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.”

The Problem with Prayer Isn’t Convincing God to Show Up

 

church-pew

“What is your greatest struggle with prayer?” That’s the question I’ve asked hundreds upon hundreds of people, and a striking majority have replied with the exact same struggle.

DISTRACTION

We all love the idea of prayer. Many of us have had positive experiences with prayer. We generally want to pray more. Once we sit down to pray, our minds spin out of control with thoughts of anything but prayer.

Our minds wander, worries assault our peace, and any hope of focus dissipates. Perhaps we turn to making requests or sharing thankfulness to God, which are good things, but any kind of peaceful contemplation, waiting on God in silence, or listening for God to speak appears to be a hopeless endeavor with so many ideas, voices, and fears screaming into our minds.

I’ve often spoke of prayer in terms of God showing up, as if I’m doing my job 100% perfect and any problems with prayer are on God’s end. In my experience, that’s a pretty fast way to turn into an atheist. If you do your part and you don’t sense God’s presence while praying, then clearly the problem is coming from God, right?

Not quite.

The Christian contemplative prayer tradition offers a corrective we need: God is always present. God loves us. The awareness and presence required is our own for prayer. Note that Jesus often speaks in the Gospels of people “coming” to him. He has issued the invitation to us. The problem isn’t on God’s end. Remember, in the Prodigal son story, the father is waiting for the son’s return and was so eager to welcome his lost son that he ran out to meet him.

God is here for us when we pray, and so we need to figure out where distractions and other obstacles in prayer come from and how we can move beyond them. How can distracted people make themselves present for a loving God?

Here are a few thoughts on moving beyond distraction in order to pray based on my experiences:

We Don’t Know We’re Distracted

Until I confronted my distractions, I didn’t know that I was distracted in the first place. Until we stop to face what’s running through our minds, the constant thinking and worrying of each day continues unchecked. Too many Christians have resisted mindfulness practices because they fear connections with eastern religions, but mindfulness practices can be traced right back to the desert fathers and mothers of the church. Even secular psychology praises the benefits of simply becoming aware of what’s on your mind and becoming present in the moment.

It’s nearly impossible to sit down to pray with any kind of focus if you haven’t first taken stock of what’s on your mind. This is why the Ignatian Examen is so incredibly helpful. We can take stock of the highs and lows of our days, confront our worries, and enter into prayer by preemptively facing the very thoughts that could distract us.

This is a process. Richard Rohr suggests that the first year of practicing contemplative prayer largely deals with the junk in our minds. We spend so much time reliving our regrets and fearing the future that we are untrained in the practice of seeking God in the present.

 

We Don’t Know Where to Begin with Prayer

Even if we can face our distractions and bring our troubled thoughts to God, there’s still the matter of where to begin. Should we make requests, offer thanksgiving and praise, or sit in silence? These are all practices that we can use, but for those of us struggling with anxiety about God actually showing up in prayer, the best way forward for a season may be the path of silence.

We should certainly speak our minds to God, but if we don’t have the assurance of God’s loving presence right from the start, silence may save us from trying to coerce God to show up. God is already present when we pray, but it’s so easy to start saying things that suggest otherwise.

Centering prayer teaches us to calm our anxious minds by asking the Spirit to guide us to a “prayer word” or phrase that we can use to quiet ourselves before God so that we can wait patiently on the Lord. Beginning with this simple word can help us grab onto something as a starting point so that we can return to God in silence again and again as our minds wander.

 

We Have Expectations

When I have spoken of God showing up, I’ve also had fairly specific expectations of feeling or knowing God in some particular way. I know that plenty of people have had experiences of God, while others with an indisputable commitment to God more or less sit in silence for most of their prayer time. Our expectations for prayer can trap us and alienate us from God.

Ironically, the contemplative writers of the church assure us that we need to set our expectations far lower for prayer. Seeking God in the first place is prayer. Sitting in silence before God is prayer. God honors even our intentions as we struggle to focus. These are the teachings of the masters of contemplative prayer. Rather than pushing us to reach some particularly high goal, they tell us that our beginning struggles are holy offerings to God, and we can trust that God will continue to guide us forward.

