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I’m the author of multiple books, including the Kindle bestsellers A Christian Survival Guide; Pray, Write, Grow; Coffeehouse Theology; and Write without Crushing Your Soul. I freelance (mostly book editing, author coaching, and website content) and write books in Columbus, OH.

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Believing God Exists Isn’t Enough for Prayer

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I’ve spent so much time worrying about whether or not God exists that I overlooked a more important question. If I believe that God exists, do I believe in a God that I would approach in prayer?

Another way to ask that would be: If I believe in God, do I believe in a loving, merciful God who wants nothing more than for me to pray? Or do I let my imagination create images of an angry, violent, and petty God who is waiting for me to finally mess up enough to justify banishing me from his presence forever?

That latter image haunted my prayers for years. Whenever I struggled to pray, I told myself, “Well, this is it. You’ve finally done it. God has finally turned away from you, and there’s no hope. Prayer may work for other people, but it won’t work for you.”

By imagining a God who could take me or leave me, waiting to strike me down, or to cast me away at the slightest infraction, I made it extremely hard to pray. If I can’t imagine God liking me, let alone loving me and seeing me with compassion and mercy, it’s awfully hard to begin to pray.

Perhaps we struggle to reconcile the God of Hebrew Bible who throws down thunder, hail stones, and fire from the heavens. Perhaps we can’t reconcile those stories with the proclamations of the Psalms:

The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.
Psalm 103:8

I don’t know how to create a theological system that seamlessly accounts for these stories and comfortably fits them in with the many verses in the Psalms and prophets where God is described as merciful, compassionate, full of love, and loving for his people like a jilted lover.

Here’s what I do know: the people who seek God in prayer have found more love, mercy, and compassion than they ever would have guessed. When the mystics write about the presence of God, there is awe and even a bit of fear at times, but God is love, compassion and mercy.

The people who have dedicated their lives to prayer overwhelming reveal that the God we seek is the kind of God we would want to seek.

That isn’t to say that our faults or sins aren’t a big deal. Anyone who believes in the cross and resurrection would recognize that these are important problems that God himself has set out to resolve. The point for me is not minimizing my faults, it’s seeing the largeness of God’s love, mercy, and compassion.

My mistake wasn’t underestimating the seriousness of sin; it was underestimating how deeply God loves us.

Over and over again in the Gospels, I see Jesus telling people that God is more loving and merciful than they expect, that more people are welcome than they suspect, and that the supposed barriers between people and God are actually not holding anyone back.

Perhaps the greatest struggle for Christians today isn’t believing God exists, it’s believing that God is merciful.

We do ourselves no good if we believe in a God that we fear, a God we dare not approach, or a God who is so terrible that we fail to open our deepest fears and pains to him.

In the vast reserves of God’s love and mercy, there is room for us to come as we are and to seek healing and restoration. The greatest obstacle to God’s mercy is believing that it exists and applies even to you and to me.

 

What If We Defined Success as Freedom?

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How many times have I made myself miserable by focusing on my unfulfilled hopes and desires?

How often have I stayed put for fear of appearing like a failure?

When haven’t I said that I’m not enough or not doing enough in order to meet a certain measure for success?

Sometimes life feels like an endless race where I just keep moving the finish line for myself. All it takes is a bit of unchecked envy or comparison to make me realize I’m doing everything wrong, am in danger of appearing as a failure, and at risk of being a lonely isolated failure forever. So I squint my eyes hard to look at that finish line and commit to work harder than anyone else in order to reach it before people learn THE TRUTH about me.

A New Standard for Success

Let’s forget that finish line for a second. Let’s forget what everyone else is doing.

What if that finish line for success and the fear of being found out as a fraud is actually holding you in bondage? What if the allure of freedom through success, money, influence, etc. is just a fleeting mirage of our consumer society? What if the people who appear to be on top are actually MORE TRAPPED than we are because they have all of the same fears as us and they need to maintain the appearance of having it all together?

I’m done with defining success as a particular accomplishment that we can measure with material possessions or online analytics.

Let’s define success as freedom.

Do you know that God loves you deeply and has sent you to love others?

Are you creating space in each day to rest in that love and in the presence of God?

Are you sharing that love and freedom in some way? Are you free to love your family and friends?

I’ve lived under the weight of anxiety, fear, and performing for others for far too long. Sure, there are many things that I can legitimately fear, but fear and scarcity become lifestyles that rob us of the gifts we should enjoy.

If you’re looking to define yourself or your day as a success, let’s ask this question: Am I living in freedom?

God Offers What We Need

The Gospel message that I have given my life to is about freedom, freedom in Christ and freedom through the Spirit. Our lives are hidden away in Christ and Christ lives in us. We have been set free for the purpose of freedom. This is the anthem of the Gospels and Epistles where Jesus and Paul repeatedly argued with people who wanted to add behavior requirements and mandatory rituals for followers of Jesus. Paul clearly stated that we don’t live in the freedom of Christ by subjecting ourselves to yet another written code.

The love of God frees us to love and serve others. There is a cost of following Christ, but there is also tremendous freedom as we drop the crushing weight of pursuing success and trying to identify ourselves by what we can earn or the influence we can gain.

It is extremely problematic to define ourselves by the flimsy judgments of others and the forces of the market.

I can’t do anything to make God love me more.

