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.

When Will Conservative Christians Address Racism and Climate Change the Way They Address Same Sex Marriage?

With only a self-imposed deadline to release a statement on human sexuality that surprised exactly no one, the Council of “Biblical” Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) has demonstrated just how disconnected many conservative Christians have become from the issues that are actually impacting people today. Here’s a little round up of the news from this month:

White supremacists marched through Charlottesville with clubs, shields, and body armor, beating people up, threatening the black people, and chanting Nazi slogans.

Climate change has brought yet another devastating hurricane to the American mainland, leaving a major city under water, and dozens dead (including a brave police officer assisting with rescues). Extreme floods are devastating sections of southeast Asia as well, leaving over a 1,000 dead.

The DACA act that created the Dreamer program for immigrant children has kept families together, but the Trump administration is poised to end it, ripping children and parents away from each other (Dreamers are already being deported by the way).

The folks who agree with CBMW can believe whatever they want about LGBT issues and same sex marriage. It’s a free country. I’m going to charitably disagree with them and reject their misguided attempts to turn the Bible’s teachings on sexuality into a black and white issue. I’ve already addressed where I think the Bible leaves us on LGBT issues and same sex marriage.

My main concern here is the way this “Nashville Statement” illustrates the dramatic disconnect of these Christians from the urgent issues of our day for the sake of pressuring religious leaders to sign on to a document while also further entrenching themselves into a defensive position where dialogue has been ruled out.

I’m not the first person to notice that the same energy, effort, and influence could have been used to address climate change, sexual assault, racism and white supremacy, or the suffering of the poor in the midst of climate change. While churches open their doors in Houston to flood victims and clergy reckon with the violence in Charlottesville, a group of Christians decided this was the time for their big PR push for their statement on human sexuality. I want to take these statements one step further by noticing how these leaders have allocated their time in order to issue it.

Some of these people were also involved in the SBC resolution against the “Alt-right” white supremacist groups that nearly failed to pass due to concerns about the language. Many have remarked that any resolution against LGBT folks would have sailed through the SBC voting process regardless of the language. Mind you, an LGBT resolution would have had many people working around the clock ahead of time to make sure it was worded perfectly.

I don’t know how much time and money was expended for the CBMW Nashville statement, but let’s imagine that perhaps it was a six-month process:

  • Theologians and “experts” were surely consulted.
  • There were meetings, theological debates, and committees who worked on drafting the precise language.
  • A website design company was hired and consulted throughout the process.
  • Signers were contacted.
  • Public relations details were managed.
  • Meetings were no doubt conducted in order to manage all of this.

There was a significant investment of time into this project. It didn’t pop up over night. These aren’t the sort of people who would release a theologically sloppy statement. They surely parsed every single word with care.

Like I said, they can believe what they like and release statements about those beliefs, but the particular timing of this is devastating.

At the very least, they could have delayed it so that their congregations could focus on sending relief to the flood victims in Houston, let alone to assure the victims in Houston that they are the focus of Christians across America.

I’m not sure what the scope of CBMW is beyond keeping women from teaching the Bible, protecting patriarchy, and denying rights to LGBT folks, but at very least the influential people who signed this document could have worked toward equally strong statements on truly black and white issues that impact people in America.

They could have issued a clear condemnation of white supremacy and racism.

They could have issued a theological statement about the urgency of climate change and its impact on major weather events.

They could have issued a statement about caring for immigrants and the importance of the Dreamer program.

The hard truth of this statement is that many of these conservative Christians, who are overwhelmingly white, are willing to invest time in the condemnation of LGBT people but they failed to use their time to advocate for people of color when it was urgently needed this month.

I have heard over and again from supporters of the Nashville Statement that no one should be shocked. This is what these people believe. What’s the big deal?

This only drives home the insult of this statement and its horrible timing.

A group of Christians spent significant time drafting an unnecessary statement defining what everyone already knows they believe while the nation is waiting for them to adequately address racism, climate change, and immigration.

Can you imagine if these same people issued a statement saying that there is no room for disagreement on white supremacy, since the Gospel makes us all equal under Christ?

Can you imagine if these same people issued a statement saying that there is no room for disagreement on immigration, since the Bible teaches us to welcome the alien and foreigner?

Can you imagine if these same people issued a statement saying that there is no room for disagreement on climate change, we have failed to be stewards of God’s creation?

These are statements that can be made based on clear biblical teaching. They could address issues that directly impact life and death issues today. They could take a step toward bringing healing and unity to our land.

