Meet Fear with Silence, Not Social Media and TV

silent land

I’m one of the many Americans who has been a walking ball of nerves since the 2016 election, and that baseline of anxiety has made it difficult to bear other unsettling and troubling aspects of life at times.

While I’ve managed to deal with my anxiety in the past through a mix of prayer and exercise, some days 20 minutes of silence or a 20-minute run just don’t cut it. I still feel the pull of anxiety and the temptation to check out from life to avoid it and the fears driving it.

Telling an anxious person “Do not be anxious about anything…” is just about the least helpful thing. The body is reacting to something. That reaction is completely understandable.

Unfortunately, the alternative to denial is often evasion. Turning to social media drama or a television show becomes a quick way to check out. There’s no need to face the darkness afflicting my soul if I have the pleasant glow of a computer or tablet in front of me.

I have been practicing contemplative prayer for quite some time now, but reading the book Into the Silent Land has offered a few helpful dimensions to my approach to prayer. These were things I had partially uncovered of in the past, but the author, Martin Laird, spelled them out in a very helpful way.

For starters, the practice of contemplative prayer is rooted in stillness, sitting upright and breathing deeply in your nose and out of your mouth, meeting each thought with a simple prayer word or phrase. Laird speaks of three doors into contemplation, as we begin to meet our thoughts with silence, enjoy the vast space of silence before God, and gain greater control over our thoughts.

Toward the end of the book, Laird specifically addresses the ways that contemplation can help us face our fears and anxiety. This approach is the complete opposite of denial or avoidance.

Laird suggests that we meet each fearful or anxious thought with stillness and silence. The discipline of contemplative prayer teaches us to shut down negative or fearful thinking loops with a prayer word, letting go of the fears and thoughts as they come to us. However, building on that discipline, we can begin to look at why we are fearful and what is behind our anxieties.

Staring into the darkness of our fears and anxieties is no easy task, but over time, I have found a greater capacity to disarm them as I meet them with silence and faith.

Some days I’m more tightly wound up than others. These are anxious times, and while there are people and events that we may rightly fear, there also is no need to let these fears overtake us.

In the daily practice of contemplative prayer, I’ve found a lifeline where I can release my fears and anxieties to God. I still bear them to a certain degree, but I can at least face them now with faith that the loving presence of God will bring healing.

Why Many Evangelicals Struggle with Prayer (TLDR: We’re Winging It)

Pastors experts in church

We can learn a great deal about “spirituality” of American evangelical Christianity when we consider a 2006 Christianity Today  list of the most influential books over the past 50 years that shaped evangelicals.

For starters, most evangelicals are lucky if they know their movement’s historical background from the past 50 years. It’s safe to say that many evangelicals today have a very limited understanding of church history that has deprived us of the wisdom and practices developed over the centuries. Most telling about the limits of evangelical spirituality, the number one book on the Christianity Today list of influential books is Prayer: Conversing With God by Rosalind Rinker.

I don’t doubt that readers have benefitted from this book that was developed by a missionary who offers practical instructions in group prayer as well as some tips on personal prayer. Many small groups and Sunday schools have found much-needed direction from this book, and I can see the need for it in certain settings.

However, this book’s emphasis on spoken prayer and the overall disconnection from the prayer tradition of the church is quite typical of evangelicals. It’s not that Rinker is wrong or even misguided. The issue is that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, which is pretty much the story of the evangelical movement since it began. We have forged ahead with our own advice, spiritual practices, Bible studies, sermons, churches, and ministries without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, what has come before us, and what we may gather from the devout Christians of the past.

The main word that jumps out at me in Rinker’s subtitle (and all of the book’s marketing copy) is “conversation.” For many evangelicals today, we have come to think of prayer as a conversation with the goal of speaking our minds to God, and if God directs us, then we’ll be able to say even more things. In fact, many evangelicals may fear that prayer isn’t working if they don’t receive specific direction or guidance from God.

The goal though is for a conversational prayer, especially for us to speak up in this conversation. There is very little emphasis on silence or to even make silence the point. I don’t get the sense that evangelicals reading Rinker’s book would consider that a completely silent time of prayer, where there is no discernible conversation between God and the person at prayer, brings about any benefit.

