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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read More About How to Pray…

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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**Photo by Ian Froome on Unsplash

Creating a Contemplative-Friendly Smartphone to Find Time to Pray

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The best step I have ever taken for my spiritual health, personal sanity, and relationships has been removing Facebook from my iPhone. The second best step has been imagining ways I can turn my phone into a prompt for prayer.

I think we all know what happens when we’re carrying a phone around. I keep checking and checking and checking it. Every time there’s a free moment, the phone comes out and I scroll through whatever app I can find. It’s an impulse or habit for many of us by now. When I had email and three or four social media accounts to flip through, I could waste a ton of time on my phone.

Our attachment to our phones is becoming legendary. People experience anxiety apart from their phones to the point that those trying to break their attachment can buy fake phones that are sized and weighted like real ones. We have anxiety complexes over dead batteries. We check our phones the first thing in the morning and right before going to bed.

Although I am far from the most virtuous or disciplined person with my phone, I decided to try using my phone as a prompt to pray and to even lead me toward contemplative prayer. I’ve written about this in my newsletter, but now that I’ve given it a shot for a longer stretch of time, I finally feel able to publicly offer a few thoughts on what has worked.

What I Don’t Use

I tried using podcast prayer apps, but I don’t really have the time to dive into podcasts all that often, and lately I prize silence more than anything else. If I have a quiet moment, I’m not going to put something on!

Having said that, I did use Pray as You Go for a season and really benefited from it. It’s especialy ideal for commuters. Others have strongly recommended the Abide app. If contemplative prayer is new or intimidating to you, a podcast like Pray as You Go may help you take steps toward reflecting on scripture and making time to be still.

I have also used the Jesuits app on and off again. It offers some simple Examen questions, a scripture reading, and a brief reflection. It’s also on both Android and Apple.

My Essential Smartphone Contemplation Plan

Most importantly, I wanted for my iPhone set up to make prayer or reading deeper articles easier and more or less automatic. My home screen includes the apps for the Examine, Pocket, the Clock, and Safari (the Mac internet browser), which are my main sources of smartphone-based contemplation.

Safari always has the page for the Divine Hours at Vineyard Ann Arbor loaded. I often access the Divine Hours in the morning at the very least or during a break at work when I take a little stretch break when I remember to set my Pomodoro timer. The Divine Hours offer small and large passages of scripture and prayers that you can read, meditate on, or recite throughout the day.

The Examine app remains one of my most valued apps. By offering a series of prompts about what’s encouraging or discouraging from my day, I can practice the Ignatian Examen once or twice a day in order to take stock of my soul and to better direct my prayers. Most importantly, the Examen helps me to become aware of when I need to remain silent and become more present for God’s love.

While the Clock is a standard, ho hum app that I suppose most people may not even consider using, I use the timer all of the time for centering prayer. I mean, who can judge when 20 minutes have passed? I just set the timer and leave it alone while I sit and either focus on breathing quietly, praying the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner), or centering on a “sacred word.”

As for reading contemplative materials, I keep my Pocket app on my home screen in order to read articles that I’ve saved throughout the day. Pocket has a really clean interface that makes it easy to read without distraction. I save articles all day, so it’s ideal to have a place where I can access them when I have a moment. I also subscribe to the daily email from Richard Rohr, which has been a real lifeline some days.

In fact, I have relied so deeply on Rohr’s emails that I set up my own Contemplative Writer website that offers daily or weekly subscription options that send contemplative scripture and articles to subscribers. There’s the daily option to sign up to receive new posts in your inbox  or you can sign up for the weekly contemplative prayer email.

What I Hide or Don’t Have on My Phone

As I mentioned already, I don’t have Facebook on my iPhone. I don’t have Messenger, Twitter, or Hootsuite either. I manage all of that on my computer for the most part.

I do use Instagram on my phone, but I do my best to hide that way in the back and mostly manage it through the Later app, which has been a true lifesaver when combined with Canva.

