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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.

Meet Fear with Silence, Not Social Media and TV

silent land

I’m one of the many Americans who has been a walking ball of nerves since the 2016 election, and that baseline of anxiety has made it difficult to bear other unsettling and troubling aspects of life at times.

While I’ve managed to deal with my anxiety in the past through a mix of prayer and exercise, some days 20 minutes of silence or a 20-minute run just don’t cut it. I still feel the pull of anxiety and the temptation to check out from life to avoid it and the fears driving it.

Telling an anxious person “Do not be anxious about anything…” is just about the least helpful thing. The body is reacting to something. That reaction is completely understandable.

Unfortunately, the alternative to denial is often evasion. Turning to social media drama or a television show becomes a quick way to check out. There’s no need to face the darkness afflicting my soul if I have the pleasant glow of a computer or tablet in front of me.

I have been practicing contemplative prayer for quite some time now, but reading the book Into the Silent Land has offered a few helpful dimensions to my approach to prayer. These were things I had partially uncovered of in the past, but the author, Martin Laird, spelled them out in a very helpful way.

For starters, the practice of contemplative prayer is rooted in stillness, sitting upright and breathing deeply in your nose and out of your mouth, meeting each thought with a simple prayer word or phrase. Laird speaks of three doors into contemplation, as we begin to meet our thoughts with silence, enjoy the vast space of silence before God, and gain greater control over our thoughts.

Toward the end of the book, Laird specifically addresses the ways that contemplation can help us face our fears and anxiety. This approach is the complete opposite of denial or avoidance.

Laird suggests that we meet each fearful or anxious thought with stillness and silence. The discipline of contemplative prayer teaches us to shut down negative or fearful thinking loops with a prayer word, letting go of the fears and thoughts as they come to us. However, building on that discipline, we can begin to look at why we are fearful and what is behind our anxieties.

Staring into the darkness of our fears and anxieties is no easy task, but over time, I have found a greater capacity to disarm them as I meet them with silence and faith.

Some days I’m more tightly wound up than others. These are anxious times, and while there are people and events that we may rightly fear, there also is no need to let these fears overtake us.

In the daily practice of contemplative prayer, I’ve found a lifeline where I can release my fears and anxieties to God. I still bear them to a certain degree, but I can at least face them now with faith that the loving presence of God will bring healing.

Was It All a Lie? The Fallout After a Church Leader Fails

I learned something in my first year of seminary that finally made sense of church dynamics for me:

You can be good at leading a group or building a community and still be really bad at following Jesus.

I don’t know if my professor, who happened to be on staff at a local megachurch, would have said it quite like that. Rather, during his teachings on the dynamics of church ministry, from leadership development to small group ministry, I saw that there is often a rather large gap between the organizational abilities of growing churches and the churches that are struggling.

That isn’t to overlook the many other factors that cause a church to grow or decline. I mean, how long do you have to read this post?

A particular statement from this lecture caught my attention: “Sometimes the big churches can do small better than small churches.”

That isn’t to say that a church ONLY needs to manage its groups well to grow, but a church leadership team’s ability to manage certain dynamics can go a long way toward determining the numerical growth of the congregation.

We could argue that, of course, a church must have certain elements in place to be somewhat stable, if not healthy. The sermons, songs, and prayers shouldn’t be out of left field. And yet, there are plenty of small churches where the pastor faithfully teaches a small group of people a biblically grounded sermon, while some massive megachurches have sermons that amount to biblical entertainment. In other cases, crowds flock to hear the hot, dynamic preacher whose sermons are basically transcribed into best-selling books on the spot regardless of their substance.

All of this is to say, the size and vitality of a church may have very little to do with the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Plenty of churches hum along whether or not Pentecost really happened or has any measure of relevance for today. A church may grow large because its leaders have an intimate relationship with the parental love of God or because its leaders have experience as high-powered executives who get stuff done.

