Last Friday, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to ask my Christian Spirituality students how events like the school shooting in Parkland, FL impacts their lives.
"What's this like for you guys?" I asked. "I know what it's like for me as a parent, but you're a whole different generation growing up with this reality. What does it mean for you?"
The shootings were (and still are) heavy on my heart. But I was also worried that the day's class topic - meditation - would seem too other-worldly, too removed in the face of recent events.
Several students expressed concern about the abundance of violence in our culture and the real possibility of increased desensitization to incidents like these. Another said he found it frustrating how many polarizing opinions were flying around without anyone really presenting a vision for how we can move forward together. A third student expressed an awareness of how very complicated the matter is - "How we we decide where to focus our energy? How do we figure out what part is ours to do?"
As I listened, taking notes as I often do, a strange thing happened. I realized that meditation - time spent dwelling in the presence of God - offers a means of addressing each of these questions.
Meditation, it became clear, is the bedrock of social action.
Time spent in the presence of God increases our sensitivity to the cruelties of this present age. The more we dwell with God, the more aware we are of the brokenness of our world and of our very own lives. In prayer, our hearts are made vulnerable and soft, attuned to the violence of our own words and actions. We begin to long for the kingdom of God to be made real and we're empowered to live differently in the world, to live as true witnesses to the kingdom which is both already and not-yet.
Time spent in the presence of God nurtures the kind of imagination, freedom, and confidence required to envision a path forward. Only those who are rooted deeply in divine love will be able to risk building a path free of ego and personal gain. Only those rooted deeply in divine freedom can speak boldly and confidently in the midst of our entrenched and antagonistic perspectives.
Lastly, meditation, more than any practice I know, teaches us who we are. In the deep places of our soul, we come to know not only God, but self. Stripped of ego, we're confronted with both the limits and gifts, the strengths and weaknesses, of our true self. Positioned in truth and grace, we become uniquely situated to discern our own path - to discover the place of alignment between our deep gladness and the world's deep need (Buechner). Meditation offers, in the midst of the many voices shouting for us to run here or go there, a calm, quiet voice that says, "This is what I have made you for, this is who you are."
The phrase, 'thoughts and prayers" has lost its meaning in our culture not only because it is often an excuse for inaction, but because too often it isn't accompanied by the kind of prayer that actually makes a difference and positions us to do the same. Prayer gives rise to action and change, both internal and external. Action that produces fruit - long and lasting change - both arises out of and leads us back into prayer.
If you want to know how to respond to the current crises we face as a culture, ask someone who prays. Odds are, they will be able to identify a good, solid starting point. If you want to be a person who brings lasting change in the world, begin with prayer that places you before God - simple, quiet, prayer that forms you, moment by moment into the image of God.
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If you are new to meditation or, like many of my students, fear meditation may not be for you, I urge you to check out Ed Cyzewski's book, "Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace With God Through Contemplative Prayer." Written from an evangelical perspective, Cyzewski addresses common concerns and offers practical insights to developing a practice of prayer rooted in the presence of God.