Meditation: It’s not Just for Gandhi Anymore

I will admit it. When I first picked up Richard Foster’s book, “Celebration of Discipline,” and saw that the first discipline in the book is meditation, I almost put it down. Images immediately came to mind of a cloistered monastery; cold, damp walls reverberating with a collective “ommmm” as robed adherents rocked gently back and forth, index finger to thumb in the lotus position. I thought of Thomas Merton and Mahatma Gandhi, Henri Nouwen and John Michael Talbot; good people all, great even, but high on a pedestal and unattainable for mere mortals like me. And I thought of all those times when I’ve been put off by “new age” people on “a journey,” who seemed to be so insistent on gazing at their own navels that they rarely noted the wider world just beyond their consuming selves.

But the book had come highly recommended by a close friend whom I trusted, so I resisted that initial dismissive impulse and began reading. The first chapter was a transforming experience in which a whole host of preconceptions were challenged and dismantled, and a rich world opened before me.

Foster grabbed me with the very first lines: “In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in ‘muchness’ and ‘manyness,’ he will rest satisfied. Psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, ‘Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.'”

Even for folks like me who long ago gave up on the notion of a literal little red guy with horns, tail, and pitchfork living underground; it is a compelling image of what Paul called “principalities and powers,” and what Foster calls our “Adversary.” The things that stand against us, he seems to say, are less obvious than the traditional pitchfork-yielding Devil of Medieval art. They are things that seem good at first glance: busy schedules, crammed agendas, frenetic activity, active social calendars, and instant information/communication. Foster wrote this book long before the internet or the phenomenon of Twitter/Facebook/MySpace or, yes, blogging; but there’s no doubt all these things have only intensified the “muchness and “manyness” and “hurry” that characterize our day and makes our Adversary smile.

Foster begins his book with meditation because he believes it is the doorway to all the other disciplines. We must, for our own sakes and for the sake of the world, go beyond the superficialities of our day, slow down, go “deep into the recreating silences,” and find that center where God longs to commune with us. God is always speaking, always revealing Godself to us, both individually and communally. We are the ones who find it hard to hear for all the noise.

To hear God’s voice is not only for the Merton’s and Nouwen’s of our day, but is God’s gracious gift to all God’s children. Cultivating the discipline of meditation is one way to place ourselves in the arena of grace (to use an idea of Shirley Guthrie). We cannot control God, we cannot dictate to God where and how God will speak, but we can put ourselves in the place where God has been known to speak before. The biblical witness and the witness of Christians through the ages is that we can hear the voice of God more clearly when we silence other voices vying for our attention, when we practice intentionality in our inner lives.

Foster is not big on mushy sentimentality. He eschews the popular notions of meditation and spirituality that claim a “buddy-buddy,” “me and Jesus” outcome. Rather, he describes meditation as both “intense intimacy” and “awe-full reverence.” Foster is likewise quite dismissive of the ideas of some forms of meditation that try to get people to detach from the world in some blissful inner state and never re-engage. The purpose of meditation is to experience the deep peace and presence that comes from communing with God in order to re-engage the church and the world in a way that will be effective and grace-filled.

This has always been my biggest criticism of much that passes for spirituality in our culture – especially our religious culture – today; that it is too focused on the self and not the other, that it devalues the importance of life in Christian community (the church), and that it is unconcerned with the social engagement that was so much a part of Jesus’ witness and work. Foster shares these criticisms and yet is unwilling to do away with the idea of spirituality and meditation because of these contemporary corruptions. Rather, he seeks to reclaim them.

He convinces me. So I took on the challenge of expanding my conception of prayer and implemented some of the methods he recommends for meditation. Foster encourages at the beginning the setting aside of a particular time and place each day. It needs to be a time and place quiet and free of interruption, with no telephone (or cell phone or computer) nearby. You should have a posture that reflects an inward state of calm and contemplation, whether that is sitting, standing, or kneeling. He recommends opening the palms upward to instill a feeling of receptivity. You might either close your eyes or look out on nature.

There are numerous forms of meditation. One can meditate upon a favorite Scripture passage, reading it through several times and listening for emphases that seem to come to your mind. Another form – and one I found very helpful and have practiced with some regularity since first reading this book almost twenty years ago – is called “re-collection.” I begin by placing my palms down as a symbolic way of indicating my desire to turn over any concerns I have to God. I might say, “God, I give over my insecurity over the upcoming meeting today.” Whatever is weighing on my mind, I symbolically release it. Then I lift my palms up in a posture of receptivity and receive God’s grace, peace, and joy. It is always amazing to me what these simple movements will do for my sense of God’s presence and my prayers both for myself and for others. Through this I have discovered that meditation is not just for the spiritual giants, but God’s gift to us all.

