How Do We Begin Again After Failure?

I’ve taken up woodworking here and there as we settle into a new home. I’m not very experienced at it, but I did buy some new tools to help me at least fail at it properly. Each time I mess something up, I at least did it with the right tool.

In the past I would cut some jagged edge along a piece of wood, but I could console myself that I didn’t have the right kind of saw, sufficient clamps, or a suitable work table.

Now I’m in a much better position to create competent projects, and it’s still a good 50/50 chance that it’s going to look that way it’s supposed to look. Failure is a routine part of my day, and that can drain away the restorative benefits that woodworking could give to me.

It has been a master class in facing failure and then moving on from failure. It’s something I think about a lot as a Christian when I give in to my own weakness and stupidity. The old vice of sloth or acedia can come knocking on the regular, and it can feel really awful to have failed YET AGAIN!

Here are a few thoughts that have come to mind in the midst of my woodworking that I have applied to my “spiritual failures” as well.

Be Honest without Immersing in Negativity

The trap of negative self-talk can make any failure a real mess. It’s a downward spiral that doesn’t seem to have an escape.

When it comes to woodworking, I can beat myself up pretty good with negative self-talk. Yes, I should be honest about my failures, but it doesn’t help me to wallow in them or to view them as a dead end.

Failure doesn’t have to be the last word, and if I’m at least honest about what went wrong, I’ll be in a better place in the future.

There Is No Perfect Place to Begin Again

Picking up another brand new piece of wood is often humbling. I can tell myself, “Well, this thing isn’t going to look any better than it does now when I’m done with it!”

There is no perfect way to start over after failure. The first steps after failure can feel clunky and uncertain.

There’s the temptation to beat yourself up and to wonder if you’ll ever get out of this rut. Even if you know you’ve been forgiven, starting over isn’t easy.

God Is Most Concerned with Your Health and Restoration

Jesus talked about repentance because it’s a necessary step toward spiritual health and restoration, not as a “gotcha” moment. He’s not trying to out us as frauds or to humiliate us as some kind of divine retribution.

Yes, repentance can be humbling, humiliating, and illuminating in the most uncomfortable of ways. Yet, this is one step in the process, not the end goal. Jesus wants us to be healed much like a doctor wants a sick patient to fully recover.

There may be relapses, and we may be responsible for those relapses, but ultimately, Jesus wants to see us thrive so that we can have intimacy with God and bless others.

 

Restore Your Soul from Draining Technology

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The New NRSV Simple Faith Bible Is Ideal for Screen Addicts

Back when I realized I could buy the New Living Translation on my Kindle, I hardly picked up a print Bible for years.

Everything about the ebook Bible reading experience was perfect: larger fonts, less heft, and no thin pages to gingerly flip through.

As with most innovations in technology, I adopted the new shiny thing without considering what it would change about my Bible reading habits.

It turned out that the more I added eBooks to my Kindle, the more I tended to jump from one book to another. Reading my Bible on my Kindle soon became difficult since I always had a virtual library at my fingertips at all times.

As a result, I’ve turned back to reading scripture in print form for the most part. While I’ll drop by Bible Gateway when I need to check on some scripture verses, print has been my ideal medium for more focused reading of and meditation on scripture.

That brings me to the Simple Faith Bible, an NRSV translation that includes notes and prayers from former president and long time Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter. The Bible is produced by Zondervan and is advertised with an especially easy to read font.

I took Bible Gateway up on the chance to pick up a copy since I often preach from the NRSV translation at my Episcopal church, and the NRSV has long been a favorite for study and for meditating on scripture.

I was looking forward to having a print copy of the NRSV handy, and the endorsements from the likes of Barbara Brown Taylor didn’t hurt either.

The Simple Faith Bible’s Reading Experience

I’m not going to lie, the font in this Bible made me drop my jaw when I opened it up the first time. It’s clear, easy to read, and virtually jumps off the page. It is by far the easiest to read print Bible I’ve ever owned.

I have found it immensely useful for study and for devotional reading. While it’s not a Bible I use every day since I tend to use a prayer book quite often, it is great to know that I have this version at my fingertips whenever I need it.

It is well worth the price just to have a Bible that is so easy to read.

The Simple Faith Bible’s Extras

I honestly didn’t pick up this Bible for the extras. Carter’s devotional writings and prayers are a nice perk and always seemed to strike a relevant tone that was welcome in the reading experience. I can see his writings being a welcome break for the typical reader who may want a little help tying some themes together in a passage.

