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What If Silence, Mystery, and Love Are All We’ve Got?

“You’re not an evangelical anymore, are you?”

The question caught me off guard. To be honest, I almost replied, “Of course I still am!”

But then if you compare the sorts of things I write about with the kinds of “evangelicals” who get quoted in news stories or who make a splash in the headlines, it’s understandable why there is some confusion. From the political court evangelicals that apologize for their favorite politicians, to the Bible teachers who promise answers and solutions, to the self-help Christian authors who focus on helping people with their busy, cluttered lives, I don’t feel like I fit in much with this group at times.

Of course, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about labels and my identity within a particular group. Who even has time to keep up with all of the latest feuds, fads, and fits among evangelicals?

I’m primarily concerned with remaining faithful to where God has called me to be and avoiding the foolish extremes that I have mistakenly adopted in the past. I don’t want to exchange one set of judgmental dogmatism for another.

It’s tempting to debate whether certain folks are too progressive, not progressive enough, truly evangelical, or traitors to what evangelical used to mean. I’ve gone down that rabbit hole plenty of times.

Once you go down that rabbit hole enough times and find out that it hasn’t done anyone much good, it’s understandable that you’d begin searching for alternatives. Is there another way to exist as a Christian without defining yourself against someone else?

I think this is why I distinguish my own evangelicalism today from my previous anxious evangelicalism. As an anxious evangelical I needed something to defend, a group to defend, and a person to attack.

As I continue to step into my journey into contemplative prayer, I’m far less certain about particular answers I used to rely on, but my faith is also far more secure. As if answers were a prerequisite for faith in the first place!

I won’t say that we only have silence, mystery, and love, but these three things sure feel like they take up a lot of my time right now, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they were all we had to go on.

Silence before God because there’s so much I don’t know, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes when I let my mouth run.

Mystery because it’s true that purity of heart and obedient action are important, but those serve as starting points before the mystery of God.

Love because the love of the Father and love for neighbor were the two highest priorities of Jesus, and when we finally surrender ourselves in silence to the mystery of God and confess our inadequacies, we will find loving presence more often than we’ll find solutions.

Who knows what else God may bring into our lives or what else may speak to us. I’m not concerned about being dogmatic about this. Rather, these words are three of the most important sign posts that I’ve found as a kind of evangelical refugee.

Truth be told, silence, mystery, and love can be found in the roots of the evangelical movement. They are often obscured by other causes and priorities. They’re easy to miss if you don’t hold a place for them and let God quietly work through them.

They don’t contradict the Bible, but they do call for a different way of considering it and using it.

They don’t neglect the cross, but can exist without scrutinizing of the mechanics of salvation and atonement theories.

They don’t prevent us from sharing the Good News, but they offer a very conceptions of sharing the loving presence of God with others.

They can appeal to many of the commitments of evangelicals, but they also don’t feed the modern movement’s anxious, defensive tendencies.

Silence, mystery, and love may not be “ALL” that Christians have today, but they can prove foundational for making space for God’s love, remaining open to the what God is speaking, and allowing God to transform us into his beloved people.

These three things can calm our anxiety about God and our Christian “commitment” could be delivered from the endless temptation to measure and to report progress.

Embracing these three things haven’t produced an immediate life-changing revolution that  left my life unrecognizable. Rather, they are part of a lifelong process of becoming aware of God and allowing God to transform my life. I’ll take my chances on the fruit that comes from the slow and steady presence of God.

The Trouble with Comparing Politics in the Roman Empire to America

I can’t recall how often I’ve heard Christians quote Paul’s approach to the Roman Empire as the blueprint, more or less, for Christians living in American democracy.

Then again, I’ve also lost track of how many times I’ve heard Christians quote Jesus’ approach to the Roman Empire as the blueprint, more or less, for Christians living in American democracy. The trouble that I have found in both approaches is that both assume too many things when aligning the Roman Empire and America today.

Sure, there are plenty of ways that America has brought benefits to its citizens and to people around the world. However, America has also been a force of colonial power and oppression both to the Native Americans in our land and among certain nations around the world. And having said all of that, there is no American leader who claims to be a deity and demands the worship of its citizens.

Dissent in America is welcome and protected by law. Even in the worst case scenario of a citizen taking up arms against the government, there should be a legal process—although that will play out differently in some cases since a black man holding a cell phone may be shot dead by police, while a group of white extremists can take over federal land and then walk out of court free men. Inconsistencies aside in American justice and policing, no one is going to be tortured for days via crucifixion for leading an opposition political party or for opposing the government. The closest America came to this Roman practice of “justice” was the lynching of black Americans, although David Cone points out that this traumatic act of intimidation and terrorism was intended to suppress the black population and to enforce white supremacy.

Jesus and Paul operated in a time of Roman colonial power and exploitation. There were no elections to determine if Caesar would be in charge. There were no political parties. Any kind of political organizing was viewed with extreme suspicion, and it was the mere perception of Jesus’ political aspirations that drove the Jewish leaders to conclude that they would lose their city to a Roman army if Jesus was allowed to continue walking around when people called him their king and Messiah. Their fear of Roman reprisal was so great that Caiaphas concluded it was better to kill a single man, even if he was innocent, then to risk calling the attention of Rome’s touchy imperial leaders.

