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The Pain from the Past Will Always Come Out

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

I spent my 20’s angry over my pain.

I spent my 30’s anxiously avoiding my pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelical Men Raised on Braveheart Became Cowards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this not the very embodiment of cowardice?

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

Prayer and That Day I Spent Two Hours on My Phone

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

Irony, brace yourself for what follows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I Train Myself to Use My Phone More?

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

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

Did I Pray During My Busy Day?

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

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

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

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

Can Contemplative Prayer Practices Help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Smartphone and Social Media Trap for Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spirituality Is Being Devastated by Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Church Needs Weak Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Replace the Superstar Pastor with a Suffering Servant

We mercilessly teased the guy in my Bible classes who styled himself as a kind of Bill Hybels Jr. He hailed from the Chicago suburbs and made no effort to conceal his admiration for the fastest growing megachurch in America and its electric pastor. He even dressed business casual, used a planner, and took meticulous notes on his laptop at a time when no one took a computer into the classroom.

Being stupid college students with seemingly nothing better to do, we gave him a hard time about his love for Hybels. That’s the way things go with the big, hot trend, right? Even if you have a grudging admiration for the person on top, you feel obliged to take a few shots at him.

Jokes aside, Hybels was pervasive in the evangelical world of my teens and early 20’s. I read his books on evangelism and the now ironically titled: Who You Are When No One Is Looking. Everyone going into ministry knew about the seeker-sensitive approach that he championed. He became a kind of icon for relevant, modern ministry.

Red flags flew up all of the time for me about Hybels. He was deeply entrenched in the business world with his pastoring style, which is somewhat understandable when running a massive ministry organization, and there were questions worth asking about the trade offs of megachurches compared to church planting. The style and presentation of Willow Creek was slick, prosperous, tidy, and organized. Everything felt scripted.

When I worked at a church that was a part of the larger Willow Creek Association, I tilted back and forth between recognizing the appeal of Willow Creek and viewing it with skepticism. I can tell you all about vision casting, strategy, friendship evangelism, and seeker friendly services. Did you know they used to sell tomatoes door to door and began meeting in a movie theater???

If we responded to the latest allegations against Hybels and the failure of Willow Creek to adequately respond to them with merely criticism of Hybels and his church, we will miss out on a significant opportunity to have a deeper conversation about the evangelical church culture in America. It’s not a matter of drawing battle lines between ourselves and Willow Creek.

The deeper issue is the way Willow Creek and Hybels represent a kind of safer, prosperous but not too prosperous version of Christianity that is clean and sharp and professional without all of the embarrassing glitz of stereotypical prosperity preachers. Evangelicals have blended together business professionalism, a tiny bit of prosperity preaching, and some Bible verses to create a respectable church culture that can talk about discipleship, stewardship, and strategy in the same sentence without anyone taking a moment to ask what the hell is actually going on.

The business terms creep in and begin hiding in plain sight…

The reputation of the church becomes a brand that is guarded for the sake of the Gospel.

Leaders need to learn from the corporate world and slick business gurus in order to “manage” their growing churches that have been blessed by God with larger numbers.

Congregation members become customers and stakeholders in practice without actually using those terms.

The vision needs to be big, audacious, and ambitious because we serve a big God who wants to do big things and to grow our church bigger. You do have faith that God can bring about this big, audacious vision to fruition, don’t you? God can move mountains!

The business world and general American values of progress, growth, and wealth seep into the church just enough to twist how we think.

Soon enough we begin to make allowances for our pastors, relying on their vision, wisdom, and authority to accomplish God’s work. Anyone who threatens the pastor becomes expendable, and even the victims worry that coming forward over abuse allegations could jeopardize the greater vision and progress of the whole.

Christian authors and creators rely on endorsements from pastors, know people involved in these scandals, and wonder if their future careers could suffer if they speak out right now. It’s not just about the money because it’s about relationships and being uncertain about how to use their voices… but don’t forget the money too.

This isn’t a disease in a single church. This is widespread in the evangelical movement and beyond. However, it’s also particularly widespread because the Willow Creek Association, an entity separate from the church, carries this ministry approach to thousands of congregations. Don’t forget all of the books, articles, speeches, and interviews that have permeated the evangelical subculture.

