everywhere. You can do it anytime or place and no one will know you are doing it. Everyone alive can do it, no matter your race, gender, age, physical abilities.
In reading the Pentecost experience, and seeing how it changed the people, I realize that breath is a big part of the story. Spirit is breath. As we breathe in and out, recognizing the Spirit of God, the breath of God, we allow God’s life to fill us, move us, empower us. Spirit is so much more than we could ever ask or imagine! But we can practice getting in touch, being filled with Spirit.
There is science for this! Brain research shows that deep breathing takes us to an altered state where our brains are functioning in Alpha Brain Waves, rather than the normal Beta. Deep breathing takes us to our calming center, stimulates a different part of the brain that the monkey brain where we live most of the time. The most common and available spiritual practice is breathing. This makes perfect sense since Holy Spirit is another name for holy breath. So today, as we prepare to go out, lets cleanse our brains and ready our bodies to be in the world. Lets move from beta brains to alpha brains by breathing together. Some call it breath prayer. It is perhaps the simplest form of prayer.
Breathe deeply, filling your lungs completely.
Deep belly breaths – your abdomen, not your shoulders creating the space for the breath.
Exhale slowly, making your exhale last as long as possible. Pucker your lips as though you were going to whistle, but let your breath escape as slowly and quietly as possible.
Focus your attention on your breath as you exhale.
Exhale completely before you turn your attention to a new intake of breath.