Christians Need Compassion More Than Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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’m Not Used to the Cycle of Death and Resurrection Yet

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Today I’m digging out 40 bulbs of garlic from our garden, a grape vine, and a blackberry bush. The latter two were birthday gifts for my wife 4 years ago.

We’ve been renting this home that we’re preparing to leave, and our landlord changed his mind about the raised bed garden and surrounding plants that I put in. He wants it all removed and reseeded with grass.

I took the phone call about the garden in a crowded café last Saturday, and I nearly broke down in tears at my table. I can’t tell you what that garden has meant for me, what it has done for my life and for my family, and what it symbolizes to me. I want to try to put it all into words someday, but for now I’m just feeling the ache of that loss.

If we want to move on to the next season of our life together as a family, we need to literally dig up the old stuff and leave this place as if we had never been here.

We’ve moved quite a bit since marrying back in 2002 and moving to Philadelphia. In 2005 we moved to Vermont. In 2009 we moved to Connecticut. In 2011 we moved to Ohio. In 2016 we will move to western Kentucky.

We’ve dug up so many things, packed so many boxes, and left so many people behind from each place. Each time I’ve clung to a promise from God that we were doing this living by faith thing, moving on to a place that we knew we needed to go. We trusted that new life could spring up in each new place we settled.

And so today we’re digging up the life we planted at our home in Ohio so that we can move on to the next thing. I’ve had plenty of chances to get used to this process of planting, uprooting, and moving on, the cycle of death that must precede resurrection and new life.

Among the Bible verses that I wish didn’t exist, there’s this one:

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24 NIV

There’s this cycle of life, death, and resurrection that spins on and on in our lives, and each time something comes to an end, I can’t help holding my breath and worrying about the next thing that follows. Will life come out of this loss? What will come next?

Today I’m looking backward at the past provision of God and all of the times that I didn’t think we would make it. As we stepped out in obedience into the great unknown, leaving behind what we knew for certain, we didn’t always find what we were looking for or wanted, but we learned that God was holding us. Isn’t that funny how we want God to hand over what we want, but then we find that God has only wanted us all along? I have pouted and fumed that God’s hands were empty when I reached out to him. Why didn’t God give me what I wanted when I wanted it?

Little did I know that God’s empty hands are there to hold us and to draw us near. When I asked God for the desires of my heart, he showed me that I’m the desire of his heart.

 

Do You Want to be Made Well? Probably Not

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“Do you want to be made well?”
 – John 5:6

That’s the question Jesus asked a blind and paralyzed man. The man was so focused on his own plans and solutions to his hopeless problems that he never even answered Jesus’ question. Perhaps that non-answer was answer enough.

It’s a good thing that Jesus wasn’t picky about his answer. I can relate to this man. Who hasn’t been so fixated on the solutions that work for everyone else? Who hasn’t looked at his own faltering plans and doubled down, trying to make them work?

There’s an even deeper issue at play, at least for me:

Honestly, I don’t want to be made well. Too often I choose to limp along or to stick with my comfortable half measures that make life tolerable. Actually moving into a place where I could thrive and experience renewal takes sacrifices, discipline, and, most importantly, hope.

Do I believe that God can make me well?

Do I believe that God offers something better than what I already have?

Do I believe that reaching out to God will change anything?

Who wants to make time for God if there isn’t a guarantee that prayer will “work” or that God can offer something better than what I already have?

Here is what I’m learning: I settle for far too little, far too quickly, far too often.

The first step you take is often the hardest because you don’t have hope or experience to fall back on. Beginning with prayer is the great unknown. Where is this going? Who knows?

I have learned that Jesus promises “Seek and you shall find,” but he doesn’t offer a lot of details about what exactly we’ll find. We’re seeking the treasure of the Kingdom, but we only have this guarantee: “You’ll know it when you find it.”

Who knows when you’ll find it.

Do you want to be made well?

Yes and no.