When a prominent church leaders fails, I remember what my seminary professor said about big churches “doing small well.” Although it’s perfectly possible that this leader has had an authentic relationship with Christ and an authentic ministry empowered by God before failing morally, the growth of a church may hinge on a leader’s ability to manage people. Maintaining that growth may call on skill sets that pull leaders away from a deeper spiritual life.

Managing people is a neutral thing. I suspect that every church leader needs to reckon with this at times, but it’s possible that a church leader could lead a massive congregation because of off the chart talents on the management side that hide spiritual or biblical deficiencies. That isn’t to make a blanket statement about megachurch pastors or leaders. I know some personally who have a stable inner spiritual life while leading a large group.

The key is that we’ve seen enough megachurch pastors fall or end up spiritually empty to say something about the elephant in the room. A pastor can grow a large church, preach a super sermon, or manage large groups of people without a deep inner spiritual life. Those things shouldn’t be our indicators of God’s authentic presence and life.

Stepping away from the lights, speakers, and jam-packed auditoriums; turning away from church offices packed with computers, copiers, and phones; leaving the climate controlled lobby and plush furniture behind, we may have a greater opportunity to hear the present voice of God in a whisper. It wasn’t all a lie, but perhaps we have looked at the wrong signs for the presence of God.

 

The Contemplative Capitalist: An Integrated April First Book Release

Announcing my latest book on April 1st…

The Contemplative Capitalist: Spiritual Hacks for Meditation and Making Money. 

It’s time to finally unearth the true riches from my years of contemplative study and practice.

You may have thought that the “true riches” of contemplative prayer are related to experiencing the peace of God, but that’s just the beginning of a path to peace and prosperity that goes far beyond anything that Jesus ever talked about, considered, imagined possible, or inspired his disciples to write about.

In fact, Jesus never said anything about the real links between contemplative prayer and financial prosperity…

The REAL SECRET of financial prosperity is found by applying contemplation’s ancient, time-tested practices to American ingenuity.

The contemplative tradition of the Christian faith is an untapped gold mine of capitalist potential that we shouldn’t be ashamed of using in order to meet our financial needs. In The Contemplative Capitalist you’ll learn how to:

  • End each day with a Budget Examen (TM): “When was my budget most present with me today?”
  • Use a sacred word to ignore your children’s pleas for budget-busting toys.
  • Walk out of debt labyrinths in contemplative silence.
  • Light a Contemplative Capitalist Candle (TM) for each credit card debt payment.
  • Use the power of contemplative silence to get your way in meetings and price negotiations.
  • Endure bull markets by passing through a dark night of the investor’s soul.
  • Celebrate paid off debt with a pleasant “Ommm” (Contemplatives never scream).

These are proven strategies that the desert fathers and mothers developed in part but foolishly never monetized while sweating alone in their caves weaving baskets (and think of the time they could have had for prayer if they had outsourced those baskets!). Don’t bury the wisdom of the contemplative tradition in the ground. Put it to work for you, and you will see an increase in financial prosperity for you and your family.

How to Purchase “The Contemplative Capitalist”

This book is usually priced at $24.99, but if you act now, we’re going to gut that price like oligarchs are gutting the middle class, and drop it to three easy installments of $7.99.

But that’s not all…

If you purchase this book now, share it on social media, change your profile picture to the book’s cover, take a picture of your child/pet/dinner plate with the book, email it to 20 of your closest friends, review the book (it doesn’t have to be glowing, but remember I meant well with this book AND WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE ME!), and make a Spotify playlist based on how the book made you feel, I’ll throw in exclusive video content of me reading contemplative classics and offering my highly refined insights that seamlessly build on the foundation laid by these masters.

The ACTUAL RETAIL PRICE of these videos is $499, but I’m giving them to you for FREE.

This offer is a limited time deal for TODAY ONLY.

Do you hear that sound? Of course you don’t, you’re not an expert contemplative like me.

  • You can’t hear your money practically draining out of your bank account.
  • You can’t fully integrate all of your investments because you aren’t spirituality integrated.
  • You haven’t learned how to use the power of silence to crush your competition at work.