Living when and where he did, it’s preposterous to use the example of Jesus to assert that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics at all or that Jesus never would have supported government programs like healthcare or social security. Rome just plundered people, period. Under the circumstances of crushing military rule, extreme taxation, and minimal resources or political friends, the Jewish people at the time of Jesus had no other option than to be generous with each other. If they asked the Roman government to give them better services, they would have likely ended up on a cross. If the government only serves the interests of an imperial power, the best that you can hope for is to stay out of its way and to help others when you can.

In the case of Paul, there were even greater concerns that the Roman government and local officials reporting to them would get in the way of his missionary work. Paul and his companions faced imprisonment, beatings, and death, among many other daily attacks and slanders. We shouldn’t expect Paul to suggest working with this government, and we certainly shouldn’t expect him to rally anyone to lobby for legislation. He knew that his only option was to stay off the radar, to be cooperative as often as possible, and to avoid any kind of agitation that would hinder his missionary work or put the churches in danger.

Today, we can elect our government officials and enact policies that can help or hurt individuals. We can charitably debate which political party or ideology is most in line with the command to love our neighbors, honoring the God-given dignity of individuals, and cares for the sacred creation of God, but I don’t think you can argue against the need to vote on politicians and policies for the sake of our neighbors and creation.

I can’t imagine that Jesus or Paul thought of themselves as setting up a once and for all time policy on government and voting. They were trying to survive under the boot of a powerful Empire, avoiding allegiance to an idolatrous and corrupt regime without raising suspicions unnecessarily.

Can we imagine a Civil Rights movement today without the language of Scripture and the law of love resonating throughout the sermons, speeches, and marches?

Today we have the power to use our votes for the welfare of our neighbors, to set up a government that treats all with justice and equality. We all have a part to play, provided that we are wary of being played by the government when it hopes to exploit religious groups for its own gains.

A Note for Conservative American Christians Before an Election

I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior at the age of 11 while attending a Baptist church in rural New Jersey. A few years later, I began attending Fellowship Baptist Church (now Fellowship Community Church) outside of Philadelphia.

This is where I read through Voter Guides that detailed the pro-life positions of candidates, preached my first sermon, lead worship on Sunday morning, and decided to pursue ministry. I worked with one of the up and coming young pastors at our church each summer, and we spent most of our days tuned in to a Christian radio station that mashed together a politically conservative Christian perspective on news with straight up conservative radio shows.

I knew all about the latest court cases involving Jay Sekulow’s Christian group, The Center for Law and Justice, which often engaged in lawsuits over what kinds of religious t-shirts kids could wear to school. We listened to a lot of Rush Limbaugh throughout the impeachment of Bill Clinton. I never even seriously considered voting for a Democrat until 2008.

While attending seminary at a conservative evangelical school outside of Philadelphia from 2001-2005, I began to ask questions about my politics even though I remained a supporter of George W. Bush. Once I began to ask those questions, I eventually realized that I could no longer align myself with the Republican party in good conscience.

I have no qualms with individuals who support the conservative ideals of limited government, which used to be a Republican ideal as well. However, the Republican party has raised one red flag after another, and I encourage all people of conscience to closely examine the language and the policies of Republican politicians in the upcoming election.

My belief is that the majority of Republican politicians at this point are largely manipulating and exploiting my Christian brothers and sisters by tossing them the occasional policy win while running roughshod over the well-being of minorities, giving massive tax handouts to the most wealthy, passing disastrous tariffs that are hurting hard-working farmers, undermining the healthcare that thousands, if not millions, depend on, ignoring the ways that healthcare can dramatically reduce abortion, and failing to take the very real threat of climate change seriously.

If I can briefly trace what I have seen, we need to begin with the tactics of conservative radio that have also come into full bloom in news outlets like FOX News.

First, these shows create the perception of a problem or a threat that doesn’t actually exist. They amplify and distort a news story in order to create a narrative and the perception of a terrifying trend. When viewers/listeners are stirred up with enough fear, outrage, or both, they can then direct their viewers/listeners to support conservative candidates who will address their fear and outrage—which the Democrats aren’t addressing after all because they are based on a false premise to begin with.

For instance, an American student who is told to change a t-shirt with a religious message is hailed as an example of modern day persecution. A city’s challenge to a church’s significantly discounted public school facility rental is presented as an attack on freedom of worship. The extreme agenda of the Freedom from Religion Foundation is broadcast widely as the vanguard of a wider liberal scheme to destroy religion (it’s not).

Conservative news outlets broadcast dire predictions and warnings, and so Republican politicians swoop in as the heroes who will defend Christians in America from the liberal assault on their freedom. The trouble is that our elected officials are overwhelmingly Christian, and those that are not Christian have expressed no interest in waging a war against freedom of worship. Even when President Obama assured us of his Christian faith, conservative news outlets stirred fears that he’s secretly a Muslim working against Christians.

The brilliance of this strategy is that Republicans can use this false persecution narrative in order to secure votes from people who are otherwise not benefitting from their policies. The tax laws are benefitting the wealthy, Republicans have ballooned the deficit in order to justify cutting medicare and social security, the ACA is under constant threat, and our political leaders are failing to take the very grave danger of climate change seriously. They have successfully created a culture war narrative that requires them to provide next to nothing for their constituents because they are solving problems that don’t exist. They can tout their triumphs of defending religion while attacking the policies and institutions that could actually benefit their constituents.