My data plan with Consumer Cellular is fairly limited, and I have data turned off for almost everything except for email, maps, and Safari, primarily so I can access Rohr’s emails and the Divine Hours on the go. Everything else, including Instagram and the NHL app, have data turned off.

Most importantly, my goal all along has been to train myself to pray before I do anything else. That’s a challenge most days when work time is limited, and it’s especially hard as our family transitions to a new town. However, there’s no denying that I immediately feel a bit of guilt if I start answering emails before reading the Morning Office or reading Rohr’s email.

I’m sure this little contemplative smartphone plan will evolve in the years to come, but for now, I’m at least a little more likely to pray and a lot less likely to turn to my phone for idle distraction when I have a few free minutes. In fact, I’ve often pulled my phone out, realized I don’t expect any urgent emails or need to open any apps, and just put it away. I’m far more aware of the ways that my smartphone becomes a distraction and barrier, even if I know there is always a lot of room for growth.

Who knows, maybe a year from now I’ll just trash all of these ideas, delete my social media accounts, and buy a flip phone.

 

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

 

Does Christian Spirituality Boil Down to These Two Questions?

 

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Christian spirituality often boils down to two questions: Do I have time? Will this work?

You could say these are chicken and egg questions. If prayer works, you’ll find the time for it. If you don’t find the time for prayer, it won’t work. If prayer doesn’t seem to work, you won’t find the time for it.

Find the time for prayer, and it will work… eventually.

This is why it has helped to compare the ways that the reflection of prayer resembles the reflection that goes into writing. The two use many of the same practices and mindsets. If I struggle at one, there’s a good chance I’m struggling at the other. My failures and breakthroughs in writing have helped me understand my failures and breakthroughs in prayer.

Writing is a lot like prayer since everyone thinks they can write, just as everyone thinks they should be able to pray. However, both require learning some basic disciplines, mindsets, and practices in order to make them more likely and more fruitful. True, anyone can and should pray. Anyone can and should write. However, just sitting down to write can be extremely frustrating. The same goes for just sitting down to pray.

Disciplines, structure, and the wisdom of those who have gone before us provide a framework that helps us stand. We learn within the security of these structures and disciplines. What we learn from others we imitate clumsily at first. Over time we find our own way forward.

In the case of writing, I’ve faced these questions about whether I have the time and whether writing will “work.” I’ve found that I had to spend years making time for writing, prioritizing it, learning from experts, imitating the masters, and failing a lot. The progress was slow and incremental.

We can find time for just about anything if we make it a priority. I have learned that prioritizing things like prayer, exercise, and writing means I have to really plan ahead during the day for things like:

  • When will I do the dishes?
  • When will I fold the laundry and put it away?
  • When will I sleep and when will I wake up?
  • How will I keep myself from wasting time on social media?
  • How will I focus on my work?
  • Some days go better than others with all of these tasks!

If I want to make the most of my writing time, I need to invest in things like:

  • Reading constructive books.
  • Free writing when I have a moment.
  • Jotting down ideas in a notebook or phone.
  • Practicing and stretching myself with new projects.

My growth as a writer is a lot like prayer in that I need to learn the disciplines of prayer, learn from people who have greater experience in prayer, and practice using them. Just trying prayer out a few times won’t give you a clear sense of whether it will work. It’s a long term discipline that you develop over time.

Will prayer work? Only if I make the time for it.

Can I find time for prayer? I can, but I’ll be more likely to do so once I see that it works.

If you’re uncertain, discouraged, or leaning heavily toward doubt right now, I trust that prayer is hard to attempt. Where do you begin if prayer has been a source of frustration?

I’ve learned that I need to begin with making time to practice and learning what I can.

We’re left with faith, believing that God is present already and that the greatest barrier in prayer isn’t coming from God’s end of things but rather training ourselves to become aware of God. We can step forward into prayer believing that those who seek will find. Mind you, we don’t know what exactly we’ll find when we seek. We can’t control the timeline of our seeking.

