Meditation

Meditation

A couple of months ago a friend introduced me to a meditation app on my phone called, “Calm.” It has hundreds of meditation lessons and some bedtime stories for adults (G rated) that can help you fall asleep. The app has exercises for stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness – and more breathing exercises than you can possibly imagine. Most people think of apps like “Calm” or books from the self-help section of a bookstore when it comes to meditation. Meditation as presented in those resources promises that with practice you can calm your anxiety, lower your blood pressure or even elevate your mood.

The meditation written about in the Bible and performed by Christians for centuries is simpler than most of the practices you will encounter on-line or in a bookstore. Richard J. Foster writes that “Christian meditation, very simply, is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey [God’s] word” (Celebration of Discipline, 15). When we meditate we create space in our lives and hearts, so that Christ can enter, and God can speak. The skill of Christian meditation, and the ability to connect with God through it, improves with time and practice. 

Meditation can be as simple as finding a place to sit (or stand) that is quiet, and then listening purposely to what God is saying to you. Christian meditation can also involve nature, taking time to look carefully at a tree, listening to birds singing or watching a squirrel as it digs in the earth. The goal is seeking God’s voice and stilling our own thoughts long enough to be open to “the still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) that speaks through our personal whirlwinds. Meditation can also involve scripture, a practice called “meditatio Scripturarum” in which the reader reads a word, verse, or a passage and then waits to hear what God is saying to them through God’s word. This type of meditation can also involve imagination, not to make up meanings or interpretations, but to think about what it would be like to be present in the story. The idea is to think about what it would be like to be in the upper room with Christ during the last supper – the sounds that would have been heard, the food that would have been eaten, and the tension that built up in the room when Jesus named Judas as His betrayer. 

Regardless of the form of meditation we choose, the practice of meditation can bring us closer to the heart of God. It allows us to slow down and re-order our lives. It reminds us that God’s presence surrounds us and uplifts us. Through it, God will give us insight into both the mundane and the divine. God will show us how to love our friends, and what it means to step into God’s presence. And it is a practice. When we first start out we might need to set aside time to meditate, to find a specific chair or room to sit in. But as we practice it will get easier to hear God’s voice. And as St. Teresa of Avila wrote during her years-long quest to enter God’s presence more fully through prayer and meditation, “God withholds Himself from no one who perseveres.” 

Exercise for today: 

Meditate on Luke 8:22-25

Choose a place to sit and read that is quiet, and where you will not get interrupted. Pray before you get started and ask God to open your heart and mind to the Spirit’s leading as you read. Then find the passage in your Bible. The passage tells the story about Jesus and the disciples being caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. 

Before you begin to read the passage, take a few deep breaths and allow your mind and heart to settle. Then take a minute to think about the context of the story: Jesus had been teaching the crowds and healing people along the edge of the sea of Galilee, the disciples had been with Him. At the beginning of Luke 8:22-25 Jesus and the disciples left the crowds behind them and stepped into a boat which would take them across the Sea of Galilee. See if you can picture the crowds and shoreline, and then begin to read. Read slowly, picturing the boat, the disciples and the storm as it begins to rise. When you have finished reading, spend a few moments (or minutes) in silence listening, and then end in prayer to God. Talk to God about what you felt, what you are wondering about, and what you learned – about God and about yourself.

The Disciplines

Every summer I find myself looking for ways to relax, disconnect and recharge. Summer sunshine, long days of light and the slower pace demanded by the heat and humanity of Michigan summers, coupled with vacation time with friends, does wonders for my soul. Those lengthened days and easier rhythms of life often open up more time to reflect and do some actual soul searching. These past few weeks I have had a growing desire to pause and determine what practices I want to take into the coming year. Getting up earlier, taking more time to read scripture, adding a few more helpings of vegetables into my diet are all on the list. 

But I also know that I want to go deeper. The fatigue and tension of the past year is still lingering, and I know that I need to connect to God and connect to others in lifegiving and heart strengthening ways. I long to catch a glimpse of God’s shalom – God’s full-bodied, all-encompassing, world healing peace this summer. So, I decided I needed to take a journey through some of the spiritual disciplines found in Richard J. Foster’s book “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth.” And I would like to invite you with me on that journey. 

Beginning next Tuesday, I am going to be posting a short reflection on a different discipline each week, for the next five weeks, with a short exercise connected to the discipline. The reflections will cover: Meditation, Prayer, Worship, Celebration and Fellowship. All of these disciplines are “disciplines of engagement,” actions and activities that invite us to engage with God and with one another. They help us build habits that move us toward deeper lasting connection and love for God and with another.  