Instead, they have chosen to further marginalize a group that has already been kicked out of their churches on multiple occasions and in multiple ways. They have proven just how completely tone deaf they are to the issues of today and just how incapacitated their obsession with denying LGBT rights has made them.

We now have undisputed evidence about the priorities of these Christians.

When America was being torn apart by racial violence, the Christians affiliated with CBMW were most likely putting the finishing touches on their statement on human sexuality and contacting influential leaders.

When the people of Houston were wading through flood waters and waiting for rescue on their roofs, the Christians affiliated with CBMW deemed it was time to draw attention to their statement on human sexuality.

 

I’m Inviting You to Hold Trump’s Evangelical Supporters Accountable

american flag

At the request of evangelical activist and author Deidra Riggs, I’m asking my evangelical friends and readers, especially the white evangelicals, to join me in holding the pastors on Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory council accountable. 

Trump failed to immediately condemn the hate speech and violence of nazi, racist, and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, VA. When he did eventually criticize the nazi and racist groups, he inserted caveats and false equivalencies that helped assure their support.

Evangelicals who preach a message that is “good news for all people,” cannot fail to critique those who would marginalize any group or remain associated with any leader who fails to unequivocally condemn their messages. Keep in mind, assuming Trump is allowed to keep his phone, he can contact these people any time, whether or not they are officially on this council if he legitimately needed to pray with a pastor.

Below I’m providing social media and email messaging templates for contacting pastors on Trump’s evangelical advisory council, and then I’ll list public contact information for each pastor as well as additional steps.

Here are three guiding principles for this action:

  1. I am prioritizing pastors who have remained silent or openly supported Trump. This is based on Zack Hunt’s list of the responses from evangelical advisory board members. Feel free to use Zack’s list to urge other members to resign as well.
  2. I am asking for a condemnation of racist groups/ideology and of Donald Trump.
  3. Our messages must be gracious in order to maintain the moral high ground so that these leaders cannot dismiss our reasonable calls to action. Please do not mock or harass these pastors.

 

Here is a message for Twitter or Facebook:

Please: 1. Address Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn racist groups. 2. Personally condemn white supremacy.

 

Here is an email message:

Subject Line: Please Condemn Racism and White Supremacy

In the spirit of the apostle Paul, who said there is “no longer Jew or Greek… in Christ Jesus,” I am asking you to do the following immediately:

  1. Unequivocally and publically condemn the hate speech and violence committed by racist and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, VA.
  2. Directly condemn the inadequate remarks of Donald Trump that minimized the hate speech and violence of these groups.
  3. Resign from Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory council, which only serves as a public relations prop for this administration that has empowered hate groups.

As an evangelical pastor, your continued association with Donald Trump and failure to address his tolerance, if not encouragement, of racism betrays the Gospel message that is Good News for all people and deepens the wounds of those targeted by hate groups.

Thank you for your consideration.

 

Public Contact Information for Pastors

I will be updating this list with contact information as I track it down. All of the information below is available on public websites or public social media pages.

 

Robert Morris of Gateway Church

https://twitter.com/PsRobertMorris @PsRobertMorris

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pg/PsRobertMorris

Staff Email: robert@gatewaypeople.com.

http://gatewaypeople.com/profiles/robert-morris

seniorpastors@gatewaypeople.com

 

Mark Burns

Twitter: @pastormarkburns

https://www.facebook.com/pastormarkburns

Email: pastormarkburns@gmail.com (found on his public Facebook page)

 

Tom Mullins

Twitter: @coachtommullins

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Coach-Tom-Mullins-688759251208453/

Church Website: Church of the Highlands

Church Office: info@churchofthehighlands.com

 

James Robinson

Twitter: @RevJamesRobinson

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/revjamesrobison/

Ministry Email: feedback@lifetoday.org (via Facebook page)

Personal Contact Page: http://www.jamesrobison.net/contact/ 

 

 

Paula White

Twitter: @paula_white

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/realpaulawhite

Facebook Contact: facebook@paulawhite.org

Website: Contact Page (You can report “fraud” on this page. Ha. Ha.)

“Customer Service” Form: https://paulawhite.org/email-customer-service/

 

Additional Action

Many pastors and other advisory council members made weak condemnations of racism or a Trump, offering false equivalencies. Others made condemnations of racism but said nothing about Trump, refused to resign, or, like Johnnie Moore, offered so many unhelpful caveats about the media that his critique was largely counterproductive. Visit Zack’s post to find their social media accounts in order to respond to their posts as well.

