Are We Prepared to Receive God’s Message to Us?

The following is a sermon I preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on January 3, 2021 on the Gospel passage in Matthew 2:1-12.

Have you ever gone somewhere and you just didn’t fit in? Or have you ever been to a place where you didn’t feel welcome? Uneasy stares may have followed you until you walked out the door.

One year, Julie and I had a great idea for Valentine’s day. Everyone goes out for a dinner date, but who goes out for a breakfast date? Just us, we thought. We could beat the crowds and save on babysitting. So, we dropped the kids off at school and set off for a local restaurant. We didn’t want to go to the same old diner. We wanted a restaurant, and we found one that had great reviews for breakfast. We’d never been there before, but how could so many positive reviews lead us astray?

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

The first thing I saw upon entering was the hazy cloud of smoke rising from the many, many cigarettes. I’m allergic to smoke, and so that was an immediate deal breaker. Yet, we next saw that this “restaurant” was actually more of a cafeteria. And it was packed. Even worse, every eye seemed to turn right at us as we walked in.

We didn’t say a word to each other or even the hostess. We turned around abruptly and then had a very, very enjoyable Valentine’s Day breakfast at our usual diner with thankful hearts.

Thinking of the dramatic irony in my own story where I didn’t know what I was walking into at the local restaurant, I wonder if we see the 3 Magi in a similar light in today’s Gospel reading. Did they even imagine what they were getting themselves into when they set off on their journey? Here are 3 kindly, generous, wise astrologers who naively entered a place where they don’t belong. They had walked into the court of a crazy, violent King and delivered the worst possible news to him—he had competition.

While the Magi weren’t sure where to find the newborn king of the Jews, perhaps we miss some major insights if we don’t see them in all of their complexity and intrigue. By looking at the details of this story a little closer, we may get a better handle on what God was doing and what God may be saying to us today.

Let’s begin our closer examination with the low hanging fruit:

Point one: Everybody, including the Magi, Knew Herod Was Bad.

You didn’t have to be a wise man (or woman) to know that King Herod the great was bad news. After conspiring with Rome to overthrow the unpopular Jewish Hasmonean line of kings to take his place as ruler of Israel and neighboring territories, Herod suffered from persistent paranoia, imposter syndrome, and a taste for drowning opponents in his massive swimming pool at his Jericho palace. Herod’s paranoia drove him to construct a mand-made mountain south of Jerusalem called Herodium, which he turned into a military stronghold. He also spearheaded an even more remote cliffside fortress near the Dead Sea that is known today as Masada.

Yet, Herold wasn’t content to safeguard his fragile kingdom through murdering and fortress building. He soothed his imposter syndrome as a non-Jewish Idumean by marrying a princess from the Jewish Hasmonean royal line. He pacified his Jewish opponents by constructing an impressively ornate temple that significantly upgraded the 2nd temple that had disappointed its original builders. Herod also ingratiated himself to Rome by building an impressive and commercially successful harbor at a town he would name Caesarea. With Herod in place as a client king who had finally brought a degree of uneasy stability to a vital Middle Eastern crossroad, there’s no doubt that the wise Magi of the East knew enough to never take Herod up on an offer for a “dip” in his pool.

Herod looms over this whole story as a larger than life villain who found just enough leverage, common interests, and fear to stay at peace with his Jewish subjects and Roman benefactors. The Magi knew that visiting the volatile Herod was a huge risk.

If we’ve heard quite a bit about Herod’s monstrous reign, we certainly know quite a lot less about these Magi, who were respected for their social, political, and religious influence as interpreters of the stars and planets. Knowing who they were may help us get closer to the action of God pulsing throughout the layers of this story.

That brings us to our second point of clarity about this story:

Second Point: The Magi were important, and God was sending a vital message through them.  

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Magi showing up at the birth of Jesus.

Within the 70-60 years before the birth of Jesus, astrology was an especially hot topic for Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus—the unchallenged ruler of the Mediterranean world and beyond at that time. As if to prove his position and authority as supreme ruler, Caesar widely promoted his horoscope and even included parts of it on coins, which served as imperial propaganda. In his eyes, the alignment of the moon with the powerful planet Jupiter at the time of his birth proved that he was destined to become the Roman Emperor. For people who valued these signs and symbols as influential omens, it appeared quite cut and dry.

By the time of Jesus, astrology had swept through the ancient world in part after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, a fate that astrologers in Persia had allegedly predicted no less! A mix of Greek-influenced Persian astrology became widespread and important to the point that the Ruler of the Roman Empire found it vital in justifying his reign. Suffice to say, astrology could make or break a king’s claim to the throne.

