Where Do You Begin with Prayer? Try Thankfulness

The following post is adapted from Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer:

“When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month or next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God’s love within me and around me.”

– Henri Nouwen

After the birth of our first child, I resolved to finally establish a regular, scheduled prayer routine. There was one barrier to any routine, or sanity, in our home:  Our son did not nap.

The only way to coax him into a reliable nap was to take him for a walk. This plan worked well throughout the fall, and since his sleep struggles continued, I bundled him up in massive puffy layers of down for walks all throughout the Columbus, Ohio winters. A bike trail along the river by our home offered 30 uninterrupted miles of walking alongside a shallow little river dotted with a few tiny waterfalls along the way to serve as landmarks of a nap’s success or struggle.

Through rain, snow, or wind, I spent most afternoons walking my son in his jogging stroller along the path with only the noises of an occasional chime of a bicycle bell, the chatter of workers from a nearby office talking a lunch time walk, and the rustle of deer in the woods. During these walks of an hour to an hour and a half, I had the option of playing podcasts or praying. I hoped to do the latter, but once alone with my thoughts, I spiraled into a wreck of negativity, anger, fear, and anxiety. It wasn’t that I was struggling to pray. I was struggling to even get to the point where I could attempt to pray.

Where do you begin with prayer when you can’t even figure out how to start in the first place?

This isn’t a new problem, and thankfully someone from the historic church spent a lot of time working through it. While recovering from a serious wound suffered in battle, Ignatius of Loyola began reading through scripture and had a profound encounter with the risen Christ. As he pursued God in silence and meditation, he felt directed to develop a method of clarifying his thoughts prior to prayer and to cultivate a greater awareness of God throughout the day. This practice, called Examen, was a part of his larger spiritual exercises that he passed on to those in his community that later became known as the Jesuits or Society of Jesus.

The Examen is a series of prompts for reflection that Methodists and students of church history will recognize as similar to John Wesley’s questions for self-examination. The main difference is that Wesley’s questions are far more specific, while the Examen tends to be more open ended and geared toward uncovering whatever is on your mind. Ignatius instructed the Jesuits to practice the examine twice daily, keeping track of their thoughts, emotions, and awareness of God throughout each day so that they could pray with greater intention and focus.

There are different Examen methods and questions based on the spiritual practices of Ignatius. I personally use an app on my phone, but the basic structure of the Examen is as follows:

  1. Become aware of God’s presence.
  2. Review the day with gratitude.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions.
  4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
  5. Look toward tomorrow.

I have found great benefit in the ways that the Examen cultivates awareness of my thoughts and emotions, increases my aware of God, and helps me bring my daily thoughts and actions to God in prayer. Sometimes I focus on a particular question or aspect of the Examen. Other times the Examen reveals a deficit in my awareness of God. Most importantly, I have had to stop seeing the Examen as a kind of test or evaluation for my spiritual progress. Despite the resemblance to the word “exam,” the Examen has been most beneficial as a kind of rest stop or reset point in my day. It offers an opportunity to move forward with greater awareness of God and personal intention.

There’s a strong family resemblance between the Examen and the mindfulness practices advocated by psychology experts today. Many studies are finding that a few minutes of mindfulness have made significant differences in both teachers and school children. In the best cases, a meditation room has replaced traditional punishments for children who act out, as teachers have realized that oftentimes misbehaving is linked with a child struggling to process everything that is going on.

Mindfulness helps us sift away our thoughts and emotions so that we can see the present moment with clarity. It can also shut down ongoing loops of negative thinking, internal commentaries, or mounting stress and anxiety. Instead of assuming we’re at the mercy of our thoughts, mindfulness rightfully restores a measure of our power over our thoughts. Ignatius recognized the value of this hundreds of years ago as he developed the Examen practice, but he also incorporated the valuable prompts that helped practitioners gauge their awareness of God throughout the day.

