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.

An Invitation to Spy on My Bookshelves

I have the honor of contributing to the guest series “Other People’s Bookshelves” over at Anne Bogel’s blog, Modern Mrs. Darcy. Anne is a talented writer who manages to read a ton of books, which she shares in her epic Summer Reading Guides each year, and who wrote one of the must-read books on time management, productivity and creativity.

In this post I share the books that are most important to me, what we read for fun, and why I used to hide my theology books.

Check out my bookshelves at Anne’s blog.

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