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Spiritual Formation with Catholics vs Legalism with Hard Partying Fundamentalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Formation as an Alternative

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

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

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

Catholic writer Henri Nouwen writes in his book Spiritual Formation:

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

He then adds:

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

Sustainable Spiritual Formation vs. Double Life Legalism

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

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

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

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

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

How Toxic Christian Leaders Protect Themselves

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

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

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

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

Influential Relationships Matter

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

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

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

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

Toxic Leaders Are Protected by Incongruity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standing Together Against Public Outrage

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

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

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

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

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

How Should We Handle Toxic Leaders?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Make an Author Howl in Despair

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

There are two really good reasons for this response…

Authors Always Believe Their Books Are Unique

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

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

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

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

Authors Must Distinguish Their Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m seeking to look further upstream…

Why do we have a flood?

What is the design of the flood?

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

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

Less Howling, More Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learn More about My Precious, Unique Book

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

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Reconnect

Is Social Media Giving Us More or Fewer Choices?

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Social Media Designed to Do?

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

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

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

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

What Are You Choosing to Do on Social Media?

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

If companies have every incentive to keep us hooked…

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

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

Then how much control do we have over our usage?

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

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

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

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

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

How I Give Myself More Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn More about Spiritual Formation vs. Digital Formation

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

Learn more about Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction

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Reconnect

Prayer Is Boring. But We Need Boredom… And Prayer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learn More about Spiritual Formation vs. Digital Formation

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

Learn more about Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction

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

**Thurman, Essential Writings, 45.

What Motivates Us Besides Fear and Anger?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Anger Manipulates Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Fear Manipulates Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all a really big mess.

What are the alternatives?

Empowering People with Expertise, Research, or Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learn More about Regaining Control Over Fear and Anger

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Check out Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learn More Digital Formation vs. Spiritual Formation

My upcoming book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction shares how digital technology is designed to shape us, what that means for spiritual formation, and how our spiritual practices can lead us toward the flourishing and health that God has in store for us.

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3 Things to Remember as Technology Becomes Essential

It is quite strange to have written a book about using technology less at a time when it appears essential for our economy, relationships, entertainment, and overall sanity.

There is no doubt that some of my arguments in favor of prioritizing in-person interaction will have to wait until better times when this pandemic is past us. Yet, the majority of the message in Reconnect still stands. In fact, it may be even more important as we immerse ourselves in technology and routinely experience the real limits of interacting over a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use technology in our relationships, especially during a pandemic. Rather, we should use technology with our eyes wide open about its limitations, design, and strengths.

If we want to make the most of our quarantine time, preserve our mental health, and keep our relationships as healthy as possible, we owe ourselves a clear-eyed view of technology’s capabilities and very, very real downsides.

Technology Is Great for Information, Bad for Empathy

Webinars work really great because they can efficiently share information with as many people have an internet connection and a link. That plays to a strength of technology.

However, as we take to Zoom, Facetime, or Facebook Live for more regular social interactions, we should remember that technology makes it hard to fully engage with others in the same way as in person. The reason, in part, is that in-person interactions result in many non-verbal cues and expressions.

Communication is more than the words we say, and technology is very limited in delivering these cues and expressions.

Researchers have found that technology addicts especially struggle with empathy. This is because empathy is extremely difficult to convey over a screen.

That doesn’t mean we should leave our video calls with friends, family, or colleagues behind. Rather, let’s remember that we’re getting a limited experience.

Limited connection is all we’ve got right now, and I’m so grateful for all of the video calls I’ve had, but if you feel a lingering sense of disconnection or dissatisfaction with these calls, there’s a good reason for that.

It’s Nearly Impossible to Filter Out the Negative Side of Social Media

While we can carefully manage who we see in our social media feeds, keep in mind that social media will always promote the strongest reaction or the most shocking perspective because those posts drive higher engagement.

I turn to social media to see what my friends and colleagues are up to and to learn from experts who share their experience in their feeds. In fact, there are times when I turn to an expert or two on social media to help me figure out a news story.