We can only control our schedules and what we believe about God: that God is present, that God is seeking us, and that the simple desire to pray is enough to begin making time for prayer.

 

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

 

 

I Tried Quiet Prayer Once and It Didn’t Work

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How many things in life work great the first time around?

Is there anyone who can just pick up a worthwhile discipline or skill after reading a book and trying it once?

Can you learn to paint, knit, sew, or cook with one shot?

Can you remember the first time you tried to ride a bike? I was taking spills all over the school yard for weeks until I caught on and learned how to balance myself. I eventually spent hours riding down a small hill that would have been terrifying at first.

This past summer I started running regularly. I had been somewhat active in the winter by taking the occasional long walk, but running was a different animal altogether.

I huffed and puffed, forcing my aching legs to keep going a little further before taking a walking break. My runs were something like 60% slogging along and 40% walking at first. I eventually started to run a little bit more evenly and started eliminating the walking breaks.

At a certain point around the middle of the summer, I realized that the first 25% of the run will just be miserable. I’ll start to find my stride about the mid-way point, and then the last 25% will require a bit of intention to keep my pace.

Finally, this September, I started to feel strong and confident during my runs. I didn’t even need headphones in order to play distracting music. Sure, the first bit of the run was still hard, and I had to be intentional about pushing myself to finish strong, but I finally reached a point where I felt strong and confident enough to run at a steady pace without slowing for a break.

If I had stopped running after the first day or even the first month, I would have told you that running is difficult and miserable and no one should ever try it.

If I stopped running today, I would genuinely miss it. It has proven an important way to start my day, and I have seen the benefits in my mental and physical health.

Over the past year, I’ve also taken my exploration of Christian prayer into a deeper pursuit of silence, waiting on God and letting God show up in whatever way God wants. There have been times when I’ve just watched my mind unwind with worry and rambling ideas. Other times I have experienced genuine peace and awareness of God’s love.

Then again, there are plenty of times when it has just felt like I sat by myself for 20 minutes repeating a word to myself like “beloved” or “peace.”

I have long practiced short stretches of silent prayer, say for about five minutes, at the end of my daily Examen. I’ve also meditated on scripture. This pursuit of God through silence and waiting is really, really biblical since the Psalms constantly tell us to wait on the Lord. However, I feel like I’ve been trained to demand.

I’m a recovering anxious American evangelical who loves quick fixes and spiritual growth charts.

Silent prayer feels like: I want my gold star for praying, Jesus. You’ve got 20 minutes to pay up…

This journey into silence is not easy for me. My mind is rowdy and difficult to tame.

I find myself slipping back into bad habits, comparing myself to others and wanting what God hasn’t given to me. Contentment and faith gives way to envy, greed, and discouragement as I look at all of the other people who appear to have it together.

I keep reminding myself of that runner who huffed and puffed along the bike path a few months ago who could barely string together 20 minutes of sustained running. That guy felt so weak and pathetic. He didn’t see how things could get better.

Honestly? I never saw things get better. The improvement in my running was so gradual that I couldn’t see it happen. I couldn’t control it.

My growth as a writer was like that too. Suddenly, one day I started writing markedly better manuscripts compared to the drivel I used to submit to my editor. Yes, there are always revisions, but the process is less painful.

I’ll be the first to tell you that prayer isn’t quite as difficult as it used to be. I can now sit for twenty minutes in a row with a relatively focused mind. Sometimes I sense God moving, and sometimes my mind does all of the heavy lifting.

It’s a long-term process that you can’t plug into to your life for predictable results every time. Prayer isn’t a life hack or commodity that you can install in your smart phone for an instant solution to a problem.

There’s a whole industry that promises quick, cheap, simple serenity or spiritual enlightenment. Just read the book, try something for five minutes a day for a week, or install an app in your phone, and you’ll make amazing strides in your spiritual life!!!

God’s love is a free gift that we can never earn, but each day feels like a knock down, drag out struggle to find it and experience it. My life is so full, my mind moving so fast that it’s hard to slow things down for God to settle in.