There are some translation notes that are common in any Bible version, and each book has a very brief introductory paragraph.

The book of Revelation is literally the end of this Bible. Don’t expect maps or study tools for more in-depth study. That isn’t to say that this Bible needs those extras. It just seems like the kind of thing to mention these days since so many Bibles seem to include maps.

Learn more about the Simple Faith NRSV Bible

Zondervan’s official page

The Bible Gateway Store

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Can We Do All Things Through Christ When Life Feels Impossible?

 

My conversations with friends these days tend to revolve around some pretty similar themes.

We all have too much to do and too much to worry about with a pandemic, the coming election, school being disrupted, and work being disrupted. Many of us are keeping our kids at home for school, and that adds a significant layer of exhaustion for everything.

Just as we feel this strain and burden with so much to do and to worry about, we have so many restrictions on our gatherings with friends, families, and groups, especially churches. Our support networks are suddenly limited and uncertain.

The isolation, the converging challenges of work and childcare at home, and the many external uncertainties feel like too much right now. In this moment of feeling overwhelmed, I’m reminded of Paul saying that despite his overwhelming circumstances, he could do all things through Christ who strengthens him.

“…I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me“ (Philippians 4:12-14, NRSV).

Given the scale of these challenges right now, it feels a bit cheap to say to someone, “I know this feels like a lot, but have you considered Jesus?”

What exactly is possible in Christ when there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything? Paul would read a lot easier if he said, “I can do the two most important things each day through Christ who strengthens me.”

Let’s be honest here, too: Jesus and Paul faced two enormous, impossible circumstances. The Romans and the Jewish religious establishment were as impossible as it gets, influential, and full of resources.

What exactly could Jesus and Paul “do” in the face of such powerful entities and impossible circumstances? Perhaps to the eyes of some, it appears Paul and Jesus hardly accomplished anything at all.

They were both opposed by the religious establishment, suffered enormous losses, and were executed by Rome. Those are hardly ringing endorsements!

I have had my moments of sadness and despair, exhaustion and worry. I need more breaks and moments of silence just to make it through a typical day filled with work, homeschooling the older kids, caring for a two-year-old, and trying to carve a bit of space for silence, prayer, and personal sanity.

What does it look like to do all things through Christ who strengthens us?

What does it even look like to do one or two important things each day through Christ who strengthens us?

Keep in mind that in the verses surrounding the passage quoted above, Paul wrote about real distress. He had suffered and gone through times of want and real hardship.

The mystery I find here is the life of Christ at work in us. This key to contentment and peace is also rather counterintuitive. In Christ, we are living from a source that seems at once apart from us, but in reality very much a spiritual presence in us.

How do we surrender to the power of God in us and still maintain a sense of drive and mission each day?

Perhaps the first step is that genuine feeling of being overwhelmed and struggling to make sense of a situation that feels impossible. That moment of great need and struggle is our opportunity, as unwelcome as it may feel at the time, to rely on God’s presence in us.

I suppose it would be ideal to arrive at this point BEFORE we feel overwhelmed by situations that feel impossible. Yet, urgency can be a great motivator.

In my journey through the worst seasons of anxiety, those moments of feeling overwhelmed often served as a prompt to pray. I didn’t want to feel so anxious, but I soon found that they could be turned into a useful step toward faith and mental health.

The crush of the many impossibilities today is hardly welcome. We face a lot of uncertainty, and some of us will still endure a lot of suffering. Too many lives are being lost, and too many families are grieving. Grief and sorrow are appropriate responses to our current reality.

Yet, this is also the moment when we can take another step in faith toward the mystery of the life of Christ in us.

What could it look like to turn toward God’s presence in us when life feels like a weight we can no longer carry?

Finding a place of contentment and peace may feel like a heavy lift right now. But faith doesn’t tend to grow through leaps and bounds.

Faith grows at the pace of a tiny seed taking root in the ground, sprouting under the pounding rain, and imperceptibly growing under the blazing sun. Even the unseen nature of the process itself can feel impossible.

I wouldn’t kid myself that we can do ALL things right now, but we can begin to learn what it looks like to lean more and more on the presence of Christ. This is God’s present gift for us even when it feels like so much else has been taken away.

Spiritual Formation with Catholics vs Legalism with Hard Partying Fundamentalists

I have some bad news for you if you’re a fundamentalist and also most likely if you’re an evangelical Christian.

There’s a pretty good chance that many of the leaders who enforce all of the rules and doctrines you’re supposed to follow are partying pretty hard on the weekends or have a secret vice that contradicts all of the rules for holy living they impose on you.

