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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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I Can’t Talk My Way Out of Every Spiritual Crisis

Words don’t always make difficult situations better. I still haven’t been able to shut down my impulse to speak up when I should probably keep my mouth shut.

I’m the kind of person who always wants to help someone going through a tough time. And so I talk, I try to commiserate, and I do my best to think of something encouraging or helpful to say.

Maybe I’ve helped others sometimes, but plenty of other times I’ve felt like reaching into the air to grab the words and stomp them into oblivion before they land in the other person’s ears. I tend to overestimate the good that my words can do, and so I pressure myself to say something, anything, when sometimes I really just need to be present and remain available.

There’s a kind of theme that emerges in my own spiritual practices and in the stories I hear of others who practice contemplation. We want to talk our way out of a spiritual crisis, we want answers, we want definitive statements, we want the doctrine that unlocks the door that will alleviate our doubt, uncertainty, frustration, and pain.

I have imagined myself talking my way through difficult situations, as if my own chatter would somehow compel God to take notice and offer a solution once I reach a magical threshold of prayerful words. Perhaps there’s also a reverence threshold to my words where I try to sound like a prayer book… “Gracious, magnificent, and merciful God, bestow upon me, your servant, the full measure of your goodness…”

And yes, talking through our prayers can work and yes God can give us answers, but I can’t talk my way out of every spiritual crisis. And to be honest, I’m not sure that I would even want to be talked out of a crisis or given a magical solution to every issue in my life.

I imagine a parent holding a sobbing child without words, just offering presence and comfort. We wouldn’t criticize the parent for that kind of presence. There really is nothing to be said in the moment. The pain must be felt and the moment can only be resolved with presence.

There isn’t a physical God on earth to hold us quite so directly, and so I have overcompensated with words until they failed me. And when words failed and I couldn’t talk myself out of a spiritual crisis, I assumed that God had failed me.

But there is quite a lot more to God than the words we speak or the ideas scrolling through our minds. There is presence and comfort in silence, even if such a possibility appears counterintuitive or unlikely.

Even in this space where I only have words, images, and white space, I can’t talk you out of a spiritual crisis. I can’t give you the magic next steps to spiritual prosperity. I can only say that words have failed me, but God has not. If you step into that silence and stillness, there is something else waiting for you there. I can’t tell you what it is or what it will feel like. Even if you do find it, words may fail you.

Perhaps we can find hope in the possibility that we don’t need more words to be present for God. In fact,  I typically find it most helpful to use fewer words.

 

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I’ll be sharing more about these ideas in my newsletter and in my upcoming book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction (releasing June 2, 2020).

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The Prayer of the Heart vs. Prayer as Mental Therapy

Silent, contemplative prayer has been calming  for my mind, but it’s not the same as going to therapy. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve spent enough time in a therapist’s office to know what kinds of practices can help calm my mind.

There are some ways that prayer and therapy can overlap, as both can lead us to simple phrases or insights that help us re-order our thoughts. As we let go of toxic thoughts, a prayer phrase or word can aid us on our journey. Throughout my time in therapy, I’ve also learned simple phrases to carry with me so that I can keep my mind grounded in reality rather than what I fear.

Yet, it has been a mistake for me to pursue prayer as merely an escape hatch from troubling thoughts. It can help me do that, but I have found that it also calls me to something deeper and far more expansive. I could argue that prayer is also far more costly since it takes me to the depths of my nothingness before the love and mercy of God.

When I’m caught up in anxiety, I can use the insight of therapy to reorder my thoughts around the reality of my situation. The same can happen with prayer, but that is often the incidental result of a deeper healing and presence.

Contemplative prayer has been described as the prayer of the heart. Teachers of prayer have spoken of this prayer as going into the heart and standing before God. They describe it as beholding God or consenting to God’s presence in your life. If God is already present with us, then it stands to reason that the only missing thing for prayer is our consent that leads to a deeper awareness of that reality.

On the other end of contemplative prayer, I have felt a similar reordering of my thoughts much like in therapy, but something else happens as well. Prayer takes us into the realm of mystery and love. Some refuse to put the details of these prayer experiences into words because they are too intimate and beyond the limits of what they can say.

