Prayer and That Day I Spent Two Hours on My Phone

If the public spectacle of allegedly pro-family, pro-morality, pro-ethics, pro-absolute truth evangelical Christians unashamedly and unequivocally supporting a Supreme Court nominee with multiple, credible criminal accusations against him hasn’t killed irony forever and ever, then perhaps my experience yesterday will put us over the top in the war against irony.

Irony, brace yourself for what follows.

I’ve been working on a grant application with an October 1st deadline. The grant is highly competitive, but securing it would significantly help cover the costs of deeper research into the impact of digital devices on spirituality for my book Always Present: Contemplative Resistance to Digital Distraction.

On the due date of the grant, we had to make a few changes to the grant, changes that would make it stronger, but each change brought other changes and renewed complexity. Text messages and emails throughout the day were essential for keeping everyone on the same page.

Before I say anything else about my day, the focus of this grant project is studying the impact of smartphones on spiritual practices, and part of the project includes an experiment where we ask some subjects to increase smartphone use, some to decrease, and others to keep it the same. I didn’t anticipate that applying for this grant would inadvertently turn me into a test subject!

It just so happened that over the weekend, I had updated my iPhone to the latest operating system, and it includes a “Screen Time” section under Settings. You can set limits on certain groups of apps and see how much time you spend on those groups of apps. You can also track how much time you spend on specific apps.

Adding to the complexity of the day our grant was due, our kids were on fall break from school. Part of my screen time involved reading articles at The Athletic while our daughter fussed over her bottle, including several stretches where I put the phone down with an article open. I was also managing several emails and text messages while building boats out of Legos with my boys.

All of this is to say, I wasn’t shocked to find at the end of the day that I had spent a little over two hours on my phone. Certain aspects of the day demanded it. We got the grant done, and there are big plans to build some more boats the following day without so many interruptions.

However, I don’t want to merely make excuses for myself. This kind of day was full of the unusually urgent, but things can start going off track.

Did I Train Myself to Use My Phone More?

The problem with such “exceptional” days, addicting tools like smartphones are designed to be rewarding and to appear useful, if not essential. I can begin to use an exceptional day as a baseline for new habits, checking on my phone or seeking distractions with more regularity.

For each day where I’m immersed in my phone for a work project, I need at least another day to disconnect from it. Even this morning I caught myself pulling my phone out to check my email… at 5:30 am. There can’t be any urgent messages about the grant at 5:30 am, can there?

Did I Pray During My Busy Day?

As you can guess, prayer was hard to come by with a baby sputtering each time I gave her a bottle, constant emails and text messages, and my kids asking me to help them find Lego pieces or disconnect pieces that were stuck. Prayer isn’t easy with kids around under normal circumstances, so toss in a competitive grant deadline and a smartphone, and it’s not looking good.

However, I was grateful for the chance to see what increased smartphone usage did to my spirituality. That is the point of our study after all?

  • I caught myself getting impatient with our kids when they were bickering.
  • When I had a moment in the car by myself later in the day, I took some time to pray in silence rather than turning to a podcast. I could tell that my soul was unsettled.
  • When I sat down at a café to work on the final details of the grant, I took a moment to pray because my mind was scattered.
  • After hitting send, I took five minutes to close my computer and to write a few thoughts in my journal. It was reflective, but it also felt like a prayer of sorts.
  • Later that evening, I took a break from the dishes to sit with my wife on the back patio while our kids took literally every book off two book shelves in the other room. It was worth it.

After spending two hours on my phone on a busy day, it’s not surprising to conclude that prayer was hard to prioritize.

Can Contemplative Prayer Practices Help?

While I feel like I need a bit of recovery time today to get myself into a better spiritual and mental place after yesterday, it was encouraging to see that regular contemplative prayer practices have helped me establish a new baseline of sorts.

I sort of know what it feels like to be spiritually grounded, and I sort of know what it feels like to be spiritually adrift. I have invested enough time in prayer practices that I knew when things were going off the rails.

