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I Had Doubts about Drawing My Book Cover

The book cover and the original oil pastel on the desk I made.

My new book, Creative Renewal: An Invitation to Start Making Stuff and to Stop Clicking Stuff, is now available as a Kindle eBook ($.99 during its release this week) and paperback. To celebrate its release, I’m sharing part of a chapter about my high-stakes aim to design my own cover.


I wanted to walk the talk of this book by creating my cover, ideally using oil pastels. It felt like a high-risk, high reward way to introduce readers to this book and embody what creative renewal could be in practice.

I’ve invested a good bit of time into oil pastels, and they have fast become a favorite activity in the evening, on the weekend, or on vacation. I’ve never been able to find formal instruction in our town and would never consider myself professional. Oil pastels are just a much-loved hobby for me right now that brings a lot of joy into my life.

Putting one of my works on the front cover isn’t a declaration that I’ve arrived as a professional artist. It’s an affirmation that I take my creative practices seriously, and I hope you can do the same. Putting a piece of art on the cover that I created as a hobby highlights the work I’ve put into a part of my life that falls under the “leisure” category.

Of course, once I committed to such a project, I was overcome with doubts. My family usually sees most of my works, and the general public can check out a few dozen on social media. In my early days with oil pastels, I put some of my “better” drawings on social media and later regretted putting such terrible works up. Putting one of my projects on the cover felt like a big step and commitment.

Even more perplexing, I’ve been trying to shift toward more impressionistic oil pastel landscapes. It’s tricky to blend the colors just right to get some of those oil painting effects, textures, and color blends.

There’s always a temptation to bind myself to only the colors I can see on the reference photo instead of venturing into a broader range of shades. Veering into more splashy blends of colors that build up on the paper or expanding the color and value range feels like I could be venturing into a disaster of splattered colors.

As is typical for landscapes, I first laid down a rough outline of the basic features, including the clouds, trees, and river, including a few rocks in the foreground that I positioned a bit more in a prominent position. Then I filled in the sky and clouds to get them as close to finished as possible, alternating between a light gray and dark blue shade for the darker shadows. I’m not an expert at clouds, but they turned out well enough. The real challenge awaited along the line of trees.

Trees can perplex me because they often have vibrant colors popping out of them, but they’ll look like a mangled mass of dots or lumps if I don’t get the shadows around those colors just right. I’ve done plenty of oil pastel tutorials where the instructors filled in the different shades of their trees, and though I’d followed their every stroke carefully, their results couldn’t have been further from my own.

When it comes to oil pastels, some of the lighter colors have a hard time standing out when placed on top of the darker ones. That means it’s often ideal to start a tree with the lighter colors first. Even the brightest red or orange tree in a subject photo isn’t purely red or orange. There may be shades of yellow or even a hint of green as the leaves shift from summer to fall.

Drawing lines of trees with oil pastels is where precision goes to die, and more impressionistic representations of reality kick in. Danger lurks in such detailed tree lines, and I often imagined dropping my oil pastel into the trash can.

I gave myself one shot at the cover. Whatever happened would happen. I’m an amateur oil pastel artist who pursues a weekend hobby. I’m not issuing a rallying call for creating professional artwork for sale in galleries. I’m just a guy who loves creative projects and encourages others to give them a shot because I’ve found them beneficial and restorative.

Having an amateur bit of artwork on the cover is the point, but I didn’t want it to look like hot garbage. I poured over that glowing tree line, mixing in shades of yellow, orange, red, burgundy, green, and brown. Each bright tree stood out on its own before I dared to fill in anything darker around it or add shades to the branches and clumps of leaves.

Once I felt safe with the trees, I had to figure out the rocks and water. There’s a lot of dark purple mixed into the swirling bits of water and rocks as I tried to give the foreground a bit of depth and texture. The dark grey of the stones started to dominate, so I layered like crazy to soften those dark smudges. Of course, some shaded bits called for dark gray blobs, so I had to add lumps of dark gray without making them “look” like dark gray smudges.

When I was pretty close to being done, I sheepishly brought the drawing down to my wife for critique. I can trust her to be honest or at least praise the tiny little bits that are good—which is code for the rest of it looking like hot garbage.

“Oh!” she said as if shocked that I could have done this drawing.

“Look at those rocks! They really look like rocks in the water!”

She was very clearly surprised, and she couldn’t hide it in the moment. Apparently, it helped to take my time on this. The pure terror of putting this drawing on the book cover “no matter what” helped me do a better job on that oil pastel. It certainly eclipsed the absolute disasters I’d made in the previous weeks. 

The more I think about giving an oil pastel drawing to someone or displaying it on something like a book cover, the harder it is to decide when it’s “done.” If I’m making something to hang up in my office for a little while, it’s not a big deal to find a tiny dot of paper that I hadn’t fully covered with pastel. But my gosh, if the oil pastel is for someone else, I practically stick my nose on the paper to make sure every stroke is PERFECT.

Well, maybe not perfect. Impressionistic oil pastels make “perfect” hard to nail down. I just want things to look like they belong and don’t look out of place.

The higher the stakes, the harder it is to finish something. Sometimes I’ll just leave a lineup of supposedly done oil pastels on a shelf in my office so I can tinker with them a bit should something stand out.

Once I stick this oil pastel drawing on the cover of my book, there’s no tinkering. Dabbing oil pastels on a matte book cover isn’t going to work out great.

