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

 

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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.

 

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

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

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

I 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.

 

I Tried Quiet Prayer Once and It Didn’t Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

Rohr for Writers: How to Find the Enlightenment We Cannot See

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“Any attempt to plan or engineer your own enlightenment is doomed to failure because it will be ego driven. You will see only what you have already decided to look for, and you cannot see what you are not ready or told to look for.”

-Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, 66

 

The most important turning points of my life and my faith have come when I have felt least prepared for them.

Rohr says it well here: we cannot see what we are not ready or told to look for.

Ironically, when God breaks into our world and pushes us beyond what we know and have experienced, that is the moment when we are “ready” to see it, even if the moment of realization is overwhelming and disruptive.

If I could hold onto an explanation of what prayer is capable of doing, it’s this sort of enlightenment where God takes us beyond ourselves. It’s the transforming power of the Spirit in our lives that makes the life of God apparent in us.

This is why prayer and writing can be particularly powerful when they work together: writers are seeking clarity and enlightenment through our creative work. We’re trying to get a slight edge, and it’s often very slight, on how everyone sees the world. We’re pulling back the fabric just a bit to say, “Hey, have you ever looked at things from this angle?”

If we’re just repeating what everyone already knows, why would they bother reading our work? That’s why the commonplace tropes such as, “Everyone knows…” or “It’s a time-honored adage…” are such terrible ways to begin any piece of writing. Every college composition teacher surely has hands raised, shouting “Amen!” at that point.

Prayer is a leap into the void of the unexpected. We don’t know where God will take us. If we have a clear map in mind of what’s supposed to happen when we pray, then we’re not actually praying. We’re just paying God lip service rather than entrusting ourselves to God’s loving presence. It’s not up to us to set the agenda when we’re in God’s presence.

Writing is a similar leap. We begin the creative process and submit ourselves to it. We go where it leads. Yes, we outline and take notes and write drafts, but we can only go where the process takes us. At a certain point we either ditch the project or polish it for wider distribution.

Whether writing or praying, the most important part of either process is the part you can’t plan out or see coming. They’re both leaps of faith, acts that put us in positions where could end up in a place that is beyond ourselves and leaves us forever changed.

If I Created God in My Own Image, He’d Let Me Slap You

slap Christians over doctrine

God is merciful, and I am not.

That is one of the most important conclusions I’ve reached after years of theological wrangling and Bible study. In fact, it’s the mercy of Jesus that often caused the greatest amount of friction between himself and the religious leaders of his time.

I don’t think you can deny the mercy of God in the story of scripture, but the challenge often becomes how to apply that mercy today. I mean, God does get around to judging people at the end of time and all, right?

But whatever form that judgment takes, it’s also abundantly clear that Jesus would really quite rather we spend our time showing mercy to others. He framed his ministry as the work of a doctor healing the sick. He even prevented religious authorities from stoning a woman after she committed adultery—an act that they could have easily backed up with chapter and verse.

God patiently sent one prophet after another to tell the wayward Israelites: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In other words, learn to be merciful and you will be obedient. Don’t use your obedience as an excuse to abandon mercy.

As I try to sort out what God’s kind of mercy looks like today, I’ve often heard those who self-identify as more “biblical” or “gospel-centered” accuse me of reinventing God in my own image. By seeking to be merciful, I’m going soft on people because it’s what I want rather than what God and scripture teaches. If God had his way with me, I’d go around shoving the faces of sinners into the chapter and verse for everything.

This accusation is both annoying and frustratingly inaccurate. How dare they mistake me for a merciful person!

I’m just about the most stodgy, rule-following, judgmental person there is. I would love to point the finger at other people than deal with my own issues. Really. It’s super easy to find other people to criticize and judge. It makes me feel amazing because all of these other jokers set the bar so low that I can’t help but look like a religious super hero.

And if I could get God to see things my way, he’d also let me slap more people. Nothing harmful or abusive. Just a little, “HEY! GET IT TOGETHER!” They do this thing on television and the movies all of the time, and I think I would be really good at it in real life. If God let me slap more people like that, I think I would exercise restraint and there’d be a ton more people who would “get it together” faster.

At the very least, all of my slapping would ensure that people wouldn’t go around making ridiculous assertions that people who speak of mercy are remaking God in their own image. I assure you, the vast majority of us are not. I’d love to be more judgmental, to set up stronger boundaries, and to ensure I exist in an echo chamber of ideas that never leave me challenged or uncomfortable—what some may call a “remnant.”

