Do I Pray for the Wrong Reasons?

I can easily haul my issues with my identity or my personal pursuit of happiness or contentment right into my prayer time. Questions start popping up in my mind:

Am I doing this contemplative prayer thing right?

Do I have good results from my prayer?

Do I have a greater sense of God’s presence?

Present throughout all of these questions is the lingering false self that seeks an outward marker of identity. Even becoming someone who prays, and prays well, can become a kind of false identity marker.

I write in my book Flee, Be Silent, Pray that American evangelicals like myself are especially driven by results and outcomes. What can you measure? What can you point at to validate your work or practices? This mentality creeps into a kind of success-driven approach to spirituality.

Thankfully, Thomas Merton is on the case. He cuts through our misguided motivations. Rather than offering one slick promise to replace another, he points us into the direction of mystery and complete faith in God.

This isn’t a spirituality that dangles the hope of discovering purpose, living a super story, or even finding peace. Merton points us to mystery so that we can live out of our authentic identity in God as his beloved children. Perhaps we will find some of those things after they have been pried out of our hands and we learn to cling to Christ alone, but those are afterthoughts rather than the focus.

Here is what Merton writes for those of us seeking to become contemplatives or to derive happiness from contemplation:

“Another law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced. And again, this means renouncing the illusory self that seeks to be ‘happy’ and to find ‘fulfillment’ (whatever that may mean) in contemplation. For the contemplative and spiritual self, the dormant, mysterious, and hidden self that is always effaced by the activity of our exterior self does not seek fulfillment. It is content to be, and in its being it is fulfilled, because its being is rooted in God.”

Thomas Merton. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, p. 2.

Meet Fear with Silence, Not Social Media and TV

silent land

I’m one of the many Americans who has been a walking ball of nerves since the 2016 election, and that baseline of anxiety has made it difficult to bear other unsettling and troubling aspects of life at times.

While I’ve managed to deal with my anxiety in the past through a mix of prayer and exercise, some days 20 minutes of silence or a 20-minute run just don’t cut it. I still feel the pull of anxiety and the temptation to check out from life to avoid it and the fears driving it.

Telling an anxious person “Do not be anxious about anything…” is just about the least helpful thing. The body is reacting to something. That reaction is completely understandable.

Unfortunately, the alternative to denial is often evasion. Turning to social media drama or a television show becomes a quick way to check out. There’s no need to face the darkness afflicting my soul if I have the pleasant glow of a computer or tablet in front of me.

I have been practicing contemplative prayer for quite some time now, but reading the book Into the Silent Land has offered a few helpful dimensions to my approach to prayer. These were things I had partially uncovered of in the past, but the author, Martin Laird, spelled them out in a very helpful way.

For starters, the practice of contemplative prayer is rooted in stillness, sitting upright and breathing deeply in your nose and out of your mouth, meeting each thought with a simple prayer word or phrase. Laird speaks of three doors into contemplation, as we begin to meet our thoughts with silence, enjoy the vast space of silence before God, and gain greater control over our thoughts.

Toward the end of the book, Laird specifically addresses the ways that contemplation can help us face our fears and anxiety. This approach is the complete opposite of denial or avoidance.

Laird suggests that we meet each fearful or anxious thought with stillness and silence. The discipline of contemplative prayer teaches us to shut down negative or fearful thinking loops with a prayer word, letting go of the fears and thoughts as they come to us. However, building on that discipline, we can begin to look at why we are fearful and what is behind our anxieties.

Staring into the darkness of our fears and anxieties is no easy task, but over time, I have found a greater capacity to disarm them as I meet them with silence and faith.

Some days I’m more tightly wound up than others. These are anxious times, and while there are people and events that we may rightly fear, there also is no need to let these fears overtake us.

In the daily practice of contemplative prayer, I’ve found a lifeline where I can release my fears and anxieties to God. I still bear them to a certain degree, but I can at least face them now with faith that the loving presence of God will bring healing.

Was It All a Lie? The Fallout After a Church Leader Fails

I learned something in my first year of seminary that finally made sense of church dynamics for me:

You can be good at leading a group or building a community and still be really bad at following Jesus.

I don’t know if my professor, who happened to be on staff at a local megachurch, would have said it quite like that. Rather, during his teachings on the dynamics of church ministry, from leadership development to small group ministry, I saw that there is often a rather large gap between the organizational abilities of growing churches and the churches that are struggling.

That isn’t to overlook the many other factors that cause a church to grow or decline. I mean, how long do you have to read this post?

A particular statement from this lecture caught my attention: “Sometimes the big churches can do small better than small churches.”