I participate in both prayer and therapy because they are different. Yet, the deeper healing and love of prayer is hardly at odds with the ways therapy puts my mind at ease.

Many times it seems that I leave therapy with a clearer idea of what has gotten in the way of my prayers.

Yet, I don’t pray merely for it’s therapeutic benefits. There is a real cost to prayer that can empty us and lead us through challenging places. There can be a struggle. At times it may seem that God has remained far away, and confusion may loom over us for a season.

We go down into our hearts to pray not to feel better but so that we can love God and become aware of God’s love. There is an opportunity for transformation and renewal, but prayer isn’t just about feeling good.

Prayer gives me an opportunity to be shaped by God on God’s own terms, no matter what the cost may be. As I walk through that refining, I have found greater peace and have let go of the many afflictions haunting my mind.

Finishing a moment of prayer isn’t the same thing as leaving my therapist’s office with the hope that I got my money’s worth. But there both offer a moment to step away from patterns of thinking that can leave myself alienated from myself and from others. Perhaps the greatest difference is that such a movement away from alienating thoughts is often just the beginning for prayer.

 

 

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What Am I Actually Looking for on Social Media?

Once upon a time I woke up early and settled down to write in the sunshine of our Vermont home’s cozy living room at 6 am.

The walls had been painted in a rich colonial green color, and the ceiling lined with crown molding that a carpenter friend battled to line up for us. The pine trees surrounding our home filtered the light that shone through the windows that lined the room.

I wrote a lot in that room. Not very much of it was good. Some of it was quite negative and exasperated, but I still look back at those days as a kind of golden age for my writing. There was no better way to start the day than a quiet moment writing in the sunshine of our living room.

A few years later, my mornings had changed dramatically. I was trying to market my first book without the help of a marketing team at my publisher, and I heard that authors were using social media quite a lot.

Gradually, my mornings shifted from immersion in my writing to immersion in whatever people posted on social media.

I told myself that I was making connections for the purpose of promoting my books, that I was connecting with friends, and that I was keeping up with family from far away. I convinced myself that this time spent on social media was productive, but as I reflected on my motivations for using social media in subsequent years, I’ve gotten a bit more realistic in my assessment.

My most important shift in using social media since the days of my cozy Vermont living room has been asking what I’m actually seeking when I log in.

  • Do I have something to share?
  • Am I seeking interaction with any particular people?
  • Do I want to learn from someone?

Those strike me as good reasons to use social media, although they are rarely ever urgent reasons.

However, plenty of other times, my reasons are not so good…

  • I’m seeking distraction, disconnection, or affirmation.
  • I want people to like what I’ve written, I’m stalling in the face of something challenging.
  • I’m avoiding stress and anxiety over a particular situation.

Over time, tuning in to social media has become a habit. The engineers who studied the psychology of habit formation and addiction wanted social media and smartphones to function like a slot machine that can deliver something interesting or affirming at any moment. You need only pull it out of your pocket!

As I use longer blocks on social media, continue to limit my time on social media, and strive to make my smartphone as useless as possible, I’ve found greater freedom from the draw of social media. This is especially true first thing in the morning where it had become a habit of sorts.

By changing my habits, I’ve realized that I don’t really need social media in the ways that I thought I did.

The reality is that social media needs me. It needs my attention for the ads. It needs my engagement so that it can track my preferences. It needs me to become addicted to its features, scrolling endlessly without thinking all that hard about what exactly I’m looking for…

 

Reconnect with Soul Care

I’ll be sharing more about these ideas in my newsletter and in my upcoming book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction (releasing June 2, 2020).

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Is Contemplative Prayer Biblical?

contemplative prayer biblical

 

If a Bible loving Protestant, especially an evangelical, asks “Is contemplative prayer biblical?”, it’s likely that this person is already assured of the answer.

“Contemplative prayer” as a defined concept does not show up in the Bible, and the same goes for the methods that contemplative prayer teachers share today. There is nothing quite like centering prayer or specific instructions about how to pursue silence in the Bible.