This rock bottom price of 3 installments of $7.99 each is going to give you so much value and save you so much money, that you’ll stop talking, just like a true hermit, because you’ll be thinking of all the ways to invest and increase your money. You may even need to build bigger storehouses to hold everything you can buy. In fact, get working on those storehouses tonight.

Your life is about to change. You have no idea what you’re in for…

 

 

[Wait, was this an April Fool’s Day joke?]

Yes. I do write books about contemplative prayer, but not about making money from contemplative prayer. At least, not yet…

Each year I try to write some kind of parody of myself and the Christian subculture. I aim to be as over the top as possible. This year I thought of all of those business books I used to shelve in Borders (legit!) that praised Jesus as a great CEO/manager/stock broker/general/fax machine repairman… you get the picture. Going corporate with contemplation seemed like the ticket, even if parodying evangelical Christianity is getting harder with each passing year because many of the parodies I considered were too close to the truth.

While I hope that the jokes aren’t subtle, I also hope that this parody can help us consider the far more subtle temptations to twist Christian spirituality, and many other aspects of the faith, into tools that serve our own interests over the call to sacrificially love God and neighbors.

What Should a Trump Survival Guide for Christians Include?

A podcast billing itself as a survival guide for the Trump presidency recently announced on “the Twitters” that it would be sharing an interview with a prominent evangelical author who has frequently endorsed Trump. There was quite a bit of pushback (**me waving**), and then there was pushback on that pushback (**friends I respect waving back**), and well, you know how Twitter goes.

While I respect that we all need to find out own way to survive the belligerency, racism, xenophobia, deception, and manipulation of this man’s administration that would surely cause Thomas Merton to break out in hives, I want to share what I think Christians seeking to “survive” this presidency need right now (as opposed to ANOTHER interview with a Trump supporter). I also want to share my reasoning for my particular focus on what will help us survive Trump and what will not…

DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT DIALOGUE?!?!?!

The premise of the podcasters is that we need to understand the people who support Trump in order to survive the Trump presidency. I respect the makers of this podcast, and I saw respected friends stick up for them.

From where I sit, it is useful to understand what motivates people to support Trump in the grand scheme of things.  It’s not a waste of time to listen to Trump supporters to a point, but actually “surviving” the Trump presidency day-to-day is quite another matter. I would argue that we need a different toolbox in order to be healthy and constructive under Trump.

The reason why I’m not interested in hearing another Trump supporter interview is…

We Know Why People Support Trump

To begin with, most people know why voters chose Trump, even if many Trump supporters probably don’t actually see the full implications of the racial, protectionist, sexist, or Christian nationalistic aspirations that have driven their support of Trump.

For progressive Christians, especially progressive evangelicals, we’re especially aware of what evangelical Trump supporters are going to say. This has been our world for longer than the 2016 election.

I grew up with these people. I wrote research papers in my Christian high school about the topics that Trump voters care about. I can pick up the phone and call Trump supporters. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in people who voted for Trump since I was in middle school.

Even so, if I feel the urge to refresh my knowledge of Trump supporters, I can read the many softball profiles offered up by the NY Times about the sensitive white supremacist who lives down the block but trolls people of color online when he’s not at work.

And while many Christians and progressive evangelicals are rolling their eyes at the thought that we need more dialogue with Trump supporters, that isn’t to say that I want to shut Trump supporters out of my life. I’m just done hearing why they love Trump. In fact, if we actually want to build bridges and to transcend what divides us, experts say that we need to make connections with people on topics other than the partisan politics that divide us.

Moreover, while I understand what drives Trump voters and I can also acknowledge my blind spots and bias, I have yet to have an interaction with a Trump supporter who can meet my arguments against Trump with reasoned understanding–not a rebuttal, just an acknowledgement of understanding where I’m coming from. I’ve had lots of Trump supporters express their disappointment at how deceived I am, I’ve had many shouts of fake news, and I’ve been told how they just can’t understand why I believe what I do. I’m not trying to be dismissive. This has just been my experience up to this point.