I could be wrong. Maybe the slapping approach isn’t the best way forward. I’m willing to admit that.

While I can admit my slapping plan may have flaws, I wonder if those who accuse the merciful of reinventing God in their own image could ask themselves the same question: “Are we also inventing God in our own image?” That’s not a comfortable place to be.  Maybe getting slapped doesn’t sound so bad now, amirite?

As I read the story of scripture, I don’t see people who struggled to judge others. If anything, God’s people struggled time and time again to be merciful. The people who received mercy direct from Jesus failed time and time again, calling down fire from heaven, writing off the blind as sinners, and trying to protect their turf when casting out demons. Mercy was anything but natural for them.

What if those most prone to judgment are just as likely, if not more likely at times, to be inventing God in their own image?

 

 

Why Hurting Honestly Will Save Them

earth and sky

Author Guy Delcambre writes about grief in his new memoir with this powerful reflection: “If you never fully hurt, you never fully heal.” Delcambre lost his wife suddenly in the course of five days, and was left to raise three daughters on his own. He’s sharing a guest post today based on his book about that experience: Earth and Sky.

 

“Do you get sad still?”

She sat quiet, half leaned into my ribs, lost in four-year-old thoughts, which roam and meander in a world too big. Her sisters cried through stories recalling time with their mom. She cried, too, nearly every night in the year after their mother’s unexpected death. But me, I exerted much of my energies moving beyond her death and growing strong again as fast as I could. This was my duty as their remaining parent: to pick up all the broken pieces and rebuild life. I am a 33-year-old widower, father to three little girls all under the age of eight. I am clueless as to what to do. That was over four years ago.

In the four years since my first wife’s death, I have learned much more about parenting than ever before. More so, I’ve learned myself in ways truer. On mountainous trails teaching them hiking basics and good enough fishing spots where patience delivered their first catch, I discovered how to recognize my daughters’ wanting hearts. My daughters taught me the art of the quick, perfect ponytail. For hours, I practiced on them as they modeled how to gather all the hair together in just the right spot. We celebrated with joyous dance when I finally got the hair band twisted tight enough to hold the ponytail in place. They, too, wanted the future and the warmth of hope that I often told them about, but they needed the past to get there. The past hurt. It reminded me of failure, of God not there where I needed him. Returning to the past scratched counter intuitively across my heart. When I left, I never wanted to return.

Back on the couch, my youngest tucked into my side, contemplating the world her dad knows free of apparent sadness, she taught me one of the most formative lessons to shape my parenting.

“Yes, sweetie, I get sad at times.”

“Well, you hide it really good, Dad.”

As a result of me always being okay and in the busyness of me liberating myself from the hurt of her death, my daughters grew more isolated in their own bewildering grief. Those simple little words of my littlest daughter found me moving ahead alone, leading no one, just in time.

To hurt honestly is to hurt wholly, to admit wrong and to welcome the future through the past. This is what my daughters were missing. Rather than me leading them, they only heard me talk about a foreign place of hope disconnected from the reality of death they knew all too well. Grief piled atop their grief. I was leaving them as well.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” At first glance, blessing coupled with mourning is a bad matched marriage. No one sinking in grief recognizes any sort of benefit in his or her tears, other than the momentary release that serves as a reminder that life has indeed twisted askew. However, the more I mourned, the more frequent the release of emotion proved to be blessing. Mourning guided me through grief. Sharing my hurts and fears and frustrations with my daughters served as guide for them.

Grief is a life-long journey that when committed to can bloom the deepest blessing in the darkest of life. The third Thursday of every November is Children’s Grief Awareness day, an opportunity to raise awareness and affirm healthy grief for children who have experience loss in their little lives. Death can be such a scary life event – in a moment a loved one can disappear into forever without understanding and so much as a proper good bye. Take time to consider those little ones who may be struggling through the lost of a loved one. If not your own, those little ones could be your child’s classmate, neighbor or friend. Revealing your own held fears and hurts about death could very well be their way out.

(*Matt 5:4 ESV)

 

Pick up a copy of Earth and Sky on sale today.

