The Compromise White Evangelicals Don’t Want to Talk About

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Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I frequently heard about the dangers of compromise. Oftentimes this type of compromise related to sexual immorality or false doctrine.

There was one type of compromise we never talked about in my circles: Racism.

The election of Donald Trump has made the gravity of this compromise particularly apparent, even if some evangelicals remain determined to deny it. If our tolerance, if not outright embrace, of racism isn’t the most serious compromise of the American evangelical movement, it most certainly is the easiest to spot, provided you’re willing to objectively look for it.

The reality of the evangelical movement today is that many white evangelicals have tolerated racism provided that politicians and leaders can deliver on other priorities, such as tax protections for churches, “freedom of religion” concerns, and anti-abortion policies. Abortion, of course, is the main issue that is used to justify the neglect of racial justice, conveniently forgetting that activists could advocate for the rights of the unborn AND racial minorities at the same time.

Instead, evangelicals have overlooked racist elements in our society, including housing, policing, incarceration, execution, and education policies. In the case of immigration policies, outright racism is cloaked by cries for law and order and national security, forgetting that immigrant crime tends to be negligible and that many come to America to flee the security threats in their own nations.

For many white evangelicals, racism and white supremacy have become an ingrained part of our identity and heritage. Admitting the depths of racism in our own lives, in our ancestors, and in the society where we enjoy many benefits and advantages isn’t just disruptive—it casts many of our assumptions about the past into doubt. The future becomes uncertain without our narrative in place.

It has been much easier for white evangelicals to ignore racism or to pick up the “what-about” tactics that are readily provided by the racist, white supremacist elements in the Trump administration. For those subjected to conservative media every day, it is preferable to throw out barbs about Hillary and Obama or black on black crime rather than confront the demons of racism in our churches and society.

We need a season of retreat and surrender so that we can allow God’s Spirit to probe our hearts, to confess our failures, and to stop serving the illusions of white supremacy that have been integral to our false selves. We need to be prepared to listen to those who are suffering under our current system, surrendering the lie that racism can be tolerated, provided that other issues are addressed by politicians.

The roots of racism and white supremacy run deep in America, and I confess that I have failed more often than I like to confront it, to learn about it, and to take steps to make things right. When I have spoken to activists about what I should do next, they have overwhelmingly told me to get educated about the nature of white supremacy and issues such as racism in the church, housing policies, incarceration policies, etc.

Evangelicals can talk about so many forms of compromise with ease, but once we bring up the compromise of racism, far too many folks become defensive. That strikes me as quite telling.

Along the way, contemplative prayer has helped me to let go of my illusions and defensiveness. By God’s grace I’ve become slower to speak and more willing to listen, but contemplation remains an essential, daily practice.

We have hard work to do. If my own ongoing process has told me anything, it’s that we won’t like what we find.

The good news is that the evangelical movement has a growing core of diverse leaders. They love the church, and they aren’t afraid to speak the truth we so badly need at this moment. Here are a few leaders you can begin to follow and then add the people they recommend:

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Christena Cleveland
Dru Hart
Kathy Khang
Marlena Graves
Lisa Sharon Harper

By the way… One of my aims in my new eBook series, Evangelicals After the Shipwreck, is to help evangelicals turn over the hardened soil of our movement by learning from the contemplative tradition of the church as we seek justice and restoration.

If there was ever a people who needed to step back and to take stock of their current situation, it’s us. If there is one reform group in the church we can learn from, it’s the desert fathers and mothers and the nuns and monks who responded to a corrupted church from the firm footing of solitude (You can download the first book for free here and the second book, Why Evangelicals Need the Wilderness, is $.99).

The Wilderness Is Where Christians Go to (Eventually) Move Forward

 

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Growing up as an evangelical, I learned a simple question that determined what I should believe and how I should put my faith into practice:

WHAT DID PAUL DO?

If Paul did it, believed it, or even suggested it as maybe a good idea, then it was good enough for me. To my shame, I remember telling one of my Bible professors in college that it was more important in my eyes to study the epistles than the Gospels.

He gently suggested that I should reconsider that… and I certainly have.

Prioritizing of Paul aside, it is the great fortune of American evangelicals today that Paul offers us unequivocally excellent advice for our current situation where evangelical Christianity appears to be fragmenting, if not altogether collapsing due to political and cultural compromise.

Far too many evangelicals have aligned the Kingdom of God with a single political party and a patriarchal, white supremacist culture that idolizes power and wealth.

Christians throughout America are dropping the “evangelical” label because it has either become meaningless or has taken on far too many negative associations.

Evangelicals are mocked and disparaged because of the ever-shifting values and moral “standards” of a few talking head leaders who continue to work the political system for their own gain and a sizeable evangelical group that fails to see serious issues such as overt racism and xenophobia as deal breakers in their leaders.

Thoughtful hashtags are emerging around questions of evangelical identity and an evangelical future: #stillevangelical #exevangelical. Back in the early 2000’s we used terms like “younger evangelicals” (via Robert Weber) and “post-evangelical” to describe this fragmenting. Should we drop the label “evangelical”? Abandon the movement? Fight for it?

Significant portions of the evangelical movement are corrupt, but there are many positive members and hopeful signs emerging. Regardless, I am not personally interested in preserving a movement or a label. It may be more helpful to understand where we are, what God is saying, and to sort out what to do next with a clear head.

I’d like to suggest that there is a very simple and productive next step every evangelical can take in response to the failures and chaos of our current evangelical situation, and it conveniently meshes with what Paul did. You can even call it a “biblical response” for bonus points. Here is the plan, ready?

Retreat.

Not forever, but for a while. You could say that many of us evangelicals need to take a retreat of sorts from whatever we’ve been doing. We need to surrender for a season instead of constantly forging ahead, trying to make an overhaul on the fly.

I suggest this because many evangelicals are discouraged, confused, and uncertain about the future. We could stay in the chaos of our movement and try to sort out a next step, or we could retreat, wait on the Lord, and then move forward when we gain a bit of clarity.

