It’s OK to Call Dangerously Absurd Situations Dangerous and Absurd

One Original Cloistered Genius

In the 1960’s the majority of people in America were preparing themselves for a far-reaching nuclear catastrophe.

Many of the people who prayed to Jesus the Prince of Peace on Sunday were quite alright with the idea of blowing up entire cities of godless Communists.

Even though the Pope had written about the urgency of peace on earth, plenty of Catholics remained disconnected from such thinking.

Monks were even building fall out shelters for themselves while debating finer points of obscure Medieval theology or selling their fancy bread and cheese for a handsome profit.

All of this infuriated Cistercian monk and bestselling author Thomas Merton who plodded away on his typewriter in the isolation of his hermitage in the hills of Kentucky.

As he wrote articles publicly about the madness of his times and the negligence of his church toward people who had been created in God’s image, Merton faced a stinging backlash from the superiors in his monastic order. They believed that a monk should remain silent, weep, and pray.

This only deepened Merton’s frustration, as he watched monks labor for hours each day on profit making ventures rather than “weeping or praying.” In fact, he directly linked the loss of any monastic prophetic function with the neglect of prayer and weeping. He wrote in one letter:

In a word, it is all right for the monk to break his ass putting out packages of cheese and making a pile of money for the old monastery, but as to doing anything that is really fruitful for the Church, that is another matter altogether. What is the contemplative life if one doesn’t listen to God in it?

The Hidden Ground of Love, 79

He dug the knife a bit deeper about all of the “weeping” monks did at his monastery in a journal entry:

I had been hoping to republish a few articles on nuclear war that had been permitted by Dom Gabriel—thinking that it was enough that he had permitted them once. Not so. The new General, Dom Ignace Gillet, dug into the files, held a meeting of Definitors, and declared that there was to be no republishing of these articles. Thus I am still not permitted to say what Pope John said in Pacem in Terris. Reason: “That is not the job of a monk, it is for the Bishops.” Certainly it has a basis in monastic tradition. “The job of the monk is to weep, not to teach.” But with our cheese business and all the other “weeping” functions we have undertaken, it seems strange that a monk should be forbidden to stand up for the truth, particularly when the truth (in this case) is disastrously neglected.

The Intimate Merton, 215

Although Merton tried to overcome the barriers to his publications about peacemaking and justice at a moment of great peril for humanity, his superiors won in the short term. Blocked from public publishing, he regularly found solace in his journal entries and in letters to friends that pointedly and humorously described the absurd and dangerous state of the world and his monastic order’s inadequate response.

There was no other way to describe his moment in time than a failure of Christians, and monks in particular, to grasp the enormous challenges facing the world.

In both journal entries and personal letters, Merton’s humor is sharp and cutting. His sarcasm thick and heavy. He knew that he was only fleshing out what the Pope had already written, but his station as a monk, bound to obey his superiors, meant they had the final say about which of his works on the dangers of nuclear war or the injustice of racism could leave the walls of his abbey.

As an honest man convinced that he was right but also realistic enough to mockingly call himself the “one original cloistered genius,” Thomas Merton felt a burden of helpless despair to use his notoriety for the good of humanity. It appears nearly his entire order had no concern about the well-being of the many people who could suffer from nuclear war.

Having experienced a profound vision of God’s love for humanity during a trip to Louisville, Merton longed to write with clarity and sanity about the dangers of his moment in history.

Thankfully, many of those works, even the ones that were originally blocked, have finally been published. Yet, I take particular comfort in the unflinching realism of Merton’s letters and journal entries detailing his conflict and frustration over his blocked attempts to meet the madness of his times with a bit of God-inspired sanity.

It often feels like the threats to humanity have only multiplied since the time of Merton.

Today we are awash in misinformation, political partisanship driven by fabricated culture wars, vaccine misinformation during a pandemic, climate change’s threats to our planet’s viability, and attacks on voting access. It can be maddening to see the state of our world.

There are real dangers, and these dangers are only multiplied due to bad faith political actors. Even worse, too many people flat out deny these dangers, and plenty of Christians either ally themselves with those denying

We are living in a moment of mass gaslighting and an avalanche of misinformation that is threatening to tear our society apart, to marginalize minorities, and to warm our planet beyond a dangerous point of no return.

How can we stay sane during a moment that is so filled with absurdity and danger? Should we panic? Should we cry? Should we scream? Should we disconnect from it all to care for ourselves?

