Christianity 201

January 26, 2021

Unscheduled Time … With God

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:28 pm
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Today while wandering the bookstore, I picked up a copy of Wonder, Fear, and Longing: A Book of Prayers by Mark Yaconelli (Zondervan, 2009). This section particularly caught my attention and asked Ruth to transcribe it for us. It’s really the first one-third of the chapter which continues with quotations, scriptures, sample prayers, and practical advice of pray-ers (my word).

Rest

Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Jesus in Matthew 11:28b-30, The Message)

Giving your heart time to pray is like allowing the sun to shine on wintering seeds. I notice that as I pray, my soul is slowly warmed and given room to expand, infused with God’s peace and mercy. Prayer is the way in which I nurture and grow my life in God. Prayer is the way in which I hear Jesus calling from the centre of my life, “Learn from me…and you will find rest for your soul.”

The ancient understanding of the word pray within the Christian tradition is “to rest.” Any experience of rest requires a release–we have to set down our work, our plans, our worry and activity. The fact that Jesus spent long periods of time resting is one of the most overlooked aspects of Jesus’ life. He prayed and rested in the midst of suffering people. He prayed and rested in the midst of countless opportunities to do good.

Why did Jesus rest? Why did he withdraw from crowds of people desperate for healing? We know from Scripture that Jesus rested in order to commune with God. For Jesus (even Jesus!), prayer was necessary in order to sustain and deepen his capacity for love.

When we rest in prayer, we become open and receptive to God’s presence. In the Christian tradition the experience of receiving God in prayer is called contemplation. Contemplation is an experience of being bathed in God’s love and presence. It’s an awareness of God, attained not through thinking but through loving. It is the experience Jesus refers to when he says, “abide in me” (John 15:4) or what the psalmist speaks of when he writes, “Be still and know” (Psalm 46:10). It’s the experience the psalmist refers to when he describes a child resting on her mother’s lap (Psalm 131:2). Contemplation in prayer is when suddenly we need no words, when we can relax and enjoy God’s love with humility and gratitude.

I once took a bus full of high school kids to the coastal dunes two hours north of San Francisco. This diverse group of young people from across the country had gathered to spend the week exploring prayer. Midway through the week, we spent a day in the deserted Bodega dunes along the northern California coast. Amidst the rolling sand, native grasses, and twisting cypress trees, I talked to the students about the history of silence and solitude in the Christian tradition. I reminded them of the many times Jesus would leave people and towns to go out in the wilderness and spend time alone with God. I then asked the young people to go out along the sand and surf and spend the afternoon in prayer and solitude, just like Jesus did. As patches of fog drifted over us from the Pacific Ocean, I handed out journals and blankets and sent the young people out to pray.

I remember walking through the dunes carefully observing the praying teenagers. Some students sat atop mounds of sand, looking off to the horizon; others preferred low places, clefts and crevices stacked with driftwood. Some students lay on their backs, heads resting on their journals, watching grey shrouds of mist creep over the blue sky. Other students seemed oblivious to their surroundings, their heads bowed as they scribbled intently in their journals. As the hours passed, some people rolled themselves up in their blankets and closed their eyes, while others stood and meandered slowly toward the sea.

When the prayer time came to a close, I gathered the students together in small groups. “What was it like to pray?” I asked. “What were you like? What was God like?”

At the end of the week I asked the students to evaluate the week-long retreat: “What was the most enjoyable aspect of our time together?” Despite game nights, talent shows, volleyball, karaoke, discussion groups, outings to San Francisco, and plenty of cute guys and girls to flirt with, the great majority responded, “The afternoon praying in the dunes along the beach.” When I asked them why, they responded with, “I’ve never had that much unscheduled time before;” or “It was so peaceful to just rest with God;” or “My life is so stressful. I’ve never had time to just relax and be myself with God.”

For years I’ve listened to people talk about their spiritual lives. One of the most interesting insights I’ve gained in these conversations is the way in which people described their deepest encounters with God. Often these experiences of God are moments of rest, solitude, silence, reflection, and wonder. These encounters with God often take place as people lie on their beds at night, or in moments outside, in nature, looking at trees and earth and sky. Every one of these moments feels timeless, unscheduled, unhurried–as if they’d stepped out of the normal pace of their life.