That isn’t to say that a church ONLY needs to manage its groups well to grow, but a church leadership team’s ability to manage certain dynamics can go a long way toward determining the numerical growth of the congregation.

We could argue that, of course, a church must have certain elements in place to be somewhat stable, if not healthy. The sermons, songs, and prayers shouldn’t be out of left field. And yet, there are plenty of small churches where the pastor faithfully teaches a small group of people a biblically grounded sermon, while some massive megachurches have sermons that amount to biblical entertainment. In other cases, crowds flock to hear the hot, dynamic preacher whose sermons are basically transcribed into best-selling books on the spot regardless of their substance.

All of this is to say, the size and vitality of a church may have very little to do with the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Plenty of churches hum along whether or not Pentecost really happened or has any measure of relevance for today. A church may grow large because its leaders have an intimate relationship with the parental love of God or because its leaders have experience as high-powered executives who get stuff done.

When a prominent church leaders fails, I remember what my seminary professor said about big churches “doing small well.” Although it’s perfectly possible that this leader has had an authentic relationship with Christ and an authentic ministry empowered by God before failing morally, the growth of a church may hinge on a leader’s ability to manage people. Maintaining that growth may call on skill sets that pull leaders away from a deeper spiritual life.

Managing people is a neutral thing. I suspect that every church leader needs to reckon with this at times, but it’s possible that a church leader could lead a massive congregation because of off the chart talents on the management side that hide spiritual or biblical deficiencies. That isn’t to make a blanket statement about megachurch pastors or leaders. I know some personally who have a stable inner spiritual life while leading a large group.

The key is that we’ve seen enough megachurch pastors fall or end up spiritually empty to say something about the elephant in the room. A pastor can grow a large church, preach a super sermon, or manage large groups of people without a deep inner spiritual life. Those things shouldn’t be our indicators of God’s authentic presence and life.

Stepping away from the lights, speakers, and jam-packed auditoriums; turning away from church offices packed with computers, copiers, and phones; leaving the climate controlled lobby and plush furniture behind, we may have a greater opportunity to hear the present voice of God in a whisper. It wasn’t all a lie, but perhaps we have looked at the wrong signs for the presence of God.

 

The Contemplative Capitalist: An Integrated April First Book Release

Announcing my latest book on April 1st…

The Contemplative Capitalist: Spiritual Hacks for Meditation and Making Money. 

It’s time to finally unearth the true riches from my years of contemplative study and practice.

You may have thought that the “true riches” of contemplative prayer are related to experiencing the peace of God, but that’s just the beginning of a path to peace and prosperity that goes far beyond anything that Jesus ever talked about, considered, imagined possible, or inspired his disciples to write about.

In fact, Jesus never said anything about the real links between contemplative prayer and financial prosperity…

The REAL SECRET of financial prosperity is found by applying contemplation’s ancient, time-tested practices to American ingenuity.

The contemplative tradition of the Christian faith is an untapped gold mine of capitalist potential that we shouldn’t be ashamed of using in order to meet our financial needs. In The Contemplative Capitalist you’ll learn how to:

  • End each day with a Budget Examen (TM): “When was my budget most present with me today?”
  • Use a sacred word to ignore your children’s pleas for budget-busting toys.
  • Walk out of debt labyrinths in contemplative silence.
  • Light a Contemplative Capitalist Candle (TM) for each credit card debt payment.
  • Use the power of contemplative silence to get your way in meetings and price negotiations.
  • Endure bull markets by passing through a dark night of the investor’s soul.
  • Celebrate paid off debt with a pleasant “Ommm” (Contemplatives never scream).

These are proven strategies that the desert fathers and mothers developed in part but foolishly never monetized while sweating alone in their caves weaving baskets (and think of the time they could have had for prayer if they had outsourced those baskets!). Don’t bury the wisdom of the contemplative tradition in the ground. Put it to work for you, and you will see an increase in financial prosperity for you and your family.

How to Purchase “The Contemplative Capitalist”

This book is usually priced at $24.99, but if you act now, we’re going to gut that price like oligarchs are gutting the middle class, and drop it to three easy installments of $7.99.

But that’s not all…

If you purchase this book now, share it on social media, change your profile picture to the book’s cover, take a picture of your child/pet/dinner plate with the book, email it to 20 of your closest friends, review the book (it doesn’t have to be glowing, but remember I meant well with this book AND WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE ME!), and make a Spotify playlist based on how the book made you feel, I’ll throw in exclusive video content of me reading contemplative classics and offering my highly refined insights that seamlessly build on the foundation laid by these masters.