Having some simple charts and stats about my smartphone usage was also extremely helpful. I couldn’t lie to myself. Let’s be honest, I would totally underestimate my phone usage if it was up to me!

Most importantly, even though I had lost a lot of time and space for prayer yesterday, I still had enough self-knowledge and enough practices handy that I could turn a five-minute car ride into a moment of semi-stillness before God.

Mind you, those five minutes of silence after a day of perpetual mental and physical motion were AGONIZING. I wanted to keep moving, to keep my mind humming with stimuli rather than turning toward God in silence.

I dramatically increased my smartphone usage, and while it wasn’t good for me, contemplation was able to help in the thick of it. In the days to come I’ll continue to use that little screen time chart and my prayer practices to help me keep my feet on the ground.

Prayer also sounds A LOT better than checking my email constantly about my grant status…

Spirituality Is Being Devastated by Technology

You don’t have to compare the quiet contemplation of a rural monastery to the digitized chaos of a major city to conclude that our world saturated in mobile devices and screens may not be the healthiest environment for humans.

Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to consider a few big picture aspects of a rural monastery vs. life in a city surrounded by screens of all sizes.

Consider this, the monk who divides time between prayer and working with his hands is generally focused on one specific task at a time. While working with his hands, he may well be engaged in a simple prayer as well.

The person in the city is surrounded by screens and has hundreds of opportunities for distraction and engagement. There are hundreds, if not thousands of attempts to catch his attention daily, and perhaps he gives in to a few and wastes some time. Then he feels badly about it, gets back to his work, and tries to forge ahead before succumbing again to another distraction.

True, we could be more connected with friends and family and colleagues by technology, but those technology networks are also a thousand points of entry for distractions, products, and who knows what else.

It’s not that we can’t use technology well. It’s that technology isn’t really designed to be used for our health and well-being, to say nothing of the impact of its distractions on spiritual vitality. It’s designed to sell us stuff and to capture our attention at every turn. Sure, you get the fringe benefit of connecting with people you love, but that’s not why the technology is there.

If technology only served to connect you with people you love and to make you healthier, then most of the technology around you would vanish.

I have been immersed in technology because of my work in publishing, and it is for good or ill. At this point in my life, I view technology is a kind of necessary evil that I am trying to manage well. In so many ways the screens in my life have a negative impact, but not entirely negative. Each day I am trying to mitigate the negative aspects and to build on the positive possibilities.

I do know that unchecked and used without awareness, technology today is generally a net negative. I’m hoping that with greater awareness and intention, technology can reach a kind of neutral ground where it is used with limits and restraint so that enough good can result in order to balance out its many possibilities for negativity and addiction.

I’m still in the early stages of this process, but I wanted to put some words down now. I didn’t want to post some findings or conclusions in the future as if they were the result of a brief period of consideration and study.

Rather, I’m hoping to gradually share my journey with technology and its impact on spirituality. I hope you can share in this process when possible so that you can use technology with greater intention and awareness.

 

Why Many Evangelicals Struggle with Prayer (TLDR: We’re Winging It)

Pastors experts in church

We can learn a great deal about “spirituality” of American evangelical Christianity when we consider a 2006 Christianity Today  list of the most influential books over the past 50 years that shaped evangelicals.

For starters, most evangelicals are lucky if they know their movement’s historical background from the past 50 years. It’s safe to say that many evangelicals today have a very limited understanding of church history that has deprived us of the wisdom and practices developed over the centuries. Most telling about the limits of evangelical spirituality, the number one book on the Christianity Today list of influential books is Prayer: Conversing With God by Rosalind Rinker.

I don’t doubt that readers have benefitted from this book that was developed by a missionary who offers practical instructions in group prayer as well as some tips on personal prayer. Many small groups and Sunday schools have found much-needed direction from this book, and I can see the need for it in certain settings.

