Life Takes Practice: Centering
First Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2017
Reading: Matthew 14:13-23
Pastor Jeff Wells
Welcome to Lent! ’Tis the season to repent…at least that has been the traditionalist view of Lent. This perspective says that during this season we should focus on repenting of our sins and remembering the suffering that Jesus endured to save us from eternal damnation. It is rooted in Medieval theology. While it is true that Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has drawn near,” but he also said, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” God’s deep desire is that we grow and thrive and find fulfillment in loving relationships and deep connection with ourselves, with our communities, and with God.
Jesus did not want us just to recognize and turn away from sin. He wanted us to live life to the fullest, as he did himself – giving his life over to a deeply important purpose, but also relishing each day, being supremely mindful in each encounter and experience, and finding great joy and fulfillment in relationships with friends, followers, and even strangers. It takes practice to live life with such gratitude, openness, and a profound ability to give and receive love. Life takes practice. So today and for the next four Sundays, we will explore five “life practices” that can contribute to our ability to experience deep connection with God, with other human beings, and with ourselves. In designing this series, our Worship Vision Team wanted to distinguish them from the traditional list of spiritual “disciplines,” such as prayer, fasting, and devotional reading of scripture, although these are also valuable and can be a part of what we call “life practices.” We envision these practices to be broader and not necessarily explicitly “religious” practices, though they are necessarily spiritual, since our way of being and our spirituality are inseparable. I am very fond a saying from the 2nd-century Bishop, Irenaeus of Lyons, who declared, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Over the next four Sundays, we will engage the broad practices we have named as listening, empathy, showing up, and letting go. We hope that understanding and practicing them will help all of us move toward being fully alive.
Today, we are engaging the practice of centering. Centering is an ancient practice of many traditions, including Christianity. It is a crucial practice for living our lives fully and well. I am sure that many of you already engage in centering practices on a regular basis – perhaps daily. Some of you may practice centering only irregularly or you have done centering exercises, but have fallen out of the habit and perhaps long to get back to them. I hope that our reflection might help you begin or revive centering practice for your life and our life together.
What is “centering” and why do we need it? Centering is not a strictly Christian or even religious practice. In fact, Thomas Keating, a Catholic priest, who has written a lot about contemplative, centering prayer, points out that when Buddhist and other Eastern centering practices first became popular in the U.S., many Christians flocked to them because they had no idea that Christianity had any tradition of contemplative, centering prayer. That has changed and now there is wide knowledge of the practices of the desert mothers and father and of the Medieval monks and mystics, among others.
Centering prayer and other centering practices can open us to God’s presence and to God’s transforming action within us. Moreover, centering is not about avoiding the vicissitudes of life. It is not about disengaging, but rather, about regularly and repeatedly coming back to a grounded and centered place in our lives so that we can live out of that place and be able to stand with calm and courage in the face of the stresses, anxieties, and turmoil of our daily lives, without losing our balance or direction. We heard that attitude captured in the powerful lyrics of our opening song:
Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes, that we can see
all the things that really matter, be at peace, and simply be.
I want to encourage us to broaden our understanding of what centering practice can encompass. Among Christians, centering prayer is probably the best known centering practice. It can be brief like a breath prayer which can be repeated many times over a few minutes, breathing slowly while reciting one phrase on our inhale and another on our exhale. For example, “I am filled with love...Love flows from me” or one that from the Buddhist tradition that our meditation group has used like, “May I feel safe, may I feel content, may I be strong, may I live with ease.” Centering time can also be longer exercise – a half hour to an hour or more – and include stretching, breathing relaxation exercise, and a period of silent prayer or meditation.
