A Few Deep Breaths

In our context of news beamed across the world, and news being defined largely as situations that are disastrous, scary, heart wrenching and the like it can be hard to find calm. Many of us imagine ourselves in the positions of others and shudder. Sometimes we try mightily to play a helpful role but we are pessimistic our little bits help much against such a huge tide of pain in the world. Some of us will feel guilt that we live in relative peace and calm. Still, most of us struggle to truly appreciate that calm we are often anxious, ashamed, afraid, and the like. 

When Jesus says, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27, NIV he was tapping into this vein in our hearts. He recognized that there would always be that in us which would require peace, a sort of peace that—no matter how beautiful our little garden might be—we find illusive. 

I have found sitting and simply breathing, counting my breaths, noticing the chill of the air as it hits my nostrils and the warmth of it as it leaves my body, settling. It is a simple practice, maybe 4 to 10 breath cycles (in, pause, out, pause, in pause…) and I can start to feel my shoulders relax. On my best days this can lead to a time of thanksgiving, a time of noticing that in my life for which I am grateful. It can also lead to a bizarre sense of comfort where I feel confident that praying for intervention is useful, and thus I pray about all those ills that weigh the mind down. 

My suggestion: check in with yourself a few times today, maybe even set a timer or two on your phone, notice how your body is feeling, is your jaw tight? Your shoulders? What’s your stomach feeling like? Is your mind calm or??? 

Then take those 4 to 10 deep breaths and notice how they impact you. If you are the journaling type you might even want to take a few notes about how this goes. 

I would be interested to hear how it goes for you, if it serves you, what lessons you might learn in the process. 

20 minutes twice a day??? You can’t be serious!!!

Oh but I can!

We are all busy these days, even with Covid keeping us home more and sharing spaces with others more, there is still time to get done the matters we most want to get done. That is, in fact, why we are busy, we are doing stuff. We are paying bills, and figuring out how to send our taxes to our city governments who make it bizarrely hard to do so, we are making lunches, buying groceries, eating out, working out, drinking wine, making love, updating social media (hopefully not right after making love???), getting books from the library, reading magazines, scrolling news sites, vacuuming floors, cleaning cat litter…on and on we go. 

There is time for the things that matter most to us. Like if we choose to have cats we will choose to clean the litter, it won’t appear optional for long. 

We get to choose what takes up our time and where we give our attention. If you do not believe me sit down and chart out your typical day-week-month-year and be honest. 

Many of us would say our health, our relationships, and our spiritual wellbeing (at least those who might read this blog) are important to us. Do our calendars suggest this is true, or do only our words suggest as much?

We are aware our spiritual wellbeing will require a time commitment, just as any other priority will. 

All of this is by way of introduction to a core tenet in most Transcendental Meditation practices and Christian Meditation is no different. If you read about the practice you will quickly find that many religious and secular leaders over 2000 years have made essentially the same suggestion (based on their experience and the feedback they get from students): if we want to take meditation seriously we must commit at least two (2) twenty minute (20) sessions DAILY

It sounds like a lot but it is less than two short tv shows, or one longer one. Please, at the very least, before you say you do not have the time, pause and consider if that is true and if so how many minutes a day do you have to invest in yourself?

John Main, that careful and gentle giant, suggested that the good news about this is that even if everything is going great and you are enjoying a wonderful time in the very presence of God we should stop at 30 minutes a session. Meditation is, after all, not something we win, or complete, it is something we do, over years, and if we want to get the full experience we do well to listen to the giants who have gone before us. 