The ACTUAL RETAIL PRICE of these videos is $499, but I’m giving them to you for FREE.

This offer is a limited time deal for TODAY ONLY.

Do you hear that sound? Of course you don’t, you’re not an expert contemplative like me.

  • You can’t hear your money practically draining out of your bank account.
  • You can’t fully integrate all of your investments because you aren’t spirituality integrated.
  • You haven’t learned how to use the power of silence to crush your competition at work.

This rock bottom price of 3 installments of $7.99 each is going to give you so much value and save you so much money, that you’ll stop talking, just like a true hermit, because you’ll be thinking of all the ways to invest and increase your money. You may even need to build bigger storehouses to hold everything you can buy. In fact, get working on those storehouses tonight.

Your life is about to change. You have no idea what you’re in for…

 

 

[Wait, was this an April Fool’s Day joke?]

Yes. I do write books about contemplative prayer, but not about making money from contemplative prayer. At least, not yet…

Each year I try to write some kind of parody of myself and the Christian subculture. I aim to be as over the top as possible. This year I thought of all of those business books I used to shelve in Borders (legit!) that praised Jesus as a great CEO/manager/stock broker/general/fax machine repairman… you get the picture. Going corporate with contemplation seemed like the ticket, even if parodying evangelical Christianity is getting harder with each passing year because many of the parodies I considered were too close to the truth.

While I hope that the jokes aren’t subtle, I also hope that this parody can help us consider the far more subtle temptations to twist Christian spirituality, and many other aspects of the faith, into tools that serve our own interests over the call to sacrificially love God and neighbors.

What Should a Trump Survival Guide for Christians Include?

A podcast billing itself as a survival guide for the Trump presidency recently announced on “the Twitters” that it would be sharing an interview with a prominent evangelical author who has frequently endorsed Trump. There was quite a bit of pushback (**me waving**), and then there was pushback on that pushback (**friends I respect waving back**), and well, you know how Twitter goes.

While I respect that we all need to find out own way to survive the belligerency, racism, xenophobia, deception, and manipulation of this man’s administration that would surely cause Thomas Merton to break out in hives, I want to share what I think Christians seeking to “survive” this presidency need right now (as opposed to ANOTHER interview with a Trump supporter). I also want to share my reasoning for my particular focus on what will help us survive Trump and what will not…

DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT DIALOGUE?!?!?!

The premise of the podcasters is that we need to understand the people who support Trump in order to survive the Trump presidency. I respect the makers of this podcast, and I saw respected friends stick up for them.

From where I sit, it is useful to understand what motivates people to support Trump in the grand scheme of things.  It’s not a waste of time to listen to Trump supporters to a point, but actually “surviving” the Trump presidency day-to-day is quite another matter. I would argue that we need a different toolbox in order to be healthy and constructive under Trump.

The reason why I’m not interested in hearing another Trump supporter interview is…

We Know Why People Support Trump

To begin with, most people know why voters chose Trump, even if many Trump supporters probably don’t actually see the full implications of the racial, protectionist, sexist, or Christian nationalistic aspirations that have driven their support of Trump.

For progressive Christians, especially progressive evangelicals, we’re especially aware of what evangelical Trump supporters are going to say. This has been our world for longer than the 2016 election.

I grew up with these people. I wrote research papers in my Christian high school about the topics that Trump voters care about. I can pick up the phone and call Trump supporters. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in people who voted for Trump since I was in middle school.

Even so, if I feel the urge to refresh my knowledge of Trump supporters, I can read the many softball profiles offered up by the NY Times about the sensitive white supremacist who lives down the block but trolls people of color online when he’s not at work.

And while many Christians and progressive evangelicals are rolling their eyes at the thought that we need more dialogue with Trump supporters, that isn’t to say that I want to shut Trump supporters out of my life. I’m just done hearing why they love Trump. In fact, if we actually want to build bridges and to transcend what divides us, experts say that we need to make connections with people on topics other than the partisan politics that divide us.

Moreover, while I understand what drives Trump voters and I can also acknowledge my blind spots and bias, I have yet to have an interaction with a Trump supporter who can meet my arguments against Trump with reasoned understanding–not a rebuttal, just an acknowledgement of understanding where I’m coming from. I’ve had lots of Trump supporters express their disappointment at how deceived I am, I’ve had many shouts of fake news, and I’ve been told how they just can’t understand why I believe what I do. I’m not trying to be dismissive. This has just been my experience up to this point.

