The Joy of the Lord is our Strength.

: If you are happy and you know it clapp your hands.  If you are happy and you know it stomp your feet. 

Ok, now that we have our bodies warmed up..I want to introduce you to laughter yoga. 

Did anyone know that there is something called Laugher yoga? 

Laughter yoga involves teaching certain chants, meditations, breathing technique to help you have a laughing session without anything funny that inspires it!  Laughing yoga was discovered by Dr. Madan Kataria, a family physician in Mumbai, India, in 1995. Dr. Kataria claims that laughing yoga will help lift your mood, reduce stress, strengthen your immune system, increase energy levels, improve your quality of life, and help you better manage hardship. Along with this, laughter yoga is believed to help you better manage stress through controlled breathing. This allows for greater uptake of oxygen, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, your body’s natural relaxation system. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/laughing-yoga#how-to-do-it

Let’s try one of the beginning exercises that helps you release any judgement and just feel the freedom to laugh!

Change it up:  Ho Ho, Ha, Ha, Ha  clap 2 for Ho Ho and then clap 3 for Ha, Ha, Ha.

Now, join me in a 1 min laughter session!

Isn’t it true that when you see someone laughing that it is hard not to smile or even start laughing with them. When you see someone eat something like a lemon, you pucker up and prepare yourself like you are eating the lemon. If you are watching a movie and one of the characters that you have grown to love cries, you tear up…or if you are like my dad, you stop the movie because you want to know who else is weeping with you!  And if you are out and about and someone smiles at you, you smile back.

Not only do we mirror each other’s facial expressions, but when we mirror what they are doing, we actually feel a shift inside of us. 

So, not only do you smile back, you feel happy and lighter inside. If someone approaches you with a furrowed brow, you get your eyes all squinted up and furrow your brow as well and you might feel protective or on the defense even before they begin to talk to you! What’s interesting is that the brain does not know if you are actually experiencing what is happening or if you are the observer.  In an article titled, “The Neuroscience of Smiling and Laughter,” Pieter Rossouw, writes, “our mirror neurons are responsible for our ability to mimic another person’s facial expressions (and this) also triggers an internal state of being.”

Our people, the people in our communities that we may or may not know yet, are crying out to find ways to shift their internal state of being away from mirroring the fear, anger, and anxiety that is present all around us. They want to sense more love, joy and peace in their lives. People want to be their best self and unbecome anything that is holding them back from living the life God created them to live. If people are hungry for spiritual practices that change their external and internal state of being and if our bodies are this amazing instrument that God gave us to tune to God’s frequency of love, joy and peace, then we as the church must reimagine a way to engage the body in our spiritual practices. 

Jesus talked about it like this…he said I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will bear much fruit. As Christians, Jesus calls us to experience being one with the The Divine and the natural result of this oneness is that we bear fruit.  The fruit that we are talking about comes from Galatians 5:22 where Paul writes, “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

We are privileged to live in a day and time where new discoveries in neuroscience help us understand that our heart, mind, and body are profoundly affected when they are flooded with feelings of love, joy, peace. Now that we have this intellectual knowledge, we are invited to explore what it feels like in our bodies to experience the fruit.  We need to be able to describe what having a sense of joy or peace feels like in an embodied way so that we can recommend to our friends that what they are looking for….we have found.  This is an essential piece to the Good News Jesus came to preach.

The reading from our Sacred Text today was from the book of Nehemiah. (Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 9-10)  Not something you read from everyday I am sure!  So let’s get a little history lesson.  First Ezra and Nehemiah used to be one book but was separated into two books.  One date to hold in mind is 586 BC when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and exiled a number of Judah’s ruling elite.  Some were exiled in Babylon and joined the prophet Ezekiel there and others in Egypt who joined the prophet Jeremiah there.  So almost 50 years have gone by and the people in exile have settled into their new homes, some have intermarried, and they have wrestled with questions like how do we worship God without the temple and how do we sing the lord’s song in a foreign land.  They have suffered much and sought meaning in their suffering.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah begin what is called the Persian period. It is now 538 BC and God’s people are coming back to Jerusalem after being in exile. Not everyone is excited to come back!  As I said, many people have found a new home and do not want to leave.  But in the people who return, There is a new identity emerging that is no longer connected to the land or to a certain kingdom. This new identity becomes a combination of religious, social, historical and cultural markers.  So instead of worrying about invading armies or being slaves to other people groups, now the chief concern is with ethnic pollution.  What I mean by that is that Ezra and Nehemiah really focus on who is in and who is out.  Questions like were you born in Jerusalem and who are you married to become highly important.

These two men have very different jobs when they return. Ezra has come back to Jerusalem from Babylon with the mission to bring religious reform.  Nehemiah came from Babylon to be the governor. Having both religious and political power between the two of them, they ignited a passion to rebuild the city, rebuild the temple, and to return the people to living according to the first 5 books of the Hebrew bible which is the Torah.  The people would once again be the people of the book.  As the people are coming home to Jerusalem, it takes many years to reestablish the temple, the community and the city.  In Ezra and Nehemiah, we see this happening in three stages: The first stage is the rebuilding of the temple. In the second stage, it is Ezra’s mission to form the community according to the Torah. The third stage is Nehemiah’s mission to rebuild Jerusalem.  At the point of our reading today, all of this has happened and now they are in a time of celebration of all that has happened during the reconstruction. 

I love how Nehemiah sets the scene.  He describes men and women gathered eagerly awaiting  the reading of the word of God.  They seem so eager and so hungry to be fed spiritually.  Then Ezra reads from the Torah and they have interpreters available so that everyone present understands what the reading means.  The Scripture concludes with Ezra and Nehemiah both telling the people to celebrate! It reads, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our LORD. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

The people were eagerly awaiting, then moved to tears at the reading of the Word of God.  Ezra and Nehemiah want to mark this joyous occasion with celebration: food and sweet drink and giving generously to those who would not have such extravagant items. 

And then Nehemiah reminds the people, “The Joy of the Lord is our strength.”  This sounds like a shift from internal states of fear, worry, and struggle to a sense of love, joy and peace.  This sounds like embodiment to me.

  I can only imagine that through the people’s suffering in exile, they spent many nights trying to sense God’s presence and their purpose without the land and the Temple.  They looked into each other’s eyes for a sense of hope. Then the long return home building and reconstructing the Temple…that all of this labor united the group in their continual saying Yes to what God was calling them to do next. They saw God in each other and mirrored that back. And now their joy will be multiplied because it is a sense of joy that is contagious.  This is how our mirror neurons help with our sense of joy!

We might feel a sense of connection to God’s people in the book of Nehemiah.  For many of us, this pandemic has felt like an exile of sorts.  We have been stuck at home, away from our friends and family, isolated, not worshiping in our sacred spaces, and even our bodies have grown weary and tired of the fear, stress and dis-ease. I know for me…I am completely frustrated with how covid has ruled my life for the past 18 months.  I am ready …eagerly awaiting…hungry…to hear a word from God so that I might celebrate what it means to be alive in God’s safe and wonderful world!!

In one of my yoga classes at the University of Houston, I used a poem that to me is an expression of the joy that we can find as we live in our human bodies, interact with nature, and experience this state of flow where who we are is finite and yet there is a sense of expansion from this finite body as you experience the interconnection of all living things.  The poem is Walt Whitman’s song of myself.  Here are a few lines from the poem.  I invite you to close your eyes, breathe in the words and feel the joy of being alive spread through your heart, mind and body.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

The smoke of my own breath,

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,

The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,

The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,

A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,

The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,

The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,

And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,

And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Let us shout for joy with a hearty AMEN!  Brian Spoon in Neuroscience and the Fruit of the Spirit writes, “Joy is the fruit of the spirit, but it is also the disposition that we have to any fruit of the Spirit working in us. We can find joy in kindness. We can find joy in peace. We can find joy in gentleness. When we stop judging ourselves and others by their output and relish doing our best, then we can rest in joy. We can rest in the joy of God’s love working through us, of God making a home in us. Christ helps remind us of this profound truth, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” John 15: 10-11 (61)

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