My one comfort as an independent author is that many people will likely purchase this book on Kindle, so they’ll only see a tiny black and white postage-stamp-sized version of this cover. That’s one medium where I’m sure my limited oil pastel hobby abilities can thrive.

The joy of creativity is for everyone.

Creative Renewal helps you move past the fears and doubts that block your creative hopes and dreams, inviting you to explore your creative interests and unleash your creative expressions.

It’s on sale for release week!

How Can We Get Better at Resting?

If you had asked me what I did for breaks about six or seven years ago, I likely would have mentioned using my smartphone or tablet to check social media or to read articles. I even used phrases like, “I’m taking a break on social media” for many years.

That is, I wasn’t taking a break from social media on those occasions. I was taking a break from working on my computer and switching to social media for all of my break.

I swapped one screen for another. Then, fear, anger, anxiety, or despair rushed through my mind as I scrolled down further and further or clicked through one article and then another.

What did I want during these social media “breaks”? I have no clue.

If I was looking for a bit of relaxation, peace, or rest, I wasn’t finding it through the apps on my phone. I suspect that it was so hard to stop swiping and scrolling because I hadn’t found whatever I was craving.

Words like restoration and renewal come pretty close to what I’m after when I take a break. I want to feel better and to have enough stamina to finish what I’m doing that day, whether that’s working on a writing project or caring for my kids.

Does scrolling through news stories or social media posts bring renewal?

I may leave some of that scrolling with more information, but there’s a good chance I’m going to feel worse. Even if I break even with a little more information and no additional sadness, I rarely feel “better.”

Using my phone isn’t a break. Reading the news isn’t a break. Those things are fine by themselves. We should seek to be informed about the world, educated about the challenges of our times, and connected with people who are important to us.

Connection on social media is not a bad thing at all. However, that digital form of connection is rarely restful or restorative.

There is a major difference between the quality of the rest I have while working on an art or woodworking project and the “rest” of scrolling through social media or news stories that often leave me emotional and distracted.

Benefitting from the Most Basic Creative Act

It’s not going too far to say that scribbling on some paper for fifteen minutes, balling it up, and throwing it in a trash can is more restful than spending fifteen minutes scrolling through social media.

Follow along with the absurdity of this for a moment.

If you’re going to scribble on a piece of paper, you need to figure out a few things that could make it somewhat interesting:

  • What kind of paper will you scribble on?
  • What will you scribble with? Pen? Pencil? Marker?
  • Will you scribble on only one piece of paper or several?
  • How will you dispose of your scribbled paper? Will you ball it up rapidly or fold it into a particular design?
  • Will you walk across the room to the trash can and drop it in, or will you take a basketball-style shot from far away?

That list of options is absurd, but it shows how many possibilities emerge when you commit yourself to even the most basic creative act with pencil and paper.

Imagine how much better your break could be if you tried a creative project that you really love?

We Need to Be Told to Rest

It’s telling that God had to command his people to rest as one of the Ten Commandments. Whatever you think of the Old Testament laws, the command for Sabbath rest is a win for humanity.

If God knows us best as the Creator of the world, then God’s command for rest at least one day per week strikes me as worth noting. God knew we’d be bad at resting, so we needed to be told exactly what to do with our time on one day-a-week.

I wouldn’t be so bold as telling you to rest right now. That’s not my place.

Yet, I can tell you that I know I’ve been quite bad as resting and taking breaks. I’ve needed to remember that the Sabbath is a command because I’d otherwise push myself to keep working or keeping my mind busy regardless of how bad it is for me.

Since I’m not an all-knowing deity, it’s far more constructive to share an invitation to rest with others. If I’m invited to rest, then I have an opportunity to consider enjoying something that may be good for me.

If I reject on an opportunity to rest, then I should evaluate my reasons and consider whether they’re valid. I’m more likely to find an invitation appealing because I’m being invited to do something I may enjoy or find beneficial.

Invitations are usually good. We receive invitations to parties, for instance, and most of us like parties—provided we like the people at the party.

My latest book frames rest and renewal as an invitation. I share how creative projects like art and woodworking became sources of restoration that have delivered many more benefits than I could hope to gain from the same old, same old on social media.

I still read the news and connect with people in limited ways on social media, but I’ve tried to cut distractions out of my time dedicated to rest and renewal. I share about the ways I have made more space for creativity throughout my day in my latest book:

Creative Renewal: An Invitation to Make Stuff and to Stop Clicking Stuff is on sale for $.99 on Kindle right now leading up to its release on May 17th.

There’s a good chance you may need to read how I overcame my resistance to creativity and found real joy and love for artistic pursuits that I never would have tried before. You may even like trying some of the creative projects I’ve enjoyed.

You‘re invited to make more space for rest and renewal, and creativity may be one of the best ways to actively make inner restoration a reality.

Creativity has been good for my soul, and it can be for you as well.


Learn More about Creative Renewal

Creative Renewal releases on May 17, 2022.

It’s on sale for $.99 on Kindle during pre-orders. Learn more about it here.



Simple Prayers That Anyone Can Learn

Are you good at being quiet?

Are you unsure of what to say when you pray to God?

Can you remember one sentence at most?

Then I have good news for you: You’re going to be really at learning some simple prayers.

