I think we all want to figure out how to pray more effectively, but what exactly are we wishing for? We want our prayers to connect us with God, and we want to see positive outcomes when we pray for peace, strength, courage, safety, or healing.
Yet, does praying effectively mean seeing a direct correlation between praying for specific outcomes and then seeing God deliver them?
I spent a lot of time worrying that my prayers weren’t effective. I feared that God wasn’t real or that my faith was flawed because I didn’t see enough outcomes from my prayers.
Looking back, I got swept up in my expectations and desires for control or even for some kind of sign based on my prayers. I wanted to be legitimized or verified.
Curiously, Jesus often rebuked those who asked him for a sign. The people who couldn’t trust in his word or rest in God’s unseen presence were the ones who demanded verification proving Jesus was God.
When I wanted to prove that my prayers are effective, I made a similar mistake. The mystery of God had to be uncovered in order to give myself a sense of security.
Although I still try to “improve” my prayer practices and become more disciplined in my daily prayer routines, I don’t get wrapped up in the outcomes of my prayer. There isn’t really a way to measure the effectiveness of my prayers.
Perhaps the only measure of prayer’s effectiveness is whether I’m trusting in God or not.
Thomas Keating famously said that you can only fail at prayer if you get up and leave the room.
You are praying effectively as long as you are reaching out to a loving and present God.
You are praying effectively as long as you are resting in God and trusting in God.
You are praying effectively if you either lay down your burdens to the Lord or clear your mind so that God’s love is all that remains in your awareness.
It’s easy to turn prayer or Christian living into balance sheets or stock markets where growth and declines happen regularly. We want to be “growing” as Christians, but such progress isn’t easy to nail down.
It’s more helpful to think about whether you’re participating in prayer or not. Even if you don’t see clear outcomes or progress from your prayers, that isn’t a mark of failure or alienation from God.
Consider whether you have unrealistic expectations or whether you need some instruction in prayer, but prayer isn’t a simple matter of input and output with predictable results. We can beat ourselves up if our prayers don’t bring the same results we see attained by others.
I’ve had to balance extremes in my life.
I know I need to keep engaging in prayer, learning more about prayer, and growing in my practices that are always in need of refinement.
I also know that I can’t measure my progress in prayer or label certain prayers as “effective” based on my own criteria. Who can say with certainty what’s effective while praying to a present but mysterious God?
I hope to keep learning more about prayer, stretching my faith as I trust more completely in God, and practicing prayer in ways that help me experience God in new ways.
I will continue to make petitions for myself and for others, and I will wait on God in silent faith.
Yet, I also will avoid beating myself up over the “results” of my prayers. There are moments in the Bible when God responds with yes to a prayer request and times when God responds with no. Both prayers could be described as “effective” in the sense that they were shared intimately with God.
We won’t always know how to measure the effectiveness of prayer according to our own terms. Yet, if you can address God as your Father, a loving parent, then you are certainly well on your way according to the guidelines shared by Jesus.
Would I love Jesus if he didn’t look exactly like me?
That’s a tough question. I’ve been studying the Bible and praying for as long as I can remember, and I’ve shifted my beliefs several times. Each shift in my beliefs was an attempt to draw closer to a faithful view and imitation of Jesus.
I wouldn’t believe what I do if I didn’t think it was in keeping with the “authentic” Jesus. Even if my everyday life of work and family life is quite different from the itinerant preaching and miracle-working of Jesus, I do attempt to incorporate his teachings into my daily decisions and practices–at least as much as I imagine possible.
Even if I’d be the first person to poke some holes in my inconsistencies or the ways I fall short, I’m not the only person trying to follow Jesus in modern life who imagines that Jesus more or less approves of what I’m doing. I’m not perfect, but who is?
Considering things on the whole, it’s safe to say that I either consciously or unconsciously believe that I’m on the same page as Jesus.
Well… I hope so. But it does make me wonder how comfortable I have become in my beliefs and how resistant I may be to shaking them up.
We can cherry pick verses all day about how Jesus was either more loving and gracious than we imagine or more critical and jarring than we imagine. It sure felt like the Gospels are just one story after another of people learning that God’s priorities and ways of doing things are very different from our own.
For the people who were challenged by Jesus, it wasn’t a sure thing that they would follow him. They had a physical Jesus standing right in front of them. There was no ambiguity back then.
Today, we study, pray, and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us toward the right way to live, but that doesn’t guarantee that sometimes we’ll shape Jesus into our own image. A Jesus who looks like us is a lot easier to follow and to love.
