Meditation Good for the Brain… and Soul

I read an article on this morning entitled “How Meditation May Change the Brain”. Recent research indicates that people who meditate on a regular basis increase gray matter in the area of the brain that supports memory and learning while also decreasing the gray matter in the area of the brain that registers anxiety and stress.

Sounds like meditation might just be the cure to a lot of problems in the stressed out, forgetful, anxious culture we have developed in America. Some of the most common complaints of people today include the symptoms we are told meditating will alleviate. The problem for Christians is that we have been trained to believe that meditation is related only to Eastern religions such as Buddhism. So, instead of taking time to meditate and relax, we medicate and continue our stressed out, overworked lives.

There has been much discussion lately concerning the use of Eastern religious practices by Christians. Yoga has been a hot topic debated back and forth. Should Christians participate in an activity that was designed as a form of worship for another religion? Can the benefits of an activity be “Christianized” so that believers can participate without being a stumbling block or inadvertently worshiping a false god?

One thing that needs to be considered in this question is that there are things the Bible itself tells us to do that have become related distinctly to Eastern religious practice because Christians have abandoned them. A great example of this is meditation. In our culture today, we relate meditation directly to Buddhism and we picture a person in a lotus position, emptying their mind and repeating the Ohm.

There is a distinct difference between the meditation found in Eastern religions and the meditation in which we are told to participate in Scripture. As an oversimplification, Eastern religions teach meditation is to empty your mind, to think on nothing, to focus on your inner self and become “one” with the spirit of the universe.

Scripture teaches us to separate ourselves from the stresses of the world. We are to clear our mind, but not to focus on nothing. We have something specific to meditate upon. We are to push out the stress and anxiety of the world and meditate on God, on His character, on His Word.

We are told in Genesis 24 that Isaac went out to a field at night to meditate.

Joshua 1:8 says: Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

The longest chapter in all of the Bible is Psalm 119, a praise of the benefits of knowing and meditating upon the Word of God.

Psalm 46:10 says, Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.

So as far as I’m concerned, the research published in Psychiatry Today: Neuroimaging simply confirms what God has been trying for ages to get humanity to understand: doing what God tells us to do is for our own good (Deut. 10:13).

So is it wrong for Christians to meditate? NO! It’s actually a command from God. But the fundamental difference between Eastern meditation and Christian meditation is the focus of the meditation. Eastern meditation empties the mind and focuses inwardly on self. Christian meditation fills the mind with the Word and focuses outwardly on Christ.

I would encourage you to try the experiment the man in the article is attempting. Rise early. Spend one hour in still silence, thinking on the Word and person of Christ. Train your mind to focus on Him, not on the distractions of this world. In the words of the old hymn, “Turn your eyes up on Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”

Spend some time looking Jesus full in the face, and see if it doesn’t just change your outlook on your day. When we do the right things for the right reasons, the right results occur, and they bring glory to God. Meditation for the man in the article seems to make him a nicer husband, and that’s enough for his wife, but to meditate on and for Christ will change both heart and mind, and can change lives for eternity.

Mad at Church- Revision and Repost

This was originally posted on January 30, 2008.

I have never read Blue Like Jazz. But I understand from my friend Dave that there is a chapter in the book entitled, “Church: How I Go Without Getting Mad.” That short thought got me thinking. We’ve been getting mad at church since church was invented; just check the Scriptures if you don’t believe me. The office of deacon was created because the Greek Christians were mad that their widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth to reprimand them because they were so mad they were filing lawsuits against one another. Before there even was a Christian church, there were “religious” people. Jesus’ disciples fought over who was the greatest among them. Cain killed Abel because he was mad that God preferred Abel’s sacrifice. As long as there have been people, people have been mad.