I can’t track my progress. I don’t get stickers every time something good happens while I pray.

But it sure seems like any kind of meaningful development in a lasting practice calls for this kind of dogged, determined pursuit for what matters the most.

It’s galling for the American in me to come to terms with a lifelong approach to discipleship, what Eugene Peterson called a long obedience in the same direction. Each day I’m training myself to believe that I am loved by God and that this love can gradually change me into the kind of person who is also able to extend a kind, gracious, patient love to people who would rather just grab the quick fix.

This is the first time I’ve ever practiced such intense, expectant waiting. It’s no wonder that I feel like I’m not very good at it yet.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

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

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Christians Have One Job, and It’s Not Reading the Bible

Open Hands Prayer

Christians have one job, but with all of the “holy” stuff that clutters our lives, you’d think that we had thousands of jobs.

In fact, if you’ve given up on Christianity or feel like you’re on the way out, there’s a good chance you are either sick of the thousands of jobs or you can’t believe in a God who would assign all of these jobs.

We have one job as Christians… one job.

These days I’m suspicious of anyone who wants to qualify that, add “nuance,” or say, “Yeah, but…” No, we have one job and one job only, and the more we obscure that, the more likely we are to miss out on what Christianity is all about.

I’ll bet you know where I’m going with this, but there’s a huge, huge catch. So stick with me for a moment.

Our one job and our only job is to love—love God and love others. That’s it. The teachings of Jesus are summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor, but the really, really big catch is this: Where does this love come from in us? How do we love God and love our neighbors?

Do we need preachers to command us to love others?

Do we need to read Bible verses telling us to love God?

Do we need to try harder?

This is where everything has run off the rails for me with Christianity. Look, there’s this invisible God who is generally only felt or sensed in some way. It’s not like you can invite God over for coffee and bagels, go for walks in the evening, or take a road trip to get to know each other better. And even if you want to love your neighbors, they can be mean, inconsiderate, and difficult to like. They drive too fast down your street and leave cigarette butts on your sidewalk that your kids chew on—not that I know about that from experience…

Here’s the rub: We are told that the whole sum of things is to love God and love our neighbors, but we all tend to be very unloving people. It’s really, really hard to love people, so why not aim for the lower hanging fruit of Christianity and call it a day?

I am selfish, controlling, and 100% the “get off my lawn” type. I like quiet. I want to mind my own business. And if I struggle to love my neighbors that I can see, who knows what to make of some unseen God?

So rather than wrestle with the mysteries of love and letting these consume my days and nights, I take the easy way out. I commit to Bible study, I try to live a moral life, I focus on explaining the Gospel, and I try to help other people even though I would rather just read a book.

In fact, I have long deluded myself with thinking that building a well-rounded and informed theology, cultivating good Bible study habits, and embodying the Gospel through my actions is really all there is to Christianity. I mean, of course I paid lip service to loving God and loving others and there were moments when I succeeded in loving others through these practices, but I was often running on fumes. I was driven by obligation and will-power rather than depths of God’s love that are higher, deeper, and wider than I can imagine.

It’s so much easier to read theology books than to delve into the mysteries of love.

How do you become a “loving” person?

How do you fall in love with an unseen God?

I won’t create a false dichotomy with prayer and scripture, but I do know that I have neglected prayer over the years to the point that I shouldn’t have even bothered with it. I should have just said I believe in the Bible, not the God of the Bible.

I hadn’t pursued God personally with all of my heart, mind, soul, and strength. I primarily pursued knowledge of the God in the Bible.

Here’s where I’m at today: the stuff of Christianity is the pursuit of a loving God.

The love of God is where all of the action takes place, and it’s how we become loving people who can fulfill the heart of our faith: loving God and loving neighbors.

Moments of quiet, prayerfully meditating on scripture, and waiting for the Spirit of God to fall are the center and substance of our faith. Experiencing the loving presence of God is really all there is. Sure, theology is fine in it’s place, but it’s just a small part of a much larger pursuit.