If my self-constructed illusion of Jesus gets challenged, would I stick around? I think so. I hope so. Yet, the Gospels also have plenty of stories of optimistic faith that faltered when under pressure.
A safeguard for today is to continue discerning if my faith rests in a Jesus who is God-incarnate or a Jesus who is me-incarnate. One clue may be whether I find Jesus really easy to love.
Does my Christian faith make me a kinder, more loving, more compassionate person?
I’m not sure that my answer has always been, “Yes.”
I would hope that I could answer that question in the affirmative today, but it’s easy to see how many barriers get in the way of caring for others.
We have no shortage of barriers between ourselves and others, and sometimes it’s hard to recognize them, much less to rise above them.
I grew up in the conservative evangelical ecosystem in America. Many of my afternoons included a ton of conservative/Christian nationalist talk radio. The one thing I remember from that period of my life was a kind of fear, if not contempt of people who were different from me.
Sometimes that fear or contempt gave way to a kind of hostility or suspicion of people who held different views from my own.
In addition, I was fixated on having the right doctrine. Having the right answers meant a lot more than showing grace and kindness to others.
Of course it’s easy to be dogmatic or to hold others in contempt no matter what you believe. It’s not like one vein of the Christian faith has loving others figured out. I can only speak from what I’ve experienced, and I know this: A lot of my time as a Christian was invested in being right and fearing others.
It’s hard to reach out to others in love if you’re already protecting yourself from them. Of course this raises all sorts of questions about the ways Christians in America have failed to love their enemies, let alone those who are different from them. I was so busy fearing others that it never crossed my mind to love them.
When I look back at the times that I helped others, I honestly wonder how much of my action was motivated by a genuine, God-inspired love for them and how much of it was just a shared sense of humanity. Was I aware of how much God loved these people? Was my service to them rooted in love and concern or more of a sense of pity and compassion for their suffering?
I don’t have an easy answer here for myself.
Can we evaluate our own motivations or the motivations of others?
Can we recognize the difference that God’s love makes in our lives, let alone the way God’s love influences our kindness toward others?
What is driving us to help others? Is it the love of God. I hope so, but sometimes I wonder.
Do I live each day with a grounding awareness of God’s love?
Have I spent time each day attentive to the presence of God?
Or do I leave my mind to wander with distractions in sports, news, entertainment, or who knows what else?
I can’t imagine it would be helpful to hold all of my actions under a spotlight to determine whether they are rooted in love or rooted in something else. Motivations are challenging to untangle.
Maybe one place to begin is asking myself, “What am I aware of right now?”
Much like a daily Examen that aims to look for God’s presence and to increase one’s awareness of God, I can pause to consider what’s on my mind and what’s driving me to act.
Too many times in my life, I’ve been driven by things other than love. I made a lot of noise, but I’m not sure I always shared a lot of love. That isn’t too say I’ve been completely useless, but I wonder how I could have loved others better if I’d seen them through the clarity of God’s love rather than the fog of today’s distractions.
If Wayfair sold a sitting chair that comes with a seat belt or, better yet, a five-point belt system like a toddler seat, I’d drop it right into my shopping cart with hardly a second thought.
Perhaps my common sense would kick in and overrule such an impulsive move, but some mornings, it’s so hard to sit in my chair to pray that a belt system sure seems like it would help. It takes an act of will to keep myself glued down, mind clear, and intentions directed toward God.
Why is prayer so agonizing sometimes?
There is something to be said of developing habits and discipline. I know that prayer isn’t anywhere near as difficult as it used to be.
There is also something to be said for mental health or other conditions of the mind. I know that some people have a much harder time focusing and single-tasking than others, and there is no shame or judgment for them.
Speaking only for myself, I can’t overlook the place of activity as a preferred state of being. Zipping from one thing to another while keeping a tally of what’s been done and what needs to be done all while nurturing a lingering feeling of “overwhelm” makes a seatbelted sitting chair sound awfully practical when it’s time to pray.
What motivates us to keep in motion? First of all, I don’t know if I can even recognize the negative side of being in motion. Oftentimes I’m moving from one good or neutral thing to another. It’s not like my day is piled high with vices or aimless distractions–although we all know that our phones can suck up plenty of time.
Second, I likely overvalue the benefit of the items on the running list that weighs down my mind but makes my feet light. I’m not even sure what exactly I hope to gain by getting so much done, but somehow these things gain an oversized importance.