 

 

Can Contemplative Prayer Help Address Racism, White Supremacy, and Hate?

What good is sitting in silence for 30 minutes of contemplative prayer every day going to do when there are racist groups in our communities?

It’s a fair question that I have pondered very often. I have a few responses:

Contemplation changes us into compassionate people.

Contemplation can help those in the grip of hate face their false selves—the false selves that drive so much of their hatred.

Contemplation re-centers us in God’s generative love for us and for other people.

Mind you, I’m saying that contemplation can “help” as one part of a larger action plan. I don’t want to oversell this here. Meditation and prayer have long been viewed as integral parts of Christian social justice work. Some groups make them essential aspects that members agree to incorporate into their daily lives.

When I have encountered hate speech or hateful events in the news, they can fuel a rage that goes beyond a productive righteous anger. As this burning rage takes hold, contemplative prayer provides a place to release my thoughts to God. Action is needed, but I won’t act from a productive perspective without a chance to disconnect from my anger and rage.

From a scientific perspective, mindfulness practices, which resemble contemplative prayer in many ways, help decrease our tendency to pursue conflict:

“Mindfulness studies show that practicing mindfulness for 8 to10 weeks changes the brain’s emotion regulation areas. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the midbrain that hijacks the brain into “fight, flight, freeze” mode in which we start to see our partners as threats to our wellbeing or autonomy and automatically shut down emotionally or start to attack them with angry words and deeds.”

Speaking in terms of what we hope for in the longer term, my pastor challenged us to think about conversion—we need members of these racist groups to be freed from their hateful ideology. It’s often true that the leaders of these hate groups are too far gone in many cases. However, a former hate group member turned advocate believes those who join these hate groups as the rank and file “foot soldiers” are often joining for reasons that are more complex than adopting a hateful ideology.

Christian Picciolini shared in an NPR interview:

“I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose… because there are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, they tend to search for very simple black and white answers.”

Contemplation can’t answer all of that, but it can become a tool to escape the endless loop of anger and resentment that helps fuel the hatred of others.

Contemplation can provide a new identity as God’s beloved child.

Contemplation can provide a new mission to tell others about the love of God.

Keep in mind that Paul was a violent extremist who was killing and imprisoning Christians. After his conversion, he penned letters where he wished that his readers could experience the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love.

Those who are nurturing their anger and fabricated resentment of immigrants and ethnic minorities are going to need a new community to offer them hope and a path forward. It would be tragic if white supremacists and racists only redirected their anger into a bitter and defensive fundamentalism. Many evangelical churches can provide activity to redirect them, but they tend to lack the spiritual resources and direction for those who need to directly encounter God’s loving presence. Contemplative prayer within a church community setting can offer the inner spiritual experience of transformation that is often so badly needed.

We need churches that speak of God as a loving father/parent and emphasize the loving relationship of the trinity in their belief statements. I participated in prison ministry off and on before we moved and had kids, and I was always struck by how the men were impacted by an encounter with God as a loving father.

I will always defer to experts like Christian Picciolini to offer a path forward amid white supremacy. Contemplation is no substitute for direct action, holding racists accountable, legal advocacy, and other measures that will stop their agenda. It wouldn’t hurt if police departments like the one in Charlottesville, VA were a little more proactive when racist groups start beating people up.

Again, I can’t emphasize enough that contemplation is but one part of a larger action plan. I also haven’t addressed the vital work of learning about our history of racism and white supremacy in America or amplifying and joining the activists who are doing the hard work on the ground each day.

Those targeted by racism and working to eradicate it need our prayers and support now more than ever. However, as a white man, I am also very aware that I have a role to play in offering racists an off ramp away from radicalization. I hope and pray that contemplation can offer them a path away from the fear and hatred that drives their movements.

What Would God Shout at You from a Cloud?

In the Gospel of Matthew, there are two instances where a cloud appears over Jesus and God shouts two brief, identical messages. I have often wondered what God would shout at me in a similar situation.

Honestly, I tend to think God would shout negative things at me. I imagine God telling me to stop doing something or to do more of something. In either case, the message would focus on the ways I’m falling short and have been inadequate.

I have struggled to imagine a loving and merciful God. It’s much easier to imagine a God who is either disappointed or really, really angry.

Bringing up this disappointed/angry image of God with people tends to strike a nerve.