The Magi in Jesus’ day were a big deal in the eyes of their country, and they were likely respected in most countries they passed through—until they got to Israel. The Jews were surely a minority in their dismissal of astrology, and that position put them in a tough spot when the Magi showed up talking about the birth of their own King, if not the Messiah himself! To Jewish thinking, astrology was a pagan practice—full stop. The Magi were certainly intelligent and wise, but Jewish thinkers would never pair the Magi’s star viewing with Micah’s prediction about the Messiah.

The dilemma of the Jewish religious leaders could be our own to a degree. Although they relied on the scriptures as their ultimate guide, they had to consider that God had mercifully met the Magi where they were. If the Magi were looking at the night sky, it was possible that God provided a sign in that sky to guide them toward the true light. Perhaps we have too narrow a concept of God’s revelation.

While we shouldn’t bring astrology charts in church, perhaps we underestimate the possibility of finding God in nature. Maybe we overestimate our own wisdom and the authority of our own journeys to the point that we can’t see how God is reaching out to others in the only signs they’d recognize.

In addition, I can’t help noticing how much the Magi followed through on the star’s revelation. Although they were surely wealthy men with a degree of power and position, they didn’t let that keep them from making a perilous journey to a land where they were surely not welcome. The king was a murderous and often crazy tyrant, and the people had the lowest regard for astrologers. Whatever drove them to leave home was compelling enough to send them into a land where they surely stood out.

Now that we have a better handle on the Magi and Herod—or as much as we can manage in a few minutes for a character like him—let’s take a look at one other vitally important group in this Gospel narrative: the Jewish teachers.

Point Three: The Jewish teachers missed the Messiah due to divided loyalties.

While we can see the mercy of God toward the Magi in bright star over Bethlehem, we can also see the crisis of the Jewish scribes. They surely wanted to keep the peace with crazy king Herod. They had a lot to lose, and so we need to feel the alarm of Jerusalem when pagan astrologers reported a new Jewish king had been born. Was this an insurgent Hasmonean king? Was this the messiah? This had to be wrong, right?

Most importantly, if these Jewish teachers were reading about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem in Micah 5:2, they surely knew that a lot of fighting against God’s enemies follows in the rest of that chapter. If the Magi were right, which seemed impossible, a major disruptive, violent event was coming.

They had every reason to downplay the Magi and to stay put in Jerusalem while the pagan astrologers used a Jewish prophecy to find the long-awaited Jewish Messiah! It’s both tragically ironic and understandable that the Jewish teachers stayed put. Following the Magi would undermine their religious beliefs AND their fragile political alliances. They couldn’t afford to be curious, to just take a chance that the pagan astrologers were right.

For all that we can piece together about the setup of this narrative, we still have a lot of questions to ask. Let’s consider them for a moment before turning our attention to the bigger issue at play in this story. And so we have…

Point Four: We still don’t know much about the Magi or Jesus’ family in this story.

What motivated the magi the most to take this journey in the first place?

Did magi take such journeys regularly to celebrate royal births?

Or was this star such an astrological outlier that they HAD to see what the fuss was all about?

Was it really worth a brief visit to honor a newborn king in such a dangerous land?

What did they think of this poor peasant family living in a town far from where they had met and where Mary’s family resided? It appears that they left their gifts with this poor family in a forgotten arid town without asking any questions or making a fuss. We only know that they worshipped Jesus, gave him gifts, and then went on their way. When God spoke to them in a dream, they obediently went home another way in order to spare the child’s life even if it endangered their standing before Herod—should he pursue them.

The Magi took huge risks and stepped out in what we would call faith. It’s tempting to make this story all about them and to suggest ways to imitate them. Yet, while we can find much to imitate about these Magi, I wonder if we can best ask what this story teaches us about God, not just what it teaches us about the Magi.

In fact, the importance of the Magi shifts and even grows once we realize that they surely represented God’s wider outreach to all people. The scope of Jesus’ ministry is already being established by the people who first served him. Jesus didn’t start his life among the wealthy and powerful of his own people, being honored by shepherds, but he also had a wider reach to the Gentile people whom these Magi represent.

Underneath the questions, awe, and irony of this story, we find that God has been at work in ways that would surprise us if we ourselves had been in the narrative. This subtle work of God offers us three points for reflection and action:

  1. God may show up in traditions outside our own.

If the Magi looked to the stars and many superstitious Gentiles relied on the stars for guidance, God offered a signpost to Jesus in the heavens. It was a remarkable star that literally pointed at a specific home beyond all doubt. The Magi would have been ridiculed by their own people for ignoring so obvious and significant a sign. God made the revelation of nature quite clear.

