Why Is Stopping to Pray Agony Sometimes?

If Wayfair sold a sitting chair that comes with a seat belt or, better yet, a five-point belt system like a toddler seat, I’d drop it right into my shopping cart with hardly a second thought.

Perhaps my common sense would kick in and overrule such an impulsive move, but some mornings, it’s so hard to sit in my chair to pray that a belt system sure seems like it would help. It takes an act of will to keep myself glued down, mind clear, and intentions directed toward God.

Why is prayer so agonizing sometimes?

There is something to be said of developing habits and discipline. I know that prayer isn’t anywhere near as difficult as it used to be.

There is also something to be said for mental health or other conditions of the mind. I know that some people have a much harder time focusing and single-tasking than others, and there is no shame or judgment for them.

Speaking only for myself, I can’t overlook the place of activity as a preferred state of being. Zipping from one thing to another while keeping a tally of what’s been done and what needs to be done all while nurturing a lingering feeling of “overwhelm” makes a seatbelted sitting chair sound awfully practical when it’s time to pray.

What motivates us to keep in motion? First of all, I don’t know if I can even recognize the negative side of being in motion. Oftentimes I’m moving from one good or neutral thing to another. It’s not like my day is piled high with vices or aimless distractions–although we all know that our phones can suck up plenty of time.

Second, I likely overvalue the benefit of the items on the running list that weighs down my mind but makes my feet light. I’m not even sure what exactly I hope to gain by getting so much done, but somehow these things gain an oversized importance.

Finally, I wonder if I can’t quite imagine the good that could come from silent prayer, sitting still in God’s presence, or interceding for others. At this point in my prayer practice, it’s not hard to make myself sit down at a regular time to pray (things haven’t always been that way!), but it remains quite hard to settle my mind sometimes.

The agony of sitting still during prayer means that I’m often too focused on getting one more thing (and then one more thing after that) done. I have overvalued the benefit of my own activity and undervalued the benefit of being present for God in a quiet moment.

There isn’t an easy fix for such agonizing moments during prayer. Perhaps the best solution I’ve found is knowing that I can endure the desire to bounce out of my seat, to remember such restlessness is often for a season, and that moments of greater peace and attentiveness to prayer are possible.

The solution I crave deep in my soul, the thing that keeps me on edge and ready to leap to my feet, isn’t going to come from surrender to my restless impulses.

Restoration will come on the other side of the agony of stillness (which really isn’t agony at all) where my mind grows in daily, even momentary awareness of God.

Attention to the presence of Jesus can shape our minds and direct our actions rather than letting the roller coaster of each day take control. Even today, Jesus can speak, “Peace, be still,” to our ever moving, ever shifting bodies.

Christian Prayer and Spiritual Gaslighting During a Crisis

At the start of the pandemic in America during March 2020, a friend and I emailed several large churches in our town encouraging them to take their services online as the pandemic began to spread in our town.

This was during the early days of COVID-19 when we didn’t know much about how it spread other than the fact that it was airborne. We politely urged them to consider that limited time in enclosed public spaces was the best way to prevent it from spreading and mutating into more virulent forms.

As many states announced quarantines and lock downs in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19, churches were a vital piece of the puzzle. Although the president at that time and his administration downplayed COVID-19 and politicized safety measures such as indoor masking, we saw that many churches in our region were meeting to discuss safety measures.

Some of the largest Baptist churches in our town did take their services online in response to the pleas of public health officials and doctors, despite some higher level leaders in the SBC saying that they should still meet in person and “preach the Gospel.” It felt like public health or preaching the Gospel were mutually exclusive.

Yet, the most disturbing response of a local church in our area, a nondenominational church just outside of town, came on its Facebook page.

The church posted an image of a man’s silhouette standing with his arms spread open in front of a blinding light. The bold lettered caption read, “Freedom from fear.”

The post announced that they would continue to meet despite the fears of the pandemic. They would meet this pandemic with FAITH, not fear.

I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff on Facebook. I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff posted by Christians on Facebook. But this post was damaging on many levels.

It was bad enough for a church to ignore a public health emergency that threatened thousands of lives. Yet, the entire premise of the post pitted medical caution against Christian faith.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Christians resist the advice of medical experts or avoid the benefits of preventative medicine like a vaccine. Yet, it was the first time that I saw scientific and medical ignorance paraded as a greater act of faith.

I could understand that some may not be as cautious about masking as I am. And since then, I can understand that some may want to wait for a larger sample size of vaccination before getting a COVID vaccine. Yet, framing a reckless decision that defies medical advice as an act of faith is on par with a guy suffering from high cholesterol and chest pains downing steak dinners every night and boasting of his faith in God’s protection.

Ignoring sound medical advice isn’t an act of faith, just as heeding sound medical advice isn’t an act of fear. If that guy with high cholesterol dramatically changes his diet because of his doctor’s advice, would we chide him for not “trusting his heart with Jesus”?

