Evangelicals Lack the Language for Slow Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God so loved the world…

Be still and know that he is Lord…

Wait on the Lord…

The Lord is gracious and compassionate…

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

Can Contemplative Prayer Help Address Racism, White Supremacy, and Hate?

What good is sitting in silence for 30 minutes of contemplative prayer every day going to do when there are racist groups in our communities?

It’s a fair question that I have pondered very often. I have a few responses:

Contemplation changes us into compassionate people.

Contemplation can help those in the grip of hate face their false selves—the false selves that drive so much of their hatred.

Contemplation re-centers us in God’s generative love for us and for other people.

Mind you, I’m saying that contemplation can “help” as one part of a larger action plan. I don’t want to oversell this here. Meditation and prayer have long been viewed as integral parts of Christian social justice work. Some groups make them essential aspects that members agree to incorporate into their daily lives.

When I have encountered hate speech or hateful events in the news, they can fuel a rage that goes beyond a productive righteous anger. As this burning rage takes hold, contemplative prayer provides a place to release my thoughts to God. Action is needed, but I won’t act from a productive perspective without a chance to disconnect from my anger and rage.

From a scientific perspective, mindfulness practices, which resemble contemplative prayer in many ways, help decrease our tendency to pursue conflict:

“Mindfulness studies show that practicing mindfulness for 8 to10 weeks changes the brain’s emotion regulation areas. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the midbrain that hijacks the brain into “fight, flight, freeze” mode in which we start to see our partners as threats to our wellbeing or autonomy and automatically shut down emotionally or start to attack them with angry words and deeds.”

Speaking in terms of what we hope for in the longer term, my pastor challenged us to think about conversion—we need members of these racist groups to be freed from their hateful ideology. It’s often true that the leaders of these hate groups are too far gone in many cases. However, a former hate group member turned advocate believes those who join these hate groups as the rank and file “foot soldiers” are often joining for reasons that are more complex than adopting a hateful ideology.

Christian Picciolini shared in an NPR interview:

“I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose… because there are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, they tend to search for very simple black and white answers.”

Contemplation can’t answer all of that, but it can become a tool to escape the endless loop of anger and resentment that helps fuel the hatred of others.

Contemplation can provide a new identity as God’s beloved child.

Contemplation can provide a new mission to tell others about the love of God.

Keep in mind that Paul was a violent extremist who was killing and imprisoning Christians. After his conversion, he penned letters where he wished that his readers could experience the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love.

Those who are nurturing their anger and fabricated resentment of immigrants and ethnic minorities are going to need a new community to offer them hope and a path forward. It would be tragic if white supremacists and racists only redirected their anger into a bitter and defensive fundamentalism. Many evangelical churches can provide activity to redirect them, but they tend to lack the spiritual resources and direction for those who need to directly encounter God’s loving presence. Contemplative prayer within a church community setting can offer the inner spiritual experience of transformation that is often so badly needed.

We need churches that speak of God as a loving father/parent and emphasize the loving relationship of the trinity in their belief statements. I participated in prison ministry off and on before we moved and had kids, and I was always struck by how the men were impacted by an encounter with God as a loving father.

I will always defer to experts like Christian Picciolini to offer a path forward amid white supremacy. Contemplation is no substitute for direct action, holding racists accountable, legal advocacy, and other measures that will stop their agenda. It wouldn’t hurt if police departments like the one in Charlottesville, VA were a little more proactive when racist groups start beating people up.

Again, I can’t emphasize enough that contemplation is but one part of a larger action plan. I also haven’t addressed the vital work of learning about our history of racism and white supremacy in America or amplifying and joining the activists who are doing the hard work on the ground each day.

Those targeted by racism and working to eradicate it need our prayers and support now more than ever. However, as a white man, I am also very aware that I have a role to play in offering racists an off ramp away from radicalization. I hope and pray that contemplation can offer them a path away from the fear and hatred that drives their movements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learn More about Contemplative Prayer

Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:

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

On sale for $2.99

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

Monday Merton: Freedom Needs Truth

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Thomas Merton writes that Democracy relies on the education of the population, getting a large majority of people more or less on the same page. If the people are able to see the issues of the time with clarity, political discourse about solutions becomes possible.