I’m serious about this. Some of these former pastors talk to me about publishing their stories because they know how hollow such a secret life can be. The number of national scandals of religious leaders who are household names are only eclipsed by those who are unknown but still mired in scandal and contradiction.

A well known court evangelical, who is outspoken in his partisan political positions and notable for leading an increasingly fundamentalist Christian university, recently posted a vacation photo of himself that clearly violated several of his own rules. In fact, many employees at Christian universities, churches, and other parachurch groups would be fired for similar photos.

This isn’t the first time this person has released evidence of his double standards, and he has a lot of company among similar pastors and fundamentalist leaders who enforce strict rules in public while living an indulgent double life.

There’s something rotten about it all. Considering that Jesus was most critical of the religious leaders who were laden with rules and remained “white washed tombs” on the inside, we should remain wary of a Christianity that demands adherence to excessive lists of rules. The longer the list of rules, the more likely adherents are to forget the point of it all.

Ironically, the leaders who enforce the rules of their tribes and issue warnings about “slippery slopes,” are among the first ones to slip and slide away from their own standards.

If you’re angry or despondent about such behavior, I don’t blame you. However, all is not lost. In fact, there is something much better for us if we’re willing to rethink what holy living can look like.

Spiritual Formation as an Alternative

The alternative to rule bound legalism isn’t anything goes, feel good religion or a surrender to the prosperity Gospel. Spiritual formation through the supernatural and mysterious work of God in our lives offers an alternative to the piles of rules for personal moral behavior.

In fact, there are still rules of a sort. We could say that a “rule of life” that guides our formation helps us keep space for God’s influence and transformative power. A rule of life helps us define our values and spiritual practices so that we make space for them each day.

Spiritual formation doesn’t rest primarily on external duty, obligation, or enforcement of rules. It looks to the inner work of God in our lives and trusts that the Spirit moves even in unseen ways in our hearts.

Catholic writer Henri Nouwen writes in his book Spiritual Formation:

“Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves.”

He then adds:

“Thus to live the spiritual life and to let God’s presence fill us takes constant prayer, and to move from our illusions and isolation back to that place in the heart where God continues to form us in the likeness of Christ takes time and attention.”

Sustainable Spiritual Formation vs. Double Life Legalism

The biggest difference between the duty of external rules and the formation of God’s internal work in us comes down to what’s sustainable. There is tremendous pressure and energy that must be exerted to stick with the program of external rules. Meanwhile, spiritual formation calls for discipline and space for practices, but it entrusts the work of formation with God’s indwelling Spirit.

The results of spiritual formation are determined by God as we surrender our lives. We have a role in the process, but God’s renewal comes to us regularly like a spring of water that sustains us.

It is quite likely that those laden with rules will either develop secret vices as a way of letting off some steam or simply run out of energy to uphold all of the rules. This type of legalism is powered by fear of being outed and expelled from the group. It struggles to show mercy to those who have failed because membership in the group demands following the rules.

If the power for spiritual transformation comes by faith in God’s power at work in us, then we have something that can last for the long haul. We will certainly fail, but our failure is often rooted in exerting control over our lives rather than surrendering ourselves to God’s love and to the Spirit’s quiet work in us.

Call me crazy, but even as an avowed Protestant myself, I’ll take Henri Nouwen’s sustainable and quiet path toward spiritual formation over the double life of hard partying fundamentalists. Besides the inner emptiness of legalism, I’ll bet the fundamentalists also have really bad taste in wine.

How Toxic Christian Leaders Protect Themselves

Have you ever asked yourself, “How did such a toxic person last so long in Christian ministry?”

I sure have. And the answer certainly isn’t a simple, cut and dry matter.

I’m not an expert on abusive Christian leaders, but I’ve seen enough troubling behavior from Christian leaders to know at least a few of their really effective strategies.

There are many ways that toxic Christian leaders protect themselves and hide their abusive or destructive behaviors, but keeping a few of these dynamics in mind can help you sort out what may be happening behind the scenes when dealing with a toxic Christian leader.

Influential Relationships Matter

The safest place for a toxic Christian leader who refuses to change his or her behavior is in creating a virtuous image of themselves around a vitally important issue in their circles of influence and then surrounding themselves with key influencers as a support network.

This plays out the same regardless of your views on hot button issues. The toxic progressive leader will be committed to social justice, equality, LGBTQ rights, etc. The toxic conservative leader be outspoken on pro-life issues, religious liberty, etc.