Such revelations in nature may prompt us to ask what other signs God has given to people from different religious traditions. How is God speaking to them? What should we make of these signs without giving in to superstition? Most importantly, how can we welcome sincere seekers who have religious experiences outside our tradition yet also want to know more about Jesus?

Will we stare at them as if they don’t belong?

2. God can speak to us in many ways.

In this story alone, God spoke through stars, scripture, doubting religion scholars, and dreams. Are we prepared to hear God in dreams, visions, revelations in nature, and unlikely, even unwilling prophets?

If we believe that the world is God’s handiwork reflecting his glory, power, and presence, then surely this story is an invitation to look at the world with more reverence and expectation. Even a religious leader with divided loyalties can surprise us with a timely insight. When we read scripture, God may offer us an answer that is precisely what we need in the moment.

That isn’t to say we should expect daily messages in these places. Rather, we have a reminder to be open and aware of how God may speak to us. When we have clarity, then we should act.

3. Finally, God will meet us on unfamiliar ground.

As we take obedient steps to follow God into the unknown, we will place ourselves beyond our own resources. When we are most powerless and uncertain, we have an opportunity to rely on God in new ways.

While God isn’t always asking us to take such risks or to always go beyond our resources, let’s remain aware of what is in front of us and what faithfulness looks like for us today and in the weeks to come. God doesn’t bless extreme challenges and actions for their own sake. Rather, God meets us in our obedience and attentiveness, whether that’s in everyday mundane acts or in the challenges and disruptive moments of life.

When obedience leaves us feeling the most exposed, conspicuous, and even vulnerable, we can trust that the eyes of God are also upon us.

As our attentiveness to God translates into obedient action, we can take comfort in being held by God’s loving gaze that carries us even in the most unstable moments of our lives.

A Lot of Healing Needs to Happen

We’re nearing the stage of renovating our home when we need to figure out where to put our pictures. That means I also can’t help reflecting on what life was like at the moment of the picture in question, and phew boy, does that bring up lots of feels.

Perhaps the most stereotypical thing you can do in middle age is to look at your wedding picture and to ponder all of the ways you’ve changed since that joyful day.

For myself, I saw my optimistic 20-something self and thought, “A lot of healing needs to happen for you.”

I had no idea how much healing I would need, and I would venture that I had aimed to be at least somewhat self-aware and humble. Whatever measure I possessed of humility or self-awareness was hardly enough.

Yet, having cracked into my 40’s, I’m looking back at all of the ways that my healing journey has made my life so much better, and knowing that I still have plenty to sort out, I am at least a little bit hopeful about the future—at least for the space that’s in between my ears and for the people around me who I love the most.

So many of the conflicts, challenges, and shortfalls of my life can be traced, at least in part, to the deep healing I’ve needed in my life. The lesson seems to be that I have needed healing more than I could have guessed, and I will continue to need healing in ways that I cannot predict.

The theme is more or less this: healing, lots of it.

Seeing the amount of healing needed can be discouraging. It can feel like a long checklist of stuff to sort out. But perhaps it can be hopeful as well.

If we are aware of our failures or struggles up to this point in our lives, then perhaps we’ll be encouraged to learn that things could get a little bit better if we pursued healing.

As I’ve sought to understand why I think and act as I do, the roots of my anxiety, anger, fear, and disconnection from reality have shown that there is something to address in what otherwise appears to be unexplained chaos.

Just about every struggle, anxiety, or shortcoming in my life has some sort of root cause that can be explored in journaling and prayer. That root cause may not be easy to identify, and it may be extremely difficult to deal with. We may need a lot of help. I know I do.

Going through my healing journey up this point, I can see how that 20-something newly wed had a seeming tidal wave of challenges coming his way. There’d be an emergency room visit over a panic attack, therapy, EMDR, spiritual direction, and whole lot of help in so many other forms.

A lot of healing needed to happen, and I didn’t know that as a 20-something. I wish I had known just a little bit of what was coming my way and that it would be OK to struggle, to even hit what feels like rock bottom, and to seek help.

While I’m grateful for the healing I’ve gone through since then, I’m perhaps even more thankful for the simple knowledge that I will need a lot more healing in the years to come. I hopefully won’t be quite as surprised by my need to heal, and I have at least, hopefully, learned a few things by my healing process so far.