There is no exercise tied to a discipline today, but I have include an exercise as a sample of the types of exercises you will see each week (this one would be for meditation): 

Exercise for today:

Read Psalm 1 three times slowly. 

  • The first time you read the passage consider: what does it tell you about God? 
  • The second time you read the passage consider: what does it tell you about God’s love and care for God’s people? 
  • The third time you read the passage consider: what is the passage telling you about the way God loves and cares for you? 

Then take some time to talk to God in prayer about what you have heard and or what you are feeling. 

Young adults and the church (2)

To understand the relationship of young adults and the church, the following is some extra information about GenZ (also known as iGen) and millennials that is helpful for understanding those generations (to supplement the previous post).

The following are some of the most significant shifts in our culture and experience in the last twenty years:

  1. Technology, especially the internet and smart phones.
  2. We’ve become more secular: it has become more normal for people not to believe in God or be associated with church. Even more so, people are not so much for or against God as much as they’re even sure why faith and God are relevant to their lives.
  3. The world is not safe: 9/11 happened and terrorism, financial collapses, and we’re more aware of racism, climate change, school shootings.
  4. The pandemic, the implications of this on society and individuals still to be determined.

These things are affecting all of us, but I believe younger generations are especially negatively affected because they haven’t had the blessing of more perspective of having lived through different cultural emphases and shifts.

To give more specifics, in terms of safety, IGen is the first generation where we’ve seen a significant decrease in drinking, sex, going out to parties, and even driving. They are making decisions based on what is safe for them emotionally, physically, and even in terms of their reputation. They also have great relationships with their parents, although sometimes parents can do too much for their children, organizing everything in their lives from classes, homework, and even getting them out of bed (and this is even in college). Millennials have been told all their lives that they’re great and so there is some disillusionment about their talents and abilities. At the same time, they long for responsibility (which is often kept by older generations) or they get bored.

So what does this mean for faith?

For the millennials, it means finding ways to share responsibility for the church with this generation – even if they’ll make mistakes. Give young adults/ young people the keys to the church is how Kara Powell talks about this in Growing Young. For Igen, it’s important to realize how faith can be one more thing that parents organize for their children and something that they don’t own – or leave behind when they finally differentiate from their parents.

More importantly, one needs to be honest about how God and faith are not safe. The purpose of Christianity isn’t simply to make you happy, well-adjusted, or safe. That’s moralistic therapeutic deism, not true faith. The more we can all be honest with each other about faith – about how God doesn’t save us from hardships but instead walks with us through our sufferings, the more hope we can give to those who long for adventure (like millennials) and/or (like Igen) for safety (but are coming to recognize that it’s ultimately impossible).

In terms of technology, young adults tend to be distracted and don’t know how to interact with each other. We’re also curating our images and lives. We’re deeply lonely and disillusioned. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic affects this tendency. For millennials, technology has hindered an ability to have work/life balance. Millennials will often define themselves by how productive they are. So they’re often overwhelmed.

So what does this mean for faith?

While younger generations crave responsibility and ought to be given more, this not true when they’re overwhelmed. Sometimes we all – young and old(er) – desperately need to be able simply to show up without worrying about how we might fail or do it imperfectly. 

The church offers community; but this means also that we need to be willing to be honest about how our lives are not as perfect as we might like to pretend they are – because how else will others around us know that it’s okay for them to speak about how messy their own lives are?

When it comes to secularity, (as noted in the previous post), the bad news is that more and more of the next generations are growing up with little to no exposure to church and Christianity, except perhaps in a vaguely negative way, as a group of folks that are not inclusive or diverse. The good news, though, is that young adults are longing for strong community, authenticity, meaning, and hope. In other words, people are longing for the gospel of Christ; the challenge is to help people see that we, as a church, are a place where people will experience God’s grace. The church is full of broken people (like us), and while this might seem to discourage people from wanting to participating, it’s more likely that pretending that we’re all okay which actually turns people away. People, especially young adults, are looking for a place where one can be honest about the messiness of life and a place where we receive and extend grace to each other.

I had the privilege of participating last summer in a seminar on ministry to and with the next generation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Calvin University chaplaincy. Some of the above thoughts are based on things that we talked about during that seminar.

Young adults and the church (1)

The following was mostly written before the pandemic. The pandemic has only increased the questions and uncertainty about how connected young people are (and will be) to church.

Recent Pew Survey results tell us that less people are identifying as Christian, especially among millennials. This has raised a lot of questions about (young) people leaving the church.