All of that to say, I think it’s more productive to develop compassion, to develop real day-to-day survival strategies, to understand the infrastructure that has helped give rise to our current situation, and to then explore ways we can either challenge it or undermine it through direct action.

Praying through the Anxiety of Trumpland

I had a severe panic attack on the night of Trump’s election. It was the first time I ever lost an entire night of sleep because I was literally shaking in fear. How could anyone trust such an unstable man with the nuclear weapons and military power of America?

Contemplative prayer has been a bedrock for my daily life under Trump. I have had to routinely let go of my fears and anger as I approach God in silent surrender.

You can learn the basics of contemplative prayer at www.contemplativeoutreach.org or pick up the book Into the Silent Land for a helpful introduction and guide to the basics of contemplation. Also, consider how people of color have integrated contemplation into their activism with the Mystic Soul Project.

Surviving Trump with Better Information

The anxiety of the Trump Administration has also resulted in major changes in how I use social media. We need to stop seeing the information on social media as roughly equal. Social media is where propaganda, speculation, and anxiety can thrive. We are living in a time of information warfare. This is why Russian influencers spent so much time and money on ads and fake bots on social media.

Surviving this presidency means looking at world events with a more critical eye. We have to enter into the realm of the speculative at times, entertaining various “what if” scenarios. What if Twitter is being used as a psychological weapon against us? I personally have a lot of questions about how the North Korean missile tests seemed to pop up with a kind of regularity for a season and then disappeared.

I try to avoid scrolling through social media. I use apps like Self-Control to block social media for long stretches and “Kill News Feed” for Chrome so that I’m not tempted to scroll through Facebook. I don’t have social media apps on my phone.

Most importantly, I’m very careful about my news sources, avoiding sensationalized outlets or articles. I look for lawyers, former law enforcement officials, and reputable organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center to offer analysis on events.

Surviving the Divisive Politics of Trump

After Trump’s election, I started following a lot of Republicans, conservatives, and independents on social media, the majority were “never Trump” Republicans. My Twitter feed is a mix of progressive evangelical activists and conservative thinkers some days, with the likes of Richard Painter, Rick Wilson, Evan McMullin, and Bill Kristol showing up to offer takes on events that I wouldn’t have sought out in the past.

We need strong coalitions with people who would otherwise be our opponents in order to defeat Trump and those who share in his ideology of white supremacy and unchecked power. These conservative and independent thinkers have changed my mind at times, but most importantly, they have confirmed my suspicion that many Americans share a great deal of common ground.

The truth shouldn’t be partisan. Under Trump, it has become partisan to state reality. There aren’t two sides when one side is lying. Coming to the “center” in the case of collusion with a foreign power just means… collusion. Coming to the center for compromise with unbridled corruption is still corruption.

Further discussion of common ground on certain issues could be truly productive for people of all political persuasions, and that is something worth exploring further. When Americans discuss which policies work and which don’t apart from the echo chambers of political ideology, there is a great deal that we can sort out. For instance, many gun control measures have popular support behind them, but politicians who are owned by the NRA have “shot” them down.

Surviving with Political Activism

We have learned that calling elected officials can help change votes on key legislation.

We have learned that marching together can create momentum and energy.

We have learned that voter turnout is essential for swinging an election.

We have learned that sometimes a centrist candidate can be effective.

We have learned that the voting rights act really is needed as voter suppression laws continue to disenfranchise voters.

I am turning to the activists who have generations of experience in direct action to help me move forward. Rev. William Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove are a great starting point for those who want to fuse their faith with biblically inspired activism.

I am very interested in learning from the many, many activists in my own evangelical movement and those activists who have a history of working toward positive change in our country. If the activism of the Christian nationalist right created the atmosphere for Trump’s rise, it’s my hope that the moral fusion politics of Barber will offer one of the  alternatives that we badly need.

We All Want to Survive Trump

I have no doubt that there are many other productive ways to forge ahead and to survive the Trump presidency. I do, however, doubt the value of more interviews with Trump voters/supporters. If Trump voters want to talk to me in order to understand my beliefs, I have a contact form that is open to anyone.

