Sermon for Sunday, January 23, 2022 || Epiphany 3C || Psalm 19
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
Many preachers begin each of their sermons with this verse from today’s psalm. I can hear my father’s voice in my head praying these words time and again as I grew up. He always pluralized the second half, saying, “The meditation of all our hearts.”
I’d like to talk about meditation today and invite you all into the practice that I began when I was on my sabbatical in 2019. I honestly cannot say where I’d be in the midst of all the anxieties and pressures and hardships and sorrows of the last two years without this practice of meditation.
First, a story. I was less than two weeks into my new discipline of meditation. I was working my way from five minutes to ten minutes, and it was…not going well. Turns out, five minutes is a LONG TIME when you’re not used to sitting quietly. It’s like when you’re brushing your teeth, and you actually try to brush for the full two minutes that dentists recommend. Who knew two minutes could last forever? Well, after a few weeks, I was still operating under the delusion that I could become “good at meditating” quickly, like it was learning to ride a bicycle or something. I was so concerned with doing it right that the concern itself became my focus. And sitting for five minutes accidentally focusing on anxiety is sort of the opposite thing from what I was going for.
Thankfully, in the midst of my early days of meditating, I went to Israel. On our second morning there, our tour guide got our group up before the crack of dawn (literally) and piled us onto the bus for a short ride into the Old City of Jerusalem. We were the first group at the gate leading to the Western Wall, the only portion of the ancient temple still standing. The sun broke over the Mount of Olives, and the guards began letting people into the plaza. Hundreds of Jewish men and women sat before the wall praying their individual devotions. Our group hung back and watched the proceedings for a time. Then our tour guide invited us to go up to the wall and touch it, and perhaps to leave a written prayer request slipped in between the stones. I followed the other men of our group (there were separate sections of the wall for men and women), and we all donned yarmulkes from a public supply.
I reached the wall and placed my hand on the night-cooled stone. Never in my life had I touched a structure made by human hands older than this one. The thousands of years of prayers by millions of people were part of the stone, were the mortar between the bricks. After a moment, a sense of peace stole over me, and I closed my eyes. I began breathing with my meditation word. I kept breathing, deep inhales, slow exhales. Ten minutes went by without me registering the passage of time at all. For the first time since beginning my meditation discipline, I was not concerned with the method or the timer on my phone. I just breathed. And for ten minutes, I moved from a space of doing to a space of simply being.
After my experience at the Western Wall, I tried to let go of my need to be a perfect meditator and just to allow the discipline of meditation to be what it would be in the moment – which is, sort of, the point of meditation. Since then, I increased my morning ritual from ten to twenty minutes, and that time early each morning has become an incredibly important piece of my relationship with God. As a writer, preacher, and teacher, my mind is usually full of words – so full of words that I can’t get my brain to slow down. But those twenty minutes of meditation exist in a wordless space of silence, a space that restores and refreshes my soul and my mind. Here is the simple method that I have incorporated into my own practice (knowing that, of course, there are myriad types of meditation from many traditions).
I sit comfortably with my hands resting in my lap, palms up. I lightly close my eyes. I search my body for any undue tension and adjust my position to release it. I breathe in deeply through my nose. I exhale with a word spoken slowly, using all my breath. The word is Maranatha. This word comes from the end of the Book of Revelation and translates as, “Come, Lord Jesus.” But in the moment, I’m not concentrating on the meaning of the word. I am simply breathing the few syllables, allowing each short-A vowel an equal portion of my current breath. Ma-ra-na-tha.
Inevitably, thoughts enter my mind. This does not mean I have failed at meditating. Rather, I recognize that I am thinking and allow the thought to fly away on the breeze of the next breath, the next Ma-ra-na-tha. Each time a thought enters my mind, I acknowledge it and return to the breath. I spend twenty minutes in this space of silent meditation. When I am done, I return to my thoughts and words by praying my intention for the day: “Dear God, I set my intention for this day: to be at peace with all creatures, including myself; to have compassion for myself and others; and to set my heart on Christ.”
That’s it. That’s the whole process. I built my practice from five to twenty minutes over the course of many months in 2019. In the years since, the practice has come and gone, but I do try to bring it back whenever I slide away from it because this discipline has become such an integral piece of my relationship with God. Along with sustaining my side of this relationship, meditation has made my inner self more peaceful and less anxious. Meditation has opened up space within me to receive the often challenging witnesses to the realities of racism and white supremacy in my own self and in society. Meditation has helped me get in touch with the mysterious foundation of being that I can only encounter in the pregnant possibility of silence.
In his book, Word Into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation, John Main says, “In meditation, we do not seek to think about God nor do we seek to think about [God’s] Son, Jesus, nor do we seek to think about the Holy Spirit. We are trying rather to do something immeasurably greater. By turning aside from everything that is passing, everything that is contingent, we seek not just to think about God, but to be with God, to experience God as the ground of our being.”
Our be-ing: the sublime state in which I recognize I am because God is, that we are because God is. And in this recognition to rest in God’s presence. As St. Augustine says at the beginning of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” In meditation, we let go of everything we think about God, everything we think about ourselves, everything we think about the world, everything we think period. We breathe and we…be. And when we start thinking again, we realize how revolutionary an act simply being is in a world built on productivity and consumption and doing, doing, doing. Each moment of meditation is a little rebellion against this world, a little carving out of space for the silent presence of the reign of God.
I encourage you to try meditating as a spiritual discipline. Use the method I spoke about earlier or research another. And I assure you, the meditations of all our hearts will be acceptable to God, our strength and our redeemer.