The Christian prayer tradition covers a lot of ground, including intercessions for others, prayers of thanksgiving and praise, and prayers for healing or restoration. There are simple prayers that Jesus himself taught us like the Our Father and longer prayers like Mary’s Magnificat.

Yet, there are plenty of simple prayers that any Christian can learn to do right now with very little training or memorizing. Although more experience practicing these prayers will make them easier to do and feel more natural, any beginner at prayer can start praying to God today by participating in a few simple prayer practices.

Christianity’s Tradition of Simple Prayer

The Christian prayer tradition of contemplative prayer teaches that the Spirit is present within us, and that God has already found us when we pray. We aren’t asking for God to show up or do something special because God is already here and has given us the Spirit.

Contemplative prayer helps us rest in what God has already given and increases our awareness of God. In fact, contemplative prayer is the work of God in us as we become present for God’s love. The methods of prayer help you receive what God has given to you.

Although there is a measure of effort in learning how to remain still or to increase your awareness of God in these simple prayer practices, you can’t make God more loving toward you or more present for you. Prayer is a practice, but it is also a pure gift from God.

Pray in Silence with Your Breath

One of the most common starting points for Christian prayer is a silent prayer that uses your breath. There are different teachings on this, so you may need to figure out which one works the best for you, but the basic concept is that you’re breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth at a calming rhythm.

You may inhale for four seconds and exhale for four seconds, or you may try holding your breath in-between the inhale and exhale. There are many different patterns for this kind of breathing.

For myself, I try to avoid overthinking it. I want to breathe in deeply to a point that feels comfortable and then make a cleansing exhale that can alleviate tension.

The idea is to use the pattern of breath to remove distractions from your mind so you can turn your attention to God. There’s no need to say anything as you breathe in and out. God is present, and that is enough when you pray in silent awareness of God.

Center Prayer with a Prayer Word

Although some use a rhythm of breathing to center their thoughts on God, others prefer to use a prayer word or phrase as a way to gently let go of thoughts and become more aware of God.

Generally speaking, you’re more likely to use a prayer word frequently when you begin centering prayer because your mind will likely run all over the place with thoughts. Using the prayer word in your mind should be a gentle, gracious process rather than a sign of “failing to pray.”

The prayer word or phrase helps you let go of distractions, but whether you are silent or focusing on the prayer word, the intention is the same. Your focus is on God’s love for you and God’s presence, and the prayer word is just a tool to help you maintain that intention while praying.

It’s typical to center prayer for about 20 minutes at a time. I’ve found that the simpler the prayer word, the better, using words such as Jesus, beloved, or loved.

Pray the Jesus Prayer

We’re getting a bit more “complex” with our prayers. Beyond silence or a single word, there’s the single sentence of the “Jesus Prayer” that has been used since the early days of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This is the prayer of the tax collector who returned home righteous after making his confession to God:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

There are different versions of the prayer, but the general idea is to use this prayer throughout your day as a way to remain aware of God’s mercy. This is a prayer that you can keep in mind while walking, driving, waiting in line, making dinner, cleaning up dinner, folding laundry, exercising, and so on.

While some have suggested that this isn’t a prayer with the same restful qualities as silent contemplation or centering prayer, I have found it very liberating from unhelpful rumination.

When my mind is stuck on something that causes worry, anger, or frustration, the Jesus Prayer is right there to lean on when my mind feels stuck. It brings me back to my own limitations and need for God’s mercy, while freeing me from downward spirals of negativity.

You can always combine this simple prayer with other approaches to prayer. For instance, you could use the Jesus Prayer for a few minutes as a way to clear your mind before centering prayer.

Although prayer can be challenging during a season of fasting or at a busy moment in life, I find it helpful to make a regular prayer practice out of at least one of these each day, such as beginning my day with centering prayer. Then, I can use the other methods, like a breath prayer or the Jesus Prayer, to become mindful of God throughout the day.

If Prayer Is Hard, Start Simple

There are plenty of other ways to pray, but if you aren’t sure where to begin with prayer or you’re frustrated by prayer challenges, starting simple is a good way to go.

As a final note, Thomas Keating, who played a major role in the revival of centering prayer among American Christians, wrote that the only way you can “fail” at centering prayer is by getting up and leaving the room. This is about as simple as it gets!

You can find a bit more about centering prayer in Thomas Keating’s book Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer.



Books by Ed on Prayer

Everyone Doubts, but Everyone Is Also Forgiven and Loved

A sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church on April 24, 2022.
John 20:19-31

I’m not an expert in church planting, but I’ve gone to seminary, sat through a few church leadership classes, and helped at a few churches over the years. I know two informal rules of church planting that should be common sense for all of us.

Now, let’s get our terms straight first. There’s a lead pastor or senior pastor who is in charge of the church plant. Then there’s a core group of committed volunteers known as a launch team who do a lot of the heavy lifting to help the lead pastor get the church started.

So, there’s a lead pastor and a launch team.

Here’s Rule # 1 for church planting.

Don’t get your launch team arrested. If someone arrests your launch team, they won’t help you launch your church. So don’t send your launch team to a place where they may be arrested.

Here’s Rule #2

If you’re the senior pastor of a new church plant, avoid being killed at all costs. If there’s no senior pastor, the launch team won’t know what to launch. They may just end up sitting around in a room with the doors locked.

Today’s Gospel reading shows Jesus breaking those two rules as his disciples hide in a locked room for about a week. The new church or community assembly that Jesus planted appeared to be withering right from the start.

