Christians Need Compassion More Than Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Merton: Unasked Questions Lead to Spiritual Anxiety

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Contemplative prayer has proven most beneficial for me because it addressed my reliance on having the right questions and finding the right answers to those questions. In God, we don’t always have an assurance that our questions will be answered to our satisfaction or that we’ll even find the right questions to ask.

In the quiet of silence before God, I’ve found deliverance from my uneasy answers as they are replaced by God’s loving presence:

“Now anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. It is the fruit of unanswered questions. But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked. And there is a far worse anxiety, a far worse insecurity, which comes from being afraid to ask the right questions— because they might turn out to have no answer. One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.”

– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

Creating a Contemplative-Friendly Smartphone to Find Time to Pray

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The best step I have ever taken for my spiritual health, personal sanity, and relationships has been removing Facebook from my iPhone. The second best step has been imagining ways I can turn my phone into a prompt for prayer.

I think we all know what happens when we’re carrying a phone around. I keep checking and checking and checking it. Every time there’s a free moment, the phone comes out and I scroll through whatever app I can find. It’s an impulse or habit for many of us by now. When I had email and three or four social media accounts to flip through, I could waste a ton of time on my phone.

Our attachment to our phones is becoming legendary. People experience anxiety apart from their phones to the point that those trying to break their attachment can buy fake phones that are sized and weighted like real ones. We have anxiety complexes over dead batteries. We check our phones the first thing in the morning and right before going to bed.

Although I am far from the most virtuous or disciplined person with my phone, I decided to try using my phone as a prompt to pray and to even lead me toward contemplative prayer. I’ve written about this in my newsletter, but now that I’ve given it a shot for a longer stretch of time, I finally feel able to publicly offer a few thoughts on what has worked.

What I Don’t Use

I tried using podcast prayer apps, but I don’t really have the time to dive into podcasts all that often, and lately I prize silence more than anything else. If I have a quiet moment, I’m not going to put something on!

Having said that, I did use Pray as You Go for a season and really benefited from it. It’s especialy ideal for commuters. Others have strongly recommended the Abide app. If contemplative prayer is new or intimidating to you, a podcast like Pray as You Go may help you take steps toward reflecting on scripture and making time to be still.

I have also used the Jesuits app on and off again. It offers some simple Examen questions, a scripture reading, and a brief reflection. It’s also on both Android and Apple.

My Essential Smartphone Contemplation Plan

Most importantly, I wanted for my iPhone set up to make prayer or reading deeper articles easier and more or less automatic. My home screen includes the apps for the Examine, Pocket, the Clock, and Safari (the Mac internet browser), which are my main sources of smartphone-based contemplation.

Safari always has the page for the Divine Hours at Vineyard Ann Arbor loaded. I often access the Divine Hours in the morning at the very least or during a break at work when I take a little stretch break when I remember to set my Pomodoro timer. The Divine Hours offer small and large passages of scripture and prayers that you can read, meditate on, or recite throughout the day.

The Examine app remains one of my most valued apps. By offering a series of prompts about what’s encouraging or discouraging from my day, I can practice the Ignatian Examen once or twice a day in order to take stock of my soul and to better direct my prayers. Most importantly, the Examen helps me to become aware of when I need to remain silent and become more present for God’s love.

While the Clock is a standard, ho hum app that I suppose most people may not even consider using, I use the timer all of the time for centering prayer. I mean, who can judge when 20 minutes have passed? I just set the timer and leave it alone while I sit and either focus on breathing quietly, praying the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner), or centering on a “sacred word.”

As for reading contemplative materials, I keep my Pocket app on my home screen in order to read articles that I’ve saved throughout the day. Pocket has a really clean interface that makes it easy to read without distraction. I save articles all day, so it’s ideal to have a place where I can access them when I have a moment. I also subscribe to the daily email from Richard Rohr, which has been a real lifeline some days.