Of course not. That would be absurd and actually quite cruel to a man who is trying to care for his body. In fact, it would be an attack on reality itself, which is exactly where too many Christians have ended up today.

When that church posted their “Faith over fear” announcement, they were, in effect, spiritually gaslighting people in our community.

Gaslighting attacks someone’s judgment or perception of reality. It’s manipulative and advances a false version of reality that aims to sow doubt and may even cause someone to doubt his/her own sanity. Adding a spiritual twist to gaslighting can make it even harder to pin down.

It can be especially disorienting when pastors, who are assumed to be spiritual caregivers, spiritually gaslight the Christians they are supposed to care for.

When someone takes a precaution for the sake of their own safety or the safety of their family based on sound medical advice that is widely accepted and proven, there is no reason to call that person fearful or to doubt that person’s faith.

We all know that a healthy dose of fear can help us make good choices. Faithful people engage with “fear” all of the time.

We don’t let our 3-year-old daughter out front of our house without us outside as well. You could say that we fear for her safety, but the reality is that we are taking reasonable cautions based on how close our home is to the road.

Christians also hardly bat an eye at the concept of fearing God. In fact, if you have faith in God, then you also likely fear God, for you recognize that God is merciful AND powerful. There is respect and awe for God’s power, even if you find comfort in God’s patience and love. We obey because we take God’s mercy and power seriously.

All of this brings us back to why a church would spiritually gaslight people in the first place. Why would a church challenge the very foundations of reality during a national health crisis and twist the knife with a spiritual challenge?

We can’t underestimate the impact that manipulative and false information has had on our society. A small group of doctors and “experts” continue to push false information about masks, vaccines, and other safety measures during the pandemic.

Manipulative, agenda-driven news stations, social media personalities, radio hosts, and podcasters continue to agitate their listeners with false medical advice and agitating conflict. They’ve effectively created an “us vs. them” mentality where their fans are the truth seekers and the rest of society is just “sheeple” at the mercy of “agenda driven” doctors and scientists.

It’s hard to believe how effective and widespread these false narratives have become, and it’s quite challenging to respond to this gaslighting with patience and empathy. The place where I need to begin is clarity, because spiritual gaslighting, like any kind of gaslighting, can be upsetting, angering, and disorienting.

We can only respond with prayerful charity when we understand the full nature of the offense against us. If an absurd attack on reality is being spiritualized, we must say that it is such regardless of the person’s motives.

Without some clarity and a firm grounding in the reality of the situation, gaslighting will continue to frustrate and enrage us. Spiritual gaslighting can lead to guilt, uncertainty, and a deep unsettling of one’s faith.

Since that church’s poorly conceived post on social media, I’ve made two significant changes to the way I interact with information online.

First, I pay attention really well to stories I read in the news. I look at what experts say and try to evaluate how unanimous they are in their opinions so that I won’t be unsettled by gaslighting and false narratives.

Second, I try to avoid reacting outright to gaslighting or false narratives. If something unsettles me, I try to sit with it, pray about it, and dig down into what exactly is weighing on my mind.

Oftentimes, there’s nothing I can do to change a gaslighting situation. But I think it counts for something if I avoid responding with anger or letting gaslighting seriously disrupt my thoughts.

There aren’t easy times, but I believe we can find a bit of peace and hope by guarding our own hearts, examining what’s on our minds, and entrusting ourselves to God, even as we also trust in the proven advice of medical professionals.

Read more about the way Thomas Merton responded to the absurd challenges of his time in my eBook The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton.

Image credit.

Pride Isn’t Just a Fall. Sometimes It Kills

One of the strangest experiences in my career as a writer has been writing for a welding company for about ten years.

I learned a lot about welding helmets, the latest welding machines, and the biggest trends in welding supplies and accessories. I logged untold hours on YouTube welding channels, analyzed the benefits of several different welding processes, and got to intimately know the websites of many leading brands in the industry.

In short, I was experienced in “talking shop” about welding without ever actually stepping into a welding shop. For all of the research I’d done into the processes and products that helped customers buy products, you really didn’t want me setting foot in a welding shop, striking an arc, and then afflicting two pieces of metal with it.

Since welding uses a lot of electricity and gives off plenty of sparks, it would have been a huge mistake for me to assume I had anything to offer in a welding shop.

For me to confuse hours of online research with the hard-earned dues paid by welders would have been misguided at best and probably quite prideful. In fact, any kind of online researcher who claims to be equal to, or superior to, an actual hands-on expert is most certainly quite prideful.

Yet, pride is hard to nail down. I wonder if we overlook it because we try to give someone the benefit of a doubt. “Well, he was wrong, but at least he meant well.” Or we may say, “He was just trying his best to be responsible by learning something new.”

But isn’t rejecting expertise inherently irresponsible and prideful?

