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.

Monday Merton: Is the Church Redemptive or Self-Serving?

The mission of the church can lead us to our true identities in Christ or it can become grossly distorted. Thomas Merton writes about both the high calling of the church and tragic distortion of this mission into a self-centered mechanism for proving who is in and who is out:

“The basic Christian faith is that he who renounces his delusive, individual autonomy in order to receive his true being and freedom in and by Christ is ‘justified’ by the mercy of God in the Cross of Christ. His ‘sins are forgiven’ in so far as the root of guilt is torn up in the surrender which faith makes to Christ. Instead of my own delusive autonomy I surrender to Christ all rights over me in the hope that by His Spirit, which is the Spirit and life of His Church, He will live and act in me, and, having become one with Him, having found my true identity in Him, I will act only as a member of His Body and a faithful citizen of His Kingdom…

 

But now, supposing that, instead of confessing the sins of the world which she has taken upon herself, the Church–or a group of Christians who arrogate to themselves the name of ‘Church’–becomes a social mechanism for self-justification? Supposing this ‘Church,’ which is in reality no church at all, takes to herself the function of declaring that everyone else is guilty and rationalizing the sins of her members as acts of virtue? Suppose that she becomes a perfect and faultless machine for declaring herself not guilty? Suppose that she provides men with a convenient method of deciding when they do or do not need to accuse themselves of anything before God? Supposing that, instead of conscience, she provides men with the support of unanimous group approval or disapproval?”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 111-112

 

Monday Merton: Love Is Never Silent Before Injustice

In the 1960’s, Thomas Merton wrote about the Christian response, or failure to respond, to segregation and racism. After addressing a situation in New Orleans where some of the congregation walked out because the priest applied “love of brother and sister” to racial injustice, Merton didn’t mince words:

“We are so concerned with ‘charity’ that we will find every possible excuse for men who have no respect for the law of love, who angrily and rudely separate themselves from the community of the faithful assembled for the Eucharistic feast of Christian charity, and who do so in defense of a society whose customs admit and palliate repeated acts of cruelty, of injustice, of inhumanity which gravely violate the Law of Christ, and crucify Christ in His members.

 

To excuse such men entirely would be to participate in their violation of charity. Their sin must be pointed out quite clearly for what it is. The pseudocharity that shrinks from this truth is responsible for an awful proliferation of injustice and untruth, under the guise of Christianity. The best that can be said of these poor men is ‘they know not what they do.'”

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 106

 

Monday Merton: Paradise Is All Around Us

monday-merton-blog-header

Thomas Merton converted to the Christian faith because of the possibility to find God today, not just a promise of getting into heaven one day. Experiencing the full presence of God requires overcoming the many obstacles that often appear as necessary or unavoidable once the day gets going. As people who spend so much time in motion, simply stopping may be the hardest practice to learn. Merton writes:

“Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it: we are off ‘one to his farm and another to his merchandise.’Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static. ‘Wisdom,’ cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.”

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 128

Monday Merton: Freedom Needs Truth

monday-merton-blog-header

Thomas Merton writes that Democracy relies on the education of the population, getting a large majority of people more or less on the same page. If the people are able to see the issues of the time with clarity, political discourse about solutions becomes possible.

However, as propaganda and alternative partisan versions of reality take hold on certain news channels and in the American White House, Democracy may face one of its greatest challenges according to Merton’s criteria:

“Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them. The actions and statements of the citizen must not be mere automatic ‘reactions’–mere mechanical salutes, gesticulations signifying passive conformity with the dictates of those in power.

 

To be truthful, we will have to admit that one cannot expect this to be realized in all the citizens of a democracy. But if it is not realized in a significant proportion of them, democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word.”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 96

 

 

 

Today Is a Chance to Return to Your First Love

My friend Ray Hollenbach, an author and pastor to many, is sharing a guest post today for Ash Wednesday. I’m always encouraged by Ray’s writing, and I’m sure you will be as well. 

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

These words from Mark 2:17 demonstrate for us again the genius of Jesus and serve as an introduction to Ash Wednesday, a somewhat mysterious date on the Christian calendar which marks the beginning of Lent. It evokes the past, encourages us to focus on the present, and points us toward an inspiring future.

