Training Ourselves to Be Present for the Sacred Already Around Us

What if we spent our time seeking the sacred, being present for the holy?

We wouldn’t have to travel anywhere. We wouldn’t have to overhaul our routines. We would only have to add activities that bring space for thought and awareness of the present moment.

Where is the sacred found? Some may travel to a sacred space to find the sacred, but such spaces help us detach from distractions rather than bringing us closer to God. Jesus spoke of the indwelling Spirit and the Kingdom of God being within or among us.

We could say that the sacred is found among us in the present moment.

If we want to find the sacred, then what prevents us from seeking it? What blocks our path toward what what is deeper and more valuable?

This is the pearl of great price, the most valuable thing we could imagine. We spend our lives making cost/benefit analysis for our choices and practices. What do we gain, what do we lose, and is that trade off worthwhile?

My sense is that the sacred presence of God and the resulting presence of God’s Kingdom is found when we are able to be focused and stable in the present moment.

We may repent of the past and cast dreams and visions into the future, but we can only rely on God’s grace to cover what we have done and rest in God’s care for what’s coming tomorrow. We can’t change the past, and we can’t control the future. Our faith addresses these two areas where we exert no control.

Yet, the sacred now is where God’s dynamic energy is present, and preserving our attention to this moment will pay off in personal, spiritual, and relational ways. My faith in the present rests in God’s presence that I can easily miss.

Any of my fears about God abandoning me or my own sin making me unworthy have given way to the assurances of Jesus that he is present, he knows his own people, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The disconnect I often find in my own life from God’s sacred presence is my attention. Training myself to be present, to be still, and to be receptive to God’s presence changes my approach to spiritual practices.

If the sacred is already present, I’m not trying to summon God, to prove myself worthy, or to do the right thing in order to make God show up. ​My practice becomes a process of training myself to chase distractions from my mind and to be present for God in the moment.

This training to be present in the moment involves everything from the chores I do, the moments I wait in line at the store, and the ways I spend my free time.

Taking a run, painting a picture, or building something out of wood becomes part of the practice of prayer as I train my mind to be still, to release thoughts, and to be present for whatever God may have for me in the present moment.

My creative projects by themselves can draw glory to God, but they also become a formative experience that trains me in the ways of being present in the moment. The more I am present in the moment, rather than dreading the future or lamenting the past, the more I can enter into prayer with a clear mind that is receptive to the sacred that is already there.

Social Media’s Solutions Often Make Our Problems Worse

Where does your mind turn in a free moment?

When it’s time to relax, what do you do?

What do you crave?

These are the kinds of questions that the designers of technology have in mind when creating devices, apps, and other tech-centered “solutions” to our perceived problems. And even before we realize we have a problem or a craving, technology is there to present a version of what we desire.

Consider some of our most important and meaningful desires in life.

We all want to do something meaningful and important that somehow makes a difference. And even if some people are largely absorbed in themselves, they’ll never flourish until they turn their gaze outward.

We all crave interpersonal connections with others. We want to belong, to be seen, to be appreciated as we are, and to know we have a place to call our own.

We all need downtime for leisure, freedom of thought, rest, and restoration.

Spirituality weaves its way through all of these areas of need, and my sense is that the goals of spirituality and overall human flourishing often suffer because of the technology-driven solutions offered to our most basic needs and desires.

That isn’t to say that technology and spirituality are completely at odds with each other. They can work together toward shared goals.

I receive spiritual direction over Zoom. Churches are streaming services online, and we keep in touch with others via phone calls, text messages, emails, and video conferences.

The meaning and connection that spirituality offers is not fundamentally opposed to technology in theory. Taking a smartphone in hand to send a message to someone is hardly anti-spirituality.

But, what if I can’t stop picking up that smartphone ?

What if I have a hard time putting that smartphone down?

THAT gets us to the deeper issues at the root of technology’s proposed solutions to our deepest desires, needs, and challenges. In the view of technology’s designers, it’s often the case that our good and essential needs, desires, and challenges are reduced to a marketing sales pitch for a tech-driven solution that may not truly fulfill our needs.

In fact, the tech-driven solution often makes things worse. Technology can offer a solution of sorts, but too often it’s a partial solution or a counterfeit solution.

