First Thoughts: Biblical meditation (part 2)

As I continue to share with you some of the things God spoke to me about whilst on sabbatical, I want to return this week to biblical meditation. Last week we started to explore how one form of biblical meditation was a little like chewing the cud. How did you get on having a go?

Imagination: a tool for understanding
Francis Schaeffer once said, ‘The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.’ He was trying to capture the God-given importance of using our imagination to help deepen our understanding of the Bible, and thus the nature of God. So what might this look like?

Get yourself ready
If you are anything like me, I’m easily distracted! So try setting aside 15-20 minutes when you know you won’t be distracted by anything else. Find a quiet place. This could be in the lounge (with the door shut), or even sat in the car park at work, before heading in for the day. Make sure you turn your phone off! For many years, I’ve taken Nicky Gumbel’s advice of having a notebook next to me to write down any thoughts which distract me (eg must pay car insurance tonight) so I’m not trying to remember them whilst focusing on God’s word. Try it! You will quickly be able to settle your heart and give concentrated focus to the passage you are going to meditate on.

Now what?
Good question! My suggestion is you choose a small passage of scripture (ideally a single story or parable) and, as Ignatius of Loyola once said, ‘apply all [your] senses to the task.’ This requires the use of your imagination!

Let me give you an example: You may remember that, on Sunday 27th September, I preached from Luke 5:1-11 on Jesus as he calls his first disciples. That sermon started as mediation whilst away on sabbatical. As I started to meditate on the passage, I first read it very slowly aloud to myself (so I could hear the narrative). Then I walked (slowly again) through the narrative, trying to imagine that I were there. It begins on the beach; I tried to smell the sea, imagine the landscape, hear the wind blowing through the sails of the little fishing boats. I tried to imagine the sun reflecting on the water and the muffled sounds from the nearby village. This was using my imagination to try to inhabit the text and allow understanding to grow. I moved on and eventually got to the moment when Jesus asks a tired and weary Simon to push out a little further into the deep water and once more let down his nets. I saw the slight sinking of Simon’s shoulders, as he realised it was going to mean lowering and pulling up those tortuous nets; those that had only netted him heartache the previous night. I saw his quick, wistful look to the rising smoke from the village, knowing that a good rest was not that far away. Yet I also saw his lingering inquisitive looks at Jesus. I could see that something from the inside was stirring him to obey. Then, as so often happened with Simon, words were coming out of his mouth before he had fully computed them: ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ In that moment of meditation on the passage, I was struck by the fact that those words are the essence of true discipleship. Here’s what I wrote in my journal that day:

‘Because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ This is the essence, the beginning of all true discipleship. ‘Because you say so’ is choosing to live as Christ-centred in my decisions, emotions and will. See how the commitment that Simon makes cuts against logic, professional experience, his physical need for rest, and many other factors. However, in that moment Simon suppresses all of these other reasons – or, maybe better still, elevates this one simple desire, which is to be obedient to the calling of Jesus. ‘If you say so, I’ll do it.’

Biblical meditation is about trying to get to these types of insights. Why is this so important? Because then it is so very easy to personalise them and grow as a disciple of Jesus. This is part of the prayer that I wrote in my journal that morning:

Lord, this morning I want to follow you. I want to live a ‘because you say so’ life. I’m not fully sure I know the edges of what that looks like; however, I do know that I want to follow you all the days of my life. I want to walk as a simple disciple of you. I want to keep my eyes upon you and, because of your great love and mercy for me, everyday I want to be characterised by ‘because you say so’ decisions.

So what should I do now?
I’m so glad you asked! Why don’t you have a go? Here are three simple stories for you. Allow your imagination and senses to help you to meditate, and gain a better and deeper understanding of these passages:

John 4:1-26
John 5:1-14
John 9:1-12

First Thoughts: Biblical meditation (part 1)

As I continue to share with you some of the things God spoke to me about whilst on sabbatical, I want to focus this week on the important but often neglected tool (or, in old money, discipline) that is meditation.

It’s amazing how, as I write the word meditation, my mind drifts swiftly to images of people with crossed legs, chanting some repetitive religious mantra. Why is it that, as Christians, we so quickly lose sight of the central place that biblical mediation has played in the lives of our forefathers (and mothers) for the last two thousand years? Take for example Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was executed by the Nazis. When asked why he meditated he replied, ‘Because I am a Christian’. In addition to the witness of so many in the church over the last 2,000 years, we find the practice of mediation used by those faithfully following the Lord again and again in scripture – at least 55 times in the Old Testament alone! Find examples in Genesis 24:63, Psalm 63:6 and Psalm 119:148.

So what is biblical mediation?