I had made the mistake of approaching prayer as a kind of dumping ground for my thoughts, but it’s actually better to dump my thoughts out before I pray through practicing the Examen. That frees my mind in order to hear God speak and it offers clarity about which thoughts need to be explored further in prayer. Thomas Merton writes, “The reason why so many religious people believe they cannot meditate is that they think meditation consists in having religious emotions, thoughts, or affections of which one is, oneself, acutely aware” (No Man Is an Island, 32).

This focus on giving thoughts and emotions free reign during prayer can also result in heightened expectations for some kind of resolution to come about in the midst of prayer. Merton continues, “As soon as they start to meditate, they begin to look into the psychological conscience to find out if they are experiencing anything worthwhile. They find little or nothing. They either strain themselves to produce some interior experience, or else they give up in disgust” (No Man Is an Island, 32).

Lest you think I’m more spiritually accomplished than I actually am, the main reason why I persevered in practicing the Examen, even after my son started napping in his bed regularly, was a simple iPhone app. While there are several Examen apps out there, the one I found is called “Examine,” and it offered the perfect opportunity to use my iPhone for a noble purpose.

Practicing the Examen for three months completely blew my mind. As I reflected on the positive and negative elements of each day, I started to notice a troubling pattern: most of my positive moments were tied to my work. I clearly relied too much on my work as a barometer for each day. Consequently, I also worried quite a bit about having enough money while struggling to see God at work in my day. So many of my struggles over providing for my family and trusting God came into sharper focus once I developed a regular practice to reflect on each day. I’ll be the first to admit that practicing the Examen hardly felt even remotely spiritual. I was just thinking about my day, after all. This is not what anxious evangelicals are used to in our pursuit of God!

I can imagine the evangelical response to this in the form of a spiritual drill sergeant screaming at me: “Oh, you feel sad because your kid had a melt down and you yelled at him? Poor baby! And the baby I’m talking about is YOU! Are you worried about money? Maybe it’s time to get off your can and to actually read some scripture, you slacker! Jesus died on a cross for YOUR sins. I bet he worried about that too. Suck it up you contemplative slacker!”

When you’ve thought for most of your life that prayer is more or less the same thing as talking to God and the you can only grow spiritually by doing it better and working harder at it, it’s difficult to believe that personal awareness or “mindfulness” really counts as a spiritual practice. Aren’t there more important spiritual matters we can give ourselves to instead? According to St. Ignatius, the Examen was his one non-negotiable. If you can only find time for one practice, this is it. It’s as if he knew that any struggle to find time or focus for prayer could be resolved if you remain prayerfully aware of yourself through the Examen. The Examen offered what I’ve needed the most: an invitation to step outside of my own head so that I can see where my mind is going and how aware I am of God.

 

Resting at Last

As I’ve grow aware of my own struggles with anxiety, the nature of our anxious times become clearer as well. I spend each day surrounded by endless supplies of anxiety, and that’s with our family never owning a television. In fairness, there are plenty of concerning and troubling items in our news that responsible people must consider. However, anxiety and fear are also powerful forces that are ruthlessly employed on ratings-hungry news shows and social media. Our own agency in managing this anxiety is easy to overlook. Thomas Merton wrote: “Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impose it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves” (Thoughts in Solitude 82-82).

When anxiety and fear become my default ways of relating to the world, I run the risk of forgetting that there are other ways to approach each day  and to process the thoughts and emotions that come streaming into my mind. We shouldn’t be surprised that this is counterintuitive and countercultural. Abba Anthony once remarked: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.'” If our culture has normalized fear and anxiety, then it shouldn’t surprise us that this anxiety and uneasiness will be manifested in our spirituality. Our hard-working, goal-oriented society is bound to latch onto the aspects of religion that measure progress, worry about not doing enough, and fears the “evaluation” of a superior if those goals aren’t met.

