Common Prayer Subverts Our Present Anxiety

I have been attempting to pray daily using the pocket edition of Common Prayer from Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. It’s a good way to sustain a daily prayer habit (something I consistently struggle with), and also helps me to not feel like time I spend in prayer needs to be spontaneous to be heartfelt and meaningful. With Common Prayer, I am allowed to let my need for originality go in favor of joining a broad group of Christians whom I know are praying the same prayers I am, every day.

The juxtaposition of the words of the midday prayer caught me off guard today. Since last Friday, I have curbed all social media use — not entirely, but my use of Twitter has greatly diminished. After spending a week in anger and frustration at the immigration situation (about which I could do literally nothing except make a call to my representatives, who had already critiqued the president’s position anyway), I decided that I needed a break from a timeline full of outrage. So I stepped back for the weekend. I tentatively took a peek at my timeline again on Monday, but only once. The same has been true for yesterday and today. I just can’t help but feel that allowing my brain space to be overtaken by political and social outrage is a misuse of my attention.

The pocket edition’s midday prayer, however, offers a subversive response to the evil and anger we find in the world:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace

Where there is hatred, let me bring love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy…

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our brothers and sisters throughout the world, who live and die in poverty and pain. Give them today, through our hands, their daily bread; and through our understanding love, give peace and joy. Amen.

The next section of the prayer is a recitation of the Beatitudes. You know, “Blessed are the poor,” “Blessed are the hungry,” and so on.

Most of my concerns about social media that I have expressed on this blog and elsewhere have centered around both civil discourse and focus. Those are true and good reasons to stay off social media, but they are really only half of the story for me. I’m also convinced by James K.A. Smith’s argument in Desiring the Kingdom that “All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person” (83). If I’m spending my time on Twitter — a service that is increasingly political, siloed, and feeds on outrage before it feeds on virtuous action, into what kind of person is that habit forming me? Later, Smith writes, “Some of the habits and practices that we are regularly immersed in are actually thick formative practices that over time embed in us desires for a particular version of the good life.” So it’s not just about the kind of person I’m being formed into; my understanding of what constitutes a vision of a good, beautiful world (and therefore, what is good for everyone else) will be formed by my habits and practices.

It’s here that the prayer above can help subvert and short circuit our current political and social moment. If I’m praying the Lord’s prayer and prayers like the one above every day in lieu of seeing what else people are angry about on the web, it’s more likely that I’ll become the kind of person that will (lovingly) do something about the injustice I see around me.

Convenience and Modern Christianity

From Tim Wu’s “The Tyranny of Convenience,” at the New York Times:

The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits.

I find it interesting that so much thinking today (especially the thinking and writing the revolves around the modern condition and our relationship with technology) is concerned with what it means to be human. We are all asking ourselves what true humanity consists of, and whether the infinitely speedy progress of the technological and informational revolutions are conducive to us realizing our potential as human beings.

So alluring is this vision that it has come to dominate our existence. Most of the powerful and important technologies created over the past few decades deliver convenience in the service of personalization and individuality. Think of the VCR, the playlist, the Facebook page, the Instagram account. This kind of convenience is no longer about saving physical labor — many of us don’t do much of that anyway. It is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves. Convenience is one-click, one-stop shopping, the seamless experience of “plug and play.” The ideal is personal preference with no effort…

As task after task becomes easier, the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time.

I also wonder at the ramifications of the capitalistic, technological system that undergirds Western society on expressions of Christian faith (both communal and individual). The race for convenience that lies at the heart of modern notions of “progress” also affects how we view what life ought to be like, and that includes not only what we place our faith in but how we express that faith. Why go to a church that demands something from me — my time, my energy, my resources — not to mention is a severe inconvenience on my day-to-day life, when the other church down the street conveniently doesn’t require that? Why buy into a version of the Christian faith that demands that I lose myself, die to myself, give up my desires for the sake of the good of my neighbor when there are plenty of other versions of Christianity that build up my self-esteem and tell me God wants what’s best for me (and what’s best for me is obviously money and privilege and satisfaction!)?

