I remember in my last youth pastor position seeing material from Youth Specialities both in Youthworker Journal and in advertising for the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project headed by Mark Yaconelli (son of the late Mike Yaconelli – founder of Youth Specialities). It was all about a contemplative approach to youth ministry. Connecting with God through experiences like centering prayers, praying the lectio divia, praying the Jesus Prayer… embracing Catholic mystic teachings from the middle ages from St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila for example.
This was primarily a mainline Protestant effort, but was a precursor to the emerging church embracing this approach. There are some aspects to contemplative practices that I think can be helpful, perhaps not practiced the way they are taught by today’s proponents. For instance, silence and solitude, we saw this much in the life of Christ – an example is found in Mark 1:35, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed,” (ESV)”
We often times have so much noise in our lives we need to get away to focus. To focus on God’s word. To focus in prayer without distraction, to prayerfully consider our life’s focus/priorities, and when major decisions are before us. Much of the teaching surround “listening” practices have bothered me though. Phrases like… “empty your mind”, and then encouraging us to write down what comes to mind. How the heck do I know that is the Lord, my thoughts, or a spirit? It seems like this movement lacks discernment. For instance consider the following quote from Dr. Tony Campolo, professor of sociology at Eastern University in his book, Letters to a Young Evangelical.
In my case (referring to him not experiencing a typical “conversion” experience) intimacy with Christ has developed gradually over the years, primarily through what Catholic mystics call “centering prayer.” Each morning, as soon as I wake up, I take time – sometimes as much as a half hour – to center myself on Jesus. I say his name over and over again to drive back the 101 things that begin to clutter up my mind the minute I open my eyes. Jesus is my mantra, as some would say.
Sounds harmless right? The word “mantra” is from Hinduism. It is a word or a formula, as from the Veda which is chanted or sung as an incantation or prayer. This reminds of something that Jesus warned His disciples about in His teaching on prayer:
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them for your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” (Matthew 6:7-8, ESV).
I keep picturing Campolo doing this and each time Jesus says, “yes?” It just seems so ridiculous to reduce Him to a formula said in prayer. Jesus wants us to talk to Him, not just chant His name. Think of it this way… if I were to wake up in the morning and wanted to experience intimacy with my wife Cheryl (this is G-rated I promise). I wouldn’t chant her name…. “Cheryl. Cheryl. Cheryl. Cheryl. Cheryl.” I think it would be more likely that I would get slugged because she wants to sleep than for me to achieve the intimacy I was after.
In Buddhism and Hinduism the purpose of repeating a mantra or focusing on an object or the breath is to remove distractions with the hopeful outcome of hearing God’s voice. They practice this repetition of a word or phrase in an attempt to “empty their minds” and in so doing would reach a higher state of consciousness that reveal their own divinity.
Umm… smells like smoke? Is it just me or this practice straight from the pit of hell? Where in Scripture does it say to do this? This seems too much like a new age practice, but maybe I’m just being a crotchety old man (getting practice since I’m only 36, but I guess for some of you that may be old).