Have you ever thought about your breathing? Probably not that often, but did you know that in an average day an active adult can take up to 50 000 breaths? And would you believe a one year old can take up to 86 000 breaths? We do it automatically but every breath we take is an absolute miracle, a gift from God. With the popularity of mindfulness, the importance of concentrating on our breathing to help us be in the moment has resurfaced. But religious people, including Jews and Christians have known this a long time.
In the beginning in the book of Genesis we read God; formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a human being (Genesis 2:7). We believe that humanity was created to breathe, to take in the breath that comes from God to truly live. And what’s more in John’s gospel we read that on Easter day when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, he spoke to them, reassured their fears then breathed on them and said receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). God has made us as human beings with his living breath as the resurrected Jesus lives with and in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. In using our breathe in conjunction with prayer we are centring ourselves on the Triune God.
Focusing on our breathing in times of anxiety is a great skill to learn. Below is a 3 minute video from Mindful Schools called "Just Breathe". It is not from a specifically Christian worldview but it does have wisdom for faith based schools as we make the connection to the spiritual for our students.
Do you really, truly believe? If you repent? These are conditional, adverbial statements that do not have a place in Lutheran theology. They are examples of 'adverbial theology'. This is a term that one of my seminary lecturers used, Dr Joe Strelan. This last week he passed from this life to the next so I had cause to reread some notes I took in a short lecture he delivered some after I left the seminary in my first parish in Sydney. As well as learning from him in a number of New Testament and Systematic subjects at Luther Seminary I was fortunate to be in the New South Wales District in my first call. Something I really appreciated about Dr Strelan was that before he retired he spent time away from the academic life as a parish pastor. While he was in Port Macquarie he was instrumental in developing pastors in that district with alternative training before this became a more widespread practice across the LCA. It was during this period in his life that he delivered the following lecture on Adverbial Theology at a NSW Pastors Conference.
Over the weekend, I completed a project I had been planning for nearly a year, constructing a butterfly labyrinth at my college's kindergarten. With my daughter's help, I marked out with tape the shape of the butterfly, painted it green and then pulled off the tape to reveal the butterfly. The butterfly is a particular shade of green to match the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly which is native to the subtropics of eastern Australia. The butterfly, which was near extinct, is attracted to a particular vine we have growing in the rainforest on our campus. With the help of senior students, we hope to plant some of the vines around the college and kindy. The butterfly is also special to us as a community, especially at this time of the year because of the Christian symbolism of new life and resurrection. God has perfect time because there has been an abundance of butterflies flying all along the Sunshine Coast over these recent autumn weeks. In coming weeks, I look forward to leading children through this butterfly labyrinth and link together for them these aspects of our local environment and Christian spirituality. Enjoy this one and a half minute video of the construction process. Thanks to the Pacific Early Learning Centre Director Julie McCosker and of course my daughter Ella.
In these times of the coronavirus pandemic, when school, as we know it, has been fundamentally changed through a distributive model of online learning, mindful meditative practices are being renewed in creative ways. It can be challenging to do this through digital technology, but it is an opportunity to think of different ways to centre and ground ourselves and our students for the sake of everyone's well-being. Two ways I have used labyrinths creatively to cater for students who are learning at home and school via a screen is through finger labyrinths and a virtual labyrinth walk.
Pictured below is a Finger Labyrinth that I used with staff over Zoom for a devotion at the end of last term. It was the season of Lent, so the apt words of Philippians 2:8 were used; "Christ humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!". Staff were then invited whether in their offices, workstations or at home to either touch their screen and trace the labyrinth to the centre of the cross or to use their mouse and cursor to trace the path. Then when they had reached the centre, they could take three deep breaths before tracing their way back out of the cross. It was great to use the technology in such a tangible way to slow people down, let them breathe, and meditate on the way of the cross of Christ. In my next post, I will share the virtual labyrinth I have created. Thanks to Flame Creative Children's Ministry for permission to share this image: http://flamecreativekids.blogspot.com/2012/05/finger-labyrinths.html
In these anxious times of the corona-virus pandemic, pausing, taking a breath and centering ourselves on God is so important. The rate of change in the day to day life of schools for the end of this first term has been mind-blowing. Teachers and staff have been amazingly open to the huge demands put on them, especially in the area of upskilling their digital technology capabilities. In what looks like a totally new technology driven learning environment for students and staff next term, taking regular breaks from screens and connecting with our bodies will be necessary for everyone's well-being.