The infinite demand of Christianity is inconvenient, and I’m not sure we’re ready to admit that. I know I prefer to watch Netflix every evening, go to church on the Sundays when it works better for my schedule, and to have every spare minute outside of work to myself. I know it’s highly Kierkegaardian of me, but if you ask me what I want right now, I’d say, “Quite simply, I want honesty.” Honesty that, in the modern world, we (especially Christians!) are more interested in comfort and convenience, and not really all that interested in taking up the task of actually becoming Christians.

Choosing Our Reality

At Life in Deep Ellum, we’re in the middle of the season of Advent. This year, the season seems to revolve around the notions of waiting, making space, and patience as we learn to live in the midst of unfulfilled expectations about life and death, health and sickness, grief and joy.

On Sunday, Rachel spoke on “peace.” She proposed the idea that, despite the fact that we often think the opposite, peacefulness, not anxiety, is meant to be the norm. Most of the time, we act as if life is supposed to be chaotic, busy, and full of things that make us anxious. Instead, Scripture seems to indicate that, as Rachel said, “Peace is the norm for a well-ordered life.”

How does one order one’s life towards peace? Scripture also gives us an indication here, though subtly. Rather than giving a direct answer to this, it seems to indicate that there is a spectrum of being on which we all fall when we view and exist the world. On one end, we can view the world as hostile — a place for which its purpose is simply to harm us and keep us from feeling secure. On the other, we can view simply choose to live at peace: peace with ourselves, peace with others, and peace with God.

When we choose to live at peace (and obviously, this takes work through spiritual and concrete practices), that choosing begins to shape our reality. Our choice of living in a state of peace begins to shape not only our interaction with the world and with others, but we begin to experience reality and the world as inherently peaceful, un-hostile.

This coheres with the work I plan to do on my thesis, at least tangentially. If language-use, along with subjective experience within our given communities, directly affects our experience of the world, then we have choices to make about reality (most of the time, without the ability to have any amount of objective certainty that our choices are correct). By choosing a mode of being over the course of time, it is not reality itself that we are changing, but our experience of it. And eventually, perhaps, this does change reality itself.

Making Space for Advent

Over the last few weeks at Life in Deep Ellum (my church family), our pastors have been discussing the idea of “The Art of Making Space” and how this can be done in our lives with spiritual practices. Last week, Rachel spoke about the spiritual practice of moving toward God and others, and how we know that our attention should be on some things, but circumstances or life or distractions often tend to pull our attention to other things, things that are unimportant or insignificant.

Rachel spoke about the birth of Jesus, and how the incarnation is a story about the Creator, omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent, coming to us in flesh and we had no room for him. Our attentions, our affections, were elsewhere. We could not see value in our Creator incarnate. We pushed him outside, to a liminal space, because we could not make space for this kind of God when there were so many other important things to think about and do.

This story of God-in-flesh, found in the liminal, marginal space of human life is still true. This baby was born, and the only people that got an announcement were shepherds — people who were looked down upon as stupid and possibly treacherous. This baby was born and was spoken about in the stories of the magi, who somehow trusted that they would find something incredible when they followed a sign in the sky. This baby was born into a family, a community of faith, and had to grow up listening to his mother and father and playing with his brothers just like the rest of us.

God is found in these places — in the company of the lowly, in story, in family and community. If we miss this, we miss life. If we miss this, we miss connecting with our Creator, the one who tells us to look down, not up.

Prepare your hearts for Advent, friends. Let go of the things taking your attention away from that which is important, and look for the spaces where God is.

On Speaking of the Immaterial

In his NYT bestselling Sapiens, Yuval Harari posits that humans (homo sapiens in particular) differentiated themselves from other types of the genus homo many thousands of years ago because of a ‘cognitive revolution.’ Specifically, this cognitive revolution exposed itself in the novel use of language.

Other species have (or had) language, even the ones outside of homo. Apes, for example, have specific calls that indicate certain types of predators. Bees and other insects use a type of “language” — not one that we would recognize — that indicate optimum places for finding nourishment. The difference in language use for homo sapiens, however, is how we use(d) our language. Language types in all other species only deal in the concrete, the immediate, the present. Material reality is the only reality in the languages of non-sapiens.

