100 Ways to Kiss the Earth

by Keith Menhinick

Matthew 11. 25-29 (NIV, The Message)

When is the last time you felt peace?

When is the last time your mind, heart, and body were at rest?

I’ll ask it in a slightly different way: Who are you when your soul is at rest?

If you struggle to answer these questions, then I’ve got good news for you this Sunday morning.

What if I told you there is a way to touch peace every day? The good news is that you can touch peace, and come back to that feeling of peace, and learn to live your life from a place of peace, with a soul that is at rest.

The title of my sermon today is rooted in the mystic Sufi poetry of Rumi, who captures how some of us might be feeling this morning:

“Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the earth.”

If you, like Rumi, sometimes wake up empty and frightened…

or like our Scriptures say, sometimes are weary and carrying heavy burdens…

then hear Jesus’ invitation to draw near and experience soul-rest.

What I want to talk about today are a hundred ways to come to Jesus,

a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the earth,

to remember your connection to source and to peace,

or, to quote my yoga teacher, to remember your practice. 

I recently heard a parable from Tibetan Buddhism about a Buddhist monk named Milarepa.

Milarepa was a monk who lived in a cave. One day, he went out to do his wash, and when he came back the cave was filled with demons. So, he tried to expel them. He got angry and loud, and he cast them out of the cave, but it didn’t work. The demons got louder and more disruptive and began making more of a mess.

So Milarepa sat down, and he thought, “Ok, I’m going to teach the demons the Dharma.” In our own tradition, it might be like trying to teach the demons the Gospels. And so, Milarepa taught the demons the Dharma, but that just made it worse. Soon, there were more demons, and they were more raucous and created more havoc.

Finally, Milarepa let out a long sigh and smiled. He told the demons, “Well, I guess you’re here to stay… so, can I make you a cup of tea?” And then they all settled down and they sipped tea together.

Let us for a moment make Milarepa’s “demons” personal to our lives. Your cave, your place of rest is sometimes infiltrated by stress, regret, exhaustion, cynicism, worry, sadness…

Like Milarepa, maybe you tried expelling those demons out of your life through sheer force of will. Get big. Tough it out. Bully and bulldoze the demons out. But it doesn’t work. It only wears you down.

Maybe, like Milarepa, you tried teaching the demons the Dharma, or the Gospels, or the Psalms. But it doesn’t work.

Maybe we might learn from Milarepa, who finally accepts his reality. “I guess you’re here to stay,” he tells the demons. “Can I make you a cup of tea?” It also doesn’t work. The tea does not expel the demons from the cave. But sipping tea, Milarepa and the demons settle down. 

Making and sipping tea, and sharing that tea with any guests, are spiritual practices for Milarepa the monk. Another Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, described it like this:

Drink your tea slowly and reverently,
as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves
—slowly, evenly, without
rushing toward the future;
live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.

Milarepa sips his tea slowly and reverently, without rushing toward the future.

Just making tea and being mindful. Just feeling its heat warm his palms as he held it. Just smelling the tea’s notes of ginger and lemon. Just tasting the notes of spice and citrus as it flows from cup to mouth and settles in the body.

I imagine Milarepa’s body, full of stress a moment ago, begin to come into balance. His mind, racing with thoughts a moment ago, begin to focus. His heart, full of discord a moment ago, begin to feel compassion. His soul, restless a moment ago, begin to rest.

There are, of course, many ways to interpret Milarepa’s story. My yoga teacher might interpret it like this: Milarepa remembered his practice, a spiritual practice of mindfulness while he sipped his tea.

In our Scripture today, Jesus invites us as Christ followers to remember our practices of drawing near to God.

“Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus says, “and learn from me, for I am gentle. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.”

Some of us need to hear that again. Some of us have been trying to force a faith that is heavy and ill-fitting. Perhaps you have an image of God that is brutal and demanding. That is not the God of Jesus. 

“Keep company with me,” Jesus says, “and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

So, what might Jesus mean by “take my yoke upon you and learn from me?”