What would God shout at you?  

volunteer more!

spend less money!

stop obsessing about your body image!

share the Gospel more!

stop lusting!

help more people in need!

read the Bible more!

pray more!

go to a different church!

spend less time on social media!

We can’t imagine that God the Father is for us and loves us. We can only imagine God showing up in a cloud and telling us to get our acts together, to start doing something different.

God the Father isn’t typically imagined as being on our side. God the Father is somehow joined with Jesus in the Trinity but remains disappointed in us and in need of a blood sacrifice to make us acceptable in his sight, working out a loophole in his infinite holiness and justice.

Before Jesus launched his ministry and before Jesus ventured to Jerusalem where he would be killed and then rise from the dead, God the Father spoke the same message over Jesus:

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17

 “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Matthew 17:5

On both occasions, God the Father affirmed the Son. On the first occasion Jesus had not even started his ministry.

I have tended to write off the significance of these moments between the Father and the Son. However, I now think that this was a big mistake on my part.

Jesus came to unite us with God, adopting us in God’s family. Paul writes that our identity is hidden away in Christ. In the midst of this union with Christ, we dare not overlook the love of God for us that goes beyond our comprehension:

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19

Through the ministry of Jesus and our union with him, we have a new way of thinking about God. If God is our Father through our union with the Son, then it isn’t far-fetched to say that God’s first thought of us is love and a desire for deeper union with us. God desires to heal, redeem, and restore his children.

Failing to believe that I am a child of God is the most important obstacle for prayer. Once I believe that God loves and accepts me like Jesus is loved and accepted, prayer becomes a moment to rest in God’s love rather than a game of hide and go seek with God or a proving ground for my spirituality.

For years, I doubted God’s love for me, and my struggles with prayer served as validation for those doubts.

Beginning with the foundational teaching of God’s love and acceptance for his children made it possible to rest in God’s presence and to trust in his love for me. I was finally able to participate in the silence of contemplative prayer that seeks to lovingly gaze at and adore God the Father.

Contemplative prayer relies on resting in this love as the first step in prayer, letting all other distractions fall away in order to be still in God’s presence.

Imagining a God who calls down to us with loving messages before we’ve done a single thing can revolutionize how we pray. This was the God that Jesus wanted to reveal to us, and this is the God that we can pray to when we turn to him in silent adoration.

Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

 

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

 

Is There Hope for Anxious, Doubting, and Burned Out Christians?

If you’re a Christian who is burned out, falling flat, discouraged, struggling, or doubtful, I have a suggestion based on my own experiences. This suggestion may or may not help, but just consider it for a moment.

What if Christianity is bound to fail you no matter how often you say sincere prayers, no matter how hard you study the Bible, no matter what theology you adopt, no matter how often you attend church, and no matter how sincerely you commit to follow Jesus?

What if your faith can only survive if you approach God in a different way?

I don’t necessarily want to undermine practices such as Bible study, attending church, or praying sincerely. These are all good things in their place. However, one can lean too heavily on these practices, expecting them to provide what they cannot, and then burning out as you continue to come up empty.

That’s where I found myself when I first attended a church service during my seminary days that introduced contemplative prayer, sitting in silent adoration of God. I struggled to sit in silence, I recited the prayers, nothing seemed to happen, and so I gave in to despair for a season.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to see the rich contemplative tradition of the church that teaches the practice of daily silence in order to rest in God, trusting God to work in us. The contemplative tradition of the church teaches that we cannot earn God’s favor or make God love us more. God has already sent Jesus to us out of his deep love for us, and in Jesus we become his sons and daughters.

The foundation of Christianity is God’s love for us. If we miss that, everything else will be a chore, struggle, or burden.

Contemplative prayer doesn’t seek to prove anything or to produce a particular emotion or experience. By sitting in silence and reciting a simple word like “mercy” or “beloved,” we step away from any other thought or conception of ourselves so that we may be present for God.

Over time, contemplative prayer can shift our understandings of ourselves, seeing ourselves as we are as God’s beloved children. We can also develop a greater capacity of love for other people as we learn to see them as God sees them.

There is an effort to remove distractions in contemplative prayer, but it’s not up to me to produce a spiritual transformation. I can’t save my soul or make myself more loving. I can only rest in God and enter God’s presence with faith that he is faithful in caring for his children.

When the love of God comes first, I no longer have to prove myself or work to find God’s love. God’s love is something to rest in and to gradually experience over time, rather than something I have to frantically or anxiously work for.