A toxic leader’s commitment to a virtuous issue creates a sense of incongruity whenever an allegation surfaces. It also leads to a dilemma within the networks of influencers who are often friends or at least friendly acquaintances who all depend on each other for professional and personal support.

Influencers think they really know this toxic leader. There is no doubt that the toxic leader has selflessly devoted time and energy to issues that are vital to the group’s shared values. They are rarely ready to reconsider the relationship when an accusation surfaces.

Toxic Leaders Are Protected by Incongruity

When accusers step forward to level a charge against a toxic leader, the public and the influencer network will need to sort out their impressions of the leader based on private interactions vs. the accusation.

Even more challenging, when a toxic leader is embedded into the fabric of an influencer network, this leader is now considered one of them. We shouldn’t overlook the power of these relational ties.

In fact, toxic leaders are really good at manipulating influential people, personally reinforcing their shared values and commitment to each other.

Who will be the first person in that network to start asking uncomfortable questions?

Will that person who challenges the toxic leader be ostracized from the group?

Should the group ostracize the toxic leader if the accusations are credible?

In addition to all of this, it’s just really, really hard to change your perception of someone who has only revealed their best selves to you. It’s also humbling to admit you’ve been manipulated.

When I witnessed a toxic leader manipulating some of my friends, one of them remarked, “It’s getting harder to reconcile my relationship with him and what I keep learning about him.”

That is the incongruity that toxic leaders rely on as a shield. If they can create enough doubt within their networks, they can get away with a lot.

Standing Together Against Public Outrage

The next point here is where things can get really messy.

If the scandal involving a toxic Christian leader is serious enough, there will rightly be public outrage and condemnations. The Christian influencers around the toxic leader may even get swept up into these condemnations if they fail to recognize the problems with the toxic leader.

Toxic Christian leaders really love it when this happens. Their concern isn’t for their friends or their victims. They only see this as an opportunity to strengthen their relationships with the influencers around them.

If toxic leaders can create a sense of camaraderie around public backlash, they will be far safer from the influential people who could hold them to account. When they are all embattled together around a “misunderstood” or “falsely accused” toxic leader, influencers are less likely to ask tough questions of a leader.

In fact, as public outrage grows against a toxic leader and his/her network, the influencers become vital supporters for each other. Even worse, the toxic leader, who has carefully cultivated a pristine image among the influencers, can become a support for others in the network as they face outrage over the leader’s bad behavior.

How Should We Handle Toxic Leaders?

I don’t share all of this to say that responding to toxic leaders is hopeless or that we shouldn’t be outraged when their behavior comes to light. Rather, our responses should take into account the toxic leader’s strategy for longevity.

I want toxic leaders to be held to account as much as anyone. I want them to see their behavior for what it is, to repent, to make amends, and to make meaningful change—even if such scenarios seem quite rare.

More than anything else, we need to take account of the influencer networks around these toxic leaders and consider that they may need more time than most to sort out the incongruities and relationships.

It can feel good in the moment to call out the influencers who prop up toxic Christian leaders, but that strategy can be counter-productive in the long term. Influencers need an off ramp away from toxic leaders toward the truth.

We should never sugar-coat the truth of the matter. If a toxic leader has abused people, let’s make sure the influencers know that’s the case. But they may not respond as quickly as we would like.

I’m not saying that a slow response is a good thing or a bad thing. That’s just the reality as influential Christians sort out the incongruities of the toxic leader and face the possibility that they’ve been wrong. I’m all ears for ideas on how to speed up that process!

It’s quite likely that many of these Christian leaders surrounding the toxic leader have never dealt with a situation like this. Toxic leaders especially love surrounding themselves with younger, brilliant leaders who have talent and influence but little experience with such situations.

The truth usually comes out. Toxic leaders can only hide reality for so long. The influential Christians around them are often too slow to speak up, but even they will typically come around… eventually.

We all respond to toxic Christian leaders in the best ways we know how. I’m not the one to tell you how to respond. Rather, I encourage you to consider the survival strategy for a toxic Christian leader before you respond. Such leaders are surely counting on you not knowing what they’re doing behind the scenes.

How to Make an Author Howl in Despair

 

No one ever made me literally howl with despair, as if I was lost in the bleak darkness of the wilderness, but I’ve had that feeling deep in my soul on many occasions when discussing my latest book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction.