All of that to say, I think it’s more productive to develop compassion, to develop real day-to-day survival strategies, to understand the infrastructure that has helped give rise to our current situation, and to then explore ways we can either challenge it or undermine it through direct action.

Praying through the Anxiety of Trumpland

I had a severe panic attack on the night of Trump’s election. It was the first time I ever lost an entire night of sleep because I was literally shaking in fear. How could anyone trust such an unstable man with the nuclear weapons and military power of America?

Contemplative prayer has been a bedrock for my daily life under Trump. I have had to routinely let go of my fears and anger as I approach God in silent surrender.

You can learn the basics of contemplative prayer at www.contemplativeoutreach.org or pick up the book Into the Silent Land for a helpful introduction and guide to the basics of contemplation. Also, consider how people of color have integrated contemplation into their activism with the Mystic Soul Project.

Surviving Trump with Better Information

The anxiety of the Trump Administration has also resulted in major changes in how I use social media. We need to stop seeing the information on social media as roughly equal. Social media is where propaganda, speculation, and anxiety can thrive. We are living in a time of information warfare. This is why Russian influencers spent so much time and money on ads and fake bots on social media.

Surviving this presidency means looking at world events with a more critical eye. We have to enter into the realm of the speculative at times, entertaining various “what if” scenarios. What if Twitter is being used as a psychological weapon against us? I personally have a lot of questions about how the North Korean missile tests seemed to pop up with a kind of regularity for a season and then disappeared.

I try to avoid scrolling through social media. I use apps like Self-Control to block social media for long stretches and “Kill News Feed” for Chrome so that I’m not tempted to scroll through Facebook. I don’t have social media apps on my phone.

Most importantly, I’m very careful about my news sources, avoiding sensationalized outlets or articles. I look for lawyers, former law enforcement officials, and reputable organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center to offer analysis on events.

Surviving the Divisive Politics of Trump

After Trump’s election, I started following a lot of Republicans, conservatives, and independents on social media, the majority were “never Trump” Republicans. My Twitter feed is a mix of progressive evangelical activists and conservative thinkers some days, with the likes of Richard Painter, Rick Wilson, Evan McMullin, and Bill Kristol showing up to offer takes on events that I wouldn’t have sought out in the past.

We need strong coalitions with people who would otherwise be our opponents in order to defeat Trump and those who share in his ideology of white supremacy and unchecked power. These conservative and independent thinkers have changed my mind at times, but most importantly, they have confirmed my suspicion that many Americans share a great deal of common ground.

The truth shouldn’t be partisan. Under Trump, it has become partisan to state reality. There aren’t two sides when one side is lying. Coming to the “center” in the case of collusion with a foreign power just means… collusion. Coming to the center for compromise with unbridled corruption is still corruption.

Further discussion of common ground on certain issues could be truly productive for people of all political persuasions, and that is something worth exploring further. When Americans discuss which policies work and which don’t apart from the echo chambers of political ideology, there is a great deal that we can sort out. For instance, many gun control measures have popular support behind them, but politicians who are owned by the NRA have “shot” them down.

Surviving with Political Activism

We have learned that calling elected officials can help change votes on key legislation.

We have learned that marching together can create momentum and energy.

We have learned that voter turnout is essential for swinging an election.

We have learned that sometimes a centrist candidate can be effective.

We have learned that the voting rights act really is needed as voter suppression laws continue to disenfranchise voters.

I am turning to the activists who have generations of experience in direct action to help me move forward. Rev. William Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove are a great starting point for those who want to fuse their faith with biblically inspired activism.

I am very interested in learning from the many, many activists in my own evangelical movement and those activists who have a history of working toward positive change in our country. If the activism of the Christian nationalist right created the atmosphere for Trump’s rise, it’s my hope that the moral fusion politics of Barber will offer one of the  alternatives that we badly need.

We All Want to Survive Trump

I have no doubt that there are many other productive ways to forge ahead and to survive the Trump presidency. I do, however, doubt the value of more interviews with Trump voters/supporters. If Trump voters want to talk to me in order to understand my beliefs, I have a contact form that is open to anyone.

Most importantly, I welcome everyone, whether a supporter of Trump or not, to join me in the Christian practice of contemplation, to sit at the feet of activists working for justice, and to listen to a broad range of qualified, well-sourced political thinkers, journalists, and lawyers.

Christianity has language for change and repentance. Christians value truth and mercy.  There is room for everyone in this place who wants in. I have no interest in preserving a kind of moral high ground that is apart from Trump supporters. If you want to chat with me, you are welcome.

