Better to Have Imperfect Spiritual Practices Than No Spiritual Practices

There is one significant disadvantage to learning spiritual practices and disciplines from the likes of Thomas Merton.

While Merton hid out in an abandoned tool shed to pray each day or ventured off to his hermitage for days at a time, most of us can hardly string together 10 minutes of silent prayer before an inevitable interruption comes along. It’s easy to become discouraged when comparing our time for prayer to someone who dedicated large blocks of time to it.

I can get caught up in the challenges of pursuing solitude in a family of five in a relatively smallish house with thin doors and bedrooms clustered closely together. Even if I carefully plan my time, a child will pee on something other than a toilet, the pharmacy will take longer on a prescription, extra homework will show up unbidden, or a work project will take hours longer than anticipated.

These aren’t things that can generally be put off until later, and so plans and disciplines need to be adapted or dropped for the day. The perfect version of a spiritual practice isn’t a guarantee most days for a parent, and it’s not like Thomas Merton has a wealth of experience in this department, even if he frequently complained about how busy the monastery kept him.

[As a side note, Merton complained about his packed schedule to the point that he likely was sent off into the woods by himself to tag trees. I know about this because he cheerfully documented these romps throughout his journals in great detail.]

This week I was practicing silent breathing and centering prayer while driving around town.

That’s not the ideal situation for that practice, but it’s the time I had while navigating an unexpectedly full schedule.

At another point, I was praying the divine hours in the pharmacy pickup line.

That’s not my preferred place to pray the hours, but it was better than not praying them at all.

It’s easy to turn to our phones for podcasts, social media updates, emails, text messages, or videos to pass the time.

What can you do with five minutes in the pharmacy line?

What good will ten minutes of imperfect silence in the car really do for you?

What I’ve found is that doing spiritual practices imperfectly is still better than not doing them at all. When anxiety, sloth, and lack of discipline show up in my life, I can always trace them back to a schedule that filled up and completely crowded out spiritual practices like praying the hours or centering prayer in silence.

By hanging on to these imperfect practices, I kept myself somewhat stable and maintained the habit of making space for them.

On the following day I wasn’t juggling a mountain of unexpected projects, and so I could maintain a certain level of continuity with my spiritual practices.

I still wouldn’t say that they were on par with the quality of Merton’s reflections in the hermitage, but of course he would scold me for even suggesting that one person’s contemplative practices could be compared to another. Perhaps that is the most significant reason to accept “imperfect” spiritual practices in the first place.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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The Trouble with Offering Religious Goods and Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

 

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read More About How to Pray…

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

 

**Photo by Ian Froome 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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What If Silence, Mystery, and Love Are All We’ve Got?

“You’re not an evangelical anymore, are you?”

The question caught me off guard. To be honest, I almost replied, “Of course I still am!”

But then if you compare the sorts of things I write about with the kinds of “evangelicals” who get quoted in news stories or who make a splash in the headlines, it’s understandable why there is some confusion. From the political court evangelicals that apologize for their favorite politicians, to the Bible teachers who promise answers and solutions, to the self-help Christian authors who focus on helping people with their busy, cluttered lives, I don’t feel like I fit in much with this group at times.

Of course, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about labels and my identity within a particular group. Who even has time to keep up with all of the latest feuds, fads, and fits among evangelicals?

I’m primarily concerned with remaining faithful to where God has called me to be and avoiding the foolish extremes that I have mistakenly adopted in the past. I don’t want to exchange one set of judgmental dogmatism for another.

It’s tempting to debate whether certain folks are too progressive, not progressive enough, truly evangelical, or traitors to what evangelical used to mean. I’ve gone down that rabbit hole plenty of times.

Once you go down that rabbit hole enough times and find out that it hasn’t done anyone much good, it’s understandable that you’d begin searching for alternatives. Is there another way to exist as a Christian without defining yourself against someone else?

I think this is why I distinguish my own evangelicalism today from my previous anxious evangelicalism. As an anxious evangelical I needed something to defend, a group to defend, and a person to attack.

As I continue to step into my journey into contemplative prayer, I’m far less certain about particular answers I used to rely on, but my faith is also far more secure. As if answers were a prerequisite for faith in the first place!

I won’t say that we only have silence, mystery, and love, but these three things sure feel like they take up a lot of my time right now, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they were all we had to go on.

Silence before God because there’s so much I don’t know, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes when I let my mouth run.