What could the disciples do without Jesus present to guide them?

How many disciples would be killed or imprisoned by the religious leaders who proved themselves capable of heinous violence?

If we place ourselves in the sandals of the disciples in chapter 20, we would discover men and women feeling a wide range of emotions. Their lives and their hopes for the future have been turned upside down by the brutal execution of Jesus. Yet, they received incredible news from some women in their group that Jesus was alive.

Most, not all, of the disciples dismissed this as impossible, yet we can imagine that everyone hoped against impossible odds that Jesus could be alive.

The 3 Things Jesus Gave His Disciples

When Jesus showed up in the locked room, he shared three things with them, and I’m guessing they only wanted two out three.

First, Jesus offered peace to them. They were terrified of the Jewish leaders, and they didn’t know what to do next after seeing Jesus’ execution.

Although they rejoiced at the sight of Jesus, their fear remained. And we know that this fear had gripped them because even a week later, when Thomas showed up among them, they were still hanging around in the same house. They weren’t going anywhere or taking any chances.

That self-imposed cabin-fever was a problem because Jesus had specifically commissioned them to go into the world just as the Father had sent him into the world.

That commission is the second thing Jesus gave to his disciples, and it certainly wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They saw that the Jewish leaders were willing to work alongside the hated Romans to orchestrate the execution of an innocent holy man.

If the Father sent Jesus out to preach repentance and forgiveness only to be killed, what would happen to them if they were sent out on the same mission?

We may imagine the disciples saying at first, “Jesus! You’re here!!!” And then their enthusiasm wanes after hearing this commission, “Oh. Jesus… You’re here?”

The third thing Jesus gave to his disciples was the Holy Spirit, who is the promised means for their mission. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit in his longer discourse, which included prayers and promises, in John chapters 15-17.

It seems that Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples in a way that would call to mind God breathing life into the first human. Perhaps we have a hint that Jesus is starting something brand new, a new creation, as he breathed the Holy Spirit on those gathered.

Commentary writers have a lot of different views on how to relate this filling of the Holy Spirit to the day of Pentecost as described in the Book of Acts. We could get into the finer points of the debate over what Jesus did here, but in my view, I can’t imagine anyone today arguing against another chance to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

At the very least, Jesus is telling his disciples, if not empowering his disciples, to complete his mission of being sent out to preach repentance to others.  Jesus made sure they could rely on the Holy Spirit to complete their mission. 

What Was Their Mission?

Now, it might be easy to read this passage and overlook what exactly Jesus was sending his disciples to do. What does it mean for them to be sent in the same way that the Father sent Jesus?

We get our clues from what Jesus says after filling them with the Holy Spirit: They are being sent to forgive sins so that people can be restored in their relationship with God and have life by believing in Jesus.

A little bit of a pause is warranted here because it’s very easy to read this passage in an unhelpful way. It has been interpreted poorly for centuries and there no doubt are Christians who have said awful things because of it.

First, commentary writers and scholars aren’t necessarily agreed on this point, but quite a few believe that a larger group of disciples were present for this conversation and commissioning.

This wasn’t a special power over sin only granted to the top apostles or leaders. Every Christian can share the gift of God’s forgiveness to others.

Second, there’s an unspoken point that needs to be spelled out after centuries of poor application. Jesus wants his disciples to forgive sins. He’s not giving them arbitrary power over sin for their own jollies.

This commission is important and high stakes. Jesus sacrificed his life in order to unite humanity with God. He forgave his executioners on the cross. It would have never crossed the minds of the disciples to withhold forgiveness as a power grab or way to manipulate others.

They were being sent to free people from their anger, pain, greed, violence, and selfishness. If they failed to go, then people would retain their sins.

Now, we would assume that having received the Holy Spirit and the commission from Jesus to go forgive sins, that the disciples would step forward in boldness. We would expect them to announce that Jesus has risen from the dead and conquered death, and all who believe in him can be forgiven, liberated from sin, and restored to communion with God.

Right?

Or they may stay put for a week and fail to convince even one of their own apostles that Jesus is alive.

The church planting plan isn’t off to a great start with their first attempt at a convert among themselves.

Thomas Goes Over the Top

The story of Jesus and Thomas is a bit of a low point in the Gospels where even an apostle of Jesus who had every advantage of sitting under Jesus doubted his Resurrection. Yet, the focus on Thomas’ doubt has always bothered me.

If I was going to make up a subtitle for each Gospel, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to write something like this:

Stories of Jesus Saving People Who Misunderstood and Doubted Him

The single strongest argument for the historical authenticity of the Gospels is the number of times the disciples look bad. They’re always doubting Jesus, misunderstanding Jesus, confused by Jesus, and sulking about with their tails between their legs. Jesus even called Peter “Satan” once!

The Resurrection accounts are filled with the disciples struggling with doubt and confusion. Matthew and Luke take care to mention the doubts of the disciples, which we tend to overlook because those doubts aren’t as dramatic as Thomas.

Thomas makes a demand for an even more miraculous experience than the rest of the disciples who saw the wounds of Jesus. He wanted to touch them!

Over the years, I have still felt that John was kind of outing his friend.

I’ve since changed my mind, though. The Gospels take care to document a lot of doubting disciples, and the story of Thomas at this particular moment is crucial for the disciples and for us today.