I want to be made well, but only if it’s easy and doesn’t cost much. I want to be made well if I can understand and, ideally, control the process. I want to be made well only if I’ve seen the solution work for other people so that I can imitate them.

The hardest thing about spirituality for me, and I suspect many Protestants, is grasping the amount of effort and will power it takes to daily surrender to the love and power of God. The life-change and healing we seek is 100% from God, but it takes everything we’ve got just to surrender and to trust completely. It takes so much effort to bring ourselves to the place where only God can work to heal us.

Healing will never come from our own plans, methods, and “medications.” We can choose to limp along with sleeping pills, wine, recreational drugs, consumerism, or sexual indulgences. We can choose to run from the pain of the past, the anxiety of the present, and the terror of the future. There’s no escape that we can engineer on our own. There’s no way to medicate this pain long enough. There’s no healing that we can engineer on our own that replaces the healing power of God’s loving presence.

As a new struggle, source of pain, or wound emerges in my life, I ask God yet again, “This too, Lord? Must I bring this to you, completely out in the open with a blind faith that you can heal this?”

Surrender is a life-long and daily struggle.

There’s no guarantee about what follows after the surrender, what the healing will be, or how long it will take. There’s no guarantee for anything other than the hope I can gather from past experiences and the experiences of others (including the stories of scripture).

Each time I bring my wounds and limps to the Lord, I find that it’s only through this bracing vulnerability and faith that I can find healing. It’s only through doggedly fighting to make space in my mind and in my day for God that I can expect to be made well.

Do I want to be made well?

Do I want to make time to be made well?

Do I want to make time to hear the voice of God?

Do I want to make space in my life for God’s presence?

Or do I want to keep limping along, hiding my pain and medicating it with the imperfect medications on hand?

You can be made well. I can be made well. I suspect that we can’t even imagine what God has in store for us. That may be the greatest challenge we face when it comes to answering Jesus’ question. Only Jesus himself knows how badly we need to be healed, and that’s why he isn’t picky about how we answer his question.

Whether we struggle with vulnerability or surrender, God’s mercy is more than enough to meet our great needs and weaknesses, even when we can’t manage to say one simple word: “Help.”

A Big Risk Isn’t Always What You Think

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I  often compare the risk of releasing a book with jumping off a cliff. I don’t know what waits over the edge, how far I’ll drop, or how I’ll land.

As I prepared for Write without Crushing Your Soul to release, I had an epiphany of sorts: anything related to my work isn’t an actual cliff. Yes, my work is important, but the stakes aren’t “cliff jumping” high.

A major challenge at work or with a family member or some other situation in life may appear to be a leap off a cliff. It may feel like a major leap in the moment. The reality is that such situations are more of a ledge or a wall, not a massive leap into the unknown that could make or break us.

I have made the mistake of assuming too much was riding on the success of my work.

My work is important, but it’s not a cliff.

The cliff I’ve had to jump of off, sometimes every day, revolves around my identity, whether I know that I am God’s beloved, and whether I can let something wholly beyond myself carry me to safety when I leap.

Each day I can find my identity in my work, in what other people think of me, or in some other talent or skill. I can take the leap into my day and expect these accomplishments or people to carry me to safety.

Richard Rohr reminds us that you can’t really do anything to find your true self in God. You can only nurture it and give it room to take hold in your life.

Each day I’m faced with a decision to work harder at validating my identity or resting deeper in my identity as God’s beloved.

Life can be terrifying sometimes. We face pain, loss, disappointment, and struggle. We can feel like we’ll never dig ourselves out of the mountain of work, debt, and failure we’ve amassed.

As I jump off the cliff, the reality I am slow to realize is this: I am already held even before my feet leave the ground. I am held safe in Christ as his beloved child, and if that isn’t good enough before I jump, it sure won’t be good enough after I jump.

Every failure, every stumble, every time we fall flat on our faces after a giant leap is painful, but these are never the end.

Write without Crushing Your Soul is primarily addressed to writers, but the central message in this book extends to any kind of work that threatens to supplant your identity as God’s beloved.