Throughout the Bible and the history of the church, there is a pattern of reform emerging from prophets and communities in the wilderness or in solitude. From Elijah to John the Baptist to the desert fathers and mothers, to the many nuns and monks who reformed the church from the solitude of their cloisters, reform and prophetic direction has come from those who retreated in order to seek God before spreading their ideas more widely.

There’s a principle for prayer taught by Henrí Nouwen that we first need to let go of what we’re holding before we can receive something from God. A time of surrender and retreat before God can help us let go of the negative influences on our lives.

I suspect that we’ll look to different leaders and teachers as well as shift some of our priorities on the other side of this retreat.

Here is what Paul reported about his own retreat following his Damascus road experience when his entire world came crashing down:

“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:13-17 NRSV)

We don’t exactly know what Paul did in Arabia, but whatever God revealed to him brought him in unity with the rest of the church (Galatians 2:1-2).

At a time when evangelicals are distracted, divided, and uncertain about what to do about a movement that appears destined for the rocks, there aren’t simple answers or clear next steps. Perhaps we can relate to Paul, finding out that the cause we’ve given our lives to is, at least in part, misguided, corrupt, and even, at times, opposed to the very people Jesus dearly loves.

It’s safe to say that our own wisdom got us into this mess, so it surely won’t get us out of it. If anything, it’s going to just lead us into another mess.

I believe that God has not abandoned us, but if we have any hope of hearing God’s voice, we need to create space for God to speak. It’s not a mistake that John the Baptist proclaimed his message of repentance and restoration in the wilderness—preparing the way for the Lord. Jesus spent the majority of his ministry in relatively isolated spaces as well.

If you’re a discouraged or uncertain evangelical who is dispirited by our movement, then perhaps it’s time to step back. You may even hear the whisper of God to guide you forward, but first you need to venture up to the mountain to hear it.

You can read more about the evangelical retreat by downloading my new book for free on most eBook sites or just $.99 on Amazon

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May Our Illusions Wilt Under God’s Love for Us

Illusions are exhausting.

My illusions about myself are difficult to maintain.

My illusions about God leave me in a state of confusion and despair.

The most exhausting and confusing time in my life has been when I can’t distinguish an illusion from reality. This mixing of reality and illusion becomes particularly powerful when I fail to stop for a time of silence and rest before God.

When folks tell me that they struggle to pray or that their minds are too active when they try to sit in silence, I wonder if this comes from facing their illusions about themselves and about God when they first enter into silence. They may wonder:

What if God is holding back from me?

What if I’m not really a beloved child of God?

What if God only has judgment for me?

Why would God remain distant from me if God loves me?

Why has God failed me in the past?

What if I’m praying wrong and God is distant as a punishment?

What if my failures at self-control and holiness are keeping me from God?

I’ve thought all of these things and plenty more. My illusions about myself and God have been deeply ingrained. I’m sure they’ll come up again in the near future.

Whenever I become captive to my illusions about myself or about God, I find that I need a starting point. I don’t need to know the whole path forward. You could say that I need a small seed to plant rather than transplanting an entire bush.

Here is the basic seed that serves as my starting point: I could not desire to pray if God did not desire me to pray.

The seed of prayer and of overcoming my illusions is grace.

This grace isn’t a fast remedy because it’s a seed after all. It takes more time than I would like to plant it and to watch it grow. That’s why my illusions about myself and about God can come storming back when it appears that I’m not making any progress.

Speaking of my own experience, I’ve tried the effort-intensive, duty-bound impulse control approach to Christianity. That approach allows my illusions about myself and about God to remain unchanged, if not cementing them into place.

On the other hand, entering into silence before God, sometimes after a time of reflection (Examen) or simple songs, nurtures the seed of God’s grace in my life. Again, this is a slow process.

Much like the plants in our garden, one day, the grace has grown into something substantial. The grace of God becomes the reality, not my illusions. It casts shade on these illusions, and over time they lose their power—although these illusions can return if I lose my time of grounding before God.

As I have made space for silent prayer before God, I am more convinced that the mercy, compassion, and sacrifice of Jesus throughout the Gospels reveals the heart of God for us. The mystics spent much of their time meditating on the cross because they believed it connects us with the love of God for us, not a kind of eternal transaction demanding intellectual assent.

My prayer for you and for myself in this coming year is that your illusions about yourself and God will wilt away under his growing grace in your life. We all begin as God’s beloved children, and any growth in our lives isn’t a matter of earning it or making it better.

We can live into, discover, and immerse ourselves into our identities as God’s beloved children. We can move beyond the obscurity and illusions that keep us from seeing the intense, unruly, and unexpected love of God that pulses throughout creation.

This is the deepest reality for us: “You are God’s beloved, and his desire is for you.”

Jesus Told the Bride of Christ to Remove a Plank from Its Eye

The top defense of the abusive and authoritative in the church in recent years has become a kind of projection that reframes legitimate allegations into an attack on the church. The leaders who abuse power, harm people, and cross boundaries can assure themselves of safety by turning attention away from their misdeeds, claiming their accusers are attacking the bride of Christ (the church), and then presenting themselves as its defenders.

It’s a slick play that has become far too commonplace. In addition, they can bolster their positions by pointing fingers at individuals who may have been unfair with the scope of their criticism or who have failed to adopt a more constructive direction for their criticism. It shouldn’t surprise us that those who are wounded by the church will struggle to find the “perfect” way to critique it!

However, regular examination and critique are exactly what Jesus called his listeners to do in Matthew 7. It would be naïve for us to assume that such examination is only personal. There surely are systems, positions, and institutions that are worthy of the same scrutiny.

When addressing hypocrisy, Jesus said to first remove the plank from your own eye before attempting to scrutinize others. In other words, if we don’t want folks to criticize us, then we need to criticize ourselves first. Some have used the word “interrogate” today to describe this process. That captures the seriousness of our examination.