Even more damning, I have seen wide scale attacks on the right to vote in many states where elections are often close. In Ohio, there was obvious partisan gerrymandering, and while we lived there we often signed petitions to appoint a by-partisan group to draw the district lines. We saw polling locations closed and voting hours limited only in areas with larger minority populations. The wealthy white communities that were more likely to vote Republican had no limitations placed on their voting hours or locations, ensuring ample time and short lines.

This same tactic has been used throughout other states, including North Carolina where gerrymandering has been an ongoing threat for minority communities. In Alabama, there are voter ID laws that make it all but required to have a driver’s license, but Republican leaders at the state level have closed down many DMV locations in minority areas, making it that much harder to get a license in order to vote.

And so we see a tactic among Republicans to use distractions for their middle class or upper middle class voters, while using obstruction for the lower income and minority voters. These are all well-documented. You can look all of them up and find multiple sources. I witnessed some of these things in real time.

I don’t believe that every Republican is evil or is in 100% support of such tactics. However, the trends are plain to see and they’re undeniable.

Access to voting shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but Republicans have made it one.

The persecution of Christians in America is not happening, but Republicans want their supporters to believe that it is.

Abortion was dramatically reduced because of the Affordable Care Act’s healthcare benefits, but Republicans want to repeal it.

Thousands, if not millions of Americans face death or extreme suffering if the ACA is repealed, but Republicans have made it a cornerstone of their policy.

The Trump administration has used racially charged language, attacked Latino, Arab, and black communities specifically, and emboldened white supremacist groups, but Republicans have not countered this dangerous rhetoric.

Climate change could cause a dramatic increase in severe weather events all over the world and devastate many coastal communities, including some of the poorest people in the world who live by the coast, but Republicans have not addressed the severity of this problem and instead turned it into a partisan culture war with flag waving coal miners vs. out of touch liberals who want unsightly solar panels and wind turbines.

Kentucky even has a “Friends of Coal” license plate!!! It’s more like “friends of climate change.”

I’m not saying that Democrats are perfect. Some have poor policies and troubling pasts for sure. However, when it comes to some basic issues that could literally save lives and protect the basic human dignity of millions or more people, Republicans have largely relied on obstruction, distraction, and deception.

I hate writing about politics. The last thing I want to do is to spend time following politics. But if I am going to truly love my neighbors and affirm the dignity of God in all people as well as the worth of God’s beloved creation, I cannot sit idly by while Republicans deceive and exploit my people to the detriment of many.

I will be voting for Democrats during this election. I look forward to a time when I can seriously consider the candidates of both parties. That is my preference by far. That, however, is not our reality. We have the Democratic party that is at least attempting to serve the interests of the majority of people and the Republican party using obstruction and distraction to pass policies that are already doing great harm to their own constituents.

I don’t see myself as someone who abandoned my ideals or the things I learned growing up in a strong Republican family in Philadelphia. We were the people who supported smart policies, freedom, and individual liberty. I spent so many years thinking that Republicans were the good guys.

Today, I can primarily only see crass exploitation and opportunism that, in part, relies on deceiving my Christian family in order to prompt them to vote against their own interests and the interests of their neighbors.

It feels terrible to find out that you’ve been deceived. Believe me, I’ve been there. But we have to stop electing the people who will give us a few policies we want while sacrificing our ideals and the well-being of our neighbors. Christians are numerous enough in America to demand bi-partisan Congressional districting, the end of voter suppression, healthcare for all, AND pro-life policies.

I won’t stay silent while alleged Christians pollute the news with shameless propaganda and half-truths. We can be better than this. The problem, in part, is that we’ve settled for so much less than we should be demanding.

My prayer today for you is that you will vote with the well-being of our neighbors in mind, with the well-being of our children in mind, and with the well-being of the most vulnerable people in our communities in mind.

Demand higher morals from our elected leaders and use your influence to ensure that everyone is treated with equality and justice under the law. The place that starts is in the voting booth, and in the majority of races, equality and justice are not coming from the Republican party.

 

It’s My Wounds vs Your Wounds: Finding the Path to Mercy

How often are the wounds from my past fighting the wounds from someone else’s past? Would that help me to respond to others with more compassion and mercy?

Seeing my interactions from this perspective drives home the importance of my own soul work. If I don’t make the space for healing and grounding my identity in my true self that is united with God’s love, then there isn’t much of a chance that I’ll show mercy to others. I’ll either react out of defending my false self, which has become a safety mechanism for my pain, or I’ll just react out of the anger that I’m feeling in the moment.

Richard Rohr writes often that we can’t dismiss our pain until it teaches us what we need to know about ourselves. My anger has been an unwelcome but important teacher.

What is feeding this anger? What drives it?  For a while I couldn’t even put my finger on it. It was just present, and when something or someone agitated me, I could feel anger rising up to explode.

The agitations and conflicts of daily life have been too much for me some days, and I’m learning that there is a reason for this.

Yes, anger is the perceived denial of a right, but is there a legitimate reason for the anger in my life? Did its formation come from the denial of something that was an honest to goodness right? I think that is often the case.

That begins to move us away from an unhelpful view where anger is always wrong or sinful. Anger can go horribly wrong, but it may well be the symptom of an issue that can be faced with compassion and mercy.

