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Can You Really Pray for an Hour Each Day?

The great spiritual writer and priest Henrí Nouwen once visited Mother Teresa and asked her what he should do to live out his vocation as a priest, she replied:

“Spend one hour a day in adoration of your Lord and never do anything you know is wrong, and you will be alright.”

My first reaction was something like, “Oh, that sounds super simple. Got it.”

Then, I started looking at my calendar. “AN HOUR??? REALLY?”

And then I started thinking about the low points in my days, the times when anger burns, and the moments when apathy and sloth make it very easy to resist what could help me the most.

With a few moments of reflection, the words of Mother Theresa started sounding like a reach for me.

While we could argue about the merits of her advice and the fact that she gave it to a priest rather than a married guy with a job and three kids, let’s assume for a moment that she’s right on the money about what we all need each day. Besides, it’s easy to assume that only “religious professionals” have the time for spiritual practices.

If adoration and obedience will help most of us fulfill our vocations, then we just need to figure out how to make them both happen. And even if we want to debate with Mother Teresa, I don’t think more adoration and obedience would hurt anyone—especially since adoration could take so many different forms.

So, let’s consider for a moment what it could look like to set aside an hour of adoration for the Lord each day and not doing anything we know that’s wrong.

Where Do We Begin? Obedience?

I’ll be honest that when I first tested out this path for spiritual direction, I spent a lot of time focusing on my actions and thoughts. I tried to do what I knew to be right.

There are moments when we need a bit of willpower and some white knuckling to obey God’s commands. A few incidents with neighbors come to mind as moments when I had to intentionally act to forgive some who had done something wrong. I had to choose to let go of my anger in order to forgive as Jesus told me to forgive.

Forgiveness isn’t usually easy, but it is what a merciful and forgiving God asks of us. Yet, should obedience to God’s commands always come down to willpower and white knuckles?

I think that question helps us see how Mother Theresa’s two suggestions intersect rather than stand alone. In fact, that separated approach to obedience and adoration was a big mistake on my part.

An hour of adoration of a merciful and forgiving God will remind me of God’s great mercy for me. I’ll also allow God to shape and change me so that I conform to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life rather than making myself act correctly.

If I need some spiritual direction that will lead me away from willful sins, then I may benefit most from looking toward the God who can show me the path forward.

Adoration has a lot to do with obedience.

Can I Spend an Hour in Adoration of the Lord?

The thing I’ve learned about myself and spiritual practices is that I can’t let the ideal undermine the reality of life. I can’t let the perfect replace the possible.

Some days the kids wake up extra early or stay up super late. Some days the alarm isn’t set properly or we fall back asleep by mistake. Some days the unexpected happens or an interruption pulls us away from our worthy pursuits.

If we aren’t tucked away in a monastery, we have to accept that we probably don’t have as much control over our schedules as we would like. And even monks have sometimes complained about not having enough time to pray!

I have found that I do best with making space for adoration of the Lord in silence and in praying scripture by aiming for a rough schedule every day. It’s not perfect, but I generally know how I’m going to start each day. That helps a lot.

I also try to make some space in the middle and at the end of each day so that I can remain aware of God. It would be amazing if I could just make an hour available each day at the drop of a hat, but there are so many competing priorities and distractions each day. The best solution I can find at now is to make space for prayer and adoration before the day really gets going and to then find space for it as I do other things or as I take breaks throughout the day.

I don’t know if I’ve gotten close to an uninterrupted hour of adoration in a day, but I have found that it’s possible to at least spread this time out throughout a day.

As imperfect as that approach feels some days, I have noticed without fail that my ability to live in obedience to God always follows my ability to make space for silent adoration. If my adoration falters, then my obedience most likely follows that path shortly.

This is the mystery of the Christian life, both choosing to live in obedience to God while also placing ourselves in the care of the Holy Spirit to shape us and to guide. As my mind is reshaped by God’s work, my “work” of obedience becomes a joint venture in union with the Holy Spirit.