I can’t do anything to improve upon the freedom that God gives.

I can only choose to accept God’s freedom by faith and lean into it each day. That is where the real struggle of spirituality comes in for me.

Are You Thirsty for God? Then You Are In!

Each day I can either seek the presence of God and move toward freedom or I can seek outward measures of my worth and success. I can start to look at everything I haven’t achieved or I can rest in all that God has given me.

The good news is that even if we face this struggle daily, we can turn things around. We can stop the fear, anxiety, and longing for something, anything other than what we have.

Instead of working harder, getting more efficient, or adopting new ways to schedule productive days, we can opt out of the crazy, soul-crushing system. We can take the ultimate leap of faith into a moment of silence where we believe that God calls out to us: All who are thirsty, come!

 

What’s Your Next Step?

Keep in touch via my newsletter where I’ll share more “off the record” thoughts on prayer, writing, and caring for your soul. Sign up and receive two FREE bestselling eBooks.

Does this describe at least part of your writing career? Check out my book: Write without Crushing Your Soul. The eBook is usually between $1.99 and $3.99 on Kindle.

Dig deeper with some helpful books: Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond and Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly are among the most helpful books I’ve read.

 

 

Why Jesus Needed to Pray

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I’m not 100% certain about all of the reasons why Jesus needed to pray. The thing is, once I start asking why a member of the Trinity would find it necessary to pray for long stretches of time, it makes me wonder if I’m still missing something about prayer.

Why do I pray?

I pray out of fear or a sense of need.

I pray because I feel distant from God.

I pray because I hope to intercede on someone else’s behalf.

I pray to let go of circumstances.

I pray to say thank you—that is, if I’ve managed to loosen my grip on a situation long enough to wait on God.

You could say that my prayer life is very result-focused. I have an outcome or goal in mind. Even my moments of quiet prayer have a goal of sorts in mind. That’s not necessarily wrong. We are told to make our requests known to God and to even be as persistent as a woman who wakes up an unjust judge in the middle of the night in order to plead her case.

There’s an untiring tenacity that the writers of the Bible use to describe prayer over and over again. It’s not wrong to say that prayer can be result-focused. The difference is this: I wonder if sometimes I’ve made the mistake of ONLY being result-focused with prayer.

From the 40 days in the wilderness to the all-night prayer-a-thons that pop up throughout Jesus’ ministry, we can’t possibly think he spent the entire night making requests or saying thank you for things. There’s every reason to believe that he spent significant amounts of time before God in silence, especially since the Psalms, which many Jews had memorized, instructed him to do just that when praying.

I recognize that we’re well into the territory of speculation, but it’s reasonable speculation with a Biblical precedent. It’s not outlandish to presume that Jesus spent long stretches of time simply sitting, kneeling, or standing in stillness before God.

Such prayer leaves the agenda up to God, and nothing at all may happen. Then again, everything could happen. It’s not about what we say, think, or do. There’s no special incantation or procedure that you have to get “just right.” There’s just you and God and a quiet stretch of time that is open to the Spirit.

I suspect that Jesus craved this time with God the Father so much that he was willing to lose an entire night of sleep in order to make it happen. That strikes me on one level as a mind-blowing level of commitment since I’m a sleep deprived parent of young kids. And yet, many people who work out or pursue a serious hobby often sacrifice sleep in order to make it happen in the early or late hours of the day.

The same benefit of writing or running in the still, silence of the morning can be found in a late night prayer time that commits to both speak and listen to God the Father. I suspect that Jesus craved the simple, singular focus of his attention to God the Father. He knew that his days were filled with people making requests, asking hard questions, and traveling throughout territories that were sometimes hostile. Each day presented new challenges and conversations that were no doubt exhausting physically and could leave little time to focus solely on the Father.

There was nothing in the middle of the night that could pull his attention away from the Father. While I don’t know exactly how the Trinity works or how things lined up while Jesus was incarnated on earth, the simple answer is that Jesus craved uninterrupted attentiveness to the Father.

While surrounded with so many people who either misunderstood him and his mission or outright opposed him and even plotted his death, Jesus found his rest in solitude with the Father.

As an American, I’m obsessed with growth, progress, and results. I want things I can measure. I want to work on stuff and excel.

I desperately need to imagine Jesus venturing away from the city in order to find the quiet he needed in order to meet with the Father. I need to imagine him sitting down and letting go of the questions, controversies, and needs that surrounded him nearly every waking minute. In that solitude he is attentive to the Father without distraction, and like a warm breeze drifting from the nearby sea, his Father’s love settles over him.

The Gifts of a Cold Sandwich and a Book Released in Tragedy

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During the first day of the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing, I picked up my disappointing boxed lunch in a mostly deserted lobby at the arts building of Calvin College and regretted my decision. While everyone else I knew was going out for lunch, I was going to sit on a step and eat a cold sandwich by myself.

Way to network, champ!

Just as I was about to give up, I noticed an empty seat in a sitting area where five women were eating their equally cold and disappointing boxed lunches. I fought through my social anxiety and struggles with small talk, took the empty seat, and immediately introduced myself to the woman next to me.

Things started to look up immediately.

“Are you the Ed Cyzewski who runs the Women in Ministry series?” a woman across from me asked.

“That’s me,” I replied, relieved that the ice had been broken so fast.