So what does Harari say we used our language for, exactly? Somehow, the cognitive revolution (which he says occurred sometime around 70,000 years ago — a blip on the radar by cosmological standards) led to the ability for sapiens (read: humans as we currently understand them) to speak of the immaterial. It gave us the ability to create common myths, to speak of that which does not ‘exist,’ to create fictions (Harari’s words). These common myths, these signs and sounds wrapped around that which is unknown to us on a material level allowed us to master the world. We formed small groups, tribes, villages, cities, all centered on common thoughts and ideas. We made agreements about what the world was really like, the nature of reality, what set of ideas or gods or spirits deserved our loyalty. These common groups of thought helped facilitate the formation of bonds that transcended the individual survival mechanisms inherent to biological humanity.

Basically, it’s in our very DNA to be — not only linguistic — but immaterially linguistic creatures. We speak of the physical world, but we have the ability and the impetus to speak of more than that.

Now, if I can take Harari’s idea a step further: if we take this to be true, what does this immaterially linguistic capacity reveal about modern thought on knowledge and religious affection?

The Enlightenment project (oversimplification, I know) was inherently about knowledge. In particular – what is knowledge, and how do we have confidence that our knowledge is justified? The debate essentially turned on whether we know things innately and through reason (rationalism), or whether our knowledge originates in experience and observance of the physical world (empiricism). Both positions present major philosophical problems that Immanuel Kant attempted to solve in the mid-1700s. His solution to these problems, unbeknownst to most of the modern world, still presently serves as the foundation for much of our modern epistemological assumptions about what we can know (knowledge theory isn’t exactly interesting to many people, but the reality is that much of what we take for granted in the modern world – science, medicine, technology, etc. – is only possible because we have what seems to be a coherent understanding of what “knowledge” is).

All of these questions about knowledge from the 17th-19th centuries further created conflicts for religious thought that we continue to grapple with today. One of Kant’s ideas, for example, is that “knowledge” proper can only be gained through the interplay between categories which are internal to us (specifically, the ideas of space and time) and our sense experience of the physical world external to us. If that’s the case, any experience we try to name outside of the sphere of external, material reality doesn’t properly fit in the (modern) category of knowledge.

If the Enlightenment epistemological project attempted to get a handle of the limits of human reason to determine knowledge, its final position in Kant was the category of knowledge only applies to that which humans interact with and experience on the level of material reality. Knowledge, based on empirical data, was made king during the Enlightenment! Yet this undermines the very thing that makes us human — that immaterial linguistic capacity. If modernity and Enlightenment thinking have the final say, and humans can only justifiably speak of material reality, we lose something fundamental to the essence of humanity.

Humanity, Friedrich Schleiermacher said, universally experiences something he called gefühl. This can be translated many ways, but by this he meant an internal intuition that humans are utterly dependent on the infinite, on ultimate reality. Gefühl, for Schleiermacher, was the fundamental basis for religious affection, and it is experienced by everyone on some level. He wrote about this because, while he agreed with Kant that justified knowledge can only be based on external, material data, this did not account for something more fundamental at the base of what it means to be human. Right or wrong about the evolutionary assumptions he makes, Harari seems to affirm something of what Schleiermacher wrote about religious affection in humanity. That which makes humans unique and inherently different from the rest of creation – the ability to speak of the immaterial – is that which pushes humans to grasp outside of material reality, even in a post-Enlightenment era.

On the Imperfect God (or, God Doesn’t Make Machines)

God is imperfect, and is disinterested in perfection.

Contra God, when humans create and design, we want order. Clean, straight lines. Smooth curves. No jagged edges. We desire machines, not dirt; cold, clean spaces, not hot, sweaty earth. In a word, we desire perfection.

God our creator is wild. What God creates is rough and dirty and unpredictable. God unfolds the creation as a pulsing, breathing, beautiful, strange tapestry. Its lines are not straight, its curves are not smooth. It explodes with the force of God’s wildness.