Sustainable work that doesn’t crush our souls means we fight tooth and nail to preserve a place where God can whisper the truth about ourselves.

Sustainable work means we stop listening to every self-crowned master, expert, super-ninja, and high flying CEO who weigh us down with impossible to-do lists and impossible goals that may well only crush our souls.

Sustainable work means we work to set and reset boundaries and more limited goals because we understand that our calling to work is below our calling to God and our calling to others.

Failure isn’t just an option. It’s inevitable. And when you do fail at your work, there’s nothing that can touch the furious longing of God for you. There’s nothing about your work that has to end your relationships.

You are held and loved today, so take the leap, use your talents to do your best work possible, and don’t worry about the moment after you jump.

 

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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

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What God Doesn’t Plan: My Post for A Deeper Story

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I’m surrounded by college students every day at a local café. There’s something different about them, even if they generally behave just as you would expect college students to behave: loud conversations on their phones, enthusiastic conversations, texting frequently, working occasionally, smoking regularly, and drinking large, sweet coffee drinks. I can relate to almost everything about them—well, except for the smoking. And the texting actually, gosh, I’m 35, you know. But besides the texting and smoking, the one thing I can’t quite understand is that the majority of these college students have their Bibles out on their tables next to their school books.

If it was one or two students, I wouldn’t give it another thought. This isn’t something I see with one or two students. This is more like fifteen or twenty students who are regulars at the local café, as well as a few friends of theirs who show up from time to time. Every single one keeps a Bible out in plain sight the entire time, every single time.

Most days the number of Bibles in the café outnumber the guys dressed like lumberjacks with huge beards, which is really saying something for my neighborhood. And I’m totally cool with all of this Bible study, even if it’s always paired with an orchestrated public Bible display and followed with a smoke break. They won’t hear me complain. However, one day I overheard a conversation that reminded me of what’s at stake with all of this immersion in Bible study.

Two young guys who were part of the smoking/public Bible group had a very loud, very anxious accountability meeting a few tables away. As I walked up for a refill, I heard a very familiar phrase: “I’m starting to figure out God’s plan for me…”

Read the rest at A Deeper Story

When Your 20’s Feel Like Darkness that Could Ruin Your Entire Life

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When I turned 30 I was in the midst of a career switch and a season of transition that felt unstable and uncertain. I wondered what I’d done with all of those years between college and graduation. How did I end up here?

I hadn’t accomplished enough. In fact, I felt more lost than certain about the direction of my life.

Career changes, unemployment, moving, wasted money, unused degrees, disappointment, and fear about the future marked my twenties and my clunky transition into my 30’s. Looking over my career, I felt like I’d done nothing but make bad decisions and screw up anything positive about the good decisions.

Life hadn’t been hard, per se. I’d just invested a ton of time and money into a degree that I wasn’t using all that much and then worked a dead end job in a sector where I had no interest in advancing before blowing it all up to stumble around as a freelance writer and author.

I wondered if I was lazy. Why did I feel so uninspired each day at work? And why couldn’t I figure out my next step? I couldn’t see very far into the future. It was this murky mass of chaos and tragedy ready to swallow me up.

Most of us start to grasp our own mortality throughout our 20’s as well. We realize that there will be a moment when we will close our eyes and everything changes forever. Suddenly the days feel shorter and we attach greater weight to everything we do. We don’t want to waste our time on some dead end career.

But how do you take a step forward when every step feels wrong?

Where do you go when you feel perpetually lost and you can’t think straight because you can only hear the clock ticking?

* * *

It’s hard to find the light in your 20’s. So many things are dark, confusing, and end up being “not as advertised.”

I thought I was on course to become a pastor. That crashed and burned.

I thought I could reinvent myself in the nonprofit sector. That didn’t work out.

I thought I was on the path to becoming a full time author. I had an image of that kind of success, and I just fell flat on my face—over and over and over again. I turned 35 this past August, and I think I’m just now getting over all of that.