Finally, I would say, I often (too often) fail at this routine. I would also say that my life is better when I achieve it, and that maybe there is a sort of placebo effect at play because I feel like I have accomplished something important whenever I achieve the 40 minute mark. I like my life and myself better when I accomplish what I set out to do, and in this case that is merely sit quietly for a few minutes! What could be easier? Just about anything, apparently:(

Some tips:

  • Try to meditate before you eat, many saints have noticed a full stomach is worse than a relatively empty one for this. Who knows why. 
  • Set a reminder on your phone: decide when you believe you are mostly likely to be able to care out your two sessions and have your phone buzz to let. You know the time has come. I have, as a minister, at times ended meetings because I get a notification and I politely tell someone I really must get going I have another meeting. People are always gracious and generally do not even think to ask who the meeting might be with. 
  • Set a timer: if you want to hit 20 minutes then set a timer and forget about it, no worrying if 20 minutes are over (until the timer goes they aren’t, and no your phone isn’t broken). There are any number of apps that will play gentle music for those minutes if you like.
  • Try this for a three day timeframe. Of course, you hope to get a longer run going but it is healthy and helpful to aim for goals we might actually accomplish, they should stretch us a bit but they must be do-able as well. Three days can give us a flavour of what to expect. As we go we might do 2 three chunks in a week, then strong a few 3 day thinks tougher…you get the drift. 

The Depth of a Verb

Sometimes when we read the bible we take for granted that we know what a word means. Sometimes this is easy enough, words like sit, kick, and bite, are pretty straight forward. Others are more challenging to pin down, even for a time, words like forgiveness, evil, enemy, charity.

In psalm 78 we read “Give ear, o my people.” Let’s pretend for a moment that the latter part is straight forward and we can agree on who God is referring to when he says, “my people.” I know, it’s a stretch, but let’s imagine we can simply assert we are among those being addressed:) We still need to dig into the first bit “give ear.” 

We know, do we not, that this does not mean we are to cut off an ear as an outward assertion of our faith. We believe that this “just” means to listen to him. So we can move on. 

I am a father of three lads and I know that they often “give ear” and then promptly ignore, pretend to not hear, or hear but then continue exactly as they had been prior to my speaking. I know this gets me upset, especially if I have something important to say or some urgent message for them. 

Giving ear is more than simply hearing; it has to do with investigating and then acting upon what we hear. We might hear a matter and then need to reflect upon it, struggle with it, look at it from a variety of angles to understand what God is trying to get us to understand and what, if anything, He is trying to get us to do. We are imperfect and God will, of course, get as angry as I can get with my kids when we don’t really listen. Still, God calls us to try and so we, being his people, will try. 

My suggestion is that we can hear God in any number of ways, bible reading, prayer, and meditation being only the most obvious avenues and most fruitful in my life. They may or may not work for you, I know something will, though it may take some experimentation on your part.

There are at least two questions that spring to mind here. First, do we believe God speaks to us today? Secondly, are we open to hearing from him? 

The fact that we must be told to give ear suggests that there are going to be times when we are not so open. God knows this, we do not need to beat ourselves up about it. And yet, we can be intentional in opening ourselves up to the moment of the spirit. 

One of the great advantages of a meditation practice is that we become more attuned to God speaking, not only in our meditative times but all the time, when we walk by someone and feel a holy nudge, or when someone speaks to us with a strange authority we recognize as divine. 

As people who want to give ear to God we do well to accept his challenge and find ways in which to do so. His calling to this guarantees our success if only we would submit ourselves to the effort. 

Happy meditating! 

The Luxury of Silence

In a world where apple logos are abundant and where flatscreen tvs link directly to a wide array of steaming services and where I can use wireless headphones that sync to my watch, silence is becoming ever more rare. One of the recognized elements of a luxury is the uncommonness of the item. For many in the West luxury goods are harder and harder to come by because our baseline living standards have climbed so high. 

It may be counter-intuitive but I cannot help but think that silence, quiet, solitude in a loud and busy world, is a luxury right beneath our eyes, and its benefits are great. Many o fun long for the mountaintop cabin or oceanside chalet, is only for a weekend.

God can and does reach us however He sees fit and some of the noise in our world today is his attempt to do so. This may be in the form of podcasts and recorded sermons, it may be in the voice of someone needing help and offering us the opportunity to flex our service muscles and care for Christ himself as we care for the least. I know this is true and I know this is possible.

I also know that I am more likely to recognize God’s voice amidst the noise if I spend time with him in silence. 

There is the famous verse that God was the still small voice, not the fire and thunder. 

How can one hear that amidst the noise? 

At least in my case this takes training.

