Reclaiming Meditation

When you hear the word “meditation,” what comes to mind?

A yoga studio?

Sitting cross-legged and trying to empty your mind?

For most of the West, “meditation” has generally become more associated with Eastern religions than anything else. When we stumble across the word in Scripture – in Psalm 1, say – we aren’t necessarily sure what to do with it:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (vv. 1-3)

And that loss is a shame, because Christian meditation is a rich practice that was close to the heart of Christians for centuries. Look among the monks of the Middle Ages, the Puritans of the early modern era, or the evangelists of the 19th and 20th centuries – all of them, without fail, will point to words like Psalm 1 and commend this practice.

But what is it?

Not emptying, but filling

In contrast to Eastern meditation, which uses either silence or a repeated formula to try to empty the mind, Christian meditation tries to fill the mind with Scripture or other truths of God. At its heart, meditation is thinking deeply about God or about God’s Word.

One helpful if kinda gross analogy is that of a cow chewing its cud. Cows (outside of farms) can grow to hundreds of pounds entirely by eating grass: no small feat, if you’ve ever tried to live on protein-less salad alone. But cows can manage it because they have four stomachs through which food is processed; they swallow some grass, process it, spit it back up, chew it (that’s the cud), swallow again, and repeat, until they pull every bit of nutrition there is to pull out of that grass.

In the same way, the living and active words of the Bible can be that life-giving to us: but too often we don’t take time to get out the nutrition that’s there to be had. We skim a text, pray for 30 seconds, and go our way without coming back to what we’ve read.

Mind, soul, heart, strength

In putting this into practice, the most helpful way for me to actually meditate is to adopt Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. I don’t do all of these even in a good meditation session – and those have been few and far between since we had kids – but when I can, I try to look at a passage of Scripture through these lenses:

The mind: What is there to learn?

  • What’s the main point of this text?
  • What information does it have to teach: about God, about the world, about how I know God or live with God?
  • Does this remind me of other passages of Scripture? What extra light do they shed on the text?

The soul: What is there to imagine?

  • Is there a story or a poem I can try to make real in my mind?
  • What images or ideas is the writer using? What is he saying with those?
  • How can I put myself into the story?

The heart: What is there to feel?

  • What’s the emotional tone of this passage? What does the author feel so strongly about?
  • What does this passage show about what God loves or hates? Do I feel the same way he feels?
  • How can I paint the beauty (or ugliness) of this thing in a way that moves me like I should be moved?

The strength: What is there to do?

  • If this were radically true in my life, how would my day change?
  • What is God asking or commanding in this passage? How does he provide for someone to do that?

This is a sample list rather than an exhaustive one – there’s not a single prescription on “how to meditate” in the Bible – but hopefully it can be a helpful start!

Practical Tips

I’ll close with some very practical tips:

1. Silence is golden

If you can do this in absolute quiet, that’s hands-down best. If for whatever reason you can’t manage that, create an environment that’s as undistracting as possible: instrumental music without 30-second commercial breaks, etc.

2. Use pen and paper

At this point in my life, trying to think clearly without writing is like flapping my arms to fly. I need a journal if I’m going to put down thoughts in any coherent order for any amount of time.

Also, I do a lot of writing on the computer, but even so I focus better with a print Bible and print journaling than digital.

3. Try to memorize

Even if all you can manage is one phrase or one image, do what you can to remember it and come back to it during the day – the practice itself will make you a better memorizer, and will keep truth fresh in your mind.

4. Talk about it

I’m an internal processor, so I learn best through writing. But – especially if you’re an external processor – what you’re learning will stick better if you tell someone about it. Have a check-in with someone where you talk about what you’re meditating on and where it’s leading you!

Image: “Saint Augustine,” by Philippe de Champaigne


Why I’m raising support to work with Soma

This month makes one year since we started work with Soma Church in Indianapolis. One year of shaping her public voice (Communications), stewarding her Downtown congregational systems, and helping shepherd her Downtown members.