However, this book’s emphasis on spoken prayer and the overall disconnection from the prayer tradition of the church is quite typical of evangelicals. It’s not that Rinker is wrong or even misguided. The issue is that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, which is pretty much the story of the evangelical movement since it began. We have forged ahead with our own advice, spiritual practices, Bible studies, sermons, churches, and ministries without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, what has come before us, and what we may gather from the devout Christians of the past.

The main word that jumps out at me in Rinker’s subtitle (and all of the book’s marketing copy) is “conversation.” For many evangelicals today, we have come to think of prayer as a conversation with the goal of speaking our minds to God, and if God directs us, then we’ll be able to say even more things. In fact, many evangelicals may fear that prayer isn’t working if they don’t receive specific direction or guidance from God.

The goal though is for a conversational prayer, especially for us to speak up in this conversation. There is very little emphasis on silence or to even make silence the point. I don’t get the sense that evangelicals reading Rinker’s book would consider that a completely silent time of prayer, where there is no discernible conversation between God and the person at prayer, brings about any benefit.

Silence isn’t really on the radar of this book, even if silence was a central part of Christian prayer for centuries. On the other hand, a conversation directs us toward a goal or outcome that is measurable and easily understood, such as sensing the Lord’s direction to say certain words in prayer. This is a good thing in and of itself, but when this is our foundational concept of prayer (perhaps ONLY concept of prayer), we run the risk of missing the deeper streams of silent prayer and contemplation that have run throughout the history of the church.

Interestingly, Rinker published her book in 1959, which makes her a contemporary of Thomas Merton who, along with Henrí Nouwen and Thomas Keating, helped Catholics delve deeper into the prayer traditions of the church. However, each of these writers pointed us back to the desert fathers and mothers, the mystics such as Thérèse of Liseux, and the Eastern Orthodox monastics. They drew deeply from these streams while offering their own ideas on prayer for the church and produced rather different works.

That isn’t to set them up in opposition to Rinker. I don’t doubt there are even places of overlap. However, it’s tragic to think that Rinker lacked the deep grounding of the church’s prayer tradition in her book. How much richer and beneficial would it have been?

The phrase that comes to mind for me about evangelical spirituality is: “Winging it.” Before I grounded myself in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers or the contemporary teachers of contemplative prayer, I have felt like I have been winging it with prayer. Every Christian joke about prayer eventually gets to the “Lord we just…” or “Father God, we just thank you…” way that evangelicals have learned to pray because it sounds respectful and officious.

Before we go too hard on evangelicals here, let’s keep in mind that the evangelical movement emerged as a reform. There were real issues that needed to be changed. It’s unhelpful to assert that evangelicals were completely off-base. Put into their shoes, we would have desired to make changes as well.

The central problem with evangelicals, as is illustrated with our “winging it” approach to spirituality, is that we are unaware of our roots (especially our most toxic and problematic roots). We don’t know much about what came before us. The many denominations and off-shoots of denominations in Protestant Christianity should give us pause.

In fact, as I read about the history of the evangelical movement, I was struck by how often groups split off from each other under the auspice of calling themselves “Christians.” They thought of themselves as somehow preserving a pure version of the faith and didn’t see how they had any kind of bias or distinctives that set themselves apart.

Of course, years later, these groups of “Christians” took on more set identities as Nazarenes or the Church of Christ, developing their own history and doctrinal distinctives, but at their formation, these denominations saw themselves as somehow able to transcend their roots in order to claim the label “Christians” for themselves.

This pattern has shown up over and over again among evangelicals seeking to correct mistakes or to separate themselves from evangelicals who are in error over a particular doctrine or practice. As evangelicals debate whether to keep the label itself, some have even suggested just calling themselves “Christians” again.

While I am more than sympathetic to the sentiment, I am concerned that we are once again repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to know our roots and to own them so that we can understand where we come from, what has impacted us, and what we perhaps don’t know.