Thomas Merton stared down many dangerous and absurd threats in his own time, and he used a blunt realism matched with a sharp wit to endure. He sought to do what he could, he spelled out the absurdity he encountered, and he kept praying and trying to make a difference for the common good of God’s beloved creation.

It’s impossible to say what kind of impact had been achieved by Merton’s letters or limited articles that reached the public. However, we do know that peace activists and social justice leaders regularly sought his insight and support. The few times peace activists met Merton’s disapproval, they immediately sought to repair the relationship.

In my new eBook short The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton, which is also available as a paperback, I have collected many of Thomas Merton’s humorous journal entries. These brief passaged show how deeply he loved his monastic community and also how badly it let him down when it could have done so much more for the common good at a moment of international crisis.

There isn’t a simple application in a collection like this. If anything, Merton’s sarcastic and humorous letters offer us solidarity and encouragement to face the absurdity and danger of our times.

It’s helpful to know that a man recognized as a “spiritual master” in his own time mocked his own pride and leveled devastating criticisms at his superiors and monastic orders when so much was on the line.

In retrospect, it’s quite clear that Merton was right. Blasting untold numbers of densely populated cities to dust with nuclear weapons was a really bad idea and still remains a really bad idea.

I can only hope that more people will realize that issues like stopping climate change or having wider access to voting are good for humanity, good for the poor, and good for the people who are marginalized the most.

Perhaps reading Merton’s struggles in a previous generation will give us the courage and hope to persevere as we face the absurd dangers of our time. And the starting point for facing such a moment is to simply acknowledge that it’s absolutely absurd that we have even reached this moment of crisis in the first place.

On sale now: The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton

Order the eBook for $1.99 or the paperback for $7.99.

Training Ourselves to Be Present for the Sacred Already Around Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prayer of the Heart vs. Prayer as Mental Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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But the Prayer Book Didn’t Teach Me to Pray Like That!

I have turned to different spiritual teachers and prayer books to teach myself how to pray, and I have often found myself starting out far below the bars they set.

If one teacher suggests praying for twenty minutes at a time, I’ve started with five.

If another teacher recommends two sessions of prayer daily, I’ve managed to at least get one.

If yet another tells me to pray sitting up straight in a simple chair, I’ve laid down on my yoga mat, letting out the nervous energy through my hands and feet.

My goal is never to stop where I am and call it good enough. Rather, I need a starting point, a place to get into the habit of daily prayer. Once my prayer habits are established, I can take the next step of actually working toward better posture, longer prayer sessions, and more frequent prayer.

But taking that first step? Or the second, third, or fourth steps after that can be challenging, if not dispiriting. I can fall so far short of my ideal that I can forget that prayer is a daily “practice” that also requires… practice.

Much like everyone thinks they can write well enough before seeing how a professional editor can whip a project into shape, we may overestimate our ability to settle into prayer, to slip into an awareness of God, or to trust our worries and cares with God rather than clinging to them with an unending swirl of thoughts. The letting go of our cares and the simple receptivity of prayer can take time to develop.

By assuming I could dive into prayer without a period of learning and adapting, I’ve set myself up for disappointment and disillusionment. I was lost in a maze of my own making, uncertain about what to do next because I just couldn’t manage to meet the expectations I’d set for prayer. I thought that I could hit the ground running, immediately putting prayer practices into place without a time of struggle or even failure.

I finally found my way forward by embracing each faltering step toward the goals of contemplative prayer teachers. I gradually built my way toward longer and more regular periods of prayer.

My mindset has shifted from focusing on results to focusing on the process. I still have the guidance of teachers and authors in mind, but I’m not drowning in guilt or shame either.

Of course there’s a risk of setting the bar too low. That’s the risk of grace after all. In my own past, the fear of “abusing” grace has pushed me too far toward the fear of letting God down or suffering God’s wrath and anger.

There is a lot of hope to be found in the promise that we are God’s beloved children imperfectly reaching for God, failing at times, but ultimately finding that we were being held all the while as we tried to find God in each daily moment of prayer.

 

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We Document Almost Everything, but Should We Document Contemplative Prayer?

There’s hardly a day that I don’t take a picture of my kids or something noteworthy in my surroundings. I can take as many shots as I like in order to capture a moment, save the best ones, and delete the rest.

There are plenty of times when I’ve captured a perfect expression from one of my kids, picked up the brilliant shades of red, pink, and purple in a sunset, or preserved an especially important moment for us to look back on in the years to come.