Richard Foster describes biblical meditation as ‘very simply, … the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word‘. How does it differ from just reading the Bible? Let me give you some simple images to help describe biblical meditation:

Chewing the cud

Perhaps it’s the small boy in me that loves how many animals have really gross dietary habits! For example, because of the inefficiency of their digestive systems, rabbits will often eat their own droppings to obtain all the nutrients out of the them (gross!). Cows, on the other hand, have the ability to chew the cud, swallowing and then regurgitating their food for a second or third chew! This image of continually revisiting and chewing over material is a great illustration of one form of biblical meditation. In Psalm 1:2 we read that the psalmist meditates on the law of the Lord ‘day and night’. Biblical mediation is the process whereby we intentionally focus the attention of our heart, mind, emotions and imagination on a small section of scripture and just keep visiting it, so that we obtain every bit of spiritual nutrient from it.

Why chew the cud of God’s word?

Because in a world that is rushing and filled to overflowing there is a danger that we never really grasp hold of the truth. We can know it in our minds as facts and information but it has not taken hold of us and transformed our thinking and practice. It’s can so easily just remain as data, sat on one of many shelves in our mind. However, when we meditate on a passage of scripture and chew it over and over, it slowly starts to change us.

This is what often happens to me when I meditate on God’s word:

  • It uncovers heart motivations which I was not aware of.
  • It reveals thought patterns that are in opposition to the gospel.
  • It sharpens my view and vision of my saviour.
  • It brings fresh encouragement and courage to my heart.
  • It sparks new ideas and links biblical ideas together.
  • It leads to prayer, repentance and devotion.
  • It changes the way I want to live.

How do I chew the cud of God’s word?

I’m so glad you asked! It is very easy. Why not take a small passage of scripture, write it out on an index card and, in the morning, take ten minutes to quietly focus on the passage. Don’t be tempted to use lots of commentaries or online resources; just quietly focus on the passage at hand. Prayerfully start talking to the Lord about it and asking questions that will help you to understand the passage better. Allow the Lord to start sifting your heart with the words. Slip the index card into your pocket and use a few minutes here and there throughout the day to revisit the passage again and again. Finally, at the end of the day, grab a notebook and write down all of the things you feel God has spoken to you about through the passage. Just keep writing till you feel you have emptied the tank, and then turn what you have learned into prayer and look for some changes you need to make in your life.

Why don’t you have a go? Here are five passages to get you started:

  • Psalm 1
  • Luke 5:18-19
  • Luke 11:33-36
  • Romans 12:1-2
  • 1 Corinthians 13

More next week…

FIRST THINGS: THE QUIET SOUL

As I continue sharing with you some of the things that God has taught me over my recent sabbatical, let me share with you the importance of a quiet soul.

We live in a world that seems to be getting faster and noisier. With smartphones and tablets, any one of us could have a whole host of apps pinging and beeping at any time of the day or night: apps such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Google+, Snapchat, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp and that oh-so old fashioned thing called email. None of these things are wrong, but they do create noise in our world and, if we’re not careful, we can be so constantly surrounded by the noise that the quiet whisper of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12) gets drowned out.

Having a quiet soul is all about finding the place where, regardless of what is going on outside, your inner world is saturated by the peace and fulfillment that only God can give you. Here are three tests to help you identify how quiet your soul is:

  • Turn off all electronic devices for a whole weekend: no checking Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. How do you feel? Agitated or restful?
  • When you are sat at the bus stop or waiting for a meeting, what do you do? Do you use that time for prayer, meditation or quiet thoughtfulness, or do you reach for your phone and start filling the quiet with information noise?
  • When you put your head on the pillow at night and think about the day, or even the day to come, what is the underlying disposition of your heart? Peaceful or fretful?

The quiet soul is ‘more a state of mind and heart than it is a place. There is a solitude [or quietness] of the heart that can be maintained at all times. Crowds, or lack of them, have little to do with this inward attentiveness.’ (Richard Foster).

Jesus modelled a life that placed maintaining a quiet soul at the heart of everything he did. Again and again, we see him retreating to places of solitude, not to escape but to refresh and rejuvenate his inner world with times of extended conversation and intimacy with his Father (see Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 6:12, Matthew 14:13, Matthew 14:23, Mark 1:35, Mark 6:31, Luke 5:16, Matthew 17:1-9, Matthew 26:36-46).

The quiet soul is the place whereby the noise of this world has been dialed down so that ‘the divine whisper’ (Richard Foster) can be heard more clearly.

Over the course of my sabbatical this has been one of the greatest journeys that God has taken me on. Yes, there have been quite a number of outward changes that I have made (getting rid of my smartphone, unplugging from lots of distracting things, not automatically turning on the radio when I get in the car), but it has also been about consciously and deliberately creating space in my world and heart to learn better how to hear the voice of God. And guess what? This takes time, which in a busy and noisy world you must fight for!

So what about you? How quiet is your soul? Are there any external changes you need to make to create space for solitude? More importantly, are there any inner changes that need to take place so that solitude can turn into sweet communion with your heavenly Father?