practice

Pray then Contemplate then Meditate then Pray...

Photo by  Motoki Tonn  on  Unsplash

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Listening to different groups of people I hear three words used to describe some of their practices. The religious (often conservative) use the word prayer, academics (often liberal) use the word contemplate, and mystics (not just Christians) use the word meditate. Sometimes there words are used interchangeably in popular culture, but my lived experience teaches me that these are not different words for the same practice, but rather three different practices. The trouble is, most of us just do one of these when we really need all three.

Prayer is many things, however at the core, prayer is paying attention. it is the act of paying attention to the needs around us. It is paying attention to gratitude. It is paying attention to the hurts and pains in the world. It is paying attention to what the still small voice of God whispers to us.

While prayer is using our peripheral vision to pay attention, contemplation is the practice of focusing on something. It is focusing on one scripture or one concern. It is focusing on what God is inviting us to do or become.

Meditation is the practice of letting go. If prayer and contemplation are about opening our eyes to different degrees, meditation is about closing them. Not closing them to the pain of the world or the concerns of God, but closing them so to empty ourselves. Meditation gives us access to our limitations and shows us how we are not in control or in what ways we are limited to effect change.

To pray, contemplate or meditate in isolation is not only difficult to do but we are missing out on the fullness of these practices. They each build upon one another and connect to one another. We pay attention, we focus, we release, only to pay attention once more.

Since we are just out of Lent, perhaps it is easier to pull the example of Jesus from Matthew 26 36-42. First Jesus prays (pays attention):

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 

Jesus is praying and in doing so he is paying attention. He is paying attention to his situation becomes grieved and agitated, even to death. Jesus asks the disciples to “stay awake with me” to pay attention to what God desires.

The story continues:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 

Now Jesus moves from praying to contemplating. He is focused on the real possibility right before him. He narrows his choices to two - let this cup pass or thy will. Additionally we wonder if Jesus frustrated with the disciples because they are asleep or because they are not paying attention? The story then makes the final turn toward mediation:

Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

Jesus lets go of a desire to control the outcome. He is aware of his limitations in the situation. He clears his mind through meditation and said “the same words” of release to God. Once this threefold movement is complete, Jesus remains frustrated, not at his impending death mind you but at the disciples who could not even do the first step to stay awake, pay attention, pray.

Giving up Bible Reading in 2019

Photo by  Priscilla Du Preez  on  Unsplash

Reading the Bible is a time honored tradition in the life of the Christian and this year I think I am giving it up. I am giving up reading the Bible for scripture reading.

Reading the Bible and scripture reading are different not in content but in posture. The same words are engaged but it is a different approach. When we read the Bible we tend to look for what we can learn or what we can gain. We look for the teaching or the wisdom we need to get through the moment. We find something that can challenge us or stimulate our thinking. The vast majority of Bible studies that I have been apart are interested in expanding your thinking in order to shore up belief structures. Reading the Bible puts the reader as the protagonist (the main actor) in the process.

Reading scripture is different.

First of all, we do not read scripture - scripture reads us. Scripture exposes to us the things in our life and world that we are blind to and even need to repent of. However the primary difference is that scripture reading means that we are open to (and expectant of) an encounter with the living Christ. This means scripture reading is not an action but an event. It is a “happening”. It is a theophany.

Shifting from reading the Bible to scripture reading is ultimately differentiated by the fruit each practice bears. If we are not transformed by the words we read, then we are reading the Bible. And so, as a start consider this scripture reading:

But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless.
— Jesus, Matthew 12:7

Uncomfortable or distracted in prayer? You may be doing it right.

Photo by  Andrew Neel  on  Unsplash

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Often prayer is taught in a way that gives the impression that some have the gift of prayer and others don't. We are disappointed when we are distracted in prayer and so we give up the practice. We beat ourselves up when we are not at ease with "praying from our hearts" because we are told that praying from our hearts should come naturally.

It may be helpful to remember that within Christian spiritual practices being uncomfortable or distracted in prayer may indicate you are on a good track. 

When we are uncomfortable in prayer it is because we know prayer is a vulnerable act. And being vulnerable is often uncomfortable for us. As such, if you are uncomfortable with the practice of praying it may mean that you are finally abandoning the false facade and expressing vulnerability. 

Additionally, when we are distracted in prayer is means we have allowed something else to take center stage in our hearts and minds. As such, we have a chance to return to God as the center. This returning, also called repenting, is the very type of prayer that Jesus elevated in places such as Luke 18. Just as there is great rejoicing when one who is lost is found, so too there is great rejoicing when we return to God at the center or our prayer. 

So if you are uncomfortable or distracted in your prayer life, the good news is you may very well be doing it right. 

Getting Distracted in Prayer? Rejoice.

There is a story that I came across some many years ago and for the life of me I cannot locate the source. (If you know where this is from I would love to know!) The gist of the story is:

A student was frustrated that he was getting distracted in his prayer and meditation. He went to the teacher and expressed what he saw to be a problem. The teacher, after seeing the distress in her student said to be thankful for the distractions. She then saw a shock come over her student and she went on to explain, "each distraction is an opportunity to return to the heart of God." 

The distractions in prayer and meditation are going to happen. If we cannot return (repent) to a simple prayer or moment of silence, then we are going to have a difficult time returning (repenting) to God or neighbor when we really screw up. The distractions are an opportunity to practice returning when the stakes are really low.