Saving Our Souls from Social Media Division, Despair, and Deception

social media distraction

There’s nothing like a national crisis to stir up a bit of trouble on social media.

I frequently turned to social media for curated reflections in 2016 and early 2017, and it proved to be severely detrimental for my mental health.

So far as I can tell, I had relatively good motives. I was seeking out the opinions of a wide variety of experts in real time.

Why would that leave me feeling anxious, sad, or hopeless?

Divisive, Extreme Views Thrive on Social Media

The challenge with social media is that it rewards the most divisive, shocking, and reactionary voices with more attention, not less. Taking the most recent news of Greta Thunberg’s advocacy to take action against the global climate crisis as an example, the critics who shared some of the most controversial or even cruel responses to her received the most attention on social media this week.

That’s just how social media works.

As I have used social media with more awareness (and MANY more limitations), I’ve noticed how the most extreme and divisive views tend to get the most interaction and responses. Even if I want to seek out helpful perspectives on social media, I’m also exposing myself to the toxic actors as well.

Most bloggers and social media users know that the easiest way to draw a crowd online, or anywhere really, is to start a fight.

Even worse, numerous reports and studies of social media trends have found that more groups and nations than ever are employing automated “bots” or programs written to promote certain content. Pew Research estimated in 2018 that 66% of links shared on Twitter were shared by bots. In other words, there is an unknown amount of manipulation to social media trends.

We Are Exposed to Despair on Social Media

If you’re already a bit nervous about an issue, event, or an individual, you will most assuredly be exposed to a wide array of responses on social media that may leave you wondering about your own views.

Perhaps the person voicing reasons for despair or a lack of hope will place just enough doubt and unease into your mind to leave you feeling unsettled. In fact, you may even know on an intellectual level that such a despairing view is most likely wrong, but just knowing of the possibility may be enough to disrupt your day.

Even when I’m expecting to find people on social media who are drowning in despair, their comments on otherwise informative posts can still change my mindset.

Social Media Can Spread Deception

If the primary way to get noticed on social media is to trigger a reaction of any kind, then the truth of a statement is less important than the sentiment it stirs up in readers. In fact, we all struggle with confirmation bias that expects people to act in certain ways.

Narratives, whether based in reality or in a twisting of the truth, can be woven on social media and passed off as factual because they fit within our expectations.

If we’re already despairing of a situation on social media, then we may be more likely to believe a story that alleviates that despair.

If a particular narrative, whether true or not, has already left us angry or divided from others, then we may be more likely to believe a story that justifies that anger or those divisions.

Finding confirmation bias in my own social media use has been humbling but quite good for my soul.

Saving Our Souls from Division, Despair, and Deception

Now is a great time to ground ourselves in silence before God and awareness of our family and friends immediately around us. Social media can sweep us away in a current of emotions that can leave us feeling fearful, angry, or uncertain.

There’s only so much we can do in a given day, and most of what we can do that will make the most difference for our souls and for our neighbors won’t require extensive time spent on social media or any digital devices.

If you need to check on the news, consider going to a few different news websites rather than subjecting yourself to the chaos of social media. While there may be a time to engage experts on social media or to share posts on social media, beware the way that we can be swept away by the emotions, divisions, and narratives placed before us.

Social media is not designed to help our souls to thrive, and any benefits it offers for connection come with perhaps even more serious threats for disconnection from one another and from God’s present love for us.

Reconnect with Soul Care

I’ll be sharing more about these ideas in my newsletter and in my upcoming book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction (releasing June 2, 2020).

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Photo by Bruno Reyna on Unsplash

How Habits Can Help Us Pray

I stumbled into the practice of the best practices of habit formation backward as I began to make more space in my life for prayer. I found the connections between spiritual practices and habit formation after the fact, reading books like The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits when certain prayer habits had already taken root in my life.

As I read these books on habit formation, I couldn’t help thinking that I really could have used them as I was getting started with a more regular prayer schedule. As a disclaimer, it would be a mistake to reduce spirituality to a simple habit-based schedule, nor do I limit my prayer to certain times or practices.

One of the reasons I struggled to make space for prayer was my lack of habits to add order to my life. Habits aren’t the silver bullet for prayer or other spiritual practices, but they offer a useful place to make space for prayer on a smaller scale than say a more rigid monastic community.

Here are a few ways that habits can help you make more space for prayer.

Set a Time and a Space to Pray

This is nothing new or revolutionary, as Christians have been praying at set times for centuries, to say nothing of the Jewish roots of Christianity. A set time for prayer in a specific place makes it significantly easier to pray since my body now seems to almost know instinctively what will happen next at specific times and places.

Begin Small and Grow in Prayer

I began to pray in silence for just a few minutes. That grew to five minutes, and then over time I experimented with ten, twenty, and even thirty minutes. Habits are more likely to stick if you can start small, keep consistent, and then increase the time for the habit.

It helped that I invested time in learning how to pray, such as the practice of centering prayer where a simple word offers a way to refocus my intention to be present for God.

