Welcome back! I hope your forays into the discipline of seeking guidance – both privately and corporately – have been fruitful. The challenge to seek guidance through another person is something I would never have initiated on my own unless I was assigned to do it – and then it was a huge relief and gift, because only after I had actually sought it out did I realize my soul had been longing for that kind of connection with another for a long time. We were made to live in community – and not just living in close proximity physically, but sharing our burdens with one another. This kind of disciplined, deep connection is sacramental in the most basic sense: it’s a physical means of spiritual sustenance that we really can’t go without for long. I hope you were inspired to find new ways to listen for God’s voice in your life.

The past few disciplines required quite a bit of conceptual explanation, so you may be pleased to know that this week’s post will be short and to the point. Meditation is a practice that many religions – and more recently, even the science-minded – have encouraged for millennia, so I probably don’t need to convince you of its worth. It’s the actual practice that is the most challenging, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to experience it for yourself and discover both the benefits and the challenges.

Definition

Meditation is simply focusing your attention on a single thought or concept to allow it to sink deeply into your soul and thus transform it. Historically, Christians have meditated on scripture passages, traditional prayers, or God’s voice heard internally. You can profitably meditate on both longer passages and single words, although different techniques help bring the most out of each.

Christian Meditation

Even though many religions and worldviews actively practice meditation, Christian meditation is a distinct practice in that its goal is attachment, not detachment. Christians value connection, relationship, awareness, and attachment to God (and by extension, what is of real and lasting goodness), and we focus our thoughts upon a specific Scripture passage or observation in order to connect ourselves to the living God and to hear what he would say to us. Our God is a personal God of love, and this kind of love is not a vague sense of goodwill and “to each his own,” but it is a sacrificial, connected, committed, interdependent kind of love.

Recently I had the change to experience the difference for myself. Due to a long-term (but now thankfully resolved) illness, several years ago my adrenal system shut down, which is the part of us that produces adrenaline and hormones and any feeling of wellbeing or energy. As part of the recovery process, I was asked to practice yoga and/or meditation three times a week. Being the curious person that I am, I tried yoga. My intent was to practice my own meditation with God during the yoga exercises. The first several months were fantastic – focusing only on my breath and the movement of my body in the moment released a lot of physical and mental stress. But I found you really can’t practice yoga and practice Christian meditation at the same time – the physical exercises really do require you to empty your mind in order to focus on the pose and your breath. So I just absorbed the whole process and practice without too much worry. But over recent months, I’ve realized that although yoga does dissipate my physical and mental stress, my spiritual self has also begun to feel vague and disconnected – almost like it was drugged – or, in fact, dissipated. I had trouble deeply connecting to people and to events around me. And I realized that I was experiencing the spiritual results of this kind of detachment meditation – which, if you are a practitioner of yoga or other religions who value detachment, this is exactly what you want. I heard a classmate, while talking about the benefits of yoga, express it perfectly: “I feel like, bombs could be going off around me, and I wouldn’t even care.” This is the exact opposite of Christian virtue and the Christian worldview. Yes, we can expect to experience peace in all circumstances. But meditation, and spiritual formation in general, leads us down the path of caring MORE about others and the events going on in the world around us, not less. Connection and attachment – i.e. sacrificial relationship and true community – are virtues and part of our good design and intent as human beings.  So even though Christian meditation and Eastern forms of meditation might use the same term and look the same on the outside, they actually transform your soul in opposing ways: Christian meditation focuses not on detachment but on attaching to God, and becoming capable of loving others more. Others’ experiences and thoughts on this are most welcome.

The Practice

Scriptural Meditation

Scriptural meditation, also called lectio divina (which, as you can probably deduce, simply means “divine reading”), begins with finding a quiet place and choosing one story or even a single verse of Scripture. Scriptural meditation is not intellectual study, but an attempt to listen with your heart. How is this passage a living word to you, in this moment? So if the passage you chose was a story, use all five of your senses to imagine the situation vividly. Choose one of the characters and imagine what they might be feeling and experiencing – and how it relates to your own experience. Just read the passage over and over again, allowing the words to sink deeply into your heart.

Centering Down

Another form of meditation is “centering down,” or “centering prayer.” This gives you a chance to release the negative thoughts or emotions you need to release, and receive the good that you need to receive. Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline) recommends a “palms up, palms down” exercise, which uses your physical body to mirror the spiritual intention. If you want to release something negative, you might say, “God, I give you my anger (depression, illness, anxiety, etc.),” and place your palms down on your knees. Conversely, if you sense a deep need for something, you might say, “God, please give me your forgiveness (peace, love, joy, patience, etc.),” and place your palms up on your knees. And just wait and rest in the silence, allowing God to do the spiritual work in your heart.

Meditation on Creation

This has been one of my favorite practices of late. This is simply the practice of meditating on our natural world, with delight and awareness and a sense of connectedness as part of God’s creation. The natural world reveals much about the nature of God and ourselves as his handiwork, particularly in the diversity of species, slow and cyclical growing rhythms, tiny detail, massive tectonic power, interdependence, and beauty. Look out the window or take a walk, focusing on specific attributes of the world around you, recognizing that God is the creator of all things and delights in revealing himself through his creation. And see what insights come.

Exercise

Your exercise for this week is to practice one form of meditation each day for seven days. You may alternate between the forms listed above, or you may gravitate towards one and practice that form each of the seven days. The length of time you’ll find profitable will vary based on your experience, and can be anywhere from five minutes to an hour. For a beginner, five minutes can seem like an eternity. But I would recommend that you aim for at least fifteen minutes a day for your practice. If you’d like to try lectio divina, I would recommend beginning with the book of Matthew, which includes many rich passages on Jesus’ teachings, healings, and personal interactions. Go very slowly through these passages – do not even try to get through this entire list in one week. Pick only one healing story, or teaching, or parable each day – and feel free to spend a whole week with any one of these passages. Sometimes one word is particularly rich, and you’ll spend all your time on just one word.

His Sermon on the Mount, which encapsulates some of his most difficult and transformative teachings, are found in Matthew 5-7.

Some of his healings are recorded in the entire chapter of Matthew 9 (although many others are interspersed throughout Matthew).

And many of his parables are found in Matthew 13; Matthew 18:23-34; and all of Matthew 25.

Practical tips: When setting aside time each day, choose a time of day when you can count on quiet for at least 30 minutes to an hour. Protect this time as vigorously as you would protect an appointment that cannot be rescheduled. Practiced regularly, meditation will connect you deeply to God and his heart – and the good that he wants for you. It will be become food to your soul that you won’t want to go without. But bear in mind that if this is your first foray into sustained meditation, you may find it difficult to stay focused. Don’t worry – just let the anxious or distracting thoughts move through your head, and repeat the thought or verse or word or observation at hand. Every moment begins anew. I sometimes keep a pad of paper near me to write down those distracting thoughts so they won’t keep coming back – inevitably it seems that when I sit down to meditate, my entire to-do list suddenly appears in my brain. Not a problem – just write down what you need to do later, and tell yourself you will get to it later, but not now. Then repeat the thought, or verse, or observation you left off with.

I have specific questions for each of you that I’d like you to post answers to by the end of the week: What has been your experience with meditation in the past? Which form(s) of meditation did you choose this week? What insights did you receive?

And enjoy!

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