Finally, I wonder if I can’t quite imagine the good that could come from silent prayer, sitting still in God’s presence, or interceding for others. At this point in my prayer practice, it’s not hard to make myself sit down at a regular time to pray (things haven’t always been that way!), but it remains quite hard to settle my mind sometimes.
The agony of sitting still during prayer means that I’m often too focused on getting one more thing (and then one more thing after that) done. I have overvalued the benefit of my own activity and undervalued the benefit of being present for God in a quiet moment.
There isn’t an easy fix for such agonizing moments during prayer. Perhaps the best solution I’ve found is knowing that I can endure the desire to bounce out of my seat, to remember such restlessness is often for a season, and that moments of greater peace and attentiveness to prayer are possible.
The solution I crave deep in my soul, the thing that keeps me on edge and ready to leap to my feet, isn’t going to come from surrender to my restless impulses.
Restoration will come on the other side of the agony of stillness (which really isn’t agony at all) where my mind grows in daily, even momentary awareness of God.
Attention to the presence of Jesus can shape our minds and direct our actions rather than letting the roller coaster of each day take control. Even today, Jesus can speak, “Peace, be still,” to our ever moving, ever shifting bodies.
At the start of the pandemic in America during March 2020, a friend and I emailed several large churches in our town encouraging them to take their services online as the pandemic began to spread in our town.
This was during the early days of COVID-19 when we didn’t know much about how it spread other than the fact that it was airborne. We politely urged them to consider that limited time in enclosed public spaces was the best way to prevent it from spreading and mutating into more virulent forms.
As many states announced quarantines and lock downs in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19, churches were a vital piece of the puzzle. Although the president at that time and his administration downplayed COVID-19 and politicized safety measures such as indoor masking, we saw that many churches in our region were meeting to discuss safety measures.
Some of the largest Baptist churches in our town did take their services online in response to the pleas of public health officials and doctors, despite some higher level leaders in the SBC saying that they should still meet in person and “preach the Gospel.” It felt like public health or preaching the Gospel were mutually exclusive.
Yet, the most disturbing response of a local church in our area, a nondenominational church just outside of town, came on its Facebook page.
The church posted an image of a man’s silhouette standing with his arms spread open in front of a blinding light. The bold lettered caption read, “Freedom from fear.”
The post announced that they would continue to meet despite the fears of the pandemic. They would meet this pandemic with FAITH, not fear.
I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff on Facebook. I’ve seen a lot of absurd stuff posted by Christians on Facebook. But this post was damaging on many levels.
It was bad enough for a church to ignore a public health emergency that threatened thousands of lives. Yet, the entire premise of the post pitted medical caution against Christian faith.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Christians resist the advice of medical experts or avoid the benefits of preventative medicine like a vaccine. Yet, it was the first time that I saw scientific and medical ignorance paraded as a greater act of faith.
I could understand that some may not be as cautious about masking as I am. And since then, I can understand that some may want to wait for a larger sample size of vaccination before getting a COVID vaccine. Yet, framing a reckless decision that defies medical advice as an act of faith is on par with a guy suffering from high cholesterol and chest pains downing steak dinners every night and boasting of his faith in God’s protection.
Ignoring sound medical advice isn’t an act of faith, just as heeding sound medical advice isn’t an act of fear. If that guy with high cholesterol dramatically changes his diet because of his doctor’s advice, would we chide him for not “trusting his heart with Jesus”?
Of course not. That would be absurd and actually quite cruel to a man who is trying to care for his body. In fact, it would be an attack on reality itself, which is exactly where too many Christians have ended up today.
When that church posted their “Faith over fear” announcement, they were, in effect, spiritually gaslighting people in our community.
Gaslighting attacks someone’s judgment or perception of reality. It’s manipulative and advances a false version of reality that aims to sow doubt and may even cause someone to doubt his/her own sanity. Adding a spiritual twist to gaslighting can make it even harder to pin down.
It can be especially disorienting when pastors, who are assumed to be spiritual caregivers, spiritually gaslight the Christians they are supposed to care for.
When someone takes a precaution for the sake of their own safety or the safety of their family based on sound medical advice that is widely accepted and proven, there is no reason to call that person fearful or to doubt that person’s faith.
We all know that a healthy dose of fear can help us make good choices. Faithful people engage with “fear” all of the time.
We don’t let our 3-year-old daughter out front of our house without us outside as well. You could say that we fear for her safety, but the reality is that we are taking reasonable cautions based on how close our home is to the road.