Mystery because it’s true that purity of heart and obedient action are important, but those serve as starting points before the mystery of God.

Love because the love of the Father and love for neighbor were the two highest priorities of Jesus, and when we finally surrender ourselves in silence to the mystery of God and confess our inadequacies, we will find loving presence more often than we’ll find solutions.

Who knows what else God may bring into our lives or what else may speak to us. I’m not concerned about being dogmatic about this. Rather, these words are three of the most important sign posts that I’ve found as a kind of evangelical refugee.

Truth be told, silence, mystery, and love can be found in the roots of the evangelical movement. They are often obscured by other causes and priorities. They’re easy to miss if you don’t hold a place for them and let God quietly work through them.

They don’t contradict the Bible, but they do call for a different way of considering it and using it.

They don’t neglect the cross, but can exist without scrutinizing of the mechanics of salvation and atonement theories.

They don’t prevent us from sharing the Good News, but they offer a very conceptions of sharing the loving presence of God with others.

They can appeal to many of the commitments of evangelicals, but they also don’t feed the modern movement’s anxious, defensive tendencies.

Silence, mystery, and love may not be “ALL” that Christians have today, but they can prove foundational for making space for God’s love, remaining open to the what God is speaking, and allowing God to transform us into his beloved people.

These three things can calm our anxiety about God and our Christian “commitment” could be delivered from the endless temptation to measure and to report progress.

Embracing these three things haven’t produced an immediate life-changing revolution that  left my life unrecognizable. Rather, they are part of a lifelong process of becoming aware of God and allowing God to transform my life. I’ll take my chances on the fruit that comes from the slow and steady presence of God.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

The Pain from the Past Will Always Come Out

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The other day I wrote down a little list that was more honest than I wanted to admit:

I spent my 20’s angry over my pain.

I spent my 30’s anxiously avoiding my pain.

I hope to spend my 40’s healing from and transforming my pain.

There’s a lot of overlap to this list, but it rings true to me. There was plenty of pain in my childhood, but I think as a kid I tried to rationalize that I needed to get on with things and keep going like my friends.

My anxiety and fear came out in the forms such as rapidly blinking my eyes, chewing on pens, tapping my foot, and stomach aches every morning. My body knew that something wasn’t right in some of my family relationships, but I didn’t have a baseline to hold them up against, so I tried to just ignore it.

Most people know me as a typical 9 on the enneagram chart who seeks to make peace, to hear all sides, and to work toward common goals. That is who I am, but it’s not ALL of who I am. Underneath it all is a simmering anger. Some days the anger doesn’t appear to exist anymore. Some days it feels like a raging storm that I can barely contain. Part of the root of that anger is the pain from my past, and it will not be denied.

The pain will come out, whether through blinking eyes, anxiety attacks, or an angry outburst, I can’t run from my pain forever.

In the process of doing my soul work, I keep bumping into the reality that I need to face this anger from my past. It’s going to come out, and it has been coming out.  I could very well pass on my anger and pain to future generations if I don’t deal with it sooner than later.

The question though is, “What does it look like to confront and heal from the anger of my past?”

For my 20’s, I thought that the core problem of my pain was the church and the betrayal of institutions and individuals who promised certain results if I could only buy in with the program and do what the leaders wanted. My anger at the church was rooted in a sense of abandonment and criticism of a wider Christian culture that has been exposed as power-hungry at all costs.

In my 30’s I tried to stuff the anger down, to move on with my life. I had so many exciting things going on. I published a book before turning 30, and I imagined that I had many exciting ministry opportunities opening up before me. I served in prisons and spoke at churches. I thought that I had the right path to pursue.

And yet… something wasn’t right. The anxiety grew stronger and stronger. The anger never really left me alone, and I became more and more dependent on checking out from life. I began to rely on distractions to deliver me from the anger and anxiety that had become so powerful in my life.

This is where contemplative prayer began to offer an alternative path for my pain. I have been learning through contemplation and related spiritual practices to remain present before God just as I am. In my surrender and sacrifice of self, I am learning that the wounds I had long identified with are not who I am.

My pain has been a part of my identity for so long that I didn’t know who I was without it. It never occurred to me, for instance, that I could look back at my past and rage on behalf of the terrified little boy who faced so much conflict. I could stop running from my anger and sit with it because that anger had a basis, even if it lacked the authority and power to come out during my childhood.

