Adrian Plass has been a favorite Christian poet and humorist of mine for the last 15 years. I found him on an album I bought before a family vacation years ago. A portion of the following poem was read by Adrian on the album, and I go back to it every Christmas. Perhaps you’ll be blessed by it as well. Merry Christmas.
When I’m in heaven
Tell me there’ll be kites to fly,
The kind they say you can control,
Although I never did for long.
The kind that spin and spin and spin and spin,
Then sulk and dive and die,
And rise again and spin again,
And dive and die and rise up yet again.
I love those kites.
When I’m in heaven
Tell me there’ll be friends to meet
In ancient oak-beamed Sussex pubs
Enfolded by the wanton Downs,
And summer evenings lapping lazily against the shore
Of sweet, familiar little lands
Inhabited by silence or by nonsenses,
The things you cannot safely say in any other place.
I love those times.
When I’m in heaven
Tell me there’ll be seasons when the colors fly,
Poppies splashing flame
Through dying yellow, living green,
And autumn’s burning sadness that has always made me cry
For things that have to end.
For winter fires that blaze like captive suns,
But look so cold when morning comes.
I love the way the seasons change.
When I’m in heaven
Tell me there’ll be peace at last,
That in some meadow filled with sunshine,
Filled with buttercups and filled with friends,
You’ll chew a straw and fill us in on how things really are.
And if there is some harm at laying earthly hope at heaven’s door,
Or in this saying so,
Have mercy on my foolishness, dear Lord.
I love this world you made—it’s all I know.
When I’m in heaven
Tell me there’ll be Christmases without the pain,
No memories that will not fade,
No chilled and sullen sense of loss
That cannot face the festive flame
Nor breathe excitement from the ice-cream air.
Tell me how the things that Christmas should have been
Will be there for eternity in one long, shining dawn
For all of us to share.
I love the promises of Christmas.
“No,” he said, “I don’t think it will be any good trying to go back through the wardrobe door to get the coats. You won’t get into Narnia again by that route… Eh? What’s that? Yes, of course you’ll get back to Narnia again some day. Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia. But don’t go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don’t try to get there at all. It’ll happen when you’re not looking for it.” -The Professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
You must strike a difficult balance in your devotion to God. Psalm 1 tells us to meditate upon God’s Word day and night. In other words, the devotional life depends upon a routine method of experiencing God: meditation. On the other hand we know that our encounters with God never happen exactly alike.
One evening I meditate and the Spirit speaks. The next morning my heart is cold, cracked, and callused. Almost nothing has happened. I’ve only slept. How could I sense God’s love so deeply and 9 hours later feel a million miles from him?
One Sunday the prayers and songs of the church break my heart and drown my sin in grace. Next week I worship, but there’s a height or depth my heart isn’t reaching as it did before; or the effort required seems to have doubled.
You never get into Narnia the same way twice. When the Spirit of God gives you a moment of piercing clarity and assurance just be in the moment. Don’t try to remember how you got to that moment. Don’t try and replicate the moment later. It won’t work. Do your daily meditation as the Scripture commands and wait. Gather with the church to sing, pray, and wait. God’s presence, the high assurance, only comes by his grace, not our effort.
Last month I taught at a discipleship event on the topic of meditation. Below is a link to a PDF of my slides from the event. I admitted freely in the talk that I’m indebted to Tim Keller for his thoughts and research on the subject. Consider going to his ministry resource site, gospelinlife.com, and purchasing his series on meditation. Don’t be surprised when you hear anything that sounds familiar.
I’ve had an ongoing conversation with a handful of church members about meditation on the Scriptures. We’ve been talking about how we practice meditation, what it is, and how we can increase in the blessing it brings to us. We all agree, as do many Christians throughout history, that meditation moves from merely reasoning the words of Scriptures towards sensing the words.
Just as we have 5 physical senses, taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing that we use to live in and experience the world around us, inwardly our imaginations possess those same qualities.
If I asked you to think about your mother’s voice you can hear it. She doesn’t have to be in the room with you, but you hear her speaking. Her voices lives inside you.
Remember, when as a kid, you walked barefoot outside in the height of Summer? You’re running down the line of woods near house and the sweetness of honeysuckle washes over you. Following your nose, you locate the vine overflowing with white and butter-yellow blossoms. Carefully pulling the stem, that one drop of nectar hits your taste buds.
In meditation we imaginatively use our senses, much like we do in remembering, in order to contact with and hear the text.
In Bible study we de-contextualize and isolate texts. We dissect words, relationships, structure, and meaning. We stand over and above the text as interpreter. We bring our questions to the Bible ask it to answer us. We reason with the text. Our rational capacities engage, and the result is knowledge and understanding.
In meditation we see, taste, touch, smell, and listen to Scripture. We sense it. The Word becomes our guide as we sit under and beneath it. We don’t ask it questions, as much as it addresses us and calls us to answer. We sense the text. We descend with the mind, down into the heart. We laugh, smile, cry, gasp, and wonder. Truth becomes light. Law becomes pain. Grace issues forth into song.
Jonathan Edwards left us an example of what it means to sense the Scriptures:
I very frequently used to retire into a solitary place, on the banks of Hudson’s River, at some distance from the city, for contemplation on divine things and secret converse with God: and had many sweet hours there. I had then, and at other times, the greatest delight in the holy scriptures. Oftentimes in reading it, every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt a harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words. I seemed often to see so much light exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing food communicated, that I could not get along in reading; often dwelling long on one sentence, to see the wonders contained in it; and yet almost every sentence seemed to be full of wonders.