The yoke is the wooden harness that’s fitted on the neck of two oxen so they can pull a heavy plow or cart. Jesus is using a farming metaphor. Take my yoke upon you.

But this is confusing, isn’t it? You put a yoke on to do hard work, and you take a yoke off to rest. And here Jesus is, telling me to put on his yoke, like I don’t already have enough to carry. 

I talked about this with my father, who is a preacher and prison chaplain, and coincidentally is preaching this same text this morning. He suggested I was “looking at it all backwards. Jesus is not asking me to help him with his work – Jesus is volunteering to help me with mine!

I’ve got a lot to carry. And Jesus isn’t making any promises that if I come to him, then he’ll get rid of all of my burdens… The reason Jesus wants you to take up his yoke is because there are some burdens you were never meant to carry alone.

“Come to me,” Jesus says. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. And you will find rest for your souls.”

Word of Jesus’ good news spread across the land, and large crowds traveled from near and far. They came by boat, by wagon, by foot to sit on rocks, hillside, and street curb—all to share a little bit of time with this mysterious Rabbi.

They came to Jesus in person.

Today, the way we come to Jesus is through spiritual practice.

We can come to Jesus as teacher and guide. In Jesus’ own time, many called him lovingly Rabbi. In today’s text, Jesus speaks as a Rabbi, saying, “take my yoke and learn from me.” I believe what the great pastoral writer Henri Nouwen says about this: “the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his.” Therefore, “there are many ways and forms in which a [person] can be a Christian.” To come to Jesus as Rabbi is to learn from Jesus how to live your own life authentically and lovingly.

I was taught by both my grandmothers to come in prayer to Jesus as the Son of God, who dwells with God in Heaven. As a child, when I spent the night at either of my grandmother’s houses, they each would kneel beside my bed and pray with me, modeling for me how to come to Jesus in prayer, with thanksgivings and petitions. 

I know many spiritual teachers who come to Jesus as ancestor. They build altars in their homes, where they place sacred texts, feathers, crystals, and other spiritual objects alongside photographs of their ancestors and artwork of Jesus. They light candles and invite Jesus and the ancestors’ presence and wisdom to be made known in our lives.

We can also come to Jesus as friend, just as Abraham approached God as friend. Jesus himself said there’s no greater love than a friend’s love who lays down their life for you.

I’ll add one more to try out: We can come to Jesus as lover. There’s a rich Christian tradition to come to Jesus as the lover of our soul. Consider St. Teresa of Avila, whose spiritual practice was to pray through poetry. She writes, “He desired me so I came close. / No one can near God unless He has / Prepared a bed for you.” If you’ve never come to God as lover of your soul, you might try it.

There are a hundred ways to come to Jesus, a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the earth.

As a former hospital chaplain, I can tell you that during crisis, people fall back on their embedded theology, or their childhood religion. They pray, read Psalm 23, sing Amazing Grace. They remember the practices of their community.

Somewhere inside, the body remembers a feeling of balance, the mind remembers a sense of clarity, the heart remembers the spark of compassion, and the soul remembers rest.

If you are suffering today, please know this: you are worthy of rest. Soul-rest. Rest that restores you to yourself and to God. You deserve to know soul-rest when you wake up in the morning, and soul-rest when you lay your head down at night.

The question is: will you wait for crisis to remember or even to cultivate a spiritual practice? Will you wait till the demons fill your cave?

If you don’t have a daily practice to connect you to soul-rest, or as my mama says, “a daily quiet time,” and maybe you’re wondering what practices to try in your daily life—I’ve got some clues I’ve picked up from spending time with queer elders. 

Follow your joy. Listen to your desire. Tune in to your sense of delight and pleasure. 

I heard someone say once that the weirdest part about converting to Christianity as an adult was that he didn’t know he was supposed to feel guilty all the time.

Funny. And absurd. 

As the great Mary Oliver writes, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to crawl on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” And to quote Rumi, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”

Maybe the beauty you love is to garden. My ancestor Granddad John Nix used to garden and care gently for the earth, and take the produce to the sick and shut-in.