Our ignorance of our history and of the traditions developed among other Christian around the world has become one of our greatest weaknesses. We have often adopted inadequate practices and institutions as a response to flawed practices and institutions—some certainly were more flawed than others. If evangelicals desire to move away from some of our most toxic elements in the future, we need to look back at our roots in order to see what is healthy, what needs to be removed, and where we can learn from Christians in other traditions.

This post was adapted from book three in the series
Evangelicals After the Shipwreck: Evangelicals Need Roots to Grow

Download it for $.99 on Amazon or Other eBook retailers

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

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.

I Resisted Winter and Missed the Renewal of Spring

The Contemplative Writer Twitter header.jpg

The kale we planted in the garden last spring grew into thick stalks all summer and kept our table supplied with greens. By fall the kale stalks were curling and falling all over themselves. Their leaves, which had been full, crisp, and green throughout summer started wilting, turned shades of brown and yellow, and finally succumbed to the constant attacks of tiny pests. By the time the cold winds of November swept the final leaves off the trees, our kale plants were little more than battered stalks with tiny bits of green poking out here and there. Yes, they were just barely alive, but they were far from healthy.

I don’t know why I waited so long to pull out the old kale. Maybe I was hoping that it would survive the winter and sprout new life in the Spring. I left it hanging limp and lifeless all winter. By the time the snow melted, the kale had all but rotted away.

As soon as the weather grew warm, I finally gave in and yanked the old kale stalks out of the garden. I poured new compost into the beds and raked it smooth. A few weeks later I scattered a new crop of kale and lettuce seeds into the orderly garden beds.

The new kale is going to take some time before it’s ready to eat, but I couldn’t hold onto last year’s planting. It had to go in order to make room for what’s next.

How long have I tried clinging to last year’s planting and held up the new things that must take their place?

I have been longing for the new thing, but have continued to cling to what is old.

I have become withered and overgrown, bitter and stagnant, but then I wonder why the new life hasn’t taken root and grown yet.

This week I had a chance to finally pull some old roots up as I make space for a new venture. The “Revert to Author” notice arrived for my first book that I wrote about theology. At the time I was one of many writers trying to sort out Christian theology and whether my faith could survive without the promise of certainty. Some are still wrestling with that question, some have moved on with their faith, and some needed to leave their faith behind. I have moved on with my faith, realizing that I didn’t need an airtight theology in order to have a relationship with a God whose top concern is love.

As I set aside my identity as a writer about theology and culture, I felt both a relief and a fear of what’s next. The fear of “what’s next” is why we often cling to what’s old and dying. We can’t imagine that something better is possible.

I made the mistake of thinking: Better to stick with the broken thing we understand than the new blessing we can’t fathom.

The same day that I signed my agreement to revert the rights of my theology book back to myself, I also continued to work on plans to launch a new website: www.thecontemplativewriter.com. This is a project that has been in the works for a long time, but I just didn’t see how to move forward with it. I kept plodding along with what I knew about theology, uncertain about what would grow if I pulled everything up and started all over.

I finally started planting new things a few years ago when I took a break from blogging about theology and then released Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together. Since then, each step toward prayer and writing, or writing about prayer, has been affirming and life-giving.

It was a long winter, but I now see that I needed the winter. I needed a winter to kill what was no longer productive or life-giving. I needed winter to force me to uproot the past and to make room for what’s next.

Shifting to writing about prayer feels like the beginning of Spring. There is new life to this direction, and I’m finally realizing how I’ve held myself back by failing to uproot what I planted last season.

How many of us go into winter kicking and screaming, lamenting the loss of summer’s warmth and the brilliant colors of the fall because we lack hope for the future?

Perhaps fighting winter is a good sign at times. Perhaps we rightly see the good that we’ve had. I’m grateful for all that I’ve accomplished and learned from that last season. In fact, the things I’m planting today are benefitting from what I planted before.

For this new season, I need to keep writing on this website with longer form posts about prayer, writing, and Christianity, but I’m also making a new space for brief, daily posts about contemplative prayer. The site officially launches April 2nd and begins with regular daily posts (not Sundays) on Monday, April 4th.