However, as propaganda and alternative partisan versions of reality take hold on certain news channels and in the American White House, Democracy may face one of its greatest challenges according to Merton’s criteria:

“Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them. The actions and statements of the citizen must not be mere automatic ‘reactions’–mere mechanical salutes, gesticulations signifying passive conformity with the dictates of those in power.

 

To be truthful, we will have to admit that one cannot expect this to be realized in all the citizens of a democracy. But if it is not realized in a significant proportion of them, democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word.”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 96

 

 

 

The Monday Merton: Relieving Spiritual Baggage

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In a moment of reflection on the joyful eagerness of the novices of his abbey, Thomas Merton made the following observation:

“We get so much in our own way and try to carry so much useless baggage in the spiritual life. And how difficult it is to help them without unconsciously adding much more useless badge to the load they already carry, instead of relieving them of it (which is what I try to do).”
– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

What if the adding or relieving of spiritual baggage serves as the mark of authentic spiritual wisdom and guidance?

 

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We Need Something Better Than “No”

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While looking for a spirituality that is authentic and real, something that is actually a union with God and not just a formal organization around the idea of God, I have realized that far too often I have chosen the easy way out. When my conservative construction of God that rested on propositions, study, and proofs, crumbled under the weight of putting my flimsy beliefs into practice each day, I saw two ways forward.

On the one hand, I could just drop it all. It was all too fragile, controlling, and unknowingly arbitrary. Who could remain healthy within such a system without eventually seeing its fragility, acknowledging it, and then being cast away as a heretic who “lost the faith”?

The other option was a salvage mission. I could cut away the parts that were untenable and arbitrary. I could work toward a kind of center where the essentials could be preserved while letting go of the most contradictory or unlikely elements. At the end of the day, I felt like I was defining myself by what I was not. In addition, when you work at the salvage mission long enough, new groups begin to form with their own boundaries, and over time, you end up within the same kind of fragile structure that you left in the first place.

From another perspective, these were two sides of the same coin. Both the dropping and the salvaging were just ways of stripping away unhealthy elements from the Christian faith in the hope that something worthwhile will remain standing. They thrived on defining “what they are not” with few solid or constructive elements to call people toward.

From the defensive conservative, to the salvaging liberal, to the exasperated atheist/agnostic, the majority of our religious energy can be channeled in a negative direction. So much of our time can invested in defending ourselves from each other. I’ve been blogging since 2005, and for many years these fights were very important to me. Over the past five years, I’ve been asking myself where do we go now?

We don’t need new movements, new logos, new leaders, new events, and new resources. We probably won’t find the way forward from those with the most to lose from the existing order since the existing order often thrives by overlooking our most grievous sins, while turning a critical eye to an extremely limited subset of vices.

My sense for Christians who want to keep the faith today is that we have never needed the mystical tradition of the church more than ever. Only in this tradition can we hold the tensions of Christianity together and somehow arrive at something resembling the kinds of things that could resemble abundant life, renewal, and actually being born again,.

In the mystical tradition we can find a place for the conservative, the atheist, and the liberal. The orthodox essentials of the faith remain in place for mystics because they are the means by which we are united with God, but we prove them by living into their reality rather than devising scientific proofs according to the standards of our culture. We let God determine the validity of faith’s essentials.

The atheists find the emptiness, the void, and silence that they have suspected all along about God. They have their dark nights and their moments of alienation and despair. However, that empty space isn’t the last word by any means. If they hold on to the silence and darkness, waiting for what may come next, there is a deeper encounter with God awaiting them that transcends the frantic worship that often left them feeling dejected and empty.

The liberals can rest from their salvage work. There is nothing to fight against and nothing to strip away. If they can enter into the rest of contemplative prayer and let an encounter with God’s presence to transform them, they may discover renewed energy, mercy, and compassion for the work of justice that beats close to their hearts.

The Christian contemplative tradition is God’s affirming yes of love and mercy. It is union with Christ. It is the Spirit of God no longer hovering over the waters but resting in us. It is the loving voice of the Father no longer calling down from a cloud but whispering from deep in our souls. There is only a divine yes of God being truly with us, transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

In the midst of that transformation, I have found freedom to stop fighting because I have been consumed with what I am in the loving presence of God. There is so much to pursue that I have nothing left to consider leaving behind. Everything that isn’t essential melts away in the loving gaze of God.

