Catlin Park lies a few miles from my home in Ottawa, Illinois. It can’t compete with its sister park, Starved Rock, in size or grandiosity. But I’ve often gone there precisely because almost no one else does. I park my car, and stroll quiet paths lined with trees tinted by slanting rays of sunshine. And in this place, I attempt that most difficult of tasks – to let my hyper-active mind relax and soak in the beauty around me. I listen to the birds, stop to feel the texture of bark, and wonder at the endless variety of timber-shapes. Forests are God’s cathedrals. His Spirit dances in the trees.
The Bible is also the God’s cathedral – full of beautiful things to see, to touch and hear. Yet it’s all too easy for us to march through it distracted and hurried, barely noticing what we’ve read. One solution for this is the practice of meditation. Meditation teaches us to relax and soak in the richness and power of Scripture; to hear the Spirit’s voice speaking in its sunlit meadows. Last weekI discussed the advantages which meditation brings to our encounter with God’s Word. This week we’ll explore the practical side, asking the question:
How can I learn to meditate effectively?
1. I learn to meditate effectively when I learn to relax
When we’re too wound up it’s hard to focus deeply on a passage. We’re easily distractable and more desensitized to subtleties and nuances; to anything in the text that doesn’t shout. Plus, meditation under tension is not that pleasurable. Learning to relax our bodies and minds greatly enhances our perception. Relax, too, in the sense that you don’t have to “force it”. Let the insights and experiences of meditation come to you in their own time and way. The next point follows this one:
2. I learn to meditate effectively when I learn to slow down
I used the word “slow” several times in the first column. “Fast” and meditation don’t go together very well. Fast is fine for grabbing the big picture; for covering large tracts of Scripture (which can be useful); but it’s a flyover that either misses lots of details or notices them without allowing them enough time to make an impact. In our rush-rush world, slow can feel painful and ineffective, but meditation is not about efficiency or maximal production. The next point also follows this one.
3. I learn to meditate effectively when I loosen up on my need to control the process
Meditation isn’t an easily controllable, grind it out process. It’s a stroll down Serendipity Lane. On a given day we may hit pay dirt; a penetrating new insight, a fresh question to explore, a burst of joy or hope. On another day, nothing much jumps out at us; we feel like we’ve just gone through the motions. My friends, this is the nature of meditation. It’s a normal part of the long-term process. The “nothing much” days are not a waste of time. They’re part of paying your dues. At the very least, you’ve exposed your mind and heart to God’s Word. That’s always worthwhile. It reminds us of God’s truth and reinforces it – which is a continual need. What’s exciting, though, is that although nothing much seems to be happening on the surface, often our subconscious mind keeps on meditating. Later on, an insight may pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. Haven’t you experienced that creative aspect in other areas of life as well?
4. I learn to meditate effectively when I limit my scope of focus
This is part of the slowing down. You may read a whole chapter or two for context, but then pick a small portion of Scripture – a few verses at most, and go through them word by word. Usually, it’s helpful to circle them several times, lazily letting the words with their various associations trickle through your mind.
5. I learn to meditate effectively when I let my mind wander and explore
This may seem to contradict what I just said, about focusing on a narrow band of Scripture, but it doesn’t. That narrow band of Scripture is just your anchor point; the place to which you keep returning. But a word in the verse you’re meditating on may remind you of another verse which, in some way, adds insight to your understanding of that word. Or that word may raise a question which you’ll stop and think about. Or it may evoke a memory of an experience which either reinforces the concept or, sometimes, seems to contradict it. I often stop and give myself mini-sermons which extrapolate on the truth of that word or phrase and even add additional, related concepts. Let your mind run and explore, just try to keep somewhat within the boundaries of what you’re meditating on. This also leads us to the next suggestion:
6. I learnto meditate effectively when I learn to exercise mind control
In case you can’t tell, I’m promoting a sort of odd combination of mental discipline combined with mental free flow. On the one hand, you’re trying to stay in the general ball park of the passage and not get sidetracked by unrelated thoughts, like what’s for supper tonight, or what’s wrong with the car. When those thoughts come, acknowledge them, gently push them to the side and get focused back on the passage. On the other hand, as already indicated, don’t over-structure your ruminations. Let one thought lead to another and be willing to go to unexpected places, some of which will be blind alleys. That’s okay. It’s part of the creative process.
7. I learn to meditate effectively when I ask tons of questions
What does “debauchery” mean (Rom. 13:13)? What are the “evil desires of youth” (1 Tim. 2:22)? Why does Peter say “He who has suffered in his body is done with sin”? Who are the “Nicolaitans” (Rev. 2:6 )? There are so many angles to explore – everything from the technical meaning of a word, to geographical/cultural details, to how various passages interact, to broader theological questions. I’m frequently amazed, as I meditate, about the questions I’ve never thought to ask about familiar passages.
8. I learn to meditate effectively when I explore less familiar verses
Everyone knows John 3:16, but what about John 3:15? Or Isaiah 57:10 (which I have found very useful)? Don’t be afraid to explore the side-streets of Scripture; to mediate on lesser known, more obscure verses. There’s gold in them there hills!
9. I learn to mediate more effectively when I use and share what I learn
The purpose of meditation isn’t just to add to your fund of Bible knowledge. It’s meant to transform your life. Apply it. And share it with others. This, in turn, will motivate you to meditate even more.
10. I learn to meditate more effectively when I rely on the Holy Spirit
This one probably should have been stated first. 1 Corinthians 2:12,13 explain that we have received the mind of Christ and are taught by the Spirit. He will open our eyes to see the rich truth of Scripture, open our hearts to receive it and strengthen our wills to obey it. Meditation brings us into the Spirit’s workshop.
So I challenge you to meditate. With the help of the Spirit, Scripture will touch you and transform you when you learn to luxuriate in its riches.