Consider how the person craving connection with other people may opt for the easily accessed and socially distanced option of social media. There may be some meaningful connections made via groups or in some discussions.

Yet, that genuine need for connection drives the design and features of social media sites. The good of interpersonal connection is exploited in these social media apps that use the feedback of other users and the most engaging content of others to keep you hooked.

As a result, I’ve found myself less physically, mentally, and emotionally present for others because I’m “engaged” on “connecting” with others on social media. Social media uses up time I could spend with others in person or in one-on-one interactions. Social media fills up my mind with the most engaging (or enraging) content, making it harder to hear other people or to be silent and still before God.

It’s true that we can do good through social media. We can meet people and even loosely maintain some relationships, but how many relationships can we realistically maintain on social media? Couldn’t we just as easily use an email or a text message to maintain that relationship if it is a high priority for us?

Most importantly, what do we lose when we use social media to meet some of our deepest needs for connection, relaxation, or entertainment?

Do we lose time to make deeper connections with individuals? Are we actually relaxing or being entertained? Wouldn’t reading a book, doing an art project, or intentionally reading a newspaper be a better, more restorative practice?

Consider how much better it is to read a few focused articles in a newspaper or newspaper app vs. the reactive stream of outrage and tragedy that afflicts us on social media where we may not even know the reliability of a story’s source.

The more I think about what social media is and the impact it has on me, the more I’m convinced that it offers partial or counterfeit solutions at best to my problems. In too many cases, social media often makes my challenges worse.

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

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

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

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

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did magi take such journeys regularly to celebrate royal births?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. God can speak to us in many ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can You Really Pray for an Hour Each Day?

The great spiritual writer and priest Henrí Nouwen once visited Mother Teresa and asked her what he should do to live out his vocation as a priest, she replied:

“Spend one hour a day in adoration of your Lord and never do anything you know is wrong, and you will be alright.”

My first reaction was something like, “Oh, that sounds super simple. Got it.”

Then, I started looking at my calendar. “AN HOUR??? REALLY?”

And then I started thinking about the low points in my days, the times when anger burns, and the moments when apathy and sloth make it very easy to resist what could help me the most.

With a few moments of reflection, the words of Mother Theresa started sounding like a reach for me.

While we could argue about the merits of her advice and the fact that she gave it to a priest rather than a married guy with a job and three kids, let’s assume for a moment that she’s right on the money about what we all need each day. Besides, it’s easy to assume that only “religious professionals” have the time for spiritual practices.

If adoration and obedience will help most of us fulfill our vocations, then we just need to figure out how to make them both happen. And even if we want to debate with Mother Teresa, I don’t think more adoration and obedience would hurt anyone—especially since adoration could take so many different forms.

So, let’s consider for a moment what it could look like to set aside an hour of adoration for the Lord each day and not doing anything we know that’s wrong.

Where Do We Begin? Obedience?

I’ll be honest that when I first tested out this path for spiritual direction, I spent a lot of time focusing on my actions and thoughts. I tried to do what I knew to be right.

There are moments when we need a bit of willpower and some white knuckling to obey God’s commands. A few incidents with neighbors come to mind as moments when I had to intentionally act to forgive some who had done something wrong. I had to choose to let go of my anger in order to forgive as Jesus told me to forgive.

Forgiveness isn’t usually easy, but it is what a merciful and forgiving God asks of us. Yet, should obedience to God’s commands always come down to willpower and white knuckles?

I think that question helps us see how Mother Theresa’s two suggestions intersect rather than stand alone. In fact, that separated approach to obedience and adoration was a big mistake on my part.

An hour of adoration of a merciful and forgiving God will remind me of God’s great mercy for me. I’ll also allow God to shape and change me so that I conform to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life rather than making myself act correctly.

If I need some spiritual direction that will lead me away from willful sins, then I may benefit most from looking toward the God who can show me the path forward.

Adoration has a lot to do with obedience.

Can I Spend an Hour in Adoration of the Lord?

The thing I’ve learned about myself and spiritual practices is that I can’t let the ideal undermine the reality of life. I can’t let the perfect replace the possible.