If you can’t find contemplative prayer methods in the Bible, then it appears to be checkmate, right? Without chapter and verse, there is no Biblical basis for contemplative prayer… except that the teachers of contemplative prayer quote a lot of scripture.

What gives?

It’s true that there is no specific instruction about how to engage in contemplative prayer, but there is plenty in the Bible about praying in silence, waiting on the Lord, seeking God in the solitude of the wilderness, praying always, and praying in secret/silence. You could say that we know about as much about prayer as we know about being a pastor.

We can list the limited details of serving as a pastor just as we could list the limited details of where and when to pray. If we made a list of how pastors go about serving today compared to the guidelines of the Bible, there is quite a bit that we could say doesn’t show up in the Bible–including just about all of the stuff in church leadership books that detail mission statements, vision statements, core values, and corporate leadership and HR guidelines.

I’m not listing those things to argue against them. Rather, within the biblical view of pastoring, we tend to expect the practical, day-to-day realities of pastoral ministry will require some innovation and problem solving on our own parts.

So, when we are instructed to pray in silence, to wait on the Lord in silence, to pray constantly, and to pray in secret, we are right to wonder exactly how to pray in this way.

What does it look like to pray in silence and solitude?

When we see that Jesus ventured off to solitary places, John the Baptist and Paul both sought God in wilderness solitude early in their ministries, and many key figures in the Old Testament experienced God in the wilderness, it’s only logical to ask how we should go about seeking God in these quiet, lonely places.

This is where a bit of church history can help us and show us how contemplative prayer intersects with the Bible.

The desert fathers and mothers sought to imitate the wilderness spirituality of Jesus and many other figures in the New Testament. They still ventured into cities to minister, wrote letters to the churches, and made themselves available to visitors, but they devoted the bulk of their time to prayer and work.

As these early Christians worked, they typically sought to make themselves available to God in silence, with some either breathing in a rhythm where they imagined the Holy Spirit filling them or praying the Jesus prayer which is based on the prayer of repentant tax collector (“The publican’s prayer”). Some used other ways to pray in silence, but over the years a simple breathing practice or prayer word/phrase stuck as the primary ways to pray in silence and solitude.

Most importantly, there is no dogmatic approach to a single way to pray. These Christians engaged in a variety of forms of prayer, giving thanks, making requests, and praying with prophetic insight. They didn’t demand only silent prayer, and different forms of silent prayer took shape over time as they learned to encounter God in the depths of their being.

This inner prayer that takes place in a heart that is still and receptive to God rather than reacting to thoughts and fears is often called contemplation or the prayer of the heart. While Jesus never described this precise outcome for silent prayer, he most certainly modeled this form of prayer and intersected with the biblical tradition that made space for silent prayer and waiting on God.

The teachers of contemplative prayer who pass down these traditions and practices for silent prayer that are grounded in biblical directives don’t pretend to teach centering prayer as the only way to pray in silence. Rather, it is a helpful way to be receptive and aware of God.

The point is to be silent, aware of God, and receptive to the Holy Spirit as directed by the Bible, but the details of the silence are up to us. While the traditions of the church are not the final word on these matters, there is a lot of wisdom in seeing which prayer practices have stood the test of time and proved their worth to Christians in a variety of settings over the years.

We are more than welcome to experiment with our own ways of being silent in solitude before God, but let’s not kid ourselves that our modern innovations are somehow superior or more biblical than the traditions passed down for generations. I’m personally most interested in doing what the historic church has found most helpful.

No one is going to argue about the Bible’s teaching to pray in silence and solitude, and so arguing over the details of how to do that strikes me as unhelpful. The teachers of contemplative prayer have literally based their prayer words and repetitive prayers on scripture, using simple phrases and words to let go of their troubling thoughts, to let scripture fill their minds, and to be fully present for God.

One final point bears keeping in mind here, and it’s a big one.

I have yet to read a critique of contemplative prayer from someone who had actually practiced it and had received spiritual direction from an experienced director. That critique may be out there, but regardless, the majority of the critiques I’ve heard and read are based purely on hearsay and conjecture without real first hand experience.