Most importantly, I welcome everyone, whether a supporter of Trump or not, to join me in the Christian practice of contemplation, to sit at the feet of activists working for justice, and to listen to a broad range of qualified, well-sourced political thinkers, journalists, and lawyers.

Christianity has language for change and repentance. Christians value truth and mercy.  There is room for everyone in this place who wants in. I have no interest in preserving a kind of moral high ground that is apart from Trump supporters. If you want to chat with me, you are welcome.

By the way, I’m not writing off that Trump survival guide podcast—even if I am critical of the first episode. Future episodes will most likely be better. Hey, we all want to survive this administration together. Like I said, we have a lot of common ground.

Why Many Evangelicals Struggle with Prayer (TLDR: We’re Winging It)

Pastors experts in church

We can learn a great deal about “spirituality” of American evangelical Christianity when we consider a 2006 Christianity Today  list of the most influential books over the past 50 years that shaped evangelicals.

For starters, most evangelicals are lucky if they know their movement’s historical background from the past 50 years. It’s safe to say that many evangelicals today have a very limited understanding of church history that has deprived us of the wisdom and practices developed over the centuries. Most telling about the limits of evangelical spirituality, the number one book on the Christianity Today list of influential books is Prayer: Conversing With God by Rosalind Rinker.

I don’t doubt that readers have benefitted from this book that was developed by a missionary who offers practical instructions in group prayer as well as some tips on personal prayer. Many small groups and Sunday schools have found much-needed direction from this book, and I can see the need for it in certain settings.

However, this book’s emphasis on spoken prayer and the overall disconnection from the prayer tradition of the church is quite typical of evangelicals. It’s not that Rinker is wrong or even misguided. The issue is that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, which is pretty much the story of the evangelical movement since it began. We have forged ahead with our own advice, spiritual practices, Bible studies, sermons, churches, and ministries without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, what has come before us, and what we may gather from the devout Christians of the past.

The main word that jumps out at me in Rinker’s subtitle (and all of the book’s marketing copy) is “conversation.” For many evangelicals today, we have come to think of prayer as a conversation with the goal of speaking our minds to God, and if God directs us, then we’ll be able to say even more things. In fact, many evangelicals may fear that prayer isn’t working if they don’t receive specific direction or guidance from God.

The goal though is for a conversational prayer, especially for us to speak up in this conversation. There is very little emphasis on silence or to even make silence the point. I don’t get the sense that evangelicals reading Rinker’s book would consider that a completely silent time of prayer, where there is no discernible conversation between God and the person at prayer, brings about any benefit.

Silence isn’t really on the radar of this book, even if silence was a central part of Christian prayer for centuries. On the other hand, a conversation directs us toward a goal or outcome that is measurable and easily understood, such as sensing the Lord’s direction to say certain words in prayer. This is a good thing in and of itself, but when this is our foundational concept of prayer (perhaps ONLY concept of prayer), we run the risk of missing the deeper streams of silent prayer and contemplation that have run throughout the history of the church.

Interestingly, Rinker published her book in 1959, which makes her a contemporary of Thomas Merton who, along with Henrí Nouwen and Thomas Keating, helped Catholics delve deeper into the prayer traditions of the church. However, each of these writers pointed us back to the desert fathers and mothers, the mystics such as Thérèse of Liseux, and the Eastern Orthodox monastics. They drew deeply from these streams while offering their own ideas on prayer for the church and produced rather different works.

That isn’t to set them up in opposition to Rinker. I don’t doubt there are even places of overlap. However, it’s tragic to think that Rinker lacked the deep grounding of the church’s prayer tradition in her book. How much richer and beneficial would it have been?

The phrase that comes to mind for me about evangelical spirituality is: “Winging it.” Before I grounded myself in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers or the contemporary teachers of contemplative prayer, I have felt like I have been winging it with prayer. Every Christian joke about prayer eventually gets to the “Lord we just…” or “Father God, we just thank you…” way that evangelicals have learned to pray because it sounds respectful and officious.