I spent the first few years of my 30’s lamenting all of my failures, facing all that I’d done wrong, wondering if I’d missed out on everything in life. I thought I was a lost cause. I’d burned up, burned out, and didn’t have any light left to give.

If you’re looking for a guy who had his act together in his 20’s, I’m not your guy. If you’re looking for someone who was plagued by self-doubt, anxiety, career-missteps, failure, wastes of time, and miscalculations, then I’m totally your guy.

I can’t speak definitively about “being in one’s 20’s,” and I’m pretty sure my 20’s weren’t as bad as some of the stuff others folks have gone through or are going through, but we’ve all had our share of crap to sort through. And hey, I ended up in the emergency room thanks to an anxiety attack in my mid-twenties, so I’m most likely a little crazier than some of you.

I see lots of really talented, smart, kind, funny 20-somethings taking wild stabs in the dark and fearing the worst. I see lots of self-doubt and therapy, and it breaks my heart. If I could say just one thing to these 20-somethings, it would be this:

You can be a total screw up and still be really great.

Not a little screwing up here and there… I mean epic fail, mom calls asking if everything’s alright kind of screw up.

I know that it’s hard to seek the light when everything is dark and confusing and hostile. I know you want to have your act together. I know there are hundreds of thousands of people who have their acts more together than you and are buying homes, starting families, and getting promoted in their careers. I could post links to their profiles on LinkedIn if you like. I know who they are. I get it. But some of us need to fight it out, and I don’t know why that is, but it’s ok to fight and thrash and fear and worry.

You are more than your past failures or your ambitions. If I made a mistake in my 20’s, it’s that I longed for a title, a series of accomplishments that would help me identify myself.

Whether you’re in your 20’s right now, you’re struggling through your 30’s or 40’s, or you’re wondering what the heck you’ll do when you hit retirement age or beyond, I wanted to offer a few words of encouragement and shifts in perspective:

 

1 Find a Mentor

It’s really OK to ask someone for help. It’s OK to admit you feel lost. It may actually be the most liberating thing you can do.

I know you may think YOU are the exception. You just need more time or luck or whatever. If you’re thinking that, then you really, really need a mentor. You need someone who has walked a bit further down the road to help you gain some perspective. And honestly, the truth is that older folks need younger folks to remind them just how valuable and helpful they are. Self-doubt doesn’t go “poof” at the age of 40, 50, or 60.

If you’re young, you have encouragement to offer and wisdom to gain from a mentor. If you’re receiving AARP catalogues, younger folks need you and can offer exactly what you need during this season of life.

If anything, our culture has been captivated with the latest shiny, beautiful people who Instagram cute life-quotes on images of sunsets and flowers. If you rely on people with huge Facebook or Twitter followings to guide you through career change or a demanding season of life, you’re pretty much screwed. Tragically, older folks rarely know just how badly the younger generations need them.

To make matter worse… Older folks can’t fit their wisdom on a picture of a sunset.

 

2 Experience Isn’t a Waste

The most important thing I’ve learned since diving into writing and publishing in 2005 has been the simple truth that nothing in writing or publishing is ever wasted. Sure, you may fall on your face, but you won’t get a bloody nose in vain. Everything I’ve ever written has helped me write better for my next project. That’s why you often hear about authors who have drawers full of novels they can’t get anyone to publish and then they finally write something that wins awards and makes all of the money—and by that I mean a few thousand dollars since this IS publishing I’m talking about.

I could see that with my writing, but I couldn’t see that in my life experiences. It took a trusted friend to point out the value in my life experiences. In other words, I asked a mentor for help, and he truly delivered.

Nothing is wasted because YOU are the investment, and with every thing you try, you gain experience. And experience is really, really valuable. It may be a really painful process, and it may leave you feeling like “the worst,” but every experience you gain represents a piece of the map in your life. You know the lay of the land just a tiny bit better.

You may hate the lay of the land, but at least you’ll know where you’re at. You’ll be able to try something else out that will give you a little more experience, another piece of the map, and may even help you take a step forward.