If you aren’t comfortable with a practice like centering prayer or sitting in silence isn’t helpful and life-giving for your soul, there is no one condemning you. I was once in your shoes, so I get it better than most.

Yet, I encourage you to consider that a large number of Christians throughout the history of the church have benefitted from contemplative prayer. Why would any Bible-believing Christian dismiss a practice like this based on modern conjecture and hearsay?

 

Learn more about contemplative prayer by checking out my related post: Is Contemplative Prayer Dangerous? 

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

Based on my own resistance to and experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice. The book is titled:

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

 

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How Social Media and News Work Together to Crush Your Soul

If I had to choose between shouting out my front door, “Hey, what’s happening today?” and learning about current events on social media, it’s at best a toss up in my mind with a slight edge to my neighbors.

That isn’t to say that I follow unreliable people on social media or that my neighbors are all current event experts. My greater concern is with the medium of social media itself. If I want to fast track my overreactions, fear, dread, and envy, then social media is the perfect place to go.

While I can and do log on to social media in order to find the viewpoints of experts, I am also exposed to despair, conjectures, and divisive remarks. The most extreme versions of popular viewpoints are sure to pop up one way or another. It doesn’t take too much to spark some fear and to send my mind spinning off course.

Of course these conjectures or despairing comments may not be true, and they may even be said in jest. Yet, they still get the job done: introducing troubling thoughts into my mind.

I have learned how to better manage these thoughts, but they remain a distraction that can leave me sidetracked and struggling to get back to a more productive direction with my day.

Heaven help me if I jump into the fray with a comment on a controversial post. That’s a whole other downward spiral of defensiveness that leaves me with a lingering desire to appear clever.

This particular week American news stations and social media networks are speculating on and lamenting the possibility of further escalation of military conflict with another nation. It’s a mess. I could spend the better part of my afternoon wringing my hands about it on social media, reading endless analysis, speculation, reactions, and predictions.

Or, I could spend two minutes reading an article about the main contours of the situation and avoid social media conjectures and debates like the plague. I will likely come away knowing just as much about the issue at hand and have far less fear, anger, and dread consuming my thoughts.

I love the way that social media exposes me to a wide variety of perspectives on the issues of the day and gives a platform to smart, prophetic people who may otherwise be overlooked. Yet, tapping into the best of social media often results in exposing us to its worst aspects as well.

In certain current event situations, the best way to remain informed and level-headed may include a bit of a fast from social media–at least that’s true for me. Perhaps you can sort through the speculation, fear, and hysteria, only holding onto what actually helps.

Personally, I’m not at that place with social media. I need to limit my access to social media in a time of public crisis, but any time really since everything can be turned into a crisis, because it crushes my soul with conjectures, fear-mongering, and seething anger.

If your soul is feeling weary or even crushed this week, consider how you can make a bit more space for silence, prayer, and simple awareness of what’s on your mind–especially if you feel unsettled. Consider where the troubling thoughts on your mind are coming from and replace those soul crushing sources with something you find life-giving.

I certainly don’t run every morning with the Jesus Prayer on my lips because I dig waking up at 5 am, but that bit of mindful and prayerful headspace always feels better than scrolling through social media in fear of the latest insanity du jour.

 

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The Magic Silence Button for Meditation and Contemplative Prayer

There is no magic silence button for meditation and contemplative prayer. Sorry if my title is a bit misleading. But I do know about the next best thing: mindfulness paired with meditation–at least for me.

Consider my typical struggles with contemplative prayer…

I sit down to pray, and my feet are fidgeting, my mind wandering, and my chest is a bit anxious because I have all of the things to do, or I worry that I should be DOING something, anything else. I desperately want a magic silence button that will help me pray and meditate.

Absent such a button, I need to pay attention to my thoughts and soul BEFORE I pray. In other words, if I’m sitting down to pray and my mind is running all over the place, I’m making prayer difficult for myself.

That isn’t to say I should skip prayer if my mind is too busy. It’s still worthwhile to sit in silence before God and to meditate when my mind is unruly and my anxiety begins pulsing. Yet, I won’t see a big difference in my approach to prayer until I pay attention to my mind and soul prior to prayer.