Christians also hardly bat an eye at the concept of fearing God. In fact, if you have faith in God, then you also likely fear God, for you recognize that God is merciful AND powerful. There is respect and awe for God’s power, even if you find comfort in God’s patience and love. We obey because we take God’s mercy and power seriously.
All of this brings us back to why a church would spiritually gaslight people in the first place. Why would a church challenge the very foundations of reality during a national health crisis and twist the knife with a spiritual challenge?
We can’t underestimate the impact that manipulative and false information has had on our society. A small group of doctors and “experts” continue to push false information about masks, vaccines, and other safety measures during the pandemic.
Manipulative, agenda-driven news stations, social media personalities, radio hosts, and podcasters continue to agitate their listeners with false medical advice and agitating conflict. They’ve effectively created an “us vs. them” mentality where their fans are the truth seekers and the rest of society is just “sheeple” at the mercy of “agenda driven” doctors and scientists.
It’s hard to believe how effective and widespread these false narratives have become, and it’s quite challenging to respond to this gaslighting with patience and empathy. The place where I need to begin is clarity, because spiritual gaslighting, like any kind of gaslighting, can be upsetting, angering, and disorienting.
We can only respond with prayerful charity when we understand the full nature of the offense against us. If an absurd attack on reality is being spiritualized, we must say that it is such regardless of the person’s motives.
Without some clarity and a firm grounding in the reality of the situation, gaslighting will continue to frustrate and enrage us. Spiritual gaslighting can lead to guilt, uncertainty, and a deep unsettling of one’s faith.
Since that church’s poorly conceived post on social media, I’ve made two significant changes to the way I interact with information online.
First, I pay attention really well to stories I read in the news. I look at what experts say and try to evaluate how unanimous they are in their opinions so that I won’t be unsettled by gaslighting and false narratives.
Second, I try to avoid reacting outright to gaslighting or false narratives. If something unsettles me, I try to sit with it, pray about it, and dig down into what exactly is weighing on my mind.
Oftentimes, there’s nothing I can do to change a gaslighting situation. But I think it counts for something if I avoid responding with anger or letting gaslighting seriously disrupt my thoughts.
There aren’t easy times, but I believe we can find a bit of peace and hope by guarding our own hearts, examining what’s on our minds, and entrusting ourselves to God, even as we also trust in the proven advice of medical professionals.
In the 1960’s the majority of people in America were preparing themselves for a far-reaching nuclear catastrophe.
Many of the people who prayed to Jesus the Prince of Peace on Sunday were quite alright with the idea of blowing up entire cities of godless Communists.
Even though the Pope had written about the urgency of peace on earth, plenty of Catholics remained disconnected from such thinking.
Monks were even building fall out shelters for themselves while debating finer points of obscure Medieval theology or selling their fancy bread and cheese for a handsome profit.
All of this infuriated Cistercian monk and bestselling author Thomas Merton who plodded away on his typewriter in the isolation of his hermitage in the hills of Kentucky.
As he wrote articles publicly about the madness of his times and the negligence of his church toward people who had been created in God’s image, Merton faced a stinging backlash from the superiors in his monastic order. They believed that a monk should remain silent, weep, and pray.
This only deepened Merton’s frustration, as he watched monks labor for hours each day on profit making ventures rather than “weeping or praying.” In fact, he directly linked the loss of any monastic prophetic function with the neglect of prayer and weeping. He wrote in one letter:
He dug the knife a bit deeper about all of the “weeping” monks did at his monastery in a journal entry:
Although Merton tried to overcome the barriers to his publications about peacemaking and justice at a moment of great peril for humanity, his superiors won in the short term. Blocked from public publishing, he regularly found solace in his journal entries and in letters to friends that pointedly and humorously described the absurd and dangerous state of the world and his monastic order’s inadequate response.
There was no other way to describe his moment in time than a failure of Christians, and monks in particular, to grasp the enormous challenges facing the world.
In both journal entries and personal letters, Merton’s humor is sharp and cutting. His sarcasm thick and heavy. He knew that he was only fleshing out what the Pope had already written, but his station as a monk, bound to obey his superiors, meant they had the final say about which of his works on the dangers of nuclear war or the injustice of racism could leave the walls of his abbey.
As an honest man convinced that he was right but also realistic enough to mockingly call himself the “one original cloistered genius,” Thomas Merton felt a burden of helpless despair to use his notoriety for the good of humanity. It appears nearly his entire order had no concern about the well-being of the many people who could suffer from nuclear war.