I can only love as far as I’ve been loved.

I can only accept others as far as I’ve been accepted.

I can only forgive as much as I’ve been forgiven.

As Jesus said, those who have been forgiven much, will love much (Luke 7:47, NIV).

I firmly believe that any of my struggles to love others are rooted not in my knowledge of love but in my experience of God, which is another way of saying the experience of God’s love.

Christianity has one job: love.

Love has one source: the presence of God.

So, if you want to give this Christianity thing a whirl, seek one thing and one thing only: the loving presence of God. That’s it.

If you want to stick your nose in the Bible, pick out a single verse and meditate on it for a month. Brennan Manning suggests:

“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” 

I am determined to stop making Christianity complicated. It’s not. The more I add to the pursuit of God’s loving presence, the further I find myself drifting from the center.

If we live in the center of God’s love, then we have freedom to add on additional pursuits, but I’ll say this… I have studied commentaries, I have read deeply and widely, and I have gone through the Bible countless times, even learning the original languages. There is value in all of these things, but none of them have led me to the very substance of Christianity and center that is the loving presence of God. In fact, I have spent a great deal of time thinking I had found the substance of Christianity, and the Christianity I had found was lacking.

I am no expert in the presence of God, but the times that I have opened myself up to God, I have experienced life-changing mercy and love as I confronted my pain, weaknesses, and failings. I have been accepted and held. I have found a shelter that brought peace and renewal. I have found a deep well of love to share with others that moves me beyond my selfish, controlling ways.

The times that I have centered prayer, using Thomas Keating’s sacred word method, have led me to the greatest moments of peace and gentleness as God moved deeper into my life.

I’m not here to tell you the only ways to experience the loving presence of God. I have found ways that help, but there certainly are many paths. The pursuit is what’s it’s all about.

If we aren’t pursuing the loving presence of God, we are missing out on the one and only thing about Christianity that has power and the promise to transform our lives.

The only thing that makes me a Christian is the love of God. If I’m not actively pursuing the love of God, then I’m just playing at dress up Christianity.

I’m not a Christian because I study the Bible, know church history, or engage in service projects, even though I value all of these things.

I’m a Christian because there’s a God who loves me deeply, has actively pursued me, and can be found if I make space in my life. There is an endless well of love from God that is waiting to be found in my life and in your life. How tragic it would be if I passed through all of my days convincing myself that moral living and Bible study made up the substance of my faith!

I have one job and you have one job: find the love of God.

Ruthlessly eliminate anything that can get in the way of God’s loving presence.

May we be forever dissatisfied with any other promise of satisfaction.

May we be forever restless with any other promise of rest.

May we be forever weakened by any other promise of power.

May we be forever agitated with any other promise of peace.

May we fall into the loving presence of God, even as a last resort, and may we become people who shower love on others because we have tapped into the endless well of love that surpasses all comprehension. Though we may feel like we’re calling water from rocks in the wilderness, we have the witness of saints who have gone before us beckoning us to follow along this way.

The silence and simplicity of pursuing God’s love is here for you and me today. May we find in this love the peace that we have longed for and the capacity to generously love others out of the depths of God’s endless love for us.

 

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

 

Recovering Evangelicals Need Less Roaring and More Rohring

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Richard Rohr is a Catholic, Universalist mystic, and he writes the kinds of books recovering evangelicals need to read. Whether or not you agree with me, just reading this post won’t nullify your salvation, so hear me out.

If you need a few minutes to memorize a few extra verses from Romans or if you want to hyperventilate in front of a picture of Billy Graham, have at it. I’ll wait.

Mind you, I’m not writing this for evangelicals in “the establishment” or who would rather do yoga (the Eastern religion also known as “stretching”) than listen to a Catholic, Universalist mystic.