In fact, I have relied so deeply on Rohr’s emails that I set up my own Contemplative Writer website that offers daily or weekly subscription options that send contemplative scripture and articles to subscribers. There’s the daily option to sign up to receive new posts in your inbox  or you can sign up for the weekly contemplative prayer email.

What I Hide or Don’t Have on My Phone

As I mentioned already, I don’t have Facebook on my iPhone. I don’t have Messenger, Twitter, or Hootsuite either. I manage all of that on my computer for the most part.

I do use Instagram on my phone, but I do my best to hide that way in the back and mostly manage it through the Later app, which has been a true lifesaver when combined with Canva.

My data plan with Consumer Cellular is fairly limited, and I have data turned off for almost everything except for email, maps, and Safari, primarily so I can access Rohr’s emails and the Divine Hours on the go. Everything else, including Instagram and the NHL app, have data turned off.

Most importantly, my goal all along has been to train myself to pray before I do anything else. That’s a challenge most days when work time is limited, and it’s especially hard as our family transitions to a new town. However, there’s no denying that I immediately feel a bit of guilt if I start answering emails before reading the Morning Office or reading Rohr’s email.

I’m sure this little contemplative smartphone plan will evolve in the years to come, but for now, I’m at least a little more likely to pray and a lot less likely to turn to my phone for idle distraction when I have a few free minutes. In fact, I’ve often pulled my phone out, realized I don’t expect any urgent emails or need to open any apps, and just put it away. I’m far more aware of the ways that my smartphone becomes a distraction and barrier, even if I know there is always a lot of room for growth.

Who knows, maybe a year from now I’ll just trash all of these ideas, delete my social media accounts, and buy a flip phone.

 

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

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

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

I Tried Quiet Prayer Once and It Didn’t Work

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How many things in life work great the first time around?

Is there anyone who can just pick up a worthwhile discipline or skill after reading a book and trying it once?

Can you learn to paint, knit, sew, or cook with one shot?

Can you remember the first time you tried to ride a bike? I was taking spills all over the school yard for weeks until I caught on and learned how to balance myself. I eventually spent hours riding down a small hill that would have been terrifying at first.

This past summer I started running regularly. I had been somewhat active in the winter by taking the occasional long walk, but running was a different animal altogether.

I huffed and puffed, forcing my aching legs to keep going a little further before taking a walking break. My runs were something like 60% slogging along and 40% walking at first. I eventually started to run a little bit more evenly and started eliminating the walking breaks.

At a certain point around the middle of the summer, I realized that the first 25% of the run will just be miserable. I’ll start to find my stride about the mid-way point, and then the last 25% will require a bit of intention to keep my pace.

Finally, this September, I started to feel strong and confident during my runs. I didn’t even need headphones in order to play distracting music. Sure, the first bit of the run was still hard, and I had to be intentional about pushing myself to finish strong, but I finally reached a point where I felt strong and confident enough to run at a steady pace without slowing for a break.

If I had stopped running after the first day or even the first month, I would have told you that running is difficult and miserable and no one should ever try it.

If I stopped running today, I would genuinely miss it. It has proven an important way to start my day, and I have seen the benefits in my mental and physical health.

Over the past year, I’ve also taken my exploration of Christian prayer into a deeper pursuit of silence, waiting on God and letting God show up in whatever way God wants. There have been times when I’ve just watched my mind unwind with worry and rambling ideas. Other times I have experienced genuine peace and awareness of God’s love.

Then again, there are plenty of times when it has just felt like I sat by myself for 20 minutes repeating a word to myself like “beloved” or “peace.”

I have long practiced short stretches of silent prayer, say for about five minutes, at the end of my daily Examen. I’ve also meditated on scripture. This pursuit of God through silence and waiting is really, really biblical since the Psalms constantly tell us to wait on the Lord. However, I feel like I’ve been trained to demand.

I’m a recovering anxious American evangelical who loves quick fixes and spiritual growth charts.

