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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash

Learning Contemplative Prayer with Richard Rohr in Everything Belongs

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo by Jonathan Wheeler on Unsplash

Why I’m Releasing Flee, Be Silent, Pray a Second Time Even Though Authors Hate Marketing

The best part about marketing a book should be the part when you’re done, but the problem with book marketing is that you’re never technically “done.“

For authors who would rather devote themselves to the large, expansive tasks of book writing where a single focused task consumes hours and hours of your day for months on end (ahhhh!!!!), the multiple directions and endless tasks of marketing can be crazy-making.

Still, releasing a book independently takes significant pressure off when it comes to marketing, and I found that to be true when I released Flee, Be Silent, Pray as an indie title. Sure, you have to do all of the work yourself, but in my mind I’m just replacing a bunch of emails following up with the marketing team, giving feedback, or confirming a task has been completed with actually “doing” that task. There are no schedules other than my own and no one to depend on other than myself, and that can be really freeing.

So why would I willingly inflict another round of marketing on myself for a book that had a rather successful release as an independent title?

As the book’s revised and expanded version release date nears on February 12, I thought I’d invite you into the the decision to go from independent to commercial with Flee, Be Silent, Pray:

* * * * *

Last Spring I brought a few copies of my independent book Flee, Be Silent, Pray to the Festival of Faith and Writing with the hope that I would be able to hand them out to podcast hosts or readers who would share the book a bit more widely.

Since I was picking up all of the costs of the project, I didn’t have grand plans.

It turned out that I met an editor who wanted to look it over. On the last day of the festival, a snow storm blew into town and stranded quite a few attendees, including that editor and a friend of mine who had enjoyed my book and even endorsed it.

When she asked him for recommendations for authors to work with, he included my name among those he shared: “Flee, Be Silent, Pray could use a good edit… and a new cover.”

(No arguments from me on either of those points!)

Soon the editor emailed me with ideas for revisions and re-releasing the book, provided I signed on with her publishing company.

This was the last thing I had imagined for this book. I wrote it when I had given up on commercial publishing and vowed to just share authentically from my own story and to sell it cheap as an eBook so that it reached as many people as possible.

That changed with this editor’s email. I finally had a chance to make the book what I had imagined it could be, and I hoped that this would be worth the risk of a higher price with a publisher. Shortly after signing the documents, we scrambled to clean up and improve the book. Here are some of the ways we revised and expanded the book:

Include More Diverse Authors

For the first edition, I spent the first 30-60 minutes of every work day chipping away at Flee, Be Silent, Pray, and most evenings I read as much as I could about contemplative prayer in order to double check on my use of terms and practices, as well as to fill in any gaps in my knowledge.

The book was structured around Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart, using his “flee, be silent, pray always” structure for the core of the book, and Catholic writers such as Brennan Manning, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr played key roles early in my embrace of contemplation and in shaping that first edition. However, there are plenty of other authors, both contemporary and historical, that I didn’t have the time to adequately include. Given a few more months, I was able to expand each chapter without significantly changing the message.

I’m especially grateful to include some of the letters between Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, as they offer a helpful connection between contemplation and activism, as well as some details about the role of prayer in the Civil Rights movement.

Next Steps with Spiritual Practices

To my mind, each chapter is filled to the brim with practical ideas and spiritual practices that any reader can put to good use. However, with a shove from my editor, I distilled a simple next step into the end of each chapter.

Some next steps simply spell out how to begin with a spiritual practice, while other chapters have a more guided experience. These are all practices that I use daily, and distilling them in this manner will hopefully offer readers more opportunities to adopt them as well.

Better Clarity and Organization

Modest as my plans were, I felt that I had gotten the book to about 80% of what it could be. I didn’t have the money for a professional editor and limped along with the best that reader feedback and bartering for help could get me.

The revised and expanded book still follows the same organization and chapter structure, but the challenge had always been that the ideas in each chapter have quite a bit of overlap, especially the “flee (solitude), be silent (silence), pray (centering prayer)” chapters. Solitude and silence naturally go together, and centering prayer is ideally done in a quiet spot… in solitude. An editor’s watchful eye helped me make better sense of how to structure the book without having to delete anything significant.

The thought of cleaning up the book appealed to me, and then I also considered that I could spend more time on the conclusion.

