The Compromise White Evangelicals Don’t Want to Talk About

shutterstock_642763852 3000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May Our Illusions Wilt Under God’s Love for Us

Illusions are exhausting.

My illusions about myself are difficult to maintain.

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

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

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

What if God is holding back from me?

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

What if God only has judgment for me?

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

Why has God failed me in the past?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Too Mad to Help the Church?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where Do You Begin with Prayer? Try Thankfulness

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

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

– Henri Nouwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Resting at Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Making Space for Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

Can We Offer Hope to a Chaotic World by Withdrawing? A Parable

Imagine a deep rushing stream that flows in between mountains.

People from every background are floating down the stream together, some in kayaks and canoes, others in tubes.

The rushing water is swift and occasionally dangerous, but the majority of people pass by safely, even if they have plenty of anxiety about what’s coming around the next bend.

Some have lashed themselves to each other. Others float in small clusters. Whether in large groups or small groups, everyone is talking, always talking.

When the stream settles to a tranquil flow and the boats and tubes barely move along, the talking grows louder and louder. It echoes off the rock walls lining the stream. The only relief to the talking is the rushing water that sends everyone zipping downstream and prompts them to consider what awaits them around the next bend.

At a particularly quiet stretch of the river the stream splits to go around an island. The island is large for a river of this size. A woman of indeterminate age stands on the shore waving to all who pass by.

Some have paddled over to her island to speak with her as they float past.  She is a curiosity. Perhaps she has gained some wisdom by stepping out of the stream, but who can possibly step away from the stream for so long? Who has the time? There is so much more of the river to explore.

Others dig their paddles and hands into the water, splashing water furiously to avoid her at all costs.

A few have left the stream to spend a longer time on her island.

The woman leaves the water’s edge frequently to rest in the shade of the pine trees. She had once traveled on this river. The rush of the river still whispers to her. The movement had been addicting. It took a supernatural willpower to take those first steps out of the stream so many sunsets ago.

Day after day, she stands by the water’s edge to speak with the people floating by, rests in the shade of the trees, and then emerges when she has been restored.

A few stay on her island, learning from her. They spend long days imitating her until the days no stop appearing long. Eventually, they become themselves. It is a moment without fanfare or epiphanies. No one taught them how to be who they are because they had always been themselves. The river kept them from seeing it. There had been so much to talk about and to anticipate. The silence of the island taught them.

Over time, those who have learned from the woman venture into the center of the island where they had stowed away their boats long ago. They do this reluctantly and with a measure of trepidation. But they have a renewed sense of mission. They have faced who they are, and over time they have enlarged their compassion for those who have been floating down the stream. Do they know who they are? Do they know why they are on this stream?

Some will float down to another island to speak with the people just as the woman has done. Others will hop from shoreline to shoreline, floating and speaking before withdrawing to become grounded in who they are, lest the stream sweep them away with the talking and worrying about what is around the next bend.

As they paddle away from the woman’s island, she welcomes a man who has paddled over reluctantly. Perhaps a little rest on this island could help ease his mind. Perhaps this woman can answer some of the questions he’s been unable to ask when so many people are talking on the river.

He stumbles over the slippery rocks along the shore as he pulls his kayak over. His paddle falls into the water and he stubs his toe as he snatches it out of the water. Nothing is graceful about this exit from the water.

Finally, he crunches onto the solid gravel beach of the island where the woman is waiting. After he drags his boat onto the shore, he realizes that the woman has been speaking to him all of this time. When did she start speaking to him? It’s as if she’d been giving him this message for all of eternity, before he was born and it will continue long after he is gone.

Spinning around, he faces her, but he can’t hear her over the stream.

He steps closer, and she smiles, raising her arms to embrace him.

“Welcome. You are loved.”

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.

Resting Takes a Lot of Work?

Blue-Sky-finding center

A month ago I set off on an 11-hour drive to speak at a Writing Retreat that my friend Andi hosts each year. The prior three weeks had been an all-out sprint to keep up with client projects while my wife was on a research trip, release a book, prepare for the retreat, and catch up on client work a little more.

This was the final stretch of a month-long sprint, and my mind and body were BUZZING.

Energy, stress, anxiety, and who knows what else left me feeling desperate, sad, and a bit unhinged. How in the world could I speak about writing without crushing your soul at this retreat in a state like this?

I needed silence: a lot of it.