The internal howling in despair often happened before I sharpened my elevator pitch for Reconnect. I told others little tidbits about the aim of the book:

  • It’s a book about using technology too much…
  • It’s a book about how technology makes it hard to pray…
  • It’s a book about how spiritual practices can help us transcend the harm done by smartphones and social media…

Each time I shared little tidbits like this, people naturally compared my idea to existing books—one book in particular came up, in fact.

  • “Oh, it’s like The Tech Wise Family, then?”
  • “Ah, I see. That sounds like The Tech Wise Family.”
  • “Hey, I just read The Tech Wise Family. That’s the same idea, right?”

This is where the internal howling kicked in. Perhaps a sophisticated answer like this passed through my mind as well:

“NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

There are two really good reasons for this response…

Authors Always Believe Their Books Are Unique

Part of the reason for this response on my part is that every author, for better or for worse, believes their books are precious little unique snowflakes that have deeply unappreciated intricacies that truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

Even the authors who write Bible studies on the book of Romans or something about fighting the stress of “too busy” with the whisper “you are enough” (don’t forget the flowers on the cover too) think their books are extremely unique. My gosh, it’s still a bit of a miracle that I got a book published in 2008 about “theology and culture” at a time when every white dude with an MDiv was “musing” about such things on their blogs.

Authors can’t help it. And to a certain extent, every book is as unique as the author. Even books that appear identical may find a new angle that benefits readers. And honestly, some topics just have a higher demand that publishers who want to keep the lights on can’t help meeting.

Yet, there is another really good reason for this howling in despair…

Authors Must Distinguish Their Books

One of the most stressful and challenging aspects of writing a book proposal for a publisher is the Competing Works section that lists five or six similar titles and compares them to your proposed book. The competing works is a difficult balancing act because you need to demonstrate an existing market for your book without overlapping completely with an existing work.

I’ve seen promising book proposals fall flat because similar books were either in a publisher’s pipeline or had been newly released.

When I developed a proposal for Reconnect, I listed The Tech Wise Family as a competing work and carefully distinguished my book from it. If I was pitching something that is “the same thing” as The Tech Wise Family, I wouldn’t be able to promote my book to readers, let alone to a publisher.

My internal howling and shouting at comparisons to The Tech Wise Family called to mind the painstaking process of defining my book’s place in the market.

I didn’t know of any other Christian book that merged an awareness of the design of digital technology and its formative impact with an awareness of spiritual formation and the ways technology could undermine spirituality.

When I managed to calm down my internal screaming during these conversations, I put it like this: The Tech Wise Family is accurate and useful, but it’s dealing with the flood  by proposing countermeasures to deal with the reality we have.

I’m seeking to look further upstream…

Why do we have a flood?

What is the design of the flood?

How can we keep the flood from reaching us in the first place?

How can we build a solid foundation of spiritual practices that can save us from being swept away in the flood?

Less Howling, More Silence

I fully endorse and use the ideas in The Tech Wise Family, but I have personally needed a different approach to digital formation. I needed to understand why I’m drawn to social media and my smartphone. I needed to understand the ways these technologies exploit my weaknesses and how spiritual practices can restore my soul each day.

Placing good barriers around my technology use has helped me, but I wanted to know why I needed these barriers in the first place.

Most importantly, I needed a soul restoring alternative to digital formation. For many of us, our excessive smartphone use is scratching at itch for something: distraction, connection, enjoyment, etc.

I wanted to find the alternative to digital formation, and many of spiritual formation’s practices offer helpful alternatives. Digital formation makes us reactive; spiritual formation helps us become thoughtful and aware. Digital formation creates despair and anxiety; spiritual formation helps us wait with patience and hope.

All of this is to say in a very detailed way that my book Reconnect is a precious little unique snowflake that has deeply unappreciated intricacies that only truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

I trust that you are just that sort of reader and that you are no doubt eager to read it now, rather than telling me it’s just like The Tech Wise Family

 

Learn More about My Precious, Unique Book

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

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Reconnect

Is Social Media Giving Us More or Fewer Choices?

The promise of technology today is an endless supply of choices. We have so many apps to choose from, where an abundance of users deliver an immeasurable amount of posts, videos, and images for us to view.

Dotted throughout this ecosystem, we find links to articles, ads for products, and instantly streaming videos that are ready to go if we simply stop scrolling for a second.

Group video calls, personal video updates, and online watch parties enhance the experience and possibilities of social networking online. Book clubs, interest groups, and religious gatherings all benefit from these free and easy ways to get connected.