It turned out that this woman, Angie Mabry-Nauta, is a pastor and had really appreciated the series on my blog where I hosted stories of women serving in ministry—a way that I hoped to outflank the tiring “women in ministry” debate. The woman sitting next to her was Christie Purifoy, a blogger and, at that time, aspiring author who had a freaky number of things in common with me.

  • Christie has a PhD in English Literature, the very degree that my wife has been working on.
  • Christie was pregnant and had a nearly identical due date as my own wife, who was pregnant with our first son at the time.
  • Christie also had plans to buy a house in the Philadelphia area, which happens to be my home town.

I exchanged business cards with Angie and Christie, found them on social media, and have since stayed in touch. Christie and I further connected as fellow writers on the Deeper Story website, which is no longer active.

Around two years ago Christie contacted me with some big news. She was finally sending out a book proposal to a literary agent. I enthusiastically read through her proposal and was completely riveted with her prose and story telling.

I’m terrible at endorsements and reviews, especially when I enjoy the book. Do I say it’s a TOUR DE FORCE!? A majestic triumph for the ages!!!!?? I can’t quite figure out the right tone and word choice for these things. It’s MUCH eaiser to be critical, right?

Truth be told, I’m picky, oh so terribly picky, about memoir. 80% of the memoirs that I pick up, I put down before the half way point. I don’t need simple, every day events imbued with embellished life-altering meaning. You ate a piece of bread and you thought some deep thoughts. Get over it and tell me something worth reading.

I’m the ultimate “get off my lawn” memoir reader.

Having said that, when I love a memoir, I really love it. For just a small sample:

When We Were on Fire? Amazing.

Any Day a Beautiful Change? Perfect.

Girl Meets God? Beautiful.

Tables in the Wilderness? I hate you, Preston.

Coming Clean? Breaks my brain.

So when I picked up Christie’s sample chapters for her new book, Roots & Sky, I found artful prose and engaging description of the everyday without unnecessary embellishment. She opens up about the simple longings and desires we all experience and invites us to sit with her over tea or to take a stroll in her garden to talk it over. It’s perhaps cliché these days to say that a book “helps you find God in the everyday events of life,” but this book takes a very unique, artful spin on that concept that I found engaging and enjoyable.

I could not be more enthusiastic about this book, but just as Christie should be celebrating this beautiful book, tragedy struck her family. Christie’s brother-in-law, the husband of her sister, was one of the 12 Marines who appears to have perished in a helicopter crash off the coast of Hawaii. Christie has set off to Hawaii in order to comfort her sister and her four nieces and nephews.

I can’t imagine what Christie, her sister, and the rest of the family are going through during this time of tremendous loss. Perhaps as you read this post, which is being posted on Friday, January 22, 2016, the families will be attending a memorial service for the Marines.

Would you like to help Christie and her family at this time?

First of all, I know that they would all deeply covet your prayers—prayers for God to be near those who are grieving so deeply, prayers for God’s provision for this family, prayers for these children who have lost their father at so young an age, and prayers that God will sustain Christie at this time as she comforts and grieves.

Secondly, as Christie has stepped back to serve her family, a group of authors, bloggers, and friends have stepped up to help get the word out about this book. While there is undeniable tragedy and pain in this world, authors and artists like Christie are creating beauty, and we don’t want to lose sight of that. Here are some ways you can help:

Order your own copy of Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons. (pre-orders are especially helpful)

Post a brief review on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. Reviews are critical since so many people buy books online.

Share this book with your network: Check out this new memoir: Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by @ChristiePurifoy http://buff.ly/1Ta6PLz.

I’m trusting that God is going to bless a lot of folks through this book, and I can’t wait for you to read it for yourself!

The Worst Has Already Happened and It’s Going to Be OK

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Failure, rejection, isolation: these are just a few of the things I fear on a day to day basis. Perhaps I don’t even take the time to reflect on what I fear the most. Fear can simmer in the back of my mind.

In our work, in our relationships, and in our spirituality, we often fear the worst happening.

I fear that no one will care about my next book.

I fear that the people I respect will reject me or, worse, ignore me.

I fear not having close friendships while everyone else has tight-knit communities who rally around them and cheer them on.

Writing has pushed me to face these limits in so many ways on a regular basis. On many occasions the worst has happened. I’ve faced all of these fears, and without a doubt they have left me devastated, sad, and despairing about the future.

Then something unexpected happened: the sun rose on another day, and another after that.

I didn’t really have any choice in the matter. I had to figure out what to do next.

I may have endured some of these struggles quietly, but don’t mistake that for handling them gracefully.

Facing failure, seeing my worst fears come to life again and again, and staring into the vast expanse of loneliness for long seasons pushed me to also see all of the unhealthy ways I’d relied on flimsy crutches to keep myself standing. Things such as the validation of the crowd or of specific authors and editors were given far too much weight in determining the value of my work and my progress in my calling.

Rejection today does not mean it’s inevitable for next year or five years from now if I keep working and try something different.

Most striking, the perspective I’ve gained after facing my worst fears revealed to me that so many of my worst fears were already realized long before I thought I was facing them. In many cases I lived in either delusion or ignorance, and it took falling on my face dramatically to finally remove my own blinders.