Thomas struggled to believe the people he trusted the most about the risen Jesus. Therefore, their mission to announce forgiveness of sins through the Risen Christ faced steep challenges.

This prompted Jesus to announce a special blessing for those who would believe in his Resurrection and forgiveness without seeing what they saw. John wanted future generations to know their mission is a tough ask, and they will most certainly need all of the help they can get from the Holy Spirit.

I don’t think the intention is to single out Thomas after a Gospel full of doubts and confusion. In fact, Thomas gives one of the most memorable affirmations of Jesus being God, saying “My Lord and my God.”

Thomas reminds us that we will need God’s help to share the hope of Jesus being alive and present to forgive sins.

Where Does This Story Leave Us?

Based on today’s Gospel reading, we may find that we have a few things in common with the disciples, even if we haven’t witnessed the events of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.

We too have had to deal with our doubts and failures.

We too have been forgiven by the risen Jesus and invited to share in new life through the Holy Spirit.

We have received the Holy Spirit or we can receive the Holy Spirit because of our relationship with Jesus.

Although we aren’t hiding from people who threaten our lives, we may still feel alienated by others and struggle to find much in common with them.

We may feel the burden of being called to help people find freedom and forgiveness in Christ if we don’t appear to have anything in common with them.

For some of us introverts, it’s very hard to talk to people. And it’s even harder to talk to people when we can’t see common ground.

I share those concerns, and here are a few things that may help.

For starters, I hope that you can take time this week to meditate on God’s love for you and the indwelling Spirit Jesus has breathed on you. Those are God’s gracious gifts that you could never earn or “prepare” for. You just have to receive them.

Then, I hope you take time to remember God’s love for you also extends to everyone. I love the snarky t-shirt that says, “Jesus loves you. Then again, he loves everybody.”

As snarky as that sounds, it’s actually true. Jesus loves you as a unique, wonderful person, but he also loves everyone. That love and grace is given to you for you benefit and for the benefit of others.

We don’t talk about sin because we are God’s appointed judges for this world. Jesus specifically said he didn’t come to judge. He came as a doctor who wanted to heal people.

As you think of how you can share the life and love of Jesus with others, consider ways you can help others heal. Don’t stand as the judge. Be a caring doctor who listens, prays, and supports people in their faith journeys.

If you ever worry that you’re not doing this right or that you don’t have what it takes, remember something from today’s passage. The risen Jesus appeared to his closest disciples, told them to go out and forgive sins, and then, they stayed put. Even one of Jesus’s own disciples doubted the testimony of his friends.

We have been given a high and holy calling to heal others by sharing about the love and grace of Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget that this mission started out as a fiasco that appeared doomed to failure.

Only the breath of God moving through ordinary people could help them continue a mission that depended on the power of God from day one.

Amen. 


Check out Ed’s books about prayer, Christian living, and writing at Amazon:

Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash

What Does It Look Like to Pray More Effectively?

I think we all want to figure out how to pray more effectively, but what exactly are we wishing for? We want our prayers to connect us with God, and we want to see positive outcomes when we pray for peace, strength, courage, safety, or healing.

Yet, does praying effectively mean seeing a direct correlation between praying for specific outcomes and then seeing God deliver them?

I spent a lot of time worrying that my prayers weren’t effective. I feared that God wasn’t real or that my faith was flawed because I didn’t see enough outcomes from my prayers.

Looking back, I got swept up in my expectations and desires for control or even for some kind of sign based on my prayers. I wanted to be legitimized or verified.

Curiously, Jesus often rebuked those who asked him for a sign. The people who couldn’t trust in his word or rest in God’s unseen presence were the ones who demanded verification proving Jesus was God.

When I wanted to prove that my prayers are effective, I made a similar mistake. The mystery of God had to be uncovered in order to give myself a sense of security.

Although I still try to “improve” my prayer practices and become more disciplined in my daily prayer routines, I don’t get wrapped up in the outcomes of my prayer. There isn’t really a way to measure the effectiveness of my prayers.

Perhaps the only measure of prayer’s effectiveness is whether I’m trusting in God or not.

Thomas Keating famously said that you can only fail at prayer if you get up and leave the room.

You are praying effectively as long as you are reaching out to a loving and present God.

You are praying effectively as long as you are resting in God and trusting in God.

You are praying effectively if you either lay down your burdens to the Lord or clear your mind so that God’s love is all that remains in your awareness.

It’s easy to turn prayer or Christian living into balance sheets or stock markets where growth and declines happen regularly. We want to be “growing” as Christians, but such progress isn’t easy to nail down.

It’s more helpful to think about whether you’re participating in prayer or not. Even if you don’t see clear outcomes or progress from your prayers, that isn’t a mark of failure or alienation from God.

Consider whether you have unrealistic expectations or whether you need some instruction in prayer, but prayer isn’t a simple matter of input and output with predictable results. We can beat ourselves up if our prayers don’t bring the same results we see attained by others.

I’ve had to balance extremes in my life.

I know I need to keep engaging in prayer, learning more about prayer, and growing in my practices that are always in need of refinement.

I also know that I can’t measure my progress in prayer or label certain prayers as “effective” based on my own criteria. Who can say with certainty what’s effective while praying to a present but mysterious God?

I hope to keep learning more about prayer, stretching my faith as I trust more completely in God, and practicing prayer in ways that help me experience God in new ways.

I will continue to make petitions for myself and for others, and I will wait on God in silent faith.