God is imperfect, and is disinterested in perfection.

Contra God, when humans seek and pursue holiness, we make rules. Systems, order, law. We want right and wrong, black and white, clear-cut answers to how we ought to act.

God our creator is love. The commandments can be best, and only, summed up as love the Lord and love your neighbor. God’s expectation for humanity is not found in a temple, or a set of rules, or sacrifice. God desires mercy. God expects love, and care, and hospitality, and community, and grace. None of these things fit in our systems, because they are messy and require us to break our own rules.

When we make machines and systems and rules and laws, we do so in an attempt to make ourselves like God. In reality, our machine-making and system-creating only serves to make us less like God. When we separate ourselves from one another, and when we build perfect, clean machines, we further remove ourselves from that which God desires for us: freedom, wildness, and love.

God is holy, God is love, God is righteous, God is perfect. And yet God is ‘imperfect,’ and is disinterested in ‘perfection.’ Because our perfection, our holiness, does not fulfill the holiness and perfection that God expects from humanity.

A Subversive God, a Pathetic Christ

Call it what you want: the demonic, the satanic, evil, dark forces, the bleak reality of suffering in the world. It has a grip on humanity, it is the way the world works. I’m not just talking about violence (though I am talking about that too), nor am I just thinking of the major atrocities that happen once every year or five years or decade. I’m talking about that unseen power that has its grips on the everyday reality of humanity.

We all feel it, but don’t talk about it. Some of us feel it and don’t know that we feel it. Christian or not. That power is the thing that makes us think of ourselves first. It is that power that corrupts us when we gain control, even over the tiniest things. This dark force tells us that it is best to look out for #1, that it’s maybe a bad idea to stop and give that homeless man some water because who knows what he could do to me?, that if I could just make a little more money everything would be alright.

All of us, without exception, believe these things. Some of us go to church on Sundays, and listen to the preacher talk about the words of Jesus, and clap our hands or think ourselves virtuous for agreeing that those are the right things to do. This Jesus that tells us “Blessed are the poor” and “Blessed are the meek” and “Blessed are those who mourn.” Then Monday comes, and we are wake up numb to the reality of Sunday. There are bills to pay, after all. That “losing your life” stuff is all well and good when I’m sitting in an air-conditioned building and I’m about to go eat some awesome food at a restaurant after church. But Monday comes, and well, you know. Let’s be practical, come on.

And to be honest, the dark forces surrounding us – the selfishness, the greed, the fear we feel – those are practical responses to the way the world is. It’s just reality. If I don’t look out for myself, well, who else is going to?

Jesus, however, didn’t seem to be bothered by this. He came into this world weak, born to a people that were actively being oppressed by both religious and civil authorities. And then he had the audacity to spend his time, not leading a military resistance, but by walking around, telling stories and healing people of their diseases! And the stories he told were impractical – stupid, even. And you know what’s worse? He only did this for three years. That’s nothing. That’s the blink of an eye.  And you know what’s worse than that? All of that storytelling and healing he did culminated in death. Not a quick death. Not a heroic or valiant death. It was pathetic. He was falsely accused, betrayed by a close friend, and hung on a slab of wood. There was no fanfare. There was no riot. He died a miserable, lonely death, and then a couple of women tended to him. He didn’t even have his own tomb to be buried in.

This is the way that God saves the world. And we have yet to believe that this way – frailty, humility, weakness, death – is the only way to life.

On Infinite Accessibility

My oh my, what a wonderful day we’re having.

Why oh why, are we looking for a way outside it?

How long, oh Lord, can you keep the whole world spinning under our thumbs?

“My Oh My” – Punch Brothers

What have we lost in ourselves when we gain access to the infinite? And by infinite, here, I do not mean “Ultimate.” I mean our infinite accessibility. We have unprecedented access to everything, and I have to wonder whether by virtue of our infinite accessibility, we have lost ourselves.