Most importantly, we pray in order to become present for God. We “experience” God on God’s own terms, and so any expectations for prayer can be harmful. I have longed for mystical encounters and experiences, but the contemplatives of the church remind us that this can be dangerous. Seeking an encounter with God is not the same thing as seeking God. This desire highlights my insecurity and perhaps even my pride.

 

We Make Comparisons

While we must learn from the guidance of spiritual directors, authors, and practitioners who have gone before us, we also have to seek God for ourselves and take what is given to us without envying the experiences of others. This has been my pitfall for years. I have looked at the ways other people experienced God and longed to imitate them.

We are always looking for ways to validate ourselves, and while prayer can become the answer to that search, we dare not misuse it. Prayer helps us see how deeply God loves and accepts us, but we can only receive that gift in the timing and manner that God chooses. I have seen over and over again that God chooses different timing and a different manner for each person, even if there are some general trends and patterns that can be observed.

 

We Don’t Know What Prayer Should Look Like

Here is the good news that you need to know about prayer: Struggling with distraction during prayer is 100% normal, and there is hope. The contemplative prayer tradition dates back to the earliest days of the church, even pre-dating the canon of scripture, and it has been preserved throughout the centuries as one way to move beyond distraction and to become present for God.

The bad news is that overcoming distraction will take quite a bit of work. We even have to face the worries and fears that come up as we attempt prayer.

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing passed along this ancient Christian prayer tradition in his simple manual for novice monks, and he spends a significant amount of time addressing the ways that our thoughts invade our prayer much like visitors who barge into our homes repeatedly. By reciting a prayer word, phrase (such as a scripture verse) or returning to an intention for your prayer time, you can gently move these distractions out of your mind over and over and over again.

For about the first six months of really exploring silence and contemplation, my mind was a complete mess. My thoughts flew all over the place. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that I had to take my son for a walk every day in order for him to nap, and I suspected that my busy mind was extremely unhealthy. Over time, I experienced greater peace and freedom, recognizing uneasiness and distractions for what they were and gradually building a capacity to be still before God.

I like to say that I “practice” contemplative prayer because I still feel very much like a beginner and I don’t expect to get it perfect—not that getting it “perfect” should ever be the goal! We enter into contemplative prayer as equals who are all equally loved by God and who all commit to practice.

So we pray, we struggle, and we continue to practice.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

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

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

 

For more of my journey with contemplative prayer…

Check out my books:

The Contemplative Writer

Pray, Write, Grow

 

 

 

Believing God Exists Isn’t Enough for Prayer

God-merciful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

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

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

Guest Post for Michelle DeRusha: Where Do We Start with Prayer?

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I’m guest posting this week for my friend Michelle DeRusha, the author of the fantastic books Spiritual Misfit and 50 Women Every Christian Should Know. I’m sharing a guest post based on my new book Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together. While I suggest in my book that prayer practices can help us write, we first need to sort out where we’ll begin with prayer:

 

One of my most intense moments in prayer started on a whim.

I sat down to pray in our living room one morning, and for some reason my mind kept venturing back to the moments of my deepest shame.

The relationships I’d messed up in college.

The many stupid things I said during our first year of marriage.

The time (times?) I placed unreasonable expectations on a good friend.

As I squirmed and fretted over my shame, I had a “revolutionary” thought: “What if I just prayed as if God knew all about this stuff already?”

 

We Bring Our Vulnerabilities to Prayer

I’m not breaking new ground when I say that we can’t hide anything from God or that we don’t have to be perfect in order to approach God. That’s pretty much covered from most pulpits on Sunday morning.

Actually living as if we have nothing to hide and God still loves us is quite another matter.

 

Read the Rest at Michelle DeRusha’s Blog.