Each time we scroll through social media, the choices and possibilities may leave us feeling overwhelmed, especially in the midst of a rapidly changing national crisis such as police violence or the COVID-19 pandemic.

We may even spend much more time online than we intended, scrolling through news stories, expert commentary, and the reactions of friends, colleagues, and leaders we respect.

What Is Social Media Designed to Do?

Humming along in the background, social media companies track our actions, compiling profiles of users so that advertisers can better target each person with customized content.

Social media is now a vital part of advertising in the “attention economy.” The companies that can attract the most attention, have the best chance to make a profit from that attention.

The companies behind social media have every incentive to keep us hooked and have designed their products to be as addicting as possible. While we see endless opportunities to connect with others, to learn, and share our perspectives, social media companies simply want to consume as much of our time as possible.

The features on social media, such as infinite scrolling, the red notification alert, the likes and comments, and the groups and posts that show up in your feed are all designed to keep you hooked or to crave more.

What Are You Choosing to Do on Social Media?

This brings up a vital discussion about choice and freedom on social media.

If companies have every incentive to keep us hooked…

If the designers, engineers, and psychologists have maximized the addictive qualities of every feature to manipulate us…

If many former social media investors, executives, and engineers have stopped using social media for all of these reasons and more…

Then how much control do we have over our usage?

If social media triggers a pleasant little hit of dopamine each time we check on a new update or find an amusing post by a friend as we scroll through our feed, then why wouldn’t we keep checking in?

Why wouldn’t we feel unable to leave our homes without our phones if they are so good at delivering quick hits of pleasure that hardly last?

We are being manipulated through hacks to our psychology and physiology. Our good and healthy desires for community, information, and amusement are exploited against us to our detriment and to a company’s profit.

As social media sucks us in each day, our choices and possibilities become narrow. We feel the pull to return to social media, and once we’re on, we may struggle to leave.

We are free to stay, to be manipulated, and to continue to experience the quick hits of affirmation and pleasure, but the manipulation is strong enough to make logging off seem impossible at times. Our choice to put social media down isn’t cut and dry because of what we’re up against on our devices and in our feeds.

How I Give Myself More Choices

I have found that I have the most freedom and agency to choose what I will do with my day by limiting social media with blocking programs like Self Control 2, Freedom, or StayFocusd.

If my choices for the day include social media, I have found that social media is designed to captivate my attention to the point that it doesn’t share well with any other goal I have.

If I choose social media without a plan to block or track my usage at times, social media will end up choosing how I spend my free time much more effectively than I will. I have the freedom to limit my usage and to set up blocks to protect my time, but once I step out of those blocks, it may be extremely hard to follow more intentional boundaries for my mental health and the benefit of others around me.

The more I limit my choices on social media, the more choices I have everywhere else in my life.

The less I limit my choices on social media, the fewer choices I have everywhere else in my life.

There may be some people who can use social media without blocks or intention at this time, but given enough time and attention, the algorithms will go to work. When working properly, they will keep us engaged as long as possible.

As long as we are engaged with social media, we can choose whatever we want–on social media.

My hope in writing Reconnect is that more people will reclaim their time and attention, using social media within beneficial boundaries. This ensures that their lives will be filled with choices that align with their desires and not the desires of Silicon Valley executives.

Learn More about Spiritual Formation vs. Digital Formation

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

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Reconnect

Prayer Is Boring. But We Need Boredom… And Prayer

 

Considering that digital formation, often through our phones and social media, either fills our minds with thoughts or prevents us from facing our thoughts in silence, spiritual formation frees us from the constant chatter of our thoughts and trains us to let go of them.

Whether we are meditating on the life-giving words of Scripture or waiting in silence before God, spiritual formation relies on disengaging from the constant flow of chaotic ideas that create a reactive mind that struggles to focus on prayer. In addition, once we have stepped away from this stream of ideas, we also need to let go of the ones that we have fixated on.

The thoughts lodged in our minds prevent us from perceiving ourselves and God’s presence clearly. The more we are engaged in stimulation and ideas, the less space we’ll have to thoughtfully review our days and to let go of what Martin Laird calls “afflictive thoughts.”