With this in mind I have created a devotional resource for staff and possibly secondary students based around the ancient concept of breath prayers (thanks to Steph Maher from LEQ for the idea!). There are lots of mindfulness and well-being resources floating around at the moment but there is not much mindfulness material that uses biblical passages and the promises of God. These breath prayers link a focus on our breath with succinct phrases from the scriptures. I have put them into a PowerPoint Presentation with guided audio on each slide. Below is a taste of what I have created with introductions and the whole script of ten prayers. If you are interested in the whole collection of breath prayers for a ten week term click here Staff Devotions.
The following Ash Wednesday devotional piece I wrote for our college newsletter .
One of the things I love doing in my garden is composting. After several months with a bit of patience, I can make rich compost from my kitchen scraps, garden trimmings and lawn clippings. Then I have the pleasure of digging the earthy humus back into my vegetable beds or flowerpots. It is extremely satisfying to reuse organic material from my household and with the help of decomposition, re-enter it into the environment through more fertile soil. This enriched soil then helps me to grow more flourishing flowers, plants and vegetables. Soil and compost are so important for our environment, our care of creation, our food supply and it is also important in teaching us how God acts in the world.
This week our community at Pacific celebrated the beginning of Lent with a focus on Ash Wednesday in chapels. Students and staff had the opportunity to have dirt on their heads; ash put on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. This ritual act was accompanied by the words; “remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” Ash, dust, dirt, these elements all remind us of how vitally connected we are with the soil and how all life that has been created by God will eventually decompose and return to the soil. This was God’s message to Adam in Genesis 3:19 that he would return to the ground where God had made him. Composting is part of God’s plan for the world and shows us that new life, new growth, is coming.
The American poet and farmer Wendell Berry says that soil is Christ-like. Christ-like because it constantly welcomes death and turns it into new life. That was God’s point in sending Jesus to us, to show us that his pattern for the world is to work through death to bring us resurrection. New life and hope can sprout and flourish from what was decaying and dying. One soil scientist, after years of research, concluded that our soil is unexplainably mysterious in how it keeps on turning matter into new life and feeds and nourishes the world. Composting and connecting with the ground we live on is good for our gardens, our environment and for us spiritually. Getting our hands and heads dirty is not such a bad thing. In fact, it can be a God thing when it connects us with Christ who grows new life in us.
Have a blessed Lent and enjoy a garden and composting if you can.
Katherine Thompson, Christ Centred Mindfulness; Connection to Self and God, Acorn Press, Sydney: 2018. (196 pages)
Below is a review of Thompson's book that I wrote for the Lutheran Theological Journal, December 2019, Volume 53, No 3.
At last, an Australian Christian perspective of the loaded dog that is the ‘M’ word; Mindfulness! As the title of this work suggests, the central question Katherine Thompson asks of the ‘M’ word is, can it be Christ centred? Can a person of the Christian faith accept and use mindfulness practices wholeheartedly? Thompson, a Mental Health Social Worker, Research Fellow, and theologically literate Christian, is well qualified and clinically experienced to address this topic. She sympathetically yet at times critically helps readers navigate a way through the ‘mindfulness maze’ as she calls it.
Thompson understands mindfulness “as a way of using all our senses, and the quiet part of our mind, to connect well to both our internal and external world.” Such mindfulness, she claims, “does not need to be rooted in Buddhist meditation but can be based in Christian practices such as silence, rest and prayer. These things help us to slow down, connect to what is happening inside ourselves and make space to listen to God’s guiding in everyday life.” (p.4) However, Thompson argues that mindfulness can quickly lose any accepted meaning and become divorced from its original context especially in its secular adaptations. Two examples she gives of this dislocation are secondary students in Australia who are encouraged to learn mindfulness through apps like “Smiling Minds” so that they perform better in the stress of exams. And the American military who have training in mindfulness so that personnel optimise combat performance.