In addition, perhaps we are so inundated with pride as a society that it’s almost impossible to spot. It’s just becoming the de facto way of living.

I can’t say for sure, but I do feel like I’m just swimming in an ocean of unidentified pride each time I walk into a store or coffee shop throughout the pandemic where people have refused to wear masks during a highly contagious airborne pandemic.

We could surely mention how science has been politicized and people are inundated by so much misinformation, but does any of that excuse the pride of thinking we know better than a doctor or researcher with decades of hands-on experience?

The past year or more have been especially galling for me because I’m surrounded each day by pastors, church volunteers, and devout Christians. They are eager to go out with their Bibles, but I have rarely seen any of them inside with masks on during some of the most highly contagious and highest rates of infection during the pandemic.

I surely understand the hesitancy to wear a mask when vaccination rates are high and local infection rates are low. I’m talking about resistance to masks, to say nothing of safe vaccines, during the most dire moments of emergency during the pandemic.

Would the prideful flaunting of a public health crisis count as a sin to these Christians? I doubt it, but why wouldn’t it? Isn’t it the very definition of pride to believe you know better than the experts in the medical field?

I can imagine the mask-resistant Baptists in my town would take a different view of things if I stepped into a biblical Hebrew class and told the professor that I had a better idea of how to translate a Psalm based on my year of biblical Hebrew twenty years ago.

How is that imagined pride of my Hebrew “prowess” any different from Christians imagining they know better than doctors and researchers giving the recommendations to wear a mask in an indoor space?

We are familiar with the teaching that pride comes before a fall, but in America today, pride also comes before sickness and even death if we continue to reject the guidance of experts who continue to be ignored by far too many.

I know first-hand that it’s unpleasant to face pride. Yet, considering the consequences of pride and believing anyone who has done some “online research” over an actual medical expert, the discomfort of confessing pride is way better than someone slowly suffocating to death while on a ventilator.

From that standpoint, wearing a mask indoors doesn’t seem like a huge risk or inconvenience for the sake of others.

With a constantly evolving pandemic, the guidance of medical experts may change over time. New information may be discovered, and our guidance will change.

If I change anything that I do, it will surely be done based on the consensus recommendations of doctors and medical researchers.

The thought of an internet-researching novice like me in the welding shop is bad enough for my own safety. I can’t imagine an internet-researching novice can do much better when it comes to public health recommendations during a pandemic.

Photo by Marvin Esteve on Unsplash

Jesus Won’t Give Up on Doubting Disciples

I preached the following sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the passage Luke 24:36-48.

When we moved to our new house, one of our boys suddenly forgot how to close the front door. With a two-year-old constantly on the hunt for new adventures, this became a major safety concern. The two-year-old charged out that open door plenty, and it seemed that nothing we said could help our son remember to close the door.

We didn’t tell him once. We didn’t tell him twice. We didn’t tell him three times. We frankly lost count.

Out of desperation, I finally turned to a right brain activity that I should have tried right from the start. I told him that this isn’t a punishment. It was only a reminder. I simply asked him to draw a picture of a closed door.

He then drew a bright, gleaming, happy closed door with rays of sunshine shooting out of it.

After that, he finally remembered to close the door.

But adults are also pretty good at forgetting what other people have told us. When I lined up for my second dose of the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19, my mom warned me that she felt bad the next day. My dad was wiped out for days. One of my sisters had a rough time as well.

After the shot, I braced myself and eventually took some Tylenol in the evening as a slight headache showed up. In the morning the slight headache retreated once again with some Tylenol, and I medically cleared myself for a family outing to Paris Landing State Park. I triumphantly texted a friend who was getting her second shot that morning, “Just a headache! All good!”

I wanted her to know that some people could beat the odds. Maybe she would too.

While our kids braved the icy water of Kentucky Lake by submerging themselves one centimeter at a time, I took it easy on a camp chair. The sun shone bright, but there was no way I was diving into that freezing lake. I felt worse and worse as the afternoon drew on, tired and sluggish. I reasoned that it must be the heat as we drove home–perhaps dehydration.

Yet, even in the comfort of our home, I still felt like I’d been hit by a truck well into the evening. Finally, I remembered that I’d been warned by nearly everyone in my family that I will feel bad after my vaccine shot. I should have known better, but I had developed a narrative in my mind that I only had a headache. It turned out that I stayed off my feet for the following day as well.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus was trying to get a message across to his disciples that they just weren’t grasping.

The gist of it is this: Jesus knew that he would be handed over to his enemies, his enemies would kill him, and he would triumph by rising from the dead.

In fact, Luke records three separate occasions when Jesus told his disciples precisely what would happen, and Luke carefully notes that they did not grasp what he meant.

The disciples were thinking of thrones for themselves, Jesus rising as the new King of Israel, and the Romans being defeated. They had a picture in their minds of God’s intervention in their lives and in their nation that prevented them from grasping the events that Jesus had precisely predicted.