One year – one new website, a rabble of bloggers, a 200-or-so-person congregation, and three-nearly-four community groups later, I’m truly grateful for what I’ve seen and what I’ve been part of in God’s work in this city. This wasn’t our plan when we moved to Indy in 2013, but Allison and I (and our two born Hoosiers) are happy to call this “home” for this part of our lives.

One aspect of our life here that I haven’t blogged about before is that Soma can’t afford to pay me a whole salary. We were able to give this congregation a running start through a lot of external generosity; and even now, our congregation’s lead pastor raises a hefty chunk of his own salary. Our people are generous, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to be paid a full salary.

I’m writing this now because we’re starting our financial year; this will be the only piece I write about raising support, because that’s not the main thing this blog is about. But I wanted to take a moment to invite any interested readers to consider hearing our vision for working with Soma and consider partnering with us in this mission.

So if you keep reading this, you’ll read 1) Why Soma’s worth raising support for; and 2) how you could join our support team, either financially, through prayer, or both.

Why Soma is worth it

For starters, I’ve been in a couple of situations – summer missions, an unpaid internship – where I raised a bit of support, and I swore every time that any job that required fundraising was no rodeo for this cowboy.

So there’s that.

But in Soma, Allison and I have found a church we’re enthusiastic to belong to. I could list a lot of reasons why I love this church, but here are two:

  1. We confess our need for Jesus every Sunday

One of the most foundational truths of Christianity – maybe the bedrock existential reality – can be summarized in the words “I need Jesus.” I need Jesus, the Scriptures tell me, because as the active will of God he holds all my molecules together (Colossians 1:17). I need Jesus because, as the rightful king of the universe, his approval is the only verdict that really matters in time and in eternity (Revelation 1:17-18). I need Jesus, because only in his death and his resurrection am I reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

All Christians know they need Jesus – Soma’s not special there. But every time we get together on Sundays, we walk through a basic liturgical pattern of adoring God, confessing sin, hearing assurance, and (at the end of service) commemorating Jesus’ death for us. Confessing sin in particular – owning my guilt before God, without excuse – is a special act, because it makes me feel afresh my need for Jesus. It makes God’s grace sweeter, like fasting makes a steak that much richer. That liturgical practice is one thing I love.

  1. A great mission in a great city

Soma’s vision is to see the good news of Jesus redeem every aspect of Indianapolis – from individual lives, through families, neighborhoods, and schools, into local businesses. We’re involved in sharing the good news with our neighbors; with supporting a handful of public schools in the city; with helping men recover from addictions and be restored to their families; with cultivating dialogue between racial groups to further unify our city.

There’s a lot of exciting work going on. Some of it has borne fruit already – we’ve baptized people who had major spiritual revitalizations. And some may not bear fruit for years – we’re in process helping a few people find sustainable housing and work. In Soma, we’ve found an enthusiasm to see all these aspects of God’s kingdom grow in the city.

And downtown Indianapolis has both a lot of great things happening, and a lot of needed work. On one hand, there’s been a lot of generally-recognizable good happening in the downtown area over the last several years: economic development, people owning homes and neighborhoods. We live in a neighborhood that’s transitioning from being characterized by drug trafficking and prostitution to one with a stable, healthy population.

But on the other hand, there are still huge physical and spiritual needs in the city. We live down the street from a public school that may not be able to open again next fall; a number of schools in the city are failing, not able to serve their transient populations well. Our part of town has a lot of people who were left behind when the factories left Indianapolis, who have few economic prospects and little hope. And the population that is growing in the city is largely post-churched, loosely tied to a mainline church but with little knowledge of the heart of Christianity. There’s a lot of work to be done, and we’re glad to be part of that through Soma.

What we need

Those things being said, here’s what we need and how you could help.

  1. Prayer

We need people praying for God to work in the city; to guide me, my family, and my church deeper into reconciliation with him, and to make our work bear fruit.

I send out a monthly prayer letter to the people on my prayer team; if you’d like to join it, please email to let me know and I’ll add you on!