Meditation is really a doorway to the other disciplines, which all in one way or another call for the simple yet difficult practices of setting aside time, slowing down, quieting the mind, and reflecting on our relationship with God.

I would love to hear your own experiences with meditation or your reactions to these ideas. Perhaps you have a story of a way this discipline has affected your life, or you want to help fill out these reflections with thoughts of your own. Meditation remains a highly misunderstood concept in the western church, and I freely admit that I am often quite critical of some of its most ardent advocates. But Foster has a way of cutting through a lot of those concerns for me and getting to the heart of the matter. What about for you?

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On the Way

9:01 miles. Time 1:25:32. Pace 9:29.

Friday morning I got on the scales and weighed 198 pounds. This is a loss of 7.6 pounds from my initial 205.6. I lost 7.6 pounds in six days. While that seems great at first glance, it’s too much, too fast. Several people tell me it’s probably just water-weight and will slow down soon. Kim tells me I’m eating too few calories and it is not healthy. Since she is rarely wrong, and I learned long ago to trust her instincts and wisdom, I’m altering my plan from 1500 calories a day to 1800-2000 calories a day. I will keep monitoring the weight-loss rate.

I am keeping up with my calories on a website called The Daily Plate. You get to it by first going to http://www.livestrong.com, and then following the links. It is completely free. It has a hug database of foods, including restaurant foods, and exact calories. I just started this yesterday, and it informed me that I should be taking in 2200 calories per day while I am training. See, Kim is always right.

I ran my long run yesterday afternoon with my great friend Clarke Oldham. He is an excellent trainer and offered to run with me to help me reach my goals. He established the pace and kept me moving, and when it was all done we ran 9:01 miles in 1 hour 25 minutes 32 seconds, for a pace of 9:29 minutes per mile. I still had a little in the tank when it was over, and this was running at the end of a long Sunday filled with meetings, on the fuel from a lunch eaten five hours previously, and without my mandatory can of Red Bull. If all those other thing had been in place, I think I could have done even better.

A 9:29 pace would bring me across the line in the half-marathon in 2 hours and 1 minute. So my immediate goal is to get rid of that 1 minute. Clarke was encouraging. If I can maintain my training regimen and keep losing the weight (at a slower pace), I hope all the goals will be met.

I’m learning a few things about myself in all this. I’m re-learning the power of community. Without Kim’s daily love and inspiration, as well as her willingness to count those calories along with me, I could not do this day after day. Caleb and Chandler never fail to ask me if I ran and how I did. They may not realize it, but those simple questions warm my heart and make me want to do it…for them. Clarke’s willingness to forgo his own goals (he is an extremely talented runner who could run this race much faster than he will be with me) is a true example of friendship and generosity. I cannot thank him enough. The people at church who follow this blog are all so encouraging, many of them asking me on Sunday how things were going. John, as always, is a constant source of grace. All these, and so many more, make such things possible. Community. I talk about it a lot. In matters of faith it is indispensable. Turns out it is indispensable in running and living a healthy lifestyle as well.

I am also learning that the limits I experience in matters of eating and running are largely self-imposed. It is amazing how quickly I can think my way out of doing what I know I need to do. Likewise, with a shift in thinking, it is amazing how much more I can do. One cannot only train the body. One has to train the mind as well.

And this is where those spiritual disciplines come into play.

More on that later…

Eating, Running, and Lent


It is time for me to get serious about a few weighty matters.

I guess I’m like a lot of other folks with good intentions but poor self-discipline when it comes to eating and exercise. In five weeks time, I hope to change all that.

Every year I train for the Country Music Half-Marathon, and every year I complete it in over two hours. Last year I posted my personal best of 2 hours and 6 minutes. Pathetic. Do you want to know why it was pathetic? Because I half-trained for the half-marathon last year. I changed nothing about my eating, got out and ran half the amount of time I should have, lost no weight, came in at 2 hours 6 minutes – and here’s the pathetic part – was happy about it.

Now I know what many of you are going to say. “Stop beating yourself up, Joiner. Lots of people sat on their couches eating doughnuts that very morning while you were running the streets of Nashville. At least you got out and did it.” I know that’s true. Some of the spectators had the temerity to eat the doughnuts right there on the sidelines in our full view. So, yes, I know there are points for trying. I understand grace (most of the time).