The good news is that other studies have shown that the number of committed Christians, both young and old, has not decreased by much. Many of the young people growing up in Christian families and actively participating in the church continue to be committed to church. On top of this, there are a number of great resources available to help us with that (see below for a list of resources).

The bad news is that millennials are no longer coming back to church when they ‘settle down’ and raise a family, which is when we as a church have expected people to come back (since this is what used to happen). Something has shifted in our culture that has made people less interested in church: part of it might be the rise of secularity (for more on this, see books by Andrew Root); part of it might be a misunderstanding of the purpose of church:

“If I can be a good person by going to a city council meeting, or by reading the features in The New Republic, or by volunteering at a charity, why do I need Jesus? Why do I need Christianity at all? The answer would be, you don’t. You might credit Jesus as a model citizen, acknowledge his death as unfortunate for him, but it takes a sense of sin, and grace, to really feel a particular allegiance to the man and his mission.”

CJ Green

At the same time, though, the Washington Post article written by Christine Emba, a millennial, argues that even though millennials are not coming back to church they are still looking for transcendence and fellowship with others. The longing for community has only increased with the pandemic, especially with the loss of social trust.

The (other) bad news is that more and more of the next generations are growing up with little to no exposure to church and Christianity, except perhaps in a vaguely negative way, as a group of folks that are not inclusive or diverse. The good news, though, is that young adults are longing for strong community, authenticity, meaning, and hope. In other words, people are longing for the gospel of Christ; the challenge is to help people see that we, as a church, are a place where people will experience God’s grace. The church is full of broken people (like us), and while this might seem to discourage people from wanting to participating, it’s more likely that pretending that we’re all okay which actually turns people away. People, especially young adults, are looking for a place where one can be honest about the messiness of life and a place where we receive and extend grace to each other.

Further resources connected to the above and on young adults and the church:

I had the privilege of participating last summer in a seminar on ministry to and with the next generation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Calvin University chaplaincy. Some of the above thoughts are based on things that we talked about during that seminar.

Deconstructing and Reorientation

In our study of the Psalms, we are using Walter Brueggemann’s framework of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Brueggemann explains

that our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of (a) being securely oriented, (b) being painfully disoriented and (c) being surprisingly reoriented. This general way of speaking can apply to our self-acceptance, our relations to significant others, and our participation in public issues. It can permit us to speak of passages, the life cycle, stages of growth, and identity crisis. Most of all it may provide us a way to think about the Psalms in relation to our common human experience, for each of God’s children is in transit along the flow of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 14.

As Brueggemann notes, these concepts of disorientation and reorientation are helpful not only for looking at the Psalms but also for talking about life and faith. Life is full of moments and seasons of disorientation, such as this pandemic, transitioning into or from grad school, new jobs, new relationships, losses, and more. These seasons of disorientation lead to new patterns and rhythms but also to new questions. Sometimes these questions involve a deconstruction (or unravelling) of one’s faith.

When one’s faith starts to unravel, it can be comforting to hear others’ “stories of deconstruction,” as Ian Harber notes. In doing so, Harber “found people who understood what it was like to deconstruct your faith and rebuild it from scratch.” However, he also notes the challenges of reconstructing or reorienting: he “didn’t have the tools to rebuild.” Thus, as much as he appreciated those who had helped him in his time of disorientation, he also argues that “Helping people deconstruct their faith without also helping put it back together again is lazy, irresponsible, dangerous, and isolating. The goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus, not mere self-discovery or signaling one’s virtue.”

While I find Harber’s critique of progressive Christianity to be lacking nuance and grace, he raises a very good question about what happens when deconstruction appears to be the goal instead of part of the journey of faith. The question is especially relevant for those of us whose lives are shaped by academia, where deconstruction is strongly encouraged. Harber argues that “Doubt and questions need not catalyze a pendulum swing from belief to unbelief. If worked out in healthy, thoughtful Christian community—and with an abiding connection to Christ, our true vine (John 15)—they can actually deepen faith and strengthen roots, producing a life where we bear fruit and withstand the fierce winds of a secular age.” The only challenge, though, is that for most people, faith shifting, along with reconstruction and growth in faith is hardly simple. There’s no clear and obvious set of guidelines to follow.

Brueggemann’s language of disorientation and reorientation thus provides a hopeful perspective for describing the challenges when life and faith does not happen the way we expect. There’s also hope for the journey of faith. As Brueggemann notes,

“The other movement of human life is the surprising move from disorientation to a new orientation that is quite unlike the old status quo. This is not an automatic movement that can be presumed or predicted. Nor is it a return to the old form, a return to normalcy as though nothing had happened. It is rather ‘all things new’. When it happens it is always a surprise, always a gift of graciousness, and always an experience that evokes gratitude … Such experiences include all those gifts of friendship and caring, all those gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness, all those risky signs of hope in public life, all experiences that may touch us deeply and announce that God has not left the world to chaos (c.f. Isa 45:18-19).”