The Examen offers a hopeful starting point that believes we not only have a measure of control over our thoughts, but that God is with us in the present and able to lead us if we stop obsessing over the past or the future. Merton assures us that this is an essential step in prayer. He wrote, “One cannot then enter into meditation, in this sense, without a kind of inner upheaval. By upheaval I do not mean a disturbance, but a breaking out of routine, a liberation of the heart from the cares and preoccupations of one’s daily business” (Thoughts In Solitude, 40). There is no summoning God or convincing him to take pity on us as we struggle with our fears and anxiety. God doesn’t play cat and mouse games with us, withholding his presence if we don’t say the right words.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). I have found that the Examen is a way to bring my worries and anxious thoughts to God, exposing these dark clouds to God’s penetrating light. Besides the benefit of gaining clarity into my thoughts, there is an opportunity for God to take my unhealthy thoughts captive. Richard Rohr reminds us that our healing comes through our sins and failures. Our sins and failures typically reveal our deepest wounds and needs–both of which need God’s presence of healing and restoration. Rohr writes in his book Breathing Underwater, “You cannot heal what you do not first acknowledge.” However, he takes that a step further as he writes, “In terms of soul work, we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us” (Everything Belongs,  143).

What makes Jesus so unbelievable to anxious evangelicals such as myself is that he calls me to become more honest than I am capable of being on my own. Only he knows the depths of my fears, the ways I truly lean on my own resources and plans, and the ways that I have made him unnecessary in my life. In many cases, my sins, fears, and anxieties are the products of trying to make it through life on my own. Typically, my sins are the ways I try to cope and manage with life, while my anxieties are often rooted in my fears that my own means and strategies will not work. The Examen breaks through my illusions, helping me to see just how far I have drifted from Christ each day and developed my own ways of dealing with life. As I face these broken parts of myself, I am in a position where I can pray honestly.

Each time I pause to become aware of God, face my thoughts, and look for the ways that God has been at work in my day, I open myself to God’s power and presence. My friend Preston Yancey writes in his book Out of the House of Bread that the Examen is especially useful for seeing what has gone well. I had been so focused on all that I hadn’t done, couldn’t do, or had done wrong that the Examen finally prompted me to focus on the positive aspects of my day and to find God present in these as well. I have become far more thankful since I started practicing the Examen. Thankfulness is an essential part of spirituality, as the Psalms tell us to enter God’s presence with thanksgiving.

 

Making Space for Prayer

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed up a moment for quiet reflection. I can always find a reason to keep pushing forward on a work project, to tackle a household chore right now, to reply to a text message or email immediately, or to settle for whatever entertainment I can dig up on my computer in the evening–especially during hockey season. Personal restoration and prayer are hard to fit into our schedules and they’re even harder to protect. Before I had regular, meaningful time for reflection, I didn’t know what it felt like to be at rest in God, let alone to be aware of my interior monologue.

I first attempted contemplative prayer before I learned about the Examen, and I was a hot mess. Nothing made sense or worked when I sought silence before God. I felt lost and completely at the mercy of my thoughts that ranged all over the place. Without the personal assessment of the Examen, any hope of rest or surrender to God remained disrupted or redirected when I sat down to pray. In my bid for silence and prayer, I was facing the truth about myself and my thoughts. Richard Rohr writes, “Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable” (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, 74).

Contemplative prayer is much like a plant that puts down roots after we have tilled the hard soil of our anxious minds with the practice of the Examen. Every person I know who practices contemplative prayer has come to a similar place in the struggle with distracting thoughts. There are many others who have attempted to practice contemplative prayer only to see it wither in the rock hard soil of a busy, distracted, or anxious mind. I suspect that sometimes our minds are so distracted and anxious that we can’t fully grasp just how distracted and anxious we truly are.

The more technology at my fingertips, from smartphones to tablets, the greater the temptation to keep checking in, to keep conversations going, or to seek a bit of distraction. I have started to rely on having my phone with me at all times, experiencing a mild panic on the occasions that I leave it at home. That emotion alone is well worth exploring!

The Examen has been an essential part of my recovery from digital distraction and my captivity to intrusive technology. I now understand the ways that I use these tools in order to avoid facing my fears and anxieties. I have found that technology tends to encourage “mindlessness,” and this mindlessness of digital devices is a far greater threat to Christian spirituality than any mindfulness practice that may allegedly resemble an eastern religious practice. Without the focused mindfulness of practices such as the Examen, we’ll have every incentive to run from our fears, pain, and faults. Who wants to dwell on the complexities and fears of the present when escape is just a tap away?