Yet, I also will avoid beating myself up over the “results” of my prayers. There are moments in the Bible when God responds with yes to a prayer request and times when God responds with no. Both prayers could be described as “effective” in the sense that they were shared intimately with God.

We won’t always know how to measure the effectiveness of prayer according to our own terms. Yet, if you can address God as your Father, a loving parent, then you are certainly well on your way according to the guidelines shared by Jesus.

Books by Ed Cyzewski on prayer and Christian spirituality.

Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

Is There a Lot of Pain Behind Strong Political and Religious Opinions?

There’s a deep suspicion of the Federal government in my region of Kentucky, and as someone who came from the northeast, I didn’t understand it at first. Once I learned about the history of the region, some of that suspicion started to make sense.

When the Federal government formed the Tennessee Valley Authority in order to create jobs and affordable electricity in our area, the dammed up Cumberland River resulted in flooding that required the removal of several towns in the region now known as the Land Between the Lakes.

In addition, the Land Between the Lakes region was designated a recreation area, and the few remaining homes were purchased by the government so that residents could resettle.

Although there were some excellent benefits from this project, including extremely cheap electricity in a region that has struggled economically, homeowners in the Land Between the Lakes region alleged that the government undervalued their homes and then paid them less than the home’s value. In addition, several long time communities were unwilling to move from land that had been in their families for generations.

Such incidents hardly account for ALL of the suspicion of the Federal government in our area, but they surely don’t help. From what I can tell, the good of providing jobs and electricity was undermined by some extremely troubling exploitation of people who already didn’t have a lot of resources.

When I hear someone’s strong views about government overreach around here, I’m mindful that there’s some history that I haven’t lived through that could be influencing such perspectives.

I’d also qualify that by saying there’s a history in our region (and to the south) of resenting the government for liberating slaves and assuring the rights of black citizens. Such resentment should be understood, but it’s certainly not a belief that should be honored or accommodated.


Looking a bit more broadly, it’s fair to say that when someone is deeply committed to religious beliefs, political ideology, or a certain school of philosophy, there’s sometimes (if not often) a good bit of pain involved in that person’s story leading up to those strong beliefs.

Looking back at my own history, I am strongly opposed to the politicization of the Christian faith for the ends of any political cause, but those strong beliefs are driven in part by my disillusionment with Christianity being exploited by the religious right in America.

I know I’m hardly unique in that sense. It feels like well over half of the Christians I know in my age range share my disillusionment with politics co-opting the Christian message.

I’ve met plenty of Christians who were disillusioned by organized religion, especially Christian churches with strong pastoral figureheads, and all of them have a story of a leader abusing his (it’s almost always a man) position to the detriment of others.

People end up supporting political leaders, rejecting religious beliefs, swinging from one extreme to another, and engaging in who knows what else because of pain from their past.

Perhaps they can’t draw a straight line right away from their pain to their current convictions, but it sure seems like pain changes us and prompts us to make really big shifts that we’d otherwise resist. At the very least, our pain prompts us to make changes that we feel very strongly about.


I had some extremely negative experiences with Catholic priests who were quite dismissive of me and who were quite authoritarian in their use of power. They more or less said, “I’m the priest who represents the authority of the church, so your beliefs need to fall in line with what I’m saying.”

Such things were said with a smile that belied an assumption that I would surely take their view of things and merely fall in line. They never thought that I’d want to read the Bible and consider ideas outside of their own.

To this day I find the Catholic mass almost suffocating and unbearable. The last place I want to  be is under the authority of a priest, even in the course of leading a mass.

I can read Catholic writers because there’s a different dynamic present with an author and a reader. I can go to an Episcopal Church because our priest doesn’t claim a kind of unlimited and unquestionable religious authority that is linked to a Pope. It’s quite clear in my mind, but I’m sure it doesn’t make sense to everyone.

The common link between myself and those who are suspicious of government, religious leaders, organized religious groups, or politicians pandering to religious groups is a history of pain and disappointment.

It’s easy to judge people based on how they act today. I’ll admit that it would be much, much easier to dismiss someone who doesn’t make any sense to me or who holds views that I find wrong or even harmful.

Yet, such a dismissive spirit falls well short of how I’d want someone to handle my own pain from my past.

I also know I haven’t been as kind and gracious to some Catholics or politically driven Christians because of my own past.

We all want to be understood. We want our pain to be acknowledged and seen for what it is, even if it can make us a bit hard to handle at times.

Maybe if we can talk about our shared pain, we can even more toward a common healing where we can drop our defenses just a little bit so we can see how much we hold in common.


Books by Ed Cyzewski

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

My New Book: Inspired to Influence

AVAILABLE NOW! Inspired to Influence: An influencer’s boot camp to find your purpose, capture joy, create a life that counts, find spiritual satisfaction, and revolutionize your life* to become authentically and uniquely you just like me

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If you’re a Christian, you obviously want to make the biggest splash possible and really turn some heads… for God, that is. But, here’s the thing…  

How will you win multitudes for God if you’re an underachieving, unambitious nobody with zero influence?

What sets the most effective, most purposeful, most fulfilled, happiest, and fittest Christians apart from the rest?

Influence.

If you want to make your mark for God, then you’re not going to move the needle as a nobody. It’s time to stop making excuses, to take control, to put on your big boy (or big girl) pants, and to hit the pavement with a complete overhaul of your meek and lowly life.