Out of a foundation of God’s love, the Christian faith becomes restorative and regenerative. We all come to God with our struggles, baggage, and religious backgrounds that can complicate matters.

There aren’t simple formulas and I never want to suggest that contemplative prayer is a quick fix. Rather, this is a lifelong practice that is challenging to learn and requires a significant commitment. Monks would devote their entire lives to this practice of contemplation, so one can hardly jump into it after a kind of short term boot camp.

I can’t speak for every person or situation, but I do know that the people who have passed through similar seasons as my own share similar experiences of God’s love and presence. Contemplative prayer isn’t the only way to make ourselves aware of God’s love, but it has a strong tradition that is rooted in the history of the church. This is hardly a gimmick or a “culturally relevant trend.”

If everything else in Christianity has left you uncertain, anxious, or struggling to believe in God, you may not have anything to lose.

What if God loved you deeply and completely as a beloved child?

What if you only need to take that love on faith and rest in it?

 

Learn More about Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

Jesus Is King, America Is in Chaos, Now What?

American-crisis

Each afternoon I set aside time to pray in as much privacy and quiet as my children will permit. I pull myself out of my social media feeds, away from my growing list of work projects, and away from the stuff around the house that I often put off until things pile up into a state of chaos.

I have needed this prayer time because it has felt like the one stable thing in life right now. What I am called to do beyond that in the midst of America’s crisis continues to concern me.

I am a white evangelical man who grew up in a very conservative family. I fit the profile of many Trump voters. Without white evangelical support, there most likely would not be a president Trump, save for the real possibility of hacking and voter suppression. I cannot emphasize how opposed I am to just about everything that our current president stands for.

I feel the weight of this, knowing my evangelical tribe played a key role in electing a man who ran for election as a racist demagogue and governs like a petty dictator. The injustices of this man have already impacted people I know. Hate crimes are rising, immigrants live in daily fear, cuts to essential programs are looming, and all along there is mounting evidence that a foreign power may have our government under its control, and who knows where the suffering and injustice will end at that point.

I am committed to justice. I am committed to protecting the full humanity of my neighbors–and I mean that in the broad, Christian sense of the word.

As the situation becomes increasingly serious, I genuinely worry if I am drifting too much toward political advocacy, leaving my contemplative writing in public aside. The truth is that it’s easy to write in reaction to politics. It’s much harder to dig into the depths of contemplative prayer, to live in the reality of my true self under God, and to write out of that identity. Perhaps the message we need most of all is that God is a benevolent King who is higher than all powers in this world, and who entrusts his Kingdom to the meek and humble.

The Kingdom of God empowers the powerless and mocks those who fight for power and control. It’s hard to believe in that Kingdom during times like these as injustice and Constitutional violations appear to run rampant in my nation’s government.

Perhaps my greatest fear in the midst of this current crisis is my privilege as a white evangelical man. People like me largely supported Trump, and so the people who look like me are the least likely to be victims of injustice. I won’t suffer under many of his policies, or at least any discomfort I feel will be less than those of poor, minority, or immigrant groups. Stepping out of political advocacy when my neighbors have so much to lose feels like the most unloving, unneighborly thing I can do right now.

Politics feels like a black hole nevertheless. It could suck me in and consume me with frustration and rage at the low moments, while offering an exhilarating high when investigators reveal what they know about those who colluded with Russia. This can be a consuming endeavor that can pull anyone away from the loving presence of God and confidence that Jesus is king no matter how chaotic our politics may be right now.

I can’t step away from advocating against the injustice taking place in my country right now. The full image of God in each person demands as much. This is where I have been placed and where I must work for the best of my neighbors. My life’s calling is prayer and writing, and I must use them for the benefit of those suffering injustice or who may be vulnerable under an authoritarian government.

At the same moment, I feel the tug to step back, to remember that God is King, and that the calling of the Christian is to be internally shaped and directed by God’s indwelling Spirit rather than by current events. I can feel the tug of this anger, fear, and energy pulling me further from the Spirit’s loving presence, and that is when I know how deeply I need to continue resting before God.

The Psalmist assured us, “Trust in him at all times, oh people. Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”

Now what? I’m not sure. That Psalm strikes me as a good place to start today. I can’t step back from advocating for justice, but I won’t do that well without a strong contemplative foundation. That is what I fear losing at this time of  political crisis. May we experience the words of the Psalms anew even today as we trust God to guide us through this time.