These days I try to spend a lot more time asking if I’m making time for adoration rather than if I’m living in obedience. If I am making time for adoration, the obedience often takes care of itself.

Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Why a Lying Leader Is Especially Serious for Christians and the Gospel

Back in 2008, I released a mildly controversial book called Coffeehouse Theology, which argued that arrived at “truth” is more complex than we might expect.

I say it was mildly controversial because I interacted with postmodern thinking without dismissing it out of hand. I suggested that we could stand to learn from a wider range of perspectives, rather than assuming, for instance, the white western male perspective has a corner on the truth.

I didn’t say “there is no truth.” Rather, I tried to say, “There is a lot of truth, and we need more perspectives to get a better handle on it.”

A few people wrote emails to me about how disappointed they were, a few people wrote critical reviews of the book, and at least one sermon decried my perspective, but all in all, I wasn’t excommunicated from the faith. It was more like a bunch of people who preferred “absolutes” and capital T Truth stopped paying attention to me.

While I spent a good bit of time trying to explain to folks the limits of what we could know, I was still very much committed to the idea of truth, of a shared reality, and of some common facts and ideas that we could all hold without argument.

I never in a million years imagined that I would have to one day write a blog post about the ways the lies of a leader–a leader supported by many Christians who used to argue for absolute truth–threatens to undermine our society, our faith, and our notion of shared ideas and facts that bind us together.

What Is the Problem with Lying?

The problem with lying, or bearing false witness against our neighbors if you’re a 10 Commandments fan, is that consistent lying by a group of people can have the effect of creating an alternate version of reality. If enough people from a political faction buy into the alternate version of reality, they can frame it as partisan preference, not blatant lying.

If one group of people decide to bear false witness against their neighbors, then opposing them can be framed as a partisan rejection of the group, not a dispute about the facts. The more people a leader can convince to accept his lie, the more power that lie generates.

This calculation is a long-standing tactic in seeking political power and control through dividing people.

Consider the early days of 2017 for instance when a few small lies set the stage for the thousands of documented lies that followed.

The pictures of the inauguration proved beyond all doubt that it was sparsely attended compared to expectations, and it was especially sparse when compared to the same shots of past inaugurations. Yet, we were told over and over again that there were huge crowds.

The press secretary even told us that there were “alternate facts” during his press conferences. Alternate facts is just another way of saying “alternate reality.”

Then, despite losing the popular vote and squeaking by in the Electoral College with wins in 3 states by a margin of about 70,000 votes total, we were told over and over again that it was a huge margin of victory.

These were mundane lies, perhaps even insignificant lies, but they were the early stages of creating an alternate reality. Anyone could look at pictures and public records of statistics and spot the lies being told.

Yet, these were just setups for bigger lies, including lies targeting evangelical Christians about the threat of persecution in America if Democrats rose to power. Such lies conveniently forgot that many Democrats are practicing Christians, Democrats have never shown any inclination toward persecution when they’ve been in power, and such a radical agenda would be political suicide in America.

Soon the small lies about the inauguration size or the persecution of Christians became a web of lies creating an alternate reality where Trump was the great champion of Christianity–despite several first-hand accounts of him slandering them in private.

The future of Christianity somehow became tied to Trump, and therefore any cruelty in his policies or any violations of the law were excused because of the “greater good” of saving Christians in America from persecution.

This whole notion is patently absurd, but enough lies have been stacked up year after year to the point that some are swept up in the narrative of this alternate reality where Christianity hinges on a guy with over twenty credible allegations of sexual assault and an official policy of kidnapping children from their asylum-seeking parents.

This Isn’t a Partisan Problem. It’s a Truth Problem

I could rattle off a list of people who are considered conservative in America today and who also affirm absolutes and our shared reality. This isn’t really a partisan issue, even if it has been framed that way by right wing media and some politicians.

My intention isn’t to choose one side of politics. In fact, if you look at many conservatives who are now out of office, they are alarmed by this attempt by right wing politicians and media to reshape reality.