God is present in that anger in its pure original form. If I run from it, then I’m running from the God who wants to bring healing and presence into my life. God wants the anger of my past to come out. The methods of avoidance and distraction are doubly tragic because distraction hardly offers the healing it promises and I miss out on the healing that God could bring to my life.

I don’t dare tell anyone what to do with their own anger, but I do have a thought for folks who meet someone who is angry.

When I expressed my anger against the church, I generally heard some variation of this, “Quit complaining and do something useful.” Anger is denied and stuffed down among good, polite Christians.

While I didn’t always present my valid or constructive criticisms of the church with tact, I did have a lot of pain. Lacking a healthy way to face it and to seek healing meant that I opted for the nearest target for my frustration and anger.

The most helpful conversation I had at that time was with a pastor who said, “I hear your frustration. Can we talk a bit?” The more we talked, the more he gained my trust enough to tell me, “I know that you’re frustrated by the church, but I don’t think this is just about the church.” He knew that my anger and rejection was part of a larger challenge in my life, and so he was free to listen to me without feeling attacked or defensive.

This is a tall order, but if I don’t seek healing for my own wounds, how can I expect to be present to help others process their own wounds?

If I’m still living in defense of some false self that is grounded in my religious identity, how can I respond with grace when those with wounds rage against it?

My anger and pain will come out. that can feel humiliating sometimes, as if I’m not strong enough to resist it, to soldier on, and to put on a happy face.

The instant I encounter some conflict or my BS detector goes off with a compromised religious leader, anger almost overwhelms me.

Other times I run into a stressful situation, and my anxiety overtakes me before I even realized what has happened.

The anger and pain will come out, and so the matter isn’t whether I have the strength to stuff it all away. I need a different kind of strength. I need to be strong enough to face the truth, to be strong enough to look at the sources of my anger and anxiety, and to be strong enough to carry this pain to the God who bears our burdens, letting go of them without a guarantee of what will come next.

Spirituality Is Being Devastated by Technology

You don’t have to compare the quiet contemplation of a rural monastery to the digitized chaos of a major city to conclude that our world saturated in mobile devices and screens may not be the healthiest environment for humans.

Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to consider a few big picture aspects of a rural monastery vs. life in a city surrounded by screens of all sizes.

Consider this, the monk who divides time between prayer and working with his hands is generally focused on one specific task at a time. While working with his hands, he may well be engaged in a simple prayer as well.

The person in the city is surrounded by screens and has hundreds of opportunities for distraction and engagement. There are hundreds, if not thousands of attempts to catch his attention daily, and perhaps he gives in to a few and wastes some time. Then he feels badly about it, gets back to his work, and tries to forge ahead before succumbing again to another distraction.

True, we could be more connected with friends and family and colleagues by technology, but those technology networks are also a thousand points of entry for distractions, products, and who knows what else.

It’s not that we can’t use technology well. It’s that technology isn’t really designed to be used for our health and well-being, to say nothing of the impact of its distractions on spiritual vitality. It’s designed to sell us stuff and to capture our attention at every turn. Sure, you get the fringe benefit of connecting with people you love, but that’s not why the technology is there.

If technology only served to connect you with people you love and to make you healthier, then most of the technology around you would vanish.

I have been immersed in technology because of my work in publishing, and it is for good or ill. At this point in my life, I view technology is a kind of necessary evil that I am trying to manage well. In so many ways the screens in my life have a negative impact, but not entirely negative. Each day I am trying to mitigate the negative aspects and to build on the positive possibilities.

I do know that unchecked and used without awareness, technology today is generally a net negative. I’m hoping that with greater awareness and intention, technology can reach a kind of neutral ground where it is used with limits and restraint so that enough good can result in order to balance out its many possibilities for negativity and addiction.

I’m still in the early stages of this process, but I wanted to put some words down now. I didn’t want to post some findings or conclusions in the future as if they were the result of a brief period of consideration and study.

Rather, I’m hoping to gradually share my journey with technology and its impact on spirituality. I hope you can share in this process when possible so that you can use technology with greater intention and awareness.

 

Do I Pray for the Wrong Reasons?

I can easily haul my issues with my identity or my personal pursuit of happiness or contentment right into my prayer time. Questions start popping up in my mind:

Am I doing this contemplative prayer thing right?

Do I have good results from my prayer?

Do I have a greater sense of God’s presence?