Inspired to Influence is your one stop guide to marketing yourself, living healthy, finding meaning, securing wealth, being joyful, and, most important of all, being holy in a way that turns heads and captures attention.

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Want to Learn More?

Sorry! You can’t. This is my annual April Fool’s Day joke. Visit my page of past jokes here.

Visit my Amazon page for all of my real book listings, including some big $.99 sales running on all of my independent books on prayer for April Fools Day. That’s not a joke.

My latest books, Flee, Be Silent, Pray and Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction  won’t teach you much about influence, but they will teach you a thing or two about making time for prayer and developing a few helpful prayer practices.

You can also get 30% off the print or eBook versions of Flee, Be Silent, Pray and Reconnect at the Herald Press website when you use the code APRILFOOLS at checkout.

*The subtitle list was pulled directly from the Christian Living Bestseller subtitles on Amazon.

** Hat tip to the Maintenance Phase podcast for highlighting this influencer trick.

The Apostle Paul Would Have Loved Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory for Christians in America

The future of early Christianity hinged in part on the merging of Jews and Gentiles into one people in Christ. A Gentile could be from Rome, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, or another region, but all Gentiles were united in not being Jewish by race, religion, culture, and politics.

There was a lot more than race wrapped up in this division among different peoples, but there is no doubt that race was certainly part of the mix.

As the Apostle Paul left his post as a powerful religious zealot among the Jews, he became an ambassador to the Gentiles, pursuing a seemingly impossible task. He didn’t see one group dominating the other in a colonial sense. Rather, he sought to unite two very different groups as one new, equal people in Christ.

The regulations of the Jewish law no longer applied to the Law of the Spirit in Christ, but the wisdom and philosophy of the Gentiles also fell short. The history of both groups and their religious frameworks were essential for understanding both groups and for pursuing reconciliation under Christ.

In fact, the entire Christian idea of repentance hinges on an honest accounting of one’s past. Collective action of a group or system was also quite relevant beyond personal reckonings with sin.

Paul had to face the ways he had relied on his knowledge of the Jewish Law and his special place as a chosen member of God’s people before he could see the superiority of a new identity in Christ.

Gentiles had to face the ways that Christ’s foolishness overturned their wisdom and philosophy, not to mention their own sense of cultural superiority over groups like the Jews.

The impact of racial divisions and the underlying challenges of racism in the laws, practices, and institutions at the time of Paul simply couldn’t be overlooked when trying to create one people in Christ.

There is no escaping a phrase like Critical Race Theory in America today, especially in the political realm. Conservative media and politicians have generally emptied the term of any real meaning and stuffed it with every fear, reaction, and grievance of white American culture for the purposes of political activism.

We are living at a time when allegedly small government “conservatives” want to regulate what teachers can talk about in schools, to the point that they are willing to ban discussions of Critical Race Theory. It’s a shocking overreach of the government, especially for people who supposedly dislike an overreaching government.

Even worse, the mere attempt to ban discussions of Critical Race Theory is based entirely on bad faith, unserious misrepresentations of what it is. If such conservative politicians actually presented the reality of Critical Race Theory, their Christian constituents would be forced to reckon with a very uncomfortable reality: Critical Race Theory rightly identifies many of the systemic sins in America.

If white American Christians aspire to live with their black brothers and sisters as one people in Christ, there is a lot more to reconcile than personal racism or racist attitudes in one’s family history. There are systems and cultural histories in America that have afflicted black people in ways that white people would find intolerable.

Mind you, there are enough white Americans who find merely talking about the suffering of black people in America intolerable. Can you imagine what these white Americans would do if they had to face actual discrimination and systemic injustice.

The uncomfortable truth for white American Christians is that a Christian like Paul would have likely loved Critical Race Theory. It succinctly and quite accurately labels the structural sins that black Americans face.

In the hope of cutting through some of the fog and misunderstanding of our times, let’s pause to consider what Critical Race Theory actually is. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s website:

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare. Critical Race Theory recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice. It is embedded in laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities. According to CRT, societal issues like Black Americans’ higher mortality rate, outsized exposure to police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, denial of affordable housing, and the rates of the death of Black women in childbirth are not unrelated anomalies.

Let’s ask ourselves a few frank questions.

  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to receive inferior education based on the color of their skin?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to be denied the purchase of a home based on the color of their skin, as has happened often with red lining in cities?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to be denied a job, higher wage, or promotion based on the color of their skin?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to suffer higher infant mortality rates due to inadequate healthcare?
  • Is it God’s dream for anyone to suffer harsher treatment from the police or legal system based on the color of their skin?

I can’t imagine anyone affirming these afflictions as good, and there is no denying the fact that these things have happened regularly in America for generations and still continue in some communities. Sometimes even worse things happen based on the color of someone’s skin.

For Paul, who sought to join different races together as one people in Christ and who believed that confession precedes repentance, I can imagine him finding CRT’s clear articulation of cultural and systemic sins quite helpful.

It’s awfully hard to be unified with people who deny your pain and who can’t comprehend your personal story. Critical Race Theory is one tool we can use to simply articulate the pain of a group of people in America who are God’s beloved children and who have an equal share with every other race in God’s Kingdom.