At the same time, there will always be someone who shows up in the replies or comments with a bit of despair, anger, or sarcasm. I have found it’s quite hard to disengage from a fight or flight response when I start seeing comments on social media like that.

It’s as if my body reacts whether or not my brain wants it to react like that! Seeing strong reactions and emotions on social media can override my more rational responses to a crisis.

At a time when we are turning to social media to keep in touch with friends, family, and colleagues, let’s remember how quickly the most divisive or distressing content rises to the top. Pay attention to how you react to comments on social media.

If anything, this time could call for more intentional usage of social media, posting personal updates or checking up on the pages of individual friends and colleagues to post a note or to interact with them.

Beware the firehose of information that is the social media feed. It never stops–and that’s by design. If you’re already worried about the pandemic, then it may feel good to disengage for long stretches of time with whatever comes up on your social media slot machine feed that could always give you something exciting if you just… keep… scrolling.

Pay Attention to Your Reason for Using Social Media

At a time when the mental health of many is under strain and we’re looking for ways to make ourselves feel a bit better, social media can become a bit like candy in comparison to a substantial meal. While social media can offer helpful connections to a certain degree, we shouldn’t expect too much of it.

In fact, a co-creator of the Like button on Facebook shared that she simply can’t use Facebook anymore for the sake of her mental health. She sought affirmation on Facebook so often that she got addicted to the feedback of others on her posts.

This again drives home the importance of using social media with intention and limits. The designers of social media have packed in as many addicting features as possible to keep us hooked on their feeds, so it’s wise to set limits on our time even if we use social media and our phones with good intentions.

No one logs in to social media or picks up their phone with the intention of becoming distracted from their loved ones or their daily priorities. No one wants to feel worse after using social media to keep up with friends and colleagues.

Yet, the research available suggests that the downsides of social media and digital technology in general are very, very real. If we don’t have clear intentions and limits in place, even at a time like this, our mental health may begin to suffer as the days of our quarantine could turn into weeks.

 

Learn More Digital Formation vs. Spiritual Formation

My upcoming book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction shares how digital technology is designed to shape us, what that means for spiritual formation, and how our spiritual practices can lead us toward the flourishing and health that God has in store for us.

Check Out Reconnect Now

Download My Free eBook: 10 Ways to Use Your Phone Less… and to Pray a Bit More

 

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What Makes It Hard to Stand Still?

Perhaps the strangest paradox of modern life is that it can feel harder to stand still and do nothing than it is to remain in motion doing something.

Shouldn’t “doing nothing” be the easiest thing to “do”?

I have often experienced this sensation while taking a walk and stopping to look at a flowering tree or noticing a particular swirl of light in the late afternoon sky. There’s often something else to do or an inner drive to be productive–to keep moving.

I’ve watched several documentaries where monks are staring contentedly at fields where the sun rustles the corn, where monks settle in at a desk to read scripture for long stretches of time, or where a monk calmly works on a task such as cutting fire wood or making soap. These people may as well be from a different planet compared to me.

How are they so unhurried and calm?

What super power enables them to sit or stand so still and so erect for so long?

Do they drink less coffee???

My suspicion is that I have immersed myself in motion, productivity, and meeting certain goals that appear quite important. I find it difficult to stop each day for meditation, prayer, or silence before God because I’m immersed in illusions about my own importance or the urgency of everything before me.

Training myself to value silence or to thrive in stillness has challenged me to rethink my addiction to motion and activity.

Perhaps I won’t get what I crave if I’m always thinking about doing the next thing?

What exactly do I crave in the first place?

That’s where some uncomfortable reflections come up!

It may be easier to reflect on what I could gain if I made stillness and silence a more regular part of my daily life.

For instance, I have managed to train myself to recognize when I’m not getting enough stillness and silence. I know the feeling of rush, despair, and disordered thoughts that comes with an addiction to hurry and doing.

