The current issue of Christian Living in the Mature Years features Lois Carlson’s article “Serenity of the Sea: A Touch of God’s Healing Grace.” In this article, Lois describes the comfort and grace she experienced on a trip to the seaside. She explains how the quietness allowed her to “slow down so I could hear Christ’s words offering rest.”
One way to experience this quietness in our everyday lives (and far from the seashore) is through meditation.
Smart phones, social media, traffic, fashion, work, advertisements, video games – our culture is full of distractions, noise and hurry. Much of the culture, even much of religious culture, is superficial. The purpose of meditation, according to Richard Foster (a Christian theologian and author), is “detachment from the confusion all around us… in order to have a richer attachment to God.” Meditation, like all of the spiritual disciplines, is not an end in itself. Foster says, “Christian meditation leads us to the inner wholeness necessary to give ourselves to God freely.”
Rather than an attempt to empty the mind, Christian meditation is a pathway to enter into the presence of God. There are many methods of meditation. The most important element of any meditative practice is intention. One should begin with a prayer for the desire and grace to meditate and to draw close to God. This is reminiscent of the traditional Jewish practice of praying to be able to pray before entering the sanctuary for prayer. We would like to think that nothing could be easier or more delightful than to enter fully into God’s presence, but experience tells us that this experience is elusive – and ever more so in a world of increasingly abundant distractions. For this reason, an attitude of non-judgment is also important. Does your mind wander? Of course it does; that is the nature of the human mind. No judgment is needed.
At first, short sessions of five to ten minutes are enough. Many people find embodied (physical) practices helpful. Some people alternately turn their palms down, then up – down symbolizing the release and surrender to God of any immediate concerns, and up symbolizing the desire to receive from God what God has to give. Some people then focus on their own slow, deep breathing. Some follow a walking practice, which may include walking a labyrinth.
Some meditation incorporates Scripture. Lectio divina is a method of meditating on a short passage of Scripture, not for the purpose of study or exegesis, but for the purpose of internalizing and personalizing the passage. Usually, lectio divina involves reading the passage aloud several times over. When people practice lectio in groups, different voices take turns in reading and reareading the Scripture, with pauses for meditation between readings. In most cities, lectio groups meet regularly in a variety of locations.
Centering prayer, a practice favored by the twentieth-century theologian Howard Thurman, is practiced silently, alone or in community. This practice utilizes a word or a phrase that the individual can repeat silently as a way of bringing the mind back from the distracting thoughts that inevitably occur. Centering groups, like lectio groups, can be found in most communities. My own small centering group at Vanderbilt Divinity School has been an anchor for me throughout my years of study for the Master of Divinity degree.
Today’s blog was written by Donna Whitney. Donna Krupkin Whitney is a retired neurologist. She is currently a candidate for the Masters of Divinity degree and the Kelly Miller Smith Certificate in Black Church Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a candidate for ordination at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
Today’s Bible Lesson
by Dr. Nan Duerling
This bible lesson originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Christian Living in the Mature Years.
Lesson: Judges 6:11-18
Background: Judges 6–8
God may call some people we consider to be giants in the faith to tend to God’s business here on earth. Moses’s upbringing in the pharaoh’s household surely helped prepare him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. Similarly, Saul, also known as Paul, was a well-educated, upright Pharisee whose adherence to the law made him a leading persecutor of those Jewish Christians who, in his estimation, had turned away from God. Both Moses and Saul received spectacular calls. Moses could not mistake seeing a bush that burned but was not consumed and hearing the voice of God. Nor could Saul question suddenly being struck blind on the road to Damascus and hearing the voice of Jesus. Both of these servants of God experienced unmistakable, life-changing calls. Not only were their lives changed but so, too, were the lives of the people they were called to lead and serve.
Perhaps such calls fascinate us. We may assume that God always uses such breathtaking means to summon people. We may also assume that God is only looking for great people who can do great things. But our assumptions would be incorrect. We may think of Moses and Paul as spiritual supermen, and indeed they were. But remember that Moses had killed an Egyptian taskmaster he had seen beating a Hebrew slave (Exodus 2:11-15). When the king got wind of this act, he ordered that Moses be killed. So Moses fled to Midian and became a shepherd. Although Paul had not personally killed anyone that we know of, he was zealous in rounding up believers and throwing them into prison (Acts 8:1-3). Neither man was as perfect as we might expect, but God called and mightily used both of these flawed characters.