By the way, I’m not writing off that Trump survival guide podcast—even if I am critical of the first episode. Future episodes will most likely be better. Hey, we all want to survive this administration together. Like I said, we have a lot of common ground.

Why Many Evangelicals Struggle with Prayer (TLDR: We’re Winging It)

Pastors experts in church

We can learn a great deal about “spirituality” of American evangelical Christianity when we consider a 2006 Christianity Today  list of the most influential books over the past 50 years that shaped evangelicals.

For starters, most evangelicals are lucky if they know their movement’s historical background from the past 50 years. It’s safe to say that many evangelicals today have a very limited understanding of church history that has deprived us of the wisdom and practices developed over the centuries. Most telling about the limits of evangelical spirituality, the number one book on the Christianity Today list of influential books is Prayer: Conversing With God by Rosalind Rinker.

I don’t doubt that readers have benefitted from this book that was developed by a missionary who offers practical instructions in group prayer as well as some tips on personal prayer. Many small groups and Sunday schools have found much-needed direction from this book, and I can see the need for it in certain settings.

However, this book’s emphasis on spoken prayer and the overall disconnection from the prayer tradition of the church is quite typical of evangelicals. It’s not that Rinker is wrong or even misguided. The issue is that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, which is pretty much the story of the evangelical movement since it began. We have forged ahead with our own advice, spiritual practices, Bible studies, sermons, churches, and ministries without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, what has come before us, and what we may gather from the devout Christians of the past.

The main word that jumps out at me in Rinker’s subtitle (and all of the book’s marketing copy) is “conversation.” For many evangelicals today, we have come to think of prayer as a conversation with the goal of speaking our minds to God, and if God directs us, then we’ll be able to say even more things. In fact, many evangelicals may fear that prayer isn’t working if they don’t receive specific direction or guidance from God.

The goal though is for a conversational prayer, especially for us to speak up in this conversation. There is very little emphasis on silence or to even make silence the point. I don’t get the sense that evangelicals reading Rinker’s book would consider that a completely silent time of prayer, where there is no discernible conversation between God and the person at prayer, brings about any benefit.

Silence isn’t really on the radar of this book, even if silence was a central part of Christian prayer for centuries. On the other hand, a conversation directs us toward a goal or outcome that is measurable and easily understood, such as sensing the Lord’s direction to say certain words in prayer. This is a good thing in and of itself, but when this is our foundational concept of prayer (perhaps ONLY concept of prayer), we run the risk of missing the deeper streams of silent prayer and contemplation that have run throughout the history of the church.

Interestingly, Rinker published her book in 1959, which makes her a contemporary of Thomas Merton who, along with Henrí Nouwen and Thomas Keating, helped Catholics delve deeper into the prayer traditions of the church. However, each of these writers pointed us back to the desert fathers and mothers, the mystics such as Thérèse of Liseux, and the Eastern Orthodox monastics. They drew deeply from these streams while offering their own ideas on prayer for the church and produced rather different works.

That isn’t to set them up in opposition to Rinker. I don’t doubt there are even places of overlap. However, it’s tragic to think that Rinker lacked the deep grounding of the church’s prayer tradition in her book. How much richer and beneficial would it have been?

The phrase that comes to mind for me about evangelical spirituality is: “Winging it.” Before I grounded myself in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers or the contemporary teachers of contemplative prayer, I have felt like I have been winging it with prayer. Every Christian joke about prayer eventually gets to the “Lord we just…” or “Father God, we just thank you…” way that evangelicals have learned to pray because it sounds respectful and officious.

Before we go too hard on evangelicals here, let’s keep in mind that the evangelical movement emerged as a reform. There were real issues that needed to be changed. It’s unhelpful to assert that evangelicals were completely off-base. Put into their shoes, we would have desired to make changes as well.

The central problem with evangelicals, as is illustrated with our “winging it” approach to spirituality, is that we are unaware of our roots (especially our most toxic and problematic roots). We don’t know much about what came before us. The many denominations and off-shoots of denominations in Protestant Christianity should give us pause.

In fact, as I read about the history of the evangelical movement, I was struck by how often groups split off from each other under the auspice of calling themselves “Christians.” They thought of themselves as somehow preserving a pure version of the faith and didn’t see how they had any kind of bias or distinctives that set themselves apart.

Of course, years later, these groups of “Christians” took on more set identities as Nazarenes or the Church of Christ, developing their own history and doctrinal distinctives, but at their formation, these denominations saw themselves as somehow able to transcend their roots in order to claim the label “Christians” for themselves.

