“Blessed is the man1 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 law2 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.”3
Growing up in the country, our family had dogs as pets. As usual in those days, we gave table scraps to our dogs; fat, gristle, and bones, which could end up in the garbage or compost heap, were delicious treats to our rather large pets with voracious appetites. Inevitably, they would gobble up the softer snacks and then trot off with the more solid bone to work over at a private and leisurely pace. Even today one can reminisce with such pleasant memories the focus and intensity with which those dogs would chew on their table treats, all the while making growling sounds from deep within their throats. Who would have thought these intensely focused, satisfyingly-centered canines would be a living example of meditation?
Pastor Eugene Peterson draws our attention to Isaiah 31:4 and the image of a lion satisfyingly working over his capture, “As a lion or a young lion growls over his prey.”4 “Growl” here is a translation of the common word used for meditate (hagah) in the Psalms and elsewhere. Hagah is translated as “meditate” in Psalm 1:2. “Hagah is a word that our Hebrew ancestors used frequently for reading the kind of writing that deals with our souls. But ‘meditate’ is far too tame a word for what is being signified…. Isaiah’s lion meditating his goat…my dog mediating his bone…hagah means that a person ‘is lost in his religion'”.
In his explanation of meditation Dr. John Kleinig wisely causes us to consider the object of our meditation…our “bone”. “The key is not how we meditate, but on what we meditate. The object, the focus of meditation, determines what happens to us in our meditation and as a result of our meditation.”5
Christian meditation focuses on three “bones”: the Lord, His Word, and His work. Out first bone upon which God’s people gnaw is Himself. King David, a master at meditation, writes, “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.”6 In fact this entire Psalm is worthy of repeated and sustained meditation on God who satisfies our very souls!
Another meditative bone is the Word of God. This is the focus of David’s meditation in Psalm 1. Psalm 119, the longest Psalm, has as its consistent posture meditation on the Word of the Lord alternating eight times between “precepts”, “statutes”, “testimonies”, and “promises”.7 Spending sustained and focused time meditating on the Word of the Lord was a regular practice of King David and Israel in worship and in daily life. The third bone upon which we chew is the works of the Lord. Again David breaks into worship, praise, and song while meditating over what the Lord has done. “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.”8
Many reading this will recognize the acronym GIGO. It dates back to the early years of computers and stands for garbage in garbage out. Of course this meant, if you put accurate data into your programming, the computer would produce accurate results. This also applies to the focus of our meditation. The teenagers, youth group, or church which focuses on the Lord, His Word, and His works will be “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.”9 In other words, their roots will remain strong, steady, and healthy, even in the midst of struggling adolescence, challenging subcultures, and tempting times. Certainly this is every parent’s hope and prayer for their kids!
What Christian meditation does not do is focus on self or other gods. David ran across those whose meditation was on evil, revenge. “Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long.”10 James recognized this selfish focus and concludes it is the foundation of war: “You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war.”11 To focus our meditative energies on ourselves is to misplace our ‘bone’ and gnaw on our own limbs, leading toward self destruction and the destruction of others.
Probably a more common fear surrounding meditation is the focusing on other gods whether it be Wicca, tarot cards, ESP, Transcendental Meditation, or any of a number of “bones” which draw us away from the Lord, His Word, and work. It is these “bones” which Dr. Adam Francisco warns us of in his study The Quest for Spirituality. Unfortunately he also steers his readers away from the spiritual benefits of Christian meditation which has been such a maturing practice in many faithful Christians’ lives. One such person was Martin Luther who regularly, daily meditated on “the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and…such words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do.”12
One may ask, “Why meditate in youth ministry?” It is hoped that by now you have formulated a response related to the need and desire to help and guide our youth toward developing roots which sustain them into healthy spiritual adulthood. Mother Teresa made a stark and convicting observation which veteran youth minister Mark Yaconelli has also experienced. “We minister among people who enjoy the greatest accumulation of material wealth in the history of humankind, and yet often carry the most emaciated and anemic of souls. As Mother Teresa once said, ‘You in the West have the spiritually poorest of the poor…it is easy to give a plate of rice to a hungry person, to furnish a bed to a person who has no bed, but to console or to remove the bitterness, anger, and loneliness that comes from being spiritually deprived, that takes a long time.’ The most difficult aspects of our ministry among the spiritually poor is that the problem is so easily hidden. Has there ever been another society that has produced so many spiritual books, workshops, retreat centers, worship experiences, churches, and sacred fashion accessories? The culture in which we minister seems ignorant to the fact that the plethora of Christian experiences, consumer products, and activities only belies our spiritual depravation and disconnection from God. Why do we create so many clanging Christian gongs when ‘God alone’ is all that’s needed?… As youth ministers, we seek to help young people develop strong and healthy souls. We seek to tend lives that are rooted in the rich soil of God’s love. We seek to cultivate within young people enough trust and faith in God that they might resist the powers and principalities that diminish them.”13
Meditation is a foundational practice used by God’s people for millennia and blessed by God to deepen our daily walk with Him. God told General Joshua, when on the verge of conquering the Promised-yet-occupied-Land, “This book of the Law (instruction) shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”14 Craig Steiner, a 15 year veteran of youth ministry, who has been teaching and using meditation with his junior and senior high youth says, “We meditate to commune with God, to gain a deeper understanding of the text, and to allow the Word to dwell in us and shape our lives.”15 Note that this does not replace biblical and doctrinal studies and participation in effective Christian education and discipleship. Meditation supports, supplements, and applies the more cognitive learning methods. It allows God the Holy Spirit to utilize and apply the learning from these methods.16
There are a variety of forms of Christian meditation. Below is a list of possible resources. The key to teaching youth how to meditate is to do it. Do it yourself first to develop greater comfort. It is likely you already do some forms of meditation in your own devotional practices possibly without knowingly so. The Bible study “A Bone to Pick with God” can help you lead your teens into this topic and begin to practice Christian meditation. Some suggestions are also offered to help your youth begin or continue to explore this wonderful gift dating all the way back to Joshua!
Suggested resources for learning and leading youth in Christian meditation practices.
Jones, Tony. Soul Shaper: Exploring Spirituality and Contemplative Practices in Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.
Light of Life: A Personal Journey of Prayer and Meditation on the Gospel of John. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010.
Steiner, Craig. Moving Forward By Looking Back: Embracing First-Century Practices in Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.
Yaconelli, Mark. Downtime: Helping Teenagers Pray. Grand Rapids, MI: 2008.
1The English Standard Bible (ESV) has a footnote pointing out that the word for man “is used to portray a representative example of a godly person”. Man here means person, male and female.
2Law here and often in the Old Testament means instruction for modern readers. See the footnote in the ESV.
3Psalm 1:1-3 (ESV).
4Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), 2.
5 Light of Life: A Personal Journey of Prayer and Meditation on the Gospel of John (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 8.
7Psalm 119:15, 23, 99, 48.
8Psalm 145:5, see also Psalm 77:12, 143:5.
11James 4:2 (RSV).
12Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray (… for Master Peter the Barber), available from Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO, <http://www.hope-aurora.org/docs/ASimpleWaytoPray.pdf> (accessed 5 June 2010).
13Mark Yaconelli, Downtime: Helping Teenagers to Pray (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 282f.
14Joshua 1:8 italics in parenthesis mine.
15Craig Steiner, Moving Forward By Looking Back: Embracing First-Century Practices in Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009) 202.
16See John 14:16