If my anger is repressed, then it continues to boil and simmer in unseen but very real places in my life. And anger has to be faced because it is a teacher.

Once I’ve faced my anger, I’m able to move toward healing and to recognize that the many times my anger boils, it’s often not because of a particular person or event. If I can ever get beyond the sources of my own anger, then perhaps I can find the capacity to hold the anger of another person with compassion and mercy. Perhaps I can imagine that this person has his/her own pain and wounds that are fueling the anger directed at me.

I confess, I’m not there yet, not by a long shot.

This gives me a deeper awareness and appreciation for the ministry of Jesus. He was a man of sorrows who suffered alongside humanity. He bore our sins, weaknesses, and failures as one of us. He had the capacity to bear the weight of the world’s wounds, and he came as a doctor intent on healing all who trusted themselves with him.

Jesus could see beyond the ambition, power, and evil of his executioners, pleading with God the Father, “They know not what they do!” Even as he bore the wounds of their torture and the excruciating pain of his final moments, he remained compassionate on the people set on destroying him.

There are plenty of barriers that could keep me from showing compassion to others, but perhaps the most limiting are my own wounds that keep me burdened with my false self and my anger over the very real failures of my past.

With the stakes so high over my ability to show compassion and mercy toward others, let alone to bear their burdens alongside them, the soul work of facing my anger takes on even greater urgency and importance.

May God’s presence and healing bring us the healing and wholeness we need in order to love and serve others with the compassion they so badly need.

The Pain from the Past Will Always Come Out

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The other day I wrote down a little list that was more honest than I wanted to admit:

I spent my 20’s angry over my pain.

I spent my 30’s anxiously avoiding my pain.

I hope to spend my 40’s healing from and transforming my pain.

There’s a lot of overlap to this list, but it rings true to me. There was plenty of pain in my childhood, but I think as a kid I tried to rationalize that I needed to get on with things and keep going like my friends.

My anxiety and fear came out in the forms such as rapidly blinking my eyes, chewing on pens, tapping my foot, and stomach aches every morning. My body knew that something wasn’t right in some of my family relationships, but I didn’t have a baseline to hold them up against, so I tried to just ignore it.

Most people know me as a typical 9 on the enneagram chart who seeks to make peace, to hear all sides, and to work toward common goals. That is who I am, but it’s not ALL of who I am. Underneath it all is a simmering anger. Some days the anger doesn’t appear to exist anymore. Some days it feels like a raging storm that I can barely contain. Part of the root of that anger is the pain from my past, and it will not be denied.

The pain will come out, whether through blinking eyes, anxiety attacks, or an angry outburst, I can’t run from my pain forever.

In the process of doing my soul work, I keep bumping into the reality that I need to face this anger from my past. It’s going to come out, and it has been coming out.  I could very well pass on my anger and pain to future generations if I don’t deal with it sooner than later.

The question though is, “What does it look like to confront and heal from the anger of my past?”

For my 20’s, I thought that the core problem of my pain was the church and the betrayal of institutions and individuals who promised certain results if I could only buy in with the program and do what the leaders wanted. My anger at the church was rooted in a sense of abandonment and criticism of a wider Christian culture that has been exposed as power-hungry at all costs.

In my 30’s I tried to stuff the anger down, to move on with my life. I had so many exciting things going on. I published a book before turning 30, and I imagined that I had many exciting ministry opportunities opening up before me. I served in prisons and spoke at churches. I thought that I had the right path to pursue.

And yet… something wasn’t right. The anxiety grew stronger and stronger. The anger never really left me alone, and I became more and more dependent on checking out from life. I began to rely on distractions to deliver me from the anger and anxiety that had become so powerful in my life.

This is where contemplative prayer began to offer an alternative path for my pain. I have been learning through contemplation and related spiritual practices to remain present before God just as I am. In my surrender and sacrifice of self, I am learning that the wounds I had long identified with are not who I am.

My pain has been a part of my identity for so long that I didn’t know who I was without it. It never occurred to me, for instance, that I could look back at my past and rage on behalf of the terrified little boy who faced so much conflict. I could stop running from my anger and sit with it because that anger had a basis, even if it lacked the authority and power to come out during my childhood.

God is present in that anger in its pure original form. If I run from it, then I’m running from the God who wants to bring healing and presence into my life. God wants the anger of my past to come out. The methods of avoidance and distraction are doubly tragic because distraction hardly offers the healing it promises and I miss out on the healing that God could bring to my life.

I don’t dare tell anyone what to do with their own anger, but I do have a thought for folks who meet someone who is angry.

When I expressed my anger against the church, I generally heard some variation of this, “Quit complaining and do something useful.” Anger is denied and stuffed down among good, polite Christians.

While I didn’t always present my valid or constructive criticisms of the church with tact, I did have a lot of pain. Lacking a healthy way to face it and to seek healing meant that I opted for the nearest target for my frustration and anger.

The most helpful conversation I had at that time was with a pastor who said, “I hear your frustration. Can we talk a bit?” The more we talked, the more he gained my trust enough to tell me, “I know that you’re frustrated by the church, but I don’t think this is just about the church.” He knew that my anger and rejection was part of a larger challenge in my life, and so he was free to listen to me without feeling attacked or defensive.

This is a tall order, but if I don’t seek healing for my own wounds, how can I expect to be present to help others process their own wounds?