Releasing My New Book: Growth in Prayer and Writing Starts in the Same Place

15_02_13_PrayWriteGrow copy

Today I’m releasing my latest book, Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together. This book combines the questions: “How do I find more time to pray?” and “How can I improve as a writer?” What if you could grow in both prayer and writing at the same time? What if the time you invested in writing could help you pray, and the time you invested in prayer could help you write? Here is part of the opening chapter that begins to answer those questions:

 

Every time you bow your head in prayer, open up a blank document on your computer, or flip open a journal page to write, you’re taking a leap of faith. Writers choose to believe they can string together another series of sentences that will speak to the needs of readers somewhere. When people pray, they’re choosing to believe there’s a good, loving God reaching out to us, listening to our prayers, and meeting with us.

We have faith that the discipline of writing will pay off. If we keep working at it, keep practicing, keep asking for feedback, keep revising, and keep publishing our work wherever possible, we’ll get better, reach more readers, and take meaningful steps forward. If we face the most challenging and vulnerable parts of our lives, we have faith that we’ll find words that offer clarity and perspective. If we put our words in front of readers, we have faith that some will reply, “Yes! Me too!” If we take the time to continually examine ourselves and care for ourselves, we have faith that the words will continue to come together year in, year out, whatever life throws at us.

We have faith that the practices of silence, praying with scripture, or reciting the prayers passed on to us will bear fruit over time. If we continue to fight through our fears and anxieties in order to sit in silence, we trust that God can meet us, even if it leads to results we aren’t expecting or doesn’t even result in quantifiable progress.

If we continue to cultivate habits of stillness and quiet throughout the day, we have faith that God can meet us and will speak even at moments when we aren’t expecting to hear anything. If we continue to wait on God, we have faith that periods of silence don’t indicate God has abandoned us.

We can even have faith that growing in one practice could lead to growth in the other.

Every time I grow as a writer, my prayer time receives direction.

Every time I grow in my prayer time, my writing has increased clarity.

Writing and prayer stand well enough on their own, but many of the disciplines that help you write better will also help you pray better and vise versa. This wasn’t something I planned out. I never set out to find connections between the two. Rather, I spend significant parts of each day writing and praying, and at a certain point I started to notice how the two converged.

As I prayed, my writing started to shift and grow. Both the disciplines of prayer and the lessons I learned transferred over to my writing, and my writing furthered my personal reflection and helped foster the habits and disciplines I’d been cultivating while praying. When prayer and writing finally started working together in my life, I began to take significant steps forward in both simultaneously.

I suspect that both prayer and writing can offer a lot of benefits by themselves. I certainly don’t think you have to do them together. However, if you’re already inclined to both write and pray, you may as well figure out how they can help each other. And if you’re experienced in one, you may find opportunities for personal or spiritual growth by trying out the other. I would even go so far as saying it like this:

If you want to improve your prayer life, try writing.

If you want to improve your writing life, try praying.

The two require many of the same practices, disciplines, and virtues. Of course you should certainly only pray out of an interest to meet with God on a deeper level, just as you should only write if you have something to say or process. I’m not trying to tap into the commercial writing potential for prayer or to guilt the reluctant into writing. Rather, I want to drive home the point that prayer and writing not only happily co-exist, but also feed off of each other and can benefit each other.

 

Order your copy on Amazon for $1.99 until March 16.
(regular price $3.99)

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Rohr for Writers: Stop Calling Yourself a Writer-You Are Loved

Rohr forWriters

What is your identity? Do you call yourself a writer? I would say that you can write, but you are loved by God first.

Your identity should never hinge on something that you have to do. Your identity should rest on what you have already been given, what no one can take away, and what is perfect and irrefutably true.

Richard Rohr writes in Immortal Diamond:

“Your True Self is who you are, and always have been in God . . . The great surprise and irony is that ‘you,’ or who you think you are, have nothing to do with its original creation or its demise. It’s sort of disempowering and utterly empowering at the same time, isn’t it? All you can do is nurture it.”

Before you put your first word on the page, you have a very important question to answer: How do I determine my self worth?

In other words…

  • Does your identity hinge on the response of others to your writing?
  • Will you feel more secure about yourself if readers respond positively?
  • Will you consider giving up if you don’t reach a certain goal with your writing?