Having experienced a profound vision of God’s love for humanity during a trip to Louisville, Merton longed to write with clarity and sanity about the dangers of his moment in history.
Thankfully, many of those works, even the ones that were originally blocked, have finally been published. Yet, I take particular comfort in the unflinching realism of Merton’s letters and journal entries detailing his conflict and frustration over his blocked attempts to meet the madness of his times with a bit of God-inspired sanity.
It often feels like the threats to humanity have only multiplied since the time of Merton.
Today we are awash in misinformation, political partisanship driven by fabricated culture wars, vaccine misinformation during a pandemic, climate change’s threats to our planet’s viability, and attacks on voting access. It can be maddening to see the state of our world.
There are real dangers, and these dangers are only multiplied due to bad faith political actors. Even worse, too many people flat out deny these dangers, and plenty of Christians either ally themselves with those denying
We are living in a moment of mass gaslighting and an avalanche of misinformation that is threatening to tear our society apart, to marginalize minorities, and to warm our planet beyond a dangerous point of no return.
How can we stay sane during a moment that is so filled with absurdity and danger? Should we panic? Should we cry? Should we scream? Should we disconnect from it all to care for ourselves?
Thomas Merton stared down many dangerous and absurd threats in his own time, and he used a blunt realism matched with a sharp wit to endure. He sought to do what he could, he spelled out the absurdity he encountered, and he kept praying and trying to make a difference for the common good of God’s beloved creation.
It’s impossible to say what kind of impact had been achieved by Merton’s letters or limited articles that reached the public. However, we do know that peace activists and social justice leaders regularly sought his insight and support. The few times peace activists met Merton’s disapproval, they immediately sought to repair the relationship.
There isn’t a simple application in a collection like this. If anything, Merton’s sarcastic and humorous letters offer us solidarity and encouragement to face the absurdity and danger of our times.
It’s helpful to know that a man recognized as a “spiritual master” in his own time mocked his own pride and leveled devastating criticisms at his superiors and monastic orders when so much was on the line.
In retrospect, it’s quite clear that Merton was right. Blasting untold numbers of densely populated cities to dust with nuclear weapons was a really bad idea and still remains a really bad idea.
I can only hope that more people will realize that issues like stopping climate change or having wider access to voting are good for humanity, good for the poor, and good for the people who are marginalized the most.
Perhaps reading Merton’s struggles in a previous generation will give us the courage and hope to persevere as we face the absurd dangers of our time. And the starting point for facing such a moment is to simply acknowledge that it’s absolutely absurd that we have even reached this moment of crisis in the first place.
On sale now: The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton
We have a 2002 Subaru Outback that burns through oil. Maybe it leaks oil. Maybe it does both. No one really knows. A mechanic told me the engine from that year was really, really bad.
To make things worse, the dip stick is extremely unreliable, so I’m always just guessing how much oil to add.
All of that is to say, when we used to drive that car daily, I had to keep a really close eye on the oil—among several other things.
It’s my understanding that cars generally have an “oil” light that comes on when it gets low. In our case, we were on a road trip with that Subaru, cruising up a hill on an Interstate, when the light came on and then we instantly heard an alarming crunch in the front of the car.
That was it for our engine.
Besides a useful dip stick and an engine that kept oil inside of it, I also could have really used a warning light BEFORE running out of oil completely.
It turned out that we had driven through a lot of mountains in western Maryland and West Virginia, and we had burned through all of the oil I put in at the start of the trip.
While we could replace that engine with a used one, I often think of the warning signs I see in my life before I burn out or hit rock bottom mentally or spiritually.
Do I have a functioning “warning” light for the times when I’m in emotional, mental, or spiritual trouble and in need of a pause for restoration?
As I’ve explored what spiritual health looks like for me, I have learned that I am at my best when I do at least 3 things every day:
These aren’t major revelations or secrets, right? That’s a pretty standard list of daily practices for a Christian. I could list things like exercising daily, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, reading spiritual books and attending church, but those three in my list above form the foundation.
If those three practices aren’t a regular part of my day, I can almost certainly expect to start feeling distant from God, out of sorts, or just kind of lost. Each practice plays a vital role in keeping my head in a good place and helping me to remain aware of God’s presence.
Since it’s so important, I have a schedule each day, and I fit my spiritual routine into it.
Here’s the thing, schedules change, life gets crazy, and the routine sometimes falls to pieces.
We had some pretty disruptive changes to our schedule over the past month, and my routine suffered.