 

About Today’s Guest Blogger

Guy Delcambre Headshot1Guy Martin Delcambre is an author and public speaker based in Dallas, Texas, who writes about faith in thin moments, strength found in weakness, and God’s grace immeasurable. Guy was once a pastor, a church planter, and a widower, in that order. From the darkest night in life— the death of a spouse— to learning to live life as a single father to three young daughters, Guy has traveled the greatest distance of the heart to find home in God’s faithful goodness.

He lives with his wife, Marissa, and three daughters, Elizabeth, Emily, and Chloe.

Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyDelcambre.
Visit Guy’s Blog here.

 

Publishing a Book Is Not NEAT

book publishing is hard

 

In case you were wondering, publishing a book is not “neat” in any sense of the word.

Writing a book is messy.

Writing a book is demanding.

Writing a book is heartbreaking.

Writing a book demands sacrifices of yourself and everyone close to you.

Writing a book will drain you, punch you in the gut, and then kick you while you’re down.

When you finally hold that book in your hands after years of fighting, chopping, and spilling your heart onto the page, it will be surreal. It will be amazing. You’ll also think something like, “Well, it’s about damn time.” And then you’ll go take a nap or collapse onto the couch to sob a little… and then take a nap.

I outlined my publishing journey in my book A Path to Publishing (download the whole book for free), and the most common response I hear from readers is despair. When I walk new authors through the book marketing process, many of them just want to crawl into the fetal position.

And I haven’t even mentioned the absolute worst part of book publishing. And no, it’s not a bad review.

The worst part about publishing is the staggering indifference of most readers to your work.

Marketing a carefully crafted book is draining and demanding, but few may read it no matter how hard you try to spread the word. Remember, J.K. Rowling published a book under a pen name, and it hardly sold any copies. This is someone who has penned enduring bestsellers that have defined an entire generation of young readers, and she couldn’t even rack up a few thousand readers when using a different name.

Do you have any idea how daunting that is?

All of this is profoundly NOT NEAT.

* * *

I do a lot of author coaching both formally and informally, and I often refer new authors to my Path to Publishing book and encourage them to write with questions about the next step. If they can’t even finish the book, then they’re clearly not determined enough to publish a book—they probably just think publishing is “neat” until you read about the demands of the step-by-step process.

The people who will succeed in book publishing cannot go into it because they think it’s neat. They need a stronger driving force to carry them through all of the politics, discouragement, and exhaustion.

Writing a book has to be an unstoppable mission or a haunting presence that you can’t shake. You have to find yourself scribbling down ideas, dreaming of book covers, and imagining what your readers want.

I would go so far as saying that it’s like the words bottled up in the prophet Jeremiah that were a fire in his bones. If he didn’t let them out, they would have consumed him.

Authors must be driven write. There’s something inside of us that we simply can’t switch off. And perhaps we’ll still say that publishing a book would be neat, but deep down it must be more than. It must be a driving passion.

* * *

When I talk to friends about book publishing and I learn that one of them is considering it, I often say something like this, “I’ll help you, but I also want to spare you from pain. This is going to hurt.”

The pain of publishing is one of the most common reflections I’ve heard from fellow writers. It… just… hurts. That isn’t to say that it’s bad to have that pain. You just need to really want that finished book project if you’re going to endure that kind of pain.

The most worthy goals in life often call us to the greatest pain.

In the Christian faith we talk about the cost of discipleship, laying our lives down for the cause of Christ. If you feel a calling or desire to write, there will be a sacrifice and it will hurt, but there are certainly rewards if you can fight past the pain.

In fact, I would even say that we can even resist some of the pain in publishing. We can choose to ignore which influencers or friends have ignored our book. We can stop comparing our success to other authors.

Instead, we can look at the people whose lives have been changed by our work.

We can be grateful that we finally breathed these words of fire onto the page and they didn’t consume us.

We can be grateful that we’ve created something that could outlive us.

We can be grateful that we’ve persevered and accomplished something that only a small group of people are willing to endure.

Book publishing is not for everyone. In fact, even with the ease of self-publishing, there are lots of people who should focus on other creative outlets, such as podcasting, creating short videos, or blogging. A book can effectively communicate ideas to a lot of people, but it’s not the only way to reach a large group of people with ideas or stories.

Writing and publishing several books has been the most meaningful work I’ve done. If I had a few days, weeks, or months left to live, I’d keep publishing. It’s the best kind of challenge I can imagine. It results in something I’m proud of.

As much as I love it, I can assure you that publishing a book is not “neat.”