In some parts of the country you could go about your business all day and never encounter a reminder that this is Ash Wednesday. Or you could look up from your work to find someone near you wearing ashes on her forehead in a mark that looks something like a cross.

Ash Wednesday is about preparation, and the beginning of preparation at that. All of the Lenten season is focused upon preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is about how we can begin those preparations. It is “to make a right beginning of repentance,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. We are reminded of “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

Ash Wednesday is the day when the journey toward Easter begins. I would like to suggest that Ash Wednesday helps us begin our preparation for Easter in three ways: by teaching us to mourn the past, to examine the present, and to look forward toward an inspiring future.

Mourning the past

The ashes of Ash Wednesday come from the palm leaves that were burned after last year’s Palm Sunday. Throughout the Scripture, ashes speak of mourning and regret. To mark his sadness, Job covered himself in ashes.

Jesus reminds us that repentance (true regret) can include sackcloth and ashes. The ashes from last year’s palms remind us that although we may have received Christ enthusiastically at the beginning of our Christian walk, we have perhaps lost our first love.

What better call to return to our first love than to be marked with the ashes of our past enthusiasm? These ashes also remind us that the original celebration of Palm Sunday gave way to the crucifixion less than a week later. Psalm 51 is an excellent reading for Ash Wednesday. It is a Scriptural guide to repentance.

Examining our present

When Jesus challenged His listeners to consider the truth that those who are healthy do not need a doctor, He was asking each one of them to examine themselves. Only those who agree they are sick will submit to a doctor, and only when we acknowledge our sin can we receive His forgiveness.

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to examine our need afresh and to affirm that we will always need a Savior.

Do we agree with Jesus that we are still in need, or having received Him as Lord and Savior at one point in time, have we forgotten that our need is daily? Colossians 2:6 reminds us “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him.” Or as one pastor said, “The way in is the way on.”

Looking to the future

As Ash Wednesday begins our journey through Lent, we are also aware that our final destination is Easter Sunday. And Easter Sunday is more than a commemoration of the past. It is also about hope for the future. We have all seen what commemoration looks like when it has lost its spirit.

Some people celebrate Holy days (holidays) without ever encountering the meaning: Thanksgiving Day without the giving of thanks, Christmas day without a living Savior, and Easter Sunday without a risen Lord.

But the glorious message of Easter is that He is risen! We can prepare for Easter by reflecting on the promise of resurrection. I Corinthians 15: 20 reveals, “Christ has indeed risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

This wonderful verse assures us not only of Christ’s resurrection but also our ultimate destiny: that we too will be resurrected, and our loved ones in Christ. His resurrection is the promise of ours, complete with an eternal future of joy.

There are riches waiting in Ash Wednesday, especially for many of us who are unaccustomed to a formal church calendar. No matter how we mark the day, whether with ashes on our forehead or with reflection on the meaning of Easter, Jesus invites us journey on to Easter Sunday with Him.

About the Author

Visit Ray Hollenbach at his blog Students of Jesus

Follow him on Twitter: @Hollenbach

Ray Hollenbach is a husband, a father, a writer, a (former) pastor, a businessman, and a student of Jesus. Ray has written about faith and culture for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, ChurchLeaders.com, SermonCentral.com, Relevant Magazine, My Faith Radio, and Collide Magazine. He currently lives among the irenic hills of central Kentucky, which are filled with faith and culture.

Monday Merton: Love Is Complete Nonviolence

monday-merton-blog-header

More than any other reason, I have felt compelled to read Thomas Merton because I want to learn how to be constructive and even loving in my opposition to those who support injustice and violence. Nonviolence and the pursuit of justice can be pursued in destructive and counterproductive ways.

I have needed Merton’s challenge to see the good in others with compassion and empathy, seeking their best, not merely seeking to “win” something against them:

“The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation and defeat. A pretended nonviolence that seeks to defeat and humiliate the adversary by spiritual instead of physical attack is little more than a confession of weakness. True nonviolence is totally different from this, and much more difficult. It strives to operate without hatred, without hostility, and without resentment. I works without aggression, taking the side of the good that it is able to find already present in the adversary.”