But here’s the thing. I know there’s a whole world out there waiting for me, just beneath the surface of things. What possibilities will open up if I run every training run in my training plan? Where might things lead if I actually ate healthy portions and lost twenty pounds? How might my life be different – and the life of my family – if I went all in, weaned myself off cholesterol medication, and actually began feeling more energy with which to love, care, and live life? I sense that world, waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to get serious.

I suspect Lent is much the same way for many of us. We mean to engage the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, worship, meditation, simplicity, and so on. We have good intentions. But life gets in the way, and soon enough all those good intentions go out the door as we become the equivalent of couch-potato Christians.

It’s not that God loves us less because of this failure, and it is certainly not true that we are somehow less than baptized children of God because we come up short. Those of us who are Presbyterian and Reformed believe we do not earn God’s favor and that our relationship with God is not based on a divine brownie point system.

But we sense – do we not – that there is a world out there we are missing, a depth of love and grace and peace that God longs for us to experience, but which we cannot see. We cannot see it because we have not trained enough in the language of prayer, in the discipline of study, or in the countless other ways by which we are enabled to recognize God’s grace. This lack of vision will not keep God from coming to us in grace, and it will not keep God from welcoming us as God’s children. What it will do is impoverish us, keeping us plodding along, happy with things as they are, and completely oblivious to the glory that lies just beneath the surface.

I for one am tired of plodding along. Take a good look at the photo of at the top of this post. I won’t look that out of shape much longer (my apologies to John Leggett, but this was the only recent photo I could use as a “before” shot).

Today is March 14.
Today, I weigh 205 pounds.
Today, I run a 9:45 mile.
Today, I train at half intensity two or three days a week.
Today, I eat what I want when I want.

The Country Music Half-Marathon is April 25.

Forty-two days.

Time to get serious.

In forty-two days I will weigh 185 pounds.
In forty-two days I will run a 9 minute mile.
In forty-two days I will run the County Music Half-marathon in under two hours.

All of this I will not do on my own. I have a wonderful support system in my family, in my church community, and I hope in all of you reading this blog. It’s been there all along; I have been the one hesitant to accept it. One can never embark on anything of substance alone.

More than this, however, I know that I can do nothing absent the grace of God in Christ, in whom I live and move and have my being. Each breath, each step, each day, all of it is gift. It’s time I used the gifts I have been given. But make no mistake, all such gifts, all so-called “self” discipline, begins and ends in God.

Kind of like Lent.

I Rejoiced the Day You Were Baptized

This past Sunday I had the honor of worshipping with Massanutten Presbyterian Church and baptizing Aaron Leggett, son of our dear friends John and Alayne Leggett (check out his blog at http://www.kairoscorner.blogspot.com). Spending time with the Leggetts is always life-giving. John and I have been friends since college days, and ours is a friendship that has only deepened in all respects as the years have passed. So I was moved beyond words when he and Alayne invited me to baptize Aaron.

The weekend was only made better by our accommodations. We were invited by Ellen Blose to stay in her home while she made the trip to middle Tennessee to see her grandchildren Aaron and Lauren, members of First, Franklin, play roles in a school drama (I’m told congratulations are in order for both of them on great jobs). This home has the best view in all the valley according to many locals in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and after staying there we believe it. We were privileged to be awakened by the gentle nudge of the sun coming up over the eastern ridge of Massanutten, which we followed by sitting on the deck, cups of coffee in hand, overlooking the valley. We found ourselves rejoicing together with the psalmist: “I lift mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help…”

The home itself is the family place where Ellen and the late Bill Blose raised seven daughters, one of whom, Sarah, is a member of First, Franklin. It was great being able to stay in this house, which is filled with meaning for that family. The old walls themselves seem to speak of the faithfulness of generations. It was not hard to see how it is that Sarah has come to live out her baptismal identity in such profound ways among this community in Franklin. Those baptismal waters run deep in the Blose household.

Kim, Chandler, and I went hiking with all the Leggetts (John, Alayne, Rachel, Sarah, and Aaron) in the Shenandoah National Park on Saturday. I will post photos of this excursion soon on the blog, and they will do a much better job than I can of showing the breathtaking beauty into which we descended as we made our way down to the falls. Walking down the path, next to the running stream, and seeing it widen out until it fell some fifty feet into the valley below was a powerful baptismal reminder as we headed into worship on Sunday.