Thompson states that her purpose is to:
In the first part on navigating popular mindfulness, Thompson delves into the science behind four psychotherapies:
In the second part on exploring our Christian roots, Thompson explores what could be called mindfulness elements in the Bible with headings such as; meditation on the scriptures in the Old Testament, prayer in the New Testament, the surrender of the will, abiding in love, the Holy Spirit and breath, and the resurrection life of Christ. Through exploring these elements of the biblical witness she posits “there is a deep connection between the concept of meditating and the habit of reflecting on Scripture in all that we do each day so that we live the life God intends us to experience in relationship with him.” (p.80). Through his teaching on prayer, Jesus challenges us to listen to what God is saying to surrender our will, follow him and love God and the people around us. “The gift of the Holy Spirit challenges our thoughts, feelings and behaviour as well as bringing power for transformation” (p.81). Thompson then explores the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages; the Cloud of Unknowing, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Brother Lawrence. For Thompson, these four mystic traditions teach us that to pray and connect with God, we need to have “an equally strong awareness of self” (p.99). She then extends this thinking by discussing the thought of modern Christian contemplatives like Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and Dallas Willard. Drawing on their works Thompson believes there is a form of mindfulness that can be Christ-centred which is founded on the surrender of our will and love for God and others as Christ renews our mind.
In the third part of the book practising Christ-centred mindfulness, Thompson outlines in concrete ways what a Christ-centred mindfulness might look, sound, feel, smell and taste like. Interwoven throughout this section are practical exercises that highlight her Christ-centred mindfulness approach. These exercises involve scripture, the senses, the body, acceptance commitment skills in regards to our feelings, contemplative prayer, lectio divina and Ignatian spiritual exercises.
While positive of the Christian contemplative connections, Thompson is critical of the way western culture has unthinkingly adapted Buddhist meditation for therapeutic use. She argues that assimilating Buddhist mindfulness practices into our daily lives can be problematic and possibly lead to syncretism if we don’t recognise the worldview behind it. She acknowledges that mindfulness “has become another commodity that our Western culture uses to improve itself to get ahead. It has become self-centred, a personal possession that can be used for our own end to get relief from physical and psychological symptoms, divorced from its true context, devoid of any significant meaning” turned into a consumeristic McMindfulness in effect (p.20-21). Thompson is balanced in her appreciation of the contemporary contribution of Christian contemplatives. She acknowledges the work of Merton, Rohr and Willard in broadening meditation and contemplative prayer beyond the individual to participate in God’s action in the world but names some Catholic understandings of God and Rohr’s approach as a little too liberal for her at times (p.118).
For my Lutheran way of thinking, I would have appreciated an exploration into how the cross connects with the author’s view of Christ-centred mindfulness. How would a theologian of the cross interpret the mindfulness of being present with suffering? How does a cross-centred mindfulness help a person grow and learn through one’s own wounds and pain? This would have been extremely beneficial for the reader as Thompson herself admits at one point that she writes from personal experience of being a sufferer of severe chronic pain.
As a college pastor in a Lutheran School, I have found this to be a welcome and much-needed resource. In the school setting where positive psychology, mindfulness and wellbeing programs and interventions can take over the pastoral care of staff and students, psychological evidence-based work like this that reconnects us to what is already present in the Christian tradition yet does not dismiss that good that can be found in mindfulness, is refreshing. As anyone who regularly works with and cares for children and teenagers knows anything that is going to help the anxiety and depression epidemic of young people is needed for the sake of improving their mental health and wellbeing.
I would certainly recommend this work for school pastors, teachers, aged care chaplains, people who work in agencies of the church where mindfulness programs are practised and are a part of their culture of care. Also for people who are interested in the contemplative practices of the church and those who have questions about mindfulness, in general, this is a great place to start.
This year I have had the joy of walking the labyrinth with our college kindy kids. Three of four times a term starting in term two I have led our two kindy age groups through a simple temporary spiral labyrinth. To do this I have shifted some furniture in the two kindy studios then used my labyrinth making tape dispenser on the floor to make a four, five or six spiral labyrinth. Then when the kids are ready and sitting on the floor together I pray with them or tell a bible story as an introduction. Then I position myself on a small stool at the entrance of the labyrinth with a chime. I ask the kids to wait until they hear the chime before they walk. Once they get into the centre they are invited if they wish to close their eyes and take three deep breaths before they walk the same way out again. It's been amazing to see how these young children each walk the labyrinth in their own way but also how engaged they can be in walking it, slowing down, practicing stillness, and being mindful of the silence and their breathing. With modelling and repetition even the youngest of the three year olds have been able to do it and find meaning and benefit. Check out this PowerPoint presentation which shows how I have been doing it at Pacific Early Learning Centre. Thank you Julie McCosker our ELS Director and the Kindy families for permission to use these photos and videos.
