I started "looking" at meditation about fifteen years ago when I found my own spiritual life deficient. I soon discovered, though, that you can't understand meditation by just looking at it. You have to experiment personally with it. My interest in meditation stemmed partly from some serious reading and reflecting I had been doing on faith healing, partly from discussions of transcendental meditation, and largely from the revival work of Morton Kelsey and William Johnston. *
I turned to meditation with mild curiosity. Through it I've learned a lot about God's ways with people and how the Holy Spirit communicates through Scripture, sometimes almost as if by verbal dialogue. Meditation is nothing to fool around with. It is definitely not for religious tourists out looking for a new kick or a little spiritual cocktail to take the edge off the dull routine of life.
I'm going to discuss in detail what I've learned, and I hope after reading my account you will consider the cost and then join me in what I promise will be one of the most rewarding journeys you have ever undertaken.
First, let me set down in quick outline fashion what I have discovered about meditation.
What meditation is
1. Meditation is hard work. It's fun, but it demands discipline, and it never becomes easy with the passing of time.
2. Meditation can be practiced in a variety of ways. My way may not be your way, but with time, practice, and God's guidance you will discover what works best for you.
3. Scripture is the basis of Christian meditation. In fact, I define meditation as the art of personalizing Scripture. It involves using the senses and the imagination in ways so creative and rewarding that words fail to describe the experience.
4. Joumaling, or keeping a brief written account of experience and insights, is most helpful. I have learned that for me progress comes only when I make faithful journal entries. Charting progress is a challenge, but I've found a way to do it.
5. Meditation is a lifestyle. It is contemplative, yet active. It is subjective, yet it deals with discipline, scheduling, writing, and, most of all, helping. I didn't come to realize just how pervasive meditation is until just three or four years ago. When I first began to meditate I looked upon it as a way of approaching God. A good Christian technique, if you please. But genuine meditation is a way of being and doing that transcends the usual undertaking of prayer and subjective thought. Meditation is a contemplative lifestyle. Each of us created in God's image is given the ability to think, feel, and act; and all of these abilities are involved in true Christian meditation.
Like it or not, meditation is related to the clock. To reap its rewards you have to take time regularly. For me the early-morning hours are the best. After I have exercised and before I have eaten, my body and mind are most ready to cooperate in dialoguing with heaven. And that's exactly what meditation is—a dialogue with heaven based on a reflective examination of Scripture. I spend the first five to eight minutes of my fifteen- to twenty-minute meditation time reading Scripture. I enjoy reading a book of the Bible through verse by verse and word by word. The most productive passages for me in the past two or three years have been in the book of 1 Peter. It took me a couple of weeks just to finish Peter's greeting in verses one and two. I thought (meditated) a lot about the "scattering" and moving of my family, both my departed parents, and now my own family. I recalled my happy past, my sad past, and my crossroads past. I recalled God's purpose for me and for my loved friends, and as I did so I shed tears of delight and remembrance, and tears of grief. My journal carries some stains from those intimate times of reflection on 1 Peter.
It might take me several weeks to get through a single Bible verse. If a word or phrase speaks to me, I'll stop and concentrate on the meaning of the passage in my life at the moment. I might visualize people that I'm working with or situations that I'm concerned about and simply sit quietly and wait for an impulse or idea to flood my mind. This sort of quiet waiting did not come naturally to me. I'm a preacher. Proclamation is the cardinal practice in my profession. The dynamic preacher, the powerful evangelist, the well-organized, dramatic word was my early model. But a preacher from the past set me to thinking about listening to people and to God. "Do not rush into speech, let there be no hasty utterance in God's presence. God is in heaven, you are on earth; so let your words be few" (Eccl. 5:2, N.E.B.).
Some days the dialogue is more monologue, with my doing the talking or the asking. Other days the Holy Spirit actively impresses me with meanings, understandings, and relationships that have never come to mind before. When that happens, it is a matter of eliciting personal gratitude to God for His willingness to talk. I firmly believe that our thought life is built up by that upon which the mind feeds and that it rests with each of us to determine its food.
An important component in meditation is imagination. The human gift of imagination is greatly misunderstood. When I talk about imagination, many of my friends assume that I'm referring to events or situations that are not real. But imagination is useful for far more than journeys into never-never land. Our God-given ability to see pictures in our mind is the vehicle on which all successful Christian meditation moves.
Research in stress and burnout control, biofeedback, and wholistic medicine has clearly demonstrated the intimate relationship between mind and body. Norman Cousins recalled, first in a rather brief article and then in his book The Anatomy of an Illness, how his focused attention on happy and humorous incidents affected his health in positive ways when he was dreadfully ill. It is clear that imagination sometimes produces and often greatly aggravates disease. In fact, many lifelong invalids might be well if they only thought so. Psychological literature is full of reports of the effects of a happy, upbeat frame of mind. If the wrong use of the imagination can bring on and reinforce disease processes that yield untimely death, why don't we just reverse the process and use the imagination to picture health-producing, successful states of mind? By letting the imagination take hold of things unseen, Christian meditation does exactly that.
The imagination must have heavenly themes for contemplation. As we open windows of impulse and feeling toward heaven every aspect of our lives will be purified and vitalized by the Spirit of God. Try it. Let the creative juices flow. Use your God-given ability to picture a face, a form, or a word. In imagination go back to the Biblical scenes. Think the thoughts and feel the feelings of the disciples, of Moses, of Daniel, of Rahab, and as you come to understand their lives and messages you may discern there a vividness and beauty that you never noticed before.