How to Love Our Neighbors Who Believe Vaccine Conspiracies

I’m sure that we’ve all been impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another, with some of us experiencing some especially challenging situations. I wanted to share a few ideas about where to find vaccine and COVID safety info that you all can pass along to others on Facebook or wherever else.

Over the Thanksgiving break, a relative started asking me some strange questions about the vaccine for COVID and whether it would be safe or not. He was pretty sure that what he’d seen was wrong, as someone he knows on Facebook had shared these conspiracy theories with him. I grew up as an evangelical Christian immersed in end times conspiracy theories, and even these conspiracies seemed way over the top.

How should we respond when we see

It’s not productive to shame or attack people who buy into fringe conspiracy theories, so I wanted to start sharing some helpful links to articles and data about the COVID-19 vaccine. It will be essential for 70% of the population to get vaccinated since the immunity from having the virus is likely wearing off. A growing number of people have already been re-infected.

Here are some links to check out and share. Feel free to add more in the comments!

  1. The top infectious disease expert in the U.S., Dr. Fauci, is urging us to get vaccinated as soon as possible. https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/01/health/us-coronavirus-tuesday/index.html
  2. The CDC has answers to frequently asked questions about the vaccinesd. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/faq.html.
  3. The Mayo Clinic has answers to frequently asked questions: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-vaccine/art-20484859
  4. The World Health Organization on the COVID-19 vaccines: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/covid-19-vaccines
  5. Science Magazine on the Moderna vaccine: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/11/absolutely-remarkable-no-one-who-got-modernas-vaccine-trial-developed-severe-covid-19.
  6. The vaccines for COVID-19 are not partisan. Trump even hoped to have the vaccine ready by election day or at least “very soon.” He was never opposed to the vaccine. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/30/white-house-aide-says-trumps-vaccine-by-election-day-promise-was-arbitrary-433670
  7. Career scientists are in charge of approving the safety of the vaccines: https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/01/politics/mark-meadows-fda-vaccine-trump/index.html.

That is hardly comprehensive and I doubt it will satisfy everyone who believes in conspiracy theories about the vaccines or who is dubious of vaccines in general. Yet, we have a lot of experts who have no reservations about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines being developed.

Please pass these links along. Copy and paste this post if you like. Add more links in the comments. Whatever you can do to spread accurate information will help.

People tend to gravitate toward the information they see first about an issue, and misinformation posts/conspiracy theories travel faster online because they’re designed to spark outrage and reactions.

If we can flood others with useful safety information, hopefully more people will get the vaccine.

Image source: 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.

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.

 

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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.

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

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Reconnect

Prayer, Anxiety, and What Should We Do When We Stop?

Motion and activity can become a way to avoid the parts of ourselves we would rather not face. When our motion and activity are limited, or we are forced to stop, we face what we’ve been running from all of this time.

What should our next step be when we have to stop?

Perhaps it would help to think of this more like a bit of maintenance time for just one thing. At least, one thing at a time.

Stopping long enough to see what we’ve been worried about or avoiding can be jarring, but we also can finally take a little bit of restorative action.

For instance, journaling is a vitally important way to build resilience. It’s also an extremely useful first step toward prayer, since it gets my thoughts right out in the open. Prayer is so much easier when I can share my burdens with clarity!

When I take time for silence, I won’t have those thoughts bouncing around in my head to the same degree. That is, provided I’ve been as honest as possible in my journal.

Journaling doesn’t have to be the longer form three page commitment of morning pages, although that is extremely helpful. A bit of maintenance could be a pause to write down a few sentences about what you’re feeling or thinking.

If something in the news bothered you, then write it down immediately. Don’t let it stew in your mind. Journaling doesn’t have to be a formal process of writing letters to yourself or recording every event from your day. It can simply offer a way to process your thoughts when you have a moment to pause.

My hope is that we can at least draw some restorative practices to improve our resilience and grounding in the present as we face an unprecedented pandemic crisis.

The general strategy of avoidance, motion, and activity isn’t good for our souls in the long term. When we are forced to stop, it can be jarring to lack any resources to respond otherwise.

As we consider ways we can help others during this crisis, we can also think of how to help ourselves slow down, take better stock of the present moment, and process our thoughts more completely. This can help us pray and become more present for others, as we won’t expend so much energy staying busy to avoid the thoughts we’re running from each day.

We have to face our thoughts one way or another. Regular journaling is one way to choose the terms for facing them and seeking a sustainable path forward.

 

Learn More Digital Formation vs. Spiritual Formation

My upcoming book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction shares how digital technology is designed to shape us, what that means for spiritual formation, and how our spiritual practices can lead us toward the flourishing and health that God has in store for us.