Why, then, are we so surprised when God calls us to do a task? We tend to say, Who me? So and so is far more qualified than I am. I couldn’t possibly do this job. Actually, Moses followed a similar line of argument, offering myriad excuses as to why he was unqualified. But he was God’s choice, and God equipped him to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. We—and many of the biblical people whom God called—assume that we must be from the right family or have the right education or know the right people or have certain experiences before God would even consider calling us. But the Bible clearly shows us that the yardsticks we use to measure qualified candidates for God’s service are quite different from the yardsticks God uses. The only perfect person who came to do God’s bidding was Jesus himself. No one has ever or will ever match his qualifications. So we need to recognize that God calls ordinary folks—folks just like us.
Had God entrusted us with the task of finding a leader for an Israelite army to rout out the Midianites, we would hardly have chosen Gideon. Let’s look at his résumé. Historically, great leaders have come from great dynasties. Gideon quickly pointed out to God’s messenger that he was from the weakest clan in the tribe of Manasseh (Judges 6:15). To boot, he was the youngest member of that clan! On the basis of his pedigree alone, we would dismiss Gideon immediately. He was just too weak and insignificant to lead a military campaign against marauding invaders from Midian. When they arrived, they took whatever they wanted and fled. Due to this threat, God’s angelic messenger found Gideon hiding in a winepress, which he was using to thresh wheat. He did not want to draw attention to this critical food source, which the Midianites would have been only too happy to snatch and grab. This potential leader from an insignificant family reported no prior military experience. His job threshing wheat hardly prepared him for combat. He was fearful and doubtful—so doubtful that he asked God for two signs to convince him that God really intended to rescue Israel. Who wants a military leader (judge) like that?
The criteria that God uses to choose servantleaders are far different from those that we humans use. God did not need a hero who would take credit for defeating the enemy. No, God was looking for someone who would obey. God needed someone who would act despite his doubts, and trust God for the outcome. We see this same principle at work when thirty-two thousand men responded to Gideon’s call for soldiers. God told Gideon to announce that those who were afraid were to return home. Twenty-two thousand left (Judges 7:3). For God, this was still far too many warriors. So Gideon was told to take these men to the water and watch for those who lap up water as dogs would. These three hundred men were the ones God chose to go with Gideon. Although this seems to us like a strange way to select warriors, God’s point was that if a large number of soldiers defeated the Midianites, they would take credit for the win. However, when Gideon and this small band went up against what appeared to be “a swarm of locusts” (Judges 7:12), it would be clear to everyone that God, not the men of Gideon’s small posse, was victorious.
Think about what God may be calling you to do right now. Likely you are not being asked to lead an army to defeat the foes of the people of God. But you may be facing a challenge that for you is just as difficult. Is God calling you to step out in faith and answer a call to ministry? To say yes may mean that you will have to make many changes. Doubts about your suitability for such work may overpower you. So, too, might questions about how your family will react, how you will afford a seminary education, whether you are smart enough to enroll, and on and on. Like Gideon, you may ask God for a sign to lead you in the right direction. And like Gideon, you will need to trust God to provide whatever you require to do this job effectively. Moving forward in the midst of your doubts, rather than waiting to erase each one, takes courage and faith.
Consider that God may be calling you to “bloom where you are planted.” Is there a task at your church that you feel God is nudging you to do, but which you are reluctant to accept? Is there a family situation where your help is needed, perhaps even on a long-term basis? Is it possible that God is calling you to pursue a different career or take a different job?
Like Gideon, we may be surprised when God comes to us in the midst of our ordinary routines. We may see ourselves as unqualified for anything more than what we are currently doing. As the angel Gabriel reminded Mary when he told her that God was calling her to bear God’s Son, “Nothing is impossible for God” (Luke 1:37). Do you really believe that? If so, after you have discerned that God is calling and wrestled with your doubts, then go forth in the strength of the Lord to accomplish all that God asks of you, remembering that God will do this work to which you have been called. God’s peace will be the sign that you are heading in the right direction, no matter how difficult or extraordinary the task may be.