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The Trouble with Offering Religious Goods and Services

I write books about Christianity, prayer, and spiritual practices, so you could say that my books could be considered religious goods in a consumer society.

When I sit down to write these books, I’m always trying to think of ways I can minister to and help my readers. However, drawing a line between helping readers and telling them what they want to hear can prove challenging to authors.

Staying positive, giving a “Rah, rah, you can do it!” message of abundance and prosperity may sell well. Honestly, there is a positive element to the Christian message that can take on a life of its own at times, but there are two big caveats that I’ve found in genuine Christian spirituality:

  1. Abundance and joy is preceded by a surrender or death to certain priorities or ways of living.
  2. Abundance and joy rarely look the way we imagine they will look.

While writing Flee, Be Silent, Pray, I was constantly trying to avoid a consumer-focused sales pitch for contemplation:

  • Cure your anxiety!
  • De-stress!
  • Find inner peace!
  • Find security in God!

These are all results that come over time in contemplative prayer, but they are not necessarily guaranteed, especially in the short term.

Contemplative prayer can offer a deeper, more foundational fix to these issues by addressing them as part of the larger picture of prayer, identity, and surrender.

When Jesus spoke of the life he offered, he certainly used terms that we would associate with abundance–springs gushing with water or trees that are plentiful with fruit. He also warned that our lives must go into the ground and experience a kind of “death” in order to produce fruit.

There really isn’t a program other than surrender and sacrifice to a loving but unseen God. It’s not easy, and oftentimes it’s counterintuitive to wait in silent expectation.

The sales pitch, to use consumer language, for contemplative prayer is summed up more or less in the word surrender. It’s much easier to add something than to give something up! That’s what makes consumerism so powerful.

When Thomas Merton shared the writings of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila, both offer a demanding path forward that involves sacrifice, discipline, and purity of heart. Yes, they wrote of the deep love of God for us, but they also oriented their lives around this pursuit.

We need contemplative prayer because it offers a simple yet structured way to become present for God each day. Silence and resistance to distracting or afflicting thoughts through a prayer word can open up a space for God that we didn’t even know we could find.

Arriving at this point is hardly easy going. It’s costly. It’s a leap of faith. It calls for the disciplined pursuit of God through surrender and silence.

Far from providing yet another spiritual good or service to acquire, contemplative prayer in silence before God will challenge us to surrender what we have.

Our hope is that what God gives us in return will far exceed the worth of whatever we can purchase on our own.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

 

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

We Can’t Find Time to Pray Because We Can’t Imagine a Loving God

When I ask people about what keeps them from praying, they often list reasons like being too busy, too distracted, or not knowing where to start. A few really get honest and say, “I can’t imagine a loving God” or “I’m too angry at God to pray.”

I don’t think everyone has the same exact struggle with prayer, but there is something about that last reply that makes me wonder about a root issue for many (most?) of us. At the heart of our struggles to pray is this: Perhaps we don’t pray because we can’t imagine a God who is worth praying to.

Yes, life is busy, but if we could imagine a loving and attentive God who is present with us like a parent, would we be more inclined to change our schedules?

Sure, distractions are an issue, but we can learn how to focus our attention. If we imagined a God who is loving and present, then we certainly can develop a few healthy prayer habits.

Prayer can appear daunting for those who have not been taught how to quiet themselves before God, but if we thought that God loved us, we can read books and ask others to teach us.

This may not be true for everyone, but it’s at least true in my experience. I’ll offer the excuses about my time or my ability to focus, but deep down, there’s another issue at the root: how I imagine God.

I don’t write this to shame anyone. I truly believe that many Christians have been taught that God could take us or leave us, that God is angry or disappointed in us, and that God is just a breath away from banishing us to hell if we make one false move. Who would be motivated to pray to that sort of God? 

We don’t imagine the father in the Prodigal Son story. We imagine a judge, oftentimes an angry judge.

I wasn’t motivated to pray and I became discouraged when I attempted prayer because I didn’t imagine God as a loving parent. I imagined this passive-aggressive judge playing hard to get.

Mind you, a loving parent will still help us face our flaws and challenge us to make changes, but there is a level of presence and commitment in a loving parent that I had been missing with God.

Jesus wanted us to start calling God our own parent, he welcomed his followers into his family, and he sent his Holy Spirit to dwell among us. To accept the words of Jesus as the basis of our relationship with God can dramatically change our motivation to pray and our response to prayers that don’t give us the results we expect.

Here is an excerpt from my new book, Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, that digs deeper into this root issue of love and trust for God that can dramatically impact how we pray:

*****

The unconditional, parental love of God is precisely what Jesus communicated to us through his baptism and transfiguration. In these two pivotal moments of Jesus’ ministry, anxious Christians will find more than enough hope.