Silence isn’t really on the radar of this book, even if silence was a central part of Christian prayer for centuries. On the other hand, a conversation directs us toward a goal or outcome that is measurable and easily understood, such as sensing the Lord’s direction to say certain words in prayer. This is a good thing in and of itself, but when this is our foundational concept of prayer (perhaps ONLY concept of prayer), we run the risk of missing the deeper streams of silent prayer and contemplation that have run throughout the history of the church.

Interestingly, Rinker published her book in 1959, which makes her a contemporary of Thomas Merton who, along with Henrí Nouwen and Thomas Keating, helped Catholics delve deeper into the prayer traditions of the church. However, each of these writers pointed us back to the desert fathers and mothers, the mystics such as Thérèse of Liseux, and the Eastern Orthodox monastics. They drew deeply from these streams while offering their own ideas on prayer for the church and produced rather different works.

That isn’t to set them up in opposition to Rinker. I don’t doubt there are even places of overlap. However, it’s tragic to think that Rinker lacked the deep grounding of the church’s prayer tradition in her book. How much richer and beneficial would it have been?

The phrase that comes to mind for me about evangelical spirituality is: “Winging it.” Before I grounded myself in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers or the contemporary teachers of contemplative prayer, I have felt like I have been winging it with prayer. Every Christian joke about prayer eventually gets to the “Lord we just…” or “Father God, we just thank you…” way that evangelicals have learned to pray because it sounds respectful and officious.

Before we go too hard on evangelicals here, let’s keep in mind that the evangelical movement emerged as a reform. There were real issues that needed to be changed. It’s unhelpful to assert that evangelicals were completely off-base. Put into their shoes, we would have desired to make changes as well.

The central problem with evangelicals, as is illustrated with our “winging it” approach to spirituality, is that we are unaware of our roots (especially our most toxic and problematic roots). We don’t know much about what came before us. The many denominations and off-shoots of denominations in Protestant Christianity should give us pause.

In fact, as I read about the history of the evangelical movement, I was struck by how often groups split off from each other under the auspice of calling themselves “Christians.” They thought of themselves as somehow preserving a pure version of the faith and didn’t see how they had any kind of bias or distinctives that set themselves apart.

Of course, years later, these groups of “Christians” took on more set identities as Nazarenes or the Church of Christ, developing their own history and doctrinal distinctives, but at their formation, these denominations saw themselves as somehow able to transcend their roots in order to claim the label “Christians” for themselves.

This pattern has shown up over and over again among evangelicals seeking to correct mistakes or to separate themselves from evangelicals who are in error over a particular doctrine or practice. As evangelicals debate whether to keep the label itself, some have even suggested just calling themselves “Christians” again.

While I am more than sympathetic to the sentiment, I am concerned that we are once again repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to know our roots and to own them so that we can understand where we come from, what has impacted us, and what we perhaps don’t know.

Our ignorance of our history and of the traditions developed among other Christian around the world has become one of our greatest weaknesses. We have often adopted inadequate practices and institutions as a response to flawed practices and institutions—some certainly were more flawed than others. If evangelicals desire to move away from some of our most toxic elements in the future, we need to look back at our roots in order to see what is healthy, what needs to be removed, and where we can learn from Christians in other traditions.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

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I Used to Pray to a Passive-Aggressive God

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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.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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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

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Monday Merton: Freedom Needs Truth

monday-merton-blog-header

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

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

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

 

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

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 96

 

 

 

The Problem with Prayer Isn’t Convincing God to Show Up

 

church-pew

“What is your greatest struggle with prayer?” That’s the question I’ve asked hundreds upon hundreds of people, and a striking majority have replied with the exact same struggle.

DISTRACTION

We all love the idea of prayer. Many of us have had positive experiences with prayer. We generally want to pray more. Once we sit down to pray, our minds spin out of control with thoughts of anything but prayer.

Our minds wander, worries assault our peace, and any hope of focus dissipates. Perhaps we turn to making requests or sharing thankfulness to God, which are good things, but any kind of peaceful contemplation, waiting on God in silence, or listening for God to speak appears to be a hopeless endeavor with so many ideas, voices, and fears screaming into our minds.