How to meditate
Christian meditation can be done in a variety of ways, but most techniques include a period of quiet reflection on Scripture, accompanied by muscle relaxing and breathing exercises. Subtle but real changes take place with continued experience. I am much less dependent on verbal and audio material now than I was at first. When I began meditating, I often had difficulty focusing my attention long enough to keep from drifting off to sleep or keeping my mind from wandering into random channels of thought. But with practice I found myself able to discipline my mind, and the paradox of concentrating to relax became a reality for me. I have learned that I can habituate my mind to concentrate upon spiritual things. Mental exercise brings strength just as certainly as physical exercise does.
After meditation I sometimes find real value in rewriting in a very personal way the passage I've meditated on. And God often speaks to me through the rewritten material. True, I have written it, but in most cases I did not make the connection with people and needs until I reflected on the Biblical material. To illustrate, let me share a couple of sentences of reflection on 1 Peter 4:12 from my journal: "Bill, why are you so surprised at the hostility that (name) exhibits to you. You have tried to be fair; you tried to communicate your concern last Thursday night, but (name) would have none of it. Remember, though, you probably saw the problem between you and (name) too late. Don't feel righteous in yourself, and remember you are not alone." At the time, I was having a trying experience with one of my professional colleagues who was making some unkind and, I felt, unjust comparisons. Later on, as I struggled with the succeeding verses and the problem, God actually showed me a path of behavior to follow that led to reconciliation with my brother. Today we are good friends.
Some Christians approach meditation in a very structured way, emphasizing memorization and repetition. In some ways this approach resembles Eastern meditation. A meditator friend of mine has developed a week-long program that outlines each day's activities. I have found it very helpful in getting beginners started. This method, out lined in the box accompanying this article, can be used with real blessing with many passages of Scripture.
Share what you learn
The rich material turned up in Christian meditation becomes even more exciting when shared in a small Bible study group. In my opinion every pastor needs to be accountable to a small group of Bible study colleagues. I have received more support, affirmation, and challenge to grow during those periods of my ministry when I was in regular dialogue with a small group of fellow Christians than in any other setting. For me, personal meditation and small-group sharing are cut from the same bolt of spiritual cloth—they enrich each other as nothing else can.
Meditation offers many personal benefits. I have a warm, personal relationship with many of the characters of the Bible. They become my friends as we talk together. My imagination is alive. 1 can focus in on a mental picture and see color and form; I can hear sounds that I never before dreamed existed. I have learned to relax. After five minutes or so I can sense myself quieting down and feeling better. Meditation has taught me to take better care of my body, to get enough exercise and rest, and most important of all, to trust in God's daily guidance.
But abstract meditation is not enough. Christian meditation must also affect lifestyle; it must be active and helping. The results of Christian meditation should be seen in Christians who are strong enough in their bodies and minds to offer effective help to others. A quiet confidence in God nurtured in meditation makes it possible to feel optimistic about the "new world" that being united to Christ ushers in (see 2 Cor. 5:17-20). After all, we come as Christ's ambassadors with the best news of all!
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* William Johnston, Silent Music: The Science of
Meditation New York: Harper and Row, 1979.
Morton Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence: A
Guide to Christian Meditation. Mahwah, New
Jersey: Paulist Press, 1976.
A week's meditation
Colossians 3:2, 3: "Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God."
Day 1: Memorize the passage so thoroughly that you can say it easily with no hesitation. Repeat it often during the day.
Day 2: Get the meaning. With eyes closed, repeat the text slowly and silently to yourself for several minutes or until your mind stops racing through the pressing affairs of the day. Think about the meaning for you. Write what you believe the passage
means for you.
Day 3: Apply . With eyes closed, repeat the text slowly until your mind is calm and clear. Think about how you can apply the text to your own situation. Be specific as to time, place, event, person, and situation.
a. List the things that are most upsetting to your peace now. Can you turn them over to God?
b. In what areas of your life are you not"dead"?
c. Recall some time in the past where you turned a situation wholly over to God.
Day 4: Practice. In the morning, sit comfortably with eyes closed and slowly repeat for ten minutes: "My life is hid with Christ in God." Allow the meaning to sink deeply into your consciousness. Do not strain to concentrate. Do not try to prevent your mind from straying to other thoughts, but go gently back to the text. With eyes closed, visualize yourself going through the activities of the day.
Silently offer these activities to God. As you visualize any difficult situations, repeat: "My life is hid with
Christ in God."
Throughout the day, frequently repeat to yourself: "My life is hid with Christ in God." With frequent use, a Biblical passage becomes more and more powerful in focusing the mind on the spiritual. If you should become upset in any way, do not deny or try to change your feelings, but simply tell God about them and offer them to Him.
Before going to bed, run back over the events of the day in your mind. Offer prayers of thanksgiving to God for victories gained and blessings received. Where you have failed, thank Him for the learning opportunity. You needn't become depressed or discouraged about any of the events of the day or your reaction to them, because your life is hid with Christ in God.
Write down some of the experiences of the day.
Days 5-7: Repeat Day 4 activities. Additional passages useful with this method include Matthew 6:33; Romans 12:6-8; 14:19; Ephesians 4:32; Philippians 2:4; 4:8; Colossians 3:12, 13; 1 John 4:7.