Like the students who experienced an afternoon praying among the Bodega dunes, we may find that prayer offers us a release from the stress and busyness, the excessive activity that overwhelms each of us. Prayer gives us permission to loosen our shoulders, relax our jaws, and soften the walls around our hearts so God’s love might make a way. Prayer is that increasingly rare opportunity to lie down in green pastures and rest beside still waters despite the fear and worry that we constantly feel.

Christians teach the message that “God loves you”–but this teaching means nothing unless we actually spend time in this love, unless we stop and kneel down in the grass and driftwood, down in the sand, down in the misery of a suffering world, down into God’s compassion and peace.

“It is a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and was refreshed.’” (God, via Moses in Exodus 31:17 NLT)

“…In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength…”
(God, via the prophet Isaiah in 30:15 NIV)

Even though Jesus said not to talk about what happened, soon every conversation was consumed by these events. The crowds swelled even larger as people went to hear Jesus preach and to be healed of their many afflictions. Jesus repeatedly left the crowds, though, stealing away into the wilderness to pray.(the biographer Luke in 5:15-16, The Voice)

“Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Jesus to his disciples in Mark 6:31 NKJV)

pp 90-95


Mark Yaconelli is a writer, retreat leader, spiritual director, story-catcher, husband, and father. He is the founder and executive director of  The Hearth: Real Stories by Regular Folks, a registered non-profit that assists cities and service-based agencies in producing personal storytelling events designed to help communities and individuals deepen relationships and cultivate compassion. His latest book is The Gift of Hard Things; Finding Grace in Unexpected Places (IVP).

(c) 2009 Mark Yaconelli / Zondervan

December 28, 2020

A Quiet Place

We often end the devotional with a related music video, but today we want to the song to be the springboard for what follows…

For most readers here, the content would be described as devotionals or devotional readings. I have always taken the meaning to refer to this practice or spiritual discipline that we do out of devotion to God.

Working in the world of Christian publishing however, I frequently encounter people — a large number from a Catholic background or people who have had exposure to recovery programs — who refer to devotional books as meditations or meditational readings. I do like the idea that one doesn’t just read the words and close the book and walk away. Rather one ruminates or chews the text in their mind.

There is however a third term which, although I am very familiar with it, isn’t something we’ve used here: quiet time.

This song, written by Ralph Carmichael, was part of a collection* that for many people mark the beginning of what we call Contemporary Christian Music. But we’re here to look at the lyrics.

There is a quiet place
Far from the rapid pace
Where God can soothe my troubled mind

Sheltered by tree and flower
There in that quiet hour
With him my cares are left behind

Whether a garden small
Or on a mountain tall
New strength and courage there I find

Then from this quiet place
I go prepared to face
A new day with love for all mankind

A search for scripture verses about having a quiet time takes us to these:

…he delights in the teachings of the LORD and reflects on his teachings day and night. – Psalm 1:2 GW

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. – Matthew 6:6 NIV

…Jesus insisted that his disciples get back into the boat and cross to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people home. After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone. – Mathew 14:22-23 NLT

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. – Mark 1:35 CEB

Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. – Joshua 1:8a NLT

and finally

But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. – Luke 5:16 NIV

UK writer Daisy Logan has offered sixteen different ways we can improve our quiet time. Not all of these may work for you, but I encourage you to click here to read her suggestions.

The website for CRU (formerly Campus Crusade) looks at several different elements your quiet time can contain, including opening your Bible and methodically studying a section of text, followed by four types of prayer. Click here to read their template for quiet times.

The website GotQuestions.org reminds us that,

Every believer needs a quiet time with the Lord. If Jesus Himself needed it, how much more do we? Jesus frequently moved away from the others in order to commune with His Father regularly…

The length of the quiet time does not matter, but it should be enough time to meditate on what was read and then pray about it or anything else that comes to mind. Drawing near to God is a rewarding experience, and once a regular habit of quiet time is created, a specific time for study and prayer is eagerly looked forward to. If our schedules are so full and pressing that we feel we cannot carve out some time daily to meet with our heavenly Father, then a revision of our schedules to weed out the “busyness” is in order.