 

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 82

 

American Politics and My Thomas Merton Phase

thomas-merton-contemplative-prayer

“We are ruled, and resign to let ourselves be ruled, by our own weakness and by the prejudices of those who, more guilty or more frustrated than ourselves, need to exercise great power. We let them. And we excuse our cowardice by letting ourselves be driven to violence under ‘obedience’ to tyrants. Thus, we think ourselves noble, dutiful, and brave. there is no truth in this. It is a betrayal of God, of humanity, and of our own selves. Auschwitz was built and managed by dutiful, obedient men who loved their country, and who proved to themselves they were good citizens by hating their country’s enemies.”

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg. 53

I used to shelve Thomas Merton’s books in a New Jersey Borders Books and Music. I frequently wondered if he was some kind of heretic. He appeared to be a Catholic Monk, but a bunch of eastern religion authors really loved him. One even called him a Zen. His posture on all of his book covers resembled eastern writers, and some of his books specifically addressed eastern religion.

**RED FLAGS**

**RED FLAGS**

If I could have slapped a “Read with Discernment” sticker on his books, I would have considered it. After all, I was the keeper of the religion and philosophy sections. I also shelved the slightly zany metaphysics and the steamy erotica books—both categories could have used larger stickers on them in general. I still carried some of my personal grudges against the Catholic Church during that season of life—one my Catholic friends reminds me that I was raised “IRISH CATHOLIC.”

As I hit my peak of evangelical fervor during those years of attending seminary, shelving sometimes questionable books, and vigorously encouraging everyone to avoid the Left Behind series, a Catholic with connections in eastern religion like Merton appeared just about as far out of bounds as you could get from my perspective.

In the years that followed, I had a relatively standard faith melt down and clung to some semblance of Christianity primarily through praying the scriptures with the Divine Hours. When I no longer felt like I had much left of my faith to defend, I started reading some Catholic authors. I had already read a little bit of Henrí Nouwen and Brennan Manning at an evangelical university, so I felt safe to start with them. Enough people in my circles recommended Richard Rohr, so I dove into his books as well. In each case I plowed through a stack of books by each author. I couldn’t help noticing just how frequently Nouwen and Rohr mentioned Thomas Merton.

Maybe it was time to give him a try?

Tucked away in my stacks of theology books, I found a Merton book that had survived several purges and moves since I picked it up in 2008 at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Vermont. It had been on a sale table presumably because it hadn’t sold well. The book, titled The Echoing Silence, is a collection of short excerpts from Thomas Merton on writing. At the time, I figured that even if he was influenced by eastern religion, he had written quite a few books that sold well. He probably knew a thing or two about writing. Also, the book was cheap and it had a very appealing picture on the cover of Merton’s writing desk—sold.

As it turned out, Merton repeatedly blew me away with his insights on writing, faith, and many other topics from the 1950’s and 60’s. I especially enjoyed reading his personal letters that offered “off the record” commentaries on racism and communism in America in the 1960’s. His letter to James Baldwin, a favorite author of mine, praised Baldwin’s perception and insights.

As I grew familiar with Merton’s faith in his own words, as opposed to my impressions of his book covers and the views of slippery-slope obsessed evangelical websites, I benefited from his artful prose that cut to the heart of weighty topics without mincing words.

I knew that I needed to follow up with some other Merton books. I plowed through Thoughts in Solitude, his compilation of the desert fathers, and the New Seeds of Contemplation. I had started the Seven Storey Mountain, but then the 2016 American election ruined that, as it will surely ruin a great many things in my country.

Facing the existential, moral, religious, and legal crises that such a presidency brings to America, I craved guidance from someone who had faced similar problems from the standpoint of having his feet firmly planted in the rich soil of contemplation without cramming his mind with the paranoia of social media or the bombast and speculation of the news channels. Merton faced growing fears about a very likely nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, paranoia about Communist infiltration of America, and growing tensions over racial injustice. In other words, his world had more than enough to worry about.

My Christmas list this year was basically just: “Merton books.” I’ve been working through Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and it has offered a measure of comfort that one can be fully committed to ministering to the entire church while still taking strong stands for justice—including stands against the immoral actions of political parties.

Evangelicals have not historically hit it out of the park when it comes to pursuing justice in a non-partisan manner (although the Moral Monday movement and The Red Letter Christians are offering hope for a path forward). Even Billy Graham, an evangelical icon if there ever was one, finally softened his partisan political involvement after his friendship with Richard Nixon nearly ended his ministry altogether. In fact, Graham’s reputation was saved in part because a TIME magazine editor declined to publish his public endorsement of Nixon. Graham was deeply grateful for this and subsequently adopted a more hands-off approach to one political group or another.