While anxious evangelicals may fear that the Examen is little more than a self-centered exercise for spiritual slackers, I have found that it has saved me from unwitting compromise with the ways of this world, from distraction to anxiety and fear. If I was ever on a slippery slope away from God, it was before the Examen revealed just how far my anxieties, fears, and entertaining distractions had pulled me away from God’s presence. With the Examen turning over the rock-hard soil of my mind so that prayer could finally take root, I was finally able to learn what the Psalmist meant when he wrote, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:5). Having learned to stop relying on my own words for prayer and turning over my anxious thoughts, I was finally ready to learn what it meant to flee, be silent, and pray.

 

This post was adapted from Ed Cyzewski’s Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer: http://amzn.to/2zSXXaI (currently $2.99 on Kindle).

Christians Need Compassion More Than Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelicals Lack the Language for Slow Transformation

Evangelicals know about discipleship, which is often synonymous with accountability and learning.

Evangelicals know about conversion and revival, going from blindness to sight.

Evangelicals don’t have language for slow, gradual transformation. It’s not surprising then that we generally lack the practices that can lead to slow transformation.

I love the charismatic gifts and teachings. I’ve had intense moments that were deeply transforming and meaningful.

I’ve also wondered, “Now what?” after the moment passes.

I’ve immersed myself in Bible study and had life-changing insights as the Spirit used the scriptures to reshape my thinking and choices. I’ve also hit the point where I’ve felt like I’m just cramming information into my brain and God appears distant, if not non-existent.

My own assessment of my place in the evangelical subculture is that I have lacked the language and guidance into the full spiritual tradition of the Christian faith. I have found renewed hope by taking part in the contemplative tradition.

Incorporating the contemplative tradition isn’t a contemporary trend of self-help spirituality or a complete replacement of Bible study, revival, or the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. By bringing contemplation into my daily spiritual practice, I’m putting something into place that should have never been lost in the first place.

While my evangelical tradition looks for revivals and enlightening moments, the contemplative tradition warns us against seeking frequent spiritual highs. These “highs” can become obstacles in the loving pursuit of God. Yes, intimate moments with God can happen, but God is present in both the silence of waiting and in the intense awareness of God’s love.

While my evangelical tradition tends to put pressure on us to seek God and to make spiritual epiphanies happen, the contemplative tradition teaches us to rest, to be still before the Lord, and to wait for his salvation.

While my charismatic background puts great emphasis on dramatic moments of deliverance and conversion, the contemplative tradition gives a space for the slow work of transformation as we place ourselves in the loving care of the Holy Spirit day-in, day-out.

Sitting in silence before God remains jarring to my evangelical sensibilities where so much emphasis was placed on study, praying with fervent sincerity, and working toward measurable results or spiritual emotions. The contemplative tradition gives me a basic spiritual practice of 20-30 minutes of silent prayer before God and few immediately measurable results—although the impact of this type of prayer is very apparent over the course of time.

This is the slow transformation that occurs through contemplative prayer. It isn’t the type of thing you can share during a testimony service on Sunday evening. It’s hard work, forcing us to face our darkness, our false selves, and our fears. The “results” take time to materialize, and even when they do, they often end up being things like, “I’m more compassionate toward others” or “I’m more aware of God’s love and presence daily.”

These are surely good things, but they’re not going to turn heads during testimony time. However, these are the practices that have carried me through the silence, the lows and highs, and the anxiety of life. They have grounded me and given me a place to rest in God when the revival folded and the emotions dried up.

God so loved the world…

Be still and know that he is Lord…

Wait on the Lord…

The Lord is gracious and compassionate…

These are the words we can turn to in silence each day in faith and hope.

Can We Offer Hope to a Chaotic World by Withdrawing? A Parable

Imagine a deep rushing stream that flows in between mountains.

People from every background are floating down the stream together, some in kayaks and canoes, others in tubes.

The rushing water is swift and occasionally dangerous, but the majority of people pass by safely, even if they have plenty of anxiety about what’s coming around the next bend.

Some have lashed themselves to each other. Others float in small clusters. Whether in large groups or small groups, everyone is talking, always talking.