The disciples could not understand how Jesus could be the king who is starting the rule of God’s Kingdom on earth and yet his most decisive actions would involve his death and resurrection.

They didn’t see how these pieces could fit together with God’s all-powerful Kingdom, and so they selectively listened to Jesus–eager to learn how to perform miracles but less eager to learn about Jesus bearing suffering and death in order to literally rise above both.

Jesus’ victory came through Jesus joining himself with the worst that this world has to offer, defeating it, and then joining himself to his people so that they can experience that victory. It’s hard enough to understand that today, and with so many other hopes and dreams tied to Jesus, the disciples sure didn’t get it.

And so, when the disciples saw Jesus die, most hid in an upper room.

When some women from their group of disciples reported that Jesus had appeared to them and angels had explained his resurrection to them, the disciples still doubted.

Peter ran off to the tomb and checked it out. It seemed that the women were on to something, but a Resurrection? Even though the Jews believed in the Resurrection, which was quite unlike the Greek and Roman religions, something still didn’t click.

Some even set off for Emmaus. They were done, even if the women and Peter spoke of some hopeful developments.

Did anyone speak up and say, “Wait a minute… Maybe you guys should stick around for a day. I think Jesus predicted this would happen.”

Probably not. It sounds like most of them just doubted.

And so the disciples stayed put, waiting around until a knock on the door. The two disciples who had left for Emmaus rushed in to report that Jesus had appeared to them on the road. They hadn’t recognized him at first, but they finally figured it out when he broke bread with them.

We don’t know what the disciples made of this report because it seems that they were then joined by another guest. This time, he didn’t knock.

Jesus just appeared.

Now, remember, the disciples were told by Jesus three times that he would rise from the dead. The women reported seeing Jesus and an angel. Peter confirmed that the tomb was open and empty. The men traveling to Emmaus saw Jesus.

They had all of these predictions and reports. They had a bounty of scriptures in the Old Testament about God’s suffering servant. And yet, their first reaction to Jesus… was to completely freak out.

They thought that Jesus was a ghost.

On the one hand, can we blame them for thinking Jesus was a ghost if he was cutting corners by skipping the door?

And in fairness, it sounds like Resurrected Jesus looked a little different from the Jesus they knew. In fact, the words used to describe their reactions are also used in passages where angels appeared. So he likely appeared in a more magnificent glorified state that threw them for a loop.

Still, they had a mountain of evidence all pointing to a resurrection, and they still hung back in fear. What would it take for them to believe that this was Jesus?

It turned out that Jesus had to use the break glass option, the emergency backup plan of absolute last resort, the one thing that would prove he is the resurrected Jesus in bodily form and not a ghost. Jesus… had… to… eat… broiled… fish.

Now, I’m no stranger to broiled fish. It’s gross. My family used to go fishing all of the time, so family gatherings often included various kinds of fish. We frequented seafood restaurants near the Jersey shore while growing up. I’ve had warm, heavily seasoned broiled fish, and it still tastes gross.

Jesus offered to eat broiled fish, but it was also likely cold. And it was also likely unseasoned or poorly seasoned. Yet, once he scarfed down some bland, cold, gross broiled fish, and the disciples touched his body, they finally relaxed.

It’s as if they just needed to see someone with a stomach of steel before they could believe Jesus had risen from the dead.

*****

Just the fact that Jesus had to eat broiled fish reminds us that the disciples’ joy over the resurrection was mixed with doubt and uncertainty about the future. They were still hiding in an upper room, trying to piece together different accounts from individuals who had seen Jesus.

In a state of doubt, wonder, and confusion, the disciples then just about jumped out of their skin when Jesus showed up among them. And even when they finally received the good news of the resurrection, they had a long way to go before the life-changing moment of Pentecost.

Between Good Friday and Pentecost, there were quite a lot of doubts, misunderstandings of Jesus’ message, and confusion over what Jesus had said. The disciples were in bad shape. If you were going to figure out which movement, the Jesus movement or the Roman Empire, would have a longer lasting impact in human history, Rome would have been the easy choice on Easter morning–even if an empty tomb hinted that things were about to change in a really big way.

None of the disciples lost their spot due to doubts and confusion, but Jesus also didn’t accept their doubt as a static state. He invited his disciples to return to the scriptures, to revisit their past conversations, to consider what they see before them, and to wait patiently for the illuminating Spirit.

Jesus even steeled himself and said, “Hey y’all, watch THIS!” as he gamely scarfed down a hunk of broiled fish.

Doubt isn’t a dead end, and Jesus offered several paths to take after one vision for the future fell apart. Doubt can be a very real and very honest starting point for the journey of faith. It can also be a detour of sorts along the way. Yet I don’t see Jesus abandoning us to our doubts or settling for people who are doubting and confused.

