Am I Growing in Compassion or in Anger?

I knew I had to change how I follow the news when I couldn’t stop thinking about certain stories and policies while mowing the lawn.

Listening to the radio became a hard way to manage how much I could take in or process at a time. Scrolling social media exposed me to so many different reactions and responses that left me fearful, anxious, or angry.

There are plenty of issues and stories in the news today that can spark legitimate anger. If asylum seekers being separated from their children doesn’t spark anger in us, then we have certainly lost our way as a society.

As sure as we can become angry over the news, I have grown concerned over my ability to remain compassionate and loving toward others. It’s bad enough to be in the grip of fear and anxiety over the news–I know this first hand–but the ways we consume media and news can certainly undermine our ability to remain compassionate and loving toward others, especially those we disagree with.

MIT researcher Sherry Turkle has written extensively about the impact of social media and technology in general on our relationships in her books Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle is one of the many researchers raising alarms about our loss of compassion and empathy when we interact with people over social media.

When we can’t see nonverbal cues, notice the impact of our words on others, or even just see other points of view as flesh and blood people with complexity and dignity, we can lump them together into groups that are easy to fear, insult, or hate.

I was an early adopter of social media, and I have felt compelled to use it less and less because of how much I feel it pulls me away from in-person, flesh and blood interactions and empathy.

I live in a very conservative area, and I routinely interact with people who hold views on gender and equality that I find oppressive. They vote for politicians I consider dishonest, cruel, and often racist. If we interacted only on social media, we would surely fragment over our ideas and lose touch with each other’s common humanity.

Adding to the complexity here: even being present for others on digital devices is difficult. We don’t have to sacrifice much or give much of ourselves on social media, and I can see myself slipping into the relational equivalent of slacktivism.

Although I try to think of ways to use technology to be more present for individuals and to share myself in ways that are more sacrificial and loving, there is a difference in being fully present for someone in person vs. being present over technology.

The times that I could be present for others may well be undermined by technology as I consume news and view reactions that could give rise to anger or fear. The more I develop imperfect caricatures of others and apply them to people I meet, the less likely I am to see them, to be present for them, and to treat them with love and empathy.

While anger will always be a legitimate part of the human experience, the ways I consume media can also send it spiraling out of control. And let’s face it, mowing the lawn is a hard enough chore with allergies and intense southern heat.

Who wants to stew on the news while mowing the lawn?

Recognizing the presence and power of thoughts and then meeting them with contemplative practices have helped me identify and respond to the clutter of my mind. Thomas Merton offered the following diagnosis that has often been on my mind:

“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 we cannot think.” -Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg 72

I would add, if we cannot see and we cannot think, we cannot love.

 

Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash

What If Silence, Mystery, and Love Are All We’ve Got?

“You’re not an evangelical anymore, are you?”

The question caught me off guard. To be honest, I almost replied, “Of course I still am!”

But then if you compare the sorts of things I write about with the kinds of “evangelicals” who get quoted in news stories or who make a splash in the headlines, it’s understandable why there is some confusion. From the political court evangelicals that apologize for their favorite politicians, to the Bible teachers who promise answers and solutions, to the self-help Christian authors who focus on helping people with their busy, cluttered lives, I don’t feel like I fit in much with this group at times.

Of course, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about labels and my identity within a particular group. Who even has time to keep up with all of the latest feuds, fads, and fits among evangelicals?

I’m primarily concerned with remaining faithful to where God has called me to be and avoiding the foolish extremes that I have mistakenly adopted in the past. I don’t want to exchange one set of judgmental dogmatism for another.

It’s tempting to debate whether certain folks are too progressive, not progressive enough, truly evangelical, or traitors to what evangelical used to mean. I’ve gone down that rabbit hole plenty of times.

Once you go down that rabbit hole enough times and find out that it hasn’t done anyone much good, it’s understandable that you’d begin searching for alternatives. Is there another way to exist as a Christian without defining yourself against someone else?

I think this is why I distinguish my own evangelicalism today from my previous anxious evangelicalism. As an anxious evangelical I needed something to defend, a group to defend, and a person to attack.

As I continue to step into my journey into contemplative prayer, I’m far less certain about particular answers I used to rely on, but my faith is also far more secure. As if answers were a prerequisite for faith in the first place!

I won’t say that we only have silence, mystery, and love, but these three things sure feel like they take up a lot of my time right now, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they were all we had to go on.

Silence before God because there’s so much I don’t know, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes when I let my mouth run.

Mystery because it’s true that purity of heart and obedient action are important, but those serve as starting points before the mystery of God.

Love because the love of the Father and love for neighbor were the two highest priorities of Jesus, and when we finally surrender ourselves in silence to the mystery of God and confess our inadequacies, we will find loving presence more often than we’ll find solutions.

Who knows what else God may bring into our lives or what else may speak to us. I’m not concerned about being dogmatic about this. Rather, these words are three of the most important sign posts that I’ve found as a kind of evangelical refugee.

Truth be told, silence, mystery, and love can be found in the roots of the evangelical movement. They are often obscured by other causes and priorities. They’re easy to miss if you don’t hold a place for them and let God quietly work through them.

They don’t contradict the Bible, but they do call for a different way of considering it and using it.

They don’t neglect the cross, but can exist without scrutinizing of the mechanics of salvation and atonement theories.

They don’t prevent us from sharing the Good News, but they offer a very conceptions of sharing the loving presence of God with others.

They can appeal to many of the commitments of evangelicals, but they also don’t feed the modern movement’s anxious, defensive tendencies.

Silence, mystery, and love may not be “ALL” that Christians have today, but they can prove foundational for making space for God’s love, remaining open to the what God is speaking, and allowing God to transform us into his beloved people.

These three things can calm our anxiety about God and our Christian “commitment” could be delivered from the endless temptation to measure and to report progress.

Embracing these three things haven’t produced an immediate life-changing revolution that  left my life unrecognizable. Rather, they are part of a lifelong process of becoming aware of God and allowing God to transform my life. I’ll take my chances on the fruit that comes from the slow and steady presence of God.

 

Read 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:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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

Imagine a deep rushing stream that flows in between mountains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Welcome. You are loved.”

Monday Merton: Unasked Questions Lead to Spiritual Anxiety

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Contemplative prayer has proven most beneficial for me because it addressed my reliance on having the right questions and finding the right answers to those questions. In God, we don’t always have an assurance that our questions will be answered to our satisfaction or that we’ll even find the right questions to ask.

In the quiet of silence before God, I’ve found deliverance from my uneasy answers as they are replaced by God’s loving presence:

“Now anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. It is the fruit of unanswered questions. But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked. And there is a far worse anxiety, a far worse insecurity, which comes from being afraid to ask the right questions— because they might turn out to have no answer. One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.”

– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island