Galatians 5:14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
These words from Paul are really so very beautiful, so encouraging. Love one another. Do all things in and through love. Be love.
At the same time, the words Paul uses to get there – to get to the final expression of what he is saying to the Gauls of Galatia – well, they are distracting at minimum, cumbersome, most often – or at least they used to be to me.
I used to read Paul’s letters with some dread and lack of patience, murmuring to myself, “Just get to the point, Paul!” And really? Why does he use metaphors and illustrations that seem to contradict the truth that in Christ, we are one body, that each and every person is my brother or sister, that I am not to judge the heart of another.
I am paused today at the realization that the final expression of something – gospel message or in my everyday life, a job or a relationship – cannot be attained (absorbed) or lived into by short cuts, simplification, arrogance, ignorance, or temporary feelings. How I get to the final expression of something is important – it matters to the lived experience of that something.
I get so much more out of Paul’s letters when I mine the depths of his cumbersome, complicated, sometimes counterintuitive writing. The Holy Spirit gives breath to Paul’s dense, tightly compressed writing only when I pause at the troubling word – slave, for example – sit with it, unpack it, contextualize, understand all the possible meanings rather than skip over to the good part – the ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’
This post is not so much about the letter to the Galatians that the lectionary is moving the reader through this week, as it is about how to get to the big idea – the broad place – when reading Paul.
“This is a compression posture, people, not a stretching posture!”
I hear this reminder nearly every time I move into the Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Janushirasana (Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee) pose in Bikram Yoga class. The full expression of the posture looks like this:
But just looking at the pose in its final expression and trying to imitate it does not tell you what the position is actually doing. And if a person skips over the dialogue, doesn’t listen to the instructions, relies on the visual cue to get to the final expression, to get to the ‘good part’ -the apparent stretch and straight leg – well…then that person misses entirely any benefit of the posture. It looks like a stretching posture. It is so much more. One Bikram instructor laments,
I don’t know why, but no matter how many times I say the word forehead to knee for compression, my students continue to concentrate on stretching their backs, reaching for their feet, getting their chests close the their legs – everything but what I tell them. The posture is a compression posture, people!
Access to the expansion of your lungs and space within your spinal cord that the position promises to deliver is provided by compression, not stretching. Compressing all your internal organs for increased breathing room is gleaned by one simple movement – touching your head to your knee.
Getting to the good part, the final expression, has agency in my life when I do it rightly – take no short cuts, go through the hard part.
The same principle is at work in many of the homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He employed the idea of compression and broad space incorporating into most of his residential designs compressed entry ways that led the resident or visitor into the broad place.
Looking at most homes – the final expression, if you will – a visitor expects a broad entryway, a porch, an room even – the entry typically somewhat irrelevant to the experience of the home itself.
But Wright makes sure you don’t just pass through the front door to the full expression – he designs in an experience of compression that a visitor actually viscerally experiences so that the full expression IS realized once inside.
This is how I have come to understand Paul and most especially his letters to the Galatians and Romans. He writes like FLW designs his homes and like the Bikram pose referenced above – compress open up, compress open up. The source for the language Paul uses – his metaphors, illustrations, style – is multi-faceted and all of that plays into his proclamation.
To get the most out of his letters – to hear what the Spirit is saying through Paul’s letters – I am reminded that ‘this is a compression posture’ not a stretching one. In other words, the ultimate message – in today’s reading it is to live in love, be love, love one another – I get there by touching my head to my knee – absorbing all the particularities in Paul’s vocabulary – slave, freedom, flesh – words that have dense multi-faceted meaning and interpretations accessed by compressing in on them.
Breathing room. My experience with God’s word is that breathing room is where the Spirit speaks – the space in and around the actual words. And I have found it most helpful to rest in that space – the broad place – to access that space where the Holy Spirit speaks to God’s people – when I first touch my head to my knee. When I do the posture correctly – when I read Paul deeply, not at the surface, literal level, – but contextually (compressed?). In that way, God’s intended teaching is opened up, given breathing room.
Long winded, today – just like Paul – so apologies and thanks at the same time for hanging with me, if you did.
Lectionary Readings:AM Psalm 72; PM Psalm 119:73-96
Eccles. 9:11-18; Gal. 5:1-15; Matt. 16:1-12
 As a reminder, Bikram yoga works 100% of an entire body from the inside out (just as the God’s Word can do :-)). It is a 90-minute practice of 26 positions; a series of stretches and compressions which exercise your muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons, organs, nerves and glands. Upon release of a posture, fresh oxygenated blood travels through and rejuvenates the vessels and tissues that were being compressed.