I wonder if this speaks to our own pendulum swings today between prideful certainty and a doubt fest of endless deconstruction. At a certain point we have to ask if perhaps we’ve missed something or perhaps God can reveal something to us in the people around us, whether we can  find fresh insight through another look at scripture, whether we may find Jesus when we take a walk, or whether our faith can be rekindled by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe the academic calendar is just burned into our family’s routines right now, but this upper room moment in today’s Gospel sure feels like a final exam where the disciples are still drawing stick figures in the margins because they just aren’t sure about the answers.

Some are likely still clinging to the hope that Jesus will restore the Kingdom to Israel and that he’ll finally be an earthly king with the spiritual stuff out of the way.

All are confused about Jesus showing up like a ghost that can walk through walls but still eats fish. Jesus is unfamiliar enough that two disciples on the road to Emmaus can miss him, yet they can finally figure things out in the right context.

*****

Perhaps this story reminds us that Jesus himself will say things that sound pretty darn explicit and clear, and yet we’ll just completely miss the message. Even when he spelled out the details of his death and resurrection, his disciples just couldn’t process something so terrible happening. When Jesus fulfilled his own prophecy, doubts remained.

We’re going to miss stuff. We’re going to be confused. We will be wrong about things. That doesn’t disqualify us, but if we aren’t humble and receptive, we may miss out on intimacy with God and the deeply fulfilling call that Jesus has for us.

There isn’t a one-size fits all response to our doubts and confusioin. Jesus offers his disciples multiple paths to find him. Jesus appeared to his followers in the garden, on the road, and even in the upper room. Jesus walked on roads and walked through walls.

Jesus knew his disciples feared the future. They weren’t going to get the future for Israel that they wanted and that they read about in scripture. They had to completely rethink the story of their faith and of their lives around a Messiah who conquers and rebuilds the nation of Israel through his death and Resurrection.

This is mystical and mysterious and confusing. It’s a message that they need God’s help in sharing. That, in fact, is why Jesus told them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

If they can’t figure out the Resurrection even after Jesus spelled it out for them, you better believe they were going to need divine intervention.

And here is the crazy thing, even though things appeared hopeless, confusing, and on the fast track to NoWheresville, Pentecost changed everything.

With the wisdom of the Spirit on their side, the disciples staged a dramatic rally. They went from doubting, confused, and fearful to wise, clear-headed, and courageous. They wanted the rest of the world to know that Jesus is present, that Jesus has conquered the darkness, and that the first step is a change of direction toward his illuminating light.

The disciples had light to share with the world, and that same calling remains for us today. That promise of Jesus’ light and illuminating wisdom is ours to claim, to patiently wait on, and to experience. This gift of God’s light is meant to be shared for the benefit of others even as it shapes us from within.

As we wait for Pentecost, perhaps we can examine our hearts, asking which doubts linger, what confuses us, and what we just can’t sort out about Jesus and our faith. Jesus will stick with us whether we’re feeling stuck at a dead end, whether we’re worn down, or whether we’re not even sure where to begin.

Doubt or confusion does not disqualify you. Even the disciples started there.

Jesus loves you so deeply that he has sent his Holy Spirit among you. He is present with you even now no matter what’s on your mind. And Jesus cares so deeply for you and for his people that he even once ate an entire piece of cold, bland broiled fish. Amen.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Your Parent’s Simple Religious Answers Don’t Work

 

man-outside-church

I have watched time and time again how the older generation of evangelicals interacts with the youth and young adults. I have seen parents supply the answers to their children before they even knew what the children were asking. It’s like the teens and young adults with questions and, gasp, doubts are laden with theological TNT that could demolish the whole enterprise of the Gospel.

I see the appeal of the safety of evangelical Christianity for some, especially the churches and denominations that thrive within largely closed theological systems. Within the system and the community, you have the assurance of answers and practices that all work… as long as you stay within the system. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter if all of the answers are proven true because you’ve learned that they HAVE to be true. If the answers of your group don’t work, you’ve got nothing left—no community, hope for the future, and no way to explain how the world works.

Teens and young adults are often caught in the bind between the simple answers of their communities and their honest questions. And don’t think for a moment that children can’t tell when they’re safe to ask questions and when they’re not.

Having been that young teenager within the closed system of the Catholic Church, I knew exactly what was going on. When a priest met with me to “answer” my questions, I could immediately tell that he was fully confident in his ability to smash my answers into his tidy box of Catholic doctrine.

There was no mystery, no humility, and no mercy for my dissatisfaction. Either I accepted his authority and his theological system, which was all presented as reasonable and fully true, or I was just being rebellious and sinful, rejecting my God-given spiritual leaders and the truth of the Bible.

Is it any wonder that closed religious systems like conservative evangelicalism and Catholicism are both equally capable of creating mini inquisitions of their own? Their adherents learn that truly embracing what is taught and seriously practicing it will require them to at one point or another to stuff their questions and doubts down deep and to ensure that everyone else does the same. If you let someone else doubt or ask the hard questions, what will stop you from facing your own uncertainties and misgivings?