Those who reject the mystical tradition of the Christian faith, that predates the compilation of the New Testament canon, are often those who have not given it a chance. It’s a leap of faith into the darkness of the cloud of God’s presence. It’s terribly frightening to leave your old religious constructs behind, and this is why so many fight against the mystical tradition. The more you fear you’ll lose, the harder you’ll fight.

In our times that bear the fruit of years of paranoia, racism, xenophobia, deception, and unbridled greed, we need a grounded, time-tested way to move forward into the love and truth of God. I do not see hope in many quarters of the Christian faith, especially in America, but I do see striking clarity, hope, and even unity in the contemplative practices of the Christian mystical tradition.

Contemplation begins with our intention to pray and then proceeds as we surrender ourselves to God. It gives us the space we need to shut down our negative loops of thinking, to hear God speak, and to move forward with greater compassion toward others. It doesn’t need an enemy in order to thrive—unless the enemy is our own unrelenting wills.

I have been looking for sources of hope for this year, and I continue to return to this simple passage about what God requires of us: “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” I suspect that many of us need God’s loving transformation in order to walk humbly first, and with that transformation in place, we’ll have the capacity to love mercy and to act justly in their turns.

There surely will be a time to shout, but before I open my mouth, I hope to spend time in silence before God. When I speak, my prayer is that I’ll have something better than “No” to share.

Why Evangelicals Lack Compassion for Doubters and Doubters Lack Compassion for Evangelicals

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When my faith hit rock bottom at the end of seminary, I became spiritually despondent. I also became very, very angry that the religious practices and beliefs I’d been given let me down.

As I voiced my doubts and anger, I received some pretty strong pushback from evangelicals who had no tolerance for my doubts and felt personally attacked. On the other side of that time in my life, I can see with greater clarity some of the reasons why we struggled to show compassion to each other.

How Do You Grow Spiritually?

In evangelicalism, there generally isn’t very much language or conception of spiritual formation or practice. We have tended to focus on “saving” and then preserving the soul. You save your soul by making the proper profession of faith and then learning more biblical truth. You remain “in Christ” by safeguarding that truth.

If you look at the broader Christian tradition that stretches back to the early church and desert fathers, there was a greater emphasis on solitude and prayer. This tradition had been preserved by the monastic tradition, and its influence has increased and decreased over the years. As the church grew in power and influence, it’s not surprising to see those spiritual practices decrease.

As our access to monastic and desert father writings has increased, we can read that the three words that drove their spirituality were: “Flee, be silent, and pray,” as Nouwen writes in The Way of the Heart. Most importantly for our discussion about doubt and compassion, Nouwen notes that solitude (the fleeing and being silent parts) grow compassion in us as we encounter the love and mercy of God.

If we contrast the evangelical and the contemplative approaches to spirituality, we can see that one is focused on preservation while the other is focused on surrender. When I was trying to defend, preserve, or guard my spiritual life, I had little time or capacity for others unless they could help defend or teach the truth.

The surrender of solitude has forced me to face my darkest thoughts, resentments, and failures. When I resist solitude, it’s often because I’m resisting these dark sides of my life. I can only find relief and freedom by surrendering to God’s mercy, and that makes it significantly easier to show mercy to others.

Within the evangelical mindset, I learned to defend my faith from my own doubts and from those who would cast doubts on my faith. There was no room for failure. It was an all or nothing mindset. Without a more robust language of “spiritual practice” to provide an actual grounding for my faith, I had placed my confidence in study and orthodoxy. After immersing myself in study throughout my undergraduate and seminary years, while also going all in with everything the church asked of me, I saw just how fragile my faith had become, and I was angry.

I had invested years of my life into the study of scripture and defending particular viewpoints of the Bible. When those defenses fell apart and I realized that I was still just as far from God as when I started out, I had a “burn it all down” mindset toward theology and the church systems I’d given so much of myself to.

The hardest part of this is that the people in the systems of church and theology didn’t do anything malicious to me. They were just passing along the best things they could to me. We were all acting in good faith.

We all also lacked the very practices that could cultivate compassion in us. We were both trained in systems that valued conformity and checking particular boxes. As I left the conservative system, I just replaced it with a more progressive one but maintained the same mindset that lacked compassion or any kind of meaningful spiritual practice.