It’s not controversial to say that God’s Kingdom includes all races. However, it is unfortunately controversial to say that some races have suffered and are suffering a great deal more than some others. To deny the suffering of black Americans by turning Critical Race Theory into a political punching bag only drives enormous wedges among God’s people.

Acknowledging the suffering of black Americans at the hands of some in white America isn’t anti-white or reverse racism. This is an opportunity for knowledge and wisdom, to learn and to grow so that we can repent of the systems that have caused a lot of suffering.

The goal of someone like Paul wasn’t to drag down or diminish the Jews or Gentiles. He simply critiqued where the two cultures got stuff wrong and identified how their cultural assumptions about race prevented them from becoming one people in Christ.

I don’t believe it’s God’s dream to tear anyone down. God doesn’t want us to hate our race. Such unfounded fears have been drummed up in bad faith and prevent us from acknowledging the pain of others.

We have an opportunity today to pursue the joining of different races together as one people in Christ in a way that both acknowledges the failures and the pain of the past and elevates everyone to an equal position as beloved children of God. Acknowledging the truth of our past through a tool like Critical Race Theory can help us get there.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

Of Course I Love Jesus. He Looks Exactly Like Me

Would I love Jesus if he didn’t look exactly like me?

That’s a tough question. I’ve been studying the Bible and praying for as long as I can remember, and I’ve shifted my beliefs several times. Each shift in my beliefs was an attempt to draw closer to a faithful view and imitation of Jesus.

I wouldn’t believe what I do if I didn’t think it was in keeping with the “authentic” Jesus. Even if my everyday life of work and family life is quite different from the itinerant preaching and miracle-working of Jesus, I do attempt to incorporate his teachings into my daily decisions and practices–at least as much as I imagine possible.

Even if I’d be the first person to poke some holes in my inconsistencies or the ways I fall short, I’m not the only person trying to follow Jesus in modern life who imagines that Jesus more or less approves of what I’m doing. I’m not perfect, but who is?

Considering things on the whole, it’s safe to say that I either consciously or unconsciously believe that I’m on the same page as Jesus.

Am I?

Well… I hope so. But it does make me wonder how comfortable I have become in my beliefs and how resistant I may be to shaking them up.

We can cherry pick verses all day about how Jesus was either more loving and gracious than we imagine or more critical and jarring than we imagine. It sure felt like the Gospels are just one story after another of people learning that God’s priorities and ways of doing things are very different from our own.

For the people who were challenged by Jesus, it wasn’t a sure thing that they would follow him. They had a physical Jesus standing right in front of them. There was no ambiguity back then.

Today, we study, pray, and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us toward the right way to live, but that doesn’t guarantee that sometimes we’ll shape Jesus into our own image. A Jesus who looks like us is a lot easier to follow and to love.

If my self-constructed illusion of Jesus gets challenged, would I stick around? I think so. I hope so. Yet, the Gospels also have plenty of stories of optimistic faith that faltered when under pressure.

A safeguard for today is to continue discerning if my faith rests in a Jesus who is God-incarnate or a Jesus who is me-incarnate. One clue may be whether I find Jesus really easy to love.

Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

Jesus Loves You, But Then He Also Loves Everybody

I can’t remember when I first saw a t-shirt with this message: Jesus Loves You, But Then He Also Loves Everybody.

I’d like to say it was down the Jersey shore on vacation with my family because that’s such a quintessential New Jersey thing to say. Perhaps my teenage years in south Jersey help explain why I loved it so much.

Although I didn’t love that message enough to shell out twenty bucks for the shirt.

As cutting as that shirt aims to be, I find it refreshingly accurate and especially appropriate for our times.

Individualism, self-centered consumption, and personal branding are running rampant at a time when you can document your every meal, shoe choice, parenting decision, exercise accomplishment, and half-formed thought on social media. Our divided politics, white society’s mishandling of racism, and our failure to protect God’s creation all revolve around elevated notions of certain groups being God’s chosen, special people who are entitled to special blessings and provisions to meet their every need.

It’s not the worst thing to assert that we aren’t as special as we think.

Consider the potential benefits of American Christians (especially white American Christians) tempering our “chosen” status with the simple fact that we aren’t superior to anyone because everyone is beloved by God.

We still get to be loved by God. We haven’t lost anything really. We just aren’t as unique as we imagined. Any superiority was an illusion to begin with.

How many problems arise because we have lost sight of God’s image in others?

How much harder would it be to direct hate or disdain or indifference toward others if we remembered they are loved deeply by God?

Saying that Jesus loves you, but then he loves everybody reminds us of the incredible gift of God’s love we have been given without raising us above anyone else.

God’s love doesn’t generate supremacy. God’s love generates empathy and equality.

I can see that glaring mistake in my own life and in the story of Christianity in America. We’ve been too quick to make God’s love into an exclusive selection that gives us power and influence we were never offered.

A little bit of New Jersey’s cutting sarcasm can be a real gift for us today, provided we direct the sarcasm at ourselves.

I can say, “Jesus loves me, but then he also loves everybody.”

That is comforting and even liberating because it puts me in my place, both in a positive, affirming sense and in a humbling, realistic clap back.

Perhaps the greatest scandal I have faced in examining this statement is the fact that I’ve believed God’s love for me simply wasn’t good enough. I needed to be loved by God and also somehow more chosen or superior to others.

The good news is that God’s reign is here right now, and the God who longs to restore our world loves each of us without reservation as beloved children. There’s no need to long for anything more.