If I’m still living in defense of some false self that is grounded in my religious identity, how can I respond with grace when those with wounds rage against it?

My anger and pain will come out. that can feel humiliating sometimes, as if I’m not strong enough to resist it, to soldier on, and to put on a happy face.

The instant I encounter some conflict or my BS detector goes off with a compromised religious leader, anger almost overwhelms me.

Other times I run into a stressful situation, and my anxiety overtakes me before I even realized what has happened.

The anger and pain will come out, and so the matter isn’t whether I have the strength to stuff it all away. I need a different kind of strength. I need to be strong enough to face the truth, to be strong enough to look at the sources of my anger and anxiety, and to be strong enough to carry this pain to the God who bears our burdens, letting go of them without a guarantee of what will come next.

Evangelical Men Raised on Braveheart Became Cowards

Imagine you’re standing in a line of soldiers preparing to charge the field in battle.

Your commanders ride back and forth on their massive horses, neighing and rearing up in preparation for the coming battle. They shout about honor and bravery, calling you to fight to your dying breath for the high ideals of your people.

Falling back at this moment is a betrayal to everything you believe.

All of history is pivoting on this battlefield, and your duty is to charge forward in fighting for these ideals that your enemy despises.

You’ve trained yourself for years for this moment. You’ve deprived yourself of things that many others take for granted. You’ve learned how to become a warrior and have surrounded yourself with many others committed to the same ideals and values.

As the enemy slowly advances, you charge the field with your fellow soldiers, willing to give your life for this cause that could turn the tide of history.

Then, you notice something out of the corner of your eye…

There’s only a small group of you who charged forward.

The enemy army on the other side of the field of battle is laughing at you, and their commanders are meeting with your generals. They’re shaking hands and forming an alliance.

As you return to the ranks of soldiers who didn’t charge the field, they’re still praising the commanders and shouting insults at the enemy who threatens them. They’re even more committed to the cause.

Your commander assures you that you’re going to do an even better job defending your values and goals by working with the enemy. They have real power and influence to help you.

“Wait, you shout, our commander just made an alliance with the people opposed to everything we believe in! That’s wrong!”

“Liar! Traitor! You’re not one of us!” they shout. “Don’t you lecture us about what’s right! Who made you our judge?”

And so you walk away, not sure what you just gave your life to, and you ask how much of it all was a lie and complete sham designed to glorify your commanders and generals who had rigged so much of it for their our benefit.

That is what it feels like to be an evangelical Christian these days.

* * *

I was raised in an evangelical subculture of sexual purity, manhood defined by bravery and honor, and benevolent patriarchy that said women had more limits than men, but men were duty-bound to protect and defend women.

Rather than pursuing sex at every turn like the godless masses, we were supposed to open doors for women, defend women the way a knight would defend a princess, and stand up for the truth as people of principle who knew right from wrong.

We were supposed to be honorable and courageous, willing to make sacrifices for the good of others and for our values and morals. If we could make some sort of gain by betraying our values, we were supposed to reply, “No compromise!”

Then Trump and Kavanaugh came along, and the majority of the evangelical culture said, “Compromise is great if the guy can help us!”

It feels like everything I was raised to believe in and value was given a middle finger.

I left the illusion of “benevolent patriarchy” behind a long time ago (and it should be deconstructed in its own time and place), but the evangelical embrace of Trumpism and Kavanaugh is an ultimate act of betrayal against everything we were told our movement stood for. We haven’t even touched on the racism and xenophobia pulsating beneath the surface of the movement. I’m just talking about what the ideals and beliefs that we were told to believe in.

Even the window dressing that masked our many other sins is a sham.

If I had still been immersed in the evangelical subculture and its benevolent patriarchy, I still would have told you that there’s no chance evangelicals would ever support a Supreme Court nominee who had so many credible accusations of abuse and financial impropriety attached to him.

I was naïve. I had thought that our lionizing of courage, bravery, honor, and moral consistency meant something.

The people who criticized Nietzsche based on a Wikipedia skim of his philosophy became the ones to embrace a crass will to power that has destroyed everything they were supposed to believe in.

The people who spent their weekends watching Braveheart and not having premarital sex have fled from honor, morality, and courage in order to support men like Trump and Kavanaugh who have numerous credible accusations of sexual assault and financial mismanagement against them. The promise of power and the protection these men promise is too appealing.

Instead of demanding higher morals, defending the honor of women, and demanding honesty, too many evangelical men have joined the chorus Kavanaugh supporters and doubters of Dr. Ford. They have made themselves fictional victims, imagining an instance of being falsely accused of rape instead of actually addressing the real instances of rape.

They have defended their fragile honor by undermining the God-given dignity of women, thus ensuring the farce of their honor and courage.

The Southern Baptist Convention, whose leadership and leading pastors have been among the most vocal (though not only) supporters of Kavanaugh without reservation or condemnation, are among the most visible of this group of cowards. Even Russell Moore, who entertained that the accusations against Kavanaugh could prove disqualifying, never even once personally tweeted in support of Dr. Ford or the women who have been traumatized (or re-traumatized) by the Kavanaugh hearing.

I can only hope that they recognize right from wrong but are too cowardly to stand up for truth and morality because of what they could lose. I also know that plenty of evangelical leaders have privately expressed their horror at Kavanaugh without publicly standing against him.