These thoughts can fill our minds to the point that we fail to realize God is present, or we remain boxed in by our illusions about ourselves or God. By sitting in silence, releasing our thoughts gently, and creating space for God, we can gain greater clarity through simple contemplative practices. Laird writes:

“Contemplative practice gradually dispels the illusion of separation from God. Through the medicine of grace, the eye of our heart is healed by the gradual removal of the lumber of mental clutter, ‘the plank in our eye’ that obscures the radiance of the heart. This radiance is a ray of God’s own light.”*

This letting go of thoughts is not a spectacular or brand-new, cutting-edge spiritual practice. This isn’t the sort of thing spiritual gurus do onstage to the applause of the crowd. It is an ancient spiritual practice of letting go of our thoughts and illusions that can blind us to the brilliance of God—even if the practice often feels quite unspectacular on most days.

Howard Thurman shares how the unspectacular waiting in silence, releasing each thought as it comes, is the kind of space that God can work with in our lives:

“It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life—so that when His Presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me.”**

If smartphones and social media ensure that we never have to wait in boredom, that we can always find a source of stimulation, and that we never have to be alone with our thoughts, we are training ourselves to fail in spiritual formation. In fact, our devices are stealing an important element of a typical prayer experience.

Put bluntly, prayer is often quite simple and mundane, and even boring. It may include incredible encounters with God or moments of powerful transformation, but the day-in, day-out discipline of prayer is rarely exciting or even rewarding. Prayer even thrives in the boredom of its simple routines and practices.

 

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*Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 58.

**Thurman, Essential Writings, 45.

What Motivates Us Besides Fear and Anger?

The other day I learned about a Christian book that combines end times prophecy predictions with extremely questionable but explosive political commentary.

Looking it up on Amazon, it has been selling quite steadily and has tons of positive reviews. As I searched for additional information about the book and the author, I found that he had been promoting it on the television of show of a long time doomsday prophet of the end times, seller of dubious survival kits, and convicted felon.

Red flags were shooting up all over the place for me.

I could go on about my many reservations over an author like this, whose end times predictions would leave my Bible professors speechless, but enough has been written about that. I couldn’t help thinking about how this author had really cracked the code to use anger AND fear mixed together to sell books.

If an author isn’t going to use expertise, research, or experience to sell a book with a compelling or helpful message, anger or fear are usually the two tried and true paths.

As an author who tries to avoid these tricks to sell books, I wanted to pull the curtain back a little bit to ask some questions and to leave us in a place with better information and a hopeful path forward.

How Anger Manipulates Us

Anger focuses on something outrageous and wrong that leaves us livid. Reading a book about that anger helps us feel seen, but it also stirs up the anger and becomes a kind of addiction in itself.

Ironically, we may become angry about something very valid that needs to be addressed. Yet, anger that is used to sell something rarely offers a point of resolution or a path toward action.

For instance, the Poor People’s Campaign is addressing injustice through a moral fusion movement that may leave us feeling angry that so many have been overlooked and exploited for so long. Yet, the goal is to move people toward redemptive, bi-partisan action that addresses the wrongs.

The goal isn’t to make people angry so that they buy something and then stew in their anger. Rage isn’t the end point of the message.

When anger is used to sell a book, the book becomes the end in itself. We could say something similar about news websites that supplement their useful reporting with posts showing shocking and outrageous news stories, whether or not they’re true, in order to get clicks and to then sell ads.

The news event may be true and worthy of being addressed, but the goal of the website goes beyond informing the public. The emotional high of the anger is just a tool to sell ads.

Anger can be used to motivate us toward positive action, but it’s very easily abused, especially when it comes to book promotion and media.

How Fear Manipulates Us

In a similar way, fear can be used as a dead end motivational tool as well that prompts us to take action based on what we fear. We may be prompted by fear to buy a book or to consume media based on feeling safer if we’re in the know.

This was often parodied on the Colbert Report: “Watch this segment. What you don’t know, COULD KILL YOU!”

End times books have been selling access to secret knowledge to prepare us for the end times for generations. On top of feeling safer by gaining the author’s special knowledge, we feel like we’re special because we’re on the inside track!

I confess that I’ve been wrapped up in some of this end times thinking in the past, and gosh, it does feel good to believe I’ve got a special edge on everyone else. I KNOW THE FUTURE!!!!

However, the real appeal I’ve found in these end times books is the way they address our fear of the unknown. They traffic in special insider knowledge that helps us manage our fears a bit better because we can prepare for what will happen next.

Oddly enough, these end times books run the very real risk of leaving us worse off because we are preparing for a future that will not happen!

But wait, there’s more! We also end up relying on this insider knowledge rather than living by faith. By seeking to mitigate our fears with end times predictions, we aren’t trusting our futures to God and facing the unknown with trust in his indwelling Spirit and the victory of his Son.

It’s all a really big mess.