When the stream settles to a tranquil flow and the boats and tubes barely move along, the talking grows louder and louder. It echoes off the rock walls lining the stream. The only relief to the talking is the rushing water that sends everyone zipping downstream and prompts them to consider what awaits them around the next bend.

At a particularly quiet stretch of the river the stream splits to go around an island. The island is large for a river of this size. A woman of indeterminate age stands on the shore waving to all who pass by.

Some have paddled over to her island to speak with her as they float past.  She is a curiosity. Perhaps she has gained some wisdom by stepping out of the stream, but who can possibly step away from the stream for so long? Who has the time? There is so much more of the river to explore.

Others dig their paddles and hands into the water, splashing water furiously to avoid her at all costs.

A few have left the stream to spend a longer time on her island.

The woman leaves the water’s edge frequently to rest in the shade of the pine trees. She had once traveled on this river. The rush of the river still whispers to her. The movement had been addicting. It took a supernatural willpower to take those first steps out of the stream so many sunsets ago.

Day after day, she stands by the water’s edge to speak with the people floating by, rests in the shade of the trees, and then emerges when she has been restored.

A few stay on her island, learning from her. They spend long days imitating her until the days no stop appearing long. Eventually, they become themselves. It is a moment without fanfare or epiphanies. No one taught them how to be who they are because they had always been themselves. The river kept them from seeing it. There had been so much to talk about and to anticipate. The silence of the island taught them.

Over time, those who have learned from the woman venture into the center of the island where they had stowed away their boats long ago. They do this reluctantly and with a measure of trepidation. But they have a renewed sense of mission. They have faced who they are, and over time they have enlarged their compassion for those who have been floating down the stream. Do they know who they are? Do they know why they are on this stream?

Some will float down to another island to speak with the people just as the woman has done. Others will hop from shoreline to shoreline, floating and speaking before withdrawing to become grounded in who they are, lest the stream sweep them away with the talking and worrying about what is around the next bend.

As they paddle away from the woman’s island, she welcomes a man who has paddled over reluctantly. Perhaps a little rest on this island could help ease his mind. Perhaps this woman can answer some of the questions he’s been unable to ask when so many people are talking on the river.

He stumbles over the slippery rocks along the shore as he pulls his kayak over. His paddle falls into the water and he stubs his toe as he snatches it out of the water. Nothing is graceful about this exit from the water.

Finally, he crunches onto the solid gravel beach of the island where the woman is waiting. After he drags his boat onto the shore, he realizes that the woman has been speaking to him all of this time. When did she start speaking to him? It’s as if she’d been giving him this message for all of eternity, before he was born and it will continue long after he is gone.

Spinning around, he faces her, but he can’t hear her over the stream.

He steps closer, and she smiles, raising her arms to embrace him.

“Welcome. You are loved.”

Resting Takes a Lot of Work?

Blue-Sky-finding center

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

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

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

I needed silence: a lot of it.

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

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

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

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

Finally, turning toward Charlottesville, I sensed something settle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Used to Pray to a Passive-Aggressive God

church-prayer

The Psalms tell us to wait patiently on the Lord. I used to read that as a kind of passive-aggressive move on God’s part. Here I was, desperate for God, waiting and praying with all of my heart. Would it kill him to show up when I pray?

After learning about and practicing contemplative prayer, I realized I had everything completely backwards. God has been waiting for us all along, but we are often too distracted, impatient, or fearful to be present for him. In addition, a “present God” may not bring about the emotions and experiences we expect.

God’s love is here and constant, and there is nothing I can do or feel to change that reality. I can ignore it or obstruct it, but I can’t stop it.

Learning to pray isn’t about turning on the tap of God’s love. Rather, learning to pray is about training ourselves to be present for the love of God that is already at work in our lives.

Evangelical anxiety tells us that prayer isn’t working because there must be something wrong with us.

Evangelical anxiety focuses on results and progress, but God is more concerned about loving presence.

Contemplative prayer has taught me that God’s love is present and that I need only seek God in order to pray. I may have an epiphany, but I most likely will not. God’s love is steady and constant, and many days I have to settle for taking that on faith.