I realize that for some people, the thought of pausing at a certain time each day, or even the use of the word meditation triggers thoughts of Eastern religions. Got Questions addresses this:

A note of caution: some Eastern religions that teach the principles of meditation include instructions on “emptying the mind” by concentrating on repeating a sound or a particular word over and over. Doing so leaves room for Satan to enter and to wreak havoc in our minds. Instead, Christians should follow the advice of the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Filling one’s mind with these beautiful thoughts cannot help but bring peace and please God. Our quiet time should be a time of transformation through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), not through the emptying of them.

I want to invite you to listen to the short song one more time. This time think about what ought to be the result of our quiet time with God:

Then from this quiet place
I go prepared to face
A new day with love for all mankind

The fruit or benefit of time spent in study and prayer will come out in our lives in ways that will affect others as well as ourselves.


The original version of the song was posted at this link. (There’s also a “big band” version for those who like that style at this link.)

*Listen to the full album at this link.

 

 

 

 

December 14, 2018

Muttering, Murmuring and Musing Over God’s Word

This is only the second time we’ve included something in full by Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor of The Meeting House in Oakville just west of Toronto, Canada, and author of the book re(Union): The Good News of Jesus for Seekers, Saints and Sinners (Herald Press) though we’ve included quotations from him at other times.

This is actually Part One of a three part series. At the end you’ll see links to the other two sections. Meditation is controversial in some circles, including some people I know personally; so I trust you’ll be open as you read this. You’ll find each article starts out with some information from the broader marketplace of ideas about meditation, but then leads to an examination of what scripture teaches.

Still. Here. (1 of 3): Why Meditate?

Are you “STILL. HERE.”?

My Dad had a beautiful and gentle spirit. My sister told me about the time she checked in with him while he was having his daily time of stillness and quiet with God, praying and reading Scripture. She asked him what Bible verse he was reading and he told her. The next day she found him at the same place and same time and asked him the same question and he gave her the same answer: it was the same verse. She checked in on him the next day, and he was still reading that very same verse. So she had to ask: “Dad, why haven’t you moved on to another verse yet?” My Dad responded, “I don’t think God is finished talking to me through this one.” My Dad knew how to be “STILL. HERE.”

Welcome to the first of three posts on the spiritual practice of Christian meditation.

For many Christians, we feast on Scripture, devour books, pig out on podcasts, and consume blog posts under the banner of “more is better.” It’s all about volume, volume, volume.  While there is a time and place for the breadth of our spiritual study, our generation is most in danger of neglecting the depth of our spiritual connection with Christ.

You’ve heard of the “slow food” movement. At The Meeting House we’ve been experimenting with a slow soul food movement of our own: a pace of presentation in our Sunday service that is more gentle and meditative, allowing us the time and space to mentally and emotionally “chew” on the truth of the teaching of Jesus. This is nothing new – Christians have been mediating on the truths of Scripture for centuries. But for many Christians today, meditation is a completely new practice. I find this first of all exciting, because it means that many of us are on the verge of a revolutionary shift in our spiritual life.

This “STILL HERE” meditation practice isn’t just about a different way of structuring Sunday sermons, but a challenge to adopt a new (for some) spiritual practice and to practice that practice daily for three weeks minimum, and three months preferably. (Do you hear that Meeting Housers? Don’t give up!)

But why is meditation so new for so many Christians? I think Christians sometimes make the mistake of assuming meditation is the spiritual practice of other religions, like Hinduism or Buddhism, and therefore must not be a very Christian thing to do. And that is silly. This “guilty-by-association” approach to figuring out what is acceptable in life is the way of the Pharisees, not the way of Jesus. (I’m just glad we haven’t abandoned prayer because Muslims do that, or given up on Scripture study, because our Jehovah’s Witness friends do that, or stopped memorizing Scripture because we know some atheist friends who have memorized parts of Shakespeare. You get my point.)