I saw the hard truth: while I feared that readers would be apathetic about my work, I could finally see in hindsight that very few people cared about my writing when I started out, and rightfully so. I needed a lot of time to work on it and to build deeper connections.

I don’t know how to avoid starting off so fragile. I know that the number one fear of bloggers is that no one will read their posts. So many don’t start because of this fear. I worked at my blog for several years without seeing much traction. It was the worst.

Then the sun came up again and again and again. I tried something different, and things finally started moving forward. I could point to several different factors, but perhaps I most needed to fail before I could figure out the right way forward.

With so many things in life we have to ditch the narrative of steady progress. Writing has showed me that it’s more like a series of wrong turns, crashes, and stretches of progress. I’ve been all over the map, and I don’t think I could truly move forward until I finally felt stuck, lost, or banged up beyond usefulness.

I had to be jarred from my daydream. It took failure to make me realize just how tough things were at the outset. And yet, once I saw how bad things were, I finally saw that things could may be OK if I kept moving forward.

I have no doubt now that the bad days will come again and again. I also know that there will be good days and even days of slow, incremental progress. I know that I have a calling to write, but that doesn’t guarantee a smooth trip forward.

Writing has served as a kind of lab for living. It has given me a much higher tolerance for pain and failure in other areas of my life. I am learning that I may fail others at times in relationships, but I can make progress in being more considerate or less controlling. I may really hate the first three months of running, but at a certain point I’ll start to crave my weekday runs. I may really struggle to focus for five minutes during prayer, but if I keep failing and trying month after month, I can build myself up to 20 minutes of quiet meditation that feel far more natural—and needed.

I still fear plenty of things. Worry is a lifestyle or habit that I’m learning to break. Some days I fail dramatically at trusting God with my worries and cares. I’m grateful that I’ve failed enough to know that tomorrow promises another day to take a step forward.

Can Parents Ruthlessly Eliminate Hurry from Their Lives?

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I read once that in the early days of his ministry at Willow Creek Community Church, pastor John Ortberg contacted a spiritual leader for advice (I think it was Dallas Willard).

“What do I need to do to be spiritually healthy?” Ortberg asked.

Long pause.

“You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life,” he said at last.

That’s it. Willard refused to add anything else to his advice—not even a footnote.

That concept sounded challenging when I only had to manage myself and my anxiety-ridden mind. Now we have kids, and hurry just feels like the baseline for every day.

Before the birth of our first son, I asked a mother of three (now four) about the ways that having a kid changes your day-to-day life.

Her eyes grew big. “The nap,” she said. “Everything revolves around the nap.”

I only have two kids, but her advice has proven true thus far. Most days I can only make the nap happen if I hurry.

If you’ve ever seen a young kid completely losing it in a store, red-faced bawling and throwing everything while shrieking, “NOOOOO!!!!”, you have most likely seen evidence of either a late nap or no nap. Not every time, mind you, but this is a typical outcome for nap-less child.

I consider myself a spiritual or contemplative writer. I also spend about half of each day with our kids. Hurry feels essential to the latter even if it’s toxic for the former.

Most days it’s on me to get the kids home in time for their naps, preparing lunch, finding what they need for nap time, and setting things up for a smooth transition for when my wife comes home to put the oldest down for a nap.

If I’m late, there’s no wiggle room. Lunch is a long, slow, messy disaster where the older child spills milk frequently, food is chewed up and then thrown by the younger child, and both require constant prodding to take the next bite.

You could say that each day is like a stack of dominos where falling off course at an early point in the day makes it that much harder to knock out the next thing.

If the kids are late for lunch, then I can expect that they’re late for their naps, I’m late to my work, the chance of at least one kid having a melt down increases, the chance of short or skipped naps increases, and then an afternoon of over-tired and cranky kids increases.

There’s no single moment that is a make or break scene. A late nap isn’t a guarantee that the wheels will fall off. It’s more like you’ve loosened up the lug nuts on the wheels and taken a high-speed drive on a bumpy road.

In order to make the nap happen I have to manage the prodding of my children throughout the morning. If we’re going to the children’s science museum and still have time for lunch, the ideal is to leave the house by 9:30 am, and the prodding always includes negotiating, cleaning up spills, and multiple threats. The journey from the parking lot to the ticket desk to the play area requires SIGNIFICANT prodding to stay on track. Then the play time is followed by more prodding to get a snack and more prodding to get all the way back to the car and then, hopefully, a little prodding to get into the house.

I know that my tendency is to be a hurried, up-tight, no-nonsense parent. While we can’t stop and look at every single display in the science museum hallway, I began to wonder this fall if I needed to work on cutting back on the hurry in my life. I started to notice that plenty of parents bring their kids 5-10 minutes late for pre-school. Yes, our son prefers to be there early, but that has yet to translate into cooperation when leaving the house without a long list of conditions and needs.

There are times when we genuinely need to move faster in order to get the kids home in time to eat and then sleep. However, hurry has also become a default setting of sorts for myself.

Hurry becomes a lifestyle rather than an occasional tactic for moving kids in the right direction when time is of the essence.

I’m working on my awareness of hurry through my daily Examen practice. I want to know when I’m making too much of a small thing. I also want to extend grace to myself when I’m doing my best to handle a difficult situation.

I can feel the pull of hurry when I’m praying, meditating on scripture, reflecting on my day, or reading at the end of the day. There’s a pull to get this done and move on to the next thing.