We need space away from the noise, which is a rare space indeed. And yet, we can create that space ourselves if only for a  little while. As a pastor and father of three little kids I know that it takes intention and purpose to set aside the time for silence. I know it won’t be easy for you, but it will be worth the effort.

(My knee this morning—as I was meditating a young cat I live with was chasing a figment of his imagination and using his claws to cover ground faster, apparently I was in his way:) 

One of the ways I can convince myself to do it is to consider silence as a little luxury I can give myself, like a hot bubble bath with a champagne flute (which I cannot give myself:). 

Luxury is a good word for it because it is not absolutely necessary, I can (and do) meditate and pray in louder circumstances, but o is it ever nice to have a bit silence!

My tips for silence:

  • Get up early or stay up late (we are only looking for a few minutes here)
  • Sit quiet as the coffee/tea brews in the morning (this is one of my favourites, it is 5 minutes with a timer and I have nothing else I need to be doing yet because before the magic brew is done I am not that useful)
  • Notice the hidden silent moments in your day (if you look  for them they are there and the more you look the more you will find!). 
  • Notice the potentially silent moment, at the bus stop, on the train, as you wait in line for something, instead of grabbing the phone and scrolling, just breathe (I am better at suggesting this one than doing it!)
  • Use silencing headphones (this is my least favourite but it can be helpful in a pinch).
  • When you see a nicely positioned bench with a view, stop and sit a moment (I have never regretted doing this, even if it makes me a little late for something).
  • Allow natural queues to slow you down, (like the robust scent of lilacs in spring, the crunch of leaves in the fall and other such natural occurrences can call us to slow down, and enjoy.)

Silence is a luxury. Seek it out, carve it out if you have to, and embrace it. The advertisers are correct life is better with a little luxury, it’s just a matter of which ones truly help us to flourish.  


Blurred Lines can be pleasing too

I am not much of a gardener, in fact, I live in a townhouse partly to avoid the responsibility of caring for the outside of my dwelling. I suppose I am a descendant of the part of Adam that got kicked out of the garden! Where I live we have a gardening committee made up of folks who love such work and thinking about it, and making it happen, so our place is lovely despite the fact that my running shoes get more use than gardening tools.

I have noticed that in gardening there are various styles. I am not really one to think one style is objectively superior to another, though they are different and various people will appreciate them to differing degrees. Still, I wonder if the styles relate to our minds and souls and how we think and how comfortable we are with mystery. Some gardens have very rigid straight lines, clear definition between sod and dirt, clear sections of types of flowers or flower beds, maybe they have sleek furniture that is clean and angular. Others are more blurred, they look sort of half hazard, growth and fecundity all over, nary a straight line to be found, bursting with colours and leaves that don’t match, furniture older worn out, rounded. Some prefer the one, some prefer the other. Diversity of gardens and of the folks who love them is part of what makes God’s creation so interesting and loveable.

I have been thinking about gardens because on my walks lately I have been noticing them more and more as folks enjoy the springtime in Ottawa and perhaps thanks to Covid they are spending more time and money on their gardens than they normally would and straight-lined or blurred they are popping these days. It all has me ruminating on the life of faith and what is emerging as I delve deeper into my spiritual practices. In my life of faith when I was younger there were more straight lines, you do this, you don’t do that, you think this, you don’t think that, black and white, easy, clear. The longer I spend reading my bible and meditating upon the word or in silence before the Divine, the more I find myself comfortably lost in mystery. My spiritual life feels more and more like a disorderly garden, full of beauty and fecundity, even if the logic within it is getting harder and harder to pin down. 

Part of me wants the straight lines just as part of me finds them pleasing in a garden. This isn’t a harsh either/or matter. In my quietest moments I must admit that the blurring is where I am headed and I think I am ok with that.

(A photo of the garden my dad cultivates with a loose hand)

Here is a blurry and messy (not overly thought-out) example for you. Many religions speak of re-incarnation, the returning of the soul in another entity in creation. Christians don’t tend to think this way and many (sadly) will go so far as to mock that viewpoint. Here is the blur: what if the resurrection of the body is something akin to re-incarnation or serves—at root—a similar purpose to the faithful? Not the same, mind you, but need the lines be as solid as some think they are? 

I like to think that as the Light shines it can make sight difficult at times, like when you first wake up and the sun is already up or a camper has a flashlight in your eyes. Paul wrote,He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. It makes me think that the blurring may be part of the life-giving work of the Lord. I sure hope so!

The point is that if you jump into the quiet disciplines you might need to be prepared to be surprised at where it all leads you. I recommend (as some reading this no doubt would recommend to me) that a guide is helpful, someone a little (or a lot) further down the road who can help us discern between godly words and visions and deceptions. 

Guide or no guide be prepared for a challenging and joyful ride. 

May the Divine work in you as you pursue the life of faith. 


Purposefully Ignorant! Really???

One of the challenges I have noticed with meditation can be the noise that surrounds us. While I know that it is possible to be peacefully in presence of God amidst any amount of noise or in any circumstance if the Holy Spirit so desires it, I also know that sometimes the noise can make it harder to concentrate. Some days are better than others when it comes to blocking out the noise. This has to do with a) the amount and type of noise in our environment and b) what is going on inside of us. This means that what I am about to suggest doesn’t need to be a daily practice, you may never need it, or you may find it helpful all the time, I use it sometimes. 

When there is too much noise either inside or outside as I sit to meditate, I like to open a Spotify playlist of Gregorian Chanting. It sounds silly like wearing a beret and sitting in a café in order to read Sartre, but Gregorian Chanting flat out sounds HOLY. This is in part because it is prayer, in part because it has been practiced by monks for centuries, partly because the words are often fundamentally christian in nature, and also because thanks to movies and whatnot we associate the chanting with matters holy. 

The biggest reason I appreciate Gregorian chanting is that I have managed to remain mostly, willfully, ignorant about it. I don’t know who is singing or where they are. I do not know the language they are chanting in, and only rarely recognize a single word of what they are praying. This means the chanting is like a Holy white noise that can set a tone or mood but otherwise be ignored. It doesn’t break into my thoughts, it doesn’t distract, it merely serves as an aid. 

If you are like me then you might find this helpful at least some of the time. I suggest giving it a try to test it out.


Meditating on Lament

As a pastor, husband, and father I hear all sorts of emotions as people tell me their stories, this is an honour and privilege. My wife and I have become people with a real desire to help folks recognize the emotions behind their words and actions. This can be clarifying and it can be healing. I have also found it can be deeply connecting.

Three words I rarely hear are “I am sad.”

Yet, many of us can be sad. Our seasons are full of reasons to be sad, politics, climate change, pandemics, medical issues, human trafficking, our shoes being made by vulnerable people essentially enslaved…sometimes it feels like a mountain out there. 

We may be reluctant to admit to our sadness because we are scared of looking weak or vulnerable. Sometimes we fear saying we are sad might turn someone else’s story into ours and we do not mean co-opt them. Perhaps we have been trained to avoid looking needy at at all costs. Maybe our egos are in the way and admitting we are sad might be equated with admitting we have done wrong, chosen unwisely, or need to repent. Maybe saying we are sad entails making changes, doing something differently, making a hard choice. Sometimes, foolishly, we think it is easier to ignore the sad. 

No matter how many reasons we can come up with to avoid facing our sadness, there are times we will be sad and we are all better off if we fight the urge to ignore it.

For me, sadness is often tinged with incompetence, as in, I am sad and part of my sadness is the feeling that there is nothing I can do to fix a certain situation and I am lonely in that sadness because so few of us care to admit when we are sad or rage against the inability to help beyond virtue signalling with our social media accounts. 

At such moments I turn to the book of Psalms. Maybe it is just a predilection of mine but I like to meditate from time to time on a psalm of lament. There are plenty to choose from. 

Take Psalm 12, for example, it is known as a Communal Psalm of Lament, that means it is not only the sadness of an individual being written of but of a group sadness, a “we” who links arms and brings before the Lord their sadness, or sadness for a group that has been wronged, and looks to Him for whatever might be next. Where we might feel alone and our effort futile, the faithful can come together and turn to God and overcome both. 

Part of recognizing our sadness can be sitting quietly and openly listening for God who may choose to act in and through us, if we are patient and if we will let him. 

If the news of this past week (or anything else going on in your life or world) leaves you sad, consider taking time to slowly read a psalm of lament and pray it to God and then sit in the quiet, listen for him, repeat this once or twice to really let it sink in. Some call this Lectio Divina some just call it life. 

A Practical Benefit of Meditation

Trying to improve my health and wellbeing—and my sheer enjoyment of life—I have recently had my eyes laser corrected and been in the process of replacing old dental fillings that were cracking the insides of my teeth and leading to what was a previously unexplainable pain while I was eating. 

On the one hand, I am committed to feeling as well as possible and so the nuisances involved (appointments, the discomforts) seems more than worthwhile. On the other hand, I must, of course, sit in an uncomfortable chair to make this happen.

The eyes were first. It was an anxious moment, what if something went wrong, so much of my life involves reading, looking at my lovely wife, watching my three little lads bounce around, staring at the way leaves move in the wind…also, the process itself involves cutting open eyeballs, so there’s that. Most patients actually take some sort of relaxant provided by the laser eye people, in order to peacefully position themselves in the chair and have this totally voluntary surgery performed. I thought I would pass on that because I wasn’t that nervous and because I tend to shy away from mind altering substances (other than the occasional alcohol).

It turned out the procedure wasn’t all that bad for me because a practiced instinct took over. Without thinking about it I placed my hands at the bottom of my belly, where I can feel that I am taking in proper lung-filling breaths. I was slowly breathing in and out, full capacity, pauses at either end of the breath, slowing my heartbeat, calming the mind. Before I knew it the operation was over and now I can see 20/20 and life is a bit more grand than it used to be. As a runner, cyclist, swimmer, etc. I am particularly grateful to have one less item to worry about and that much clearer sight while doing my favourite activities. 

I noticed the exact same thing happen in the dentist chair. The dentist actually seemed a bit surprised at just how calm I was. I was almost asleep as he prepared to rip apart fillings, cracked teeth and rebuild. Again, hands on belly, slow deep breaths, lowered heart rate…before I knew it the works was done and I was walking home. 

I wasn’t experiencing anything like a religious experience in either  medical chair but I was benefiting from a religious practice in a non-religious moment. 

When athletes practice the same shot over and over they do so in order to perfect the shot instinctively, reflexively, without thought so that when they need it it is there. 

When a person sets out to pray regularly they often hope that this will amount to them being triggered to pray in any number of situations, the practice becoming second-nature. 

When one meditates and seeks through it to get closer to God and to improve one’s ability to be in the moment, control one’s mind, and focus one’s attention, we hope to be able to use these skills in other parts of life. 

I don’t mean to boast but I was very excited to realize the extent to which this seems to be working out for me. I am sharing this because it might offer some encouragement to you, or at least one more reason to buckle down and practice meditation, especially if you are the type to dread any and all such appointments. 

The Best Meditation Advice for a Beginner

“How long have I been sitting here?”

“Surely the time is use up now?”

“Man, I suck at this!!! Maybe mediation isn’t for me? Will the time ever be up???”

This is the dialogue I found barging into my mind when I first began a practice of meditation. Whether I intended a 10 minute sit or a longer one, my mind would eventually come to an anxious state about how much time had elapsed. Sometimes this is because I have other items on my agenda, sometimes it is for no better reason than a lack of practice sitting still.

This will likely happen to you too. 

My advice is so basic—and of such a beginner nature—I have never heard of it being offered anywhere else but it worked for me and so I am sharing it in case it may work for you. For all I know it goes against some deep principles and the internet police will be mad at me for even suggesting you try to mediate with this “trick,” but I will take the risk.

Many use a timer when meditating (I use the Insight Timer app because it has a free mode that works well for me). I will write about apps and their use some other time. For now the critical element is the use of intervals. 