It’s time to boldly do and be all that Jesus calls us to do and be, including being disciples who “abide” in his teachings and make room for his teachings to “abide” in us. Jesus said that his disciples are called to “remain” in him where the Greek word, meno, means to dwell, to abide, to stay, to move in and do life together with Jesus. In the same passage (John 15) Jesus also says that he wants to “remain” in us, and then tells us one way to welcome him inside – by allowing his “words” to dwell in us.

Study?  Yes.
Memorize?  Absolutely.
Meditate?  It’s time.

Elsewhere Jesus says –

If you abide (Gk,meno) in my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
~ Jesus (John 8:31-32)

Most of us know the last bit about the truth setting us free, but we haven’t learned to spend time abiding in the truth that brings freedom – the teachings of Jesus.

The ancient Israelites knew the importance of “abiding” in the teachings of the Torah. After Moses died, God commanded Joshua –

Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
~ Yahweh (Joshua 1:8)

King David agreed that a key to true prosperity was meditating on God’s teaching. In his very first Psalm, David writes –

Blessed is the one… whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.  That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.
~ King David (Psalm 1:1-3; also see Psalm 48:9; and all of Psalm 119)

The Hebrew word for “meditate” is hagah, which means to mutter, murmur, and muse over something. The image is one of a cow chewing her cud. Have you ever noticed that when you see a cow she always seems to be chewing something? That’s because cows must chew their food twice in order to digest it properly. A cow eats a lot of grass in a day (volume, volume, volume), but then regurgitates smaller portions (called cud) and re-chews them before swallowing the cud into a different part of the stomach. What a beautiful image of the place of meditation in our spiritual diet. (Okay, okay. I know “beautiful” is not the best word to describe the image of a cow regurgitating its food for a second go around, but it felt like the right word at the time.)

There are many types of meditation, and most of them can be quite helpful for our mental and emotional well-being. You can easily do some of your own online research, and what you’ll find is that things like anxiety, stress, irritability, anger, and aggression are decreased, while things like awareness (of God? of others?), empathy, compassion, self-control, and ability to focus are all increased.

While there are many kinds of helpful meditation, all types can fall into one of two basic categories:

  • APOPHATIC MEDITATION – letting go of content, releasing, emptying, un-thinking.
  • KATAPHATIC MEDITATION – Focused thinking, deep contemplation on specific content.

Apophatic meditation is a fine form of meditating and a lot of mental and physical good can come from that, but it isn’t what we’re talking about here. Our “STILL HERE” meditation is kataphatic meditation: a focused meditation, where we chew over and over again on one aspect of something God seems to be saying to us through a reading in Scripture.

When I was little I learned to be afraid of meditation because, as I was told, it was a way of emptying our minds which would leave us vulnerable to demonic attack or even possession. I’m not kidding! I bought it for a while, before I realized that Christians who meditate aren’t kicking out the Holy Spirit, but making space to experience more of God’s presence. And especially through kataphatic mediation, God has given us a tool to help us absorb more of his Word, to focus our hearing on what the Spirit might be saying to us, and to abide in the teachings of Jesus in a deeper and richer way. (Take THAT Devil!)

Last thing: remember that meditation isn’t about the experience of meditation itself. It isn’t a matter of how and who we are emotionally or psychologically throughout the meditative experience. Meditation is about who we are becoming when we are not meditating and are engaging with people around us. A Christian who meditates is a Christian who is learning how to be more focused on and responsive to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the teaching of Jesus. And that is someone who will live and love more like Jesus in their daily interactions with others. Meditation for the win!

In our next post we’ll cover the basics of how to start a regular “STILL HERE” meditation practice. But for now, you can at least warm up your meditation muscles by reading a teaching of Jesus more slowly, inviting the Holy Spirit to highlight his truth to your heart.

Christian education is valuable. The process of study and inquiry is like typing important information into your brain. Meditation is like hitting the “ENTER” key.


…continue reading…

♦ Part Two — Still. Here. (2 of 3): How to Get Started

♦ Part Three — Still. Here. (3 of 3): What’s With all the Breathing?