Focusing on my feelings and experiences have been my greatest barriers to contemplative prayer. I have had to completely shut down my anxious evangelical tendency toward measuring and proving my spiritual vitality and worth.

François Fénelon wrote, “How will you go on to maturity if you are always seeking the consolation of feeling the presence of God with you? To seek pleasure and to ignore the cross will not get you very far. You will soon be trapped in the pursuit of spiritual pleasures” (100 Days in the Secret Place, 11).

The journey into contemplative prayer calls on us to think differently of God and of ourselves. Very little depends on us. The spiritual “work” we do in contemplative prayer is very different from the spirituality of many evangelicals who are bogged down with lists of beliefs, practices, and activities that we must do to pursue holiness or the presence of God.

We’re never doing enough to win God’s love or to achieve any kind of lasting life transformation. How could we? God’s love is already ours, and until we learn how to simply receive it, we’ll get stuck in an anxious rut of performance, failure, and struggle.

The first step in many spiritual practices such as the Examen and centering prayer is a simple acknowledgement that God is present. That is so very different from my assumptions as an evangelical Christian who used phrases like, “I’m waiting for God to show up.” Theologically I could explain divine omnipotence, but practically, I struggled to believe that God was truly present with me and, most importantly, loving me right in that moment without preconditions.

This is the true prayer of a little child in the Kingdom. If you can only call out, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” in faith and reliance, then you can pray. My own pride and hopes for spiritual advancement kept me from seeing how badly I needed to become like a little child in prayer.

 

This post is taken from my book

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

Read more by downloading it for $2.99 today

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What Would God Shout at You from a Cloud?

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

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

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

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

What would God shout at you?  

volunteer more!

spend less money!

stop obsessing about your body image!

share the Gospel more!

stop lusting!

help more people in need!

read the Bible more!

pray more!

go to a different church!

spend less time on social media!

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

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

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

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

Matthew 3:16-17

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

Matthew 17:5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer

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: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

 

Is There Hope for Anxious, Doubting, and Burned Out Christians?

If you’re a Christian who is burned out, falling flat, discouraged, struggling, or doubtful, I have a suggestion based on my own experiences. This suggestion may or may not help, but just consider it for a moment.

What if Christianity is bound to fail you no matter how often you say sincere prayers, no matter how hard you study the Bible, no matter what theology you adopt, no matter how often you attend church, and no matter how sincerely you commit to follow Jesus?

What if your faith can only survive if you approach God in a different way?

I don’t necessarily want to undermine practices such as Bible study, attending church, or praying sincerely. These are all good things in their place. However, one can lean too heavily on these practices, expecting them to provide what they cannot, and then burning out as you continue to come up empty.

That’s where I found myself when I first attended a church service during my seminary days that introduced contemplative prayer, sitting in silent adoration of God. I struggled to sit in silence, I recited the prayers, nothing seemed to happen, and so I gave in to despair for a season.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to see the rich contemplative tradition of the church that teaches the practice of daily silence in order to rest in God, trusting God to work in us. The contemplative tradition of the church teaches that we cannot earn God’s favor or make God love us more. God has already sent Jesus to us out of his deep love for us, and in Jesus we become his sons and daughters.

The foundation of Christianity is God’s love for us. If we miss that, everything else will be a chore, struggle, or burden.

Contemplative prayer doesn’t seek to prove anything or to produce a particular emotion or experience. By sitting in silence and reciting a simple word like “mercy” or “beloved,” we step away from any other thought or conception of ourselves so that we may be present for God.

Over time, contemplative prayer can shift our understandings of ourselves, seeing ourselves as we are as God’s beloved children. We can also develop a greater capacity of love for other people as we learn to see them as God sees them.

There is an effort to remove distractions in contemplative prayer, but it’s not up to me to produce a spiritual transformation. I can’t save my soul or make myself more loving. I can only rest in God and enter God’s presence with faith that he is faithful in caring for his children.

When the love of God comes first, I no longer have to prove myself or work to find God’s love. God’s love is something to rest in and to gradually experience over time, rather than something I have to frantically or anxiously work for.