What so many young people suspect and what so many religious leaders fear is this: our beliefs, practices, and institutions are deeply flawed and in error.

Here’s what I suspect: We’re so flawed and in error that we don’t even know which parts are flawed and in error. We could spend the rest of our lives attacking the mistakes and hypocrisies of each other while defending the purities of our own traditions without realizing we’re really all in the same boat.

Yes, if you’ve ever doubted what you’ve been taught in church, you’re not rebellious. You’re just being honest. Most importantly, you could even be on the right path. Not that we want to spend the rest of our lives doubting, asking questions, and deconstructing so that we never find anything. I assure you, Jesus said that those who seek will find, but he doesn’t guarantee what we’ll find.

The problem is that those raised in closed religious systems think that these tiny little havens are the only places to find God. While God is most certainly within these systems in one way or another, there is a larger reality that is often obscured in the midst of the rule following and defenses of doctrinal territory.

There is the bedrock certainty of God’s grace and mercy that roam free regardless of our systems and boundaries, his endless oceans of love for us, and his streams of life that promise us a different kind security. I have found that I don’t need to worry about defending doctrine or truth, I need to live in it. The simple answers and the doctrines we’ve learned had their place, but as many of us suspected, these were just scratching the surface. The difference then is whether you toss all pursuit of God aside or you take the risk of seeking God’s larger reality of presence, mercy, and love—truth isn’t opposed to these, but it can stop you from pursuing them. At one point or another your religious system will fail you, even if you don’t admit that it has failed you.

I’ve been there, clinging to the fragile structure of theology, Bible study, a few seemingly spiritual experiences, and the hollow assurances of others around me. God’s love for me was strictly theoretical and largely wrapped up in the acceptance or rejection of those around me. If they could reject me because of what I said or believed, then God could do the same. If I was expendable to them, then it seemed like I was expendable to God.

I am learning to surrender to the darkness and the silence. I have done so kicking and screaming, wanting to keep shouting praise songs, hoping I could think my way out of this vast unknown land, and trying to spark a light by reciting one scripture verse after another.

Most days I feel like even less than a novice when it comes to the still small voice of God or the presence of God. For as little as I know and have experienced, it has been a true awakening to God’s mercy for me and for the religious leaders and their closed systems.

I see the well-meaning spoon feeding teens and young adults simple answers and doctrines that they can take or leave but must take if they want to be accepted and loved. I see some slump over with indifference because deep down they know that they’re wasting their time. As soon as they can make their own decisions, they’ll most likely drop away from the faith because it never was their own.

They never learned how to receive nourishment from God directly because their parents or church leaders feared that they may leave the faith if they start asking too many questions or let their doubts take root. I have seen the exact opposite among so many of my friends and colleagues. Once we stepped into the darkness and learned to make our faith our own, however imperfect it was, we found a God who is deeper and stronger than the simple answers and systems.

Speaking for myself, I’ve found a presence and love that I can’t explain or quantify, and it can co-exist with my imperfect theology and the theological questions that hang in the wind without resolution.

If I could say one thing to these teens and young adults who slump in the back rows of church today and hope to make their escape in the not too distant future, I would say that my faith never took root until I surrendered everything I thought I knew and learned to receive God’s mercy and love on God’s own terms.

God’s love for you and for me doesn’t change if I rebel against the answers and systems we were told to accept. Jesus has already overcome the world. He alone is worthy to unlock the deepest secrets of eternity past and the mysteries that await us. Are you tired of lugging around these questions? Are you weary of hiding your doubts? Are you thirsting for God’s presence and life instead of demands for spiritual conformity?

Jesus has a single word for you and for me: Come. There are no strings attached or limitations. Come to him with your reservations, disappointments, discouragement, and brokenness. He alone can give us rest and peace.

After spending most of my life fearing that I wasn’t good enough for God or that my doubts were too much, I found that his love for me truly overcomes every barrier I could put in the way.

Why Evangelicals Lack Compassion for Doubters and Doubters Lack Compassion for Evangelicals

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When my faith hit rock bottom at the end of seminary, I became spiritually despondent. I also became very, very angry that the religious practices and beliefs I’d been given let me down.

As I voiced my doubts and anger, I received some pretty strong pushback from evangelicals who had no tolerance for my doubts and felt personally attacked. On the other side of that time in my life, I can see with greater clarity some of the reasons why we struggled to show compassion to each other.

How Do You Grow Spiritually?

In evangelicalism, there generally isn’t very much language or conception of spiritual formation or practice. We have tended to focus on “saving” and then preserving the soul. You save your soul by making the proper profession of faith and then learning more biblical truth. You remain “in Christ” by safeguarding that truth.

If you look at the broader Christian tradition that stretches back to the early church and desert fathers, there was a greater emphasis on solitude and prayer. This tradition had been preserved by the monastic tradition, and its influence has increased and decreased over the years. As the church grew in power and influence, it’s not surprising to see those spiritual practices decrease.