Awareness of my thoughts prior to prayer may be one of the most important factors in my attentiveness to meditation or contemplation. It’s not a science for sure, but if I have a better handle on what’s going through my mind, I’m more likely to settle into prayer.

There is no magic silence button, but I can begin shifting my mind toward silence and awareness of God by dealing with my thoughts while I do the dishes, drive around town, go for a run, or wait in line at the store.

Another way to say this may be “praying constantly.” I’m developing a capacity to be aware of God by examining what’s on my mind, releasing my thoughts, and moving from the cycle of endless thoughts to the presence of God in the moment.

 

Distracted? Need to Reconnect with Prayer?

Protect your time. Prioritize relationships. Restore your spirit.

Technology teaches us to crave the hum and buzz of activity and the dopamine hit of notifications. Yet social media and technology have shortened our attention spans, disrupted our connections with others, and even muddled our spirituality.

Grounded in current research into the impact of technology, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction helps Christians rewire their technology addictions and train themselves to be present and aware of God rather than tuned into the constant distractions and deceptions of this digital age.

Preorder Today

Can I Find Time to Pray While I Travel?

My daily prayer practices can fall into chaos during the holidays where schedules are scrapped due to travel and I certainly can’t focus on prayer if my mind is swirling with packing lists, present lists, and managing family relationships. How can I find time to pray over the Christmas and New Year’s travel season?

I was on the road last week, and there were certainly plenty of moments when I considered how to fit prayer into my schedule and plans. Here are a few practices that I’ve been using in my own travels and shifting schedule:

Develop Habits to Prompt Prayer

The easiest way to pray is to make it automatic. For instance, there’s a good chance that, like me, you are tempted to whip your phone out when you’re waiting in line or sitting in traffic.

I don’t blame you, and that was my default until I tracked my daily phone pickups with the Moment app. Now that I’m trying to limit myself to 40 phone pickups each day, I have reconsidered how I wait.

Waiting can act as a kind of trigger for prayer, using a few moments in line to quiet my mind with a deep breath and to return to a prayer word to guide myself toward greater awareness of God. Prayer is described as waiting on the Lord, so it’s just about the perfect invitation to pray.

Even if my regular prayer times are filled with travel and family gatherings, a regular prayer trigger or prompt can help me make more time for it.

Keep Track of Your Mental State for Prayer

Travel and family gatherings can be stressful and busy. For instance, I’ve caught myself becoming unreasonably anxious about getting to the airport on time and catching my flight.

I have finally figured out that, in my mind at least, I had treated the urgency of travel with the same alarm as a threat to my life or family. I have a little mantra that I say when I travel, “It’s urgent but it’s not dangerous” that helps me calm down when my mind ramps up into its highly alarmed threat avoidance mode.

Whether journaling or using an app like Examine or Examen Reimagined, a simple prompt to remain aware of my mental state while traveling can help me keep the events of each day in perspective and saves my mind from the afflicting thoughts that can make it so difficult to focus on prayer.

Make Space for “Quiet” Prayer When You Can

Even five minutes in a quiet room, a little time sitting alone, or a ten-minute walk can prove healing for my soul when I’m traveling. Of course the quiet I’m talking about is often personal quiet when I’m traveling. I have no control over what other people say or do!

If I can at least keep in mind that quiet will be good for my soul and my mental state, I can remain attentive and intentional about seizing that time whenever I can. This could be while doing the dishes in the kitchen by myself, sitting on an airplane with headphones on, or playing through some Taize songs while in the car with my family.

Give Grace to Yourself When You Struggle to Pray

Prayer has been practiced by Christians for centuries around fixed times and schedules because it works. When your schedule falls apart due to holiday travel, don’t fall into the trap of shame or guilt.

If you didn’t find time to pray, that’s a great opportunity to ask why and to look a bit deeper into your expectations for prayer, your priorities, and your habits. Judgment and shame can be paralyzing, but if you believe that God desires to be present for you, then you have an opportunity to address what keeps you from praying.