When standing up for victims and for their values could cost these men their positions, influence, and power, they have retreated and made compromises that will surely do much to advance their own prestige in their circles of influence but completely undermine what they claim to believe.

Is this not the very embodiment of cowardice?

This is a dramatic fall for men who lionized the warriors of Scotland and who imagined themselves the defenders of women. Reality has shown us that these men are only honorable and courageous in their Braveheart-inspired fantasies.

Prayer and That Day I Spent Two Hours on My Phone

If the public spectacle of allegedly pro-family, pro-morality, pro-ethics, pro-absolute truth evangelical Christians unashamedly and unequivocally supporting a Supreme Court nominee with multiple, credible criminal accusations against him hasn’t killed irony forever and ever, then perhaps my experience yesterday will put us over the top in the war against irony.

Irony, brace yourself for what follows.

I’ve been working on a grant application with an October 1st deadline. The grant is highly competitive, but securing it would significantly help cover the costs of deeper research into the impact of digital devices on spirituality for my book Always Present: Contemplative Resistance to Digital Distraction.

On the due date of the grant, we had to make a few changes to the grant, changes that would make it stronger, but each change brought other changes and renewed complexity. Text messages and emails throughout the day were essential for keeping everyone on the same page.

Before I say anything else about my day, the focus of this grant project is studying the impact of smartphones on spiritual practices, and part of the project includes an experiment where we ask some subjects to increase smartphone use, some to decrease, and others to keep it the same. I didn’t anticipate that applying for this grant would inadvertently turn me into a test subject!

It just so happened that over the weekend, I had updated my iPhone to the latest operating system, and it includes a “Screen Time” section under Settings. You can set limits on certain groups of apps and see how much time you spend on those groups of apps. You can also track how much time you spend on specific apps.

Adding to the complexity of the day our grant was due, our kids were on fall break from school. Part of my screen time involved reading articles at The Athletic while our daughter fussed over her bottle, including several stretches where I put the phone down with an article open. I was also managing several emails and text messages while building boats out of Legos with my boys.

All of this is to say, I wasn’t shocked to find at the end of the day that I had spent a little over two hours on my phone. Certain aspects of the day demanded it. We got the grant done, and there are big plans to build some more boats the following day without so many interruptions.

However, I don’t want to merely make excuses for myself. This kind of day was full of the unusually urgent, but things can start going off track.

Did I Train Myself to Use My Phone More?

The problem with such “exceptional” days, addicting tools like smartphones are designed to be rewarding and to appear useful, if not essential. I can begin to use an exceptional day as a baseline for new habits, checking on my phone or seeking distractions with more regularity.

For each day where I’m immersed in my phone for a work project, I need at least another day to disconnect from it. Even this morning I caught myself pulling my phone out to check my email… at 5:30 am. There can’t be any urgent messages about the grant at 5:30 am, can there?

Did I Pray During My Busy Day?

As you can guess, prayer was hard to come by with a baby sputtering each time I gave her a bottle, constant emails and text messages, and my kids asking me to help them find Lego pieces or disconnect pieces that were stuck. Prayer isn’t easy with kids around under normal circumstances, so toss in a competitive grant deadline and a smartphone, and it’s not looking good.

However, I was grateful for the chance to see what increased smartphone usage did to my spirituality. That is the point of our study after all?

  • I caught myself getting impatient with our kids when they were bickering.
  • When I had a moment in the car by myself later in the day, I took some time to pray in silence rather than turning to a podcast. I could tell that my soul was unsettled.
  • When I sat down at a café to work on the final details of the grant, I took a moment to pray because my mind was scattered.
  • After hitting send, I took five minutes to close my computer and to write a few thoughts in my journal. It was reflective, but it also felt like a prayer of sorts.
  • Later that evening, I took a break from the dishes to sit with my wife on the back patio while our kids took literally every book off two book shelves in the other room. It was worth it.

After spending two hours on my phone on a busy day, it’s not surprising to conclude that prayer was hard to prioritize.

Can Contemplative Prayer Practices Help?

While I feel like I need a bit of recovery time today to get myself into a better spiritual and mental place after yesterday, it was encouraging to see that regular contemplative prayer practices have helped me establish a new baseline of sorts.

I sort of know what it feels like to be spiritually grounded, and I sort of know what it feels like to be spiritually adrift. I have invested enough time in prayer practices that I knew when things were going off the rails.

Having some simple charts and stats about my smartphone usage was also extremely helpful. I couldn’t lie to myself. Let’s be honest, I would totally underestimate my phone usage if it was up to me!

Most importantly, even though I had lost a lot of time and space for prayer yesterday, I still had enough self-knowledge and enough practices handy that I could turn a five-minute car ride into a moment of semi-stillness before God.

Mind you, those five minutes of silence after a day of perpetual mental and physical motion were AGONIZING. I wanted to keep moving, to keep my mind humming with stimuli rather than turning toward God in silence.

I dramatically increased my smartphone usage, and while it wasn’t good for me, contemplation was able to help in the thick of it. In the days to come I’ll continue to use that little screen time chart and my prayer practices to help me keep my feet on the ground.

Prayer also sounds A LOT better than checking my email constantly about my grant status…

The Smartphone and Social Media Trap for Christians

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There is no good time to post about the challenges facing the church regarding social media and digital devices. We are living in a time when social media and smartphones can be useful for civic engagement and activism, sharing the knowledge of wise leaders and instant analysis on breaking news events.