This pattern has shown up over and over again among evangelicals seeking to correct mistakes or to separate themselves from evangelicals who are in error over a particular doctrine or practice. As evangelicals debate whether to keep the label itself, some have even suggested just calling themselves “Christians” again.

While I am more than sympathetic to the sentiment, I am concerned that we are once again repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to know our roots and to own them so that we can understand where we come from, what has impacted us, and what we perhaps don’t know.

Our ignorance of our history and of the traditions developed among other Christian around the world has become one of our greatest weaknesses. We have often adopted inadequate practices and institutions as a response to flawed practices and institutions—some certainly were more flawed than others. If evangelicals desire to move away from some of our most toxic elements in the future, we need to look back at our roots in order to see what is healthy, what needs to be removed, and where we can learn from Christians in other traditions.

This post was adapted from book three in the series
Evangelicals After the Shipwreck: Evangelicals Need Roots to Grow

Download it for $.99 on Amazon or Other eBook retailers

Simple Advice for Christians: Trust Your Instincts

warning-sign

If a leader is too combative and controlling, there’s a reason for that.

If a spiritual teacher keeps giving you tasks and obligations, you’re not learning spirituality or how to abide in Christ.

If a theology system makes God sound like a monster, then you’re not learning about the God who is love.

If you are fearful of God, then your teachers and guides are in error.

You aren’t crazy. Trust your instincts.

Christianity shouldn’t be a series of inconsistencies and shocking incongruities to be accepted at face value.

There should be mystery and uncertainty when encountering the divine, but if you’re repeatedly running into one red flag after another, you can stop explaining away the obvious problems or treating them as inevitable.

You can stop listening to the leaders who demand the acceptance of inconsistencies.

If a system of theology appears to be controlling, oppressive, and harmful, then trust your instincts.

Ask questions, seek the wisdom of trustworthy women and men with more experience, and explore other traditions and perspectives within the faith. What you find may surprise you.

There’s a good chance that other people have already asked the same questions and raised the same concerns.

My faith has evolved from assenting to a doctrinal checklist to consenting to the loving presence of God without any expectations or demands.

My hands are no longer clutching lists of things to do or inconsistent doctrinal statements that require defending.

When all is well, my hands are open, ready to receive from God.

I’m still angry some days at the Christian machine with its demands, obligations, and hoops to jump through. I forget that God is present, views me as a beloved child, and desires that I share this love with others.

At the very least, I can approach each day with the relief that I’m not crazy, that so many of my instincts about Christianity have led me toward a more loving and generous spiritual practice.

I don’t have to run from questions, doubts, uncertainties, and incongruities. There is a lot that I’m still sorting out and recovering from, but the survival of my faith no longer rests in defending insufficient answers to eternally complex questions.

I can rest in the mysterious presence of God with open hands and a mind that is no longer trying to fit square pegs into round holes.

 

The Compromise White Evangelicals Don’t Want to Talk About

shutterstock_642763852 3000

Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I frequently heard about the dangers of compromise. Oftentimes this type of compromise related to sexual immorality or false doctrine.

There was one type of compromise we never talked about in my circles: Racism.

The election of Donald Trump has made the gravity of this compromise particularly apparent, even if some evangelicals remain determined to deny it. If our tolerance, if not outright embrace, of racism isn’t the most serious compromise of the American evangelical movement, it most certainly is the easiest to spot, provided you’re willing to objectively look for it.

The reality of the evangelical movement today is that many white evangelicals have tolerated racism provided that politicians and leaders can deliver on other priorities, such as tax protections for churches, “freedom of religion” concerns, and anti-abortion policies. Abortion, of course, is the main issue that is used to justify the neglect of racial justice, conveniently forgetting that activists could advocate for the rights of the unborn AND racial minorities at the same time.

Instead, evangelicals have overlooked racist elements in our society, including housing, policing, incarceration, execution, and education policies. In the case of immigration policies, outright racism is cloaked by cries for law and order and national security, forgetting that immigrant crime tends to be negligible and that many come to America to flee the security threats in their own nations.

For many white evangelicals, racism and white supremacy have become an ingrained part of our identity and heritage. Admitting the depths of racism in our own lives, in our ancestors, and in the society where we enjoy many benefits and advantages isn’t just disruptive—it casts many of our assumptions about the past into doubt. The future becomes uncertain without our narrative in place.

It has been much easier for white evangelicals to ignore racism or to pick up the “what-about” tactics that are readily provided by the racist, white supremacist elements in the Trump administration. For those subjected to conservative media every day, it is preferable to throw out barbs about Hillary and Obama or black on black crime rather than confront the demons of racism in our churches and society.