Maybe the beauty you love is to make art, draw, doodle, color, paint, which are the practices of my uncle Eric, whose paintings of geese and waterfalls adorn all our family’s homes.

A spiritual practice should connect you to the goodness of your body, the goodness of the earth, the goodness of God. That is a central function of spiritual practice.

As a practical theologian, I study the functions, effects, and fruits of spiritual practice. I’d like to draw our attention to four functions.

First, as I just named, is that spiritual practices connect us to God or to the goodness of life.

Second, spiritual practices bring balance to the nervous system. They ground the body and give the body a chance to experience a sense of safety and a sense peace, which our bodies can remember and return to in hard times.

Third, spiritual practices focus the mind on something other than our distress. They override our brain’s negativity bias, helping us focus on what is good, what is lovely, what is beautiful. Starting with ourselves.

Which brings me to the fourth function: spiritual practices cultivate compassion. They metabolize our emotions, help us express and channel them by building compassion for ourselves first and foremost. And then compassion for all creatures.

These are just a few of the fruits of spiritual practice that have emerged in research from practical theology and psychology. 

Our Scripture adds another: you will find rest for your soul.

“Come to me,” Jesus says, “and you will find soul-rest.”

That is the promise. Not to take away all your problems. Not to expel the demons out your cave. Rest for your soul.

In the Greek, the word for “soul” here is psyche (psoo-khay’—say it with me—psoo-khay’) which means both soul and breath.

Rest for your soul. Rest for your breath.

Our Jewish spiritual ancestors first named God Ruah, the same word for Spirit, wind, and breath.

Our Muslim siblings teach us in the Qur’an that God is closer to you than your jugular vein. 

Because, as our own Christian Testament puts it, God is the Breath of Life.

Your body is a Temple housing Holy Breath, the breath of God.

Listen, for a moment, to the sound of your breath, the sound of your soul, the sound of Spirit.

You will find rest for your soul, rest for breath.

Maybe you don’t know in your body what this kind of peace feels like.

Here’s a practice to try out: 

Start by wiggling your body.

Now find a comfortable position with your feet on the floor. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Feel the earth you came from, the earth you will return to.

Take your shoes off if you must. Feel the earth supporting you. For a few moments, simply notice the sensations in your body of being grounded in the earth.

Notice other places in the body that feel supported. For some, the back feels supported… for others, the legs… for others, the shoulders. Notice places of support and any bodily sensations that come up for you. For a few moments, breathe into those places of support.

Slowly, draw your attention to your breath, the same word for soul.

Simply notice your breath, your soul.

Breathing in…

Breathing out…

(repeat a few times)

Breathing in, I draw near to God.

Breathing out, I smile.

(repeat a few times)

For a few moments, breathe at your own pace…

Breathing in, I draw near.

Breathing out, I wiggle.

I wiggle my toes and feel the breath of life in my feet.

I wiggle my knees and feel the breath of life in my legs.

I wiggle my hips and feel the breath of life in my belly.

I shimmy with it and feel the breath of life in my shoulders.

I wiggle my nose, I wiggle my eyebrows, I wiggle my ears.

And feel the breath of life coursing through me.

Holy Breath of Life, we thank you for breath, and we ask for your rest.

If this felt good to you, maybe your spiritual practice will look like this. Rumi says take down a musical instrument. Some of you pray the Psalms. Some of you pull cards. Some of you walk in the woods or around the block. Some of you read poetry on the back porch. Some of you write letters. Some of you draw. Some of you garden. Some of you sing. Some of you shimmy and dance.

Instead of focusing on what is wrong in your life, instead of focusing on the demons in your cave, remember your practice. You can return to breath, to Spirit when you wake up in the morning, and sip your tea slowly.

You can return to breath, to Spirit when you write out your thoughts and feelings in a journal, or kneel and say a prayer, or do a few yoga poses, or focus on the sound of your own breath, your soul.

There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the earth, a hundred ways to come to Jesus, to breathe, to rest. 

Jesus is calling, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”