What formed the foundation of Jesus’ ministry? The beginning of his ministry (baptism) and the point at which he turned toward Jerusalem (transfiguration) were both preceded by identical statements from God the Father: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17 NIV)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5 NIV)

It is easy to jump past these statements, just as it’s easy to overlook how frequently Jesus set off to pray by himself. If Jesus is a member of the Trinity, we might ask, why did he need the affirmation of God? Why did he wake up early to pray, pull praying all-nighters, and venture into the abandoned wilderness?

To a certain degree, Jesus modeled what ministry and a relationship with God is supposed to look like. He was fully God and fully human, but he mysteriously manifested the power of God through his humanity. Paul writes: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7 NIV). I’ll leave the trinitarian particulars of Paul’s statement to people who are smarter and better read than I am. What we can’t avoid is the fact that Jesus ministered fully in human likeness and received the loving affirmation of God, who identified Jesus as his beloved Son at two pivotal moments in his ministry.

Before Jesus preached about the kingdom, healed the sick, or dined with the outcast, he received affirmation from God. Because of that affirmation, he had nothing to prove. His identity was secure, and there was nothing anyone could give to him or take away from him that mattered more than the loving affirmation of the Father. He was God’s beloved Son, filled with love to share with those in need and to protect himself against the anger and criticism of others.

Jesus’ love for others was ever present, empowering him to show compassion to the crowds who were tired, hungry, and needy, always asking for another miracle. His love extended to the quarrelsome Samaritan woman, who engaged in a theological debate in the heat of the day in order to mask her personal history. When his friends ran away, executioners drove nails into his body, and mockers shouted insults, Jesus gasped words of forgiveness. As Peter stood before him sopping wet, half naked, afraid, and ashamed of denying him, Jesus extended mercy and acceptance to his friend.

Where did this capacity for love come from? While I don’t claim to know the deep mysteries of God, the Bible appears to point to the baptism and the transfiguration as essential high points in the ministry of Jesus. We ignore them at our peril. Here is God literally speaking words of love and affirmation for his Son.

If you’ve ever thought that hearing God speak from a cloud would help you figure out what to do with your life, that’s exactly what God did for Jesus. It is amazing to think that God could have said anything at all to Jesus at the start of his ministry and before its final climax. Yet he chose to say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

What would we expect God to say to us from a cloud? What would be so important that God would literally shout it from the sky? The anxious Christian’s version of God’s message would sound something like “Don’t forget that the Bible is inerrant and fully inspired in all that it ordains and teaches!” or “You should have gone on that mission trip!” or “Why don’t you pray more?” or “Don’t ask any questions about the doctrine statement you signed at your church!” or “I hope you are having pure thoughts right now!” or “You better not be ashamed of sharing the gospel. Now what’s your name again?” Christians from traditions other than evangelicalism may imagine other versions of this frustrated, disappointed God who just wishes we could get our act together.

The force of God’s affirming love for Jesus may be lost on us. We assume that of course God loved Jesus, since Jesus is God and God loves God and of course God would like Godself—or however the Trinity works. But just as Jesus came to change what his listeners thought about the kingdom of God, Jesus also helped us redefine the love and acceptance of God. Jesus modeled a life grounded in the security of God’s love. This preemptive love and affirmation introduces us to grace and to the pure gospel of God’s loving care for us as our Creator. If we can grasp what God wants us to know through these interactions with Jesus, the rest of the Gospels make a lot more sense. God’s single line for a beloved Son summarizes the parable of the prodigal son.

Whether we have rebelled and run away or we have stayed behind and judged those who don’t measure up, God the Father runs out to both of us. Both the rebellious and the self-righteous are being pursued by the parental love of God. Both have a place with the Father. And as a word of caution to those who believe they have earned God’s approval through their religious practices, those who are willing to confess their failures are more likely to recognize the love of God.

 

Read More About How to Pray…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

 

**Photo by Ian Froome on Unsplash

Why I’m Releasing Flee, Be Silent, Pray a Second Time Even Though Authors Hate Marketing

The best part about marketing a book should be the part when you’re done, but the problem with book marketing is that you’re never technically “done.“

For authors who would rather devote themselves to the large, expansive tasks of book writing where a single focused task consumes hours and hours of your day for months on end (ahhhh!!!!), the multiple directions and endless tasks of marketing can be crazy-making.

Still, releasing a book independently takes significant pressure off when it comes to marketing, and I found that to be true when I released Flee, Be Silent, Pray as an indie title. Sure, you have to do all of the work yourself, but in my mind I’m just replacing a bunch of emails following up with the marketing team, giving feedback, or confirming a task has been completed with actually “doing” that task. There are no schedules other than my own and no one to depend on other than myself, and that can be really freeing.

So why would I willingly inflict another round of marketing on myself for a book that had a rather successful release as an independent title?