Of course, savvy church leaders committed to their own preservation can twist this verse against those who expose their misdeeds. This is the danger of religious professionals. They can always find a loophole for themselves if they want it.

The words of Jesus remind me that we should expect to find “planks in our eyes.” We will have serious oversights and problems to find and to address.

What makes the Bride of Christ beautiful isn’t the ability to overlook these ugly planks or to deny that they exist. The beauty of the bride of Christ is a redemptive trust in the restoration of God when we expose these ugly planks.

When we have experienced the grace and mercy of God to heal our flaws and errors, then we have grace and mercy to share with others. Whether others have a speck or a plank in their eyes, we will have more to offer than clarity. We will remember what it felt like to live with the pain and confusion of a plank obscuring so much of life.

As we work with others for their healing, we’ll transform our previous pain and confusion into a fellowship forged in the love and acceptance of God.

The stakes of exposing our planks are quite high, but on the other side of God’s healing and mercy, we will find clarity, freedom, and a capacity to minister that we could never touch while denying our deepest flaws. When Jesus points us to a time of examination and healing, he is giving us one of the greatest gifts we can share with others.

Are You Too Mad to Help the Church?

Christianity has its critics and it has plenty of defenders. What’s most confusing for a defender of Christianity is when a former defender becomes a critic. It feels like a betrayal, even if the former defender still claims to follow Jesus.

The number one defense that the apologists for the Christian church use against critics is this: You’re too angry. The assumption is that even those who have been wounded, manipulated, controlled, or abused by people in the church cannot lodge a valid criticism of the church if they are also angry.

As someone who had once defended the church, then criticized the church, and then attempted to adopt a more constructive and redemptive approach to reform and renewal, I can see where many of the folks on both sides of this. I had once been baffled by those who were angry at the church. Then, one day, I got it. I was very angry at the power-plays, manipulation, and hollowness of the many doctrines and rules. Most importantly, I felt their frustration at being dismissed by church leaders.

When I hit the point where I was ready to give up on the sham that is so much of organized American Christianity, with its feel-good platitudes and naked power grabs, I found that there is something alive and vital lingering in the silence and stillness of our very busy and materialistic version of the faith.  Some family members taught me about the Holy Spirit and prayed for me in ways that I didn’t think possible. Others introduced me to ways of praying that date back to the earliest incarnation of the church.

As I have found renewed hope, I still have my angry moments. I still grow angry at leaders who abuse power and who manipulate the people under them. I still grow angry at Christians who are discipled by their bombastic news and entertainment rather than the meek and humble words of Christ. I am angry at the Christians who vote for abusive and destructive leaders who remain poised to unleash suffering and death on untold millions. I suspect that there will always be something to be mad about in the church. There will always be frauds and hucksters who will sell out the poor or vulnerable women and children for the sake of consolidating their power and influence. Anger is a valid response. How could it not be?

If I will always have a reason to be angry, then I need to figure out how to deal with it. If I consumed with my anger, I too can become a force for destruction. My anger will cut me off from people of good will who desire transformation and healing. My anger can deepen wounds and divides that may not be quite so far apart if viewed with a cooler head.

My anger can rule my thoughts and prevent me from pursuing the loving presence of God. If I hold onto my anger, it will poison me and my relationships, as the wounds and pain that I carry begin to become the wounds and pain that I pass on to others.

This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the church for me. It isn’t bad enough to be wounded by people who refuse to acknowledge their wrongs or who preach repentance while failing to repent. The worst part is that their offenses to me can be passed on others. If I haven’t dealt with my pain, I will most assuredly pass it on to others. I have become the thing that I have hated, and at that point it feels like I have passed into a point of no return.

In surrendering my thoughts to God through contemplation each day, I am learning to let go of my anger. Centering prayer is a daily letting go, and that has been helpful in responding to my anger. As I trust God with my anger, I can see the difference between being bracingly honest about the church and giving in to the wrecking ball of my anger.

There may be some days where I am too angry to help the church. That doesn’t mean my anger isn’t valid. However, it is hard to love people when you’ve surrendered to your rage toward them. Yes, rage can feel empowering and comforting, but rage won’t work over the long term. It doesn’t bring hope, transformation, or healing.

As I surrender my anger to God, I am doing my best to speak the truth in love—cliché as that sounds. But I have to let God work on my own soul before I can speak redemptive words. I cannot give love to others when I have nurtured anger. There is a process of surrender and transformation that I have seen God work in my own life so that I can find compassion for those still operating within the far too numerous authoritative and manipulative churches in America.

I don’t have easy “next steps” to offer folks who have been wounded, disappointed, or abused by the church. I trust that some may never return, and I cannot blame them. I had a small taste of the authoritarian nature of Catholic priests in my childhood, and to this day I cannot sit in a mass without feeling an extreme heaviness on my soul. The best that I can offer is this evaluation of our situation…

Underneath all of the power, authority, formulas, conferences, sermons, theology degrees, doctrine statements, rules, and fancy suits is a deep, unspoken fear in the American church that the real Christianity that Jesus preached is wholly different from what they have constructed, and the slightest breeze of discontent, let alone anger, can send the entire structure crashing to the ground. These leaders and those who follow them are deathly afraid that it can all be proven false, and the truth of the matter is, they’re right.

Suppressed under all of the rules, doctrines, and titles is the unruly and undignified love of God who longs for us like parents long for their children who have wandered off. We have been so distracted by images of God as judge and conquering king that we have failed to see what Jesus was up to. Why would Jesus take the risk of the incarnation and even suffer the indignity of suffering and death as a human if it wasn’t an expression of the deep love of God for us?

The promise of Jesus is a religion of the heart, God dwelling with us. Pentecost is the supposed to be the new normal, at least as far as the indwelling Holy Spirit goes. Yes, God desires transformation and holiness, but it is a purifying process of love and divine indwelling, not a product of external rules and codes. It is a chaotic process that is perfectly ordered under love and grace.