  1. Giving

All told, we’re looking to raise $29,000 for this financial year (and probably the same amount for next). Any money that comes in over what I need in a year will go toward the next. You can email me with any questions you have on this, but the steps are:

  1. Go to our Giving Page and click either “Repeating Gift” or “One-Time Gift”
    1. (if you do “Repeating Gift,” it’ll have you set up an account, which takes an extra step)
  2. Select “Soma Downtown” for the congregation and “Interns and Residents” for the designation – that’s the fund that I get paid out of
  3. For a one-time gift, you’ll put your info in and that’s that; for a repeating gift, you can set it up monthly, annually, or whatever

Lastly, these gifts are tax-deductible; we’ll send a giving receipt to everyone who gave at the beginning of 2017.

Thanks for considering joining us in this season!

Image: painting by Indianapolis artist Kyle Ragsdale

Covenant Marriage: Present-Love and Future-Love

Western romantic stories run on present-love. Present-love fuels the boy-meets-girl excitement of Romeo and Juliet. Present-love drives the beat of Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You” (until he has to say bye, bye, bye, at least). Even marriage has to bow before present-love, if present-love leads elsewhere (like it does in every single romance in the new Musketeers).

The elevation of present love is also obvious in the Millenial approach to marriage: a 2014 TIME Magazine survey showed that well over half of Millenials like the idea of marriage, but would prefer a model where partners would have the option to reup or walk away after a set number of years. In other words, marriage is fine when we’re in love; but if love leads us elsewhere or “fades away,” we shouldn’t be locked into a relational framework that makes leaving hard.

Now, present-love is fantastic. I absolutely love my wife, and I love being in love with her. I love her being in love with me. I enjoy so much about her, and I plan for things always to be that way. Present-love should fill a marriage like cream fills a Twinkie. The Bible is all about present-love too; Song of Solomon is a book-length, blush-inducing panegyric on it. Check it:

As an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
    so is my beloved among the young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
    and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
    and his banner over me was love.
Sustain me with raisins;
    refresh me with apples,
    for I am sick with love. (2:3-5)


So the Bible loves present-love; present-love is great.

But it isn’t enough. And the covenantal nature of Christian marriage offers something greater than present love. Here are the man’s oath and vows from the Book of Common Prayer:

Wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?

I take you to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance.

This oath – this solemn statement of love, made in covenantal marriage – has nothing to say about present love. Every promise asked and every promise made is a promise of future-love.

The bedrock of covenantal marriage isn’t that I love someone a whole lot right now (though hopefully I do); it’s that, even in my early thirties or mid-twenties or late teens, whenever I’m making those vows, I’m promising that I’m going to make them true day after day after day after day after day, as long as we both live. It’s looking forward, not to what I hope will be true thirty years down the line because we’ve beta-tested this thing and it seems promising, but what I will make true, by God’s grace, as long as we’re together.

What makes future-love so great? Two reasons:

1. Future-love doesn’t change, though we do

There’s song by the band Voxtrot – they didn’t make it, but they were great – that’s both so clever and so painful:

“I’d leave you for the person you used to be.” (from “Soft and Warm”)

We change over time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – it might be very healthy – but in one sense, we become different people as we age and (hopefully) grow. I don’t have the same preferences I did when Allison and I married, less than five years ago; I don’t have the same habits; even my temperament is a little different.

If present-love is my highest aspiration, then I’d better hope each iteration of Allison likes each iteration of me at least as much as she did the one she married, because there’s always the risk she’ll reach a point where I’m “too different,” or she becomes “different,” and someone else becomes more appealing.

Future-love promises that it doesn’t matter who either Allison or I “become,” because I’m me and Allison’s Allison; and we’re sticking together.

2. Future-love gives security rather than anxiety

Again, if we’re living for present-love, then we become beholden to wherever “love” (i.e., my feelings) might lead. I’ll always be wondering when I might feel like the National’s “About Today:”

Today, you were far away
and I didn’t ask you why
What could I say? I was far away
You just walked away
and I just watched you
What could I say?

