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Reflection September 22, 2019
"Calming Our Frantic Souls" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, September 22, in my preaching, I recounted the well-known account of the renowned violinist, Joshua Bell, playing Bach pieces for morning commuters during a 45 minute concert in the Washington D.C. Metro station. I will not recount the entire story, but the point was that most of us are so busy rushing around that we fail to appreciate what is right before our eyes. I wish to continue reflecting on the frenetic pace of our lives, especially as it relates to prayer.
We find ourselves in a frantic & frenetic society that seems to value speed over depth. I believe the pace of the present leads to increased worry and increased anxiety. So how might we achieve the calm and quiet soul that is so important to our deepening prayer life?
W would do well to confront the hectic living that agitates and unsettles so many of us. I believe our hyperactive age pushes many of us into compulsions, addictions, and aggression. Many of the problems we face in our society and in our world, I believe flow from the frantic pace of the way we live. As the pastor, Alan Jones, notes in Reimagining Christianity: “… unless we do something about our addiction to velocity, the future comes hurtling toward us with frightening and seemingly directionless speed.”
Of course, our propensity to anxiety, worry, and fear has been with us for some time. As the Book of Ecclesiastes exhorts us from millennia ago: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.”
Now I do not consider my work as your pastor to be a vexation (most of the time)! But the point is that we can all get caught in an attitude of anxiety and worry that never leaves us, even through the wee hours of the night
As the minister Wayne Muller notes in his book, A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough: “We have forgotten what enough feels like. We live in a world seduced by its own unlimited potential … (but) no matter how strong our hearts, or how good our intentions, each day the finish line seems farther away, the bar keeps rising, nothing is ever finished, nothing ever good enough…we despair of ever finding comfort, relief, or sanctuary.”
Isn’t this so for so many of us? At the end of each day, do we lay our head on the pillow and exclaim that this day we did enough or do we fret about how much there still remains to be done? I often write down the things I need to do the next day before going to bed, so my mind won’t have to remember them all. But I don’t often lay my head on the pillow with a sense of having done all I’d have liked with the day. So I fear I may well be infected with the prevailing pestilence of “never enough.”
When do we take a deep breath? Some time ago I came across an article that noted how the Hebrew word translated as “rested” in the Book of Genesis’ first account of creation can also be translated as “exhaled.” So where the Bible reads that God “rested” on the seventh day from all the work of creation, it could also read that God “exhaled” after all the work.
When we exhale? When do we catch our breath? When do we relax from all our labors? The idea of Sabbath has long become lost to us. Yet if God can “exhale” – then so should we! There is much happening around the church with our transition time, but we must n ever allow ourselves to become swallowed up by chaos. Chaos never comes from God.
In Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Rohr talks about the sacred name of God, revealed to Moses at the burning bush. I preached on “Naming God” earlier in our summer series on prayer.
The Hebrew word for God defies any and all attempts to absolutely identify it. Today we say the sacred name of God is “Yahweh.” But we must remember that written Hebrew does not have vowels, so the name for God is the Sacred Tetragrammaton - YHVH.
Rohr comments: “(This word) was considered a literally unspeakable word for Jews … Instead, (the Jews) used Elohim or Adonai in speaking or writing. From God’s side the divine identity was kept mysterious and unavailable to the mind … This unspeakability has long been recognized, but now we know it goes even deeper: formally the word was not spoken at all, but breathed!
“Many (scholars) are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. (In other words) The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God. This makes it our first and our last word as we enter and leave the world.”
Isn’t this an amazing thought to consider? With every breath we take, we may well be voicing the sacred name of the One Who Made Us. Perhaps this awareness might help us slow ourselves down just a bit so we might breathe the sacred name in a manner befitting the sacred name.
The sacred name is never to be used in vain as the third commandment stipulates (the third commandment for most Protestants; the second commandment for Catholics and Lutherans. We can‘t even agree on how the commandments are to be numbered!) What the commandment means is we must never assume we can grasp the divine essence or know anything substantial about the soul of our God.
As I’ve preached endlessly, God has always been and will always be: Absolute Mystery. Yet maybe we can immerse ourselves in the sacred name of God by paying attention to our breath.
I believe we can calm our souls and release much of our worrying, if we pay closer attention to our breathing. Breathing deeply and explosive exhaling were very much a part of my martial art training.
We could all use rituals by which we, in a sense, stop the world or at least slow it down. Even for those here who live alone, I’d recommend taking a few minutes just to catch our breath at the end of each day. As I’ve preached, I end most of my days sitting in silence in the dark, drinking a cup of herbal tea, letting go of what needs to be released.
Catching our breath does not mean sitting zoned out in front of our televisions. Let me add something here from Dr. Daniel Amen’s Healing the Hardware of the Soul: “In another study, adults who watched two or more hours a day of TV had a significantly higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Watching TV usually involves little brain activity.” So watching television is probably not the best way to catch our breath, not the best way to calm our soul.
Jesus tells us again and again in the Gospels: “Peace to you.” Let me add something about faith from minister Wayne Muller’s powerful book, Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood: “Genuine faith is born of the ability to trust in what is most fundamentally true within ourselves … the object of faith is not to eliminate difficult circumstances, nor is faith about trusting in a God who will rescue us from hurt, or who, if only we believe strongly enough, will make everything better.
“The real question of faith is when pain and loss inevitably come our way, do we withdraw in fear … or do we deepen our trust in our innate capacity to endure them? … Faith is a centering response. The search for faith is a search for our true nature, for the spirit within, the divine strength that lives in our deepest heart.”
In other words, faith is not about believing in a God who will immediately rescue us from all troubles. Faith is about believing in a God who has given us and continues to give us the courage and strength we need to live our lives.
Certainly prayer helps calm our minds, calm our souls. Again something from Dr. Amen’s Healing the Hardware of the Soul: “Prayer and meditation are essential to spirituality … and optimal brain function … Establish a routine. Pray or meditate at certain times each day. Before you get up in the morning, at lunch, after dinner, whatever works for you. Also, say grace before meals, establishing a ritual and an attitude of gratitude at mealtime can be very comforting for both children and adults. Pray at night before going to bed.”
Dr. Amen also notes as I have mentioned previously: “People who pray or read the Bible every day are 40 percent less likely to suffer from hypertension than those who do not.” Now this doesn’t mean that if one suffers from hypertension, it means such a person doesn’t pray. But praying has been shown again and again to help us physically as well as spiritually.
God wants us to be “fully alive” as I preached last Sunday. Jesus Christ wants us to be free of oppressive anxiety and ceaseless worry. Jesus teaches us in one of my favorite sayings: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them … Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…therefore, do not worry.” God wants us to live with calm souls, to cease our restless rushing after the wind! I need to embrace this truth. Maybe we all do!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor