At the end of July, I spent some continuing education time in Iowa at Synod School. You’ve seen it advertised in our newsletter, and I know I’ve spoken about it in church before. Synod School is an incredible experience open to pastors and lay people alike. It’s a week-long conference that offers a central convocation speaker (this year’s was John Bell) as well as a staggering variety of classes – everything from basket weaving and folk dancing to an in-depth study of Lamentations to the Gospel According to Harry Potter or Star Wars or the Big Bang Theory. It’s also an incredibly family-friendly experience. There were 645 participants in Synod School this year, and more than 100 of them were children. There’s educational programming for kids age 0-18 so that parents have a chance to experience some classes for themselves, but children are most definitely present and welcome.
This year, one of the courses that I took was called Managing Stress in Ministry led by Rev. Dr. Mark Sundby, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and currently the Executive Director of the North Central Ministry Development Center in New Brighton. In it, we spent time talking about the various aspects of ministry that can be stressful and the amount of stress that clergy are under in general compared to other professions.
But we also spent time talking about a variety of ways that we can relieve stress in our lives – not just ministers, but everyone else. We did some deep breathing exercises. We participated in some silent meditation and some guided meditations. And on the final full day of classes, we spent time experiencing a walking meditation.
The general idea of a walking meditation is to remain present in the moment and be constantly aware of your surroundings … not your mental grocery list, not your to-do list, not your email or your Facebook account or the current headlines. Be present and aware of the world around you and your place in it.
There are a number of ways to “do” a walking meditation. It can be as easy as focusing on your breathing: breathe in for a count of three with one step and out for a count of four with the next step. You can focus on the feeling of the ground under your feet. You can focus on a particular word or phrase – something to keep bringing you back to the present moment when your mind inevitably starts to wander. One of the phrases that Mark suggested to us was:
– Step one: Present moment.
– Step two: Wonderful moment.
Truly, the possibilities for walking meditations are endless.
For that final day, because the weather was beautiful and we had time, I chose to take my sandals off – to truly feel and connect with the ground beneath my feet. As I wandered through the Buena Vista University campus, I consciously kept my left foot in the grass and my right foot on the sidewalk whenever possible.
This action turned into a little bit of a guided meditation for me because I began to look at the ground under my left foot as life. Sometimes it was lush and green, soft under my feet and pleasant to walk on. Sometimes it was rocky or there were little twigs and things sticking up that were uncomfortable under my bare feet. The elevation changed slightly – sometimes a little higher, sometimes a little lower. Every step was sometime different – a new feeling, a new environment, a new experience.
At the same time, I began to look at the ground under my right foot as God. It was solid. It was strong. It was constant. No matter whether the ground under my left foot was higher or lower, the ground under my right foot was always a little bit higher still – keeping me up, keeping me steady, keeping me grounded. And in those times when there was no grass on which to place my left foot, there was always pavement to carry me forward.
Like many other people, I have always struggled with Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Life gets busy. I find myself running and running and forgetting to stop. But this exercise of walking meditation brought be closer to an understanding of what Paul might have meant. It was a chance to pray without words – to pray with my imagination, with my feelings and my fears, and yes, even with my feet.