As the book’s revised and expanded version release date nears on February 12, I thought I’d invite you into the the decision to go from independent to commercial with Flee, Be Silent, Pray:

* * * * *

Last Spring I brought a few copies of my independent book Flee, Be Silent, Pray to the Festival of Faith and Writing with the hope that I would be able to hand them out to podcast hosts or readers who would share the book a bit more widely.

Since I was picking up all of the costs of the project, I didn’t have grand plans.

It turned out that I met an editor who wanted to look it over. On the last day of the festival, a snow storm blew into town and stranded quite a few attendees, including that editor and a friend of mine who had enjoyed my book and even endorsed it.

When she asked him for recommendations for authors to work with, he included my name among those he shared: “Flee, Be Silent, Pray could use a good edit… and a new cover.”

(No arguments from me on either of those points!)

Soon the editor emailed me with ideas for revisions and re-releasing the book, provided I signed on with her publishing company.

This was the last thing I had imagined for this book. I wrote it when I had given up on commercial publishing and vowed to just share authentically from my own story and to sell it cheap as an eBook so that it reached as many people as possible.

That changed with this editor’s email. I finally had a chance to make the book what I had imagined it could be, and I hoped that this would be worth the risk of a higher price with a publisher. Shortly after signing the documents, we scrambled to clean up and improve the book. Here are some of the ways we revised and expanded the book:

Include More Diverse Authors

For the first edition, I spent the first 30-60 minutes of every work day chipping away at Flee, Be Silent, Pray, and most evenings I read as much as I could about contemplative prayer in order to double check on my use of terms and practices, as well as to fill in any gaps in my knowledge.

The book was structured around Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart, using his “flee, be silent, pray always” structure for the core of the book, and Catholic writers such as Brennan Manning, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr played key roles early in my embrace of contemplation and in shaping that first edition. However, there are plenty of other authors, both contemporary and historical, that I didn’t have the time to adequately include. Given a few more months, I was able to expand each chapter without significantly changing the message.

I’m especially grateful to include some of the letters between Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, as they offer a helpful connection between contemplation and activism, as well as some details about the role of prayer in the Civil Rights movement.

Next Steps with Spiritual Practices

To my mind, each chapter is filled to the brim with practical ideas and spiritual practices that any reader can put to good use. However, with a shove from my editor, I distilled a simple next step into the end of each chapter.

Some next steps simply spell out how to begin with a spiritual practice, while other chapters have a more guided experience. These are all practices that I use daily, and distilling them in this manner will hopefully offer readers more opportunities to adopt them as well.

Better Clarity and Organization

Modest as my plans were, I felt that I had gotten the book to about 80% of what it could be. I didn’t have the money for a professional editor and limped along with the best that reader feedback and bartering for help could get me.

The revised and expanded book still follows the same organization and chapter structure, but the challenge had always been that the ideas in each chapter have quite a bit of overlap, especially the “flee (solitude), be silent (silence), pray (centering prayer)” chapters. Solitude and silence naturally go together, and centering prayer is ideally done in a quiet spot… in solitude. An editor’s watchful eye helped me make better sense of how to structure the book without having to delete anything significant.

The thought of cleaning up the book appealed to me, and then I also considered that I could spend more time on the conclusion.

Write a Better Conclusion

As the publication date loomed for the independent version, I was simply running out of time and struggled to find the right words to help my readers take their next step.

In the following year, I knew how I wanted to end the book, but I lacked the time to make that a reality. Working with an editor finally offered the time and direction needed to polish the ending.

An Improved Book and A Small Press

Working with Herald Press resulted in a book that met my friend’s criteria: a good edit and a new cover. The final book is beautifully designed, and while I’m certain that the eBook version looks better than my own design, I can guarantee you that the print version has a significantly better design.

The price naturally has gone up since the cheap eBook days of my independent version, but I hope that readers will consider the constraints that a small publishing house faces. They didn’t cut any corners when working on the edits, and I think the final version of the book reflects their diligence, from development editing to design to copyediting.

I believe most readers (hopefully!) will find that Flee, Be Silent, Pray is significantly improved and will be the kind of book they’ll want to invest in keeping around on their shelves, virtual or physical, for years to come. Here are some links to learn more ot to check it out:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Did Thomas Merton Predict the True Impact of Technology?

What do we make of someone productively typing on a sleek Mac computer?

What do we think of someone efficiently swipes left and right, up and down, on a well-cared-for iPhone?

It’s likely that we will think this person is organized, successful, hard-working, and even wealthy. In fact, iPhones are often associated with wealth:

“Economists at the University of Chicago recently published a paper (PDF) with the National Bureau of Economic Research that examined the best indicators of wealth over the last few decades. And it found that in 2016, the last year it analyzed, there was a 69.1% chance of accurately guessing that a person was wealthy if he or she owned an iPhone.” Fortune

Them reality that I have found, as a user of fairly dated but still functioning Apple products is that the source of my efficiency and work can easily become the source of my fragmentation and distraction. I have felt the pressure to be on social media for the sake of my work as a writer, and so technology becomes a highway of sorts into the collective anxiety, rage, and fears of our culture.

