Matthew 14: 22 – 23, Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN

My Epiphany word for this year is “Relaxation.” Over the last few months, I truly embodied that word. This season of relaxation has been bookmarked by two silent retreats with the church. One in May and the other last weekend. The silent retreats are a time to rest, relax, pray, meditate, hike, read, to be mindful. Both retreats took place at a hermitage in the stunningly beautiful rugged coastal mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. The view at this Hermitage is of both ocean and woods – a natural setting profoundly conducive to the contemplative way of life.  I am immensely grateful to this congregation that believes in the spiritual value of silent retreats.

In June, our family flew across the country to the beautiful state of Florida. After spending a few days in Orlando and boating on the magnificent lakes there, we drove to Port Canaveral where we boarded a ship for the Bahamas for the Rose Family Reunion Cruise. There were approximately 40 members of the Rose family on the cruise ship. Karen’s family is absolutely lovely and I enjoyed getting acquainted with my in-laws. I, also, enjoyed swimming and floating in the warm, crystal clear, turquoise waters of the Bahamas under the tropical sun. Palm trees lining the shore. I don’t know that I have ever felt so relaxed.

Shortly after returning from the Bahamas, I flew out to Chicago to celebrate my best friend, Lourdes’ 50th birthday. For this grand occasion, 50 of her closest female friends gathered in a sacred circle with Lourdes in the center and we shared words of love and gratitude for a life well-lived. It may have been one of the holiest birthday parties I have ever attended and an important reminder to share words of love and gratitude with family and friends.

A few days after returning from Chicago, Daniella and I headed to Pilgrim Pines for Big Feet / Little Feet camp. As a child, teenager and young adult, I attended camp at Pilgrim Pines each summer as both a camper and then later as a counselor. Some of my most meaningful spiritual experiences took place at Pilgrim Pines. What a joy to pass the tradition on to Daniella and Ian. They too experience the Divine love in nature, through songs, and in interactions with one another. I am grateful to this congregation for financially and prayerfully supporting our campers. Thank you!

After Big Feet / Little Feet camp, I drove up the coast to Santa Cruz and met some high school friends for a few days of tent camping. We sat around the campfire and told stories (funny, sad, and embarrassing stories) around the campfire. We slept under the ancient redwood forest canopies. We woke up to the dawn chorus of birds singing at the start of a new day.  We participated in forest bathing. Forest bathing is a Japanese practice that involves spending quality time in a forest. Breathing in certain organic compounds from trees has been shown to increase immune function and reduce stress. I certainly found myself healthy, well stress free, and relaxed in the Santa Cruz redwoods.

Finally, Karen, Daniella and I traveled with my brother and his family to the Grand Canyon and Sedona for a week. From Williams, Arizona we rode on the Grand Canyon Railway. The terrain changes from high desert to prairie, from prairie to pine and then the breathtaking Grand Canyon, one of the seven wonders of the world. Following the visit to the Grand Canyon, we traveled to Sedona and enjoyed the striking, brilliant, glowing red rock formations and soaked in the vortex energy centers.

Yes, that is how I spent my summer vacation with family and friends and nature. Thank you for much needed respite time. Thank you for being patient with me as I have been away quite a lot this season. It was time well spent. Rest and relaxation encourages us to slow down, to listen, to sense, to feel, to be attentive. Relaxation reconnects us to the Holy.

In our scripture passage this morning, we hear that Jesus, too went away to connect with the Holy. Over and over again (on 25 different occasions in the Gospels), Jesus goes off to rest, to pray, to deepen his love relationship with the Divine. It’s how he began his ministry. It’s how he made important decisions. It’s how he dealt with the constant demands of his ministry. It’s how he cared for his soul. He spent time in prayer. We could call it the practice of mindfulness.

Prayer is mindfulness and mindfulness is prayer. Each requires us to be present to affirm the extraordinary within the ordinary. To slow down. To pay attention. To be mindful. To connect with the Sacred. Without this sense of the sacred something fundamental to our existence is missing. Our daily life lacks a basic nourishment, a depth of meaning.

Fortunately, we don’t need to travel to find the Holy. We don’t need to travel in a car, boat, train, or plane. We can let it come alive within us right here, right now through the practice of mindfulness.  “The sacred is not a place to go, but a state of being” (Spiritual Ecology, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and Hilary Hart, p. iii).

In recent times, you may have heard much about the practice of mindfulness. In 1990, there were only 3 articles in academic journals on the topic of mindfulness. In 2019, there are over 700 articles in academic journals on mindfulness. Mindfulness can be used to treat opioid addiction. Mindfulness is being studied on the front lines in Iraq, equipping soldiers for life after war. Mindfulness is being used as a tool in the battle for racial justice at home. Mindfulness helps firefighters keep calm in the midst of chaos. Mindfulness is used to treat anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. The simple act of mindfulness, paying attention can improve our lives and the world we share.

Seven out of ten Americans feel worn out by the amount of news they receive. Many people are living in a state of constant nervous-system overdrive. While we can’t change the world, at least not quickly, we can change our brains, bringing a deeper sense of calm and serenity through the practice of mindfulness. We’re naturally more focused on the negative because our brains are wired to look for threats, but we can level the playing field by focusing on the positive. Mindfulness affirms the extraordinary within the ordinary.

Mindfulness connects us to the sacred. One of the easiest ways to connect to the sacred is through the breath. Breathing is the most important thing we do, but the thing we pay the least amount of attention to. The quickest way to stop anxiety is to slow your breathing down to about five breaths per minute. “Breath is our most primary prayer, just as it is the primary source of life. And it carries the secret of our connection to the sacred…Improving your breath you improve the flow of energy, of chi” (Spiritual Ecology, p. 13). Breathe in the love of God. Breathe out peace and serenity. Attune to the tenderness within life. Because you are always breathing, you always have access to the sacred.

Slowing down the breath, take note of the positive, good experiences of life. Each day is strewn with jewels. The idea is to see them and pick them up. When you notice something positive, stay with the feeling for 30 seconds. Feel the emotions in your whole body. Repeat that process a half dozen times a day, and you’ll feel stronger, more stable and calmer.

Mindfulness affirms our blessings in life. Many miracles abound amid the hurry and the worry and scurry of everyday life and without mindfulness they are easy to miss.

I invite you to close your eyes. Slow down your breath. Breathe in the love of the Divine. Breathe out peace and tranquility. Attune to the tenderness of life. There is so much for which to be grateful. Imagine the laughter of a child. Biting into a juicy plum. Enjoying the rich kick of your morning coffee. The crunch of the cucumbers in your lunch salad. A freshly baked chocolate-chip cookie. The moon in its full glory. Looking into the eyes of a loved one. Petting a cat or dog which by the way releases oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding. Tuning into the song of the birds. Walking barefoot on the beach and feeling the sand underneath your feet. Floating in the sea or a lake or a pool. Breathing in the scent of gardenias. Worshipping in this space of unconditional love, immense joy, and deep peace.

Mindfulness reawakens the sacred in everyday life. Whether on vacation or at work, forest bathing or at home, connect to the greatness that surrounds you. To be connected the sacred is a prayerful, mindful, gentle and powerful way to live. In the process of holding the treasures of life in your heart, may you know that you too are a treasure gently held. Amen.