Our window today reads:
COME UNTO ME ALL YE THAT LABOUR AND ARE HEAVY LADEN AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN LOVING MEMORY OF MR. & MRS. C. ALBERT WOOD
For the first time since starting this summer series, I was not able to find anything out about this beautiful window or the people to whom it is dedicated. They must have been an important family to this church and that is all we know for now. Let’s pause and remember all those that went before us. May we honour the cloud of witnesses that surround us in this place and thank them for all they have done to support the ministry and life of Fort Massey Church.
As many of you now know, I am also a yoga teacher. Yoga is more than a physical exercise. Without taking you into a full introduction to the philosophy of yoga, I would like to tell you about one of my favorite core ideas. This particular concept cemented my belief that my yoga practice was not only “ok” to “do” as a Christian, but was one that would actually nurture and support my faith journey with Jesus. Isvara pranidhana is one of 10 moral imperatives that begin the instructions on the yogic way of living. I often jest that these are the 10 commandments of yoga because they match the 10 commandments that I know so well from our Bible. Isvara is a word that means “higher power” and pranidhana means “surrendering”, so it instructs that we must surrender to a higher power. As I studied yoga, I begain to very intentionally incorporate these rules into the central philosophy to my life along with the practices and observances of non-violence, self-study, truthfulness and so on. As I contemplated what surrendering to a higher power meant for me, I kept coming back to the familiar words of my Bible. Psalm 91 and the source of the Bible verse on today’s window from the gospel of Matthew are just two of the many examples where we are encouraged to Trust God. I find it easy to observe practices like non-violence and truthfulness, but surrendering to my higher power, to God, has been difficult for me.
I have a confession to make: I am a control-freak. Surprised? If you don’t know me, don’t be surprised…if you do know me….stop laughing! Let me tell you a story about learning to surrender. I have teased you that I would tell you the story of my call to ministry. I thought I would tell you this next week and when some of you asked me after Marjorie MacLeod’s funeral on Friday when I would tell you that story that’s what I said then too. But when I got home and read over my notes, what I originally wrote for today wasn’t quite right. That’s the one of those taps on the shoulder moments I told you about earlier this summer. One of the things I’ve learned since answering my call is to trust that feeling. So, I started over.
Just over 4 years ago, I decided to upgrade my training as a yoga teacher. By then I had owned a yoga studio for a couple of years. It was going well. But, I felt there was something missing. I knew that a teacher training program was a place where I would not only learn more about teaching yoga, but I was also prepared that it often helps you learn a little something more about yourself. I wasn’t prepared for what it taught me.
One of the practices that we were encouraged to follow was a 40-day practice of mantra meditation. Every day, early in the morning, this meditation practice followed my physical practice. On my mat I whispered the words of The Lord’s Prayer as I moved through the physical motions of yoga sun salutations. Then, I would sit on my cushion with Japa beads in my hands and repeat the words of the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra for three rounds of 108 repetitions….(repeat mantra in sanskit here)..chanting really quickly in my mind following the 108 beads as they moved through my fingers. I began to realize that for the first time since opening my yoga studio a couple of years earlier, on these particular mornings, I was practicing just for me. Getting on my mat wasn’t about practicing so I could plan classes for my students, or just about mastering a physical pose. And, another thing –I was actually making it to the mat instead of putting it off because something else like studio marketing, scheduling or making sure my kids were ready was more important than taking time to take care of myself. I was making it a priority in my life for the first time in a very long time. I was finally practicing what I preached to my students!
I didn’t even know how overwhelmed I had become until I felt the power of personal practice and remembered why I loved Yoga. Yoga had become my JOB. I was so busy just trying to keep it all together. I was successful. People looked up to me. I thought I was so happy. And, I know I was helping a lot of people. The problem was I was tying to do it all on my own and at my personal mental, physical, and even financial expense. By that point in my life, I was running on sheer will-power. I was completely SELF-propelled and forgot where REAL power comes from.
Then… very gradually…each day, I started to feel a shift in my being. I started to feel that there was something more that I was supposed to be doing with my life. I started to feel really unsettled by that realization…slightly disturbed and not just a little bit…angry. When I would sit in silence after meditating, I felt so powerfully in the presence of God and all I just wanted to do was run away! I felt quite indignant actually. I wanted to throw up my hands and shout, “what more do you want from me?!” The worst part was that I didn’t understand where this was all suddenly coming from.
I remembered reading the translation of the Sanskrit mantra before I started the practice, but thought nothing more of it until I began to think, “could the words be the problem?” (yes, I felt it was a problem!). My heart, the Holy Spirit and my sheer curiosity guided me to go read them again. The words loosely translated and interpreted by my understanding are this:
All honour to you, the three-eyed one (who I have always thought of in terms of the trinity), I worship you who is in the sweetness and fullness of life -the good gardener. I am like a cucumber that lies on the ground bound to the vine. Please pick me before I rot into the earth.