Present throughout all of these questions is the lingering false self that seeks an outward marker of identity. Even becoming someone who prays, and prays well, can become a kind of false identity marker.

I write in my book Flee, Be Silent, Pray that American evangelicals like myself are especially driven by results and outcomes. What can you measure? What can you point at to validate your work or practices? This mentality creeps into a kind of success-driven approach to spirituality.

Thankfully, Thomas Merton is on the case. He cuts through our misguided motivations. Rather than offering one slick promise to replace another, he points us into the direction of mystery and complete faith in God.

This isn’t a spirituality that dangles the hope of discovering purpose, living a super story, or even finding peace. Merton points us to mystery so that we can live out of our authentic identity in God as his beloved children. Perhaps we will find some of those things after they have been pried out of our hands and we learn to cling to Christ alone, but those are afterthoughts rather than the focus.

Here is what Merton writes for those of us seeking to become contemplatives or to derive happiness from contemplation:

“Another law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced. And again, this means renouncing the illusory self that seeks to be ‘happy’ and to find ‘fulfillment’ (whatever that may mean) in contemplation. For the contemplative and spiritual self, the dormant, mysterious, and hidden self that is always effaced by the activity of our exterior self does not seek fulfillment. It is content to be, and in its being it is fulfilled, because its being is rooted in God.”

Thomas Merton. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, p. 2.

Meet Fear with Silence, Not Social Media and TV

silent land

I’m one of the many Americans who has been a walking ball of nerves since the 2016 election, and that baseline of anxiety has made it difficult to bear other unsettling and troubling aspects of life at times.

While I’ve managed to deal with my anxiety in the past through a mix of prayer and exercise, some days 20 minutes of silence or a 20-minute run just don’t cut it. I still feel the pull of anxiety and the temptation to check out from life to avoid it and the fears driving it.

Telling an anxious person “Do not be anxious about anything…” is just about the least helpful thing. The body is reacting to something. That reaction is completely understandable.

Unfortunately, the alternative to denial is often evasion. Turning to social media drama or a television show becomes a quick way to check out. There’s no need to face the darkness afflicting my soul if I have the pleasant glow of a computer or tablet in front of me.

I have been practicing contemplative prayer for quite some time now, but reading the book Into the Silent Land has offered a few helpful dimensions to my approach to prayer. These were things I had partially uncovered of in the past, but the author, Martin Laird, spelled them out in a very helpful way.

For starters, the practice of contemplative prayer is rooted in stillness, sitting upright and breathing deeply in your nose and out of your mouth, meeting each thought with a simple prayer word or phrase. Laird speaks of three doors into contemplation, as we begin to meet our thoughts with silence, enjoy the vast space of silence before God, and gain greater control over our thoughts.

Toward the end of the book, Laird specifically addresses the ways that contemplation can help us face our fears and anxiety. This approach is the complete opposite of denial or avoidance.

Laird suggests that we meet each fearful or anxious thought with stillness and silence. The discipline of contemplative prayer teaches us to shut down negative or fearful thinking loops with a prayer word, letting go of the fears and thoughts as they come to us. However, building on that discipline, we can begin to look at why we are fearful and what is behind our anxieties.

Staring into the darkness of our fears and anxieties is no easy task, but over time, I have found a greater capacity to disarm them as I meet them with silence and faith.

Some days I’m more tightly wound up than others. These are anxious times, and while there are people and events that we may rightly fear, there also is no need to let these fears overtake us.

In the daily practice of contemplative prayer, I’ve found a lifeline where I can release my fears and anxieties to God. I still bear them to a certain degree, but I can at least face them now with faith that the loving presence of God will bring healing.

Why Many Evangelicals Struggle with Prayer (TLDR: We’re Winging It)

Pastors experts in church

We can learn a great deal about “spirituality” of American evangelical Christianity when we consider a 2006 Christianity Today  list of the most influential books over the past 50 years that shaped evangelicals.

For starters, most evangelicals are lucky if they know their movement’s historical background from the past 50 years. It’s safe to say that many evangelicals today have a very limited understanding of church history that has deprived us of the wisdom and practices developed over the centuries. Most telling about the limits of evangelical spirituality, the number one book on the Christianity Today list of influential books is Prayer: Conversing With God by Rosalind Rinker.

I don’t doubt that readers have benefitted from this book that was developed by a missionary who offers practical instructions in group prayer as well as some tips on personal prayer. Many small groups and Sunday schools have found much-needed direction from this book, and I can see the need for it in certain settings.