I breathed deeply. I centered on a prayer word. I let go of any thought that wasn’t related to avoiding trucks and finding Dunkin Donuts coffee.

Starting north of Nashville, I sat in silence for long stretches all the way across I-40.

When I reached Knoxville, I had listened to a few short podcasts (thanks to Anne Bogel’s “What Should I Read Next”!), but the unsettled buzzing in my mind continued.

Over the rolling hills and mountains of Virginia I continued to breathe deeply for the entire stretch of I-81.

Finally, turning toward Charlottesville, I sensed something settle.

Since I was arriving about an hour later than I had intended, I passed up a scenic overlook along the highway. I immediately regretted this. The mountains were spectacular at this pass. Why was I so determined to pass up beauty for the sake of a clock?

I just about jumped out of my seat when another scenic overlook showed up five miles later. I pulled into the lonely rest area and just about fell over with the silent majesty of these mountains.

The words of Jacob came to mind: “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’”

This thin moment before the mountains was its own gate of heaven, delighting in creation. Nothing particularly spectacular or spiritual happened. I had found my center, a place of rest in God that wasn’t at the mercy of my circumstances so that I could enjoy what was before me.

How many times in the past have I been running on empty or burned out, but I’ve pushed on, believing that I just needed to get through it?

How many times have I passed up beauty, rest, and restoration because I didn’t understand the value of silence or finding my center?

How often have I missed the silent beauty of God because I didn’t know how much work it is to be still and know that he is God?

Contemplative prayer has taught me about the paradox of resting in God. I don’t naturally choose rest, and I honestly need to work at resting. I have to fight for my rest by choosing silence when everything in my body craved distraction and noise.  Resting in God takes practice and intention.

I Used to Pray to a Passive-Aggressive God

church-prayer

The Psalms tell us to wait patiently on the Lord. I used to read that as a kind of passive-aggressive move on God’s part. Here I was, desperate for God, waiting and praying with all of my heart. Would it kill him to show up when I pray?

After learning about and practicing contemplative prayer, I realized I had everything completely backwards. God has been waiting for us all along, but we are often too distracted, impatient, or fearful to be present for him. In addition, a “present God” may not bring about the emotions and experiences we expect.

God’s love is here and constant, and there is nothing I can do or feel to change that reality. I can ignore it or obstruct it, but I can’t stop it.

Learning to pray isn’t about turning on the tap of God’s love. Rather, learning to pray is about training ourselves to be present for the love of God that is already at work in our lives.

Evangelical anxiety tells us that prayer isn’t working because there must be something wrong with us.

Evangelical anxiety focuses on results and progress, but God is more concerned about loving presence.

Contemplative prayer has taught me that God’s love is present and that I need only seek God in order to pray. I may have an epiphany, but I most likely will not. God’s love is steady and constant, and many days I have to settle for taking that on faith.

Focusing on my feelings and experiences have been my greatest barriers to contemplative prayer. I have had to completely shut down my anxious evangelical tendency toward measuring and proving my spiritual vitality and worth.

François Fénelon wrote, “How will you go on to maturity if you are always seeking the consolation of feeling the presence of God with you? To seek pleasure and to ignore the cross will not get you very far. You will soon be trapped in the pursuit of spiritual pleasures” (100 Days in the Secret Place, 11).

The journey into contemplative prayer calls on us to think differently of God and of ourselves. Very little depends on us. The spiritual “work” we do in contemplative prayer is very different from the spirituality of many evangelicals who are bogged down with lists of beliefs, practices, and activities that we must do to pursue holiness or the presence of God.

We’re never doing enough to win God’s love or to achieve any kind of lasting life transformation. How could we? God’s love is already ours, and until we learn how to simply receive it, we’ll get stuck in an anxious rut of performance, failure, and struggle.

The first step in many spiritual practices such as the Examen and centering prayer is a simple acknowledgement that God is present. That is so very different from my assumptions as an evangelical Christian who used phrases like, “I’m waiting for God to show up.” Theologically I could explain divine omnipotence, but practically, I struggled to believe that God was truly present with me and, most importantly, loving me right in that moment without preconditions.

This is the true prayer of a little child in the Kingdom. If you can only call out, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” in faith and reliance, then you can pray. My own pride and hopes for spiritual advancement kept me from seeing how badly I needed to become like a little child in prayer.

 

This post is taken from my book

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

Read more by downloading it for $2.99 today

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

 

 

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