My new site, The Contemplative Writer, will offer daily posts that provide guidance for daily prayer, Christian spiritual practices, and sources for meditation and contemplation. You can sign up to receive posts via email, the weekly email with highlights and a custom Examen, or follow through the RSS feed. In the coming month I hope to add more spiritual direction topics and a podcast version of the newsletter.

This website is what I’ve needed in my own life. It’s my hope that my own imperfect journey toward prayer and the wisdom of others will prove beneficial for you as well.

Visit The Contemplative Writer today.

 

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

 

 

We Don’t Move Forward by Adding Another Thing

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I’m in the Christian writing business, so I am acutely aware of the greatest danger for Christian living books: The worst Christian living books try to add more stuff to your life without helping you remove stuff first. In fact, the most helpful books probably remove stuff and help you thrive with what you already have.

Our greatest challenge as Christians is seeing what we already have. If we aren’t getting to the place where we think we need to go, we probably won’t get there by adding another thing to our lives. We’re already loaded up with stuff and our minds are buzzing with distractions and ideas to the point that we’ll struggle to figure out the next step.

If you’re feeling full and life is chaotic and crazy, you don’t need another book on how to study the Bible or how to memorize scripture better or how to even add another cool prayer practice to your life. Those things may help, but they won’t help you when you’re feeling busy and chaotic. You’ll just struggle to add those things to your life and then you’ll have both the sensation of spinning wheels and the guilt of not being able to live a spiritual-enough life.

If you are a follower of Jesus, then here is what you have: you are a member of God’s family who can call him “Father.” You are mysteriously united with Jesus, and the Holy Spirit dwells in you. That is what you already have. You don’t have to work to gain those things. You may need to change things in order to “experience” that reality, but you can’t add anything to your life that will make any of those things more real.

So if you read scripture, you will give yourself a tool to experience the presence of God.

If you pray, you’ll be able to confess sins, express what’s on your mind, and, if you learn how to listen, hear what God is saying to you.

If you add a new spiritual discipline or practice, you’ll create more space to experience God in your life. If you keep an open mind, you’ll ideally start to become aware of God throughout each day.

However, none of those spiritual practices can change God’s presence in our lives. If anything, it’s the stuff in our lives that prevents us from seeing God. We are too loaded down with distractions and burdens to hear and experience God.

Some of us, perhaps many of us, rely on these distractions as a way to medicate our pain, confusion, or disappointment in life. I find it striking that Jesus described himself as a doctor who had come for the sick. It’s like he knew that our world is full of hurting people who are relying on all kinds of “drugs” to get through the day.

We are promised abundant life that flows constantly like water from a spring. However, so many days it feels like a trickle. Then again, perhaps some of us are picking at dry ground, praying for a bit of relief. We’re looking for the perfect way to dig up enough water for today, and those promises of abundant life feel like a dirty trick.

I have seen time and time again that I can only move forward spiritually if I remove something. I need to eliminate the stuff that is keeping me from being present in my day, from hearing God, and from resting in who I am.

Our core identity in Christ is the foundation for our lives, and too often we try to become something holier and more spiritual on a false foundation of extra effort or new fangled spiritual gimmicks.

The “work” of the Christian life isn’t convincing God to be with us. The work is cutting out all of the crap and distractions that cut us off from our identity in Christ and fill up our days. God can’t build until the foundation is cleared of all the junk. And sometimes the junk is stuff we like—television shows, sports, social media, news sites, etc. It’s a leap of faith to trust God has something better for us if we prepare a place in our lives.

Perhaps we’ll be prepared to take this leap of faith when we’re hurting enough or feel lost enough. You’re always welcome to try adding another new thing. I just suspect that it will fall flat without addressing your identity in Christ first and foremost.