Write a Better Conclusion

As the publication date loomed for the independent version, I was simply running out of time and struggled to find the right words to help my readers take their next step.

In the following year, I knew how I wanted to end the book, but I lacked the time to make that a reality. Working with an editor finally offered the time and direction needed to polish the ending.

An Improved Book and A Small Press

Working with Herald Press resulted in a book that met my friend’s criteria: a good edit and a new cover. The final book is beautifully designed, and while I’m certain that the eBook version looks better than my own design, I can guarantee you that the print version has a significantly better design.

The price naturally has gone up since the cheap eBook days of my independent version, but I hope that readers will consider the constraints that a small publishing house faces. They didn’t cut any corners when working on the edits, and I think the final version of the book reflects their diligence, from development editing to design to copyediting.

I believe most readers (hopefully!) will find that Flee, Be Silent, Pray is significantly improved and will be the kind of book they’ll want to invest in keeping around on their shelves, virtual or physical, for years to come. Here are some links to learn more ot to check it out:

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Resting Takes a Lot of Work?

Blue-Sky-finding center

A month ago I set off on an 11-hour drive to speak at a Writing Retreat that my friend Andi hosts each year. The prior three weeks had been an all-out sprint to keep up with client projects while my wife was on a research trip, release a book, prepare for the retreat, and catch up on client work a little more.

This was the final stretch of a month-long sprint, and my mind and body were BUZZING.

Energy, stress, anxiety, and who knows what else left me feeling desperate, sad, and a bit unhinged. How in the world could I speak about writing without crushing your soul at this retreat in a state like this?

I needed silence: a lot of it.

I breathed deeply. I centered on a prayer word. I let go of any thought that wasn’t related to avoiding trucks and finding Dunkin Donuts coffee.

Starting north of Nashville, I sat in silence for long stretches all the way across I-40.

When I reached Knoxville, I had listened to a few short podcasts (thanks to Anne Bogel’s “What Should I Read Next”!), but the unsettled buzzing in my mind continued.

Over the rolling hills and mountains of Virginia I continued to breathe deeply for the entire stretch of I-81.

Finally, turning toward Charlottesville, I sensed something settle.

Since I was arriving about an hour later than I had intended, I passed up a scenic overlook along the highway. I immediately regretted this. The mountains were spectacular at this pass. Why was I so determined to pass up beauty for the sake of a clock?

I just about jumped out of my seat when another scenic overlook showed up five miles later. I pulled into the lonely rest area and just about fell over with the silent majesty of these mountains.

The words of Jacob came to mind: “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’”

This thin moment before the mountains was its own gate of heaven, delighting in creation. Nothing particularly spectacular or spiritual happened. I had found my center, a place of rest in God that wasn’t at the mercy of my circumstances so that I could enjoy what was before me.

How many times in the past have I been running on empty or burned out, but I’ve pushed on, believing that I just needed to get through it?

How many times have I passed up beauty, rest, and restoration because I didn’t understand the value of silence or finding my center?

How often have I missed the silent beauty of God because I didn’t know how much work it is to be still and know that he is God?

Contemplative prayer has taught me about the paradox of resting in God. I don’t naturally choose rest, and I honestly need to work at resting. I have to fight for my rest by choosing silence when everything in my body craved distraction and noise.  Resting in God takes practice and intention.

What Would God Shout at You from a Cloud?

In the Gospel of Matthew, there are two instances where a cloud appears over Jesus and God shouts two brief, identical messages. I have often wondered what God would shout at me in a similar situation.

Honestly, I tend to think God would shout negative things at me. I imagine God telling me to stop doing something or to do more of something. In either case, the message would focus on the ways I’m falling short and have been inadequate.

I have struggled to imagine a loving and merciful God. It’s much easier to imagine a God who is either disappointed or really, really angry.

Bringing up this disappointed/angry image of God with people tends to strike a nerve.

What would God shout at you?  

volunteer more!

spend less money!

stop obsessing about your body image!

share the Gospel more!

stop lusting!

help more people in need!

read the Bible more!

pray more!

go to a different church!

spend less time on social media!

We can’t imagine that God the Father is for us and loves us. We can only imagine God showing up in a cloud and telling us to get our acts together, to start doing something different.