What are the alternatives?

Empowering People with Expertise, Research, or Experience

I’ve had a front row seat watching my wife and several friends get a PhD. They spend years learning how to responsibly research topics, evaluate their findings, and then present them in a way that honors what has been done before.

While working on my MDIV, I saw the folks on track for a PhD in a theological discipline, and I thought to myself, “No thanks. I’m out.”

Those folks had to read, remember, assimilate, and evaluate A LOT. They seemed to be reading all of the time. When I’d ask them about a topic, they wouldn’t mention the chapter or two of a book they’d read. They’d discuss multiple books, articles, and theories.

Just to write an academic article requires diving into multiple fields, each with their seminal texts, regarded experts, and intellectual land mines. The width and breadth of research is enormous!

All of this to say, getting expertise that you’d find in a seminary or university is hard and time consuming.

Even worse, by the time you’re done getting a PhD and writing for so many academic folks, it’s challenging to transition into writing and communicating for a popular audience. It can be done, but that’s a whole OTHER skill set to learn.

The other paths of experience and research for writing a compelling book are challenging as well, even if they aren’t quite as demanding as becoming an academic expert. And even if you have lived through an experience or invested months or years into research, there’s no guarantee that you’ll catch anyone’s attention.

In fact, you’ll most likely look at best-selling authors who use fear, anger, or a mix of the two and wonder what you’re doing wrong!

When I look at the books that have been most helpful for me, I find that the offer some mix of hopeful change and practical guidance. Things can get better, and this book will show you how.

That message can certainly be exploited with a shallow, quick-fix solution that doesn’t actually work. Yet, a genuinely hopeful message is a bit harder to capture. It’s not easy to articulate hope and change in a brief media hit today. For new authors, this process is especially agonizing as they try to cram a 50,000 word message into two sentences.

It’s no wonder that folks who don’t want to spend the time gaining expertise or conducting research or living through a series of experiences and who don’t want to bother with formulating a hopeful message opt for the shortcut of fear and anger.

The good news is that people are motivated by things other than fear and anger. We are motivated by hope, goodness, and the possibility of change, but fear and anger can become addicting if we are exposed to them over and over again.

Perhaps the most helpful way for us to confront the fear and anger we confront in our world is to remain aware of how they are impacting us. Can we step back from our reactions and thoughts to become mindful and prayerful?

How can we bring our fear and anger to God today?

As we see our fear and anger for what they are, we can regain some of our agency and then ask the next question: How can I join God in bringing hope and change to the fear and anger in our world?

My prayer is that we are motivated by God’s hope and loving presence, even as we are surrounded by anger and fear today.

 

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Prayer, Anxiety, and What Should We Do When We Stop?

Motion and activity can become a way to avoid the parts of ourselves we would rather not face. When our motion and activity are limited, or we are forced to stop, we face what we’ve been running from all of this time.

What should our next step be when we have to stop?

Perhaps it would help to think of this more like a bit of maintenance time for just one thing. At least, one thing at a time.

Stopping long enough to see what we’ve been worried about or avoiding can be jarring, but we also can finally take a little bit of restorative action.

For instance, journaling is a vitally important way to build resilience. It’s also an extremely useful first step toward prayer, since it gets my thoughts right out in the open. Prayer is so much easier when I can share my burdens with clarity!

When I take time for silence, I won’t have those thoughts bouncing around in my head to the same degree. That is, provided I’ve been as honest as possible in my journal.

Journaling doesn’t have to be the longer form three page commitment of morning pages, although that is extremely helpful. A bit of maintenance could be a pause to write down a few sentences about what you’re feeling or thinking.

If something in the news bothered you, then write it down immediately. Don’t let it stew in your mind. Journaling doesn’t have to be a formal process of writing letters to yourself or recording every event from your day. It can simply offer a way to process your thoughts when you have a moment to pause.

My hope is that we can at least draw some restorative practices to improve our resilience and grounding in the present as we face an unprecedented pandemic crisis.

The general strategy of avoidance, motion, and activity isn’t good for our souls in the long term. When we are forced to stop, it can be jarring to lack any resources to respond otherwise.

As we consider ways we can help others during this crisis, we can also think of how to help ourselves slow down, take better stock of the present moment, and process our thoughts more completely. This can help us pray and become more present for others, as we won’t expend so much energy staying busy to avoid the thoughts we’re running from each day.

We have to face our thoughts one way or another. Regular journaling is one way to choose the terms for facing them and seeking a sustainable path forward.

 

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