I’m not saying that God can’t help things get better or that more prayer and Bible won’t help. I’m just saying that we all have so much more than we realize already. It’s right there for us, and we don’t see it. It would be a tragedy if we spent our lives trying to add one more thing when the most important things are hidden because we haven’t learned to grow through subtraction.

I’m at High Risk of Enjoying My Life

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The sun has been shining non-stop each day for the month of September, and we’ve spent almost every morning taking a walk—myself and my two sons in our epic double stroller.

There was a season when I used to think of how much I wasn’t getting done compared to other people because I spend the morning with our kids. When E, our toddler, was a newborn, I used to really resent the times when his naps ended prematurely. When I can’t catch a break with our current newborn, B, there are times when I can hardly stomp my feet hard enough with frustration.

Today was one of those mornings where nothing seemed to be going right.

B needed his bottle during our walk within a half block of our home. Then he needed to be burped. Then he needed a new diaper within another half block. Then he fussed and fretted, whining for his pacifier but not actually sucking on it.

After forty-five minutes of sticking the pacifier back in his mouth repeatedly, I relented and strapped him into the Ergo Carrier where he immediately dozed off. We cut our snail-paced walk short and beat it to the playground where E was eager to kick his ball around on the tennis court.

“Ten-is court!” he said over and over again.

We kicked and tossed his ball around at the tennis court, but he soon transitioned to the playground, lugging his ball along and looking over his shoulder to make sure we were following him as he trucked ahead. The sun continued to blaze in the sky, and I hung back in the shade whenever I could.

He zipped down the slide, scaled the steep steps, and ventured up a ladder. He even climbed a new ladder on the other end of the playground after I encouraged him to give it a shot. B hardly moved a muscle all morning, his docile face still with his hands balled up in little fists that eventually fell limp.

As E scampered from one slide to another, I paused to reflect on the moment. I wasn’t anxious, resentful, or distracted. I wasn’t wishing I could have a steady 9-5 job that paid more reliably than freelancing. I was present for a change.

This is something I’ve been working on.

It’s not that I don’t want to be a dad or to stay home with our kids during the mornings. It’s just that I’ve tried to balance the need to earn some money with my parenting, and it’s easy to let the money side of things win. When my anxiety came to a head last June and I struggled to fall asleep each night, I hit a point where I had to just let go of control.

I can work hard when I’m working, but I also need to play hard when I’m with the kids. Who would have thought that I need to learn how to play again?

I’ve spent so much time wishing I was somewhere else with my life with more stability and with more opportunities that I failed to see all of the blessings in my present. And when I failed to see the blessings of the present, I worried about all that wasn’t going right.

I used to think I was building something, creating something big and meaningful that I can leave behind some day. It’s not quite like that.

Yes, my writing work can be quite meaningful. Other days it’s just something to pay the bills. Still, it’s all something that I’m able to do and that I generally enjoy doing. But I used to place so much stock in my identity as a writer and provider for my family that I lost sight of everything else.

I’m trying to see what I’d overlooked.

I am being undone, unraveled, one day at a time. I’m demolishing that false identity that, quite frankly, was falling to pieces anyway under the weight of my expectations and comparisons with others.

I’m seeing the sun. I’m seeing my son’s delight in black walnuts and the way he holds them out toward a squirrel and says, “Yum! Yum! Yum!”

I punt E’s ball as high as I can and he tracks it down before settling it and giving it a kick of his own. These days his kicks are shockingly accurate for a two-year-old.

I’m grateful for babies who nap and who can be satisfied with something as simple as a baby carrier strapped to my chest.

I’m starting to see God’s hand all around me. I’m receiving these gifts he’s given me: the sunshine, my children, and a walk in the park. I’ve stopped looking for gifts and blessings in the future. There’s too much to take in right now.

God is present among us, and I never realized how much my “forward thinking” prevented me from sensing that. I never saw how looking ahead could turn into a steady upheaval of anxiety discontent.

I’ve worried about so many things, but only one thing has been necessary. If I’m not careful, I may actually end up enjoying my life.

There’s theology everywhere—even at the playground.