Over and over and over again in this history of the church, the mystics and the monks discovered this burning love of God that is greater than all of the rules and authorities, and time and time again, the leaders attempted to suppress this move of God. The people who spoke of this burning love of God feared that it would consume their control and influence, and of course they were right.

The life and death of Jesus have become a transaction or legal arrangement for so many of us that we’ve missed the parental and mystical elements that should speak to us on a deeper and truer level. Jesus came to unite us with God. He is the perfect expression of God’s parental love, making us God’s beloved sons and daughters. We need leaders who can lead us to the love of God, relinquishing control and influence. Sadly, not enough have signed up for that role.

I have found this uneasy dance with anger: my anger at the church is often valid, but it can become destructive if I hold onto it. It doesn’t make me stronger over time. My anger has the power to be a catalyst toward something better, but anger cannot bring me to God’s love.

We should be angry that so many Christians have failed to preach this authentic Gospel message and have even cast doubts upon it, as if they could add a footnote to the Prodigal Son story or put fences around Pentecost. However, it would be tragic to miss the deep longing of God for us in the midst of our anger over these Christians. Over time, we may even find a capacity to pity, or even love, these religious people who immerse themselves in the Bible but miss its simple message of God’s parental love and the promise of unity with God.

 

Where Do You Begin with Prayer? Try Thankfulness

The following post is adapted from Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer:

“When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month or next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God’s love within me and around me.”

– Henri Nouwen

After the birth of our first child, I resolved to finally establish a regular, scheduled prayer routine. There was one barrier to any routine, or sanity, in our home:  Our son did not nap.

The only way to coax him into a reliable nap was to take him for a walk. This plan worked well throughout the fall, and since his sleep struggles continued, I bundled him up in massive puffy layers of down for walks all throughout the Columbus, Ohio winters. A bike trail along the river by our home offered 30 uninterrupted miles of walking alongside a shallow little river dotted with a few tiny waterfalls along the way to serve as landmarks of a nap’s success or struggle.

Through rain, snow, or wind, I spent most afternoons walking my son in his jogging stroller along the path with only the noises of an occasional chime of a bicycle bell, the chatter of workers from a nearby office talking a lunch time walk, and the rustle of deer in the woods. During these walks of an hour to an hour and a half, I had the option of playing podcasts or praying. I hoped to do the latter, but once alone with my thoughts, I spiraled into a wreck of negativity, anger, fear, and anxiety. It wasn’t that I was struggling to pray. I was struggling to even get to the point where I could attempt to pray.

Where do you begin with prayer when you can’t even figure out how to start in the first place?

This isn’t a new problem, and thankfully someone from the historic church spent a lot of time working through it. While recovering from a serious wound suffered in battle, Ignatius of Loyola began reading through scripture and had a profound encounter with the risen Christ. As he pursued God in silence and meditation, he felt directed to develop a method of clarifying his thoughts prior to prayer and to cultivate a greater awareness of God throughout the day. This practice, called Examen, was a part of his larger spiritual exercises that he passed on to those in his community that later became known as the Jesuits or Society of Jesus.

The Examen is a series of prompts for reflection that Methodists and students of church history will recognize as similar to John Wesley’s questions for self-examination. The main difference is that Wesley’s questions are far more specific, while the Examen tends to be more open ended and geared toward uncovering whatever is on your mind. Ignatius instructed the Jesuits to practice the examine twice daily, keeping track of their thoughts, emotions, and awareness of God throughout each day so that they could pray with greater intention and focus.

There are different Examen methods and questions based on the spiritual practices of Ignatius. I personally use an app on my phone, but the basic structure of the Examen is as follows:

  1. Become aware of God’s presence.
  2. Review the day with gratitude.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions.
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.

I have found great benefit in the ways that the Examen cultivates awareness of my thoughts and emotions, increases my aware of God, and helps me bring my daily thoughts and actions to God in prayer. Sometimes I focus on a particular question or aspect of the Examen. Other times the Examen reveals a deficit in my awareness of God. Most importantly, I have had to stop seeing the Examen as a kind of test or evaluation for my spiritual progress. Despite the resemblance to the word “exam,” the Examen has been most beneficial as a kind of rest stop or reset point in my day. It offers an opportunity to move forward with greater awareness of God and personal intention.

There’s a strong family resemblance between the Examen and the mindfulness practices advocated by psychology experts today. Many studies are finding that a few minutes of mindfulness have made significant differences in both teachers and school children. In the best cases, a meditation room has replaced traditional punishments for children who act out, as teachers have realized that oftentimes misbehaving is linked with a child struggling to process everything that is going on.

Mindfulness helps us sift away our thoughts and emotions so that we can see the present moment with clarity. It can also shut down ongoing loops of negative thinking, internal commentaries, or mounting stress and anxiety. Instead of assuming we’re at the mercy of our thoughts, mindfulness rightfully restores a measure of our power over our thoughts. Ignatius recognized the value of this hundreds of years ago as he developed the Examen practice, but he also incorporated the valuable prompts that helped practitioners gauge their awareness of God throughout the day.

I had made the mistake of approaching prayer as a kind of dumping ground for my thoughts, but it’s actually better to dump my thoughts out before I pray through practicing the Examen. That frees my mind in order to hear God speak and it offers clarity about which thoughts need to be explored further in prayer. Thomas Merton writes, “The reason why so many religious people believe they cannot meditate is that they think meditation consists in having religious emotions, thoughts, or affections of which one is, oneself, acutely aware” (No Man Is an Island, 32).

This focus on giving thoughts and emotions free reign during prayer can also result in heightened expectations for some kind of resolution to come about in the midst of prayer. Merton continues, “As soon as they start to meditate, they begin to look into the psychological conscience to find out if they are experiencing anything worthwhile. They find little or nothing. They either strain themselves to produce some interior experience, or else they give up in disgust” (No Man Is an Island, 32).