As I enter into completive prayer, I have to face my dark side and the only way out is to accept God’s mercy.

I am finally seeing the evangelical subculture with more compassion and grace because I can see how badly we both need the same mercy from God. I still have my insecurities. I have plenty of rage for the evangelical captivity to politics and cultural influence. But I at least can detect when I’m moving toward an unhealthy place.

When I sense myself moving toward my unhealthy stress points of anxiety and fear (hello, enneagram 9’s!), I now have spiritual practices I can turn toward with hope. Under the mercy of God, I have found the great equalizer of humanity, and that has helped me start to become kind to others, even the ones who would rather excommunicate me for my doubts.

The Lie about How to Live the Life You Love

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I’m not saying anything novel or shocking when I declare that the contemplative stream of Christianity is a completely different mindset compared to the self-help strategies of the business world and Christian self-help subculture.

I’ve read enough of both contemplation and self-help works, and in my unprofessional opinion, there is one core difference between contemplative Christianity and self-help Christian/self-help business world:

Christian contemplation differs from Christian self-help based on the promise of delivering fulfillment and happiness.

This is the difference between finding happiness, fulfillment, and meaning in what you do each day. It’s the promise that taking certain actions, following a program, or designing a particular business or spiritual program will bring you the fulfillment and joy that you want from life.

There’s a mechanism to the self-help mentality. For self-help Christianity, one must design the right mechanism with the right mix of Bible study, prayer, and service.

For self-help business, one must design the right balance of sleep, family/relationships, exercise, and work, preferably with some kind of automated function or outsourcing for the business that relies on selling high end products.

The more you see the self-help Christian world and the self-help business world in action, the more they appear to be different sides of the same coin.

The more I’m exposed to the Christian contemplative stream, the starker I see it in contrast to the self-help mindset.

The self-help Christian/business world tells you that you must work harder to build something so that you can find peace and fulfillment. And here is the dirtiest trick of all in the self-help world: so many of these people who promise to show you the way that they have blazed aren’t going to actually deliver. Sure, they can help us do a few things better. They aren’t completely useless. They have learned about time management or other productivity skills in some cases, and they do have wisdom to share at times. However, the whole self-help program will fail the majority of those who read the book, take the course, or join the community.

The truth is that most of these business bloggers and self-help Christians aren’t going to tell you “exactly” how they achieved their peace and status. They can’t. There are too many factors that go into success or personal fulfillment in the first place, the promises they make are too hollow, and many of these high profile experts have gotten support from each other in order to “make it.” There’s only room for so many experts at the top to realize their “dreams” or lead the “life that you love” if their financial success hinges of getting you to want they have so that you buy their books and courses.

The self-help world says that you don’t have the life that you love because you aren’t doing the right things or investing in the right systems. For a small fee, that is really a bargain compared to what the OTHER GUYS are charging, you can find the happiness and fulfillment that you deserve. Can you really put a price tag on that? All of your competitors are signing up for the course; do you really want to be left behind?

Before you start pulling out your wallet, let’s step back for a look at contemplation.

Contemplation tells you that your true self and the identity you have longed for with all of your heart already belongs to you in God. You can only find it with greater clarity and learn to live in it. You can’t build something that has already been given to you.

You can only find that you are deeply loved by God if you take time to live in your belovedness.

Of course you can make your life better with certain decisions and your work plays into that, but your happiness isn’t tied to a career or a lifestyle. That is too fragile and small-minded an approach to life.

With the Christian contemplative stream, there’s no course or program that maps a path to success, fulfillment, or the “life you want.”  You can only find practices that you can literally practice daily. The results aren’t guaranteed in any way other than the promises of scripture and the examples of those who have gone before us. Somehow, this works, but if it’s going to work, it probably won’t look like what you’re expecting.

While the self-help world tells us ways to put ourselves first, Christianity says that you find life by “dying” to yourself. You can’t come up with a much stronger contrast! However, Christians who affirm “dying” to yourself can also slip into the self-help program. We can fight and scrap and plan and take courses to find the things that God has given to us already.

I spend most of my day circling back to the love of God. Yes, I have tried to focus my work on the things I’m better at doing and that I find enjoyable. Yes, I’ve limited my work hours when possible in order to prioritize time with my kids. However, at the root of my happiness, fulfillment, and personal quest for meaning, I spend most of time shoving aside the things that the self-help people tell me I need.