Out of a foundation of God’s love, the Christian faith becomes restorative and regenerative. We all come to God with our struggles, baggage, and religious backgrounds that can complicate matters.

There aren’t simple formulas and I never want to suggest that contemplative prayer is a quick fix. Rather, this is a lifelong practice that is challenging to learn and requires a significant commitment. Monks would devote their entire lives to this practice of contemplation, so one can hardly jump into it after a kind of short term boot camp.

I can’t speak for every person or situation, but I do know that the people who have passed through similar seasons as my own share similar experiences of God’s love and presence. Contemplative prayer isn’t the only way to make ourselves aware of God’s love, but it has a strong tradition that is rooted in the history of the church. This is hardly a gimmick or a “culturally relevant trend.”

If everything else in Christianity has left you uncertain, anxious, or struggling to believe in God, you may not have anything to lose.

What if God loved you deeply and completely as a beloved child?

What if you only need to take that love on faith and rest in it?

 

Learn 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: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

Is Contemplative Prayer Dangerous? Evangelicals and the Fear of Contemplation

I first learned about contemplative prayer from Christian radio shows, particularly, the dangers of contemplative practices such as centering prayer. Mind you, Christian radio shows told me that lots of things were dangerous and wrong, such as Catholics, liberals, and Harry Potter.

The Bible study expert on this call-in show railed against contemplative prayer because it made two grave mistakes:

  1. Contemplative prayer borrows from Eastern Religion.
  2. Contemplative prayer empties the mind and leaves it vulnerable to demonic influences.

Ten years after hearing these warnings, I finally practiced contemplative prayer and found both assessments to be inaccurate.

My book Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer shares my journey out of anxious evangelicalism and the many barriers to this ancient Christian prayer practice. I still consider myself an evangelical today, at least in its historic sense, but I have come to rely on this interior prayer tradition that relies on God’s indwelling Spirit as the bedrock of my spirituality. Far from emptying one’s mind in a pointless manner, contemplation aims to remove distracting thoughts in order to adore God and to surrender to God’s presence. Some have said that the “prayer” of contemplation is God’s work in us.

Arriving at a point where I was willing to try contemplative prayer required a season of spiritual despair and a major rethinking of Christian spiritual practices. It wasn’t easy to overcome my fears of contemplative prayer and the significant misinformation available, and I wanted to offer a few explanations for evangelicals who may be fearful of contemplative prayer or uncertain about the benefits of this spiritual practice.

Few Christian Contemplative Prayer Mentors and Models

I don’t blame church leaders for passing along anxious evangelicalism, and it’s hard to get too angry at the radio personalities who misrepresented it. They all lacked mentors and models to guide them in contemplative prayer.

I became more open to contemplative prayer after a pastor from my seminary introduced me to several contemplative practices. If I had access to contemplative prayer training like I had access to Bible study training, I would have certainly embraced it and benefitted from it sooner. It remains challenging to find spiritual directors for many seeking to practice contemplative prayer.

Unnecessary Animosity Toward Catholics

While contemplative prayer has a robust presence outside of Catholicism in the Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopal traditions, many of the leading contemplative authors are Catholics. Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating are all Catholics who are widely read and sought-after, and Keating’s Contemplative Outreach network has made significant strides in spreading contemplative practices such as centering prayer.

Evangelicals who are already jumpy or wary about Catholics will have a hard time trusting what they say about contemplative prayer. In some cases, evangelicals may treat Catholicism as a completely different religion altogether. When I compare a visit to a cathedral vs. a suburban megachurch, I suppose I can see where they’re coming from. While I remain a committed evangelical, Catholic writers have provided some of the most constructive spiritual direction in my life.

Misinformation about Contemplation Prayer

Despite all of the misinformation about contemplative prayer, the truth is that the Christian contemplative tradition dates back well into the 300’s, making it as old or older than the final New Testament canon. The practitioners of contemplative prayer also saw their practices as deeply dependent on scripture.