I’m writing this for you evangelicals who have either had it with the whole evangelical thing, are inching their way out of Christianity altogether, or feel like the evangelical subculture is just a bit much right now. Perhaps some things aren’t quite clicking. Perhaps you’re secretly struggling with doubts. Maybe you’re just burned out and feel a bit hopeless. You’re also most likely “roaring” against the inconsistencies, false promises, or doubts you didn’t see coming.

And if you feel like you’re burning out, bowing out, or the whole thing is just a giant bait and switch offering anxiety and infighting instead of peace and joy, there could be worse things than listening to a Catholic, Universalist mystic.

I know there are a lot of you who are either on your way out or deeply disappointed with evangelicalism. Every time I talk to someone in their 20’s or 30’s, it seems like I hear yet another story of someone who signed on to follow Jesus with high hopes of salvation, meaning, and life-change. The truth of the Bible was exhilarating, going to church was relevant, and you simply couldn’t do enough for Jesus.

At a certain point, things start to unravel a bit. It’s often gradual, but it may be accelerated by a tragedy or difficult situation. There’s almost a script we all followed over the years. We all fell off the same cliff of high hopes.

In my own case, I was drowning in theology, Bible study, and churchiness while in seminary. It was as if one day I woke up and reading the Bible more, getting more truth, or attending more church didn’t cut it when it came to connecting with God. In fact, all of my solutions became my problems since the thought of them failing meant my faith would fail. When you’ve been given the best, purest, most orthodox doctrines and you still come up empty, distant from God, and even more distant from your neighbors, maybe the next step shouldn’t be doubling down on more of the same. Maybe you need a bit of a shift without necessarily throwing everything out.

I know that some people will accuse you of throwing everything out by merely listening to a Catholic, Universalist mystic without the intention of hammering him with a book by John MacArthur. Nevertheless, these accusers forget that smart people can interact with ideas and spiritual practices from someone in a different theological camp without adopting that person’s theology and practices in whole. We can learn something from a Catholic, Universalist mystic without abandoning the core evangelical commitments to studying scripture, personal piety, saving faith through the death and resurrection of Christ, and proclaiming that Jesus is King.

I’m also not here to rip apart anyone’s life choices here. If you get a lot of life from reading theology and Bible study in the evangelical fold, that’s awesome. I have no idea why some people struggle where others prosper, but I never want to make the mistake of criticizing someone for not finding life or hope where I have discovered it in abundance.

In the midst of this mire of despair and uncertainty, I suggest we stop roaring at each other about our theology or whatever and talk a little bit about Richard Rohr.

Rohr is no evangelical. Like I said, he’s a Catholic universalist. You don’t need to buy into everything he writes about. Heck, I’ve skipped some sections in his books when he gets lost in his own spiritual formation jargon or harps a little too long on a pet peeve. However, Rohr offers three really important challenges to issues that often bog down evangelicals. If you’ve been struggling within the evangelical fold, Rohr directly addresses topics that I have found personally frustrating and difficult. Here’s a little overview of how Rohr could help evangelicals:

 

Stop Fighting Tribal Wars

As a former evangelical culture warrior who than dabbled with some of the emerging church stuff, I’m tired of fighting. First I was fighting the world. Then I was fighting the mainstream evangelical subculture. Then I was fighting some of the progressives who I thought had gone too far or thought they could do a better job than the Holy Spirit at bossing people around. In a sense I’ve been the same exact person who was combative, tribal, and absolutist. I just switched my theology and proof texts. I was just as uncaring and judgmental no matter what I believed. I hadn’t actually changed the way I interacted with God and with other people.

If Protestants are anything, we’re tribal. It’s what I love the most and hate the most about us. We always reserve the right to break away. That can be awesome if the global leader of your church commands armies and functions like a one-world government (There are reasons why the first Protestants called the Pope the Anti-Christ!). But what started as a reaction to the corruption of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages soon turned into tribal in-fighting as we fractured endlessly with each other over theology.