Lest you think I’m more spiritually accomplished than I actually am, the main reason why I persevered in practicing the Examen, even after my son started napping in his bed regularly, was a simple iPhone app. While there are several Examen apps out there, the one I found is called “Examine,” and it offered the perfect opportunity to use my iPhone for a noble purpose.

Practicing the Examen for three months completely blew my mind. As I reflected on the positive and negative elements of each day, I started to notice a troubling pattern: most of my positive moments were tied to my work. I clearly relied too much on my work as a barometer for each day. Consequently, I also worried quite a bit about having enough money while struggling to see God at work in my day. So many of my struggles over providing for my family and trusting God came into sharper focus once I developed a regular practice to reflect on each day. I’ll be the first to admit that practicing the Examen hardly felt even remotely spiritual. I was just thinking about my day, after all. This is not what anxious evangelicals are used to in our pursuit of God!

I can imagine the evangelical response to this in the form of a spiritual drill sergeant screaming at me: “Oh, you feel sad because your kid had a melt down and you yelled at him? Poor baby! And the baby I’m talking about is YOU! Are you worried about money? Maybe it’s time to get off your can and to actually read some scripture, you slacker! Jesus died on a cross for YOUR sins. I bet he worried about that too. Suck it up you contemplative slacker!”

When you’ve thought for most of your life that prayer is more or less the same thing as talking to God and the you can only grow spiritually by doing it better and working harder at it, it’s difficult to believe that personal awareness or “mindfulness” really counts as a spiritual practice. Aren’t there more important spiritual matters we can give ourselves to instead? According to St. Ignatius, the Examen was his one non-negotiable. If you can only find time for one practice, this is it. It’s as if he knew that any struggle to find time or focus for prayer could be resolved if you remain prayerfully aware of yourself through the Examen. The Examen offered what I’ve needed the most: an invitation to step outside of my own head so that I can see where my mind is going and how aware I am of God.

 

Resting at Last

As I’ve grow aware of my own struggles with anxiety, the nature of our anxious times become clearer as well. I spend each day surrounded by endless supplies of anxiety, and that’s with our family never owning a television. In fairness, there are plenty of concerning and troubling items in our news that responsible people must consider. However, anxiety and fear are also powerful forces that are ruthlessly employed on ratings-hungry news shows and social media. Our own agency in managing this anxiety is easy to overlook. Thomas Merton wrote: “Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves” (Thoughts in Solitude 82-82).

When anxiety and fear become my default ways of relating to the world, I run the risk of forgetting that there are other ways to approach each day  and to process the thoughts and emotions that come streaming into my mind. We shouldn’t be surprised that this is counterintuitive and countercultural. Abba Anthony once remarked: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.'” If our culture has normalized fear and anxiety, then it shouldn’t surprise us that this anxiety and uneasiness will be manifested in our spirituality. Our hard-working, goal-oriented society is bound to latch onto the aspects of religion that measure progress, worry about not doing enough, and fears the “evaluation” of a superior if those goals aren’t met.

The Examen offers a hopeful starting point that believes we not only have a measure of control over our thoughts, but that God is with us in the present and able to lead us if we stop obsessing over the past or the future. Merton assures us that this is an essential step in prayer. He wrote, “One cannot then enter into meditation, in this sense, without a kind of inner upheaval. By upheaval I do not mean a disturbance, but a breaking out of routine, a liberation of the heart from the cares and preoccupations of one’s daily business” (Thoughts In Solitude, 40). There is no summoning God or convincing him to take pity on us as we struggle with our fears and anxiety. God doesn’t play cat and mouse games with us, withholding his presence if we don’t say the right words.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). I have found that the Examen is a way to bring my worries and anxious thoughts to God, exposing these dark clouds to God’s penetrating light. Besides the benefit of gaining clarity into my thoughts, there is an opportunity for God to take my unhealthy thoughts captive. Richard Rohr reminds us that our healing comes through our sins and failures. Our sins and failures typically reveal our deepest wounds and needs–both of which need God’s presence of healing and restoration. Rohr writes in his book Breathing Underwater, “You cannot heal what you do not first acknowledge.” However, he takes that a step further as he writes, “In terms of soul work, we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us” (Everything Belongs,  143).

What makes Jesus so unbelievable to anxious evangelicals such as myself is that he calls me to become more honest than I am capable of being on my own. Only he knows the depths of my fears, the ways I truly lean on my own resources and plans, and the ways that I have made him unnecessary in my life. In many cases, my sins, fears, and anxieties are the products of trying to make it through life on my own. Typically, my sins are the ways I try to cope and manage with life, while my anxieties are often rooted in my fears that my own means and strategies will not work. The Examen breaks through my illusions, helping me to see just how far I have drifted from Christ each day and developed my own ways of dealing with life. As I face these broken parts of myself, I am in a position where I can pray honestly.

Each time I pause to become aware of God, face my thoughts, and look for the ways that God has been at work in my day, I open myself to God’s power and presence. My friend Preston Yancey writes in his book Out of the House of Bread that the Examen is especially useful for seeing what has gone well. I had been so focused on all that I hadn’t done, couldn’t do, or had done wrong that the Examen finally prompted me to focus on the positive aspects of my day and to find God present in these as well. I have become far more thankful since I started practicing the Examen. Thankfulness is an essential part of spirituality, as the Psalms tell us to enter God’s presence with thanksgiving.

 

Making Space for Prayer

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed up a moment for quiet reflection. I can always find a reason to keep pushing forward on a work project, to tackle a household chore right now, to reply to a text message or email immediately, or to settle for whatever entertainment I can dig up on my computer in the evening–especially during hockey season. Personal restoration and prayer are hard to fit into our schedules and they’re even harder to protect. Before I had regular, meaningful time for reflection, I didn’t know what it felt like to be at rest in God, let alone to be aware of my interior monologue.