Over the years, I’ve learned to watch for some warning signs that all may not be well. Here is what I look for:
Is My Journal Empty?
When I open my journal, I can know things are difficult or stressful if I don’t have any entries for the past day… or week.
During one really tough stretch, I would show up for church, open my journal to jot down some ideas during the sermon, and start right below my notes from the previous Sunday. That’s a whole week without reflection!
I use my journal for a wide range of ideas, reflections, prayers, meeting notes, and whatever else. It’s a place to get thoughts out of my head, and if my journal is empty, that means my head is likely full of stuff I haven’t fully processed. That is usually not good for my mental health.
Journaling also makes it much easier to pray since a head full of thoughts can lead to a busy mind that will struggle to pray.
Have I Moved My Bookmark?
I use The Divine Hours to read, reflect, and pray through scripture daily. Each day offers a series of readings based on the day of the week and the time of day. It’s a very handy way to read a variety of scripture on a consistent basis.
But when my schedule falls to pieces or life gets chaotic, I may catch myself flipping past a few days in order to find that day’s reading. If I haven’t been keeping up with scripture reading, my bookmark will be off by a few days.
Having grown up in a Christian subculture that attached a lot of guilt and obligation to Bible reading, I’ve really had to rethink WHY I read the Bible. I prioritize devotional reading or using scripture to guide my prayers.
When I open up the morning scripture reading, I take a prayerful posture and ask God to guide me. I’m not looking for answers, prooftexts, or a duty I can check off in my list of spiritual things.
If I’m not guided by the words of scripture and the Spirit’s inspiration through those words, then who knows what will influence me. There are plenty of alternatives!
I shouldn’t be surprised that my head often ends up in an unhealthy place if my daily scripture reading slides.
Do I Have Enough Time to Pray Daily?
There isn’t an easy way to visibly track how often I pray, but generally I aim to land in the 20-30 minutes range for dedicated prayer. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to be prayerful and mindful of God throughout my day, but I benefit the most from focused, distraction free prayer time if possible.
But dedicated prayer time isn’t guaranteed each day. A kid may wake up early, a work project has a tight deadline, I miss an alarm, or who knows what else can spring up.
I do my best to stay honest about prayer. Am I getting at least 20 minutes? It’s not a magic number that guarantees some kind of spiritual epiphany. It’s just a way to keep myself from getting lazy or cutting corners.
Over the years, I’ve found that if I can set aside 20 minutes for prayer, it’s usually a breeze to hit 30 minutes. Of course, stretching my prayer time that long can start to take away time from my morning exercise routine!
What Are Your Warning Signs?
I’m certain that my three essential daily practices aren’t the only ones or that they aren’t unique to me.
I’d love to know which daily practices you rely on to be both mentally and spiritually healthy. If the comments are closed (they close after 2 weeks to prevent spam), you can always drop me a line on my contact page or share this post on social media along with your own list of essential practices.
What if we spent our time seeking the sacred, being present for the holy?
We wouldn’t have to travel anywhere. We wouldn’t have to overhaul our routines. We would only have to add activities that bring space for thought and awareness of the present moment.
Where is the sacred found? Some may travel to a sacred space to find the sacred, but such spaces help us detach from distractions rather than bringing us closer to God. Jesus spoke of the indwelling Spirit and the Kingdom of God being within or among us.
We could say that the sacred is found among us in the present moment.
If we want to find the sacred, then what prevents us from seeking it? What blocks our path toward what what is deeper and more valuable?
This is the pearl of great price, the most valuable thing we could imagine. We spend our lives making cost/benefit analysis for our choices and practices. What do we gain, what do we lose, and is that trade off worthwhile?
My sense is that the sacred presence of God and the resulting presence of God’s Kingdom is found when we are able to be focused and stable in the present moment.
We may repent of the past and cast dreams and visions into the future, but we can only rely on God’s grace to cover what we have done and rest in God’s care for what’s coming tomorrow. We can’t change the past, and we can’t control the future. Our faith addresses these two areas where we exert no control.
Yet, the sacred now is where God’s dynamic energy is present, and preserving our attention to this moment will pay off in personal, spiritual, and relational ways. My faith in the present rests in God’s presence that I can easily miss.
Any of my fears about God abandoning me or my own sin making me unworthy have given way to the assurances of Jesus that he is present, he knows his own people, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.
The disconnect I often find in my own life from God’s sacred presence is my attention. Training myself to be present, to be still, and to be receptive to God’s presence changes my approach to spiritual practices.