We need a season of retreat and surrender so that we can allow God’s Spirit to probe our hearts, to confess our failures, and to stop serving the illusions of white supremacy that have been integral to our false selves. We need to be prepared to listen to those who are suffering under our current system, surrendering the lie that racism can be tolerated, provided that other issues are addressed by politicians.

The roots of racism and white supremacy run deep in America, and I confess that I have failed more often than I like to confront it, to learn about it, and to take steps to make things right. When I have spoken to activists about what I should do next, they have overwhelmingly told me to get educated about the nature of white supremacy and issues such as racism in the church, housing policies, incarceration policies, etc.

Evangelicals can talk about so many forms of compromise with ease, but once we bring up the compromise of racism, far too many folks become defensive. That strikes me as quite telling.

Along the way, contemplative prayer has helped me to let go of my illusions and defensiveness. By God’s grace I’ve become slower to speak and more willing to listen, but contemplation remains an essential, daily practice.

We have hard work to do. If my own ongoing process has told me anything, it’s that we won’t like what we find.

The good news is that the evangelical movement has a growing core of diverse leaders. They love the church, and they aren’t afraid to speak the truth we so badly need at this moment. Here are a few leaders you can begin to follow and then add the people they recommend:

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Christena Cleveland
Dru Hart
Kathy Khang
Marlena Graves
Lisa Sharon Harper

By the way… One of my aims in my new eBook series, Evangelicals After the Shipwreck, is to help evangelicals turn over the hardened soil of our movement by learning from the contemplative tradition of the church as we seek justice and restoration.

If there was ever a people who needed to step back and to take stock of their current situation, it’s us. If there is one reform group in the church we can learn from, it’s the desert fathers and mothers and the nuns and monks who responded to a corrupted church from the firm footing of solitude (You can download the first book for free here and the second book, Why Evangelicals Need the Wilderness, is $.99).

The Wilderness Is Where Christians Go to (Eventually) Move Forward

 

low-resolution
Download my book for free.

 

Growing up as an evangelical, I learned a simple question that determined what I should believe and how I should put my faith into practice:

WHAT DID PAUL DO?

If Paul did it, believed it, or even suggested it as maybe a good idea, then it was good enough for me. To my shame, I remember telling one of my Bible professors in college that it was more important in my eyes to study the epistles than the Gospels.

He gently suggested that I should reconsider that… and I certainly have.

Prioritizing of Paul aside, it is the great fortune of American evangelicals today that Paul offers us unequivocally excellent advice for our current situation where evangelical Christianity appears to be fragmenting, if not altogether collapsing due to political and cultural compromise.

Far too many evangelicals have aligned the Kingdom of God with a single political party and a patriarchal, white supremacist culture that idolizes power and wealth.

Christians throughout America are dropping the “evangelical” label because it has either become meaningless or has taken on far too many negative associations.

Evangelicals are mocked and disparaged because of the ever-shifting values and moral “standards” of a few talking head leaders who continue to work the political system for their own gain and a sizeable evangelical group that fails to see serious issues such as overt racism and xenophobia as deal breakers in their leaders.

Thoughtful hashtags are emerging around questions of evangelical identity and an evangelical future: #stillevangelical #exevangelical. Back in the early 2000’s we used terms like “younger evangelicals” (via Robert Weber) and “post-evangelical” to describe this fragmenting. Should we drop the label “evangelical”? Abandon the movement? Fight for it?

Significant portions of the evangelical movement are corrupt, but there are many positive members and hopeful signs emerging. Regardless, I am not personally interested in preserving a movement or a label. It may be more helpful to understand where we are, what God is saying, and to sort out what to do next with a clear head.

I’d like to suggest that there is a very simple and productive next step every evangelical can take in response to the failures and chaos of our current evangelical situation, and it conveniently meshes with what Paul did. You can even call it a “biblical response” for bonus points. Here is the plan, ready?

Retreat.

Not forever, but for a while. You could say that many of us evangelicals need to take a retreat of sorts from whatever we’ve been doing. We need to surrender for a season instead of constantly forging ahead, trying to make an overhaul on the fly.

I suggest this because many evangelicals are discouraged, confused, and uncertain about the future. We could stay in the chaos of our movement and try to sort out a next step, or we could retreat, wait on the Lord, and then move forward when we gain a bit of clarity.

Throughout the Bible and the history of the church, there is a pattern of reform emerging from prophets and communities in the wilderness or in solitude. From Elijah to John the Baptist to the desert fathers and mothers, to the many nuns and monks who reformed the church from the solitude of their cloisters, reform and prophetic direction has come from those who retreated in order to seek God before spreading their ideas more widely.