Truth and a shared reality are important because Christian mission needs a kind of shared reality or at least an understanding of common ground.

Consider that so many Christians spend their time worrying about the evil persecution schemes of Democrats or praising the wonderful pro-life agenda of Republicans while seeking to end the Affordable Care Act that so many depend on for health insurance.

As author Ed Stetzer has noted, Christians have a massive credibility problem if they are motivated by ideas that are simply not true. Even worse, Christians have justified truly harmful policies on the basis of a false perception of the world.

Can you imagine someone trusting a Christian with the message of eternal life if these same Christians can’t even see the ways that fabricated threats of Christian persecution have been pushed for years by politicians seeking to win their votes?

I know that may sound like a hard word for some Christians to hear, but this is what’s at stake when an alternate version of reality is being offered.

Sadly, too many politicians on the extreme political right have created or tolerated an alternate version of reality that will have a long-lasting impact on the credibility of Christians for years, if not generations, to come.

The good news is that we get to choose who our leaders are.

However, if we choose an alternate reality for now, it will eventually fall apart. If we want to be taken seriously in sharing “the truth” of the Gospel, we better make sure we are living in the same version of reality as the rest of the world.

Join Me for a 30 Day Facebook News Feed Fast

We know that the 2020 election in America is already upsetting and divisive, capturing our attention and making it difficult to focus on what matters most each day. A big part of the problem is what we see on our social media feeds and how we react to this content.

Unfortunately, a lot of content showing up on social media, especially on Facebook, is coming from malicious sources, and it’s designed to unsettle and divide us.

Misinformation Is Happening NOW

America’s intelligence agencies have warned us that foreign nations, especially Russia, are sending misinformation our way via social media to upset, to deceive, and to divide us. (CNN, NY Times, The Guardian, NPR)

Facebook Is Ideal for Spreading Misinformation

Former leaders of Cambridge Analytica, who spread misinformation in 2016 have said publicly that Facebook is the single most effective way to spread misinformation. (The Guardian, NY Times, Tech Crunch)

Misinformation Travels Fast

Research has demonstrated that fabricated “news” on social media platforms like Twitter spreads six times faster than the truth because of how sensational it appears to be. (MIT, PBS, BBC)

The Senate Is Blocking a Response to Misinformation

The Senate majority has blocked bipartisan legislation that could take action against this online interference. (The Independent, AJC, MSNBC)

Facebook Won’t Act Decisively

Facebook has resisted taking decisive and effective action against misinformation. While the company has removed some misinformation accounts, numerous public whistleblowers have criticized the company’s inadequate response. (NPR, Forbes, Wired)

How to Remain Grounded in Unsettling Times?

All of this tells me that it’s up to us to resist the vast waves of misinformation coming our way. There’s nothing stopping this tsunami of upsetting falsehoods from crashing into our social media feeds. It’s hard to avoid this misinformation that is designed to create despair, anger, and division.

The good news is that we can step out of the ocean, so to speak, and move ourselves onto dry land until the waves of misinformation and trolling pass us by.

The highs and lows of the daily news cycle don’t have to sweep us away. We can step to a place that is firm and secure so that we can process the events of our times with clear minds and then take prayerful, constructive action.

The place to begin is with the stuff we allow into our minds, and addressing the role of social media is essential in creating space for silence, prayer, and compassionate action.

Fast from Your Facebook News Feed

While it would be ideal if every American simply avoided Facebook and social media in general for 30 days until the election passed, that isn’t realistic. In our small town we rely on Facebook groups to share information among parents, to stream church services on Facebook pages, and to organize events.

Yet, we can still get these connection benefits without the fragmenting content in our news feed. We simply need to fast from our news feed.

This isn’t as hard as it may seem. We can delete the Facebook app from our phones and use browser apps like Chrome’s “Kill News Feed” app to turn your news feed into a sea of nothingness.

