I had the opportunity to travel to Whittier Friends Church outside of LA this past weekend. I was invited by the dean of my seminary (Earlham School of Religion or ESR) to come and speak about entrepreneurial ministry, which is a name being applied to ministers working outside of traditional church settings. It’s a growing reality and one that I’m happy to see ESR supporting.
My own ministry work, which happens online, in yoga studios, and with one-on-one clients in my office, is definitely outside traditional structures. There is a hunger in our culture for authentic spiritual practice and a desire for connection with divine mystery (an idea that holds different meanings for different people) and I feel greatly blessed to be able to come alongside people and offer support as they search for these things in their own way and seek well-being in their bodies, minds, and spirits.
While at Whittier Friends, I had the opportunity to preach, which is something I love to do, but don’t often get the chance. My work focuses on spirituality and yoga and I enjoyed writing a sermon that weaves these two things together for a Quaker audience.
I wanted to be able to share my message with this community, and since sermons are meant to be heard, I decided to record it for you. There’s about 5 minutes of silence after the sermon for your own quiet reflection. The recording ends with a meditation bell so you can relax into the quiet without worrying about time.
For those of you that would prefer to read the sermon, or would like to follow along as you listen, here’s the full text:
One of my favorite religious ideas is that there is “That of God in Everyone.” I have no idea where I first heard this phrase, but my guess is that it was after I had found my way to the Religious Society of Friends. When (the earliest Friend) George Fox preached, he was trying to reach that of God within people. He wanted to turn his listeners toward their own inner voice of conviction. This inner voice, this God within, is often referred to as the Inner Light. Thomas Kelly writes that Fox and the early Friends “…went out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness, and called [people] to listen above all to that of God speaking within them, to order all life by the Light of the [Inner] Sanctuary.”
And here we are, sitting together over 300 years later, continuing to respond to this radical call. We are gathered here to listen to That of God Within together. It’s a glorious thing. But this morning I would actually like to focus, not on the gift of spiritual community (which is wonderful), but on our individual spiritual practices. On how we answer this call on our own, in the everyday details of our personal lives.
In searching for my own answers to this question, I have often turned to the writing of Thomas Kelly, specifically his chapter called “Inner Light” in the book Testament of Devotion. In it he writes: “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.”
This is an utterly beautiful description of something that, really, is indescribable. Kelly is speaking about the deepest part of who we are. It’s a subject that comes up a lot in my work as a minister and a yoga therapist. These conversations often turn toward the act of remembering. How do we remember this inner sanctuary of the soul? How do we remember the Light Within? How do we remember it, not just on Sunday morning, but continuously? How do we remember it in line at the grocery store, or doing the dishes, or struggling at work, or while enjoying a Friday night out? How do we remember it in our decisions and actions? How do we live in constant relationship with our own Inner Light—with That of God within us? We ask these questions because the reality is, we often don’t. We often forget. We get lost in the momentum of our everyday habits and routines.
The practice of remembering is challenged everyday by the reality of change in our lives. Change is a part of our existence. Everything is changing moment to moment to moment. This has always been true. And in our fast moving, frenetically changing world, our thoughts are constantly shifting. We’re holding onto memories of the past and we’re imagining the future. Sometimes we’re fearful and sometimes we’re laughing with a dear friend. No matter what’s happening in our mind at any given moment though, one thing is probably true. We are more than likely lost in the thought—absorbed, subsumed. It’s not that our focus is so clear that we’re completely present with each passing thought. It’s that our true identity has been lost in the sea of changing thoughts.
We spend most of our time living at the level of constant change. We forget the Light within us that is somehow underneath change or beyond change or in some other mysterious way that cannot be put into words, unchanging. It’s the truest part of who we are and yet, we spend most of our time, I don’t know, having forgotten it, or ignoring it. We spend most of our time absorbed and lost in the ever changing nature of our thinking mind.
And our thinking mind is powerful. Our life is shaped by what we think about the most. Our actions, our relationships, the way we move about in the world, they’re all shaped by what we think. And what do we think about? Having worked side by side with people over the past several years—helping them unpack and change their thinking patterns—I will say that most people’s thinking is pretty judgmental. We judge ourselves. We judge each other. Our thoughts are filled with fear, anger, greed, grief, and yes, there’s also excitement, pleasure, and happiness. But these are often accompanied by an underlying anxiety or worry. This mess of constantly shifting thoughts creates the life we live. We become what we think.