Mind you, I still prefer to have a set schedule where I know when and where I’ll pray, and I am always trying to be mindful about prayer when I’m on the go. Perfectionists may not find these tips very helpful!

By cultivating some habits, growing my awareness of my thoughts, and becoming more intentional about my time, I’ve managed to hold onto some prayer practices while I travel. Imperfect though they are, they are so much better than watching my spiritual practices fall into chaos when I hit the road.

 

Reconnect

Distracted? Need to Reconnect with Prayer?

Protect your time. Prioritize relationships. Restore your spirit.

Technology teaches us to crave the hum and buzz of activity and the dopamine hit of notifications. Yet social media and technology have shortened our attention spans, disrupted our connections with others, and even muddled our spirituality.

Grounded in current research into the impact of technology, Reconnect helps Christians rewire their technology addictions and train themselves to be present and aware of God rather than tuned into the constant distractions and deceptions of this digital age.

Learn More Today

But the Prayer Book Didn’t Teach Me to Pray Like That!

I have turned to different spiritual teachers and prayer books to teach myself how to pray, and I have often found myself starting out far below the bars they set.

If one teacher suggests praying for twenty minutes at a time, I’ve started with five.

If another teacher recommends two sessions of prayer daily, I’ve managed to at least get one.

If yet another tells me to pray sitting up straight in a simple chair, I’ve laid down on my yoga mat, letting out the nervous energy through my hands and feet.

My goal is never to stop where I am and call it good enough. Rather, I need a starting point, a place to get into the habit of daily prayer. Once my prayer habits are established, I can take the next step of actually working toward better posture, longer prayer sessions, and more frequent prayer.

But taking that first step? Or the second, third, or fourth steps after that can be challenging, if not dispiriting. I can fall so far short of my ideal that I can forget that prayer is a daily “practice” that also requires… practice.

Much like everyone thinks they can write well enough before seeing how a professional editor can whip a project into shape, we may overestimate our ability to settle into prayer, to slip into an awareness of God, or to trust our worries and cares with God rather than clinging to them with an unending swirl of thoughts. The letting go of our cares and the simple receptivity of prayer can take time to develop.

By assuming I could dive into prayer without a period of learning and adapting, I’ve set myself up for disappointment and disillusionment. I was lost in a maze of my own making, uncertain about what to do next because I just couldn’t manage to meet the expectations I’d set for prayer. I thought that I could hit the ground running, immediately putting prayer practices into place without a time of struggle or even failure.

I finally found my way forward by embracing each faltering step toward the goals of contemplative prayer teachers. I gradually built my way toward longer and more regular periods of prayer.

My mindset has shifted from focusing on results to focusing on the process. I still have the guidance of teachers and authors in mind, but I’m not drowning in guilt or shame either.

Of course there’s a risk of setting the bar too low. That’s the risk of grace after all. In my own past, the fear of “abusing” grace has pushed me too far toward the fear of letting God down or suffering God’s wrath and anger.

There is a lot of hope to be found in the promise that we are God’s beloved children imperfectly reaching for God, failing at times, but ultimately finding that we were being held all the while as we tried to find God in each daily moment of prayer.

 

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Should I Use the New NIV Life Application Study Bible for Family Bible Reading?

My days of studying the Bible with piles of commentaries are a distant memory along with the seminary degree tucked away in the closet announcing my Master of Divinity. While I still read and pray with the Bible daily, often using the NRSV version at Bible Gateway for my book projects and personal studies and praying with the scripture readings in the Divine Hours compiled by Phyllis Tickle, I’m in a new season where my kids are growing up and they have lots and lots and lots of questions about God and the Bible.

Many of those questions revolve around whether God can bring dinosaurs back to life, but occasionally they either learn something in Sunday School or, in the case of our preschooler, come to me with some incomplete facts he has cobbled together from the Wednesday chapel service at his preschool. We have discussed the days of creation, how Jesus performed miracles, how Jesus died, and what it means that he rose from the dead.

Also… those resurrected dinosaurs.