At the very least, removing Facebook from your phone for 30 days will significantly cut down on the amount of content you see. If you miss the app, just add it again after the election.

A Chance for a Clean Start

Yet, I hope that a brief fast from the daily cascade of content on Facebook will be a welcome break or reset for your social media use. Perhaps you’ve forgotten what life is like without the daily infusion of content on Facebook.

You could leave social media apps off your smartphone. You could keep the Kill News Feed app running. In fact, I tried it for 30 days a number of years ago, and I was surprised that I didn’t miss the news feed at all.

Tech Companies Want You to Be Hooked

Keep in mind that social media companies are investing a ton of money in personnel and technology to keep you hooked.

The more data they collect from us, the more valuable we are for them.

The least we can do is to meet all of their work to capture our attention is to spend a little time guarding it so that we can focus on what’s most important. A few boundaries around social media can actually be quite liberating.

Suggestions for a 30 Day Facebook Fast

A Simple Fast: Remove Facebook from your smartphone and block/avoid your newsfeed when using Facebook on a computer. You can still use groups, events, etc. on Facebook.

Avoid Facebook Completely: Announce that you’ll be taking 30 days off Facebook. Make sure you have other activities lined up so you aren’t tempted to reload the app. Consider the following: books, arts/crafts activities, volunteer work, or a household project.

The 30 Day Cleanse: If you really want to see what life is like apart from social media, try logging out of social media for 30 days. Use the same ideas as above, but apply them to each social media service you use. I especially encourage journaling during your fast so that you can grow in awareness of how social media impacts you.

Read more about digital formation vs. spiritual formation in my book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction.

How Do We Begin Again After Failure?

I’ve taken up woodworking here and there as we settle into a new home. I’m not very experienced at it, but I did buy some new tools to help me at least fail at it properly. Each time I mess something up, I at least did it with the right tool.

In the past I would cut some jagged edge along a piece of wood, but I could console myself that I didn’t have the right kind of saw, sufficient clamps, or a suitable work table.

Now I’m in a much better position to create competent projects, and it’s still a good 50/50 chance that it’s going to look that way it’s supposed to look. Failure is a routine part of my day, and that can drain away the restorative benefits that woodworking could give to me.

It has been a master class in facing failure and then moving on from failure. It’s something I think about a lot as a Christian when I give in to my own weakness and stupidity. The old vice of sloth or acedia can come knocking on the regular, and it can feel really awful to have failed YET AGAIN!

Here are a few thoughts that have come to mind in the midst of my woodworking that I have applied to my “spiritual failures” as well.

Be Honest without Immersing in Negativity

The trap of negative self-talk can make any failure a real mess. It’s a downward spiral that doesn’t seem to have an escape.

When it comes to woodworking, I can beat myself up pretty good with negative self-talk. Yes, I should be honest about my failures, but it doesn’t help me to wallow in them or to view them as a dead end.

Failure doesn’t have to be the last word, and if I’m at least honest about what went wrong, I’ll be in a better place in the future.

There Is No Perfect Place to Begin Again

Picking up another brand new piece of wood is often humbling. I can tell myself, “Well, this thing isn’t going to look any better than it does now when I’m done with it!”

There is no perfect way to start over after failure. The first steps after failure can feel clunky and uncertain.

There’s the temptation to beat yourself up and to wonder if you’ll ever get out of this rut. Even if you know you’ve been forgiven, starting over isn’t easy.

God Is Most Concerned with Your Health and Restoration

Jesus talked about repentance because it’s a necessary step toward spiritual health and restoration, not as a “gotcha” moment. He’s not trying to out us as frauds or to humiliate us as some kind of divine retribution.

Yes, repentance can be humbling, humiliating, and illuminating in the most uncomfortable of ways. Yet, this is one step in the process, not the end goal. Jesus wants us to be healed much like a doctor wants a sick patient to fully recover.

There may be relapses, and we may be responsible for those relapses, but ultimately, Jesus wants to see us thrive so that we can have intimacy with God and bless others.