If the sacred is already present, I’m not trying to summon God, to prove myself worthy, or to do the right thing in order to make God show up. My practice becomes a process of training myself to chase distractions from my mind and to be present for God in the moment.
This training to be present in the moment involves everything from the chores I do, the moments I wait in line at the store, and the ways I spend my free time.
Taking a run, painting a picture, or building something out of wood becomes part of the practice of prayer as I train my mind to be still, to release thoughts, and to be present for whatever God may have for me in the present moment.
My creative projects by themselves can draw glory to God, but they also become a formative experience that trains me in the ways of being present in the moment. The more I am present in the moment, rather than dreading the future or lamenting the past, the more I can enter into prayer with a clear mind that is receptive to the sacred that is already there.
The great spiritual writer and priest Henrí Nouwen once visited Mother Teresa and asked her what he should do to live out his vocation as a priest, she replied:
“Spend one hour a day in adoration of your Lord and never do anything you know is wrong, and you will be alright.”
My first reaction was something like, “Oh, that sounds super simple. Got it.”
Then, I started looking at my calendar. “AN HOUR??? REALLY?”
And then I started thinking about the low points in my days, the times when anger burns, and the moments when apathy and sloth make it very easy to resist what could help me the most.
With a few moments of reflection, the words of Mother Theresa started sounding like a reach for me.
While we could argue about the merits of her advice and the fact that she gave it to a priest rather than a married guy with a job and three kids, let’s assume for a moment that she’s right on the money about what we all need each day. Besides, it’s easy to assume that only “religious professionals” have the time for spiritual practices.
If adoration and obedience will help most of us fulfill our vocations, then we just need to figure out how to make them both happen. And even if we want to debate with Mother Teresa, I don’t think more adoration and obedience would hurt anyone—especially since adoration could take so many different forms.
So, let’s consider for a moment what it could look like to set aside an hour of adoration for the Lord each day and not doing anything we know that’s wrong.
Where Do We Begin? Obedience?
I’ll be honest that when I first tested out this path for spiritual direction, I spent a lot of time focusing on my actions and thoughts. I tried to do what I knew to be right.
There are moments when we need a bit of willpower and some white knuckling to obey God’s commands. A few incidents with neighbors come to mind as moments when I had to intentionally act to forgive some who had done something wrong. I had to choose to let go of my anger in order to forgive as Jesus told me to forgive.
Forgiveness isn’t usually easy, but it is what a merciful and forgiving God asks of us. Yet, should obedience to God’s commands always come down to willpower and white knuckles?
I think that question helps us see how Mother Theresa’s two suggestions intersect rather than stand alone. In fact, that separated approach to obedience and adoration was a big mistake on my part.
An hour of adoration of a merciful and forgiving God will remind me of God’s great mercy for me. I’ll also allow God to shape and change me so that I conform to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life rather than making myself act correctly.
If I need some spiritual direction that will lead me away from willful sins, then I may benefit most from looking toward the God who can show me the path forward.
Adoration has a lot to do with obedience.
Can I Spend an Hour in Adoration of the Lord?
The thing I’ve learned about myself and spiritual practices is that I can’t let the ideal undermine the reality of life. I can’t let the perfect replace the possible.
Some days the kids wake up extra early or stay up super late. Some days the alarm isn’t set properly or we fall back asleep by mistake. Some days the unexpected happens or an interruption pulls us away from our worthy pursuits.
If we aren’t tucked away in a monastery, we have to accept that we probably don’t have as much control over our schedules as we would like. And even monks have sometimes complained about not having enough time to pray!
I have found that I do best with making space for adoration of the Lord in silence and in praying scripture by aiming for a rough schedule every day. It’s not perfect, but I generally know how I’m going to start each day. That helps a lot.
I also try to make some space in the middle and at the end of each day so that I can remain aware of God. It would be amazing if I could just make an hour available each day at the drop of a hat, but there are so many competing priorities and distractions each day. The best solution I can find at now is to make space for prayer and adoration before the day really gets going and to then find space for it as I do other things or as I take breaks throughout the day.
I don’t know if I’ve gotten close to an uninterrupted hour of adoration in a day, but I have found that it’s possible to at least spread this time out throughout a day.
As imperfect as that approach feels some days, I have noticed without fail that my ability to live in obedience to God always follows my ability to make space for silent adoration. If my adoration falters, then my obedience most likely follows that path shortly.