And I cried then. Man, I cried because I realized that for the last month I had been asking God to not let me settle for less than God’s will for my life. I had been asking God to pick me up off of the safety of the ground and free me from the fear that kept me from listening to what God wanted from me. You see, I had heard God calling me all my adult life to serve. I had convinced myself that the good work I was doing at the yoga studio was enough. I was wrong. That was only the beginning.
The next weekend at my yoga teacher training program I confessed to a room full of yoga teachers that God wanted me to be a minister in the church. Many of them cried with me. One of them sheepishly said, “It’s about time you figured that out!” It felt like coming clean about what I always knew in my heart but was too afraid to admit…I was made to stand out, never meant to fit in and my life was about to turn upside down so that I could teach others about what it means to let go and let God. Like sitting in the starting gates of a roller coaster, I braced myself for the ride of my life.
One of the things we were asked to do in that program was to create a personal mission statement. Mine is a powerful testament to who I want to be in God. It is said in the now like it is already true. Let me be completely honest with you and confess that it still doesn’t come naturally to me. It goes like this, “I surrender to the will of God and fearlessly trust the Divine to lead me”. My God, I wish that were true. Right now, I guess I’m faking it until I make it. So, that’s the story. I heard my call to ministry in the words of a Hindu mantra repeated in Sanskrit and I finally waved the white flag before God. I surrender! I’ll still resist, but for the most part, I surrender.
I finally understand that it isn’t up to me to decide how this call is supposed to manifest in my life. It means that I need to ask others to help me figure this out. Vulnerability is not my “go-to” method for solving problems or figuring out ideas… I’m a control freak remember? Surrendering for me has always equaled weakness and who wants to admit that? I have learned that vulnerability actually takes great courage and strength and there is nothing weak about it! So, here I am on shakey ground – I don’t completely trust yet and I certainly don’t wholly surrender…but I sure want to. Like Yoga, surrendering is a practice.
Rolf Gates, a yoga teacher who along with Katrina Kenison wrote a terrific book called, “Meditations from the Mat, Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga” says that surrendering to God is a process. In his book (that I encourage you to read if you are interested in this topic of spirituality and yoga) he shares a story about how his first religion was the religion of sports where the winner was worshipped and the loser, was, well the loser. When he found himself a loser after being defeated by alcoholism he recognized that he had nothing to lose and expected he had might have something to gain. So, he turned to the God he didn’t believe in and he prayed. At the time of the book he had been sober for 11 years and has dedicated his life to helping others. He says prayer made the difference. Surrendering to God is a process.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “here let me take all your burdens off you, I got this”. Instead he says, “let me show you how to carry them so they aren’t so heavy”. Here’s the thing about a yoke: it is meant to go between two beasts of burden. It is not carried upon the back of just one Ox. Jesus says to us, “here, hitch onto the other side of my yoke, and I’ll help you carry your load. You don’t have to do it all by yourself anymore. Let’s do it together, so that we can get through this and you can rest”. Remember, Jesus was a teacher who came to show us how to live in a way that follows God’s will. (Interestingly, the root word in Sanskrit for Yoga is Yuj which means “Yoke”).
In the Psalm today, we heard that when we call on God, God is with us in times of trouble. Trouble is going to come, but when it does how often do we call on God to help? And even if we do, how often do we actually trust God to provide the help we asked for? Remember we are taught that we are God’s hands, feet and heart in this world. That is not a one-way street. Other’s hands are God’s hands, other’s feet are God’s feet, and other’s ears are Gods ears…
Think about the last time you refused help from someone, or neglected to ask for assistance, or kept your troubles to yourself because you thought you should or could do it on your own only to find yourself still overwhelmed and even more exhausted. God is waiting to help you! This is what Jesus wants to teach us. He knows that the help he needs comes from God and the only tool he needs is prayer. Pray, then trust, then see the help that is there for you. It’s that simple, but it isn’t always easy.
As much as we don’t want to suffer, there is a certain pride that comes from the no-pain/no-gain model on which we were all raised. Our culture teaches us the value of self-reliance and glorifies those that don’t seem to need anybody. Surrender is for the weak! Fight until the end! Just look at the sheer size of the SELF-HELP section of any bookstore and that should tell us that we are supposed to be able to do this on our own. “Help yourself”, “Stand on your own two feet”! “You got this”. Autonomy and independence are badges of honour. Where is the book that tells us where to turn when we don’t “got this” or we can’t “do it” anymore?
<holding up bible> A Hindu mantra reminded me that my Bible teaches us what it means to surrender to a higher power. This is the Book that teaches us how to surrender to the will of God and fearlessly trust the Divine to lead us. As people of the Book, with God being our helper, we learn that we can meet each other along the way of life with gentle and humble hearts. We are meant to work together to help bear our burdens, lighten the loads and find rest for weary souls. We must be willing to raise that white flag and say, “I surrender”. When we do that we are ready to seek God through prayer, ask for help and then see where God shows up in our lives. God is waiting on us. Be brave.
Pray……God, help me…..