 

Restore Your Soul from Draining Technology

My book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction shares ways to restore your soul in a time of fragmented attention and doom scrolling.

Learn More Here

The New NRSV Simple Faith Bible Is Ideal for Screen Addicts

Back when I realized I could buy the New Living Translation on my Kindle, I hardly picked up a print Bible for years.

Everything about the ebook Bible reading experience was perfect: larger fonts, less heft, and no thin pages to gingerly flip through.

As with most innovations in technology, I adopted the new shiny thing without considering what it would change about my Bible reading habits.

It turned out that the more I added eBooks to my Kindle, the more I tended to jump from one book to another. Reading my Bible on my Kindle soon became difficult since I always had a virtual library at my fingertips at all times.

As a result, I’ve turned back to reading scripture in print form for the most part. While I’ll drop by Bible Gateway when I need to check on some scripture verses, print has been my ideal medium for more focused reading of and meditation on scripture.

That brings me to the Simple Faith Bible, an NRSV translation that includes notes and prayers from former president and long time Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter. The Bible is produced by Zondervan and is advertised with an especially easy to read font.

I took Bible Gateway up on the chance to pick up a copy since I often preach from the NRSV translation at my Episcopal church, and the NRSV has long been a favorite for study and for meditating on scripture.

I was looking forward to having a print copy of the NRSV handy, and the endorsements from the likes of Barbara Brown Taylor didn’t hurt either.

The Simple Faith Bible’s Reading Experience

I’m not going to lie, the font in this Bible made me drop my jaw when I opened it up the first time. It’s clear, easy to read, and virtually jumps off the page. It is by far the easiest to read print Bible I’ve ever owned.

I have found it immensely useful for study and for devotional reading. While it’s not a Bible I use every day since I tend to use a prayer book quite often, it is great to know that I have this version at my fingertips whenever I need it.

It is well worth the price just to have a Bible that is so easy to read.

The Simple Faith Bible’s Extras

I honestly didn’t pick up this Bible for the extras. Carter’s devotional writings and prayers are a nice perk and always seemed to strike a relevant tone that was welcome in the reading experience. I can see his writings being a welcome break for the typical reader who may want a little help tying some themes together in a passage.

There are some translation notes that are common in any Bible version, and each book has a very brief introductory paragraph.

The book of Revelation is literally the end of this Bible. Don’t expect maps or study tools for more in-depth study. That isn’t to say that this Bible needs those extras. It just seems like the kind of thing to mention these days since so many Bibles seem to include maps.

Learn more about the Simple Faith NRSV Bible

Zondervan’s official page

The Bible Gateway Store

Amazon

Can We Do All Things Through Christ When Life Feels Impossible?

 

My conversations with friends these days tend to revolve around some pretty similar themes.

We all have too much to do and too much to worry about with a pandemic, the coming election, school being disrupted, and work being disrupted. Many of us are keeping our kids at home for school, and that adds a significant layer of exhaustion for everything.

Just as we feel this strain and burden with so much to do and to worry about, we have so many restrictions on our gatherings with friends, families, and groups, especially churches. Our support networks are suddenly limited and uncertain.

The isolation, the converging challenges of work and childcare at home, and the many external uncertainties feel like too much right now. In this moment of feeling overwhelmed, I’m reminded of Paul saying that despite his overwhelming circumstances, he could do all things through Christ who strengthens him.

“…I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me“ (Philippians 4:12-14, NRSV).

Given the scale of these challenges right now, it feels a bit cheap to say to someone, “I know this feels like a lot, but have you considered Jesus?”

What exactly is possible in Christ when there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything? Paul would read a lot easier if he said, “I can do the two most important things each day through Christ who strengthens me.”

Let’s be honest here, too: Jesus and Paul faced two enormous, impossible circumstances. The Romans and the Jewish religious establishment were as impossible as it gets, influential, and full of resources.