However, living in a time when the church could stand to be a place of renewal and spiritual transformation so that we can better engage with the pressing issues of our time, I have seen too many church leaders and Christian media experts who are far too willing to adopt technology without paying sufficient attention to its dark side.

As I offer updates on my research into digital devices and spirituality, I wanted to share a bit about the urgency of this kind of reflection for the church today: 

Growing up evangelical, I learned that sharing the Gospel message matters the most. Any means that I use to share the Gospel is just a “tool.”

So Billy Graham adopting radio was a necessary, if not vitally important “tool” for sharing the Gospel. Of course he should have done that, right? Thousands if not millions heard the Gospel through his radio broadcasts!

Of course there are factors to consider when sharing the Gospel in this manner:

  • What kind of message travels the best over the radio? Are there modifications being made to the message for the sake of the medium?
  • Are the radio messages appropriate for the people listening to them?
  • What becomes of the people who hear these messages on the radio?
  • Can those responding to radio sermons figure out their next steps toward discipleship and Christian community?

That isn’t to say Christians shouldn’t be on the radio. Rather, Christians have generally believed that reaching more people, more efficiently should always be pursued, regardless of the adaptations that must be made or the unintended consequences.

The medium of blogging has tended to reward those who are the most revealing, most sensational, and most combative, so I dare not throw stones from a glass house here. Each medium for sharing the message of Jesus can present particular challenges

If radio and blogging come with such a laundry list of potential concerns, then we should pay particular attention to the movement of most churches to adopt social media in one way or another. More and more denominations and congregations are asking members to bring their smartphones into the service and to USE them.

There are opportunities to tweet questions to sermons, to leave comments on Facebook posts, or to share images from worship on Instagram.

The folks in favor of these innovations use words like engagement, interaction, and community to justify this embrace of smartphones in church.

If we dare to speak about the outreach opportunities on social media, then the barriers between social media marketing executives and church outreach teams start to blur really, really fast.

Social media is where people are spending their time. So, regardless of whether this is good for them, Christians have reasoned that this is the place to have a presence, sharing the Gospel, sending invitations to church, and inviting the “unchurched” to “engage” in the big questions of life.

Once again, writing from my glass house, I share my own writing about Christianity on social media because that is where people are spending their time, whether or not it’s good for them. I am part of the hyperlink game, trying to “capture” the attention of readers with the hope that they may even buy one of my books on Christian topics or sign up for my newsletter.

The only way I can even begin to justify going about the whole social media game like this is whether I can offer a respite, a bit of a refuge in my blog posts, newsletters, and books:

Can I empower people to take more initiative in their daily searches for God?

Can I give them greater awareness of the game being played to suck in their attention?

We’re all compromised to one degree or another, but perhaps we can begin to live with more intention and healthier boundaries by understanding how conflicted the goals of Christianity can be when stacked up against social media and digital devices, such as smartphones.

A smartphone can be useful. It can be a tool. Heck, it even has a flashlight built into it!

But a smartphone exists and the apps on that smartphone exist to collect data about you. The more data they collect, the more profitable they will become.

Yes, Google will help you figure out where to go, but Google is also collecting data.

Yes, YouTube will help you complete a household project, but it also wants you to watch more videos and will continue to suggest another video, then another video, and then another video. The data and ads begin to flow, and it doesn’t really matter what’s good for you as long as the data and ads flow.

Yes, Instagram can be a fun way to share your life with friends and family who are far away, but at a certain point, does it not become a carefully curated presentation of a self and a life that aren’t real? Is this the kind of “curation” we want to invite into church when it’s already challenging enough for folks to be their authentic selves?

I use all of these tools, but having examined the ways they function and the goals behind their designers, I’m not sure about them being neutral tools anymore. They are all designed with an agenda that does not have your well-being or my well-being in mind. Whether or not they “can” be beneficial is beside the point.

The benefits of smartphones and social media are the bait set up in an attractive trap that is designed to maximize user attention and, that word Christians love to use, engagement.

While I don’t think we should necessarily give up on smartphones or social media altogether, we should use them with our eyes wide open. We should know when the goals of these “tools” run counter to the deeper goals of the Gospel to bring us to a greater awareness of God’s love and to love our neighbors more completely.

Engagement and attention on social media or smartphones doesn’t require virtue, love, or community. These industry goals can defy human well-being, let alone flourishing.

If our goal is to draw near to God and to truly become present in love for our neighbors, we should remember that the makers of the smartphones in our pockets (or hands) won’t benefit if we are sitting in silence before God or embracing our neighbors.

Spirituality Is Being Devastated by Technology

You don’t have to compare the quiet contemplation of a rural monastery to the digitized chaos of a major city to conclude that our world saturated in mobile devices and screens may not be the healthiest environment for humans.

Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to consider a few big picture aspects of a rural monastery vs. life in a city surrounded by screens of all sizes.

Consider this, the monk who divides time between prayer and working with his hands is generally focused on one specific task at a time. While working with his hands, he may well be engaged in a simple prayer as well.

The person in the city is surrounded by screens and has hundreds of opportunities for distraction and engagement. There are hundreds, if not thousands of attempts to catch his attention daily, and perhaps he gives in to a few and wastes some time. Then he feels badly about it, gets back to his work, and tries to forge ahead before succumbing again to another distraction.