In our absorption with our changing thoughts––in our forgetfulness––we have given our true identity away. Remembering this identity—remembering the Light Within—is one of the most important goals of religious practice. We’re all searching for peace. For joy. But true and lasting joy does not come from the frenetic, anxiety producing external world in which we live. It comes from within. From deep within the inner sanctuary of the soul.
Please understand that I am not asking you to live the life of a monk. I am not saying that the only way to live a life of true peace is to withdraw from the world of change. In fact, I think most of us are called to live and work in the world. What I’m asking you to do is to think about how you live in the world. What if you reacted (take a moment to think about that word…reacted. Something happens and you react. How many reactions do you have––good, bad, or neutral––every day?) What if you reacted to the world (which includes everything and everyone you know) from the mindset of the Light Within rather than the mindset of your ever-shifting thought patterns?
If our reactions came from our Inward Light, I think the world would be a different place. And this is why I find daily practice so important. I think of spiritual practice as anything a person does on a regular basis to stay connected to God—to live life from the awareness and clarity that comes from a consistent connection with the Inner Light––with That of God within you.
So how do we do it? How do we practice? How do we practice remembering? How do we live from the inner sanctuary that Thomas Kelly so poetically described?
First, you have to find the inner sanctuary. You have to make an initial connection––a personal one, an experiential understanding of the Light Within you. I would guess that most of you have done this, but if you don’t know how, ask your pastor, a weighty friend, or find a teacher. A starting place is to do as the psalms teach: Be still. Be still long enough for the changing nature of your thoughts to calm down, to subside, to clear space for you to hear the still, small voice that is underneath the constant movements of your mind. Please understand that this practice of stillness is not easy work. Let me give you an example of something the prophet Elijah experienced. In 1 Kings we read:
“The word of the Lord came to him… ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
I can’t think of a more apt description of the reality and tumultuous nature of spiritual practice. When we become still, we’re not always met with peaceful silence. We’re often met by the feeling of a wind so strong it can split mountains. We’re often met by the feeling of earthquakes within our minds and our bodies. We’re often met by the feeling that God is not there. But in my experience, if we stick with it, if we, like Elijah, can stick with our efforts long enough, we may encounter a moment of sheer silence. We may hear an inner voice asking us ‘What are you doing here.’
These are descriptions of the dramatic moments of spiritual practice. And if you dedicate yourself to practice, there will be dramatic moments. But don’t grow attached to them because practice is filled far more with boring moments––with the humdrum of daily effort. Don’t give up on practice after the drama and excitement subside. Find a practice that you can sustain and that will sustain you.
In regards to practice Thomas Kelly wrote:
“What is here urged are internal practices and habits of the mind. What is here urged are secret habits of unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being about the Inward Light, ways of conducting our inward life so that we are perpetually bowed in worship, while we are also very busy in the world of daily affairs. What is here urged are inward practices of the mind at deepest levels, letting it swing like the needle, to the polestar of the soul. And like the needle, the Inward Light becomes the truest guide of life.”
In these words, Kelly alludes to the instructions given by Paul in 1 Thessalonians, when he tells us to “Pray without ceasing.”
Allow an inward prayer to come forth from the Light Within you. Take this prayer and create the internal practice of unceasing repetition. Begin the hard work of establishing yourself in this prayer––of transforming the state of your mind from one lost in the sea of ever changing thought to a mind grounded in your true identity. This is the practice of remembering the Light Within. This is the practice of living a life guided by That of God Within you.
If we can stay dedicated to our practice––through the dramatic, the boredom, the struggle––we can begin to answer the most important questions of our lives (questions like the one Elijah heard). We can answer these questions through our everyday actions. Amidst the ever changing nature of our minds and our lives, we can remember our Inner Light. From the ground and support of our daily practice we can answer the call “to listen above all to that of God speaking within us, to order all life by the Light of the [Inner] Sanctuary.”
As we prepare to move into silent worship, I invite you to close your eyes if you feel comfortable. Become aware of your breath, that holy and vital source of life flowing through you. Allow your breath to slow down. Savor the sensation of it as your lungs fill and empty. Allow your attention to rest in the center of your being. Imagine an inner cave. A cave like the one that Elijah was in as he witnessed a mountain-splitting-wind, an earthquake, a fire, and sheer silence. In your own inner silence, remember Thomas Kelly’s words: “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.” Allow yourself to rest in this holy place, to listen for this speaking Voice.