I still care about theology a great deal. However, I’m tired of fighting over my turf. I’m tired of trying to classify people as sinners or saints, safe or sinister. Our mission to reach those outside the evangelical fold may have resulted in an unintended obsession over who’s in and who’s out. Is there a better way to spend my time than attacking an opponent or defending someone in my tribe?

While Rohr is motivated in part by a universalist theology in his call for Christians to lay down their arms in their fights with each other and those of other faiths, he still makes a compelling case to stop fighting our little turf wars and to turn toward Christ. His critique is a call is to something bigger rather than a kick out the door for those who misbehave.

Rohr is onto something. Evangelicals have obsessed over preserving pure doctrine and maintaining clear “insider/outsider” categories. Every divisive issue with evangelicals is rooted in this desire to know who’s a sinner and who’s a saint. Some have called this “bounded set” thinking. We have passwords (so to speak) and codes of conduct, and they determine who’s in and who gets invited to a concert with a surprise evangelism message.

Rohr is firmly in the “centered set” mindset. He calls us toward Christ at the center, and he encourages us to define ourselves according to God’s love for us rather than which boundaries our denominations or churches set. Rohr would probably call his approach more of an “open set” mindset, where we create room and stillness for God to meet with us. God is already present with us, so we aren’t necessarily even moving toward God. God has already moved toward us, and he encourages us to open ourselves to this possibility so that God can redefine us around his love.

I don’t follow Rohr’s more Universalist teachings, but evangelicals could really benefit from his focus on becoming renewed and transformed “in” Christ rather than fighting to preserve our doctrines “about” Christ.

Evangelicals could also use a less antagonistic approach to other religions. At the very least we should recognize some common practices and goals with other faiths, even if we can’t swap Jesus with the Buddha. I’m sure that Rohr would be happy if a few more evangelicals wanted to give yoga a shot, but that never comes up directly in his books.

Whether or not we unfurl our secret yoga mats, Rohr also has something to offer those of us who feel like Bible study just isn’t cutting it.

 

Practicing the Presence of God

Evangelicals have a strong tradition of Bible study and spiritual disciplines. We have historically been really good at self-denial and writing commentaries, the latter surely aiding the former by taking away from time that could otherwise have been spent smoking, drinking, and dancing.

As I hinted earlier, I had grown weary of adding one more thing to my spiritual life. I’ve always felt like I needed to add more prayers, more disciplines, and more study. Every time I tried to add something else, it either failed to produce the desired result or I couldn’t keep up with it. As it turned out, I didn’t need to spend more time on spiritual practices. I needed to change how I spent my time.

If you’re worn out and weary from always adding one more thing to your spiritual life, Rohr will drive home a major reality check. Rohr suggests that we often fill our lives up with some many “things we have to do” in order to hide from our true selves: our identity in Christ. So while we can use Bible study, prayer, or spiritual practices to help us discover that identity, the act of doing these things can divert us from the deeper work of silence before God. We can resort to ticking off boxes, whether that’s boxes for doctrine or practices, as the true measure of our faith.

Rohr has helped me see that measuring, adding, and learning are all poor substitutes for abiding. It all sounds a lot like a branch abiding in a vine, and the most life-giving (and “safe”) evangelicals have been the ones who focus on abiding rather than behaving since those who abide will figure out the behaving. There is nothing we can do to change the immediacy of God among us, and with the Holy Spirit among us, we don’t have to “work” to invite God to be in us. We aren’t chasing after a God who is always one step or several steps ahead of us. We have to work to see that God is already in us, and I hope you can see how much hope and joy we can find in that approach to things.

Evangelicals have a tendency to keep working harder and harder and harder to get closer to God, to learn more, and to be more obedient. Rohr reminds us of the good news in the Gospels: seek and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened.

The disconnect comes when we don’t know how to seek or where to knock. Instead of telling us to do more in order to find God, Rohr suggests that we actually do less. As little as possible in fact—as “waiting” on the Lord sets the bar pretty low for us.