What exactly could Jesus and Paul “do” in the face of such powerful entities and impossible circumstances? Perhaps to the eyes of some, it appears Paul and Jesus hardly accomplished anything at all.

They were both opposed by the religious establishment, suffered enormous losses, and were executed by Rome. Those are hardly ringing endorsements!

I have had my moments of sadness and despair, exhaustion and worry. I need more breaks and moments of silence just to make it through a typical day filled with work, homeschooling the older kids, caring for a two-year-old, and trying to carve a bit of space for silence, prayer, and personal sanity.

What does it look like to do all things through Christ who strengthens us?

What does it even look like to do one or two important things each day through Christ who strengthens us?

Keep in mind that in the verses surrounding the passage quoted above, Paul wrote about real distress. He had suffered and gone through times of want and real hardship.

The mystery I find here is the life of Christ at work in us. This key to contentment and peace is also rather counterintuitive. In Christ, we are living from a source that seems at once apart from us, but in reality very much a spiritual presence in us.

How do we surrender to the power of God in us and still maintain a sense of drive and mission each day?

Perhaps the first step is that genuine feeling of being overwhelmed and struggling to make sense of a situation that feels impossible. That moment of great need and struggle is our opportunity, as unwelcome as it may feel at the time, to rely on God’s presence in us.

I suppose it would be ideal to arrive at this point BEFORE we feel overwhelmed by situations that feel impossible. Yet, urgency can be a great motivator.

In my journey through the worst seasons of anxiety, those moments of feeling overwhelmed often served as a prompt to pray. I didn’t want to feel so anxious, but I soon found that they could be turned into a useful step toward faith and mental health.

The crush of the many impossibilities today is hardly welcome. We face a lot of uncertainty, and some of us will still endure a lot of suffering. Too many lives are being lost, and too many families are grieving. Grief and sorrow are appropriate responses to our current reality.

Yet, this is also the moment when we can take another step in faith toward the mystery of the life of Christ in us.

What could it look like to turn toward God’s presence in us when life feels like a weight we can no longer carry?

Finding a place of contentment and peace may feel like a heavy lift right now. But faith doesn’t tend to grow through leaps and bounds.

Faith grows at the pace of a tiny seed taking root in the ground, sprouting under the pounding rain, and imperceptibly growing under the blazing sun. Even the unseen nature of the process itself can feel impossible.

I wouldn’t kid myself that we can do ALL things right now, but we can begin to learn what it looks like to lean more and more on the presence of Christ. This is God’s present gift for us even when it feels like so much else has been taken away.

Spiritual Formation with Catholics vs Legalism with Hard Partying Fundamentalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Formation as an Alternative

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

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

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

Catholic writer Henri Nouwen writes in his book Spiritual Formation:

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

He then adds:

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

Sustainable Spiritual Formation vs. Double Life Legalism

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

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

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

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

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

How Toxic Christian Leaders Protect Themselves

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

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

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

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

Influential Relationships Matter

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

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

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

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

Toxic Leaders Are Protected by Incongruity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standing Together Against Public Outrage

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

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

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

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

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

How Should We Handle Toxic Leaders?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Make an Author Howl in Despair

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

There are two really good reasons for this response…

Authors Always Believe Their Books Are Unique

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

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

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

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

Authors Must Distinguish Their Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m seeking to look further upstream…

Why do we have a flood?

What is the design of the flood?

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

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

Less Howling, More Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learn More about My Precious, Unique Book

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

Learn more about Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction

Order Reconnect Today

Download the FREE 4-Session Reconnect Discussion Guide

Reconnect

Is Social Media Giving Us More or Fewer Choices?

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Social Media Designed to Do?

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

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

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

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

What Are You Choosing to Do on Social Media?

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

If companies have every incentive to keep us hooked…

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

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

Then how much control do we have over our usage?

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

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

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

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

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

How I Give Myself More Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn More about Spiritual Formation vs. Digital Formation

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

Learn more about Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction

Order Reconnect Today

Download the FREE 4-Session Reconnect Discussion Guide

Reconnect