However, this book’s emphasis on spoken prayer and the overall disconnection from the prayer tradition of the church is quite typical of evangelicals. It’s not that Rinker is wrong or even misguided. The issue is that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, which is pretty much the story of the evangelical movement since it began. We have forged ahead with our own advice, spiritual practices, Bible studies, sermons, churches, and ministries without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, what has come before us, and what we may gather from the devout Christians of the past.

The main word that jumps out at me in Rinker’s subtitle (and all of the book’s marketing copy) is “conversation.” For many evangelicals today, we have come to think of prayer as a conversation with the goal of speaking our minds to God, and if God directs us, then we’ll be able to say even more things. In fact, many evangelicals may fear that prayer isn’t working if they don’t receive specific direction or guidance from God.

The goal though is for a conversational prayer, especially for us to speak up in this conversation. There is very little emphasis on silence or to even make silence the point. I don’t get the sense that evangelicals reading Rinker’s book would consider that a completely silent time of prayer, where there is no discernible conversation between God and the person at prayer, brings about any benefit.

Silence isn’t really on the radar of this book, even if silence was a central part of Christian prayer for centuries. On the other hand, a conversation directs us toward a goal or outcome that is measurable and easily understood, such as sensing the Lord’s direction to say certain words in prayer. This is a good thing in and of itself, but when this is our foundational concept of prayer (perhaps ONLY concept of prayer), we run the risk of missing the deeper streams of silent prayer and contemplation that have run throughout the history of the church.

Interestingly, Rinker published her book in 1959, which makes her a contemporary of Thomas Merton who, along with Henrí Nouwen and Thomas Keating, helped Catholics delve deeper into the prayer traditions of the church. However, each of these writers pointed us back to the desert fathers and mothers, the mystics such as Thérèse of Liseux, and the Eastern Orthodox monastics. They drew deeply from these streams while offering their own ideas on prayer for the church and produced rather different works.

That isn’t to set them up in opposition to Rinker. I don’t doubt there are even places of overlap. However, it’s tragic to think that Rinker lacked the deep grounding of the church’s prayer tradition in her book. How much richer and beneficial would it have been?

The phrase that comes to mind for me about evangelical spirituality is: “Winging it.” Before I grounded myself in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers or the contemporary teachers of contemplative prayer, I have felt like I have been winging it with prayer. Every Christian joke about prayer eventually gets to the “Lord we just…” or “Father God, we just thank you…” way that evangelicals have learned to pray because it sounds respectful and officious.

Before we go too hard on evangelicals here, let’s keep in mind that the evangelical movement emerged as a reform. There were real issues that needed to be changed. It’s unhelpful to assert that evangelicals were completely off-base. Put into their shoes, we would have desired to make changes as well.

The central problem with evangelicals, as is illustrated with our “winging it” approach to spirituality, is that we are unaware of our roots (especially our most toxic and problematic roots). We don’t know much about what came before us. The many denominations and off-shoots of denominations in Protestant Christianity should give us pause.

In fact, as I read about the history of the evangelical movement, I was struck by how often groups split off from each other under the auspice of calling themselves “Christians.” They thought of themselves as somehow preserving a pure version of the faith and didn’t see how they had any kind of bias or distinctives that set themselves apart.

Of course, years later, these groups of “Christians” took on more set identities as Nazarenes or the Church of Christ, developing their own history and doctrinal distinctives, but at their formation, these denominations saw themselves as somehow able to transcend their roots in order to claim the label “Christians” for themselves.

This pattern has shown up over and over again among evangelicals seeking to correct mistakes or to separate themselves from evangelicals who are in error over a particular doctrine or practice. As evangelicals debate whether to keep the label itself, some have even suggested just calling themselves “Christians” again.

While I am more than sympathetic to the sentiment, I am concerned that we are once again repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to know our roots and to own them so that we can understand where we come from, what has impacted us, and what we perhaps don’t know.

Our ignorance of our history and of the traditions developed among other Christian around the world has become one of our greatest weaknesses. We have often adopted inadequate practices and institutions as a response to flawed practices and institutions—some certainly were more flawed than others. If evangelicals desire to move away from some of our most toxic elements in the future, we need to look back at our roots in order to see what is healthy, what needs to be removed, and where we can learn from Christians in other traditions.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

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