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22 June 2012

Being still in a busy world

by Shaun Lambert

We all live in a busy world and suffer from time stress which is a silent killer.   People are desperately seeking practices that will help them relax, de-stress and be still.

It has led to a phenomenal spiritual revival in our culture, with people turning to psychological and Buddhist forms of mindfulness practice - using meditation to develop present-moment awareness.

Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn's pioneering book Full Catastrophe Living about coping with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation has sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide. The new wave of cognitive therapy is mindfulness-based.

However, Christian related concepts such as watchfulness and Christian contemplative practices like the slow meditative reading of Scripture known as Lectio Divina, practicing the presence of God, prayers such as the Jesus Prayer, biblical meditation, silence and solitude have not featured in the market-place, and this new cultural quest for interior freedom is only on the periphery of the Church's awareness.

It shouldn't be. Watchfulness, attentive hearing and seeing are an integral part of the gospel Jesus taught.

Mindfulness is a universal human capacity for awareness, and there are Buddhist, psychological and Christian theories about this capacity; there are also Buddhist, psychological and Christian practices that develop mindful awareness.

Mindfulness is a biblical word and the distinctive heart of Christian mindfulness is Romans 12:2: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." This includes taking "captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5) and moving from forgetting to remembering/being mindful of God through an intense gaze into the perfect mirror of God's Word (James 1:25).

Since 2006 I have been researching mindfulness within Buddhism and psychology, as well as overlapping concepts in Christianity – and we can be confident in the evangelistic potential of this lost aspect of the gospel.

Neuroscientific research shows contemplation and mindful awareness practices are good for us.

Leading neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has written a book with Mark Waldman called How God Changes Your Brain. He is not a religious person, but having brain-scanned Franciscan Nuns and Buddhist practitioners, he believes meditative, mindful and contemplative practices change the brain for the better.

Having researched this area for the last seven years I have written A Book of Sparks – A Study of Christian MindFullness, as an introduction to transformative Christian contemplative practices.  

Many of our neighbours are Hindus and others are influenced by Buddhist thought, and so in our church we are using the book as a tool of contemplative evangelism. One of our Hindu friends from our Healing on the Streets ministry has bought a copy because he is interested in stillness.

I recently did a seminar at the church aimed at seekers and Christians on the topic 'How God Changes Your Brain for the better through contemplative practices', looking at the neuroscientific and gospel evidence. More than 30 people attended, including three friends and neighbours who don't normally attend church. This is using science in a missional way.

We can also be confident in contemplation as part of the gospel because it's working as outreach in other Christian streams. After the BBC broadcast The Monastery programme in May 2005, where five ordinary men spent 40 days in a contemplative way of life, Worth Abbey, where the series was filmed had 40,000 hits on their website from spiritual seekers.  Contemplative evangelism had been reborn.  

The final reason we can be confident in contemplative evangelism as part of the gospel is that the silent cry of God is at work in our culture drawing people towards silence and stillness.

As so much of our spirituality and ministry is activist, the wider Church needs to catch up with God. The final distinctive of Christian mindfulness, and a dimension missing from non-Christian versions of mindfulness, is an awareness of the presence of God. We can thus distinguish between Christian and other versions through a new spelling of the word – calling it Christian mindFullness, our minds filled with all the fullness of God.

Shaun Lambert is Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church. He is the author of A Book of Sparks – A Study in Christian MindFullness