Our humanity is founded upon many things, but two stand out: discovery and anxiety. One drives the other, or perhaps both drive both. We look inside of ourselves and we see nothing, an abyss, a missing piece that cannot be named or controlled. We sense our turmoil because we are incomplete, and that brings us to anxiety. That anxiety pulls us into discovery, into the leap into darkness, into opening our-selves up to the pure unknown. Upon our discovery of that which is new, foreign, distinct from our own little microcosms, we are content, and then, after a time, we are anxious again. Is this all there is? If that was so fulfilling, if that was so exciting and beautiful and terrifying, maybe there is more? So we become anxious again, and we are driven to discovery again and again and again.

Except.

We are no longer explorers, no longer anxious, no longer willing to wallow in our misery and anxiety and dread and allow it to push us to extremes. The screen pulls us in, constantly. We feel anxiety, only for a moment, a nanosecond, and we distract ourselves from this feeling because it is ugly and unpleasant. Reality grabs a hold of us with its dark, cold hands, and we say No, no, not today. Today I want to know what my high school friend is eating for lunch. Today I want to know what nonsense Donald Trump spouted from his mouth. Today I want to watch a video on how to make phở. 

The screen, the internet, the world and its words are calling us to its warmth. Reality is cold and desolate and bleak: it grabs us and begs us to stare into it, unwaveringly, so that we may make something of it.

God is not a meaning-giver, but a meaning taker. God says I will take away your imposed meaning on reality because it is not true. It is a mask you put on yourself, it is a security blanket to help you sleep at night. God doesn’t believe in night lights.

God’s presence makes us aware of the gap in our humanity that demands dread. This dread is the first step towards “dying-to,” the first step towards the abyss of daily crucifixion, because it is here that meaning is not given but created. God, the true infinite, has been dethroned by a false infinite (otherwise known as the Internet). The false infinite of pure, unadulterated accessibility gives us control and meaning and takes away our anxiety. But to become fully human, we require a true infinite. One that enhances our anxiety, lets us sit in it for a while so we recognize our insignificance.

Let go of the warmth of the screen. Embrace darkness and reality, for it is here where we discover, and it is here that we become fully human.

On Authentic Christian Faith (or, Fake It ‘Till You Make It)

Who is me? Who is my genuine self?

Is it the person inside me that constantly doubts, criticizes, is skeptical of any claim for which I do not have sufficient evidence?

Is it the person within that has deep anxiety about the future, about whether I’m being a good enough parent, about whether I am the person that I want to be, day after day?

Is it the person that believes in Jesus, that his life, death, and resurrection are the turning points of history, and that Jesus somehow mysteriously saves us from sin and death?

How do we define ‘authenticity’? How can one become an ‘authentic self’?

Most people put a whole lot of stock in authenticity, perhaps because we are tired of seeing people that seem fake to us. We are tired of hearing people say one thing, but act differently. We vilify hypocrisy.

But maybe – just maybe – that’s not it at all. Maybe we beg people for authenticity because we can’t stand the inauthenticity of our own selves. Maybe we beg for authenticity, conviction, the alignment of words, beliefs, and action, because we know that we are hypocrites. We say we are Christians, but we doubt every other day whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. We say we want to be good parents, that we love our kids, but we become impatient with them, or we are more interested in our smartphone than sitting and reading a book with them.


Authentic Christian faith is a concept that is irksome to me, at least in the way we normally frame it. Many of us, when considering whether someone ought to be called an authentic Christian, point to a multitude of factors. But I think many of us consider the highest factor of authentic Christianity is how convinced a given person is about his or her conviction about the fact claims of Christianity.

For example, if you were quizzing someone to determine whether or not he or she was a Christian, how would you start? Most of us, I assume, would begin with truth or fact claims:

Do you believe God exists? Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God? Do you believe Jesus died and rose again, and that he saves those who believe this from their sins? Do you believe x, y, and z?

And usually, we want certainty. We base our understanding of a given Christian’s authenticity, mainly, on his or her certainty that those truth claims are accurate.

There’s just one little problem with this – humans don’t operate this way.