There’s a principle for prayer taught by Henrí Nouwen that we first need to let go of what we’re holding before we can receive something from God. A time of surrender and retreat before God can help us let go of the negative influences on our lives.

I suspect that we’ll look to different leaders and teachers as well as shift some of our priorities on the other side of this retreat.

Here is what Paul reported about his own retreat following his Damascus road experience when his entire world came crashing down:

“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:13-17 NRSV)

We don’t exactly know what Paul did in Arabia, but whatever God revealed to him brought him in unity with the rest of the church (Galatians 2:1-2).

At a time when evangelicals are distracted, divided, and uncertain about what to do about a movement that appears destined for the rocks, there aren’t simple answers or clear next steps. Perhaps we can relate to Paul, finding out that the cause we’ve given our lives to is, at least in part, misguided, corrupt, and even, at times, opposed to the very people Jesus dearly loves.

It’s safe to say that our own wisdom got us into this mess, so it surely won’t get us out of it. If anything, it’s going to just lead us into another mess.

I believe that God has not abandoned us, but if we have any hope of hearing God’s voice, we need to create space for God to speak. It’s not a mistake that John the Baptist proclaimed his message of repentance and restoration in the wilderness—preparing the way for the Lord. Jesus spent the majority of his ministry in relatively isolated spaces as well.

If you’re a discouraged or uncertain evangelical who is dispirited by our movement, then perhaps it’s time to step back. You may even hear the whisper of God to guide you forward, but first you need to venture up to the mountain to hear it.

You can read more about the evangelical retreat by downloading my new book for free on most eBook sites or just $.99 on Amazon

low-resolution (1)

May Our Illusions Wilt Under God’s Love for Us

Illusions are exhausting.

My illusions about myself are difficult to maintain.

My illusions about God leave me in a state of confusion and despair.

The most exhausting and confusing time in my life has been when I can’t distinguish an illusion from reality. This mixing of reality and illusion becomes particularly powerful when I fail to stop for a time of silence and rest before God.

When folks tell me that they struggle to pray or that their minds are too active when they try to sit in silence, I wonder if this comes from facing their illusions about themselves and about God when they first enter into silence. They may wonder:

What if God is holding back from me?

What if I’m not really a beloved child of God?

What if God only has judgment for me?

Why would God remain distant from me if God loves me?

Why has God failed me in the past?

What if I’m praying wrong and God is distant as a punishment?

What if my failures at self-control and holiness are keeping me from God?

I’ve thought all of these things and plenty more. My illusions about myself and God have been deeply ingrained. I’m sure they’ll come up again in the near future.

Whenever I become captive to my illusions about myself or about God, I find that I need a starting point. I don’t need to know the whole path forward. You could say that I need a small seed to plant rather than transplanting an entire bush.

Here is the basic seed that serves as my starting point: I could not desire to pray if God did not desire me to pray.

The seed of prayer and of overcoming my illusions is grace.

This grace isn’t a fast remedy because it’s a seed after all. It takes more time than I would like to plant it and to watch it grow. That’s why my illusions about myself and about God can come storming back when it appears that I’m not making any progress.

Speaking of my own experience, I’ve tried the effort-intensive, duty-bound impulse control approach to Christianity. That approach allows my illusions about myself and about God to remain unchanged, if not cementing them into place.

On the other hand, entering into silence before God, sometimes after a time of reflection (Examen) or simple songs, nurtures the seed of God’s grace in my life. Again, this is a slow process.

Much like the plants in our garden, one day, the grace has grown into something substantial. The grace of God becomes the reality, not my illusions. It casts shade on these illusions, and over time they lose their power—although these illusions can return if I lose my time of grounding before God.

As I have made space for silent prayer before God, I am more convinced that the mercy, compassion, and sacrifice of Jesus throughout the Gospels reveals the heart of God for us. The mystics spent much of their time meditating on the cross because they believed it connects us with the love of God for us, not a kind of eternal transaction demanding intellectual assent.

My prayer for you and for myself in this coming year is that your illusions about yourself and God will wilt away under his growing grace in your life. We all begin as God’s beloved children, and any growth in our lives isn’t a matter of earning it or making it better.

We can live into, discover, and immerse ourselves into our identities as God’s beloved children. We can move beyond the obscurity and illusions that keep us from seeing the intense, unruly, and unexpected love of God that pulses throughout creation.

This is the deepest reality for us: “You are God’s beloved, and his desire is for you.”