 

3 Accomplishments Are OK

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at everything I haven’t accomplished or at least looking at all of the ways I haven’t accomplished enough. I’ve also seen people who have basically lived what I thought my dream would be, and they’re always looking at people who are more successful and hating the downsides of their success that I never could have foreseen.

Some people think that I’m really living the dream because I’ve published a few books. Others have even asked for advice on how to do what I do.

At times it’s really hard to stop myself from laughing and saying, “Oh, you don’t want to do what I do!”

Here’s the thing, lately, I can see how all of my experiences have guided me to where I’m at today. Yes, I’ve made some huge mistakes and had some truly embarrassing failures—not that most people noticed or even remembers what they were. However, I do have a good bit of clarity about my life right now. There was no other way to arrive at this point than to try a bunch of stuff out and see where it got me.

So you can try to do what I do, but it probably won’t take you to where you think it’s going to take and it probably won’t make you feel the way you expect it will make you feel.

The stuff that has been successful has been OK, but it simply can’t be the measure that I use for myself. It’s a battle, but I’m trying to measure my success according to how loved I feel by God, how well I love my family, and whether I can work on a few projects that tie into the gifts God has given me. I have to support our family, at least in part, with my freelancing work, but the goal isn’t to earn the most or to write the most popular books.

Words like success, dreams, or goals have been replaced with the word: faithfulness. Am I faithful to love God first? Am I faithfully loving my wife and son? Am I faithfully using my creative gifts in ways that I feel led?

Success is fleeting and fickle. The triumphs of yesterday quickly give way to fears of tomorrow. There are a thousand things you can’t control.

So we all have a choice.

We can look at the thousand things we can’t control and have constant anxiety attacks… which I’ve done for most of my life… or we can realize that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginations.

Each evening I tuck my son into bed and pray with him. We pray basically the same prayer every time, and as I pray that he’ll know God loves him and is with him, I’m reminded that God loves both of us with a love that surpasses my unshakable love for him.

We always try to think of exceptions for ourselves, but if “God so loved the world” in John 3:16 and you’re currently part of “the world,” then you’re in luck.

* * *

I’m certain that every stage of life offers its fair share of disappointments, uncertainties, and dark moments. I also know that my 20’s felt like this irredeemable pile of crap that would never amount to anything. I didn’t have much hope of ever sorting things out.

We stumble, fall, and take cautious steps forward.

I’m not that much further down the road, but looking back from the vantage point of 35, I can see that things aren’t necessarily always going to be “OK,” since hard stuff always happens, but there always would be hope. There is light. There’s always light.

For all of the things that we can’t control about the future, we can’t change the constant of God’s love for us. And we can control how much we love our family. We can control the things we try out and the new habits we shape for ourselves. We can control finding a mentor to help us process the good and the bad.

And as often as we see our failures and deficiencies, I can tell my friends that I see so much potential in them every day. I see gifted writers, loving parents, and passionate storytellers who have so much to offer their friends, families, and anyone else who crosses their paths.

Perhaps part of the tragedy of our 20’s is that we start our adult lives holding tightly to a picture of the future or fearing there’s no picture at all. When our picture fails to develop or we can’t even find a picture for the future in the first place, we lose sight of every good thing we already have.

It’s hard to believe this, but I see light in every person I know. I see it every single day. For every person who has given a reason why he/she is unworthy or doing everything wrong, I can give three reasons why they’re loved and doing so many things right.

And if you can’t believe that there is a light for you right now, I pray that myself and others will keep holding it up for you so that one day you’ll be able to see it. May we always hold up the light for each other.

My Own Columbus Day Celebration: Seeing God’s Blessings in a City I Hated

columbus-ohio-day-home

I used to really hate Columbus, Ohio. When driving from Philadelphia to my college out in Indiana, it was the last major obstacle on a trip that lasted between 11 and 12 hours.