I first attempted contemplative prayer before I learned about the Examen, and I was a hot mess. Nothing made sense or worked when I sought silence before God. I felt lost and completely at the mercy of my thoughts that ranged all over the place. Without the personal assessment of the Examen, any hope of rest or surrender to God remained disrupted or redirected when I sat down to pray. In my bid for silence and prayer, I was facing the truth about myself and my thoughts. Richard Rohr writes, “Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable” (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, 74).

Contemplative prayer is much like a plant that puts down roots after we have tilled the hard soil of our anxious minds with the practice of the Examen. Every person I know who practices contemplative prayer has come to a similar place in the struggle with distracting thoughts. There are many others who have attempted to practice contemplative prayer only to see it wither in the rock hard soil of a busy, distracted, or anxious mind. I suspect that sometimes our minds are so distracted and anxious that we can’t fully grasp just how distracted and anxious we truly are.

The more technology at my fingertips, from smartphones to tablets, the greater the temptation to keep checking in, to keep conversations going, or to seek a bit of distraction. I have started to rely on having my phone with me at all times, experiencing a mild panic on the occasions that I leave it at home. That emotion alone is well worth exploring!

The Examen has been an essential part of my recovery from digital distraction and my captivity to intrusive technology. I now understand the ways that I use these tools in order to avoid facing my fears and anxieties. I have found that technology tends to encourage “mindlessness,” and this mindlessness of digital devices is a far greater threat to Christian spirituality than any mindfulness practice that may allegedly resemble an eastern religious practice. Without the focused mindfulness of practices such as the Examen, we’ll have every incentive to run from our fears, pain, and faults. Who wants to dwell on the complexities and fears of the present when escape is just a tap away?

While anxious evangelicals may fear that the Examen is little more than a self-centered exercise for spiritual slackers, I have found that it has saved me from unwitting compromise with the ways of this world, from distraction to anxiety and fear. If I was ever on a slippery slope away from God, it was before the Examen revealed just how far my anxieties, fears, and entertaining distractions had pulled me away from God’s presence. With the Examen turning over the rock-hard soil of my mind so that prayer could finally take root, I was finally able to learn what the Psalmist meant when he wrote, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:5). Having learned to stop relying on my own words for prayer and turning over my anxious thoughts, I was finally ready to learn what it meant to flee, be silent, and pray.

 

This post was adapted from Ed Cyzewski’s Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer: http://amzn.to/2zSXXaI (currently $2.99 on Kindle).

5 Signs That Evangelical Christianity in America Isn’t a Complete Dumpster Fire

These are dark times for many evangelical Christians in America, but the news isn’t uniformly terrible. Despite ongoing support of far too many evangelicals for Donald Trump, there are signs that the evangelical movement still has an engaged and even growing minority that remains in touch with the Gospel message of their movement, while also correcting the social justice failures of past generations.

Here are 5 positive evangelical trends that I’ve seen:

Evangelical Thought Leaders Are More Diverse and Broadly Engaged

A recent bus trip called the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage brought together a diverse group of black, Latino, Asian, and white female evangelical writers, speakers, and teachers for a three-day journey of education, collaboration, and advocacy. The group learned from civil rights leader Ruby Sales, visited a diverse group of church leaders in NYC, and spoke with lawmakers at Washington D.C.

Organized by Lisa Sharon Harper, the trip addressed a wide range of issues that included racism, immigration, and social justice. If evangelicals are lucky, the future of the evangelical movement in America will look a lot more like this group.

A Best-Selling Christian Author Stood for Refugees

At the start of Trump’s presidency, the xenophobic Muslim ban that would have had no bearing on the safety of America became a major point of protest for Americans. Without fanfare, Canadian author Ann Voskamp took to the streets to protest the ban alongside her American brothers and sisters.

Voskamp may be one of the most popular bestselling authors in America today. There’s no doubt that many Trump voters have purchased her books, but every time a basic matter of human dignity comes up in America, from the abuse of women to the banning of Muslims, Voskamp is unequivocal in her support for the suffering and marginalized.

For all of the press that Falwell Jr., James Dobson, and Franklin Graham receive for their Christian nationalism, if not Christo-fascism, there are extremely well-known and widely read Christian authors and speakers who are resisting the agenda of Trump, including Philip Yancey, Beth Moore, and Ann Voskamp.

Many Evangelicals Recognize Political Compromise

There has always been a strong resistance to any alignment of the evangelical movement with a political party, whether on the right or left. Red Letter Christians, The Simple Way, Rutba House, William Barber’s Moral Monday movement, and numerous other movements and loose networks have stood against this political compromise.

Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Drew Hart, and Christina Cleveland are among a growing number of nationally recognized evangelical authors who have resisted the merging of the evangelical movement with the Republican party. They aren’t going anywhere, and I suspect that many of their future books will be bestsellers.

Real Spiritual Practices Are Taking Hold

The fear, sexism, or xenophobia that drove many evangelical Christians to vote for Trump are surely the fruit of an evangelical movement that lacks the spiritual practices that are able to counter these emotions and beliefs. Too many Christians are discipled by FOX News, Breit Bart, and extreme conservative talk radio shows.

The false self and the desire for personal security are both idols that have fueled the appeal of Trump, and the spiritual practices associated with contemplative prayer can help counter them. Contemplation in silent solitude can lead to awareness of God’s love and greater compassion toward others. By confronting our fears, insecurities, and existential struggles before God, we can find deliverance from destructive forces of fear and self-preservation. We can adopt our identity as God’s beloved children and make decisions based on love for neighbors, not fear for ourselves.

As I interact with evangelicals who are disturbed by this election, I have consistently found that many are turning to contemplative practices. Evangelical men are turning to authors such as Richard Rohr in large numbers in search of an alternative to its toxic masculine culture, and retreats and books focusing on contemplative prayer are drawing evangelicals in larger numbers.