But the idea of being mad at church struck me, because church seems to be a pretty common place for otherwise calm Christians to lose their cool. People who would never say a cross thing to their boss at work seem to feel it appropriate to scream at their brothers and sisters in Christ during Wednesday night business meetings. People’s feelings get hurt because their house is not chosen for the next Sunday School class party. Women leave small groups if someone doesn’t check on them when they miss one Sunday and men move their families elsewhere if they are overlooked for a position on a committee. Seeing that I was raised in a pastor’s home, I have been eyewitness to enough selfish and unjust activity in the church that there was a time I wrote the church off completely. Falling into the postmodern idea that my religion was a matter between me and God and no one else, I left the church for a while to find my own way.

That didn’t work, though, because we were not designed to operate alone. God established the family and the church because we were created to be in fellowship—with both Him and with our fellow believers. So if the church is full of fighting sinners, but I have to be a part of the church, I asked myself this morning, “How do I go to church without getting mad?” And this is my answer…

I go to church without getting mad because I remember that some of the most respected evangelists and theologians on the planet conservatively estimate that 50%-75% of current members of evangelical churches are not, in fact, regenerate members of the body of Christ. When you work in the mindset that all of your church members are born again believers, it’s easy to get mad when you go to church. After all, they should know better! If everyone you encounter at church is a Spirit-filled born again believer, than the trouble makers are living in open and obvious rebellion, grieving and quenching the Spirit and hampering the worship of the rest of us. However, when you approach church with the assumption that the majority of people around you are actually lost, your attitude shifts from anger to pity.

The people sitting around you have placed their faith in the prayer they said at the alter, in the fact that they cried, that they were baptized, that everyone said “Amen!” when the pastor voted on their membership, that their mom and dad and grandparents were members of the same church. They have never experienced the godly sorrow that leads to repentance without regret, leading to salvation that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 7:10. Instead, they have experienced “the sorrow of the world” that “produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10b). The ideas of counting the cost of their salvation, of dying to self, of becoming less so Christ can become more, of submitting to the Lordship of Christ in their life, they’ve never considered their sin and been completely shattered by it. They’ve relied on themselves for their salvation and they are so deceived.

When you look at the church in such a harshly realistic light, the in-fighting and anger make much more sense. The church is full of people who are still bound without choice to the destruction of their sins! They have no choice but to behave in a way that it is un-Christian. Like my mom always says, “You can’t expect lost people to act like they are saved.” This can be frustrating for the 25-50% of people in the church who are truly regenerate members of the body of Christ. But the next time you get frustrated with the people in church who make decisions and show themselves to only be interested in themselves, remember that Jesus once said, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit” (Mt. 12:33). If that person is not showing godly sorrow for sins committed against God, chances are that person really doesn’t care, and a lack of sorrow is an indication of lack of relationship.

So how do keep from getting mad at church? I prepare myself in much prayer by asking the Lord to humble me—sometimes I’m mad because I’m wanting to get my own way, which makes me just as wrong as everyone else. I ask Him to search my heart, to show me my shortcomings and transgressions against Him. I ask Him to give me His eyes so that I can see the people around me as Christ sees them—as people made in the image of God, people that He loved so much He died for them.

If I consider myself more mature spiritually than the people around me causing the trouble, I need to check my own heart, work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. Then, if my conscience is clear and my leading is from the Lord, it is my moral and biblical responsibility not to get mad at them, but to instead  come alongside them humbly and show them the more excellent way. I try not to brood, to mope, or get down on those people. That would only make me just like them, and then we would all just stay right where we are—mad at church.

Against All Odds…

According to an article published in the New York Times on January 23, life began for Maurice Mannion-Vanover on September 11, 1990, with every odd stacked against him.

He and his twin sister were born to a crack-addicted, HIV-positive mother who was incapable of caring for them and soon abandoned them to be raised by the System. Their physical and mental struggles were so great that his sister lived only 20 months. Maurice was also HIV-positive and had severe developmental delays. He would require constant care for his entire life, but against all odds, he was adopted and he thrived under the love and care of his adoptive parents.  Maurice passed away on January 14th, a life cut short by the tragic choices of others. The mere fact that he had a life at all can be seen as nothing short of a miracle.

In a society which increasingly judges the worth of the individual by his or her ability to contribute to society, many would say that it would have been best for everyone involved if Maurice and his sister Michelle had been aborted. After all, their mother was obviously incapable of caring for them and they would merely be two more burdens on an already strapped Child Protective Services System. They were sure to endure lives of pain, suffering and rejection. Lives no one would choose to live.