I spend probably half of my time living on a thin sliver of hope that God exists, that beauty is real, that Jesus really does mysteriously save me, constantly. The other half of the time is me swimming in a dark pool of doubt, not knowing which way is up or down, grasping for dry ground that I cannot find. On those days, heaven seems like a bogus idea that humans created because we fear the endless nothingness of death. On those days, God is a distant memory, an almost forgotten lover, a shadow on a foggy evening.

But, despite my misgivings, I know I cannot explain some spiritual experiences I have had with anything other than ‘God.’ I cannot deny that prayer, even on my darkest days, both provides me with inexplicable comfort and (scientifically) is neurologically beneficial.

So, again I ask, what is authentic Christian faith? Is it certainty in fact claims about history, long ago, recorded in an ancient text and passed down from generation to generation? That is important, but no, I don’t think so.

I think authentic Christian faith is about loyalty, commitment, fidelity. It is about me deciding that placing myself within the historic Christian tradition, affirming the Creeds, trusting that the beauty I experience every second of every day – that those things are more important than my darkest emotions and fears and doubts on my darkest day. Authentic Christianity is when we pray, “God, I trust you,” even when we cannot be certain that God even exists.

On Being a Southern Pentecostal

Southern

That descriptor hasn’t exactly gained in popularity as of late. I worried, last week, what my friends from California and Alaska might think of me post-election 2016. I wondered whether, given my professed faith and my southern roots, I would be lumped in to whatever amalgam of “hatred, bigotry, and racism” I’ve seen spewed on social media and news outlets and think pieces before and since our now president-elect claimed his title as leader of the free world.

I wondered whether my resolve to embrace my southern identity as a (ahem) Texan would waver as I watched last Tuesday’s results into the late night refresh on my computer screen over and over again.

But I don’t think it will waver. At least, it hasn’t yet.

For better or for worse, the South has become my home. It has become the place where I feel most comfortable, the place where I have met the people the walked with me through hard times, the place where ALL of my family builds their lives. Texas has terrible summers but beautiful sunsets. Louisiana is humid and sticky and has mosquitoes that will probably kill you, but it also has the best food I’ve eaten in my entire life and the most hospitable people that will welcome you to family dinner without hesitation. Elaine and I took a trip to Nashville last year that left my heart and my belly full. There is feeling and life and love here that, in my experience, doesn’t exist elsewhere – at least not the same way that it does right here.

Pentecostal

Another place that, for better for worse, I am learning to embrace and call home. Pentecostalism, of all things: that sweaty-revival, loud-mouthed, tongues-sputtering, prophecy-yelling, strange redheaded cousin of Evangelicalism.

It’s something I’m trying to work out because, despite my ambivalence about its more outlandish practices, the Pentecostalism I am a part of provides the kind of spiritual family I need that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Historically speaking, Pentecostalism was a movement birthed and nurtured by the outsiders and marginalized of society. It was a place for black Americans and women and those in poverty to speak out about the way the Spirit was moving in their lives. It provided a space for those groups to speak in the language of the ancient prophets against the tyranny of the empire. It latched on to the unbelievable claim that this church, weird and wild and vulnerable, was the embodiment of God’s Kingdom come.


I’m starting an M.Div. in the spring (something, after five years of spiritual wandering, I thought I’d never do) at the place I received my undergraduate degree in Theology (something else I thought I’d never do).

Five years. Five years of being a dad and losing my faith and gaining it back and leaving church and coming back and making a whole lot of mistakes in my life and my marriage and my family. Some of these things were terrible and harrowing. Some of these things were life-giving and more beautiful than I can express. They exist as memory and emotion now, swirling around my head like an old movie. The only way I figure I can make sense of them is to go back to the source. If I can somehow look back at my southern roots and my Pentecostal yearnings, I see something sweet and true and good. Southern Pentecostalism defines me and gives me a steady footing. It gives me family and love and good meals. In pursuing more education with the goal of pastoring and teaching, I’m hoping to be a part of a movement that re-forms Pentecostalism into what it once was. In staying right here in the South, I’m hoping that I can help make Texas a place where everyone feels just as at-home as I do. We all belong, and I want to spend my life embracing those around me and those from my community in the arms of southern hospitality

For better or for worse, my heart is here.