How close am I to losing you?

By contrast, future-love promises an endurance that transcends circumstances. It transcends the small changes that can rouse up pettiness and grumbling. It transcends disagreements and fights. It even transcends being sinned against. It promises never to fight against my wife, but always to fight for her and for our relationship.
For Christians, of course, this is grounded in the steadfast future-love of God himself. The death of Jesus for our sin, which bought us to be his Bride, is the promise that God’s love for his people will transcend time and circumstance. He saved us, as Titus 3:3 says, when we were eaten up with sin and self-centeredness; he stays with us, not because we’re faithful, but because he has sworn his own faithfulness. God’s enduring future-love gives security to his own people; it also gives us a bedrock on which to promise future-love of our own.

To Brag on My Wife a Bit

So this morning, my wonderful wife has launched her own schooner into the blogosphere with her friend Elaine: the name of their vessel …

Less, Please!

Less, Please!‘s tagline is “Simplicity for Real Life,” and that’s what it’s about – the quest to cut out unnecessary busyness and mess, so we can focus on what’s best and what matters most. They’ll be covering household applications like capsule wardrobes and capsule kitchens; but also time-management and goal-achievement topics from this angle as well.

The conversations we’ve had as she’s run up toward this launch are really inspiring to me (and I don’t naturally get jazzed about this kind of thing), and I’m really excited to see what comes of it in the future!

You should check it out.

Contractual vs. Covenantal Marriage

This week, I had the privilege to start marriage counseling with an engaged couple in our church. Our first session covered the idea that Christian marriage is covenantal, which makes it a special kind of relationship. “Covenant” is a rare word today: I think the last non-church context I heard it in was a homeowners’ association. It sounds like an archaic synonym for “contract;”and in some historic uses, that’s all it was.

But covenant as we see it through the stories of the Old and New Testaments is much richer, and that richness makes our understanding of marriage that much deeper. We took some time to look at marriage from a contractual versus a covenantal lens, and I thought these insights were worth sharing:

(note: I don’t consciously remember where these all came from, but they’re probably some combination of Tim Keller, John Piper, and Joel Brooks – my former pastor in Birmingham)

1. Contracts are transactional; covenants are relational

A contract is essentially a business deal in which I give you a certain amount of goods/money/services and you give me a certain amount in return. The transfer of goods is the core of our “relationship.”

A covenant does have stipulations; but those stipulations ratify and define a personal relationship, not a transfer of goods. The point of a covenant isn’t to identify who gets what; it’s to affirm that I “get” you and you “get” me.

When we take a transactional approach to marriage, we’ll always be keeping score of what we “give” and what we “get” with our spouses. We’ll make lists of perceived imbalances or slights and pull them out to get leverage over the other person. And if they don’t hold up their end of the deal – whatever that might be – we’ll start thinking about walking out the door.

(In case this sounds like a prenup, it’s supposed to – a prenup represents exactly what a marriage isn’t supposed to be)

2. Contracts are based on mistrust; covenants on trust

In essence, we enter into contracts to avoid being taken advantage of. They’re a tool so that we can take legal action if we perceive the other party is trying to short us or squeeze money out of us. When my wife and I rented the duplex we used to live in, we signed a contract with our landlord so that we’d both know who could demand what from whom  and when.

A covenant, though it has stipulations, is founded on trust in the other person. It’s the affirmation of an existing relationship; its vows are designed to deepen intimacy between the parties, rather than fence them off from one another. Its stipulations are meant to push us toward unity.

3. Contracts sacrifice the relationship for the sake of the self; covenants sacrifice the self for the sake of the relationship

Finally, contracts are made to protect me from you; if our relationship becomes “toxic” to me in any way, I’m out. If our transactions aren’t going the way I want them to, the contract is designed to let me walk away with the least amount of damage and the greatest amount of stuff from you.