Some days the kids wake up extra early or stay up super late. Some days the alarm isn’t set properly or we fall back asleep by mistake. Some days the unexpected happens or an interruption pulls us away from our worthy pursuits.

If we aren’t tucked away in a monastery, we have to accept that we probably don’t have as much control over our schedules as we would like. And even monks have sometimes complained about not having enough time to pray!

I have found that I do best with making space for adoration of the Lord in silence and in praying scripture by aiming for a rough schedule every day. It’s not perfect, but I generally know how I’m going to start each day. That helps a lot.

I also try to make some space in the middle and at the end of each day so that I can remain aware of God. It would be amazing if I could just make an hour available each day at the drop of a hat, but there are so many competing priorities and distractions each day. The best solution I can find at now is to make space for prayer and adoration before the day really gets going and to then find space for it as I do other things or as I take breaks throughout the day.

I don’t know if I’ve gotten close to an uninterrupted hour of adoration in a day, but I have found that it’s possible to at least spread this time out throughout a day.

As imperfect as that approach feels some days, I have noticed without fail that my ability to live in obedience to God always follows my ability to make space for silent adoration. If my adoration falters, then my obedience most likely follows that path shortly.

This is the mystery of the Christian life, both choosing to live in obedience to God while also placing ourselves in the care of the Holy Spirit to shape us and to guide. As my mind is reshaped by God’s work, my “work” of obedience becomes a joint venture in union with the Holy Spirit.

These days I try to spend a lot more time asking if I’m making time for adoration rather than if I’m living in obedience. If I am making time for adoration, the obedience often takes care of itself.

Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Can We Do All Things Through Christ When Life Feels Impossible?

 

My conversations with friends these days tend to revolve around some pretty similar themes.

We all have too much to do and too much to worry about with a pandemic, the coming election, school being disrupted, and work being disrupted. Many of us are keeping our kids at home for school, and that adds a significant layer of exhaustion for everything.

Just as we feel this strain and burden with so much to do and to worry about, we have so many restrictions on our gatherings with friends, families, and groups, especially churches. Our support networks are suddenly limited and uncertain.

The isolation, the converging challenges of work and childcare at home, and the many external uncertainties feel like too much right now. In this moment of feeling overwhelmed, I’m reminded of Paul saying that despite his overwhelming circumstances, he could do all things through Christ who strengthens him.

“…I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me“ (Philippians 4:12-14, NRSV).

Given the scale of these challenges right now, it feels a bit cheap to say to someone, “I know this feels like a lot, but have you considered Jesus?”

What exactly is possible in Christ when there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything? Paul would read a lot easier if he said, “I can do the two most important things each day through Christ who strengthens me.”

Let’s be honest here, too: Jesus and Paul faced two enormous, impossible circumstances. The Romans and the Jewish religious establishment were as impossible as it gets, influential, and full of resources.

What exactly could Jesus and Paul “do” in the face of such powerful entities and impossible circumstances? Perhaps to the eyes of some, it appears Paul and Jesus hardly accomplished anything at all.

They were both opposed by the religious establishment, suffered enormous losses, and were executed by Rome. Those are hardly ringing endorsements!

I have had my moments of sadness and despair, exhaustion and worry. I need more breaks and moments of silence just to make it through a typical day filled with work, homeschooling the older kids, caring for a two-year-old, and trying to carve a bit of space for silence, prayer, and personal sanity.

What does it look like to do all things through Christ who strengthens us?

What does it even look like to do one or two important things each day through Christ who strengthens us?

Keep in mind that in the verses surrounding the passage quoted above, Paul wrote about real distress. He had suffered and gone through times of want and real hardship.

The mystery I find here is the life of Christ at work in us. This key to contentment and peace is also rather counterintuitive. In Christ, we are living from a source that seems at once apart from us, but in reality very much a spiritual presence in us.

How do we surrender to the power of God in us and still maintain a sense of drive and mission each day?

Perhaps the first step is that genuine feeling of being overwhelmed and struggling to make sense of a situation that feels impossible. That moment of great need and struggle is our opportunity, as unwelcome as it may feel at the time, to rely on God’s presence in us.

I suppose it would be ideal to arrive at this point BEFORE we feel overwhelmed by situations that feel impossible. Yet, urgency can be a great motivator.

