Open to Grace

by Melanie Dobson

Melanie Dobson is a pastor at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC. She will be participating in the fall 2017 cohort of Launch & Lead.

Hebrews 4:16—Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Nervous. I woke up jittery, having overslept, butterflies already out from my gut and fluttering around my pillow, sticking to my still-sleepy eyelashes. Today I teach a yoga class to elementary school students at a school with which my church partners. These students are bused to this Title 1 elementary school from a segregated neighborhood, bringing with them in their backpacks the unjust burden of centuries of racism in Charlotte. These children have never been exposed to yoga before; they receive exposure to the constant stress of poverty rather than expensive extracurricular activities. Raised by parents or guardians working multiple jobs just to try to pay rent and survive, these kids are both resilient and desperately hungry for attention and love.

I felt totally unprepared to teach these kids. I have taught yoga for over ten years to adults in churches and on retreats, with a practice of interweaving scripture with yoga poses—an embodied sermon through movement. The youth and mission ministers at my church asked me to teach yoga in the literacy program, in which many of our high school youth mentor. Inspired by the dedication of our youth, hopeful that yoga might benefit these children, and unable to say ‘no’ easily, I said ‘yes.’

Now the day to teach had come, and I felt totally unprepared. I hadn’t taught children yoga in years. I hadn’t woken up in time to run through the yoga practice. I hadn’t prayed for them. I hadn’t read through the scripture that I was using to center the class, Hebrews 4:16, on receiving grace in time of need. Lord have mercy. I was needy. The nervousness stayed with me through breakfast and through work that morning, hovering behind my clavicle bone. I envisioned the worst. The students are going to laugh and refuse to do the poses, I thought. They probably won’t even take off shoes and socks to practice on the yoga mats. I envisioned complete rebellion.

Nervous. I arrived at the school. As I pulled my yoga mat out of the car, I realized I’d left my yoga practice notes back on my desk in my office. I did not have time to go back. I did not remember the flow of the poses, because I hadn’t practiced them. Lord have some more mercy. I was completely uncentered.

Nervous. The elementary kids entered the library with a cacophonous burst of laughter and conversation. Deep breath. I knew they could sense fear and incompetence on an adult; I just prayed the afternoon heat dulled their sense of smell. With the firmest and most confident voice I could muster, I asked them to take off shoes and socks. They complained about the appearance of their feet. They snickered. Most kept on their socks. I asked them to choose a mat on the floor, and to lie down on their backs. Half of them did, and the other half erupted in laughter at the sight of their peers engaging their bodies in a vulnerable way. I rang my singing bowl with all the boldness I could muster. The sound surprised them into some version of calm. In the best, “take charge, but with kindness” voice, I said, “hug your knees into your chest. Deepen your breath. Open to grace.” I threw in some language from the Hebrews scripture about finding grace in times of need. In a little miracle, the children on the mat did the actions. They quieted, they connected to their breath. They opened to grace in time of need. And so, in truth, did I.

In the class, most students followed my directions into poses, though a couple continued to embody my morning fear, and not do anything. I kept praying actively for the Spirit to boldly inspire me with the next pose, the next action, the next breath. Somehow, we all made it through to the end, with everyone on their backs in the final pose of shavasana. The students remained quiet for two minutes, resting in the grace and mercy of God. I could almost hear butterfly wings fluttering away in the quiet.

Afterward, the students didn’t speak about their experience. They immediately rolled back into their raucous speech and laughter, perhaps just down a decibel or two, as they put on shoes and headed out the door. I had no idea if they liked it or had really hated it and had just been merciful to humor a white lady teaching them yoga. I felt calmer, though, and gentle to myself for the first time that day. Perhaps, this was grace enough, was miracle enough.

I learned later that the students had given the yoga practice high reviews. They were excited for me to come back. Amazing. This experience taught me that it is so important to do what terrifies me, if that means I’m offering myself to others in love (even if mixed with fear and completely uncentered). When we do out of love what scares us, it just might be what someone else is hungry to receive, butterflies and all. We take a deep breath, we approach boldly, we open to grace, and we experience miracle. This is Hebrews 4:16, embodied.

I continue to teach yoga periodically at the elementary school as part of their afterschool and summer literacy program. The lectionary scripture text for that week provides a theme and focus for the class. I remain unprepared and at least a little uncentered. Miraculously, in my time of need, the students continue to teach me grace.