With hurry, life becomes a production line where tasks need to be completed efficiently and production capacity is the only goal.

Hurry hates stillness and quiet.

Hurry hates “being” because it’s all about doing. Spirituality needs being in order to translate into doing.

Parents who want to cultivate a healthy spiritual life regularly face this gap between what spiritual leaders tell us we need and the meager scraps left in our days. This spiritual struggle while parenting small children is well documented in Micha Boyett’s book Found.

Must parents watch their spirituality whither away under the burden of hurry?

I’m very much in process here. I don’t have the answers. I do have an observation:

The spirit or mindset of hurry strikes me as a far greater threat rather than beating myself up over each time I have to hurry in order to keep our kids happy and sane.

I don’t want to let hurry become my default. I don’t want hurry to be a part of nearly every interaction with my kids.

And here’s the real kicker and perhaps the greatest trap of all: We can be in a hurry to get rid of… hurry.

I’ve been moving into a season of awareness and discernment about hurry. I don’t want to rush this. After all, I most likely became a hurried, worried parent gradually. What makes me think the solution will happen overnight?

I’m not in a hurry to address my struggles with hurry, and that feels like enough for today.

 

We Can’t Do God’s Work with the Devil’s Tools

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Let’s stop at the foot of the cross for a moment.

Let the xenophobic hate of politicians fade away.

Erase from your mind the rhetoric of those who cling to guns out of fear and suspicion of their neighbors.

Let’s bring our thoughts to the foot of the cross.

Look on God’s Son as he gasps for his final breaths in the company of criminals, soldiers, jeering holy men, a single friend, and his mother who has long ago run out of tears to shed.

He could call on the armies of heaven to defend himself, and yet he allowed the soldiers of a cruel army to torture him and put him to death in the most painful way possible.

He didn’t fight for a kingdom in this world.

With the nails in his hands and feet, hanging above the ground, he still pleaded for God’s mercy on his executioners: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

When we secretly wish he would finally fight back or at least intervene to save himself, Jesus continues to give to us. He gives us what we need the most when we are most violent, lost, and transfixed on power and control. He gives us mercy.

For people who wanted a violent militaristic God enough that they were willing to kill this would-be Messianic “imposter,” Jesus persisted beyond all reasonable hope to show mercy with his dying breath.

What kind of God would show mercy to his own executioners?

This is the same Jesus who described God as an all-forgiving Father, who came to drive away fear, and who came into our world not as a judge but as a doctor. He came to seek and to save those who were lost, and that included the Roman occupiers, the oppressed Jewish people, and their surrounding neighbors, whether hostile or friendly.

He reached out to us with mercy, compassion, and love that drove our fear, brought seeming opposites together, and offered restoration and hope to all willing to receive it.

The cross is for those who are devastated by the reckless messages of Christian leaders about embracing firearms as our only hope and draw applause by identifying entire religious groups as the enemy.

The cross is for those who preach these messages of hate and violence and applaud it even though they claim to represent the Prince of peace.

The cross is for those who use their imaginations to bring about restoration and reconciliation among former enemies.

The cross is for those fear foreigners and spread hate, and remain so lost in their survival instincts that they can only function by dehumanizing those they cannot understand.

The cross is for those who recognize that sensible gun laws could keep high capacity fire arms out of the hands of mass killers, just as they have in every other first world nation.

The cross is for those imprisoned by their obsession with personal security and personal rights to the point that they can’t see how their individualism is devastating communities that are flooded by firearms.

 

When Christians, especially Christian leaders, invest their imaginations and emotions thinking of all of the ways they could be shot or need to shoot others, we are abdicating our calling to pray and work toward mercy and peace as followers of the Prince of Peace.

Instead of imagining how our world could be peaceful and reaching out with prayer and action to make it so, we see followers of Jesus fixating on violence as the only solution. It’s as if they have no other choice, and that is the central problem.

I don’t necessarily condemn anyone who wants to defend himself or herself. That’s not for me to say. We all have a desire to defend ourselves and our loved ones, and I won’t say that’s a bad thing.

Rather, the problem here is the narrowness of so many Christians in their response to violence. Calling on Christians to arm themselves is a failure to nurture a different atmosphere—especially when Jesus did just this when he died on the cross, breathing words of mercy over his executioners.

The self-preservation mindset is toxic for Christians who are told to “die to themselves” and to carry their own crosses. Self-preservation tells us that the cross was well and good for Jesus, but it’s not for us.

We can’t cultivate an environment of fear, selfishness, and violence and expect God’s Kingdom to magically appear. Fear, violence, and selfishness work quite well for the devil, but we never see Jesus employing them for his cause.

Even more so, the cross tells us that our task is to pray for God’s mercy on our would-be attackers, mockers, accusers, and anyone else committed to promoting violence and hatred.

The cross offers hope to extremists in the Middle East, American bigots, and supposed Christian leaders who instruct their followers to pack heat because of their enemies instead of telling them to pray for their enemies. The cross is where state violence and bigotry face the full force of God’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

Christians who invest so much time in preparing to kill other people could stand to divert a bit of time and energy into praying for them and reflecting on what the cross means—especially when an emphasis on personal security is linked with marginalizing and imagining violence toward another group of people.