Check Out Reconnect Now

Download My Free eBook: 10 Ways to Use Your Phone Less… and to Pray a Bit More

 

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3 Things to Remember as Technology Becomes Essential

It is quite strange to have written a book about using technology less at a time when it appears essential for our economy, relationships, entertainment, and overall sanity.

There is no doubt that some of my arguments in favor of prioritizing in-person interaction will have to wait until better times when this pandemic is past us. Yet, the majority of the message in Reconnect still stands. In fact, it may be even more important as we immerse ourselves in technology and routinely experience the real limits of interacting over a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use technology in our relationships, especially during a pandemic. Rather, we should use technology with our eyes wide open about its limitations, design, and strengths.

If we want to make the most of our quarantine time, preserve our mental health, and keep our relationships as healthy as possible, we owe ourselves a clear-eyed view of technology’s capabilities and very, very real downsides.

Technology Is Great for Information, Bad for Empathy

Webinars work really great because they can efficiently share information with as many people have an internet connection and a link. That plays to a strength of technology.

However, as we take to Zoom, Facetime, or Facebook Live for more regular social interactions, we should remember that technology makes it hard to fully engage with others in the same way as in person. The reason, in part, is that in-person interactions result in many non-verbal cues and expressions.

Communication is more than the words we say, and technology is very limited in delivering these cues and expressions.

Researchers have found that technology addicts especially struggle with empathy. This is because empathy is extremely difficult to convey over a screen.

That doesn’t mean we should leave our video calls with friends, family, or colleagues behind. Rather, let’s remember that we’re getting a limited experience.

Limited connection is all we’ve got right now, and I’m so grateful for all of the video calls I’ve had, but if you feel a lingering sense of disconnection or dissatisfaction with these calls, there’s a good reason for that.

It’s Nearly Impossible to Filter Out the Negative Side of Social Media

While we can carefully manage who we see in our social media feeds, keep in mind that social media will always promote the strongest reaction or the most shocking perspective because those posts drive higher engagement.

I turn to social media to see what my friends and colleagues are up to and to learn from experts who share their experience in their feeds. In fact, there are times when I turn to an expert or two on social media to help me figure out a news story.

At the same time, there will always be someone who shows up in the replies or comments with a bit of despair, anger, or sarcasm. I have found it’s quite hard to disengage from a fight or flight response when I start seeing comments on social media like that.

It’s as if my body reacts whether or not my brain wants it to react like that! Seeing strong reactions and emotions on social media can override my more rational responses to a crisis.

At a time when we are turning to social media to keep in touch with friends, family, and colleagues, let’s remember how quickly the most divisive or distressing content rises to the top. Pay attention to how you react to comments on social media.

If anything, this time could call for more intentional usage of social media, posting personal updates or checking up on the pages of individual friends and colleagues to post a note or to interact with them.

Beware the firehose of information that is the social media feed. It never stops–and that’s by design. If you’re already worried about the pandemic, then it may feel good to disengage for long stretches of time with whatever comes up on your social media slot machine feed that could always give you something exciting if you just… keep… scrolling.

Pay Attention to Your Reason for Using Social Media

At a time when the mental health of many is under strain and we’re looking for ways to make ourselves feel a bit better, social media can become a bit like candy in comparison to a substantial meal. While social media can offer helpful connections to a certain degree, we shouldn’t expect too much of it.

In fact, a co-creator of the Like button on Facebook shared that she simply can’t use Facebook anymore for the sake of her mental health. She sought affirmation on Facebook so often that she got addicted to the feedback of others on her posts.

This again drives home the importance of using social media with intention and limits. The designers of social media have packed in as many addicting features as possible to keep us hooked on their feeds, so it’s wise to set limits on our time even if we use social media and our phones with good intentions.

No one logs in to social media or picks up their phone with the intention of becoming distracted from their loved ones or their daily priorities. No one wants to feel worse after using social media to keep up with friends and colleagues.

Yet, the research available suggests that the downsides of social media and digital technology in general are very, very real. If we don’t have clear intentions and limits in place, even at a time like this, our mental health may begin to suffer as the days of our quarantine could turn into weeks.

 

Learn More Digital Formation vs. Spiritual Formation

My upcoming book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction shares how digital technology is designed to shape us, what that means for spiritual formation, and how our spiritual practices can lead us toward the flourishing and health that God has in store for us.

Check Out Reconnect Now

Download My Free eBook: 10 Ways to Use Your Phone Less… and to Pray a Bit More

 

Photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash