Meditation and prayer

For Christians, meditation and prayer are two different things. Meditation is thinking about God or about something related to God. Prayer is talking to God. In several places in the Bible, God commands Christians to pray to him. The Bible also mentions meditation and encourages it, but in no place does God command Christians to meditate.

Christian meditation can include contemplation on a verse from the Bible or on one of God’s names. This contemplation is generally done in a quiet place, although it could happen anywhere. The purpose of such meditation is to remember the promises of God and to find peace in those promises. A meditating Christian seeks the same benefit that other people seek from meditation, but the Christian focuses on God while meditating (as in all things).

Christian prayer is conversation directed to God. Some Christian prayer involves memorizing certain words (such as “Our Father who art in heaven…”), although Jesus did discourage repetition of formula prayers (Matthew 6:7-8), a practice found in other religions. Prayer can be spontaneous, although believers who advocate only spontaneous prayer often create their own formulas which they repeat (“I just want to thank and praise you…”). In either case, prayer should be sincere. God knows whether or not we mean what we say to him. We cannot fool God by talking to him while our minds are elsewhere. A Christian should mean whatever he or she says to God, for God will not tolerate a liar.

The purpose of prayer is conversation with God. Praying for any other reason defeats its purpose. Imagine a man who says, “Every evening I talk to my wife for ten minutes. I don’t know if she’s listening, and I don’t really care. I just feel so much better every time I can talk about myself for ten minutes.” What wife would tolerate that attitude in her husband, and why should God tolerate such an attitude in one of his people?

Some years ago I read in the newspaper about a park district program which included a meal for children. The leaders of the program had the children say a prayer at the beginning of the meal. Some parents asked the leaders to stop, since the park district belonged to the city government, and government agencies are not supposed to promote any particular religion. The leaders told those parents that the prayer was not intended to promote religion; it merely calmed the children so they would be settled for their meal. I don’t know how the parents felt about that explanation, but in my mind it causes red flags to wave and warning bells to chime. Prayer is not a tool to make children behave; prayer is a conversation with God.

I have prayed aloud in churches, in classrooms, and even with the state legislature. Whenever I prayed, my prayer was directed to God—I did not use the prayer to send a message to anyone else in the room. I prayed on their behalf, as they expected me to do. I spoke to God for them and about them. That is, after all, the reason for praying.

God likes to hear from us. Consider how rude it would be for you to spend an entire day with one of your friends and never say a single word to him or her. Even faithful Christians sometimes act as if they have forgotten that God is always with them. A simple occasional “thank you” for a green light or for a sunny day pleases the Lord. He does, after all, care about us.

I want to learn to meditate as a Christian, but I do not want to stop praying as a Christian. I hope that Christian meditation will provide me some of the same benefits other people have found in various kinds of meditation. Through it all, though, I want to be centered on Christ and his promises, rather than using him as a means to my own happiness.


Christian mindfulness

In the last few weeks, I have become aware of an approach to life called Mindfulness. I first learned about it from another blog, then did some internet research about Mindfulness, and then was loaned a book about Mindfulness. I am only beginning to learn; I am by no means an expert in this field. Yet my early reaction consists of mixed feelings and mixed opinions about Mindfulness.

This way of life comes from the Buddhist religion or philosophy. Buddhists acknowledge the reality of suffering and of problems, and with that Christians agree. Buddhists see the origin of suffering as desire, and to a certain extent Christians agree with that teaching as well. Buddhists propose that it is possible to stop desiring and so to bring an end to suffering. They speak of an eightfold path that leads to an end of desire and of suffering. Christians find it hard to agree with those teachings. Christians are told to love God above everything else and to love their neighbors as themselves. Perhaps it is possible to love without desire, but that idea is hard to comprehend. More important, Christians are told that they are rescued from suffering and from all evil, not by their efforts, but by the grace of God and by the rescue mission of Jesus Christ.

That being said, I am not prepared to discard Mindfulness because of its Buddhist origins. Buddhism is arguably a philosophy that can be pursued by polytheists, monotheists, and even atheists. As such, it is similar to other philosophies that arose in the world around the same time, including Confucianism and Daoism in China and the Greek philosophers who culminated with Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle were polytheists, but Augustine was able to blend the philosophy of Plato with Christian teachings, and Thomas Aquinas succeeded at wedding the philosophy of Aristotle with Christian doctrine. Of the five, I see the best possible blend involving Daoism with Christian teachings, but I am not prepared to reject the possibility that one could pursue Mindfulness while remaining faithfully Christian.

In fact, my biggest concern about pursuing Mindfulness is not that it fails to be truly Christian, but that it may fail to be truly Buddhist. In that respect, I have the same concern about Mindfulness that I have about yoga. Yoga as practiced in the United States of America is generally thought to bring peace of mind, better health, and other kinds of self-improvement. In India, the purpose of yoga is not self-improvement. The purpose of yoga is escape from the self. Hindus practice yoga so that, through control of the body, they can remember that the body is merely an illusion, and that the mind or soul likewise is merely an illusion. The entire point of Hindu practices is to escape self-awareness, to become one with the universe. Reading about Mindfulness, I am concerned about a similar departure from the original purpose of the discipline into an American, self-centered, “it’s all about me” exercise that is meant to feed the ego rather than to escape the ego.

Of course many Americans practice Christianity for the same reasons, yet the origins of Christianity are not concerned with self-improvement. Jesus told his followers to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. He said that those who tried to claim themselves would lose themselves, but those who lost themselves for the sake of Christ and the gospel would gain themselves. The focus of a genuine Christian is upon Jesus, not upon oneself. As John the Baptist said about Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

I am prepared to practice—or, if necessary, to invent—a Christian Mindfulness, one which keeps Jesus Christ front and center and seeks service to him rather than to the self. Many Christians in the past have pursued such a path: Meister Eckhardt and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing in western Christianity, and a great number of teachers in Greek and Russian Christianity. The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”) is used as the basis for meditation in some Russian Christian groups. As an experiment, I have tried using the words of Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God.”) as an exercise in meditation. I breathe in with the first four words, pause with the word “know,” breathe out with the last four words, and pause again. It is too soon to say if this sort of meditation is accomplishing anything in my life, but I would be content if it did no more than remind me that God is in control and I am not.

I intend to try to continue this sort of Christian Mindfulness for the rest of the summer and the fall. Over the coming weeks, I expect to post more thoughts about Christian Mindfulness, about Christ and the self, and about the difference between meditation and prayer. God bless.