I’ve often spoke of prayer in terms of God showing up, as if I’m doing my job 100% perfect and any problems with prayer are on God’s end. In my experience, that’s a pretty fast way to turn into an atheist. If you do your part and you don’t sense God’s presence while praying, then clearly the problem is coming from God, right?

Not quite.

The Christian contemplative prayer tradition offers a corrective we need: God is always present. God loves us. The awareness and presence required is our own for prayer. Note that Jesus often speaks in the Gospels of people “coming” to him. He has issued the invitation to us. The problem isn’t on God’s end. Remember, in the Prodigal son story, the father is waiting for the son’s return and was so eager to welcome his lost son that he ran out to meet him.

God is here for us when we pray, and so we need to figure out where distractions and other obstacles in prayer come from and how we can move beyond them. How can distracted people make themselves present for a loving God?

Here are a few thoughts on moving beyond distraction in order to pray based on my experiences:

We Don’t Know We’re Distracted

Until I confronted my distractions, I didn’t know that I was distracted in the first place. Until we stop to face what’s running through our minds, the constant thinking and worrying of each day continues unchecked. Too many Christians have resisted mindfulness practices because they fear connections with eastern religions, but mindfulness practices can be traced right back to the desert fathers and mothers of the church. Even secular psychology praises the benefits of simply becoming aware of what’s on your mind and becoming present in the moment.

It’s nearly impossible to sit down to pray with any kind of focus if you haven’t first taken stock of what’s on your mind. This is why the Ignatian Examen is so incredibly helpful. We can take stock of the highs and lows of our days, confront our worries, and enter into prayer by preemptively facing the very thoughts that could distract us.

This is a process. Richard Rohr suggests that the first year of practicing contemplative prayer largely deals with the junk in our minds. We spend so much time reliving our regrets and fearing the future that we are untrained in the practice of seeking God in the present.

 

We Don’t Know Where to Begin with Prayer

Even if we can face our distractions and bring our troubled thoughts to God, there’s still the matter of where to begin. Should we make requests, offer thanksgiving and praise, or sit in silence? These are all practices that we can use, but for those of us struggling with anxiety about God actually showing up in prayer, the best way forward for a season may be the path of silence.

We should certainly speak our minds to God, but if we don’t have the assurance of God’s loving presence right from the start, silence may save us from trying to coerce God to show up. God is already present when we pray, but it’s so easy to start saying things that suggest otherwise.

Centering prayer teaches us to calm our anxious minds by asking the Spirit to guide us to a “prayer word” or phrase that we can use to quiet ourselves before God so that we can wait patiently on the Lord. Beginning with this simple word can help us grab onto something as a starting point so that we can return to God in silence again and again as our minds wander.

 

We Have Expectations

When I have spoken of God showing up, I’ve also had fairly specific expectations of feeling or knowing God in some particular way. I know that plenty of people have had experiences of God, while others with an indisputable commitment to God more or less sit in silence for most of their prayer time. Our expectations for prayer can trap us and alienate us from God.

Ironically, the contemplative writers of the church assure us that we need to set our expectations far lower for prayer. Seeking God in the first place is prayer. Sitting in silence before God is prayer. God honors even our intentions as we struggle to focus. These are the teachings of the masters of contemplative prayer. Rather than pushing us to reach some particularly high goal, they tell us that our beginning struggles are holy offerings to God, and we can trust that God will continue to guide us forward.

Most importantly, we pray in order to become present for God. We “experience” God on God’s own terms, and so any expectations for prayer can be harmful. I have longed for mystical encounters and experiences, but the contemplatives of the church remind us that this can be dangerous. Seeking an encounter with God is not the same thing as seeking God. This desire highlights my insecurity and perhaps even my pride.

 

We Make Comparisons

While we must learn from the guidance of spiritual directors, authors, and practitioners who have gone before us, we also have to seek God for ourselves and take what is given to us without envying the experiences of others. This has been my pitfall for years. I have looked at the ways other people experienced God and longed to imitate them.