As our access to monastic and desert father writings has increased, we can read that the three words that drove their spirituality were: “Flee, be silent, and pray,” as Nouwen writes in The Way of the Heart. Most importantly for our discussion about doubt and compassion, Nouwen notes that solitude (the fleeing and being silent parts) grow compassion in us as we encounter the love and mercy of God.

If we contrast the evangelical and the contemplative approaches to spirituality, we can see that one is focused on preservation while the other is focused on surrender. When I was trying to defend, preserve, or guard my spiritual life, I had little time or capacity for others unless they could help defend or teach the truth.

The surrender of solitude has forced me to face my darkest thoughts, resentments, and failures. When I resist solitude, it’s often because I’m resisting these dark sides of my life. I can only find relief and freedom by surrendering to God’s mercy, and that makes it significantly easier to show mercy to others.

Within the evangelical mindset, I learned to defend my faith from my own doubts and from those who would cast doubts on my faith. There was no room for failure. It was an all or nothing mindset. Without a more robust language of “spiritual practice” to provide an actual grounding for my faith, I had placed my confidence in study and orthodoxy. After immersing myself in study throughout my undergraduate and seminary years, while also going all in with everything the church asked of me, I saw just how fragile my faith had become, and I was angry.

I had invested years of my life into the study of scripture and defending particular viewpoints of the Bible. When those defenses fell apart and I realized that I was still just as far from God as when I started out, I had a “burn it all down” mindset toward theology and the church systems I’d given so much of myself to.

The hardest part of this is that the people in the systems of church and theology didn’t do anything malicious to me. They were just passing along the best things they could to me. We were all acting in good faith.

We all also lacked the very practices that could cultivate compassion in us. We were both trained in systems that valued conformity and checking particular boxes. As I left the conservative system, I just replaced it with a more progressive one but maintained the same mindset that lacked compassion or any kind of meaningful spiritual practice.

As I enter into completive prayer, I have to face my dark side and the only way out is to accept God’s mercy.

I am finally seeing the evangelical subculture with more compassion and grace because I can see how badly we both need the same mercy from God. I still have my insecurities. I have plenty of rage for the evangelical captivity to politics and cultural influence. But I at least can detect when I’m moving toward an unhealthy place.

When I sense myself moving toward my unhealthy stress points of anxiety and fear (hello, enneagram 9’s!), I now have spiritual practices I can turn toward with hope. Under the mercy of God, I have found the great equalizer of humanity, and that has helped me start to become kind to others, even the ones who would rather excommunicate me for my doubts.

There Is Life on the Other Side of Our Fears

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When I released my first book, an author I knew shared a picture of his book in a bargain bin at a discount book store.

I gasped in horror. What if that was my book? Would I dare to share a picture like that???

Eight years later, my first book has no doubt sent plenty of copies to the bargain bins as well. My publisher stopped promoting it—that’s what they told me.

While I had long taken pride in the fact that my book was still officially in print eight years after being released and selling more copies than the majority of first time books, I started to face my fear about going out of print. This was way beyond the bargain bin. This was THE END.

We all want to be validated and praised, and that’s a big part of what publishing commercially can do for a writer.

One of my lessons in contemplative prayer has been to go through my fears, to face them in all of their menacing power and to seek God on the other side. This is very counter-intuitive for a person like me. I have anxiety issues, and the last thing I want to do is to face the source of that anxiety. However, facing the source of my anxiety has been much better than reacting to the sensation of anxiety itself, and once I face the root of my anxiety, I actually have something to pray about.

So I faced my fear about going out of print. What would it mean?

Honestly… not that much. The book wasn’t being promoted. Why did I care about an official listing with a publisher if I could actually promote it better myself?

I was shocked to see how fast my fears melted away. As it turned out, my fragile ego had been fueling all of my fears and anxiety. I didn’t want to be found out as a fraud if my book didn’t stay in print, even if something like that could never determine my identity or worth.

How often do we give such tremendous, absolute power to fleeting, fickle things? Do I really want the business team at my publisher to hold the key to my identity as they debate black and white dollars and cents related to my book?

Once I faced the worst of my fears about going out of print, I started to find new energy for this book. I started looking into which chapters I could revise, and I lined up a college professor to help with the revisions since he’s been using the book for a seminar class for several years.

I still believe in this book, and I wanted to do the work to send it back into the world better than ever.

My agent and I decided that we would ask for the rights back after we got back from a major publishing conference. As it turned out, the publisher sent the official letter offering me the rights back a week after I returned from the conference.

Instead of wallowing in despair, I was delighted to see that the process was already in motion.

Before the files arrived from the publisher, I already had an order for 40 print copies.