 

The Point of It All

At the end of the day, evangelicals are left asking, “What’s the point of it all?” Why do we go to church, read the Bible, pray, attend small group, and read books by Christian authors (like me!) who wave around MDiv’s and drop in self-deprecating jabs at the evangelical subculture? Why bother?

Perhaps the thought of avoiding hell was enough to get you in the door, but fear is a lousy motivator for the long term. It’s awesome for short-term survival. As in, seeing a shark fin in the water will strike enough fear in you that you’ll swim really fast for the shore. However, you can only swim so fast for so long. In fact, for many of us, I would guess that some evangelical teachings on salvation feel like we’ll either reach the safety of the shoreline or a lifeguard will save us, but he’s really unhappy about it because we’re such wretched people.

Evangelicals can be a bit frantic and uptight sometimes. We’re the ones who went forward for multiple altar calls and multiple baptisms throughout our childhood and teens just to be sure we got that prayer right. We’ve had sleepless nights because of end times predictions. We’ve tried to be holier, tried to win God more glory, and fretted over the many times we’ve failed at both.

So what gives? Why is all of this such a struggle? And why bother? Is this really all about avoiding hell?

You may have guessed from the above sections that Rohr has something to say about all of this. Just as we are called to open ourselves to God and to abide in Christ, we practice disciplines such as silence or lectio divina or centering prayer in order to be transformed by a union with God. It’s not just learning about God or obedience, Rohr suggests it’s an actual mystical interaction that we’re after. This is where life change and direction comes from.

We may not even know what exactly has changed. We may not be able to put it into words. It’s not really something that we do. Rohr would say that it’s something that “is” in the present moment. We have been present with God and God has been present with us, even if that presence sometimes feels like silence. In fact, our expectations for God or spiritual experiences can hold us back from receiving God’s presence since we’re too busy looking for something else.

That will sound a bit vague if you’re new to Rohr’s teachings, but I think he hits at one of the greatest struggles that so many evangelicals face is the fear of God’s absence. We fear silence and being quiet before God because we’re afraid that God won’t show up. We focus on the outcome and experience.

Rohr chops away all of that anxiety and calls us to be still. We can be present before God and wait. Over time, God will unite with us and shape us. It’s not a three step or twelve step process. It won’t feel easy or natural for us, and perhaps those reasons alone are the most compelling reasons for struggling evangelicals to give Rohr’s teachings a try.

 

My Challenge for Struggling Evangelicals:

If you’re worn out or struggling with evangelicalism, I have a suggestion for you: “Roaring” against the failures of particular leaders, theologies, or traditions won’t help you take a step forward or heal the wrongs of the past. We need a shift in perspective and perhaps in our direction. We could do a lot worse than taking a few pointers from a Catholic Universalist mystic, so here’s my challenge:

Read and blog/journal about one book by Richard Rohr in the new year.

You can ask for the book as a Christmas gift. You can buy it in secret and cover it in brown paper so your friends don’t know what you’re up to. You could even have the book shipped to the home of a trusted, non-judgmental atheist friend. Whatever works.

Here’s a list of some books to consider:

 

Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer

Immortal Diamond: The Search for the True Self

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Yes And

The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See

 

Not sure you want to go that far? You can sign up for Richard Rohr’s email list and get daily readings from his books and talks. They’re short and to the point. Some may prove more relevant than others, so stick with it for a month before ditching it.

If all of that still sounds like a bridge too far, there are lots of other books you can read to help you break out of a post-evangelical malaise. Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson wrote an introduction to contemplative prayer called Mystically Wired. I also wrote a book called A Christian Survival Guide that provides some really simple steps you can take toward praying with scripture and cultivating contemplative prayer, as well as help with other hot topics that give evangelicals fits.

Of course if none of this appeals to you, that’s fine. Catholic Universalist mystics aren’t for everyone. However, if you ever reach a point where you feel like your faith is faltering or you can’t figure out how to encounter Christ in your day-to-day life, I know a guy who can help.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

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

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

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