The last thing I want to do is to spend the next week or month dragging Hybels, Willow Creek, or megachurches. They are the icons of the greater challenge that evangelicals face.

If I could humbly suggest a simple next step for every church, pastor, elder, deacon, and congregation member: look at the job descriptions of your pastors and staff.

Look at what you expect them to do each day.

Do you expect them to make significant space for prayer?

Do you have a budget that allows them to gain proper training for handling abuse and bullying?

Do you expect them to manage a large group of people like a business professional?

Do you expect them to preach nearly every Sunday, building up their status and celebrity?

Do you rely on them to take the lead on every big initiative as the indispensable figurehead?

Do you expect them to spend significant time among the sick, disadvantaged, homeless, or imprisoned?

Do you expect them to exert influence and power in your community or to become physicians among those neglected and overlooked?

While in seminary, I looked at a lot of job descriptions for pastors, and seeing those descriptions turned me off from a “career” in ministry. I wanted no part of it.

I used to joke that the churches expected so much of their pastors, they wanted to hire Jesus.

In retrospect, when I look a bit closer at the particulars of those job descriptions, I’m not so sure that they wanted to hire someone like Jesus, and that gets us to the root of our problem in the American evangelical church.

An “Outsider” Can Show Us How to Love Our Neighbors

There is a significant benefit to explaining the Bible to our preschool age children: they ask a mountain of questions that help me see the stories with fresh eyes.

For instance, have you ever considered whether the robbers who attacked the man in the good Samaritan story also stole his lunch? What did he eat while he was stuck on the side of the road? Did he have more food at home? Would someone bring his lunch back to him if the robbers stole it?

No doubt the illustrations in our children’s Bible fueled this line of food-related questions, but as I’ve thought of this story over the past few week’s in light of the American government’s increasingly aggressive and cruel immigration policies on the southern border, my children continued to prompt me to look at this story. Outside of their concerns over the man’s lunch, it truly hit home how this story reveals the Samaritan as the hero.

At a time of manufactured crisis and unnecessary cruelty that has been condoned by far too many Christians or simply explained away with “law and order” arguments, many of us have spoken about loving our neighbors.

Are we loving our neighbors if we send asylum seekers back to their violent countries?

Are we loving our neighbors if we separate asylum-seeking parents from their children?

Are we loving our neighbors if our government shrugs its shoulders about reuniting parents and children?

These are all necessary and important discussions about loving our neighbors. There is no doubt that loving our neighbors will have political dimensions because government policies impact real people. Laws and policies aren’t just static givens that must be accepted with resignation.

Immoral or unjust laws and policies that deface the image of God in others should be countered by those who believe that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” It shouldn’t be a stretch to believe that God cares for the well-being of his creation. However, the Good Samaritan story doesn’t approach love of neighbor from such an angle of advocacy or helping those in need from a majority culture position, let alone privilege.

In this story, the foreign man whose views of the Torah surely offended the listeners in Jesus’ audience was the hero. Jesus brought this outsider front and center, showing that despite his national and religious “barriers”, he had grasped what it meant to love a neighbor well. Love of neighbor extended beyond national and religious boundaries. You could even say that this love eradicates such boundaries.

The man going on the journey in this story is nondescript. His lack of defining features helps us identify with him. He could be all of us.

Any one of us could set out on a journey with certain plans and goals in mind. Any one of us could suffer an unexpected tragedy.

In a moment of need, perhaps I’ll turn to a pastor for help, but he may be on his way to a meeting about electing more conservative political leaders and leave me behind.

Perhaps I’ll turn to the leader of a ministry group, but she has big plans for a revival that she can’t neglect.

Finally, help arrives. It’s not the help I asked for. It’s not the help I expected. The help isn’t from the country or religion that I would have chosen. This is the person who meets me in my moment of crisis and cares for my wounds.

As Jesus sought to pull his listeners out of their national and religious prejudices, he challenged them to consider that the people they tried to avoid at all costs could be the ones who grasped the message of the Gospel best. It could even happen that one day their well-being would depend on the help of one such person.