After weaving my way through the terribly maintained Pennsylvania Turnpike and then rumbling along the pothole-filled Pennsylvania section of I-70, the rolling hills of Eastern Ohio provided a welcome respite of clear, easy driving. I made excellent time and had minimal close calls with trucks or reckless drivers until I hit Columbus. Everything was always terrible in Columbus. At certain points a series of merges and exits led to one traffic jam after another along I-70, and if I wanted to doge the center city traffic, I could take the longer 270 by-pass option that added time but minimized merging and traffic jams.

Either way, I always lost time around Columbus. If my drive ever extended longer than the twelve hours predicted by Map Quest, I could usually blame Columbus. I used to sneer at its skyline.

And who would ever want to live in such a city? Nothing about it made any sense to me. There were no mountains, no oceans, and no major lakes to speak of. Columbus was just a smattering of skyscrapers and traffic jams surrounded by suburbs and cornfields.

Columbus also marked the beginning of the really flat part of my drive. As much as I wanted to escape the East Coast for a season, I really missed the rolling hills and mountains outside of Philadelphia. They’re no great shakes compared to what you see in the Northeastern states like Vermont or New Hampshire, and they’re like speed bumps compared to the Rockies, but it can be jarring to leave something that has surrounded you for most of your life.

Columbus marked the point of no return before the unrelenting Midwestern FLAT that persists until Colorado. As much as I looked forward to college, I couldn’t help feeling a little sad once I hit Columbus. It marked the point where I definitely didn’t feel at home, the point where I didn’t belong.

Fast-forward about ten years from my college graduation and my last trip through Columbus as a resident of the Midwest…

My wife and I took a walk along a country lane in Connecticut outside of the town where we’d been living for the past year.

She was a student at a nearby university, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for her area of study. She had applied to a few schools, and the best opportunity had been offered by a school in Ohio—a school right in Columbus. While the details of the program sounded amazing, I couldn’t fight off the sense of dread. I would have to make Columbus my home for at least four years, maybe longer. I figured that I’d at least get cheap hockey tickets to see the Blue Jackets.

We jumped into our move with both feet, and have tried to find our place in this city that had been my enemy for so long. For the most part, it has worked.

After three years in Columbus, we’ve certainly missed the mountains, lakes, and oceans of the northeast, but we’ve also found a great church, fantastic friends, excellent activities for our kids, and some decent hiking outside the city. There is a great local food scene, even pizza that approaches the quality of NY style joints, and those cheap hockey tickets.

It’s strange to tell people that I’m “from” Columbus. I still think of myself as someone from the northeast. But there’s no denying that God has taken an unlikely place that I’d completely written off and caused life to blossom. If Columbus was my wilderness, God has tapped open a rock and sent streams of water flowing. I’m as close to thriving in this season of life as I’ve ever been.

I have no idea why a landlocked city in the Midwest with a puny river running through it got named “Columbus.” Why name a city after a European explorer? I have no clue. It’s as mysterious as our ongoing celebration of Columbus Day. It’s been well-documented that Columbus was murderous, cruel, and responsible for the deaths of thousands if not millions of native people.

It’s hard to find much of anything to celebrate from his legacy. So perhaps it’s our role to bring new stories to life that celebrate what’s actually worth remembering.

For my own Columbus Day celebration, I will remember who I was and I what I thought of this city. I didn’t see Columbus, Ohio as a place where I or anyone else could thrive. If I ever heard of someone living in Columbus, I always thought to myself, “WHY?”

Now, I get it. I have seen God bless us with friends, community, and a new life. It’s not the Promised Land per se, but it’s been a land full of new promises and hope. It’s been the scene of significant new life for me as I’ve confronted my anxiety issues and discovered a deeper experience of God’s love and mercy. I didn’t have to move to Columbus in order to make those steps, but I can see how key people and moments in Columbus have been a part of that process.

God has been guiding us through this season and changing us. Perhaps the smallest of these changes is my view of this city. God can bring blessings in the places we least expect them. God can take a poorly named, horrendously situated city and create no end of new life and opportunities.