Let’s say you decide to meditate for 10 minutes (it’s not too long, it seems like we all have 10 minutes, it’s a goal that is a stretch since we do not meditate and yet obtainable because, well 10 minutes isn’t so long). So, you set the timer and it will ring in 10 minutes. When it rings you can get up or, if you are enjoying your sit stay longer. 

In my experience, 10 minutes isn’t long until you settle down to meditate, then it can take forever, like a child waiting for the last bell of the school year to ring or the parents to wake up on Christmas, or, for the parents, waiting for the kids to fall asleep.

“Maybe it’s broken and the ring never happened?”

“Maybe I fell asleep and missed the bell?”

“Sheesh, this feels long, maybe something is wrong, I have things to do and I don’t want to be late…”

You can see why I need meditation, can’t you?

What I find helpful is to set a midway (in my app it is called an “interval”) timer. In our 10 minute example I will set a bell to ring at 5 minutes. This helps me keep a sense of time. As the days have passed and I stretched out how long I will sit I kept doing this. Most of the time I didn’t even notice it, but it does help me when my mind starts to wonder how long I have been sitting. It takes humility to turn a midway bell on, but I find it calms the mind and removes at least one recurring barrier to my practice and I need to remove as many barriers as possible, maybe you do as well. After a while you start to know intuitively how long it has been and know when the bell will go, that’s likely when you can turn it off. 

Can Christians Meditate?

If by “meditate” we mean something like: sit very still, quiet the mind until it empties and some sort of nirvana/enlightenment comes and we arise as a buddha, then no, probably not.

But that’s an unfortunate—to the point of comical—reduction of meditation and it is a great shame that so many Christians accept it. Ditching meditation is likely among the throwing the baby out with the bathwater errors our reformation brothers and sisters made. We love them, but they didn’t get everything correct, and nor will we for that matter:) 

I believe that if God can speak to us through burning bushes, talking donkeys, and that even the rocks and hills can declare His glory to us, then He can reach us however He deems fit. And many have found meditation to be one of those ways. Novice as I am, I count myself among them.

If meditation is a new practice for you, or something you have avoided for various reasons, “Be encouraged that mediation has long been part of the Christian, and before that Jewish, tradition”  (Some famous and reputable person once wrote). As we learn about it, or develop our thoughts about it, we remember that Paul said that sometimes all we can have is milk, before meat, the point, of course, is that faith is not static, nor the practices of faith. We develop over time along the journey of faith, and maybe now is the time for you to encounter meditation.

On this website, over time, there will be various practical tools for mediation and brief articles about it and the history of it within Christianity. I am no world-expert, and frankly I intend to use this site as a way to clarify some of my thoughts, reflect on experiences, and share along the journey. I do hope you will join me in this.  

If you are skittish about all this take heart: One element of faith (and of meditation) is that there are no winners and losers, none of us “win” at either. The “win” is in being in the faith or in the sitting or lying down and being intentional to find time for practice. 

The Cambridge dictionary of Christianity says, Meditation: reflecting, pondering, or exercising the mind through sustained consideration of a religious text, doctrine, or mystery, for the sake of devotion to God and spiritual growth…approached with the right hear and propose then we can meditate away!

Robert Morgan encourages us, “the words meditate and meditation occur 21 times in the Bible; the words think, thinking, and thoughts, 252 times. Mind is mentioned 163 times, and the word ponder is found 9 times. God’s approach to mindfulness is to have a mind full of His Word.”

One of my favourite passages is at the beginning of the book of Psalms, 

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

Tim Keller say, “The one who meditated is like a tree. Trees don’t grow overnight. Meditation is a sustained process like a tree growing its roots down toward the water source. The effects are cumulative” 

May the process begin today.

Set a timer (on your phone, oven, microwave, whatever you got),  for just 5 minutes. 

Place your body in a comfortable position, sitting, lying down, hands out, hands on belly, again whatever suits, there are no meditation police coming to make sure you are “doing it right.”

Take a moment to get settled. 

Take three slow breaths

Reflect on the tree planted by the stream. 

When your mind wanders, gently come back to the image of the tree. 

That’s all.

It’s easy.

It’s 5 minutes.

Let me know how it goes. 

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