What if we stopped imagining that the person on a phone or computer all of the time could actually be in a state of danger? Perhaps the sleek, efficient device at someone’s fingertips is more of a threat to their mental, physical, and spiritual help than a help?

I probably lean more toward a heavier use of technology than the average person since I live far from all of my family, I work remotely, and all of my colleagues are far away. I need a phone and a computer for almost everything I do for my work, and that has prompted me to seek limits and barriers so that I can track my use and prevent myself from slipping into overuse and the fragmentation of disconnecting from reality as a stream of updates flows in front of me.

Thomas Merton’s book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander has been deeply formative for me over the past two years, and he was quite prophetic about the impact of technology on humanity.  I’ll leave you with a few quotes to consider, including a passage he quotes from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

*****

It does us no good to make fantastic progress if we do not know how to live with it, if we cannot make good use of it, and if, in fact, our technology becomes nothing more than an expensive and complicated way of cultural disintegration. It is bad form to say such things, to recognize such possibilities… The fact remains that we have created for ourselves a culture which is not yet liveable for mankind as a whole.

Never before has there been such a distance between the abject misery of the poor (still a great majority of mankind) and the absurd affluence of the rich.“ pg. 67-68

*****

“Technology and science are now responsible to no power and submit to no control other than their own. Needless to say, the demands of ethics no longer have any meaning if they come in conflict with these autonomous powers. Technology has its own ethic of expediency and efficiency. What can be done efficiently must be done in the most efficient way.” pg. 70

*****

“I thoroughly agree with Bonhoeffer when he says:

‘The demand for absolute liberty brings men to the depths of slavery. The master of the machine becomes its slave. The machine becomes the enemy of men. The creature turns against its creator in a strange reenactment of the Fall.’“  pg. 71

What Will God Find in Us?

I’ve been praying the Psalm, “Search me God and know my heart” often over the past few months. It’s not a comfortable prayer.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.“
Psalm 139:23 NRSV

What will God find if I truly mean what I say?

Perhaps God will find some divisions and inconsistencies, some good intentions and some misplaced priorities. Perhaps God will see my best moments when I’m motivated and structured, aware of others, as well as the times when I get overwhelmed, lose my structure, and give in to sloth and distractions.

How will God respond to what’s in my heart?

What happens next when all is laid out in plain sight before God?

It’s nothing new to think long term about one day our lives being exposed before God for what we truly are, but that’s easy to pass off as a future concern. That is something to be sorted out later.

But if I truly want God to search my heart today, even in this moment, I have to brace myself for radical honesty and transparency. I have to face whether I have lived up to my expectations or hopes, let alone those of my community.

This is a moment of surrender that tests whether I believe that God is good, loving, and trustworthy. What kind of God do I imagine when I ask God to search my heart?

Do I believe that God is a physician who has come to heal those sickened by their choices and illusions?

Do I believe that this God has grace and mercy… even for me?

One of the beautiful aspects of praying the Psalms is that they prompt us to say things we may not be bold or hopeful enough to pray for ourselves. They pull us out of our failures, doubts, and shame, giving us words for a moment of need.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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What They Don’t Tell You about 30 Pieces of Silver

Here’s the thing about 30 pieces of silver: you can buy a lot of stuff with 30 pieces of silver.

You could buy a pretty big field with that kind of money.

The people who have the power and resources to pay you that kind of money will demand respect and regard. Don’t rock the boat with them.

What can the people in front of you deliver today? Can they beat 30 pieces of silver?

Who knows what could happen next. Is there any guarantee about tomorrow? Doesn’t it sound wise to steward those 30 pieces of silver well?

You could invest those 30 pieces of silver and get yourself some security for the future. You could even donate some of it to charity.

Are you really giving up so much for those 30 pieces of silver?

Doesn’t wisdom say to make alliances with people who can take care of you, give them what they want, and take your 30 pieces of silver to the bank? Wouldn’t that be the respectable thing to do?

Don’t look at the consequences or fall out of your choice. Compromise always has some unsavory aspects. But focus on the prize: those 30 pieces of silver.

You’ll be set up for years to come with 30 pieces of silver. You may not have the higher moral ground, but the higher moral ground isn’t going to protect you, offer security, or take care of the stuff you worry about at night.

They didn’t tell you how great those 30 pieces of silver are.

You can buy a lot with 30 pieces of silver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

The Trouble with Comparing Politics in the Roman Empire to America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Note for Conservative American Christians Before an Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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