We are always looking for ways to validate ourselves, and while prayer can become the answer to that search, we dare not misuse it. Prayer helps us see how deeply God loves and accepts us, but we can only receive that gift in the timing and manner that God chooses. I have seen over and over again that God chooses different timing and a different manner for each person, even if there are some general trends and patterns that can be observed.

 

We Don’t Know What Prayer Should Look Like

Here is the good news that you need to know about prayer: Struggling with distraction during prayer is 100% normal, and there is hope. The contemplative prayer tradition dates back to the earliest days of the church, even pre-dating the canon of scripture, and it has been preserved throughout the centuries as one way to move beyond distraction and to become present for God.

The bad news is that overcoming distraction will take quite a bit of work. We even have to face the worries and fears that come up as we attempt prayer.

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing passed along this ancient Christian prayer tradition in his simple manual for novice monks, and he spends a significant amount of time addressing the ways that our thoughts invade our prayer much like visitors who barge into our homes repeatedly. By reciting a prayer word, phrase (such as a scripture verse) or returning to an intention for your prayer time, you can gently move these distractions out of your mind over and over and over again.

For about the first six months of really exploring silence and contemplation, my mind was a complete mess. My thoughts flew all over the place. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that I had to take my son for a walk every day in order for him to nap, and I suspected that my busy mind was extremely unhealthy. Over time, I experienced greater peace and freedom, recognizing uneasiness and distractions for what they were and gradually building a capacity to be still before God.

I like to say that I “practice” contemplative prayer because I still feel very much like a beginner and I don’t expect to get it perfect—not that getting it “perfect” should ever be the goal! We enter into contemplative prayer as equals who are all equally loved by God and who all commit to practice.

So we pray, we struggle, and we continue to practice.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

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I Resisted Winter and Missed the Renewal of Spring

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The kale we planted in the garden last spring grew into thick stalks all summer and kept our table supplied with greens. By fall the kale stalks were curling and falling all over themselves. Their leaves, which had been full, crisp, and green throughout summer started wilting, turned shades of brown and yellow, and finally succumbed to the constant attacks of tiny pests. By the time the cold winds of November swept the final leaves off the trees, our kale plants were little more than battered stalks with tiny bits of green poking out here and there. Yes, they were just barely alive, but they were far from healthy.

I don’t know why I waited so long to pull out the old kale. Maybe I was hoping that it would survive the winter and sprout new life in the Spring. I left it hanging limp and lifeless all winter. By the time the snow melted, the kale had all but rotted away.

As soon as the weather grew warm, I finally gave in and yanked the old kale stalks out of the garden. I poured new compost into the beds and raked it smooth. A few weeks later I scattered a new crop of kale and lettuce seeds into the orderly garden beds.

The new kale is going to take some time before it’s ready to eat, but I couldn’t hold onto last year’s planting. It had to go in order to make room for what’s next.

How long have I tried clinging to last year’s planting and held up the new things that must take their place?

I have been longing for the new thing, but have continued to cling to what is old.

I have become withered and overgrown, bitter and stagnant, but then I wonder why the new life hasn’t taken root and grown yet.

This week I had a chance to finally pull some old roots up as I make space for a new venture. The “Revert to Author” notice arrived for my first book that I wrote about theology. At the time I was one of many writers trying to sort out Christian theology and whether my faith could survive without the promise of certainty. Some are still wrestling with that question, some have moved on with their faith, and some needed to leave their faith behind. I have moved on with my faith, realizing that I didn’t need an airtight theology in order to have a relationship with a God whose top concern is love.

As I set aside my identity as a writer about theology and culture, I felt both a relief and a fear of what’s next. The fear of “what’s next” is why we often cling to what’s old and dying. We can’t imagine that something better is possible.

I made the mistake of thinking: Better to stick with the broken thing we understand than the new blessing we can’t fathom.

The same day that I signed my agreement to revert the rights of my theology book back to myself, I also continued to work on plans to launch a new website: www.thecontemplativewriter.com. This is a project that has been in the works for a long time, but I just didn’t see how to move forward with it. I kept plodding along with what I knew about theology, uncertain about what would grow if I pulled everything up and started all over.