God the Father isn’t typically imagined as being on our side. God the Father is somehow joined with Jesus in the Trinity but remains disappointed in us and in need of a blood sacrifice to make us acceptable in his sight, working out a loophole in his infinite holiness and justice.

Before Jesus launched his ministry and before Jesus ventured to Jerusalem where he would be killed and then rise from the dead, God the Father spoke the same message over Jesus:

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:16-17

 “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Matthew 17:5

On both occasions, God the Father affirmed the Son. On the first occasion Jesus had not even started his ministry.

I have tended to write off the significance of these moments between the Father and the Son. However, I now think that this was a big mistake on my part.

Jesus came to unite us with God, adopting us in God’s family. Paul writes that our identity is hidden away in Christ. In the midst of this union with Christ, we dare not overlook the love of God for us that goes beyond our comprehension:

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19

Through the ministry of Jesus and our union with him, we have a new way of thinking about God. If God is our Father through our union with the Son, then it isn’t far-fetched to say that God’s first thought of us is love and a desire for deeper union with us. God desires to heal, redeem, and restore his children.

Failing to believe that I am a child of God is the most important obstacle for prayer. Once I believe that God loves and accepts me like Jesus is loved and accepted, prayer becomes a moment to rest in God’s love rather than a game of hide and go seek with God or a proving ground for my spirituality.

For years, I doubted God’s love for me, and my struggles with prayer served as validation for those doubts.

Beginning with the foundational teaching of God’s love and acceptance for his children made it possible to rest in God’s presence and to trust in his love for me. I was finally able to participate in the silence of contemplative prayer that seeks to lovingly gaze at and adore God the Father.

Contemplative prayer relies on resting in this love as the first step in prayer, letting all other distractions fall away in order to be still in God’s presence.

Imagining a God who calls down to us with loving messages before we’ve done a single thing can revolutionize how we pray. This was the God that Jesus wanted to reveal to us, and this is the God that we can pray to when we turn to him in silent adoration.

 

Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Jesus Wasn’t a Monk but He Kind of Was

 

cave-prayer-contemplative-monk

Allow me to reveal just how Protestant I am. I’ve studied the Gospels closely and intensely for the majority of my life, but I rarely made any connections between Jesus and monks, starting with the fourth century desert fathers, right on through the present day. Jesus was out in the public eye preaching sermons and discipling people, right?

When I became more charismatic, I started tacking on “healing people” to Jesus’ list of activities.

What could Jesus possibly have in common with monks who hid in the desert, took vows of silence, and wove baskets or brewed beer (depending on the century) in their free time?

Sure, Jesus went off to pray in the desert for 40 days…

Sure, Jesus spent entire evenings praying…

Sure, Jesus had a vision of God while praying on a quiet mountain side…

Sure, Jesus got baptized in the wilderness and heard God call him his “beloved son”…

Sure, Jesus prayed fervently and personally with God during his most difficult moments…

Sure, Jesus told his followers to pray in the quiet and privacy of their own rooms…

Wait, that’s starting to sound a bit like a monk.

Mind you, there are all sorts of monks. Some are more chatty, some are more handy, some are more interested in preaching, and some are more interested in preserving the quiet, contemplative prayer practices that have been passed down by the historic church. I can’t imagine any Protestants saying that Jesus was particularly “monastic” in his practices or his ministry. I can, nevertheless, see the common threads between Jesus and the monks. They make a lot more sense when I start looking at the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus was kind of like a monk.

The monks also make a lot more sense when I remember that they were a reform movement in the line of a long history of reform movements that took to the desert and wilderness. When the prophets called Israel back to God, they often hung out in the wilderness. When John the Baptist began preaching about repentance… wilderness. When Paul needed to figure out the Messiah in light of Jesus… wilderness.

As Christianity rose in prominence, the monks recognized that the empire’s power and the influence of the clergy could become extremely toxic. They also fled the pleasures of the city, and even if Protestants would like to critique some of their negative associations with the body (Hello there, early church cultural captivity to Platonic philosophy!), we can sort of get it today. They wanted to remove as many distractions from the pursuit of God, and as Christianity grew in power and influence, they also wanted to avoid the temptations of church-based power.

Jesus didn’t go to the extreme of hanging out in a cave 24/7, but the more we look at the way he rejected the power centers of Judaism and any kind of official position within the religious hierarchy of his day, the more he looks like a monk.