Yet, I often wonder how often I’m removing myself from participation in life when I shift into documentary mode. This is especially true when it comes to our kids. How often have I disengaged from them in order to take their picture? Are there times when I could have had a more meaningful interaction if I kept my smartphone in my pocket?

I confess that I’m quite contrary about the ways smartphones document everything from meals, to date nights, to shoes, to quirky selfie expressions. How often should we step back from a moment, an interaction, or the simple rhythm of daily life in order to put our documentary hats on?

I view myself relative to our culture as a documentary minimalist, and yet I often find myself asking how often I’m removing myself to document something rather than to be fully present for it. Documenting becomes a habit of sorts, a way of interacting with the world that wasn’t really possible until digital cameras, smartphones, and social media increased both the ease and the social opportunities for extensive photographing and sharing.

This tendency to document feeds into a common tendency among Christians who practice contemplative prayer to document or savor any notion of spiritual consolation or a spiritual experience.

Thomas Keating shared in Open Mind, Open Heart that we are always tempted to hang onto a spiritual experience as if we are taking a picture of it, preserving it for reference and consolation later. Rather than allowing ourselves to be present for God in silence, we run the risk of demanding spiritual experiences each time we pray, turning to our preserved memories if we can’t feel the way we want.

Martin Laird notes in An Ocean of Light that such spiritual experiences are mercifully few and far between lest we spend our time journaling about them and comparing them with each other.

Contemplation invites us into a practice that remains deceptively simple, merely being present for God without any demands for a particular feeling or consolation. This prayer invites us to trust in a pure faith that God is present and at work in us regardless of how we feel.

This may prove to be a disappointment at first, but it can also prove liberating. We only have to receive what God gives us, no more and no less.

There is no ideal outcome or result we have will ourselves to have.

There is no technique, trick, mindset, or chant that will make prayer more effective.

God is present based on grace and our prayers are rooted in the reception of that grace whether we know it or experience it in a particular way. There is nothing for us to capture in the moment because we are already being held by a loving God.

 

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Learning Contemplative Prayer with Richard Rohr in Everything Belongs

“I believe contemplation shows us that nothing inside us is as bad as our hatred and denial of the bad. Hating and denying it only complicates our problems. All of life is grist for the mill. Paula D’Arcy puts it, ‘God comes to us disguised as our life.’ Everything belongs; God uses everything. There are no dead-ends. There is no wasted energy. Everything”
― Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer

 

I would not have believed Richard Rohr at one time. Surely my sins and failures are a much bigger deal than my denial of them!

Contemplative prayer has gradually shoved my illusions and misconceptions about myself into the light. I’ve seen how my wounds and failures influence my identity and decisions.

The pain from the past plays a larger role in my daily interactions and relationships than I care to admit. My failures are often tied in some way to my pain. It’s all a part of who I am, how I see myself, how present I am for others, and whether or not I’m present for God.

If my pain and failures play such a large role in my perceptions and actions, then any hope for healing and wholeness is tied to my ability to face them with bracing honesty. Shame and denial only leave me far worse off, as they create a dissonance when I experience the pain and shame I deny.

As I’ve let myself accept the possibility that God desires my healing, wholeness and restoration, I’ve begun to ponder the possibility that Rohr is on to something when he writes that everything belongs. It’s not that everything has been desired or predestined by God (I’m no Calvinist), but everything must be acknowledged and faced.

I can still remember the shock of reading that “God uses everything.” It almost seemed like a blasphemy. Even my sins? Really?

At first I had to play a game with myself, pretending that something like this could be true. Does God really want to see and use it all?

What I’ve found in my limited experience is that every sin and every failure speaks to something deeper that takes me closer to God’s presence and truth. There is a desire or a wound that is linked to that behavior, and if I don’t face everything without shame, I’ll never bring it all to God.

I could very well let my shame or illusions define me, clinging to what I have instead of the unknown love that God offers. I could let my pain simmer below the surface while denying it and wondering why so many parts of my life appear to be burning up.

If everything belongs, if it’s all grist for the mill, then I have nothing to lose in unreserved honesty toward God. I have nothing to fear in my self examination. I can only lose if I guard myself with shame and illusions.

Facing ourselves as we are requires a great trust in a loving God. Sometimes we can’t imagine a loving and merciful God who believes that everything belongs.