Before we go too hard on evangelicals here, let’s keep in mind that the evangelical movement emerged as a reform. There were real issues that needed to be changed. It’s unhelpful to assert that evangelicals were completely off-base. Put into their shoes, we would have desired to make changes as well.

The central problem with evangelicals, as is illustrated with our “winging it” approach to spirituality, is that we are unaware of our roots (especially our most toxic and problematic roots). We don’t know much about what came before us. The many denominations and off-shoots of denominations in Protestant Christianity should give us pause.

In fact, as I read about the history of the evangelical movement, I was struck by how often groups split off from each other under the auspice of calling themselves “Christians.” They thought of themselves as somehow preserving a pure version of the faith and didn’t see how they had any kind of bias or distinctives that set themselves apart.

Of course, years later, these groups of “Christians” took on more set identities as Nazarenes or the Church of Christ, developing their own history and doctrinal distinctives, but at their formation, these denominations saw themselves as somehow able to transcend their roots in order to claim the label “Christians” for themselves.

This pattern has shown up over and over again among evangelicals seeking to correct mistakes or to separate themselves from evangelicals who are in error over a particular doctrine or practice. As evangelicals debate whether to keep the label itself, some have even suggested just calling themselves “Christians” again.

While I am more than sympathetic to the sentiment, I am concerned that we are once again repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to know our roots and to own them so that we can understand where we come from, what has impacted us, and what we perhaps don’t know.

Our ignorance of our history and of the traditions developed among other Christian around the world has become one of our greatest weaknesses. We have often adopted inadequate practices and institutions as a response to flawed practices and institutions—some certainly were more flawed than others. If evangelicals desire to move away from some of our most toxic elements in the future, we need to look back at our roots in order to see what is healthy, what needs to be removed, and where we can learn from Christians in other traditions.

This post was adapted from book three in the series
Evangelicals After the Shipwreck: Evangelicals Need Roots to Grow

Download it for $.99 on Amazon or Other eBook retailers

Simple Advice for Christians: Trust Your Instincts

warning-sign

If a leader is too combative and controlling, there’s a reason for that.

If a spiritual teacher keeps giving you tasks and obligations, you’re not learning spirituality or how to abide in Christ.

If a theology system makes God sound like a monster, then you’re not learning about the God who is love.

If you are fearful of God, then your teachers and guides are in error.

You aren’t crazy. Trust your instincts.

Christianity shouldn’t be a series of inconsistencies and shocking incongruities to be accepted at face value.

There should be mystery and uncertainty when encountering the divine, but if you’re repeatedly running into one red flag after another, you can stop explaining away the obvious problems or treating them as inevitable.

You can stop listening to the leaders who demand the acceptance of inconsistencies.

If a system of theology appears to be controlling, oppressive, and harmful, then trust your instincts.

Ask questions, seek the wisdom of trustworthy women and men with more experience, and explore other traditions and perspectives within the faith. What you find may surprise you.

There’s a good chance that other people have already asked the same questions and raised the same concerns.

My faith has evolved from assenting to a doctrinal checklist to consenting to the loving presence of God without any expectations or demands.

My hands are no longer clutching lists of things to do or inconsistent doctrinal statements that require defending.

When all is well, my hands are open, ready to receive from God.

I’m still angry some days at the Christian machine with its demands, obligations, and hoops to jump through. I forget that God is present, views me as a beloved child, and desires that I share this love with others.

At the very least, I can approach each day with the relief that I’m not crazy, that so many of my instincts about Christianity have led me toward a more loving and generous spiritual practice.

I don’t have to run from questions, doubts, uncertainties, and incongruities. There is a lot that I’m still sorting out and recovering from, but the survival of my faith no longer rests in defending insufficient answers to eternally complex questions.

I can rest in the mysterious presence of God with open hands and a mind that is no longer trying to fit square pegs into round holes.