© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
Walt Whitman, the great American poet, once said, “Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
And as a long summer now lies ahead, I am drawn again to the great outdoors and to the natural realm. Like many of you, it is a place I love to spend my time and where I feel closest to the Divine. Hiking a forest trail, mowing my lawn and smelling the sweet, pungent cut grass or swimming in the warm ocean, I am the most fulfilled. And in those times and spaces, I find contact with what it is that Whitman often wrote. We do not simply visit nature as tourists. We go back to it. Nature is our womb and our home. We are a part of the natural order and its elements are a part of us. I do not seek the stale religion of musty sanctuaries, ancient writings and tired platitudes. Mine is to seek a spirituality of growth and vitality and joy. It seeks understanding of the universe around me and also that which is deep within my mind and soul. If we could worship each and every Sunday in a cathedral of giant trees or a field of wild flowers, I would gladly give up this space.
For our message series this month, I want to explore the three natural elements that give us life, that comprise who we are and allow us to survive. In these messages ahead, I hope to dig our hands into the dark soil of the earth – that which feeds us and is the essence of our physical beings. From the earth we came and to the earth we will one day return. I want to fill our lungs with pure air, deep and cleansing and mysterious. Air is all around us and yet unseen – alive with power and spiritual force. And, I want to bathe in liquid water that purifies, soothes and embraces. As Jesus said, we were born through water and, in it, we find renewal. Today, and in the following two Sundays, let us celebrate summer meditations on the essential elements of life………..air, earth and water.
For each of us, we were not counted as a living person until we took our first breath. I well remember those of my two daughters – what a privilege it is to ear that first plaintive wail – “I’m alive!” that comes from a newborn as he or she breathes for the first time. And, we will not cease to be counted as a living person until our lungs inhale one final time. Air is the breath of life. Without food we can live four to six weeks. Without water, we can survive 3 to 5 days. Without air, we will live only 3 to 4 minutes. But I don’t want to ponder our biological need for this element. I seek to understand its mysterious realm – the power of wind, spirit and breath that is holy. Indeed, the Bible story of creation says that after humanity was physically created, God poured his breath – his air – into humankind. For many of us, air seems to come from some Divine but unknowable source. We understand its physical properties and atomic structures, but we too frequently ignore its spiritual presence and purpose in our lives – in the fragrance of a flower, the rush of a breeze, the sound of a bell chime, the mysteries it allows us to discover through deep breathing. Lacking scientific understanding of air and wind, the Bible writers called it ruach, which in Hebrew is often translated as spirit. The air is spirit. It is unseen, unknown, ephemeral. And yet it is felt and its power observed. As much as we might reduce air to a movement of molecules, I want to elevate it to its proper and spiritual place in our lives.
I believe the single greatest motivating factor in any of our lives is to find the purpose for our life. And, as I have said many times, our true purpose is not to simply exist for ourselves but to live so that we leave behind ripples in an ocean of time – small waves we generate that expand outward and impact creation for countless years into the future. In order to purposefully serve, however, we must understand the meaning of our individual lives. This comes, I believe, from understanding our souls – the very essence of who we are. When we employ only rational thought and reasoned thinking to understand our personal meaning, we engage in a form of callous agnosticism. We ignore or even reject the mysterious reality of our souls – something by reason or science we are unable to identify.
For Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, the soul is a form of spirit or air. It is not tangible or a thing we can easily point to like something solid. Is is simply there. As the Jewish and Christian God poured into humankind a soul with the puff of first breath, Hindu and Buddhist spirituality finds the soul accessible only through our breathing. It floats on the air we inhale and exhale. Only in finding that soul of ours can we truly feel, experience and enjoy nature, other people and the essential elements of life. Air then becomes not just a physical vehicle for sustaining life, it is life – it is our soul and the souls of those all around us. When we focus on the air and on our breathing, we touch our inner heart which cries and laughs, feels joy and pain and is the REAL us.
This mystery soul within us defines the person we are. And it is in that self-definition that we are then able to understand the great purpose we have in life. What does my soul tell me about myself? Doug is contemplative, sensitive, aware and sensual. This is not my personality which is influenced by outside forces. My soul is the essential me as I was originally created. As I continually seek greater understanding of my soul, I can then embark on the purpose of my life – to serve others according to the unique qualities of my soul.
Even as I find my inner self, I am still left with mystery and unknown spiritual forces at work in my life. My soul will guide me to places I have no idea where. Jesus said “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit or Ruach.” For those who know their true soul, it is possible to understand our past but we cannot know our future. We drift much like the wind, as unsettling as that is for many of us. Indeed, asking me just two short years ago if I would stand here now as Pastor, I would have laughed. And yet, I know my soul brought me here and is allowing me to partially fulfill my life purpose of service. My soul, acting as the air all around me, guided me to the Gathering and will lead me to destinations of which I can only dream.