I take comfort in my own experience of God’s mercy and in Rohr’s assurance:

“The people who know God well—mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.”

Learn more about contemplative prayer in my book: Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayer for Anxious Christians.

 

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Preserving the Foundation of My Ministry

Without sharing my presence, my undivided attention to others, I’m not sure I have much to offer others.

Whether I’m writing books or listening to someone, a division or distraction in my attention can undermine my ability to fully take in what others are saying, to empathize with them, and to act in meaningful or constructive ways. If I have trained myself to be distracted, to look for something exciting and engaging, or to divide my attention as often as possible, my ability to be present, let alone to serve others, has been undermined at the most foundational level.

In review of my online activities and smartphone use, I can easily fall into the trap of craving a steady stream of distraction or stimulation that trains me to look beyond the present moment.

Even when it comes to the life of my mind, the more I fill my mind up with distressing, angering, or emotionally charged events, the harder it is to be present. Since social media is chock full of such material, the more time I spend there, the more likely my mind will be spinning with thoughts of the latest outrage.

Far from encouraging a head in the sand approach to the issues of our time, I’m more concerned that we run the risk of being flooded with distressing or enraging thoughts to the point that I become overwhelmed by what I can’t control and struggle to be present for what I can do to serve others and to love the people closest to myself.

The foundation of my ministry to others is presence, preserving enough of myself to hear others, to assess how I can help, and to share generously what God’s presence in my life has given to me.

The more disrupted and distracted I am, the less I can receive from God and the less I can give to others. It’s not rocket science, but it requires a good deal of intention at a time when we are flooded with more information in a greater variety of ways than ever before.

If I can’t preserve space to be present, to enjoy the silence of prayer before God and to step away from the noise of life, then this loss will catch up with me in one way or another down the line. I can’t offer others the stillness and stability of my presence and attention if I haven’t first made that space for myself.

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The Trouble with Offering Religious Goods and Services

I write books about Christianity, prayer, and spiritual practices, so you could say that my books could be considered religious goods in a consumer society.

When I sit down to write these books, I’m always trying to think of ways I can minister to and help my readers. However, drawing a line between helping readers and telling them what they want to hear can prove challenging to authors.

Staying positive, giving a “Rah, rah, you can do it!” message of abundance and prosperity may sell well. Honestly, there is a positive element to the Christian message that can take on a life of its own at times, but there are two big caveats that I’ve found in genuine Christian spirituality:

  1. Abundance and joy is preceded by a surrender or death to certain priorities or ways of living.
  2. Abundance and joy rarely look the way we imagine they will look.

While writing Flee, Be Silent, Pray, I was constantly trying to avoid a consumer-focused sales pitch for contemplation:

  • Cure your anxiety!
  • De-stress!
  • Find inner peace!
  • Find security in God!

These are all results that come over time in contemplative prayer, but they are not necessarily guaranteed, especially in the short term.

Contemplative prayer can offer a deeper, more foundational fix to these issues by addressing them as part of the larger picture of prayer, identity, and surrender.

When Jesus spoke of the life he offered, he certainly used terms that we would associate with abundance–springs gushing with water or trees that are plentiful with fruit. He also warned that our lives must go into the ground and experience a kind of “death” in order to produce fruit.

There really isn’t a program other than surrender and sacrifice to a loving but unseen God. It’s not easy, and oftentimes it’s counterintuitive to wait in silent expectation.

The sales pitch, to use consumer language, for contemplative prayer is summed up more or less in the word surrender. It’s much easier to add something than to give something up! That’s what makes consumerism so powerful.

When Thomas Merton shared the writings of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila, both offer a demanding path forward that involves sacrifice, discipline, and purity of heart. Yes, they wrote of the deep love of God for us, but they also oriented their lives around this pursuit.

We need contemplative prayer because it offers a simple yet structured way to become present for God each day. Silence and resistance to distracting or afflicting thoughts through a prayer word can open up a space for God that we didn’t even know we could find.

Arriving at this point is hardly easy going. It’s costly. It’s a leap of faith. It calls for the disciplined pursuit of God through surrender and silence.

Far from providing yet another spiritual good or service to acquire, contemplative prayer in silence before God will challenge us to surrender what we have.

Our hope is that what God gives us in return will far exceed the worth of whatever we can purchase on our own.