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. Psalm 62:5
Silence and us, silence and noise, silence and technology and now we finish with silence and God.
One writer on Christian spirituality, Richard Foster says; silence sometimes involves the absence of speech; it always involves the act of listening. (Foster: 123). If you focus on the word ‘silent’ for a moment, if you rearrange the letters in the word ‘silent’, it contains the same letters as the word ‘listen’. That’s the point of experiencing silence as a spiritual practice or discipline. That’s how silence is connected to God. We can refrain from talking for any number of reasons, but when we are silent, we can enter the space in which we can listen to God and God speaks to us. When the clamouring voices or thoughts in our minds are stilled, we listen to the word of God, whose presence can nurture and restore our souls.
Benedict, the 6th century mystic and father of western monasticism, came up with seventy-three rules for living in community, rules that Benedictines still practise today. The very first words of the Rule of St Benedict are, listen by inclining the ear of your heart. There is great wisdom here, moving beyond our tongues and ears, to deeper down to our hearts. When our hearts are open to listening to God, Christ can grow in us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “Life Together”; silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing. But everybody knows that this is something that needs to be practised and learned, in these days when talkativeness prevails. Real silence, real stillness, really holding one’s tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness. (Life Together: 60). Being still before God, practising silence, is a gift to use when we come to hear the Bible, but how often do we do this? How often are our times of reading the Bible or hearing the Bible being read to us accompanied by times of silence? Stillness, silence, is an appropriate way to come to God’s Word. For by inclining the ear of our heart to the word of the Lord, we will hear God speak to us.
Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.
A question that is asked by some Christians of a certain theological bent is can a follower of Christ use a pagan thing like a labyrinth? For me, this question betrays certain theological assumptions and a particular worldview, but it is nonetheless a valid, worthwhile and essential question to ask if you have a labyrinth in your campsite, school, aged care facility or church.
My response as someone who has led hundreds of people through the labyrinth and attended labyrinth conferences with Pagans, Wiccans and Christians alike would be; no, the labyrinth in and of itself is not a pagan thing. What makes an object pagan, Christian or Callithumpian is how it is used, what content is used with it, and for what purpose? For me as a college pastor in a Lutheran school I am enthusiastic about students and staff experiencing the labyrinth because it is an opportunity for them, especially people who have little connection with traditional forms of church, to experience a spiritual practice which can be focused on Christ, scripture, prayer and contemplation. These deeply Christian practices are part and parcel of labyrinth walks I lead.
Yes, the labyrinth is a unique thing used by people of differing and sometimes pagan spiritualities. Yes, the labyrinth has been used by many cultures for different purposes throughout the history of the world such as fertility rituals and to ward off evil. And yes, the labyrinth has been used by Christians from the time of the early church to the medieval cathedrals of western Europe and to the many and varied places they are now built.
It is not the place alone that determines the spirituality of the labyrinth but the purpose of walking it and the content used to enable that person to walk it meaningfully and receive something from it. A Christian organisation that uses a labyrinth to encourage faith in Christ, prayer, meditation in the scriptures is using the labyrinth in a God honouring way that is not pagan or idolatrous.
When faced with this question of the appropriateness of the labyrinth for Christians, it is crucial to be mindful of Paul’s advice to Timothy in the New Testament Church. In the first five verses of First Timothy chapter four Paul reminds us of this theological reality; nothing in all of God’s good creation is intrinsically evil in and of itself. In these verses Paul writes that some Christians will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons through the hypocrisy of liars who forbid certain practices which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. He then goes on to say that everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected…for it is sanctified, made holy, by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
The labyrinth does not have any power over people. It does not have any evil, malicious intent. Nearly all people who use the labyrinth whatever their spiritual background would say that the labyrinth is for healing people and bringing blessing to their lives. What is important for the faithful Christian though is that the labyrinth is used with scripture and prayer to encourage its walker to centre on Jesus Christ.
About this site
"Meditations & Musings" is my humble attempt to share what I have found useful in ministry in an Australian Lutheran School setting. It contains chapels, devotions and other resources I have written, used and adapted in my K-12 school context. If you would like to also share your ideas, resources or start a conversation about mission and ministry in your church- school location, feel free to contact me.
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