In my journey through the worst seasons of anxiety, those moments of feeling overwhelmed often served as a prompt to pray. I didn’t want to feel so anxious, but I soon found that they could be turned into a useful step toward faith and mental health.

The crush of the many impossibilities today is hardly welcome. We face a lot of uncertainty, and some of us will still endure a lot of suffering. Too many lives are being lost, and too many families are grieving. Grief and sorrow are appropriate responses to our current reality.

Yet, this is also the moment when we can take another step in faith toward the mystery of the life of Christ in us.

What could it look like to turn toward God’s presence in us when life feels like a weight we can no longer carry?

Finding a place of contentment and peace may feel like a heavy lift right now. But faith doesn’t tend to grow through leaps and bounds.

Faith grows at the pace of a tiny seed taking root in the ground, sprouting under the pounding rain, and imperceptibly growing under the blazing sun. Even the unseen nature of the process itself can feel impossible.

I wouldn’t kid myself that we can do ALL things right now, but we can begin to learn what it looks like to lean more and more on the presence of Christ. This is God’s present gift for us even when it feels like so much else has been taken away.

How to Make an Author Howl in Despair

 

No one ever made me literally howl with despair, as if I was lost in the bleak darkness of the wilderness, but I’ve had that feeling deep in my soul on many occasions when discussing my latest book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction.

The internal howling in despair often happened before I sharpened my elevator pitch for Reconnect. I told others little tidbits about the aim of the book:

  • It’s a book about using technology too much…
  • It’s a book about how technology makes it hard to pray…
  • It’s a book about how spiritual practices can help us transcend the harm done by smartphones and social media…

Each time I shared little tidbits like this, people naturally compared my idea to existing books—one book in particular came up, in fact.

  • “Oh, it’s like The Tech Wise Family, then?”
  • “Ah, I see. That sounds like The Tech Wise Family.”
  • “Hey, I just read The Tech Wise Family. That’s the same idea, right?”

This is where the internal howling kicked in. Perhaps a sophisticated answer like this passed through my mind as well:

“NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

There are two really good reasons for this response…

Authors Always Believe Their Books Are Unique

Part of the reason for this response on my part is that every author, for better or for worse, believes their books are precious little unique snowflakes that have deeply unappreciated intricacies that truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

Even the authors who write Bible studies on the book of Romans or something about fighting the stress of “too busy” with the whisper “you are enough” (don’t forget the flowers on the cover too) think their books are extremely unique. My gosh, it’s still a bit of a miracle that I got a book published in 2008 about “theology and culture” at a time when every white dude with an MDiv was “musing” about such things on their blogs.

Authors can’t help it. And to a certain extent, every book is as unique as the author. Even books that appear identical may find a new angle that benefits readers. And honestly, some topics just have a higher demand that publishers who want to keep the lights on can’t help meeting.

Yet, there is another really good reason for this howling in despair…

Authors Must Distinguish Their Books

One of the most stressful and challenging aspects of writing a book proposal for a publisher is the Competing Works section that lists five or six similar titles and compares them to your proposed book. The competing works is a difficult balancing act because you need to demonstrate an existing market for your book without overlapping completely with an existing work.

I’ve seen promising book proposals fall flat because similar books were either in a publisher’s pipeline or had been newly released.

When I developed a proposal for Reconnect, I listed The Tech Wise Family as a competing work and carefully distinguished my book from it. If I was pitching something that is “the same thing” as The Tech Wise Family, I wouldn’t be able to promote my book to readers, let alone to a publisher.

My internal howling and shouting at comparisons to The Tech Wise Family called to mind the painstaking process of defining my book’s place in the market.

I didn’t know of any other Christian book that merged an awareness of the design of digital technology and its formative impact with an awareness of spiritual formation and the ways technology could undermine spirituality.

When I managed to calm down my internal screaming during these conversations, I put it like this: The Tech Wise Family is accurate and useful, but it’s dealing with the flood  by proposing countermeasures to deal with the reality we have.

I’m seeking to look further upstream…

Why do we have a flood?

What is the design of the flood?

How can we keep the flood from reaching us in the first place?

How can we build a solid foundation of spiritual practices that can save us from being swept away in the flood?