Silent prayer feels like: I want my gold star for praying, Jesus. You’ve got 20 minutes to pay up…

This journey into silence is not easy for me. My mind is rowdy and difficult to tame.

I find myself slipping back into bad habits, comparing myself to others and wanting what God hasn’t given to me. Contentment and faith gives way to envy, greed, and discouragement as I look at all of the other people who appear to have it together.

I keep reminding myself of that runner who huffed and puffed along the bike path a few months ago who could barely string together 20 minutes of sustained running. That guy felt so weak and pathetic. He didn’t see how things could get better.

Honestly? I never saw things get better. The improvement in my running was so gradual that I couldn’t see it happen. I couldn’t control it.

My growth as a writer was like that too. Suddenly, one day I started writing markedly better manuscripts compared to the drivel I used to submit to my editor. Yes, there are always revisions, but the process is less painful.

I’ll be the first to tell you that prayer isn’t quite as difficult as it used to be. I can now sit for twenty minutes in a row with a relatively focused mind. Sometimes I sense God moving, and sometimes my mind does all of the heavy lifting.

It’s a long-term process that you can’t plug into to your life for predictable results every time. Prayer isn’t a life hack or commodity that you can install in your smart phone for an instant solution to a problem.

There’s a whole industry that promises quick, cheap, simple serenity or spiritual enlightenment. Just read the book, try something for five minutes a day for a week, or install an app in your phone, and you’ll make amazing strides in your spiritual life!!!

God’s love is a free gift that we can never earn, but each day feels like a knock down, drag out struggle to find it and experience it. My life is so full, my mind moving so fast that it’s hard to slow things down for God to settle in.

I can’t track my progress. I don’t get stickers every time something good happens while I pray.

But it sure seems like any kind of meaningful development in a lasting practice calls for this kind of dogged, determined pursuit for what matters the most.

It’s galling for the American in me to come to terms with a lifelong approach to discipleship, what Eugene Peterson called a long obedience in the same direction. Each day I’m training myself to believe that I am loved by God and that this love can gradually change me into the kind of person who is also able to extend a kind, gracious, patient love to people who would rather just grab the quick fix.

This is the first time I’ve ever practiced such intense, expectant waiting. It’s no wonder that I feel like I’m not very good at it yet.

 

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

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

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

I Was Saved But I Lost My Soul

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Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark 8:36 (NIV)

I’ve always thought of this passage as Jesus speaking of what saves our souls in the next world. In other words, become my disciple by converting, and you will save your soul with eternal life.

Having taken a trip down “Romans Road” and praying the Sinner’s Prayer, I thought I had my soul covered. Perhaps not.

I’m not going to say that “eternal security” is the wrong way to read this passage, but I think I’ve been missing the fuller meaning of Jesus’ teaching. There are depths here that I have yet to explore.

The contrast in this conversation is between a disciple and someone who gains the whole world instead. One has chosen to follow Jesus with the promise of a cross to bear and the safety of his/her soul, while the other gains notoriety, respect, and comfort while losing his/her soul.

My soul isn’t just the part of me that goes to heaven when I die. It’s also a place where I commune with God today. Those who follow Jesus keep in touch, so to speak, with their souls, while those who gain the whole world will lose touch with their souls.

Think of John Wesley’s question: “How is it with your soul?”

Those who have learned to abide in Jesus can answer that question.

Those who do not may well respond with a list of their accomplishments.

Although I have very much considered myself a follow of Jesus for most of my life, I have lost touch with my soul over the years. I’ve pursued financial stability, a career that makes sense based on my talents, and some measure of popularity and acclaim as a writer. Each time I’ve let go of a particular desire or goal, I’ve found that a barrier has been removed between myself and God.

I’ve freed myself to find God a little bit more each time as I’ve let go of my false self and my misplaced priorities.

Jesus is speaking in extremes when he mentions gaining the whole world vs. saving your soul. This isn’t an all or nothing proposition.