The tax collector’s prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” formed the foundation of prayer used by many contemplatives in the desert who meditated on this prayer while going about their work. Contemplative prayer, which is entered into through a practice such as centering prayer, uses a simple word to teach the mind and body to be still before God. Just as Jesus told his followers to enter a private room to pray, centering prayer helps practitioners enter the secret place of prayer.

Contemplative Prayer Defies Explanation

The authors of contemplative prayer books are generally hesitant to describe what goes on during contemplative prayer. It’s a private, intimate moment of communion with God. Most importantly, descriptions of this type of prayer tend to fall short because it isn’t an intellectual or analytical practice.

That may be an instant turn off for evangelicals, but it’s also an essential point of caution about dismissing contemplative prayer. Can you dismiss something as dangerous based on the hearsay of people who aren’t even engaged in practicing it in the first place?

Leaders Cannot Control Contemplative Prayer

Christian leaders have attacked contemplatives on and off for centuries, banning their books and threatening contemplatives with prison, exile, or death. The more concentrated church power became, the more it opposed contemplation. This type of prayer is beyond the scope of leadership’s control because it is interior and personal, even if it is cultivated and supported in community or through spiritual direction.

Throughout church history the mystical expressions have either come under attack or been conveniently forgotten in place of the easier controlled dogmas and doctrines.

It’s Impossible to Measure the Results of Contemplative Prayer

I can tell when I have missed time practicing contemplative prayer, but I can’t exactly tell you what the “results” of contemplative prayer are. They are difficult to quantify, such as a greater awareness of myself and of God. These aren’t the typical measuring sticks that evangelicals are used to in their talks about spiritual growth and holiness.

It’s true that those who practice contemplative prayer will enjoy a greater awareness of God’s love and will, therefore turn away from sin. In fact, this growth in holiness is an essential aspect of contemplative prayer, but it defies the simple formulas that evangelicals use in testimonies. Since contemplative prayer relies on God’s indwelling Spirit to guide us into prayer, the transforming that happens is also a fully miraculous work of God’s Spirit that we cannot define on our own.

Contemplative Prayer Relies on Tradition, Not Chapter and Verse

It’s true that contemplative prayer relies on the indwelling Spirit and has roots in scripture, but practices, such as centering prayer, are passed down through traditions, not chapter and verse. That not only means many evangelicals lack access to contemplative teachings, but they are naturally suspicious of them.

While there are many Bible experts saying that contemplative prayer is dangerous, there have been few mentors in evangelical circles who can counter that narrative. In addition, contemplative prayer isn’t the kind of spiritual practice you can sample or test to get quantifiable results of any kind. Rather, contemplative prayer is a long-term practice where it’s impact will be gradually noticed over time. It may take a while to reach that point as well!

Beginning Contemplative Prayer Takes Practice

My early days of contemplative practice were agonizing as I confronted all of my negative thoughts and learned how to practice silence before God. It ran counter to everything I’d learned about prayer as an evangelical. In contemplative prayer I had to let go of control, completely surrendering to God’s loving presence rather than pleading with a supposedly disinterested deity.

I didn’t have incredible spiritual experiences, and the actual “rest” or peace with God didn’t come until I had a better grasp of how to approach silence before God. I felt the void of not having a spiritual mentor at the beginning who could guide me into this spiritual practice. Websites such as Contemplative Outreach became a lifeline over the years, as well as other spirituality apps that guided me into the practice of daily silence and surrender before God.

Take a First Step in 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: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N | iBooks

 

 

 

The Monday Merton: Unless We See, We Cannot Think

monday-merton-blog-header

At this moment in America, many of us are seeing the true benefits of committed journalism in the face of political corruption and the abuse of power. That protection of democracy doesn’t eliminate the negative impacts of mass media, politics, and entertainment on our mental and emotional health.

Merton lived at a time when the mass media was only a fraction of what it has become today. News serves as entertainment in many respects, prompting the rise of hyper-partisan networks that cater to the whims of their viewers for the sake of ratings. Merton’s words about the need to escape from noise and distractions for the sake of thinking clearly are all the more urgent, even if our need for dedicated journalism remains:

“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see cannot think.”

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg 72