In covenants, by contrast, two parties enter into a relationship that is greater than the sum of either of them: a new reality that transcends us both. It doesn’t assume that we won’t have conflict – any two human beings will eventually butt heads – but it requires me to be willing to sacrifice to resolve that conflict and make our relationship stronger. It means I submit my preferences, my desires, my plans to the higher good of us.

I’ll close with this passage from the book of Jeremiah, which showcases God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel even long beyond they’ve ignored, broken, and trampled on the first covenant they made. God responded to this by promising a new covenant that was even better for them (us) than the old; and on top of that, to make this new covenant happen, the Father was willing to sacrifice his own Son. Thank God that God isn’t into contracts:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, “Boyar Wedding Feast”

Have you thought much about that cry? A meditation

Then last night, I was somewhere near Virginia
Rebuking Satan with ironic faithfulness.
Then Satan turned to me:
“Have you thought much about that cry?
‘Eloi, Eloi –‘
Have you thought much about that cry?
‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”

(from “Dorothy,” by mewithoutYou)

Words fill and illuminate concepts like candles in a cave; but how to light up a cave infinitely large? Pile the words on, stoke the fire brighter; when will they tag the back wall of eternity and come sprinting back giggling about what they saw?

He had no beginning; no point at which he became an “I am.” Always and always and always back, “I am, I am, I am.” Before the universe itself was set off like a firecracker or sang out measure by measure (whichever it was), he was there. He was there when there was no there, or when the only there to speak of existed as a twinkle in his eye. He was there, he was then, he was everythere and everythen and any/every/omni/ubi-everything, because He Was.

And They were there with him. They were him, they were with him, personalities without borders. The Spirit: soft-spoken, warm, always gushing over some detail of their screenplay. “This cardinal!” “Look at this alphabet!”

And the Father.

His Father. For eternity back, the Father had been his light, his canopy, his foundation. He’d been forever; and forever he’d been the proud Son of his proud Father. They cooked up Time and the Universe and all things cozy enough to fill with words like a Soapbox Derby car in the garage. Whose idea – the Everglades, the tickle reflex, quantum entanglement – was whose? Didn’t matter; they loved it all.

The Father had been there when they were all the there there was. The Father had been there for thirty-odd years of living as a human being: there to delight over the smell of roast lamb. There to cry on, when he first had a body that cut its feet on rocks, brain chemistry that could plummet without warning into the blues, a sin nature that pressed him to break their family ties. The Father was there in the Garden, when he cried so hard his capillaries broke and asked – for the first time in all time and before – if they might rewrite the script.

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?

They punched iron through his wrists and ankles into the tree. Hammered the thorns good and tight into his scalp. They hoisted him up so he hung suspended on his own shrieking nerve cords, turned gravity into a giant kneeling on his lungs …

… And the Father was gone.

But not gone. Something worse than gone. Gone were the smile, the warmth, the bright cables of joy. Instead …

Hollow, howling desolation.

The lightless silence of a trapped caver.

And the weight. The searing, world-pulverizing weight of their own wrath against the sin that had poisoned their world. Every desecration of their masterpieces. Every decision to scorn their rightful rule and establish bitter kingdoms of one. The pride, greed, and lust that shredded the tapestry of human nature. An anger sober as justice itself, with the pressure and power of the plasma at the core of suns. A red darkness that – for the first time in a history beyond time – eclipsed the face.

In that silence, he became a Son with no Father.

No Father.

There was only the wrathful absence, the furious void, the fullness of silent Nothingness. Hours passed for the body; but what was that to a mind that remembered the arcs of every electron tethered to every atom? A soul of limitless capacity filled with an anger of limitless holiness. The body would find relief before long; the self felt it to the edges of eternal wakefulness, with the clarity of unforgetting omniscience.

There was no Father. Only a Wrath, a Silence. A crushing Justice unalloyed by mercy or love.

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?

Forsaken. God torn asunder from God. A mystery to give centuries’ worth of theologians indigestion. A gash the opposite color of logic. A scar – a new scar – on the hands and feet and ribcage of Eternity Spoken.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4-5

Image: “The Crucifixion,” by Leon Bonnat