Less Howling, More Silence

I fully endorse and use the ideas in The Tech Wise Family, but I have personally needed a different approach to digital formation. I needed to understand why I’m drawn to social media and my smartphone. I needed to understand the ways these technologies exploit my weaknesses and how spiritual practices can restore my soul each day.

Placing good barriers around my technology use has helped me, but I wanted to know why I needed these barriers in the first place.

Most importantly, I needed a soul restoring alternative to digital formation. For many of us, our excessive smartphone use is scratching at itch for something: distraction, connection, enjoyment, etc.

I wanted to find the alternative to digital formation, and many of spiritual formation’s practices offer helpful alternatives. Digital formation makes us reactive; spiritual formation helps us become thoughtful and aware. Digital formation creates despair and anxiety; spiritual formation helps us wait with patience and hope.

All of this is to say in a very detailed way that my book Reconnect is a precious little unique snowflake that has deeply unappreciated intricacies that only truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

I trust that you are just that sort of reader and that you are no doubt eager to read it now, rather than telling me it’s just like The Tech Wise Family

 

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Prayer Is Boring. But We Need Boredom… And Prayer

 

Considering that digital formation, often through our phones and social media, either fills our minds with thoughts or prevents us from facing our thoughts in silence, spiritual formation frees us from the constant chatter of our thoughts and trains us to let go of them.

Whether we are meditating on the life-giving words of Scripture or waiting in silence before God, spiritual formation relies on disengaging from the constant flow of chaotic ideas that create a reactive mind that struggles to focus on prayer. In addition, once we have stepped away from this stream of ideas, we also need to let go of the ones that we have fixated on.

The thoughts lodged in our minds prevent us from perceiving ourselves and God’s presence clearly. The more we are engaged in stimulation and ideas, the less space we’ll have to thoughtfully review our days and to let go of what Martin Laird calls “afflictive thoughts.”

These thoughts can fill our minds to the point that we fail to realize God is present, or we remain boxed in by our illusions about ourselves or God. By sitting in silence, releasing our thoughts gently, and creating space for God, we can gain greater clarity through simple contemplative practices. Laird writes:

“Contemplative practice gradually dispels the illusion of separation from God. Through the medicine of grace, the eye of our heart is healed by the gradual removal of the lumber of mental clutter, ‘the plank in our eye’ that obscures the radiance of the heart. This radiance is a ray of God’s own light.”*

This letting go of thoughts is not a spectacular or brand-new, cutting-edge spiritual practice. This isn’t the sort of thing spiritual gurus do onstage to the applause of the crowd. It is an ancient spiritual practice of letting go of our thoughts and illusions that can blind us to the brilliance of God—even if the practice often feels quite unspectacular on most days.

Howard Thurman shares how the unspectacular waiting in silence, releasing each thought as it comes, is the kind of space that God can work with in our lives:

“It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life—so that when His Presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me.”**

If smartphones and social media ensure that we never have to wait in boredom, that we can always find a source of stimulation, and that we never have to be alone with our thoughts, we are training ourselves to fail in spiritual formation. In fact, our devices are stealing an important element of a typical prayer experience.

Put bluntly, prayer is often quite simple and mundane, and even boring. It may include incredible encounters with God or moments of powerful transformation, but the day-in, day-out discipline of prayer is rarely exciting or even rewarding. Prayer even thrives in the boredom of its simple routines and practices.

 

Learn More about Spiritual Formation vs. Digital Formation

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

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*Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 58.

**Thurman, Essential Writings, 45.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learn More Digital Formation vs. Spiritual Formation

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

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What Makes It Hard to Stand Still?

Perhaps the strangest paradox of modern life is that it can feel harder to stand still and do nothing than it is to remain in motion doing something.

Shouldn’t “doing nothing” be the easiest thing to “do”?

I have often experienced this sensation while taking a walk and stopping to look at a flowering tree or noticing a particular swirl of light in the late afternoon sky. There’s often something else to do or an inner drive to be productive–to keep moving.

I’ve watched several documentaries where monks are staring contentedly at fields where the sun rustles the corn, where monks settle in at a desk to read scripture for long stretches of time, or where a monk calmly works on a task such as cutting fire wood or making soap. These people may as well be from a different planet compared to me.