Centering prayer, meditation, breathing exercise, devotional reading, are not exclusive to Christians, but they all tend to be stationary practices. I want to suggest some other practices that are not like this, yet can also be very grounding and centering. An activity doesn’t have to be a “churchy” or explicitly religious to be centering either. I love to walk in the woods. Even in urban areas, there are ways to do that. For example, there is a large wooded area of Central Park called, “The North Wood,” that is near my apartment. As often as I can, when the weather is warm enough, I put on my trail running shoes and do a combination of walking and running on the maze of paths through the wood. It is very hilly, so I get a good workout, but mostly, I get the experience of being away from building, sidewalks, streets, and cars and getting closer to nature. I experience that as very calming, restoring, and centering.
A lot of centering practice is done solo, but centering does not have to be only an individual practice. Being in a small prayer group with others can be a very centering experience. I felt very centered and blessed by being in our small group on Progressive Evangelism on Thursday night. It was not contemplative at all. We had a rich and lively discussion. We actually came up with a definition of progressive evangelism that we think we can use for our congregation. I am also centered each week by participating in the meetings of COTV’s Worship Vision Team. If centering means being grounded in a place out of which we can live our lives fully and openly, then gathering a few friends for dinner or another activity and sharing a good time and laughter can also be very centering as well as joyful. And, of course, worship is one of the most important centering activities of my week and is definitely not a solo practice.
Does anyone have a centering practice you would like to share briefly? [Take one or two responses]
I have already talked about several ways that I keep centered, including worship. I also have a daily morning ritual for centering. Most days, I get up between 6 and 6:30 and start the coffee. I go and splash cool water on my face. When the coffee is brewed, I take my cup of java connect my phone to my mini speaker and begin playing some soft, meditative music. I stand looking out our living room window on the trees across the street. Often, there are birds flying between the buildings and people walking their dogs or already off to work. I spend about 15 minutes stretching and taking slow, deep breaths. Sometimes, I follow this up by sitting quietly to meditate or pray. This usually centers me for the day ahead. I find it is not only good for me emotionally and spiritually, but I know it is important physically, because I always feel more aches and pains when I missed my ritual for a couple of days.
I am not recommending that you adopt my centering practice, but that you develop your own that works for you and try to practice it in with consistency and devotion. I think you will find that it will help you to be very loving toward yourself and persons around you. With disciplined practice, centering can help you to feel more open and connected to God, community, and yourself. I admire the Muslim practice of praying five times a day or the Amish practice of praying what we refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer” many times throughout each day, alone and in their communities.
Believe it or not, most of what I am outlining this morning can be found in the Gospel stories about Jesus life. Jesus had good life practices. He certainly prayed frequently. The gospel stories attest that Jesus did this throughout his life, as we saw in the passage from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, where Jesus went off alone to pray at the beginning of the passage to restore himself when he heard of his cousin’s execution and also to prepare himself for the day of ministry that lay ahead. Then, at the and at the end of the passage, he went off to pray again – to find his center again, to be revived again, to be able to teach, heal, and love the next large group of people who he knew would come to him. Jesus also participated in a small group that grounded his life. He frequently had dinners with friends and followers. And from the ground of all of this centering, he went out intentionally seeking to build relationships, invite people to share with him about their lives, and express his deep love and compassion for them.
I still have plenty to learn about centering practice. Fortunately, for all of us, there are a lot of resources available to help us develop centering as a life practice. We have our own meditation group that meets every Sunday before worship and a prayer group that gathers by phone every Thursday at noon. There are abundant resources available online. We have provided some suggestions on a sheet in your bulletin. These and more will be available on the COTV website later this week. Each of the next four weeks, we will provide examples of the life practice we are focusing on that week, so that by the end you will have at least these five practices to explore and will know some ways of doing them.
Remember: life takes practice. The more you are able to get into the habit of centering daily and weekly, the more, I believe, you will feel grounded and more fully present to yourself, your communities, and to God.
Finally, one of our most powerful centering practices is the sharing of sacred communion around the table of God’s grace, reminding us of God’s extravagant and continuous outpouring of love for us, of our call to live full and abundant lives, and of the ground we stand on together in Christ. In preparation for centering ourselves in communion, I invite you to sing with me, The Open Table.