I can feel my soul lurching forward with the shock of a stop, as if silence is slamming on the brakes in my life.

Yet, when I am grounded in a measure of silence and stillness, I can become more aware of God and more aware of how I’m spending my time.

I can ask if I’m using my phone or social media to check out from reality. I can ask if I need to add more life-giving activities to my day, such as a walk, some art, or a bit of reading.

Perhaps the thing that makes standing still so difficult is that I haven’t realized just how beneficial it could be for me to stop doing things. It would be a tragedy to get everything I’ve been striving to achieve with my activity only to realize I could find most of what I need if I set aside more time for silence.

Do You Know When You Make the Best Decisions?

Perhaps I’m confessing too much, but I often try to avoid making decisions late at night. Ever since my college days, I’ve struggled to disconnect from my day, to stop working, and to just make good choices in general.

When I’m tired, I need routines and plans to be set in place. I need a good book to help me settle down along with a simple bedtime routine.

This could explain why I plowed through Richard Rohr’s, Thomas Merton’s, Henri Nouwen’s, and Martin Laird’s writings about contemplation so rapidly. I just needed the routine of reading something that could capture my attention, and each of those authors hooked me right away.

Adding my smartphone to the mix in the evening was terrible for my sleep until I chose some blocks and reminders to help me make better choices. For instance, the Freedom app on my phone blocks the internet so I can’t look up anything. That’s great news for me since I could spend the night looking through home improvement sites now that we’re buying a home!

I set up the Freedom app in a moment of strength, when I was sharp and aware of my basic need for sleep. Once bedtime hits, I feel the pull to start doing research into, well, anything. But at 9 pm the Freedom app shuts down my internet access on my phone’s browser.

There are a few times when Freedom has a bug and doesn’t set up the block on time. Those are usually the nights when I want to look up “just one more thing…”

And even on my computer, I could always work on just one more thing. In that case, Freedom kicks on at 9:30 pm, saving me from working too late into the night but giving myself a bit of wiggle room if I have an urgent deadline to meet.

Similar blocks set up in moments of clarity, intention, and determination help me with social media. For instance, I use the Self Control 2 app to block all social media sites on my computer while still allowing general internet access for my work. One of my favorite tricks is to restart my computer at the end of my work day and to then set up a long social media block into the next day.

For instance, if I end my workday at 5 pm, I may set up my block for 20 hours. That still leaves me the entire afternoon on the next day for social media use if I need it, but then I don’t have to think about it before bed time or in the morning when I’m most likely to be productive.

The Self Control 2 timer runs all night while my computer sleeps and reminds me first thing in the morning that social media is off limits.

Since using this strategy, I have never missed any important messages or events. I always have plenty of time on social media, and my attention isn’t fragmented in the morning hours when I’m most productive at work or most receptive for spiritual practices.

Even better, my work and spiritual practices aren’t disrupted by what I read on social media at the start of the day. I think we underestimate just how distracted, unsettled, or worried we can become through what we see on social media.

I recognize that we all have different goals, requirements, and challenges before us with technology use. The overall principle I follow is to set up my boundaries when I’m best capable of making good decisions.

Honestly, when I’m a bit ashamed of wasting time on a website or app, I may be the most motivated to make a change! We’re all different, so we all need to sort out which boundaries help us remain emotionally, spiritually, and relationally healthy.

I remember scrolling through Instagram one night for far too long and then resolving to delete it when I realized just how late it was. I have not put the app back on my phone since.

Just as you don’t want to force yourself to make decisions about eating ice scream when you have a freezer stacked with quarts of your favorite flavors and your belly is rumbling, you don’t want to force yourself to make decisions about phone use when your will is weakest.

The good news is that our computers, smartphones, and even social media (on occasion) can be used productively to help ourselves and others. If we sort out our boundaries sooner than later, we can preserve all of those good uses without losing out in the other vitally important areas of our lives.

 

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