The cross is not a place where you should feel comfortable. It should disrupt and jar us. It should strike us as foolish and otherworldly, perhaps even impossible.

I don’t love the idea of Jesus facing his death with anguish, tears, and pleas for God to make it pass.

I don’t love the idea of Jesus accepting death rather than fighting back against the Romans.

I personally believe that I would do whatever I could to defend myself and my family if placed in a threatening situation.

These misgivings don’t absolve me from standing at the foot of the cross to pray for my enemies, to confess the ways my country has failed to champion peace (Especially with the 2003 Iraq war), to admit that my nation has done much to stoke the flames of extremism, and to pray that God will show mercy on all.

While the Romans who killed Jesus had no idea that they were killing the Prince of Peace, Jesus gave his last breath to pray for God’s mercy over them.

Jesus, on the contrary, knew exactly what he was doing. It’s up to us to stand by the cross to find out why he did it.

 

Carolyn Custis James Shares Why Our Notions of Manhood Matter

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What does the Bible have to say about gender roles and masculinity in particular? Most importantly, does the Bible’s message on these issues have any relevance to both local and global events? You’ll find plenty of weighty Biblical reflection on these questions in the new book from Carolyn Custis James: Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World.

I had a chance to preview the book and shared the following endorsement:

“Carolyn Custis James writes with urgency, clarity, and meticulous research about issues that don’t just concern every man, but relate to the health and stability of the entire church and our wider world. This is a call for men and women to live in the health and freedom of God’s calling for both genders”

Carolyn was gracious to respond to a series of questions about her new book:

 

What prompted you to write this book? 

My motivation for writing underwent a transformation in utero as it were. Initially, I wanted to tell the powerful stories of men in the Bible who have gone missing because they’ve been eclipsed by larger figures or downsized because we’ve viewed them through American eyes or a gendered lens. Men like Judah, Barak, Boaz, Joseph of Nazareth, and Matthew.

I thought it was time to take another look at these men.

As I began to research, my eyes were opened to a global male crisis of epic proportions—a powerful force that bears down on every man and boy as they battle to achieve and maintain their right to call themselves “a man.” Manhood, so it seems, is not a birthright. It must be earned by conforming to the prevailing definition of manhood in one’s particular culture. Definitions of manhood vary from culture to culture and tend to be a moving target in cultures like our own, where the definition changes from one generation to another and is never a one-size fits all definition. Inevitably some men and boys never make the grade.

The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species—causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons.”

Patriarchy (“father rule”) lies at the heart of the malestrom. Trace any of the malestrom’s currents. Inevitably you’ll end up looking at patriarchy—a fallen human system that bestows power, authority, privilege, and leadership on men over women and children and also over other men. It’s destructive impact plays out in devastating ways in the lives of both women and men.

Christians tend to avoid the subject except to promote certain aspects of patriarchy (a “kinder-gentler” version) deemed “biblical.” From what I was seeing, I couldn’t in good conscience sidestep putting patriarchy—an issue so deeply problematic (to put it mildly)—on the table. It isn’t overstating things to say every man and boy is a victim of the malestrom.

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Linking this male crisis to the maelstrom—those powerful whirlpools in the open sea known to drag hapless ships, crew, and cargo to the bottom of the sea—underscores the deadly seriousness of this crisis. When God’s sons forget who he created them to be and operate off-mission the effects are both devastating personally and catastrophic globally.

Here are just a few examples of the malestrom’s currents that cause men and boys to lose themselves.

  • Men and boys represent a staggering 30% of the millions of humans enslaved today. That’s roughly the population of New York City proper—men and boys trafficked for sex, forced labor, and soldiering.
  • A man’s sense of who he is as a man can be undermined by something as commonplace as a job loss, a demotion, a diagnosis, a foreclosure, a divorce, or simply the inevitable realities of old age.
  • Every Sunday in our churches, men are marginalized if they don’t show up with the right portfolio or pedigree. They are shamed in tongue-lashing sermons if they don’t happen to “man-up” to whatever definition of manhood a pastor embraces.
  • Even men who seem to “have it all” are just a coup or a phone call away from being dragged under by the malestrom. A man can hold the reigns of power in his country, only to be ousted or defeated by voters the next election. Then, who is he?

As I probed deeper, I discovered even more disturbing indications of just how serious a crisis this. Here is what the experts are saying:

  • Anthropologist David Gilmore linked “masculine pride” to violent conflicts in the world. He asserts that “such violence is ‘as much a product of a manhood image . . . as political and economic demands.”
  • Sociologists agree. They identify an “insidious link between masculinity and violence that fuels many of the wars that rage across our world.”

As I wrote in Malestrom,

“The need to establish and maintain one’s manhood drives men into violent action and exerts constant pressure for men to prove themselves. It fuels aggression, competition, and self-interest, and creates countless casualties at the giving and receiving ends of violence and injustice. It feeds the illusion that behind every change in the culture, every alteration in circumstances, lurks a threat to one’s right to call himself a man.”

The most bone-chilling discovery came when I read Middle Eastern experts, like Georgetown University Professor John L. Espiosito, who now are saying that young men are being drawn into the ranks of ISIS in “a search of a new identity, and for a sense of meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging.”

As one young ISIS recruit put it, “You go overnight from being an unemployed nobody to being a headache to the most powerful man in the world.”