I finally started planting new things a few years ago when I took a break from blogging about theology and then released Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together. Since then, each step toward prayer and writing, or writing about prayer, has been affirming and life-giving.

It was a long winter, but I now see that I needed the winter. I needed a winter to kill what was no longer productive or life-giving. I needed winter to force me to uproot the past and to make room for what’s next.

Shifting to writing about prayer feels like the beginning of Spring. There is new life to this direction, and I’m finally realizing how I’ve held myself back by failing to uproot what I planted last season.

How many of us go into winter kicking and screaming, lamenting the loss of summer’s warmth and the brilliant colors of the fall because we lack hope for the future?

Perhaps fighting winter is a good sign at times. Perhaps we rightly see the good that we’ve had. I’m grateful for all that I’ve accomplished and learned from that last season. In fact, the things I’m planting today are benefitting from what I planted before.

For this new season, I need to keep writing on this website with longer form posts about prayer, writing, and Christianity, but I’m also making a new space for brief, daily posts about contemplative prayer. The site officially launches April 2nd and begins with regular daily posts (not Sundays) on Monday, April 4th.

My new site, The Contemplative Writer, will offer daily posts that provide guidance for daily prayer, Christian spiritual practices, and sources for meditation and contemplation. You can sign up to receive posts via email, the weekly email with highlights and a custom Examen, or follow through the RSS feed. In the coming month I hope to add more spiritual direction topics and a podcast version of the newsletter.

This website is what I’ve needed in my own life. It’s my hope that my own imperfect journey toward prayer and the wisdom of others will prove beneficial for you as well.

Visit The Contemplative Writer today.

 

Why We Need to Stop Talking about Spiritual Growth

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I’m a competitive person. I love tracking my results against other people or even against myself.

In college I used to drive the 11 hours from my home to my dorm with minimal stops to try to beat my time each trip.

When I run in the morning, I want to go just a little bit further with each run, even if it cuts into my writing time.

When I set a word count goal, I’ll leave a wreckage of butchered words as my fingers fly across the keyboard.

I want to grow and improve. Why wouldn’t I want to get better at things I care about?

Now, if there’s one thing I care about, it’s Christianity. Heck, I plunked down thousands of dollars and untold hundreds of hours into seminary for four years.

I wanted to get better at studying the Bible, praying, and doing Christian-ish things. I was always measuring my progress. I wanted to grow spiritually. I wanted to know I was doing better from one year to another.

And good heavens, I burned out. I burned out over a lot of things, but in retrospect, I can see how the concept of “spiritual growth” tapped into the worst parts of my competitive drive.

Am I sinning less this year compared to last year?

Am I praying “better” than last year? (You know you’ve thought something similar at least once.)

Do I know the Bible better than last year?

My constant need to measure fits in well with our Christian subculture that recognizes the blessings of God and the gifts of individuals based on the dollars they raise and the numbers they lead in salvation prayers or baptize. The larger your church, the more influence you’re afforded.

Measure, measure, measure. We measure everything, all of the time. It’s no wonder we fall into this trap when it comes to judging whether we are spiritually healthy or not.

As I’ve confronted my own measuring mania, I’ve tried to move away from the language of spiritual growth. I don’t want to know if I’m getting better or improving or providing some metric of my spiritual awesomeness.

The truth is that I could pray a lot or improve my Bible knowledge and still be a wandering, self-centered mess without direction.

Speaking of direction, spiritual direction is just the sort of thing we need to talk about instead of growth.

Let’s talk about where I am and where you are right now and which direction you’re moving in.

We could also speak in terms of temperature, being hot or cold.

Jesus spoke in terms of abiding on the vine. If we abide in him and he in us, the life of God will be evident. Our direction or proximity tap into this idea of abiding.

What if we ditched the language of spiritual growth in favor of spiritual proximity (close or far, hot or cold) or spiritual direction?

Are we living close to Jesus? Are moving in step with Jesus? Are you close enough to Jesus to know whether or not you’re moving in step with him?

These have been helpful concepts for a performer like myself who will endlessly beat myself up for failing to attain certain spiritual growth goals. I can lose my connection with God as I focus on my weaknesses and supposed distance from God.