In 2016 I hosted a one day retreat prior to the Festival of Faith and Writing that we barely promoted, and yet nearly 60 people showed up for our time of centering prayer. Many who did not attend approached me during the conference to say they would be interested in attending during the following year. My own little introduction to contemplative prayer for evangelicals, titled Flee, Be Silent, Pray, sells multiple copies every day despite very little marketing work on my part.

This isn’t a majority, and maybe it’s not headline material, but it is a noticeable groundswell of evangelical movement toward contemplation and other spiritual practices that will generate greater compassion and love for others. Today we are seeing the rotten fruit of political compromise, but if this trend holds, we may see a far more appealing fruit come from this sizeable minority in the evangelical movement and along its fringes.

A Pro-LGBT Christian Author Is Still a Bestselling Author

While the attacks on the LGBT community at the behest of the current presidential administration are no doubt welcomed by many evangelicals, there are signs of a shift in this movement. Opposing basic LGBT rights isn’t quite as high of a priority in the evangelical camp today.

About a year after publicly sharing her support of same sex couples and LGBTQ rights, author Jen Hatmaker released her latest book, Of Mess and Moxie, as a bestseller. The book stormed up every possible chart, settling into the top 10 on several lists. This is someone who cannot sell her books in the majority of Christian bookstores and who has been disowned by many in the evangelical establishment.

Maybe this isn’t such a big deal, but I see it as a sign of a major shift. An author need not oppose same sex marriage in order to be profitable in the Christian publishing ecosystem. There are many other authors who believe the same as Hatmaker but have not gone public yet.

Hatmaker continues to lose speaking engagements and tours because of her beliefs on same sex marriage, but the outcome for publishing is impossible to deny. Christian authors can now support LGBTQ rights and find a large enough audience to be commercially successful. For publishers looking at sales numbers and spreadsheets, this could be a “Before Hatmaker” and “After Hatmaker” moment.

 

Let’s Promote Constructive Leaders

I don’t write any of this to minimize the massive moral and political failures of the evangelical movement in America, especially among white evangelicals.

The good news is that there are signs of hope and reform. There are new voices emerging that we should seek out. There are established voices speaking the truth.

If you want to see the evangelical movement change, promote these voices over those who are divisive and compromised. The prophets are speaking. Leaders are taking initiative. Whether anyone can hear them over the roar of today’s news cycle is, in part, up to us.

Christians Need Compassion More Than Ever

A year ago today, I was having a panic attack over the 2016 presidential election.

Unlike many other anxious situations in my life, I believe my panic was justified looking back over a year later. In fact, I remain more susceptible to panic attacks ever since the election that made a president out of a man with deep criminal ties, a history of telling lies, a tendency to brag about sexual assault, provokes countries who have nuclear weapons, and deeply troubling tendency to express racist and xenophobic remarks and policies.

I have turned to Thomas Merton for guidance. How do we remain centered in God and compassionate toward others when the world appears to have gone mad?

For one thing, Merton didn’t mince words. He spoke plainly and passionately when he detected injustice or hypocrisy. When politicians twisted language to distort their ill intents, Merton took no prisoners in his replies to deceptive ideas, propaganda, and any policy that threatened the image of God in another person.

As we are swamped with a deluge of conspiracy theories, social media division tactics, and dubious stories from less than credible sources, a plain and simple commitment to truth and clarity is very valuable. In the search for the truth, I never want to lose sight of the people who may hold these views.

Merton has helped me to continually question my motivations for any engagement in politics.

Do I desire peace, human flourishing, and the full dignity of God for every person?

Am I capable of compassion and love toward those who believe differently from me, even if I believe they are supporting a dangerous demagogue?

I could make a laundry list of things that Christians need to do better in order to work toward peace and to guard the Gospel message from political polarization. Perhaps at the root of everything that Christians could do better in a time of fake news, incendiary social media posts from international actors seeking to divide us, and false flag media companies seeking power by sowing discord is to develop greater compassion for others.

Centering prayer daily has prompted me to continue letting go of my anger and anxiety. Negative thinking loops that revolve around politics can be shut down if we learn daily to release our thoughts and entrust ourselves to God.

Praying for others, especially those ensnared by news outlets awash in partisan propaganda, has helped me to seek their liberation from fear and anger. Sites like FOX News and BreitBart thrive on creating controversy, false intellectualism, and stirring up divisions.

Mind you, each day with centering prayer is hardly a gentle float down a quiet stream. There is a discipline involved in prayer. We will feel legitimate anger when we learn about people who have been cruelly detailed, unjustly punished, or singled out by racist or xenophobic groups. Even if we respond with prayer, love, and compassion, there is an unmistakable need to show up and act for truth, justice, and peace. I never want to be the sort of Christian who advocates for prayer and nothing else!

Love is a political act when it drives us to seek the best for others, when love prompts us to seek human flourishing because all bear the image of God.

Compassion isn’t partisan. It isn’t based on political affiliation, on the size of the government, or who you voted for in an election.

As I advocate for justice and peace, I don’t want to lose sight of those trapped by lies, hatred, greed, or fear—I suspect that many in America are trapped by all of those things.

The more we learn about false news stories being pushed by foreign powers on social media with the intent of dividing us further, the best response I can think of is one of prayerful compassion.

One year after this catastrophic election, let us resolve to do the hard soul work of silence and centering.

Let us continue to learn to let go of our anger and fear, trusting fully in God.

Let us resolve to pray for those in the grip of fear and even our enemies who stoke those fears.

There is wisdom in being slow to anger, slow to speak, and slow to condemn.

I can only put my hope in love and compassion winning someday, somehow because I believe at the root of everything is a single heartbeat that unites us all: “God so loved the world…”

This is God’s world. He loves it dearly. He is present. If anything will save the world from its madness and division exposed and stirred up in last year’s election, the redemptive and uniting love of God is the only hope we’ve got.

Evangelicals Lack the Language for Slow Transformation

Evangelicals know about discipleship, which is often synonymous with accountability and learning.