He’s reading the Bible, but he’s being touched, and handled. Looking at words on a page he senses his interior person pulsing with harmonic vibration in response to the Word. The words taste sweet, yet in them he also submits to a superior strength pressing against him. Every sentence deserves the attention to detail given to a mouthful of wine, wonders beyond wonders available to the patient and perceptive. Meditation is participation in the living world of the text.
5 centuries ago Martin Luther’s barber asked him how to pray. Luther responded with a 40 page letter entitled A Simple Way to Pray that has been read and practiced by Christians ever since. Last night I shared one of Luther’s methods for meditating on God’s word with our church. It’s called garland prayer.
As a garland is made by intertwining multiple strands of greenery, Luther teaches us to weave a 4 strand prayer. Here’s a simplified, and somewhat modified, outline of Luther’s method:
1. Find a Quiet Regular Place for Morning and Evening Prayer
First, when I feel that I have become cool and joyless in prayer because of other tasks or thoughts (for the flesh and the devil always impede and obstruct prayer), I take my little psalter, hurry to my room,
It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day.
2. Begin with a Prayer of Acknowledgement
… kneel or stand with your hands folded and your eyes toward heaven and speak or think as briefly as you can:
O heavenly Father, dear God, I am a poor unworthy sinner. I do not deserve to raise my eyes or hands toward You or to pray. But because You have commanded us all to pray and have promised to hear us and through Your dear Son, Jesus Christ, have taught us both how and what to pray, I come to You in obedience to Your Word, trusting in Your gracious promises. I pray in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ together with all Your saints and Christians on earth as He has taught us
I’ll typically begin my time of reading and meditation by echoing this prayer. I am usually sitting and I open my hands. There’s nothing super spiritual about opening my palms to God. It’s just a cue to my heart that I am opening myself up to receive from God whatever he chooses to give me.
3. Read Slowly
as time permits, I say quietly to myself and word-for-word the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do.
This is where meditation begins. You must read slowly, word for word. And do not just read. Taste. See. Hear. Meditation is sensing with the mind. Theophan the Recluse defined prayer and meditation like this, “To meditate is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever present all seeing, within you.” George Muller encouraged us to not let our Bible reading become like water flowing through a pipe.
4. Practice Garland Prayer
I divide each commandment into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is, I think of each commandment as first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession; and fourth, a prayer.
Luther applies the garland concept specifically to the Ten Commandments, but it can be applied to any passage. When you read the passage ask two simple questions to find the instruction:
What does this teach me about God/Christ?
What does this say about who I am or who I should be?
Here’s an example of taking a short passage and practicing the garland method:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Instruction: Our Father. Jesus doesn’t say, “My Father.” He says, “Our.” Now what does that mean? It means that we aren’t just saved as individuals. We’re saved into a family. We have brothers and sisters in Christ.
Thanksgiving: Thank you God, that you’ve given me a family. I don’t have to be alone in this world because of what you’ve done!
Confession: Forgive me God, some of my brothers and sisters irritate me. I don’t like being around them, and I certainly don’t feel like loving them in your name. Jesus died for me just as much as them. Forgive me.
Supplication: Make me more aware and thankful for my family in you. Change my heart towards that family member I can’t stand. Give me an opportunity to serve them in love
5. When Your Heart Begins to Flood with Goodness, Stop. Do Not Move On.
If such an abundance of good thoughts comes to us we ought to disregard the other petitions, make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstances obstruct them. The Holy Spirit Himself preaches here, and one word of His sermon is far better than a thousand of our prayers.
6. Proceed with Vocal Prayer
Having devoted yourself to meditating on God’s Word, then move on to normal, vocal prayer. Pray through your requests.
When you practice this method your Bible reading will cease being like water running through a pipe.
Growing up as a left handed person can be a real challenge. At times it feels as if everything in the world is made for right handed people. Have you righties noticed that your desks in school had an extended support for your forearm when you write? Lefties don’t have that. Have you ever realized that doors typically open toward your right? The English language, written from left to right, means that left handed people smudge ink or graphite onto their hand. Many left handed people are never taught to write properly, and for most of my life I had the ugliest handwriting.
About two years ago I was finally sick of my “chicken scratch” thank you cards and decided to improve my penmanship. In order to do that I had to practice handwriting disciplines. I’d print off these sheets from the internet on how to properly form letters. Whenever I had five or ten minutes to spare I’d pull out a sheet and slowly start writing. Let me tell you, when I first started it was atrocious. I couldn’t even follow a dotted line on paper. It looked about the same as if my 2 year old tried it.
But slowly, over time, my writing became comfortable. I could trace the exact movement of the line with fluidity. I didn’t have to exert nearly as much effort to see results. And even though my handwriting is far better now, I’ve noticed that if I go for any period of time without coming back to those sheets my handwriting suffers. I make slight changes. I don’t form the letters exactly right. A little sloppiness creeps into my thank you notes.
Now, the spiritual disciplines are for your spiritual growth what those handwriting sheets are for my penmanship.
The Spiritual Disciplines are those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times.
Just as there are disciplines that help you develop mentally and physically there are disciplines that God’s people have recognized help develop and mature our spiritual life. Just like my hand didn’t naturally know how to form letters properly our fallen souls don’t naturally know how to properly devote ourselves to God and experience his life on an ongoing basis. Christian’s throughout the centuries have realized this and devoted themselves to various practices designed to foster spiritual life. Below is a list I have adapted from Kenneth Boa’s book Conformed to His Image.
Solitude and Silence
Bible Reading and Study
Disciplined spirituality makes a concerted effort at shaping the affections of the heart and the will towards love for God and obedience to his Word. These practices train the soul towards what it does not do naturally. I’m sure you probably observe a few of these disciplines and have thought about some of the others. In future posts I’ll fill out more detail for the individual disciplines, but for now I’d love to hear about your experience with the spiritual disciplines, what books have helped you understand/practice them etc.