On Sunday, after hearing a great sermon from the Parish Associate Ann Pettit, including a profound children’s sermon on the sign of baptism, we moved to the font of the beautiful sanctuary at Massanutten Church. John and Alayne, along with their delightful daughters Rachel and Sarah (with whom Chandler loved spending a large portion of the weekend playing wii and other games), came forward and presented Aaron for baptism. Throughout the service I was struck by the palpable presence not only of the Spirit of God, but of all the saints of every time and place, who seemed to take their place around the font as Aaron stepped into this ancient baptismal stream. The reality of the covenant was strong in that place as we remembered the faithfulness of generations that culminated in this scene. Fathers and mothers, grandparents and great-grandparents, Sunday school teachers and pastors stretching back countless generations, each taking their place in front of this universal font of deliverance, declaring their faith in Christ and in a God who pursues us in love through the power of the Spirit.

Aaron is so very young, and he cannot yet even speak, but we know, even now, that he is not alone, and that he has been spoken to and spoken for by a God who summons us and claims us before we are able to respond. He will be raised, I have no doubt, to live into this baptismal identity. The world may call him many things, some laudable, and some not so much, but his core identity will always be baptized, beautiful child of God.

We all left that place drenched in these covenantal waters, rejoicing along with the writer of 1 John: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1). I was also hearing the words of the Hymn, Borning Cry:

I was there to hear your borning cry
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
To see your life unfold.

May Aaron’s life unfold with the constant awareness of the One who has called him by name in baptism and who will never leave him or forsake him.

Fast forward one day….I open the paper to discover that one of the fastest growing groups in religious affiliation polling are known as “Nones.” Seemed an interesting juxtaposition. More on that later…

Lent and the Art of Spiritual Maintenance

I am still chewing on C.J. Thompson’s sermon from last night’s Lenten mid-week service. In it he invited us to examine our lives this season in an effort to see if there were any golden calves in the way of our relationship with God that needed to be ground up. It is a question that is worth pondering not only during Lent, but each day.

He was referencing the text from Deuteronomy 9:13-21 that tells the story of Moses coming down from the mountain, tablets of law in his hands, to discover the people dancing around and worshipping a golden calf. The last part of the text says, “Then I (Moses) took the sinful thing you had made, the calf, and burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it thoroughly, until it was reduced to dust; and I threw the dust of it into the stream that runs down the mountain.”

As the text was being read, I marveled at the violence of the verbs: burning, crushing, grinding, throwing. This golden calf is such a danger, such an offense, that Moses wants to obliterate it. One also gets the sense that Moses is afraid if the slightest remnant of the thing remains, someone might be tempted to scoop up even the dust of it and set it on an altar.

It was while I was reflecting on this violent text that C.J. made the connection I wish he had not made, turning it from a curiosity, an odd text for those of us who like to think of ourselves as biblical scholars to haggle over, and making it instead deeply personal. No longer was it a golden calf that those Israelites bowed to long ago; now it was my own golden calf, my own attempts to seat someone other than God on the altar of my life.

As I reflected, I saw traces of gold everywhere. The first thing I look at most mornings these days is the state of my retirement account, and find it determining my mood, praying my morning prayers to the gods of money and security. I rushed by my daughter’s bedroom door last night in a hurry to get to my favorite television show, completely ignoring her requests for “one more story,” telling myself that I was tired and I deserved some peace and rest, bowing ever so deeply to my golden self. Our presbytery is conducting a series of discussions leading up to what could be a controversial vote, and I find myself joining in the caricatures of those who disagree with me, silently wishing that they would just stop talking, believing in my hubris that my opinion is the only correct one on the matter, doing obeisance to the gods of pride and perspective. I could go on. The golden calves are numerous, crowding out the path, limiting my vision, burying my faith.

Just when I am ready to give up on the idea that I can ever clear out all these shiny cows, I am reminded by the final image of what I tend to forget: I cannot do this work on my own. The waters running down from the mountain, into which Moses throws the dust of the idol, symbolize for me the waters of baptism, in which God takes me as I am and washes me. It is God who sets me on the path. It is God, in the Crucified One, Jesus Christ, who comes to me, to us, right in the midst of our idolatry and makes a way where there was no way. The Lenten journey is not ultimately about what we do or don’t do; it is about what God longs to do in us and through us.

Lent is a time, I believe, when we are invited to practice disciplines that open us to the grace of God; a grace which pours down off the mountain, washing up all that hinders our walk, and renewing our faith. Perhaps the best I can do is invite God to take all those golden calves and burn/crush/grind/throw/wash them, and me.

There was a lot to chew on last night, and you can probably tell I am still chewing. What do you think? How would you respond to the invitation to address all those golden calves in your life?