I’ve been pondering creative ways to do some guided meditation on Scripture for a long while, and the the combination of the pandemic and resignation from my communications gig has spurred my pondering toward implementation. I’m rather excited to see what will come from this, and I’ve included the introduction below.
The preliminary print layout and eBook are almost ready to go, I need to explore the best way to make the photographs usable for a screen reader. I’ll get this up for sale as some point, but first I want to run through the study with a group or two so I can include my own short stories as part of the journey.
About This Study
In the Christian tradition, spiritual disciplines are practices which are meant to align a believer more fully to the way of Christ. Practices like prayer, worship, service, study, and celebration help to open a believers whole being to the unfolding of Jesus’ reign all around us. Over the centuries Christians have been tempted to treat spiritual disciplines as though they were merit badges 1—trying to “collect” as many as possible in order to reveal one’s devotion to the cause 2. But genuine spiritual disciplines are patient, do not seek recognition, and generate a deep self-awareness that Jesus is the one we should be celebrating. The disciplines lead us to self-emptying. Many times this emptying will mean setting aside toxic desires for power or wealth or control. But it’s not just about cutting off toxic desires. The self-emptying pursued through the spiritual disciplines will also sometimes call us to set aside healthy practices. This shift, which is often temporary, makes room for us to explore different desires which are also good and healthy 3. In either case, the self-emptying connected to spiritual practices is meant to drive us to find satisfaction in Jesus.
The spiritual discipline at the heart of this study is meditation. This spiritual discipline is often misunderstood by Christians, and Protestant Christians in-particular, who equate the practice with Eastern religions. As such, the discipline is sometime viewed with either skepticism or outright mistrust. Meditation, however, has a long history in both Christianity and Judaism, and celebrations of mediation can be found throughout the Psalms.
But what is the Christian understanding of the practice?
Meditation is, in short, the process of making ourselves present before the God of all creation. It is a practice with uses a distinct focal point so we can both listen to and see God at work in this world. The typical focal point for meditation in the Christian tradition is Scripture itself, the words help to align our thoughts with God’s revelation, opening up pathways for both growth and transformation. When I was first introduced to this discipline in college my professor likened meditation to “chewing cud.” Much like a cow digests their food through their four chamber stomach, we keep going over the words of Scripture, “swallowing” them to be digested and then bring them up to chew some more 4.
Mediation can also, as Psalm 1 demonstrates, make use of God’s created world as a focal point.
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Psalm 1:1–3 NRSV
The image of a tree, planted by the water, is utilized by the Psalmist to create a connection between the created world and the Law 5. This connection then becomes the avenue through which the Psalmist ponders the world, and the ways people live in it before God. This link, between creative reflection on visual imagery and the words of Scripture, forms the basis of this study.
Creative pursuits have, throughout human history, been seen as expressions of spirituality. Shaping elements like word or stone, painting images which capture certain aspects of the world, telling stories, and even writing plays have all been used to reflect upon both humanity’s place in this world and our connection with the divine. In Christian theology, humanity’s ability to create is often considered to be an aspect of how we image God 6.
It is unfortunate, but in our culture creative pursuits are often seen as a realm in which only masters can participate—which discourages non-experts from attempting to express themselves through creativity. While creative masters can be appreciated, however, they should never be considered the gatekeepers of the creative arts. Creativity is useful and meaningful pursuit for all people. For Christians, in particular, creative pursuits can help us engage with the biblical text in ways which abstract Bible study cannot. These pursuits are, by their very nature, tied to our personalities and experiences. This shifts our focus from what a passage meant, trying to figure out the “right” way to apply a passage in the present day, and makes the experience of Scripture personal. This is not to say more abstract/analytical biblical studies do not have value. In fact, each movement in this study will begin with such a meditation. But creative exploration changes our perspective.
The different vantage points afforded by the use of creative pursuits can help us discover both blind spots and insights we didn’t know we had—as well as provoke us to deal with these revelations. In this way creative exploration will be used by the Holy Spirit as points of engagement through which we become better formed into Christ’s image—which is the very point of the spiritual disciplines.
Meditative Fiction will makes use of two creative pursuits, which will be linked to specific biblical passages. The first of these creative pursuits is photography, participants will work to see the reflection of God through pictorial slices of reality. The second of these creative pursuits will create a bridge between the scripture and the photographic focal point, encouraging people to interact with the Biblical text in the way similar to our Savior. We will tell stories.
Each chapter consists of two movements, reflection and practice. These movements consist of the following.
The first movement in each Meditative Fiction chapter is meant to be done by each individual group member at their own pace—within the time set to spend with each chapter. Reflection is the launching point not only for the each chapter’s writing exercise, but also serves as material for group discussion.
Each movement in Meditative Fiction is based of one of Jesus’ Beatitudes. These will be quoted as the movement begins, and participants will be encouraged to “chew” on the Scripture by committing it to memory and repeating it silently as they go through their day.
Each movement will include photograph which captures the essence of the passage. This photograph will reflect some aspect of the assigned Beatitude, and will serve as the writing prompt for storytelling.
Meditative Fiction’s movements will include a short essay which deals with some of the nuances of the selected text. These essays will include some historical background, linguistic insights, and contextual reflection. This commentary will help set the trajectory for each movement.
These stories will tie together the Scripture passage, the devotional essay, and the photo prompt. These stories can use used as part of the group discussion, and as examples of the types of links people can make to write their own narratives.
When the group is ready, the shift from reflection to practice should be made. While the writing exercise is a personal expression, the group should be encouraged to collaborate as much as possible. The Practice movement will consist of the following steps.
The Meditative Fiction group’s facilitator should establish a communications space for the group which does not require scheduled interaction. This could be through community apps like Slack or discord, a group message thread, or even email—whatever works best for the group. This space can be used for group members to ask questions about a movement’s introductory essay, offer alternative ways to interpret the text, ponder the included short story, or request help with the writing process. All of this is good. These chats are meant to be dynamic and collaborative.
Having pondered the elements which make up the Reflection movement, group members will write a short story which highlights their thoughts on the process. Stories should be no more than 800 words, and members will have four days to write. This step is not meant to produce something suitable for publication, and group members must not compare their own writing to other members as if they will be graded on a curve. Each story is a personal reflection. The point isn’t how “good” the resulting story is, it’s about opening ourselves up to God through our imaginations.
Submission and Reading
Stories will be submitted to the group via the shared chat space, and these will be read by the group at their own pace. Similar to the caution given in the writing step, the reading process is not editorial—points will not be taken off for spelling or grammar, nor will prizes be given for the best prose. Some questions to keep in mind during the reading phase are:
- What do you think the author’s story captured about the dynamic between the passage and the photograph?
- Did the author’s story highlight anything about the text which you may not have included in your own tale? If so, what?
Synchronous Group Discussion
The group will gather through either video or voice chat to discuss insights on each of the stories, and how they interacted with the selected text and photo. Each author should come prepared to discuss how they connected their own story to both the photograph and the selected text.
- Pokémon may be a better analogy nowadays. ↩
- Gotta catch ‘em all! ↩
- This is, for example, the purpose behind fasting during the season of Lent. ↩
- For people who think milk comes “from the store,” this may sound gross. The analogy is apt, though, so we’ll keep it in. ↩
- The first five books of the Bible. ↩
- It’s also been condemned as idolatrous, but we’ll be going a different direction. ↩