The questions are not getting any easier, and so when Bible Gateway offered a chance to review the newly revised NIV Life Application Study Bible Third Edition,  I wanted to consider it from the perspective of a parent who is leading kids in a discussion of the Bible. Not every translation or study Bible is the same, with each offering their own advantages, drawbacks, and quirks.

The NIV is fine with me for study and reading, although I tend to lean toward the New Living Translation for reading longer passages with my kids. Nevertheless, they seem to be tracking with it just fine at this point.

I won’t compare this Life Application edition to other Bibles such as the NIV Study Bible. My main concern is whether this particular study Bible stands on its own as useful in adding to an understanding of the scripture, considering interpretive options, and addressing the kinds of foundational questions that are routine in the discipleship of children.

Here a few thoughts to consider:

Evaluating the Bible Itself

I received the imitation leather NIV, Life Application Study Bible, Third Edition, Leathersoft, Brown, Red Letter Edition to review.

The Bible opens up well and generally stays open on its own. It has a nice cover and gold edged pages that immediately caught my kids’ attention. It looks like a special book, which may not be a big deal in the long run, but they were interested in checking it out just based on the design.

The Days of Creation Bible Study Notes

I couldn’t resist starting with the first chapters of Genesis since I’ve been discussing the days of creation with my kids. I am especially concerned that they understand the different perspectives on translating the Hebrew word “yom” as either a day or a period of time. Would the notes address this? How many views would be addressed?

I know former Christians who left the faith over this very issue after growing up in a church that insisted on six 24-hour days. I still remember my seminary professor, a respected Hebrew scholar involved in both the NIV and NLT translations, pounding the podium over this. There is nothing in the text that demands a 24-hour day according to him.

Thankfully, the study notes in Genesis dig right into the two views and doesn’t demand one view over the other, a welcome win right off the bat.

I was also encouraged to see maps, character summaries, such as Cain and Noah, and significant notes explaining unfamiliar and meaning-laden phrases throughout the text. While there is still plenty of life application here, it also digs into the background, word translations, and related scripture verses.

Overall, if someone knew nothing about the Bible’s background, this study Bible has more than enough information to get by while still not getting lost in the weeds with theology or historical information. The theology behind some of the notes would be expected to be on the more conservative end of the spectrum, but most of the notes struck me as helpful rather than dogmatic or restricting.

Reading the Psalms with This Study Bible

The Psalms have been a significant source of spiritual direction and wisdom for me, providing a backbone of sorts for my prayers, supporting me when I have lacked the words I need. The notes throughout the Psalms are extremely practical, adding related scripture references and explaining the meaning of the verses.

While it lacks insight into the poetic form of the Psalms, the life application focus comes through, and certain concepts come through with greater clarity if you consider the notes. For instance, Psalm 14 offers an explanation of how the word “fool” is used in the Psalms, giving readers a better understanding of what the Psalm is about.

I also really liked the additional call out box under Psalm 14, addressing the themes of troubles and complaints that arise throughout the Psalms. Simply knowing that these are common themes can be helpful in both study and application.

The Final Judgment

It would be easy to pick a passage (or ten) where I may quibble with the notes or interpretive options provided, but for what this Bible is and what it offers, I think it gives readers a lot of value with the maps, cross references, application ideas, and background information. If I’m reading the Bible with my kids, this won’t answer their every question, but it will give us enough details to bring them up to speed on the major points of the story.

In addition, if you’re new to Bible study and application, it can help to have some notes guide you through ways to think about scripture. For the more experienced student of the Bible these application notes may come across as spoon feeding and perhaps restating the obvious. However, from the perspective of teaching my kids about the Bible, it can help to use those prompts to get them thinking about what the passage may mean to them. It’s not just a story we learn about, like American history. It’s revealing God’s presence among us.

The list price for this study Bible is a hefty $75, but if you check out the deals on Amazon.com, you’ll find that that price slashed by more than $20. So you can support your local bookstore or you can bargain hunt online, but regardless, someone who is relatively new to the Bible or who is studying with kids will find this a useful Bible to have on the shelf.

Preview the NIV Life Application Study Bible

Shop on Amazon for the NIV Life Application Study Bible

 

I was provided a free Bible to review courtesy of Bible Gateway.