So many struggle with calling themselves “writers” because it’s a murky label. Do you need to write for a certain number of people in order to call yourself a writer? Do you need to attain a certain level of success before you can claim that label? Don’t ask me if I know.

Regardless of whether you think you can call yourself a writer, I wonder if Rohr can help us move beyond these labels and consider ourselves on a deeper level. What if our primary identity is linked to what God says about us? If writing is just something we do, something important that some do more professionally than others, then the words we write or the response of readers cannot change us.

Semantically, we can still refer to ourselves as writers, but it may be helpful to remember that writing is something we do. It’s just a small piece of who we are, even if we devote significant hours to it each week. Even speaking of myself, one who pays the bills through writing each day, I have found it extremely toxic to hinge my identity on my writing.

When I centered my identity around being a writer, I endured the misery of setting goals for myself, failing to meet them, and then enduring the doubts and questions that followed. If I didn’t meet my writing goals, what kind of writer could I consider myself? And if I wasn’t much of a  writer, who am I after all? Could I claim any kind of identity?

Constantly maintaining my identity as a writer drained away my joy, prompted me to spend less time with my family, and created a deep aching that drummed away in my mind. My stress and anxiety sky-rocketed.

Something had to give, and Rohr’s Immortal Diamond spoke directly to the heart of my struggle with writing: my identity was based in large part on calling myself a writer.

When I finally let go of the goals I’d attached to my identity as a writer, admitted failure in a few areas, backed off on what wasn’t working, and committed myself to what seemed more sustainable, I felt like a massive burden had been removed from my shoulders.

I had more energy to devote to my family and even to myself, to say nothing of more free time.

My identity isn’t linked to my writing—at least most days. Writing is my work, my calling, and my ministry. It’s not who I am. There are days when I still struggle to maintain those lines. When they start to blur, I can let too much rest on how others respond to my writing—even the most minuscule social media praise or criticism can swing my day one way or the other. That’s typically a sign that something is out of balance.

Rohr writes that nothing can touch you when you find your identity in God’s love. I find that both immensely appealing and extremely difficult to believe.

Nothing? Really?

While I will surely feel pain, suffering, disappointment, and regret when I rest in my identity as beloved by God, the stakes attached to my writing work are now completely different. I’m still disappointed if people don’t like my work, but it’s not the same kind of dread and devastation. I don’t feel the same need to keep fighting and struggling and working.

My drive is now completely different when I get my identity sorted out before writing. I am free to work hard and to put out my best work, but there is so much less riding on the success of my work. I’m in a much better position to accept criticism and failure. Best yet, if things don’t work out, I can just try something else.

I don’t see this identity in God as a card you receive and carry with unwavering assurance every day. It’s not like you either have it or you don’t. I see it as more of a  continuum. While I experienced a freeing epiphany while reading Immortal Diamond, I don’t see myself completely in the clear at this point. 

As you begin writing today, this week, next month, or next year, the first thing you need to know is that you are loved by God—period. You are loved and pursued because there aren’t any footnotes, endnotes, or “syke!” comments in John 3:16. God so loved the world, and if you’re part of the world right now, then that includes you.

Jesus spoke of himself as the vine, and we’re the branches attached to that vine. So if you want to know more about who you are as a branch, the only way to look is back to the vine itself. We can’t do anything to change the vine, and so we can rest in that security and stability.

It will be an ongoing learning process. I doubt I’ll ever be done. However, the crazy thing about finding my identity in God’s love is that I’m now free to enjoy writing for what it is. It’s like writing occupies its own cozy little corner in my life. I want to excel as a writer, but my identity isn’t wrapped up in it.

I’m learning how to be free to write because I’m learning how to receive the freedom of God’s love.

About This Series

Rohr for Writers is a new blog series at www.edcyzewski.com that is based on the ways Richard Rohr’s writing speaks to writers. We’re going to spend the first few weeks looking at key quotes from Immortal Diamond.

Learn More about Prayer and Writing

You can grow in both your prayer and writing by developing the same practices. Check out my new book Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together to learn simple practices you can incorporate into your day right now.