In Merton I have found someone who was both hands-on in his approach to social justice and current events, while also maintaining compassion for all sides, keeping himself from being claimed by a particular political party.

I’ll be the first person to admit that over the last eight years of a Democratic president that I neglected to speak out against injustices and harmful policies until his final term. I want to find a way to reclaim a prophetic Christian voice in politics that works for God’s best for all people, even if that means having hard words at times for people who support certain politicians and policies.

When a politician votes to remove health coverage from millions of people who depend on it to stay alive, there isn’t a middle ground to stand on. One is either for death or life.

When a politician wants to gut laws that guarantee equality for oppressed minorities, one is either for justice of injustice. There is no polite way to accept the oppression of a person created in God’s image when such oppression denies that very status.

When a politician removes environmental protections that safeguard our water, air, and soil, then the world is either God’s good creation or just a meaningless pile of rubble and water that we can use however we please.

Merton wrote with sharp moral clarity about the misplaced paranoia of communism, our culture’s all too easy acceptance of mutual nuclear annihilation, the mind-numbing medication of entertainment, and the grievous moral failure of racism in America. He pushed his Catholic church to the limit, and he clearly opposed many Catholic leaders who all too easily embraced an oversimplified portrait of the fight against Communism. Of course, Merton also deftly dismantled the hollow atheism of the Soviet Union and its determination to offer order through a totalitarian regime.

As America enters a period where voting rights continue to be attacked, immigrants are hunted down, perpetual drone warfare rages on, propaganda drowns out the truth, and the threat of terrorism is called on trample the rights of others, the words and actions of a contemplative Christian who faced similar challenges in his own time has proven to be indispensable. Merton’s voice is hardly the only voice I’m seeking out, but my distance from the issues of his time offers a sharpened clarity into his perspective.

Christians (especially white Christians like myself) often say that they would have stood up for civil rights in the 1960’s. As Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail proves, many Christians urged King to be less disruptive in his useful of nonviolent protests and to wait for things to get better. I suspect that the current political situation may provide a similar test of just how much Christians today have embraced the Bible’s teachings that God desires his people to seek justice for those who are suffering:

Isaiah 58:2-3
“Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.

Malachi 3:5
“I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

We can disagree about which policies in our nation will best uphold these words from scripture, but ignoring them or violating with our laws are not an option if God’s Kingdom is our primary allegiance.

Today, I hear from a lot of Christians that we should be focused on only sharing the Gospel. Pastors and authors who make a living as speakers and writers are afraid to speak against injustice in America today lest they lose speaking engagements—and those who have spoken against the current administration have certainly lost speaking engagements. There are fractures in my own evangelical world between those who support our president and those who do not. If my career as a Christian author rests on lending even tacit support for such a man through my silence, then my faith is a flimsy, ramshackle thing that will soon collapse on itself.

As I think about the turmoil in my own evangelical subculture today, I imagine Thomas Merton writing at his neat little desk in his cabin. He encouraged civil rights leaders and artists. He built bridges across national boundaries with his fellow poets in Russia. He wrote about the failure of his Catholic Church to address the threat of nuclear warfare.

Merton may have lost some speaking engagements. His superiors may have censored him. But he was already sitting by himself in a secluded cabin in the woods outside of Louisville, Kentucky, occasionally instructing his fellow monks. To the eyes of the world, he had already lost. He was a zero, but then, that’s what he called himself. Rather than measuring the highs and lows of his influence, he committed himself to contemplation in isolation. From there he saw the issues of his day with a straightforward clarity that guided his writing and speaking. There was no cost/benefit analysis.

Merton sought the love of God and experienced divine union, calling others to this unity in love.

Merton saw the madness of his time and called it madness.

As I seek the words of Merton during this tumultuous time in my country’s history, I hope to become grounded in a similar love for all people that won’t back away from moral clarity. God knows we’ve tried to follow the advice of Christian leaders in megachurches, and that gave us a racist, xenophobic, pathological liar, demagogue as our president. Could a Catholic monk do much worse?

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

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

On sale for $2.99

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