Evangelicals know about conversion and revival, going from blindness to sight.

Evangelicals don’t have language for slow, gradual transformation. It’s not surprising then that we generally lack the practices that can lead to slow transformation.

I love the charismatic gifts and teachings. I’ve had intense moments that were deeply transforming and meaningful.

I’ve also wondered, “Now what?” after the moment passes.

I’ve immersed myself in Bible study and had life-changing insights as the Spirit used the scriptures to reshape my thinking and choices. I’ve also hit the point where I’ve felt like I’m just cramming information into my brain and God appears distant, if not non-existent.

My own assessment of my place in the evangelical subculture is that I have lacked the language and guidance into the full spiritual tradition of the Christian faith. I have found renewed hope by taking part in the contemplative tradition.

Incorporating the contemplative tradition isn’t a contemporary trend of self-help spirituality or a complete replacement of Bible study, revival, or the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. By bringing contemplation into my daily spiritual practice, I’m putting something into place that should have never been lost in the first place.

While my evangelical tradition looks for revivals and enlightening moments, the contemplative tradition warns us against seeking frequent spiritual highs. These “highs” can become obstacles in the loving pursuit of God. Yes, intimate moments with God can happen, but God is present in both the silence of waiting and in the intense awareness of God’s love.

While my evangelical tradition tends to put pressure on us to seek God and to make spiritual epiphanies happen, the contemplative tradition teaches us to rest, to be still before the Lord, and to wait for his salvation.

While my charismatic background puts great emphasis on dramatic moments of deliverance and conversion, the contemplative tradition gives a space for the slow work of transformation as we place ourselves in the loving care of the Holy Spirit day-in, day-out.

Sitting in silence before God remains jarring to my evangelical sensibilities where so much emphasis was placed on study, praying with fervent sincerity, and working toward measurable results or spiritual emotions. The contemplative tradition gives me a basic spiritual practice of 20-30 minutes of silent prayer before God and few immediately measurable results—although the impact of this type of prayer is very apparent over the course of time.

This is the slow transformation that occurs through contemplative prayer. It isn’t the type of thing you can share during a testimony service on Sunday evening. It’s hard work, forcing us to face our darkness, our false selves, and our fears. The “results” take time to materialize, and even when they do, they often end up being things like, “I’m more compassionate toward others” or “I’m more aware of God’s love and presence daily.”

These are surely good things, but they’re not going to turn heads during testimony time. However, these are the practices that have carried me through the silence, the lows and highs, and the anxiety of life. They have grounded me and given me a place to rest in God when the revival folded and the emotions dried up.

God so loved the world…

Be still and know that he is Lord…

Wait on the Lord…

The Lord is gracious and compassionate…

These are the words we can turn to in silence each day in faith and hope.

What If Christians Need Empowerment More Than Oversight

I’m an author and blogger from an unapologetically low church, Protestant background. I currently attend an Episcopal Church where I value our leadership while I continue to heed the insights of the pastors and family members who have invested in me. I see authority as much more of a Holy Spirit driven patchwork than those from a traditional high church background.

There remains an ongoing debate in many Christian blogging and writing circles about the place of accountability for bloggers and authors. Those from a higher church background are concerned about the possibility of error being pushed from more or less unaccountable bloggers in a theological wild west.

For instance, Jen Hatmaker’s support for LGBT relationships has received significant scrutiny. The merits of accountability aside, many noted that such scrutiny has hardly been applied to the many, many men who have built massive parachurch platforms while advocating for dubious if not outright heretical and/or violent theology. Even men who supposedly answer to elder boards or denominations have gone clear off the rails, with Robert Jeffress clearly leading the pack of unhinged conservative pastors where being “under authority” hasn’t done a bit of good.

I personally value accountability, although I maintain a low church view of it that surely won’t wash for my high church friends. I’m OK with their ire in this regard, but I also think we can move toward something better together.

I have long thought that the answer for the theological wild west of evangelicalism is better empowerment and teaching for the rank and file evangelicals. Back in 2007, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek megachurch lamented his own failure to teach his people better discernment and study. They had become too dependent on their leaders to spoon feed them theology and spirituality, and I frankly believe that too many churches are more than happy with the control that this arrangement affords them. Hybels’ assessment was spot on, and it’s worth our consideration today.

The answer to the evangelical wild west isn’t a stronger sheriff who keeps people from following dangerous outlaws or from joining unruly mobs. Rather, we need better information and more empowerment for the average Christian. We need to help people spot the counterfeits themselves and to evaluate their theology and spirituality better.

Someone once wrote about Christians as a kind of “priesthood of all believers.” There is a holy calling and responsibility on all of us. We all have our role to play in seeking the truth, living out of the authentic guidance of the Holy Spirit, and encouraging others to join us because they see the fruit of God in our lives.

I would much rather spend my time helping my fellow Christians examine the fruit of certain ministries and public teachers than to place restrictions on these ministries or to try to shut them down through external authorities. When these writers and teachers do step out of line, we can surely hold their publishers accountable, but the more effective long term strategy has more to do with what we teach and live than who we regulate under authority structures.

We have the God-given power to embody the goodness of the Holy Spirit. We have the wisdom of the Spirit to see the good fruit or bad fruit of others. Leaders can help us in this regard, but I hardly see the benefit of a system where leaders give their authorization to certain blogs and not to others.

Leaders can empower their people to spot a counterfeit and to help their congregations make decisions accordingly. This strikes me as truer to the spirit of the scriptures than a more hierarchical authority structure. Again, I’m biased here, and I am happy to agree to disagree.

Rather than setting boundaries around our theology and spirituality, I see leaders as the people who are guiding us toward Christ at the center. They should be the people who model the genuine love of the Father, the generosity of the son, and the wisdom of the Spirit to the point that boundaries become more of an afterthought. When we see the fruit of God’s presence in their lives, all other paths into error will become more of an afterthought.