There is life on the other side of our fears. Oftentimes, we just need to face them, bringing the root issues before God. The process isn’t neat or pleasant. I’ve certainly had enough devastating failure and struggles to make me desperate enough to find another way forward.

Perhaps you’re living in fear of something today that has power over you. Remember that God has not given you a spirit of fear, so if you’re under the power of fear, it’s not from God. There is healing and renewal for us, and we could end up in a place of freedom and hope that we never ever imagined.

We are loved. God is for us and desires our healing and freedom.

Perhaps today you need to read the words of Psalm 131:

O LORD, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me. But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast, my soul is quieted within me.
Psalm 131:1-3

May we find God’s rest on the other side of our fears.

 

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

 

My Most Difficult Shift Toward Healthy Religion

 

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When I finally understood the impact of unhealthy religious beliefs and practices in my life, I don’t think I can quite put into words the joy and freedom that I experienced. It was one epiphany after another where God wasn’t as evil and monstrous as I’d been lead to believe. My beliefs weren’t as fragile as I’d been taught.

Rather than watering down the truth or picking and choosing my truth arbitrarily, I learned to begin taking in the full, mysterious witness of the Christian faith where God is just and holy, but God is also merciful, loving, and compassionate.

If only I’d expended the same effort to experience the love of God as I’d invested in fearing his judgment and holiness.

It’s as if a whole segment of Christianity has become so fearful of God’s judgment that we’ve become fixated on it. We dare not spend too much time talking about God’s love, mercy, or compassion, even if the Psalms, prophets, and writings of the apostles all but hit us over the head with these themes about God’s love and patience.

If we start to think God is soft or easy on us, we could start sinning, and then who knows what would happen next.

Actually, we’ve been told what to expect next: judgment.

Is it any wonder that people who spend so much time beholding and fearing the judgment of God feel an irresistible pull toward judgment of others as well? We become what we worship, that’s what the Psalms and prophets tell us in particular, and if we fail to see how God’s love coexists with his holiness and justice, then we end up with a God of judgment and we can’t help but follow that lead.

Seeking the full witness of scripture about the love, mercy, and compassion of God for us has completely changed how I pray and practice holiness. Rather than acting out of a fear of judgment, I’m working on accepting the loving embrace of God for prodigals who cross the line and stuffy judgmental sons who walk the line. The contemplative prayer tradition of the church tells us over and over again that it’s the present love of God that transforms us, not a constant fear of his judgment.

As much as I have enjoyed this shift toward “healthy religion,” as Richard Rohr would call it (rather than creating a false dichotomy between Jesus and religion), the most difficult step for me has been to respond with mercy, love, and compassion toward those who are still under the sway of an angry, judgmental God who demands holiness. As I step toward mystery and contemplation, I struggle to respond with grace and compassion toward those who are still citing chapter and verse with angry zeal, defending boundaries, and attempting to define who is in and who is out.

I’m grateful in part for this struggle. I need these reminders of how far I need to go. You’d think that I should know by now that having the right information about the love of God isn’t the same thing as living in that love daily and being transformed by it.

When someone takes a swing at my beliefs or practices, I still feel the urge to judge, excommunicate, or strike back. I still want to repay snark with snark, sarcasm with better sarcasm. And it’s killing me sometimes because I love sarcasm so much.

Most days I can only know on an intellectual level that the people who embody the judgment, boundary-defending side of Christianity are in bondage to a flawed perception of God. And the more that I want to respond in kind, the more I’m in bondage to that flawed perception as well. At the very least, if I struggle to respond with compassion and mercy, then I’m not doing a good job of experiencing God’s mercy and compassion for myself.

It’s hard to learn to shut up and to take a shot on the chin. I’ve invested so much time (and money!) in studying theology. It’s ironic that I want to put my hard-earned training into use to strike back at someone, but the truth is that I need nothing more than to shut up and return to the present love of God.

It shouldn’t be this hard to rest in the present love of God. The more I struggle with this, the more I have to question what I want out of life. Do I want to be justified? Do I want people to respect me? Do I want people to think I’m clever?

It sure doesn’t sound all that clever or unique to say that I am loved and you are loved deeply, perfectly, and constantly. That’s what Christians have been saying for centuries. It’s not flashy, snarky, or catchy for a blog headline. It won’t win a theology debate. It will actually look like a surrender.

Surrender. That’s the word that I’m learning to accept. If I am going to surrender to the love of God, it also means surrendering in every other competition, debate, and desire. I can’t win. I can’t reach what I think I want.

Jesus taught us what it means to surrender and to “win” by “losing.” He modeled this kind of surrender in the most extreme of circumstances, entrusting himself to the love of God even to the point of trusting in resurrection.

Can I let God’s love so transform me that I can even show his love, mercy, and compassion to those who have none for me?

Can I surrender to the point that I’ll let my aspirations for my reputation perish? Perhaps one day I’ll trust God to raise up my true self from the ashes, refined and secure in his love that conquers all.

 

 

 

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.