 

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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We Can’t Find Time to Pray Because We Can’t Imagine a Loving God

When I ask people about what keeps them from praying, they often list reasons like being too busy, too distracted, or not knowing where to start. A few really get honest and say, “I can’t imagine a loving God” or “I’m too angry at God to pray.”

I don’t think everyone has the same exact struggle with prayer, but there is something about that last reply that makes me wonder about a root issue for many (most?) of us. At the heart of our struggles to pray is this: Perhaps we don’t pray because we can’t imagine a God who is worth praying to.

Yes, life is busy, but if we could imagine a loving and attentive God who is present with us like a parent, would we be more inclined to change our schedules?

Sure, distractions are an issue, but we can learn how to focus our attention. If we imagined a God who is loving and present, then we certainly can develop a few healthy prayer habits.

Prayer can appear daunting for those who have not been taught how to quiet themselves before God, but if we thought that God loved us, we can read books and ask others to teach us.

This may not be true for everyone, but it’s at least true in my experience. I’ll offer the excuses about my time or my ability to focus, but deep down, there’s another issue at the root: how I imagine God.

I don’t write this to shame anyone. I truly believe that many Christians have been taught that God could take us or leave us, that God is angry or disappointed in us, and that God is just a breath away from banishing us to hell if we make one false move. Who would be motivated to pray to that sort of God? 

We don’t imagine the father in the Prodigal Son story. We imagine a judge, oftentimes an angry judge.

I wasn’t motivated to pray and I became discouraged when I attempted prayer because I didn’t imagine God as a loving parent. I imagined this passive-aggressive judge playing hard to get.

Mind you, a loving parent will still help us face our flaws and challenge us to make changes, but there is a level of presence and commitment in a loving parent that I had been missing with God.

Jesus wanted us to start calling God our own parent, he welcomed his followers into his family, and he sent his Holy Spirit to dwell among us. To accept the words of Jesus as the basis of our relationship with God can dramatically change our motivation to pray and our response to prayers that don’t give us the results we expect.

Here is an excerpt from my new book, Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, that digs deeper into this root issue of love and trust for God that can dramatically impact how we pray:

*****

The unconditional, parental love of God is precisely what Jesus communicated to us through his baptism and transfiguration. In these two pivotal moments of Jesus’ ministry, anxious Christians will find more than enough hope.

What formed the foundation of Jesus’ ministry? The beginning of his ministry (baptism) and the point at which he turned toward Jerusalem (transfiguration) were both preceded by identical statements from God the Father: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17 NIV)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5 NIV)

It is easy to jump past these statements, just as it’s easy to overlook how frequently Jesus set off to pray by himself. If Jesus is a member of the Trinity, we might ask, why did he need the affirmation of God? Why did he wake up early to pray, pull praying all-nighters, and venture into the abandoned wilderness?

To a certain degree, Jesus modeled what ministry and a relationship with God is supposed to look like. He was fully God and fully human, but he mysteriously manifested the power of God through his humanity. Paul writes: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7 NIV). I’ll leave the trinitarian particulars of Paul’s statement to people who are smarter and better read than I am. What we can’t avoid is the fact that Jesus ministered fully in human likeness and received the loving affirmation of God, who identified Jesus as his beloved Son at two pivotal moments in his ministry.

Before Jesus preached about the kingdom, healed the sick, or dined with the outcast, he received affirmation from God. Because of that affirmation, he had nothing to prove. His identity was secure, and there was nothing anyone could give to him or take away from him that mattered more than the loving affirmation of the Father. He was God’s beloved Son, filled with love to share with those in need and to protect himself against the anger and criticism of others.

Jesus’ love for others was ever present, empowering him to show compassion to the crowds who were tired, hungry, and needy, always asking for another miracle. His love extended to the quarrelsome Samaritan woman, who engaged in a theological debate in the heat of the day in order to mask her personal history. When his friends ran away, executioners drove nails into his body, and mockers shouted insults, Jesus gasped words of forgiveness. As Peter stood before him sopping wet, half naked, afraid, and ashamed of denying him, Jesus extended mercy and acceptance to his friend.

Where did this capacity for love come from? While I don’t claim to know the deep mysteries of God, the Bible appears to point to the baptism and the transfiguration as essential high points in the ministry of Jesus. We ignore them at our peril. Here is God literally speaking words of love and affirmation for his Son.