Just this week, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Islamist party, made a comment with reference to politics and government that has profound relevance to a challenge the church needs to engage regarding masculinity and manhood: “The only way to truly defeat ISIS is to offer a better product to the millions of young Muslims in the world.”

This is the pressing challenge facing the church and the one I take up in Malestrom. What message does the Bible have that speaks into this crisis to give every man and boy an indestructible identity, meaning, purpose and belonging that will cause them to thrive as human beings? Will that message trump (apologies for using that word) other voices speaking false, inadequate, and ultimately destructive messages into the lives of men and boys?

I’m convinced that the insular debates in the church over rules and roles, who leads and who follows, and the “kinder-gentler patriarchy” currently embraced in much of evangelicalism ultimately miss the mark. But the powerful, counter-cultural stories of those missing men in the Bible help us to gain insight into the brand of manhood Jesus’ gospel brings.

I believe the church has a prophetic responsibility to address this crisis.

Malestrom is an effort to begin that discussion.

 

 

I love how this book has a very personal and global focus at the same time. Share a little bit about that. 

Considering the issues and the realities at stake, it’s hard to treat this crisis in a detached academic way. I’ve lost sleep (still do) over the crises, injustices, and atrocities against women and girls in today world. This project raised my level of concern for men and boys to full equality with my concern for women and girls. It’s hard to fathom the loss to the church and to the mission of God when my brothers set their sights too low and miss what God has in mind for them. As a woman and as a Christian, I have responsibility to do something about it. So yes, Malestrom is profoundly personal for me.

The global perspective is one of the distinctives of Malestrom and other books that I have written. The Bible is not an American book. It is a global book, and so is its message. Maintaining a global perspective changes the questions we ask. They get bigger and the stakes go up. Conclusions we draw from scripture must be applicable anywhere in the world.

Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message, as many of us have been taught. In fact, the Bible actually dismantles it. Patriarchy is the cultural backdrop that sets of in the boldest relief the radical, not-of-this-world kingdom message of the Bible. As Americans and westerners, we are as foreign to the patriarchal world of the Bible as anyone can possible get in today’s world. That ought to give us a massive dose of humility when we open the Bible and a willingness to seek help from people who know that world and can enlighten us.

Years ago I had the first of many aha moments in a conversation with a Tanzanian seminary student. When I asked him about his culture and what it meant for him to be the firstborn son in his family, his answer changed forever how I read the word “son” in the Bible. Understanding the world of patriarchy restores the power of the gospel message in extraordinary ways.

 

How would you address women who may say, “This is a book for guys”?

I would agree with them. I hope every woman who reads Malestrom will say that. In fact, Malestrom will make the perfect Christmas gift for the men we love. Sarah Bessey’s endorsement says it all:

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for—as a wife, as a mother of a son, as a woman committed to the blessed alliance God intended between men and women. This book will be healing and restorative for so many. It’s a beautiful invitation to manhood in the Kingdom of God.”

Frankly, I hope women say that about all of my books. Men need to read them too. As one man commented after reading my first book, “I know you wrote this book for women. I didn’t read it for women. I read it for myself.”

At the same time, Malestrom is absolutely also a book for women. We need to understand the issues facing men and boys and join in calling the church to engage this crisis.

 

What would you say to guys who don’t think this book applies to them because they’re egalitarian or progressive? 

I’m glad you raised this question.

It is a sad fact that, when it comes to gender issues, evangelicals tend to think in binary terms. We classify people, books, and ourselves into one of two camps—Complementarian or Egalitarian, traditional or progressive, as though this is the crux of gender issues.

Malestrom rejects that binary mindset by raising different questions. If you read my books through that binary lens, you’ll miss the whole point. A self-defined complementarian did. In his review of Malestrom, he wrote, “I have no dog in this fight” and proceeded to disavow patriarchy as having anything to do with his complementarianism. Instead of seeing the very damaging and dangerous global crisis that actually threatens him too, he shrugged and walked away without noticing real human lives are at stake. The issue I’m raising is deeper and far more serious that the issue he was trying to dodge.

To be more explicit, this complementarian/egalitarian debate places the church on a continuum that, if taken to its extremes, ends up with religious fundamentalism at one end and radical feminism at the other. I’m convinced that Jesus’ gospel takes us off that continuum to a radically different counter-culture way of living and working together as male and female.

It is a frightening reality, but the egalitarian message is actually dangerous if preached in a full-fledged patriarchal culture. If a woman embraces an egalitarian manifesto in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, she could lose her head—literally. Complementarianism and egalitarianism can’t be lived out everywhere. But the Gospel can be lived anywhere. Even under burkas.

As Christians, we have important work to do that goes beyond deciding which camp we’ll join. There are deeper, global questions that need asking. How does Jesus’ gospel speak into the lives of every man and boy with indestructible identity, meaning, purpose, and belonging that is bestowed on him at birth by his Creator? How does Jesus’ gospel radically transform what it means to be male or female? And how are we supposed to be joining forces to advance his kingdom?

The issues at stake are global and alarming—no matter which camp you embrace. We have ISIS to consider.

 

 

 

Learn more about Malestrom here or visit Carolyn’s blog

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Writing Must Be a Matter of Life or Death

 

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There’s nothing like a doozy of a hyperbole to kick off a blog post…

It’s true that there are many excellent, useful, well-read blogs, books, and magazines that are decidedly not dealing with “life or death.” Rather, I’m talking about that feeling of life closing in on you, of losing hope, or wondering if you can go on another day. These struggles vary from one season of life to another.