When asked what gives a person full awakening and enlightenment, the Buddha is reported to have said, “Be mindful of your breathing.” All the keys to existence and meaning are found in our breathing and in the air. Indeed, it is said by Hindus and Buddhists that the breath is the pathway to the soul. Meditative breathing opens up our inner hearts and inner minds. As much as it is a channel to our souls, breath is also the soul itself. Such a concept is certainly not provable as much as it is intuitive and knowable by experience. When I sit with mountains all around me and deeply breathe in the crisp, cool air, I begin to know things. As each of us might attest, walking through a rain damp forest with the earth and pine filling our nostrils, or swimming across a lake as we stroke by stroke pull lungfuls of fresh air, these are times of clarity and vision and spiritual awakening. We are in touch with our very souls. And the same holds true in meditation or focused breathing. Breathing adds to our soul experiences and eliminates the toxins within us. Beyond expelling carbon dioxide from our bodies, deep breathing cleanses us of worry, doubt, fear and pain. And it energizes life within us. It enlarges and clarifies our who we are.
Such meditative or mindful breathing involves finding a quiet place to sit and relax. Buddhists encourage deep breaths inhaled through the nose and then a short pause before slowly exhaling. Pulling from a relaxed stomach or diaphragm, we might envision air entering and exiting through our navels. With our eyes closed and our minds focused on our breathing, our minds move away from the concerns, dreams and issues of life. We drift like the wind, as Jesus said, to a new understanding of who we are. Air is allowed to fill every part of our body – not just our lungs. And we exhale in the same manner – breathing out from every part of ourselves.
Hindus encourage the same breathing practice but with a different technique. In the Hindu manner, we assume a meditative pose, sitting and relaxed, eyes closed or focused on an object straight ahead of us, and then breathe deeply through a slightly open mouth. Inhale deeply, pause and then exhale in a way that produces a slight “ha” sound. This ocean breathing as it is called, because it mimics ocean sounds, is called practical spirituality for the Hindu. Instead of emphasizing philosophical thinking or performing dutiful good deeds, this breathing practice opens up such worlds to us with little mental or physical activity. Ocean breathing is practical because we find answers to the questions we ponder. Ocean breathing leads us to actions we should take – instead of acting blindly. More importantly, this breathing – this taking in of air – engages the calm center in us and allows to fully feel, sense and experience the world around us.
After learning of this technique, I sat in my garden last week and tried ocean breathing. Thoughts played regularly across my mind but I returned my focus to my breaths and, in doing so, I did sense all that I rarely heard or felt before – the soft rustle of wind in the trees, a far off coo of a morning dove, the murmur of water in my pond, the salt sweet scent of ocean air, the enfolding heat of the sun, even sensing the drifting of clouds across a blue sky. I cannot say I found great and profound truths – perhaps with more practice I will. But this was religion and church and spirituality for me – as it always is when I allow myself to escape from the man-made world I usually inhabit. And in the air and in my breathing, I could reach inside of myself and then open back up to a more real world. Indeed, Buddhists say this is like the opening of a lotus flower – through our breathing of fresh air, our minds and souls bloom.
While earlier I spoke of our individual purposes in life, we must also think of the purpose for our little congregation. Why do we exist and what purpose do we serve here? That is a question I often ponder each time I determine a monthly message series theme. What will we accomplish by hearing and thinking about a topic? I certainly do not want to act as an expert guide. I speak on many issues of which I am not an expert. But I hope to point us in a direction of reflection and discussion that will improve our thinking, our actions and our lives. In doing so, I hope that also improves our interactions with the wider world – how we care for, treat and serve other people and other creatures.
As we think about the qualities of air that adds spiritual energy to our lives, I hope we can each reflect on its mystical, mysterious and unknown aspects. Air is essential to physical life but it is just as essential to spiritual life. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the famous English nineteenth century poet, once said, “He lives most life who breathes most air.” At first blush, the saying seems obvious – the longer we live, the more air we breathe. But I believe that is not what Browning intended in her statement. Air is a puff of enlightenment, a wind that fills our sails of self, a breeze that awakens and defines our souls. In the air is God. She and He wafts across its transparent vapors to inhabit us. Air is our soul, our being, our life. In pondering these thoughts, I conclude with a poem by Henry Van Dyke, an American theologian and poet of the early 1900’s. “God of the Open Air” speaks to the spirituality of which I have spoken…
Thou who hast made thy dwelling fair
With flowers beneath, above with starry lights,
And set thine altars everywhere,–
On mountain heights,
In woodlands dim with many a dream,
In valleys bright with springs,
And on the curving capes of every stream:
Thou who hast taken to thyself the wings
Of morning, to abide
Upon the secret places of the sea,
And on far islands, where the tide
Visits the beauty of untrodden shores,
Waiting for worshippers to come to thee
In thy great out-of-doors!
To thee I turn, to thee I make my prayer,
God of the open air. Angel of Air,
Holy messenger of the Earthly Mother,
Enter deep within me,
As the swallow plummets from the sky,
That I may know the secrets of the wind
And the music of the stars.