This is the mystery of the Christian life, both choosing to live in obedience to God while also placing ourselves in the care of the Holy Spirit to shape us and to guide. As my mind is reshaped by God’s work, my “work” of obedience becomes a joint venture in union with the Holy Spirit.
These days I try to spend a lot more time asking if I’m making time for adoration rather than if I’m living in obedience. If I am making time for adoration, the obedience often takes care of itself.
No one ever made me literally howl with despair, as if I was lost in the bleak darkness of the wilderness, but I’ve had that feeling deep in my soul on many occasions when discussing my latest book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction.
The internal howling in despair often happened before I sharpened my elevator pitch for Reconnect. I told others little tidbits about the aim of the book:
It’s a book about using technology too much…
It’s a book about how technology makes it hard to pray…
It’s a book about how spiritual practices can help us transcend the harm done by smartphones and social media…
Each time I shared little tidbits like this, people naturally compared my idea to existing books—one book in particular came up, in fact.
“Oh, it’s like TheTech Wise Family, then?”
“Ah, I see. That sounds like The Tech Wise Family.”
“Hey, I just read The Tech Wise Family. That’s the same idea, right?”
This is where the internal howling kicked in. Perhaps a sophisticated answer like this passed through my mind as well:
There are two really good reasons for this response…
Authors Always Believe Their Books Are Unique
Part of the reason for this response on my part is that every author, for better or for worse, believes their books are precious little unique snowflakes that have deeply unappreciated intricacies that truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.
Even the authors who write Bible studies on the book of Romans or something about fighting the stress of “too busy” with the whisper “you are enough” (don’t forget the flowers on the cover too) think their books are extremely unique. My gosh, it’s still a bit of a miracle that I got a book published in 2008 about “theology and culture” at a time when every white dude with an MDiv was “musing” about such things on their blogs.
Authors can’t help it. And to a certain extent, every book is as unique as the author. Even books that appear identical may find a new angle that benefits readers. And honestly, some topics just have a higher demand that publishers who want to keep the lights on can’t help meeting.
Yet, there is another really good reason for this howling in despair…
Authors Must Distinguish Their Books
One of the most stressful and challenging aspects of writing a book proposal for a publisher is the Competing Works section that lists five or six similar titles and compares them to your proposed book. The competing works is a difficult balancing act because you need to demonstrate an existing market for your book without overlapping completely with an existing work.
I’ve seen promising book proposals fall flat because similar books were either in a publisher’s pipeline or had been newly released.
When I developed a proposal for Reconnect, I listed The Tech Wise Family as a competing work and carefully distinguished my book from it. If I was pitching something that is “the same thing” as The Tech Wise Family, I wouldn’t be able to promote my book to readers, let alone to a publisher.
My internal howling and shouting at comparisons to The Tech Wise Family called to mind the painstaking process of defining my book’s place in the market.
I didn’t know of any other Christian book that merged an awareness of the design of digital technology and its formative impact with an awareness of spiritual formation and the ways technology could undermine spirituality.
When I managed to calm down my internal screaming during these conversations, I put it like this: The Tech Wise Family is accurate and useful, but it’s dealing with the flood by proposing countermeasures to deal with the reality we have.
I’m seeking to look further upstream…
Why do we have a flood?
What is the design of the flood?
How can we keep the flood from reaching us in the first place?
How can we build a solid foundation of spiritual practices that can save us from being swept away in the flood?
Less Howling, More Silence
I fully endorse and use the ideas in The Tech Wise Family, but I have personally needed a different approach to digital formation. I needed to understand why I’m drawn to social media and my smartphone. I needed to understand the ways these technologies exploit my weaknesses and how spiritual practices can restore my soul each day.
Placing good barriers around my technology use has helped me, but I wanted to know why I needed these barriers in the first place.
Most importantly, I needed a soul restoring alternative to digital formation. For many of us, our excessive smartphone use is scratching at itch for something: distraction, connection, enjoyment, etc.
I wanted to find the alternative to digital formation, and many of spiritual formation’s practices offer helpful alternatives. Digital formation makes us reactive; spiritual formation helps us become thoughtful and aware. Digital formation creates despair and anxiety; spiritual formation helps us wait with patience and hope.
All of this is to say in a very detailed way that my book Reconnect is a precious little unique snowflake that has deeply unappreciated intricacies that only truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.
I trust that you are just that sort of reader and that you are no doubt eager to read it now, rather than telling me it’s just like The Tech Wise Family…
Learn More about My Precious, Unique Book
Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”