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 19-20

Welcoming young adults into church/community

Rachel Beveridge, in a helpful article articulating some of the reasons she’s seen young adults leave the church, notes that her generation (millennials) “know that we have to be vulnerable in order to have authentic connection.” Because of this, “when conversations at church or any other community are superficial, sometimes millennials choose to leave. But when someone—perhaps someone whom we disagree with, theologically or politically— asks questions that show real interest in us, or they themselves show vulnerability, we might stay.”

So what does this look like? At Campus Edge, it has meant that we don’t avoid the difficult topics. We regularly have conversations topics like sexuality, racism, justice, politics. In those conversations, people share opinions and I (as a CRC pastor) often share the CRC perspective on things. Everyone’s experience and perspectives are welcomed; yet, in order to practice both authenticity and intellectual honesty, everyone’s perspective (including mine, the pastor’s) is open to being challenged and critiqued. This can be hard, but we’re also learning to be vulnerable with each other about our lives and perspectives, recognizing our need for community and how much we can be encouraged and support by each other, especially in the middle of the challenges of grad school.

Acts and the Gospel of Hope

In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

The Book of Acts records the earliest proclamations of the gospel after the time of Jesus. Peter, Paul and others preach to Jews, Greeks, philosophers, politicians, kings and foreigners all around the Middle East. Extraordinarily, Peter and John were “ordinary, uneducated men” (4:13), working in the face of intense opposition from political and religious leaders.

In his famous sermon on the Areopagus, Paul preaches to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, the through-leaders in first century Athens (17:23-31). Paul tries to contextualize the gospel for intellectuals who “spend their time simply and solely in telling and hearing the latest novelty” (17:22). Academic discussions often veer into obscure topics, of interest to only a few people. How does the gospel enter into these spaces? The sermons in Acts affirm a multi-faceted gospel message, expressed in different ways for different people.

Contemporary Christians have often shortened gospel message to “Jesus died for your sins.” While calls for repentance are an important part of the gospel (3:13), this statement fails to capture the breadth of the message of Jesus found in the gospels, especially as it pertains to Old Testament history and prophecy (7:1-53). Gospel preaching in Acts reveals more details about The Way (18:24, 26) and the extent to which “Jesus Christ is Lord of all” (10:34).

In Acts, the Gospel message is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the expectation of a messiah to rule over God’s people: “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (3:13). For example, Peter discusses the hope of God’s personal presence in Psalm 16 (2:25-28) and the hope of God’s spirit in Joel 2 (2:17-21).  This means that the gospel is a continuation of the covenant made with the God who created of the universe (14:15, 18:24) and liberated the Israelites from Egypt (7:35-36, 13:17). Along with forgiveness of sins (5:31, 13:38-39), the messianic reign brings God’s Spirit to all flesh (2:17, 2:33), healing for the oppressed (10:33) and the resurrection of the dead (17:18, 23:6, 24:15).  The expansive good news found in King Jesus establishes an entirely new way of being human: by living in the kingdom of God.

Several conflicts with authorities in Acts are a reaction to the proclamation that Jesus is king. The believers’ prayer for boldness (4:24-30) recognizes that “the kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have governed together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” When ordered by the chief priests not to preach in the name of Jesus, the believers proclaim “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (5:29). Later earthly authorities fall Herod Agrippa dies suddenly he flaunts his charisma in front of a crowd (12:20-23). While earthly authorities see the Jesus movement as a threat to their power, Christians recognize that Jesus used his royal power to be a servant (Phil 2:6-7).

The Book of Acts also demonstrates that there is room for everyone in the kingdom: disabled people (3:2), the sick (5:16) and sexual minorities (8:26-40). As Peter exclaims, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (10:34). As much as we like to believe that “Christian values” inform our policy making and interactions with other people, our modern societies sill fail to support the same groups of people that early followers of Jesus embraced.

My hope is that church will return to the vision of the blessed community that shares their possessions (2:44), breaks bread (2:46), confronts unjust authorities (3:14-15, 5:29-30) and appoints servant leaders (6:3-5). The “acts of the apostles” demonstrate that a sense of solidarity and community rooted is at the heart of the Gospel. We live in the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ and await the “restoration of all things announced long ago” (3:21).

– Mitchell Eithun, campus pastor intern.