I used to think of myself as a failure if I couldn’t pray for a long time, but James Clear emphasizes in Atomic Habits that it’s far more important to keep a streak going for a habit than to skip it if I can’t do it perfectly. If I only pray in silence for a few minutes one day, that at least maintains the routine of praying daily and makes it easier to begin again the next day, hopefully adding more time.

Give Yourself a Prompt to Pray

A prompt is a reminder or cue that helps me remember what I intend to do. For instance, I leave my running clothes out in the morning as a reminder to run–that also makes it easy to choose to run.

Leaving my prayer book out helps me remember to pray each morning, while driving my car in the morning also helps me remember to spend some time sitting in silence. The “prompt” is as simple as turning my car on and then sitting in silence for 5-10 minutes. It took discipline to make prayer a habit in the car each morning, but now, it is far more automatic and requires less willpower.

Make It Easy to Pray

Closely related to the prompts or cues pray, making it easy to pray ensures that I remove any barriers or distractions. For instance, I don’t have to look for my prayer book because it’s already out. I don’t have to force myself to choose a time to pray because I have chosen some simple cues.

I sit in silence when I turn the car on in the morning, or I open my prayer book before I begin my work in the morning. It’s not hard to pray at these times, and while these aren’t the only times I pray, I have set moments throughout the day where I make it as easy as possible to choose prayer.

I’ve already made the choice to make space for prayer, so it’s not major decision each time I think of praying.

Consider Your Motivation to Pray

My motivation for prayer called for deeper scrutiny than I had imagined. I share in Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, that I had prayed because of fear, duty, guilt, and obligation. I imagined that God was disappointed in me because I was such a slacker who never prayed enough.

I hadn‘t considered that God was already present and loving, accepting me as I am and craving an intimate relationship with me.

Moreover, the simplicity of the Christian contemplative prayer tradition pulled me away from a performance mindset where I tried to demonstrate my piety or commitment. While silence or centering prayer aren’t the only ways I pray, they have been the most healing for me as I learn to turn to God in faith, waiting patiently in silence for the Lord.

While habits aren’t essential for making space to pray, they can make it significantly to find space each day for prayer. I have found that the best habit formation practices have a lot in common with the schedules of monks and nuns, and it seems that they may have a thing ten to teach us about making space for prayer and work.

If you aren’t sure where to begin with prayer, it may help to rethink your spiritual practices as habits that can start small and grow over time.

 

Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

Better to Have Imperfect Spiritual Practices Than No Spiritual Practices

There is one significant disadvantage to learning spiritual practices and disciplines from the likes of Thomas Merton.

While Merton hid out in an abandoned tool shed to pray each day or ventured off to his hermitage for days at a time, most of us can hardly string together 10 minutes of silent prayer before an inevitable interruption comes along. It’s easy to become discouraged when comparing our time for prayer to someone who dedicated large blocks of time to it.

I can get caught up in the challenges of pursuing solitude in a family of five in a relatively smallish house with thin doors and bedrooms clustered closely together. Even if I carefully plan my time, a child will pee on something other than a toilet, the pharmacy will take longer on a prescription, extra homework will show up unbidden, or a work project will take hours longer than anticipated.

These aren’t things that can generally be put off until later, and so plans and disciplines need to be adapted or dropped for the day. The perfect version of a spiritual practice isn’t a guarantee most days for a parent, and it’s not like Thomas Merton has a wealth of experience in this department, even if he frequently complained about how busy the monastery kept him.

[As a side note, Merton complained about his packed schedule to the point that he likely was sent off into the woods by himself to tag trees. I know about this because he cheerfully documented these romps throughout his journals in great detail.]

This week I was practicing silent breathing and centering prayer while driving around town.

That’s not the ideal situation for that practice, but it’s the time I had while navigating an unexpectedly full schedule.

At another point, I was praying the divine hours in the pharmacy pickup line.

That’s not my preferred place to pray the hours, but it was better than not praying them at all.

It’s easy to turn to our phones for podcasts, social media updates, emails, text messages, or videos to pass the time.

What can you do with five minutes in the pharmacy line?

What good will ten minutes of imperfect silence in the car really do for you?

What I’ve found is that doing spiritual practices imperfectly is still better than not doing them at all. When anxiety, sloth, and lack of discipline show up in my life, I can always trace them back to a schedule that filled up and completely crowded out spiritual practices like praying the hours or centering prayer in silence.

By hanging on to these imperfect practices, I kept myself somewhat stable and maintained the habit of making space for them.

On the following day I wasn’t juggling a mountain of unexpected projects, and so I could maintain a certain level of continuity with my spiritual practices.

I still wouldn’t say that they were on par with the quality of Merton’s reflections in the hermitage, but of course he would scold me for even suggesting that one person’s contemplative practices could be compared to another. Perhaps that is the most significant reason to accept “imperfect” spiritual practices in the first place.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

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.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

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?

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

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

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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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

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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.