If you’ve ever thought that hearing God speak from a cloud would help you figure out what to do with your life, that’s exactly what God did for Jesus. It is amazing to think that God could have said anything at all to Jesus at the start of his ministry and before its final climax. Yet he chose to say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

What would we expect God to say to us from a cloud? What would be so important that God would literally shout it from the sky? The anxious Christian’s version of God’s message would sound something like “Don’t forget that the Bible is inerrant and fully inspired in all that it ordains and teaches!” or “You should have gone on that mission trip!” or “Why don’t you pray more?” or “Don’t ask any questions about the doctrine statement you signed at your church!” or “I hope you are having pure thoughts right now!” or “You better not be ashamed of sharing the gospel. Now what’s your name again?” Christians from traditions other than evangelicalism may imagine other versions of this frustrated, disappointed God who just wishes we could get our act together.

The force of God’s affirming love for Jesus may be lost on us. We assume that of course God loved Jesus, since Jesus is God and God loves God and of course God would like Godself—or however the Trinity works. But just as Jesus came to change what his listeners thought about the kingdom of God, Jesus also helped us redefine the love and acceptance of God. Jesus modeled a life grounded in the security of God’s love. This preemptive love and affirmation introduces us to grace and to the pure gospel of God’s loving care for us as our Creator. If we can grasp what God wants us to know through these interactions with Jesus, the rest of the Gospels make a lot more sense. God’s single line for a beloved Son summarizes the parable of the prodigal son.

Whether we have rebelled and run away or we have stayed behind and judged those who don’t measure up, God the Father runs out to both of us. Both the rebellious and the self-righteous are being pursued by the parental love of God. Both have a place with the Father. And as a word of caution to those who believe they have earned God’s approval through their religious practices, those who are willing to confess their failures are more likely to recognize the love of God.

 

Read More About How to Pray…

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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**Photo by Ian Froome on Unsplash

Did Thomas Merton Predict the True Impact of Technology?

What do we make of someone productively typing on a sleek Mac computer?

What do we think of someone efficiently swipes left and right, up and down, on a well-cared-for iPhone?

It’s likely that we will think this person is organized, successful, hard-working, and even wealthy. In fact, iPhones are often associated with wealth:

“Economists at the University of Chicago recently published a paper (PDF) with the National Bureau of Economic Research that examined the best indicators of wealth over the last few decades. And it found that in 2016, the last year it analyzed, there was a 69.1% chance of accurately guessing that a person was wealthy if he or she owned an iPhone.” Fortune

Them reality that I have found, as a user of fairly dated but still functioning Apple products is that the source of my efficiency and work can easily become the source of my fragmentation and distraction. I have felt the pressure to be on social media for the sake of my work as a writer, and so technology becomes a highway of sorts into the collective anxiety, rage, and fears of our culture.

What if we stopped imagining that the person on a phone or computer all of the time could actually be in a state of danger? Perhaps the sleek, efficient device at someone’s fingertips is more of a threat to their mental, physical, and spiritual help than a help?

I probably lean more toward a heavier use of technology than the average person since I live far from all of my family, I work remotely, and all of my colleagues are far away. I need a phone and a computer for almost everything I do for my work, and that has prompted me to seek limits and barriers so that I can track my use and prevent myself from slipping into overuse and the fragmentation of disconnecting from reality as a stream of updates flows in front of me.

Thomas Merton’s book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander has been deeply formative for me over the past two years, and he was quite prophetic about the impact of technology on humanity.  I’ll leave you with a few quotes to consider, including a passage he quotes from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

*****

It does us no good to make fantastic progress if we do not know how to live with it, if we cannot make good use of it, and if, in fact, our technology becomes nothing more than an expensive and complicated way of cultural disintegration. It is bad form to say such things, to recognize such possibilities… The fact remains that we have created for ourselves a culture which is not yet liveable for mankind as a whole.

Never before has there been such a distance between the abject misery of the poor (still a great majority of mankind) and the absurd affluence of the rich.“ pg. 67-68

*****

“Technology and science are now responsible to no power and submit to no control other than their own. Needless to say, the demands of ethics no longer have any meaning if they come in conflict with these autonomous powers. Technology has its own ethic of expediency and efficiency. What can be done efficiently must be done in the most efficient way.” pg. 70

*****

“I thoroughly agree with Bonhoeffer when he says:

‘The demand for absolute liberty brings men to the depths of slavery. The master of the machine becomes its slave. The machine becomes the enemy of men. The creature turns against its creator in a strange reenactment of the Fall.’“  pg. 71