The monks became a kind of expression of the Christian faith in a particular time and place, so the continuity and differences shouldn’t surprise us. Just as Jesus heard the voice of God loud and clear alongside a lonely river or atop a deserted mountain, the monks actively sought to hear the voice of God by pursuing solitude rigorously. Just as Jesus battled Satan during his 40 days in the wilderness, we have many reports of visitors to the cells of monks hearing them arguing with demons.

As a Protestant, I have long considered the monks a different class of Christian. Not necessarily a “higher” class (Hey, I AM Protestant after all), just a different class. They did spiritual stuff and experienced God in ways that I’ll simply never touch, right?

As a follower of Jesus, I continue to face the possibility that he was more like the monks than he resembles a lay person like me. He routinely sought quiet moments alone with God and even made great sacrifices in order to make it happen. Jesus modeled the daily pursuit of God within ministry, and he knew deep down to this core that he was God’s beloved Son, a Son that pleased God the Father.

The monks set off to their cloisters in order to uncover this mystery for themselves. How could the God of the universe love them so deeply and fully? They dropped everything in order to find out. They were so committed to this pursuit of God’s love that they didn’t want to risk confusing the praise of church leaders with the acceptance of God.

I’m still a Protestant, but I’m one of the growing number of Protestants who recognize that the spiritual practices of monks are deep, true, effective, and needed. The monks know a great deal about the presence and absence of God, the intimacy of Christ, and the ways that daily attentiveness to the pursuit of God can reorient our lives in ways that we can hardly touch through hours of diligent Bible study and historical-critical exegesis.

I’m not a monk, but I kind of want to pray like one because the monks were kind of like Jesus.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

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

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Believing God Exists Isn’t Enough for Prayer

God-merciful

I’ve spent so much time worrying about whether or not God exists that I overlooked a more important question. If I believe that God exists, do I believe in a God that I would approach in prayer?

Another way to ask that would be: If I believe in God, do I believe in a loving, merciful God who wants nothing more than for me to pray? Or do I let my imagination create images of an angry, violent, and petty God who is waiting for me to finally mess up enough to justify banishing me from his presence forever?

That latter image haunted my prayers for years. Whenever I struggled to pray, I told myself, “Well, this is it. You’ve finally done it. God has finally turned away from you, and there’s no hope. Prayer may work for other people, but it won’t work for you.”

By imagining a God who could take me or leave me, waiting to strike me down, or to cast me away at the slightest infraction, I made it extremely hard to pray. If I can’t imagine God liking me, let alone loving me and seeing me with compassion and mercy, it’s awfully hard to begin to pray.

Perhaps we struggle to reconcile the God of Hebrew Bible who throws down thunder, hail stones, and fire from the heavens. Perhaps we can’t reconcile those stories with the proclamations of the Psalms:

The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.
Psalm 103:8

I don’t know how to create a theological system that seamlessly accounts for these stories and comfortably fits them in with the many verses in the Psalms and prophets where God is described as merciful, compassionate, full of love, and loving for his people like a jilted lover.

Here’s what I do know: the people who seek God in prayer have found more love, mercy, and compassion than they ever would have guessed. When the mystics write about the presence of God, there is awe and even a bit of fear at times, but God is love, compassion and mercy.

The people who have dedicated their lives to prayer overwhelming reveal that the God we seek is the kind of God we would want to seek.

That isn’t to say that our faults or sins aren’t a big deal. Anyone who believes in the cross and resurrection would recognize that these are important problems that God himself has set out to resolve. The point for me is not minimizing my faults, it’s seeing the largeness of God’s love, mercy, and compassion.

My mistake wasn’t underestimating the seriousness of sin; it was underestimating how deeply God loves us.

Over and over again in the Gospels, I see Jesus telling people that God is more loving and merciful than they expect, that more people are welcome than they suspect, and that the supposed barriers between people and God are actually not holding anyone back.

Perhaps the greatest struggle for Christians today isn’t believing God exists, it’s believing that God is merciful.

We do ourselves no good if we believe in a God that we fear, a God we dare not approach, or a God who is so terrible that we fail to open our deepest fears and pains to him.

In the vast reserves of God’s love and mercy, there is room for us to come as we are and to seek healing and restoration. The greatest obstacle to God’s mercy is believing that it exists and applies even to you and to me.

 

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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