I have given up my soul in pursuit of a tiny little piece of the world, nothing close to “gaining the whole world.”

It doesn’t matter if I can point to someone who has sacrificed more of herself or gained more of the world. We can lose ourselves and our connections with God over the smallest distractions and shifts in direction.

I have no interest in saying who is in and who is out when it comes to saving souls for the next life. Jesus warned us specifically against playing the role of judge in such matters. I do know, however, that I have considered my soul safe and sound when, in actuality, I had no clue where it was or how to find it.

My soul had no anchor in the presence of God. I was blown about by my anxieties, the wisdom of others, and my shifting, endless, fruitless goals.

My primary job is to seek the presence of God, making my soul a place for the Spirit of God to rest. Anything else that follows isn’t for me to determine.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the spiritual life as a matter of abiding, becoming like a vine that connects to a branch. When I lost my soul to the pursuit of my own desires, I had cut myself off from the branch, hoping to be spiritually fruitful without the “work” of simply abiding.

It’s so hard to fathom how abiding is both work and not work. The work of abiding is the stillness, the surrender, and the desperation that comes from opening ourselves up to God and trusting God to provide everything that follows.

The work of abiding opens our lives up to God so that God can point at our souls and say, “There you are. See how you are loved and how my peace rests on you? Here is who you really have been all of this time and how I will always see you.”

 

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

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

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

Christians Have One Job, and It’s Not Reading the Bible

Open Hands Prayer

Christians have one job, but with all of the “holy” stuff that clutters our lives, you’d think that we had thousands of jobs.

In fact, if you’ve given up on Christianity or feel like you’re on the way out, there’s a good chance you are either sick of the thousands of jobs or you can’t believe in a God who would assign all of these jobs.

We have one job as Christians… one job.

These days I’m suspicious of anyone who wants to qualify that, add “nuance,” or say, “Yeah, but…” No, we have one job and one job only, and the more we obscure that, the more likely we are to miss out on what Christianity is all about.

I’ll bet you know where I’m going with this, but there’s a huge, huge catch. So stick with me for a moment.

Our one job and our only job is to love—love God and love others. That’s it. The teachings of Jesus are summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor, but the really, really big catch is this: Where does this love come from in us? How do we love God and love our neighbors?

Do we need preachers to command us to love others?

Do we need to read Bible verses telling us to love God?

Do we need to try harder?

This is where everything has run off the rails for me with Christianity. Look, there’s this invisible God who is generally only felt or sensed in some way. It’s not like you can invite God over for coffee and bagels, go for walks in the evening, or take a road trip to get to know each other better. And even if you want to love your neighbors, they can be mean, inconsiderate, and difficult to like. They drive too fast down your street and leave cigarette butts on your sidewalk that your kids chew on—not that I know about that from experience…

Here’s the rub: We are told that the whole sum of things is to love God and love our neighbors, but we all tend to be very unloving people. It’s really, really hard to love people, so why not aim for the lower hanging fruit of Christianity and call it a day?

I am selfish, controlling, and 100% the “get off my lawn” type. I like quiet. I want to mind my own business. And if I struggle to love my neighbors that I can see, who knows what to make of some unseen God?

So rather than wrestle with the mysteries of love and letting these consume my days and nights, I take the easy way out. I commit to Bible study, I try to live a moral life, I focus on explaining the Gospel, and I try to help other people even though I would rather just read a book.

In fact, I have long deluded myself with thinking that building a well-rounded and informed theology, cultivating good Bible study habits, and embodying the Gospel through my actions is really all there is to Christianity. I mean, of course I paid lip service to loving God and loving others and there were moments when I succeeded in loving others through these practices, but I was often running on fumes. I was driven by obligation and will-power rather than depths of God’s love that are higher, deeper, and wider than I can imagine.

It’s so much easier to read theology books than to delve into the mysteries of love.

How do you become a “loving” person?

How do you fall in love with an unseen God?