I have heard more than once the argument that if a child will not be loved and well cared for by their parents then it would be best for them to never be brought into the world at all. Many attempt to twist logic and make their stance concerning abortion a humane one. Who, after all, would want to be born into a life of pain and suffering? Funny thing is, I know many people who were born into situations much like that of Maurice, and worse. (For a great example, check out the testimony of Tony Nolan.) Not a single one of them has said that they would have preferred to never be born. Given the option, the human spirit craves life.

If you read the article in the New York Times, you will see the impact that young Maurice had on a family and a community. An impact that never would have occurred had the “decrease the surplus population” attitude of social Darwinism succeeded in sacrificing Maurice and Michelle on the alter of the American Dream.

That is, in a nutshell, the ethical definition of abortion. It is the pursuit of an idol, one’s desired life, at the expense of another life. We read today with horror and disgust at the arcane practice of child sacrifice to ancient gods, but at its root, abortion is child sacrifice at the alters of convenience, financial stability, self-interest, hedonism.

The worth of a fetus is often determined today by the desire its parents have for it. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent in Neonatal Intensive Care units to preserve the life of premature babies; in some states, those same babies could be legally aborted by the same doctor that delivered and is now fighting to save its life. In some of those same states, a person can be charged with two murders if they kill a pregnant woman, even if that woman is on her way to an abortion clinic to voluntarily end the life of the fetus.

I am unashamedly pro-life and anti-abortion (yes, I believe these terms to explain two different yet related ethical stances). I believe that God is the one who knits us together, creates us each individually in his image. I believe that abortion is but one example of man’s attempt to override the sovereign creativity of the Creator.

But I am not looking to change minds based on Scripture or on my religious beliefs. In this month that we reflect on the Sanctity of Human Life, I am asking us all, regardless of religious or political beliefs, to look past “what-if” arguments of rape or incest (less than 1% of abortions performed are a result of such a situation), and think well about the question of life and the inherent worth of a human life.

Take the time to ask yourself the hard questions. What constitutes life? What gives life worth? How do our current laws concerning abortion, homicide and manslaughter, and emergency medicine contradict one another? Is there a way to build consistency concerning human life and dignity into our laws and so ensure that the weakest of our citizens, the unborn, have the opportunity to chase after life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The rights of women are supposedly staunchly defended in the abortion debate, but we also speak loudly in America that the rights of one person only extend insofar as they do not infringe upon the rights of another. Abortion denies the right that we claim to be most sacred in America– the right to life.

Unswerving Hope

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10

When I taught the Middle School girls Sunday school class at Wake Cross Roads Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC, my girls committed to memorizing Scripture together. To help with the endeavor, my assistant teacher Katie made each of us a ring of note cards with the verses we were to memorize. They were each a different color with a different font and there was a matching 8.5×11 version of the card hanging in our classroom. This ring of verses became my lifeline of encouragement because they were all verses of hope and confidence, reasons to cling to faith in tough times. They had been selected to embolden teenage girls in the one of the hardest times of life– middle school– but they did as much for me as I’m sure they did for them.

I found my lifeline ring tonight, and Hebrews 10:23 was the first verse I read when I picked it up. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.” Like the living and active Word that it is, this verse spoke to me as if it were the first time I had ever seen it. The Holy Spirit gently prompted my heart, saying, “See? Just hold on and watch. I’m the One who is faithful.”

What is the hope we profess? Paul says in Colossians 1:27 it is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ is our hope. Christ is the one who promises. Christ is the one who is faithful. I am beginning to see the pattern emerge here.

So often I want to hold onto the planner. I want to call the shots, see the future, solve the problems, save the world and still have time to make an amazingly tasty and healthy dinner, grade papers, write lectures, and play with my niece. I’m my favorite idol. I want to be messiah. I want to hold onto myself.

