The Monday Merton: Unless We See, We Cannot Think

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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

Evangelicals Need to Sit in a Room and Say Nothing for a Long Time

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I solve most of the world’s problems right before I go to bed. It’s true. Ask my wife. I have so many amazing ideas, and she gets to hear all of them right before she falls asleep.

I recently solved the central problem with my evangelical tribe.

You know us, we’re the people who claim to have the “good news” and then we basically spend a lot of time worrying about being damned to hell, praying enough, proving ourselves worthy of God, proving we hold “sound” doctrines, defending those sound doctrines from atheists and “liberals,” fearing the fiery destruction of the world, and jumping into the political fray as if the death of America is the same thing as the death of God.

Evangelicals are anxious. We are anxious people who need to sit in a room and say nothing for a long time.

We fill concert venues with blaring worship music and shout, “Come Lord, Come! Come! COME!!!!”

We study, study, study the Bible.

We serve and minister and volunteer.

And then? The crash. So many of us crash and burn with our anxious, hard-working faith. I gave myself to all of this. I’m an evangelical who studied, served, worked, and defended, and all I got was a lousy crisis of faith. Almost every evangelical I know has had a crisis of faith in their 20’s or 30’s. Those who haven’t had a crisis of faith yet are the ones who could really use it the most.

Sure, we trust that Jesus has saved us by faith and grace, not by our own merits. But then we expend SO MUCH energy working and worrying in order to prove that profession is true. We struggle with holy living. We wonder if the defenses for the Bible will be enough to shore up faltering faith. And most importantly, we lose our ever-loving minds because God feels so distant and silent.

So we study harder, we worship with even more passion than the trademarked PASSION events, and we plead and beg with God: “Please show up. Please tell me that you’re real. Please tell me that the years of guilt, shame, repression, and fear were worth something.” Something has to give.

Some snap out of that phase, and realize that the game is over. God isn’t real. How could he be? What God would want people to live with such fear, misery, and uncertainty?

Others harbor those doubts, fears, and illusions, but they stick with the practice of their religion. Jesus matters so much to them. They want the story to be true. They want to believe that God is somehow involved in the world, but they simply can’t figure out how to find that God. They settle for mystery, but end up living without any search for or experience of God.

There’s another option that takes the beliefs and, don’t miss this word, practices of historic Christianity seriously. In fact, the problem that plagues evangelicals today may best be described as a selective amnesia. We have fought tooth and nail to uphold the scriptures and doctrines that the early church passed on to us, but we couldn’t give a flying fig (that’s an evangelical swear word) about the practices of the early church.

There is a stream of Christianity that takes the foundational teachings of our faith seriously—so seriously that they are viewed as givens—without devoting our entire lives to defending them from skeptics. This is the contemplative stream that pre-dates the canon of scripture. This stream has been practiced in quiet and solitude, as well as in cities and small towns. It has driven some to serve actively and it has driven others deeper into the desert. Ironically, those who traveled the furthest into the desert were eagerly sought out by many from the cities. These desert contemplatives exercised tremendous influence and their words remain powerful, relevant, and formative until this day.

The contemplative stream of Christianity tells us to sit in a room by ourselves and to be quiet for a long time. It challenges evangelicals to consider how much we’ve become like the ecstatic prophets of Baal who shout and dance and make a tremendous scene before an unseen god while Elijah watches with quiet confidence.

Evangelicals, we have a lot of good things going for us, but underneath all of our media empires that promise to defend us from the big bad world, our universities that continue edging toward sheltered fundamentalism, our large churches packed with programs and offices (not with prayer chapels), and our deeply flawed hero-worship and business-influenced leadership culture, there is a deep need for the loving search for God. By and large, we are not known as people who love.

I know that “love” is my deepest struggle. How do we generate love for God? How do we love people?

If Jesus’ two most important commands are to love God and to love my neighbors, if Paul said everything he does is “shit” (that’s only a translation of a Greek swear word, so we’re cool) without love, and if the apostle John used love as the only measure that matters, then our disconnect from love has to be addressed.

So far as I can tell, I have found love so difficult because I have been cut off from the source of love. This brings us back to our quiet room where evangelicals need to sit and say nothing for a long time.

The contemplative stream echoes the Psalms that tell us to wait on the Lord, to wait in silence.

For being people who love the Bible, cherish the Bible, defend the Bible, and who attack people who don’t love, cherish, or defend the Bible as much as us, evangelicals do a pretty terrible job of actually believing what the Bible says about God’s love.

I know this first hand because the foundational teachings of contemplative prayer are two things that are both very true in the Bible and very hard for evangelicals to believe:

  1. God is here.
  2. God loves you.

Evangelicals could spend years digging up scripture verses to disprove the very two things that we have longed to know all of our lives. This is why we need to sit in a room all by ourselves and say nothing for a long time.

We need to make a space to become aware of God and of God’s love. This isn’t necessarily a space for epiphanies or visions or amazing spiritual encounters. In fact, the contemplatives warn us that desiring spiritual encounters or amazing visions could become quite dangerous, as they can be self-serving and manipulative toward God. We begin to crave validation and experience over choosing to rest in the truths that God is here and God loves us.

This is a far cry from the anxious, hard-working evangelical subculture. Evangelicals don’t have language for a dark night of the soul. We can only think of ways to shine “light” into a dark night of the soul. When we are given the option of silence before God, we are quick to quote scripture and to begin another freestyle, “Lord we just…” prayer.

We desperately need silence. We need to learn what it means to abide. We need to learn what it feels like to finally be still before God for a long time.

This is the path we walk by faith. This will take all of the faith that we can muster.

I have taken a long, winding path into contemplative practices. They were the only things I could hold onto when my evangelical faith crashed and burned. I spent years worrying that they didn’t work, that God wasn’t real, or that I had somehow alienated myself from God. I freaked out because nothing was happening. I have since learned that this is by and large the point.

People who abide and live by faith don’t need God to constantly poke them in order to prove that he’s real. It took years of learning to search for God before realizing that I’d already been found. I couldn’t make God any more present. I couldn’t plead with God to be with me more than he already is. I couldn’t say anything to make God love me more. I couldn’t add any spiritual practices that would change the way God loves me.

I am loved and you are loved right now. This is the deep, abiding mystery of our faith. This is a truth that can revolutionize our lives.

This love of God is so deep and unfathomably wonderful that the only appropriate response is to sit in a room and say nothing for a long, long time until we accept that God is here and God loves us.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

Based on my own resistance to and experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice. The book is titled:

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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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)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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