I won’t create a false dichotomy with prayer and scripture, but I do know that I have neglected prayer over the years to the point that I shouldn’t have even bothered with it. I should have just said I believe in the Bible, not the God of the Bible.

I hadn’t pursued God personally with all of my heart, mind, soul, and strength. I primarily pursued knowledge of the God in the Bible.

Here’s where I’m at today: the stuff of Christianity is the pursuit of a loving God.

The love of God is where all of the action takes place, and it’s how we become loving people who can fulfill the heart of our faith: loving God and loving neighbors.

Moments of quiet, prayerfully meditating on scripture, and waiting for the Spirit of God to fall are the center and substance of our faith. Experiencing the loving presence of God is really all there is. Sure, theology is fine in it’s place, but it’s just a small part of a much larger pursuit.

I can only love as far as I’ve been loved.

I can only accept others as far as I’ve been accepted.

I can only forgive as much as I’ve been forgiven.

As Jesus said, those who have been forgiven much, will love much (Luke 7:47, NIV).

I firmly believe that any of my struggles to love others are rooted not in my knowledge of love but in my experience of God, which is another way of saying the experience of God’s love.

Christianity has one job: love.

Love has one source: the presence of God.

So, if you want to give this Christianity thing a whirl, seek one thing and one thing only: the loving presence of God. That’s it.

If you want to stick your nose in the Bible, pick out a single verse and meditate on it for a month. Brennan Manning suggests:

“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” 

I am determined to stop making Christianity complicated. It’s not. The more I add to the pursuit of God’s loving presence, the further I find myself drifting from the center.

If we live in the center of God’s love, then we have freedom to add on additional pursuits, but I’ll say this… I have studied commentaries, I have read deeply and widely, and I have gone through the Bible countless times, even learning the original languages. There is value in all of these things, but none of them have led me to the very substance of Christianity and center that is the loving presence of God. In fact, I have spent a great deal of time thinking I had found the substance of Christianity, and the Christianity I had found was lacking.

I am no expert in the presence of God, but the times that I have opened myself up to God, I have experienced life-changing mercy and love as I confronted my pain, weaknesses, and failings. I have been accepted and held. I have found a shelter that brought peace and renewal. I have found a deep well of love to share with others that moves me beyond my selfish, controlling ways.

The times that I have centered prayer, using Thomas Keating’s sacred word method, have led me to the greatest moments of peace and gentleness as God moved deeper into my life.

I’m not here to tell you the only ways to experience the loving presence of God. I have found ways that help, but there certainly are many paths. The pursuit is what’s it’s all about.

If we aren’t pursuing the loving presence of God, we are missing out on the one and only thing about Christianity that has power and the promise to transform our lives.

The only thing that makes me a Christian is the love of God. If I’m not actively pursuing the love of God, then I’m just playing at dress up Christianity.

I’m not a Christian because I study the Bible, know church history, or engage in service projects, even though I value all of these things.

I’m a Christian because there’s a God who loves me deeply, has actively pursued me, and can be found if I make space in my life. There is an endless well of love from God that is waiting to be found in my life and in your life. How tragic it would be if I passed through all of my days convincing myself that moral living and Bible study made up the substance of my faith!

I have one job and you have one job: find the love of God.

Ruthlessly eliminate anything that can get in the way of God’s loving presence.

May we be forever dissatisfied with any other promise of satisfaction.

May we be forever restless with any other promise of rest.

May we be forever weakened by any other promise of power.

May we be forever agitated with any other promise of peace.

May we fall into the loving presence of God, even as a last resort, and may we become people who shower love on others because we have tapped into the endless well of love that surpasses all comprehension. Though we may feel like we’re calling water from rocks in the wilderness, we have the witness of saints who have gone before us beckoning us to follow along this way.

The silence and simplicity of pursuing God’s love is here for you and me today. May we find in this love the peace that we have longed for and the capacity to generously love others out of the depths of God’s endless love for us.

 

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

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

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N