But have you ever seen someone hugging themselves? You just look funny. It’s not natural to hold unswervingly to yourself. We need to hold unswervingly to the Faithful One in whom we trust. We hang on to Him for dear life because he is holding on to us. We are told every promise in Him is “Yes.” He never fails. And Jesus was clear in His promises to us. He promises to never leave nor forsake us. He promises that nothing will separate us from His love. He promises nothing can snatch us from His hand. He promises that He does not change like the shifting shadows. He is not altered by the light; He IS the Light.

We can hold to our hope in Him unswervingly because He himself is unswerving. With a promise like that, why would we ever want to let go?

I know I usually let go when I forget to remember those promises, which is why I call my ring my Lifeline Ring. In those times when it’s easier to believe the lies in your head than the Truth in God’s Word, it’s good to have that Lifeline ready. Psalm 25:5 says, “guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”

It’s impossible to trust something you don’t know. The more you allow the Lord to guide you in truth through learning the Word, the more you learn what He promises. The more you know His promises, the more opportunity you have to trust those promises. The more you trust, the more He proves He is faithful, and the more you can trust. It’s a beautiful cycle of redemption and sanctification. And it all begins with knowing His Word and knowing His promises.

So if you’re ready to stop a cycle of self-destruction and self-hope, get yourself connected to the only sure Lifeline of unswerving hope. Learn and live in the promises of Jesus. He will prove Himself faithful every single time.

Idolizing the Ideal and Idealizing Idols

If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. CS Lewis

John Calvin stated in the Institutes that man’s heart is an idol factory. We spend our lives setting people, places, things, goals, jobs, whatever, on the pedestal of our hearts. We give them our time, our loyalty, our money and control of our actions and attitudes.

We then expect our idols to meet our needs. People should love us unconditionally, meet our every need and never fail us. Jobs should fulfill us and allow us to reach our financial goals. Homes should make us happy. Social circles should fill our every free moment. Food should comfort without creating unhealthy bodies. Because we have given these people or things our worship, we expect them to be worthy of our worship. We expect our gods to behave like God.

For a while that may occur. The person showers you with a rush of love and affection and attention. The job launches you into an adrenaline high and maybe even a new tax bracket. The friends are fun and make you feel like the life of the party. The smaller jeans make you feel confident. The extra helping of dinner or desert makes you feel comforted.

But then one day the person fails you. The job gets tough. The friends aren’t there in the hard time like they were in the good. The jeans get tight. The food doesn’t fill the hole in your heart. The idol doesn’t fulfill your expectation of meeting your need perfectly. So you work to get more of it. Surely more of a good thing is better, right? It doesn’t take long on the idol cycle to learn that no person, place or thing can stay on your pedestal without a lot of help from you. It takes a lot of excusing, overlooking and enabling to keep an idol in a place of worship. It takes a lot of work to keep an idol worthy of a position of worship.

Too bad we miss the fact that the God of the universe, the one our hearts were made to crave, does not need our help in the least to stay on that pedestal of worship. The Perfect One is worthy of our worship all on His own. We have no need of idealizing the Ideal.

When we place our focus of worship on the One True Object of worship, it frees us up to worship Him with reckless abandon. When we aren’t using our hands to tightly hold onto our idol, they are free to be raised in worship. When we aren’t using our mind to rationalize the pain and heartache caused by our idol, we are free to think well of Him and worship Him with our minds. When we aren’t spending our time chasing after relationships and things that are never fulfilling, we can spend our time drinking deeply from the well that never runs dry.

I find myself spending a lot of time and effort idealizing things I believe I am lacking. Keeping idols worthy of worship is exhausting. It’s unfair to place those expectations on those we place on our pedestals and unrealistic for any object. When I return my focus to what I have been given, I see that my true object of worship has supplied my every need in Christ Jesus. There is no need for multitasking when God alone is the object of our worship.

Worshiping God is easier because we do not have to work to idealize our object of worship. He is ideal in and of Himself, freeing us up to simply worship.

What idols are you exhausting yourself attempting to idealize? How can you free up your heart and mind to simply idolize the ideal instead of attempting to idealize your idols?