True, we could be more connected with friends and family and colleagues by technology, but those technology networks are also a thousand points of entry for distractions, products, and who knows what else.

It’s not that we can’t use technology well. It’s that technology isn’t really designed to be used for our health and well-being, to say nothing of the impact of its distractions on spiritual vitality. It’s designed to sell us stuff and to capture our attention at every turn. Sure, you get the fringe benefit of connecting with people you love, but that’s not why the technology is there.

If technology only served to connect you with people you love and to make you healthier, then most of the technology around you would vanish.

I have been immersed in technology because of my work in publishing, and it is for good or ill. At this point in my life, I view technology is a kind of necessary evil that I am trying to manage well. In so many ways the screens in my life have a negative impact, but not entirely negative. Each day I am trying to mitigate the negative aspects and to build on the positive possibilities.

I do know that unchecked and used without awareness, technology today is generally a net negative. I’m hoping that with greater awareness and intention, technology can reach a kind of neutral ground where it is used with limits and restraint so that enough good can result in order to balance out its many possibilities for negativity and addiction.

I’m still in the early stages of this process, but I wanted to put some words down now. I didn’t want to post some findings or conclusions in the future as if they were the result of a brief period of consideration and study.

Rather, I’m hoping to gradually share my journey with technology and its impact on spirituality. I hope you can share in this process when possible so that you can use technology with greater intention and awareness.

 

The Church Needs Weak Leaders

When I read church leadership blogs, reference church leadership articles, or see the quotes and podcasts making the rounds on social media, I can’t help noticing how “strong leadership” is highly desirable for churches.

Strong leaders are organized, have a clear vision, listen well, and keep their teams moving forward.

Strong leaders equip others for ministry, train new leaders, and always prepare for whatever else is coming down the pike.

I mean, they also make time to pray and try to stay humble, but don’t forget they get alignment on their teams, properly onboard their staff, and make killer agendas for meetings. They know what they can’t do well and delegate to maximize their effectiveness.

A strong leader can initiate change, becoming the face of major initiatives. They communicate clearly, and they sometimes bear criticism, whether it’s fair or unfair.

If strong leaders are high capacity and successful, their flaws can be explained away as “quirks” or smaller matters that must be endured for the sake of the greater good. If a strong leader can reach more people for the Gospel, grow the church, and expand the ministry, then surely they can’t be held to account for some temper tantrums, power struggles, or making inappropriate remarks to their staff or congregation, right?

Leaders become icons for our ideal selves. They model what we want to become and lead us to where we want to go.

We want strength, purpose, direction, and influence. Sure, we would prefer that our leaders also remain humble and kind, but the more they deliver, the less urgent these virtues become in many church contexts.

It’s hard for us to imagine a leader proudly boasting of his/her weaknesses today as Paul did (2 Corinthians 11:30, 12:9).

It’s hard for us to imagine leaders emptying themselves of their power and influence much like Jesus did when he came to earth.

It’s so easy to get leadership, influence, and power wrong. And even if church leaders can point us to chapter and verse proofs for certain offices in the church, the truth is that we have a wide range of high and low church leadership models that all claim to be based on the same Bible. Who is to say which is the best or most faithful to God’s intentions?

I’m not so sure that a particular model is going to save us. Perhaps we could take the models we already have and ask something very simple of our leaders and ourselves: weakness.

What if we let our leaders appear exactly as they are in their weakness and fragility?

What if leaders felt free to tell us exactly how weak they are without fear of repercussions?

My guess is that such a suggestion makes the anxiety of many pastors go up a few notches. Why is that? Why is weakness and vulnerability such a liability when Paul boasted of his weaknesses and Jesus emptied himself of his power and heavenly glory to stand among us?

The average Christian in a church probably needs to expect “less” out of a pastor, not more. I mean that in the sense that pastors and other ministry leaders experience the same temptations, desires, frailties, doubts, and frustrations as all of us. They aren’t on a special fast track to holiness.

Some pastors may have dedicated more time surrendering these weaknesses to God because of the weight of their offices, but each pastor starts where we are.

As a Christian writer who encourages others to pray, I face my fair share of struggles to maintain my daily spiritual practices. Each new school year in our household brings a new schedule and fresh challenges to fit silent contemplation, the Examen, praying the hours, and spiritual reading into each day.

Without daily silence my anxiety comes roaring back. Without the daily hours, I become self-reliant and self-focused. Sloth and the path of least resistance become appealing as I seek to check out from life rather than to remain engaged with God, my family, and my responsibilities.

It doesn’t take a lot to send me off course, and the urgency of my writing about prayer comes out of the deep need I have for these practices. My weakness prompts me to write as I do, not my strength.

If anything, I often feel like a little cork bobbing around in a stormy sea, and my only hope is in God’s intervention to speak, “Peace, be still!” over my life. I can’t get myself back on track. I can only turn to God’s mercy.

I have a choice each day to surrender to God rather than to devote myself to the pursuit of my own comfort or my own entertainment. The more I’m focused on my weaknesses, the more likely I am to depend on God’s help.

Our tendency to focus on a leader’s strong organizational and interpersonal strengths can make it easy to overlook what those strengths may be hiding. Those weaknesses will come out to the light one way or another, and the sooner we face them in light of God’s mercy, the “stronger” we will be in the Spirit.