Politicians seek to inflame hatred and suspicion of immigrants and asylum seekers to ignite the racist, nativist passions of their base for an election.

Jesus asks us to consider that our policies against asylum seekers could keep out the very people who may stop along their journey to help us in our moment of need one day. There’s a good chance that many have already done so on their journey north.

 

 

Do I See Jesus in the People Around Me?

Why don’t I help people who are in need?

The possible reasons are plentiful:

Am I in a hurry? Are financial concerns making me less generous? Do I have other priorities for my time and resources? Do I think someone isn’t worthy of help and needs to be more responsible? Do I believe the other person is just looking for a way to take advantage of me? Do I feel unsafe because the person in need may be high or intoxicated?

Depending on the situation, I’ve been all over the map when it comes to helping others. Sometimes I’ve initiated help, sometimes I’ve responded positively, sometimes I’ve offered limited help, and sometimes I have not offered any help at all. Perhaps money really is tight during that month, but other times I just don’t want to be a sucker. Thoughts of self-preservation can be legitimate at times, but often it’s just a convenient way to sound reasonable in my own selfishness.

When I refuse to help others, the focus is often myself. I’m considering my needs and my personal comfort. I don’t identify with them. That is what makes a passage like Matthew 25 so striking. Jesus identifies with those in need to the point that any generous act toward others is considered a generous act toward Jesus.

Am I able see Jesus in other people?

More importantly, do I see Jesus in the people I am most likely to overlook or to dismiss?

That is the whole crux of how Jesus judged those who helped or neglected to help the sick, immigrant, poorly clothed, imprisoned, and hungry. Those who cared for these people were the ones who, perhaps unexpectedly, served Jesus by serving the overlooked people of this world. Those who neglected them had neglected Jesus himself.

“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Matthew 25:40, NRSV

“Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
Matthew 25:45, NRSV

It’s as if Jesus is trying to snap us out of our self-centered daily outlooks in order to perceive the God-given worth and dignity of each person.  He wants us to imagine that we are serving Jesus himself so that we don’t get lost in the situation or the worthiness of the other person.

And if imagining such a thing remains a stretch for us when we serve others, perhaps we have a clue to consider the state of our own hearts and our awareness of God’s love for us. If we are even uninclined to serve Jesus himself, then we know we have a focus on self that must be addressed.

The hope is that the generous love of God in our lives transforms us, reminds us daily of how great God’s mercy has been for us, and prompts us to show the same love and mercy to others.

Do I Pray for the Wrong Reasons?

I can easily haul my issues with my identity or my personal pursuit of happiness or contentment right into my prayer time. Questions start popping up in my mind:

Am I doing this contemplative prayer thing right?

Do I have good results from my prayer?

Do I have a greater sense of God’s presence?

Present throughout all of these questions is the lingering false self that seeks an outward marker of identity. Even becoming someone who prays, and prays well, can become a kind of false identity marker.

I write in my book Flee, Be Silent, Pray that American evangelicals like myself are especially driven by results and outcomes. What can you measure? What can you point at to validate your work or practices? This mentality creeps into a kind of success-driven approach to spirituality.

Thankfully, Thomas Merton is on the case. He cuts through our misguided motivations. Rather than offering one slick promise to replace another, he points us into the direction of mystery and complete faith in God.

This isn’t a spirituality that dangles the hope of discovering purpose, living a super story, or even finding peace. Merton points us to mystery so that we can live out of our authentic identity in God as his beloved children. Perhaps we will find some of those things after they have been pried out of our hands and we learn to cling to Christ alone, but those are afterthoughts rather than the focus.

Here is what Merton writes for those of us seeking to become contemplatives or to derive happiness from contemplation:

“Another law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced. And again, this means renouncing the illusory self that seeks to be ‘happy’ and to find ‘fulfillment’ (whatever that may mean) in contemplation. For the contemplative and spiritual self, the dormant, mysterious, and hidden self that is always effaced by the activity of our exterior self does not seek fulfillment. It is content to be, and in its being it is fulfilled, because its being is rooted in God.”

Thomas Merton. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, p. 2.