I feel the pull toward the quest for personal comfort, fulfillment, and success. It haunts and grabs at me every single day. And so I circle back in contemplation onto the present love and mercy of God. I circle back with the Examen to remember where God has been present and where I have gone off on my own.

I’ve found that I live the “life I love” when I live in the love of God. No membership fees are required other than a deep need for God.

 

What Are We Mad about This Week?

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I have been taking the weekends off from Facebook, and something strange has been happening on Monday morning. Feeling like Rip Van Winkle, I open up Facebook and review the news from the weekend. I catch myself wondering what people are angry about this week.

It’s strange to feel so detached from the passionate debates of the past two days.

Of course there are many things that we can legitimately become angry about. The world is rife with injustice. I’m not doubting these things or suggesting that we embrace complacency.

Rather, I’ve been noticing that the daily use of Facebook can lead my mind into a kind of ongoing angst and anger, if not a sense of anxiety. In light of the injustices and problems in our world, I’m concerned that despite the benefits of awareness that comes through Facebook, it’s also creating a mindset of anger and anxiety that leaves me unable to thoughtfully engage the problems of our world in a constructive manner, let alone the people who disagree with my perspective.

I will never doubt that Facebook has been a great tool for sharing worthwhile causes and events. Heck, even the much-derided ALS Ice Bucket Challenge led to major research innovations and potential breakthroughs. I follow causes such as the Preemptive Love Coalition primarily through their Facebook page. Social media can do more than raise awareness for a cause—it can help us take organized action.

However, social media isn’t as great for fostering empathy, hosting complex, nuanced conversations, or creating a mindset that can take measured steps toward solutions. It’s so very easy to assume the worst about others, to lament what “those idiots” think, and to demonize people who post smug memes mocking what I hold dear. More to the point, I’m sure I’ve done all of these things to others plenty of times as well.

I am committed to being constructive, redemptive, and action-oriented within my resources. I don’t want to go through my life critiquing and criticizing others without ever getting involved in a cause. In fact, for many years I’d been involved in prison ministry, and I immediately noticed that I wrote with far more snark and divisiveness online compared to the way I reached out to the men in prison. I wanted my in-person words to guide my online words.

This brings me back to the weekend breaks I’ve been taking from Facebook (and all other social media channels). I don’t know how long I’ll keep this up, but I feel the acute need to know what I am like without any social media interactions. I need to feel the gnawing desire to check in and to ask what’s driving that and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The more I’m driven to check in, the more I need to examine that drive and where it’s coming from.

I need solitude each day, and a big part of creating that space means learning to cut myself off from distractions and time wasting activities that eat up precious blocks of five, ten, or fifteen minutes.

I need solitude in order to hear the still, small voice of God.

I need solitude in order to recognize when my mind is spinning off track into anger, fear, and frustration.

Rage can become a lifestyle, a habit that we cultivate by constantly feeding it tidbits of injustice and fear from our circles and from the news cycle. In fact, news outlets and social media sites have every incentive in the world to push outrageous events into our faces. That isn’t to say there aren’t journalists doing good and essential work. Rather, the people running these companies need to attract viewers in order to maximize profits, and rage works.

The worst part about today’s outrage culture is that we need solitude in order to actually address it, but we’ll no doubt hear guilt trips that we’re putting our heads in the sand or acting irresponsibly if we disconnect for an extended period of time. The pursuit of an actual solution appears to be just another part of the problem.

Activists and saints surely figured out ways to address injustice before social media, and I trust that a bit more mindfulness and consideration about the way forward will help us take better steps forward together.

I care deeply about the injustice that America has inflicted on the Middle East (see the Preemptive Love Coalition for more ways you can help the most desperate refugees today). I think often about our criminal justice system, and I still associate names and faces with sentencing laws and parole policies. I very much want to stay engaged. I want to feel the anger of the injustices people continue to suffer. I can use Facebook to raise awareness about these issues, but I need something more than rage.

I need the focus and direction that comes from silence and contemplative prayer.

I need a still small voice to speak in the midst of the storm, or I’ll most likely become just another voice in the storm.