Advice for those striving to be Christian scholars

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s article with advice to those who would be Christian scholars speaks of the inherent challenge of critiquing the university while also loving and embracing it. He starts by speaking of three postures people have in relation to the university:

1. “Some assume that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK as it is, and they look for ways of supplementing that with some distinctly Christian thought and activity.”

2. “Some believe that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK. . . they find tension between Christianity as they understand it, and what goes on in the university; so they propose revising Christianity until the tension disappears. Often this takes the form of what I call a “band wagon approach.”

3. Some “Christians, usually outside the university, who are content to lob grenades at the contemporary university. The university, they say, is godless, aggressively secular, reductionist, relativist, liberal, post-modern, captive to political correctness – you name it.”

Wolterstorff recognizes that each of these positions has a part of the truth but is ultimately lacking. He advocates instead for a different way of looking at what it means to be a Christian school, arguing that “the project of being a Christian scholar is the project of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice within your chosen discipline and within the academy more generally.” I encourage you to read his articulation of what this looks like in practice.

The gift of Sabbath

For most folks, graduate school is a time of being busy: there is always something to do or else guilt in not doing it. Practicing Sabbath can be a challenge during this time, especially as it often takes some creativity to make happen.

Yet, Sabbath is a gift, especially of perspective. It challenges our understanding of time, seeing “time not as an enemy to subdue, but as a friend to savor.” (Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs). Furthermore, it challenges how we think about ourselves. We are not as important or as invincible as we sometimes think: the world will continue quite fine without our efforts. As much as God can use us to do good, God is certainly able to do good without us. It also challenges whatever guilt we might ahve picked up in terms of how undeserving we might be of rest:

“Even if you don’t observe Sabbath, a shift in perception is helpful. It doesn’t ever all get done. We need to train our vision. We see failure when we should see alternatives. Better to focus on the good and important things we did do instead of berating ourselves for falling short of an ideal.” McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 105.

On top of the obvious challenge of carving out time for Sabbath, it doesn’t help that one of the joys of Sabbath – delighting in one’s friends and family – is made more difficult in that most people move to a new place for grad school. The friends made in the new place tend to be busy working.

Yet, even practicing Sabbath in small doses can be an encouragement. Perhaps one of the following suggestions is something that you could work into your schedule:

  • taking one morning, afternoon, or evening to journal or read an encouraging (or challenging) non-school book;
  • going out into nature somewhere – or explore some other new place;
  • taking a break from technology for a few hours;
  • commuting in silence and/or using the commute time to sing in the car, pray and meditate, or listen to a podcast that rejuvenates you;
  • “While waiting at red lights, sitting with both hands open, as a way of practicing Psalm 46’s invitational command to “Be still and know that I am God.” See other tips for short Sabbath moments here.

Last of all, I encourage you to give yourself the grace and courage to keep trying. Taking Sabbath is a habit one needs to form and, like most habits, it takes time (and often some failure) to figure out how to grow into.

Some helpful quotes and books to keep pondering Sabbath:

  • “What happens when we stop working and controlling nature? When we don’t operate machines or pick flowers? . . . When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.” Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, 6-7.
  • “Sabbath puts the focus on God and God’s gracious invitation to rest from one’s work.” Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 22.
  • A quote from Sabbath in the Suburbs (89): “It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” Mary O’Connor.
  • A helpful book to read: Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (2001)

Timing

Sometimes people discover Campus Edge near the beginning of their program. They’re looking for a community and so they search for and find us online, or they visit our supporting church, or they meet us at the graduate fair. Sometimes they connect with people in their program who’ve been participating in Campus Edge for awhile.

Other times, though, people have found Campus Edge later in their program. I lament a little that these individuals didn’t connect with us sooner – we could have been blessed by their insights and presence, and we might have been able to encourage them through providing a supportive community and a place to ask difficult questions.

Yet, I also believe that God is at work in the timing, and people will come to Campus Edge at the right time. While one might expect that the beginning of one’s program would be the best time, we’ve seen that sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s because life is too full or overwhelming for there to be space for one more thing. For others it’s because their faith journey is going really well – they’ve connected to a church/Christian community and are receiving answers for their faith questions. Still for others, it is even possible that they wouldn’t have found someone at Campus Edge who they would feel a strong connection.

Yet, later a time might come, whether that be a crisis or a gentle nudge, when connecting with and participating in Campus Edge would then be good. Perhaps a person has experienced a deep sense of loneliness or isolation, or church doesn’t seem to fit quite like it used to, or there is a longing to be with people who understand the unique experience that is grad school. And then, whenever people ready – no matter how early or late they are in their program, I hope that they do find Campus Edge and we can be an encouragement and place of hope and grace.