How are they so unhurried and calm?

What super power enables them to sit or stand so still and so erect for so long?

Do they drink less coffee???

My suspicion is that I have immersed myself in motion, productivity, and meeting certain goals that appear quite important. I find it difficult to stop each day for meditation, prayer, or silence before God because I’m immersed in illusions about my own importance or the urgency of everything before me.

Training myself to value silence or to thrive in stillness has challenged me to rethink my addiction to motion and activity.

Perhaps I won’t get what I crave if I’m always thinking about doing the next thing?

What exactly do I crave in the first place?

That’s where some uncomfortable reflections come up!

It may be easier to reflect on what I could gain if I made stillness and silence a more regular part of my daily life.

For instance, I have managed to train myself to recognize when I’m not getting enough stillness and silence. I know the feeling of rush, despair, and disordered thoughts that comes with an addiction to hurry and doing.

I can feel my soul lurching forward with the shock of a stop, as if silence is slamming on the brakes in my life.

Yet, when I am grounded in a measure of silence and stillness, I can become more aware of God and more aware of how I’m spending my time.

I can ask if I’m using my phone or social media to check out from reality. I can ask if I need to add more life-giving activities to my day, such as a walk, some art, or a bit of reading.

Perhaps the thing that makes standing still so difficult is that I haven’t realized just how beneficial it could be for me to stop doing things. It would be a tragedy to get everything I’ve been striving to achieve with my activity only to realize I could find most of what I need if I set aside more time for silence.

The Prayer of the Heart vs. Prayer as Mental Therapy

Silent, contemplative prayer has been calming  for my mind, but it’s not the same as going to therapy. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve spent enough time in a therapist’s office to know what kinds of practices can help calm my mind.

There are some ways that prayer and therapy can overlap, as both can lead us to simple phrases or insights that help us re-order our thoughts. As we let go of toxic thoughts, a prayer phrase or word can aid us on our journey. Throughout my time in therapy, I’ve also learned simple phrases to carry with me so that I can keep my mind grounded in reality rather than what I fear.

Yet, it has been a mistake for me to pursue prayer as merely an escape hatch from troubling thoughts. It can help me do that, but I have found that it also calls me to something deeper and far more expansive. I could argue that prayer is also far more costly since it takes me to the depths of my nothingness before the love and mercy of God.

When I’m caught up in anxiety, I can use the insight of therapy to reorder my thoughts around the reality of my situation. The same can happen with prayer, but that is often the incidental result of a deeper healing and presence.

Contemplative prayer has been described as the prayer of the heart. Teachers of prayer have spoken of this prayer as going into the heart and standing before God. They describe it as beholding God or consenting to God’s presence in your life. If God is already present with us, then it stands to reason that the only missing thing for prayer is our consent that leads to a deeper awareness of that reality.

On the other end of contemplative prayer, I have felt a similar reordering of my thoughts much like in therapy, but something else happens as well. Prayer takes us into the realm of mystery and love. Some refuse to put the details of these prayer experiences into words because they are too intimate and beyond the limits of what they can say.

I participate in both prayer and therapy because they are different. Yet, the deeper healing and love of prayer is hardly at odds with the ways therapy puts my mind at ease.

Many times it seems that I leave therapy with a clearer idea of what has gotten in the way of my prayers.

Yet, I don’t pray merely for it’s therapeutic benefits. There is a real cost to prayer that can empty us and lead us through challenging places. There can be a struggle. At times it may seem that God has remained far away, and confusion may loom over us for a season.

We go down into our hearts to pray not to feel better but so that we can love God and become aware of God’s love. There is an opportunity for transformation and renewal, but prayer isn’t just about feeling good.

Prayer gives me an opportunity to be shaped by God on God’s own terms, no matter what the cost may be. As I walk through that refining, I have found greater peace and have let go of the many afflictions haunting my mind.

Finishing a moment of prayer isn’t the same thing as leaving my therapist’s office with the hope that I got my money’s worth. But there both offer a moment to step away from patterns of thinking that can leave myself alienated from myself and from others. Perhaps the greatest difference is that such a movement away from alienating thoughts is often just the beginning for prayer.

 

 

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