The past two weeks have been really full with tired kids and lots of additional work. Sleep deprivation from kids is nothing new. I’ll also never complain about having a lot of work to do.

However, as I took stock of my direction and considered my spiritual “temperature,” I honestly had no idea where I was pointed. I felt like I was just running from one thing to another. As I considered my temperature, I felt the chill of being far from God’s presence.

I hadn’t cleared very much space for God over the past week, and I felt the lack in my soul. As I consider that we could “lose our souls” in the midst of busy schedules, I took more intentional steps to create space over the past few days for abiding, prayer, and meditating on scripture. I wasn’t measuring anything. I just tried to be present for God.

I skipped the part where I beat myself up for being a spiritual slacker. I didn’t lament that I’d lost ground in my race to grow spiritually.

I reoriented my life. I shifted my priorities. I changed how I spent my time.

As I stepped into greater awareness of the state of my soul and the presence of God, I felt the crazy of the past few weeks buzzing through my body. The residual anxiety that had followed me throughout each day finally emerged.

This morning I was driving my oldest son over to a friend’s house. He had asked me to play music because he loves anything with loud drums. We chatted about the way the music gets quiet and louder “on its own” during different parts of the songs. He noticed the “jingle bells” that the drummer played during the bridge and celebrated the booming bass drum by shouting, “BIG DRUM!”

As I turned off the highway, I realized that, for the first time in several weeks, I was completely at rest. I wasn’t buzzing with anxiety. I wasn’t worried about anything known or unknown. Mind you, I can flip that anxiety switch on in a second. It doesn’t take a lot.

However, it was a relief to know that a few days of attending to my soul and more actively creating space for prayer and devotion could actually result in God changing the direction of my soul.

Before I realized what I was doing, I naturally resolved to make myself feel even more relaxed and at peace with God tomorrow.

 

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

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

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Rohr for Writers: Your Downfall Can Lead to Resurrection

 

Rohr forWriters

“If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it! A ‘perfect’ person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection.”

Falling Upward

 

There’s a rule that many writers and artists follow: some of your best work will come out of your deepest pain. If I quoted every time I’ve heard that at a writing conference or read books about this, I would just have a blog post full of quotes from other people.

So much of what we crave in our lives comes by first confronting our pain, failures, and struggles.

If you want intimacy with someone else, it will be forged by facing both relational and external struggles together.

If you want to excel at writing, you need to at least face your lowest points in life, your failures, your fears, and your anxieties. This is where some of your most authentic experiences can be found.

By the same token, if you want to grow in prayer, you also need to bring your sins, shame, and deficiencies to God. These are the raw materials of spirituality because they reveal all of the false commitments, false gods, and false identities that keep us from God and each other.

Our pain and failures aren’t just enshrined as a monument to our misery. They are transformed in the act of confrontation. Most importantly, we are transformed as well. In fact, if you want to reach any kind of lasting change that could make a difference in your own life or in the life of anyone else, you need to start here.

No matter what else you stick in front of failure, pain, or fear, these things will keep eating away at that false veneer.

No matter how much we force ourselves to get over it and to move on, we’ll continue limping until the source of the injury is healed.

We won’t experience relief and wholeness until our pain and struggles are transformed. You can’t find a way to go around this, you can’t make up enough rules to keep you safe, and you can’t teach yourself into becoming better or healed.

We’ll have the most to offer others, either through our prayers or our writing if we prioritize the fearless uncovering of our pain before God and on the page as we write. We don’t have to shout our imperfections in the street for all to hear or post them on our blogs for all to read—in fact, please don’t do either of those things!

This is the deeper soul work that takes place in quiet, secret places.

This is the foundation for our lives that determines the power of our art, the potency of our prayers, and sturdiness of our relationships.

Our pain and our struggles are most certainly an affliction in many ways, but that doesn’t mean we should run from them. Our greatest healing, creative work, and ministry to others will come through these very things that we had once seen as our downfall. If we bring the causes of our downfalls to God, we’ll find that they’re the very things that lead us to resurrection.

 

For a bit more about this topic, check out my book:

Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together