My Most Difficult Shift Toward Healthy Religion

 

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When I finally understood the impact of unhealthy religious beliefs and practices in my life, I don’t think I can quite put into words the joy and freedom that I experienced. It was one epiphany after another where God wasn’t as evil and monstrous as I’d been lead to believe. My beliefs weren’t as fragile as I’d been taught.

Rather than watering down the truth or picking and choosing my truth arbitrarily, I learned to begin taking in the full, mysterious witness of the Christian faith where God is just and holy, but God is also merciful, loving, and compassionate.

If only I’d expended the same effort to experience the love of God as I’d invested in fearing his judgment and holiness.

It’s as if a whole segment of Christianity has become so fearful of God’s judgment that we’ve become fixated on it. We dare not spend too much time talking about God’s love, mercy, or compassion, even if the Psalms, prophets, and writings of the apostles all but hit us over the head with these themes about God’s love and patience.

If we start to think God is soft or easy on us, we could start sinning, and then who knows what would happen next.

Actually, we’ve been told what to expect next: judgment.

Is it any wonder that people who spend so much time beholding and fearing the judgment of God feel an irresistible pull toward judgment of others as well? We become what we worship, that’s what the Psalms and prophets tell us in particular, and if we fail to see how God’s love coexists with his holiness and justice, then we end up with a God of judgment and we can’t help but follow that lead.

Seeking the full witness of scripture about the love, mercy, and compassion of God for us has completely changed how I pray and practice holiness. Rather than acting out of a fear of judgment, I’m working on accepting the loving embrace of God for prodigals who cross the line and stuffy judgmental sons who walk the line. The contemplative prayer tradition of the church tells us over and over again that it’s the present love of God that transforms us, not a constant fear of his judgment.

As much as I have enjoyed this shift toward “healthy religion,” as Richard Rohr would call it (rather than creating a false dichotomy between Jesus and religion), the most difficult step for me has been to respond with mercy, love, and compassion toward those who are still under the sway of an angry, judgmental God who demands holiness. As I step toward mystery and contemplation, I struggle to respond with grace and compassion toward those who are still citing chapter and verse with angry zeal, defending boundaries, and attempting to define who is in and who is out.

I’m grateful in part for this struggle. I need these reminders of how far I need to go. You’d think that I should know by now that having the right information about the love of God isn’t the same thing as living in that love daily and being transformed by it.

When someone takes a swing at my beliefs or practices, I still feel the urge to judge, excommunicate, or strike back. I still want to repay snark with snark, sarcasm with better sarcasm. And it’s killing me sometimes because I love sarcasm so much.

Most days I can only know on an intellectual level that the people who embody the judgment, boundary-defending side of Christianity are in bondage to a flawed perception of God. And the more that I want to respond in kind, the more I’m in bondage to that flawed perception as well. At the very least, if I struggle to respond with compassion and mercy, then I’m not doing a good job of experiencing God’s mercy and compassion for myself.

It’s hard to learn to shut up and to take a shot on the chin. I’ve invested so much time (and money!) in studying theology. It’s ironic that I want to put my hard-earned training into use to strike back at someone, but the truth is that I need nothing more than to shut up and return to the present love of God.

It shouldn’t be this hard to rest in the present love of God. The more I struggle with this, the more I have to question what I want out of life. Do I want to be justified? Do I want people to respect me? Do I want people to think I’m clever?

It sure doesn’t sound all that clever or unique to say that I am loved and you are loved deeply, perfectly, and constantly. That’s what Christians have been saying for centuries. It’s not flashy, snarky, or catchy for a blog headline. It won’t win a theology debate. It will actually look like a surrender.

Surrender. That’s the word that I’m learning to accept. If I am going to surrender to the love of God, it also means surrendering in every other competition, debate, and desire. I can’t win. I can’t reach what I think I want.

Jesus taught us what it means to surrender and to “win” by “losing.” He modeled this kind of surrender in the most extreme of circumstances, entrusting himself to the love of God even to the point of trusting in resurrection.

Can I let God’s love so transform me that I can even show his love, mercy, and compassion to those who have none for me?

Can I surrender to the point that I’ll let my aspirations for my reputation perish? Perhaps one day I’ll trust God to raise up my true self from the ashes, refined and secure in his love that conquers all.

 

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

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