The (few) nights I have to get dinner ready for the kids on my own sure feel like a life or death struggle in the moment. I’m never more open to a blog post with simple meal ideas or a humorous blog post about the zoo-like atmosphere of feeding small children while my own kids are sputtering milk and throwing things during dinner.

Whether or not I pray each day won’t necessarily save my life, but there are weeks when life feels like too much. I’m angry, tired, frustrated, and flat out up to here with one thing after another. My fuse is short. My mind is raging. To be blunt, the last thing I want to do is pray, and that is when I know that I need it the most.

Perhaps I pull up a prayer app on my phone, pick up a prayer book from my shelf, or see something striking from a friend on social media, and it hits me right where I’m at in the turmoil of the moment.

Writing rarely saves lives directly, unless it’s a survival book, medical literature, or addressing a serious mental health issue. More often, good writing speaks to a pain point, an area of struggle, or a weakness that continues to nag at us.

The writing I need and you need is a revelation, a great relief, and a significant step forward.

So many moments throughout the week feel like life or death struggles, and the thing that I’ve found is that I’ll only speak to those struggles if I take risks, if I dig deep into my own flaws and personal battles.

Herein is the risk of really writing. We can play about with attacks on what we are not, and there may be times when these help open our eyes. But the vast majority of the time, we need to learn how to survive and what to become.

I need to know how you handle the frustrations of failure in your work, low points of your day with the kids when you really blow your top, or how you keep your marriage together when there’s always more laundry, more dishes, and more emails from work.

How do you handle the uncertainty of moving?

How do you navigate the loneliness of visiting a new church?

How do you go on when you’ve been working on dinner all day and you burn it all to a hot, flaming crisp?

These are the moments where our faith, our spiritual disciplines, and our relationships meet the challenges of the every day. These are the moments when we’re grasping for lifelines.

We can sink or swim, and it may not be life and death, but it sure feels like our little corner of the world is crashing or falling apart for a moment.

Who will give the perspective, the next steps, and the hope that we need?

This is where our writing can step in with words of encouragement, empathy, and wisdom.

I used to think my writing was a success if lots of people read it, but I was dead wrong.

My writing is only a success if it helps people with these small or big “life or death” struggles that make up each day. Large numbers of readers are only a side benefit of helping people, ministering to them, and lifting them above what they thought would drag them down.

 

A Big Risk Isn’t Always What You Think

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I  often compare the risk of releasing a book with jumping off a cliff. I don’t know what waits over the edge, how far I’ll drop, or how I’ll land.

As I prepared for Write without Crushing Your Soul to release, I had an epiphany of sorts: anything related to my work isn’t an actual cliff. Yes, my work is important, but the stakes aren’t “cliff jumping” high.

A major challenge at work or with a family member or some other situation in life may appear to be a leap off a cliff. It may feel like a major leap in the moment. The reality is that such situations are more of a ledge or a wall, not a massive leap into the unknown that could make or break us.

I have made the mistake of assuming too much was riding on the success of my work.

My work is important, but it’s not a cliff.

The cliff I’ve had to jump of off, sometimes every day, revolves around my identity, whether I know that I am God’s beloved, and whether I can let something wholly beyond myself carry me to safety when I leap.

Each day I can find my identity in my work, in what other people think of me, or in some other talent or skill. I can take the leap into my day and expect these accomplishments or people to carry me to safety.

Richard Rohr reminds us that you can’t really do anything to find your true self in God. You can only nurture it and give it room to take hold in your life.

Each day I’m faced with a decision to work harder at validating my identity or resting deeper in my identity as God’s beloved.

Life can be terrifying sometimes. We face pain, loss, disappointment, and struggle. We can feel like we’ll never dig ourselves out of the mountain of work, debt, and failure we’ve amassed.

As I jump off the cliff, the reality I am slow to realize is this: I am already held even before my feet leave the ground. I am held safe in Christ as his beloved child, and if that isn’t good enough before I jump, it sure won’t be good enough after I jump.

Every failure, every stumble, every time we fall flat on our faces after a giant leap is painful, but these are never the end.

Write without Crushing Your Soul is primarily addressed to writers, but the central message in this book extends to any kind of work that threatens to supplant your identity as God’s beloved.

Sustainable work that doesn’t crush our souls means we fight tooth and nail to preserve a place where God can whisper the truth about ourselves.

Sustainable work means we stop listening to every self-crowned master, expert, super-ninja, and high flying CEO who weigh us down with impossible to-do lists and impossible goals that may well only crush our souls.

Sustainable work means we work to set and reset boundaries and more limited goals because we understand that our calling to work is below our calling to God and our calling to others.

Failure isn’t just an option. It’s inevitable. And when you do fail at your work, there’s nothing that can touch the furious longing of God for you. There’s nothing about your work that has to end your relationships.

You are held and loved today, so take the leap, use your talents to do your best work possible, and don’t worry about the moment after you jump.

 

This post was originally sent to my newsletter subscribers. You can join my bi-weekly email list and get two free eBooks. 

 

Want to learn more about Write without Crushing Your Soul? Here are the links:

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