Pastor, Writer, Contemplative

Archive for spirituality

A Prayer You Can Use When You Are Afraid


But remember – Jesus abhorred talisman-like charm-prayers: Read the rest of this entry »

Why Does My Faith Feel So Dry? 3 Things That Might Be Wrong:


At Woven, we’ve started a series of teachings on prayer that have been examining the soul and probing deep within my spirit as well. Over 15 years ago I suffered an experience that shut my prayer life down overnight and forced me Read the rest of this entry »

Learning To Pray Again


click to enlarge

I was recently gifted a book called A Simple Life-Changing Prayer from my friend and superintendent Garth Bolinder. It was a timely gift, as I have been teaching a series on prayer and wanted to not only include a talk on the Examen, but also begin it in earnest myself.

The pic above comes from Jim Manney’s book itself (here is the original site) showing us a Simple Life-Changing Prayer in its distilled form. It really is not much more complicated than this, and for my own purposes I’ve distilled it even further:

  1. An Attitude of Gratitude
  2. Examine Desires
  3. Make Amends

My renewed interest in the above came when I found I would periodically “lose touch” with myself and God despite my progress and spiritual growth of late, I would still have “relapses” of judgment, temper outbursts, selfish streaks, etc. In those moments I would “leak” as it were… and have no idea where the plumbing is broken. Sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks – I would be completely out of touch. And as a minister I am not proud to say this, but it was because of a lack of prayer.

Mind you, I am speaking of prayer as a panacea for spiritual ills, not a puffing-up, hyping-up, pumping-up, self-psyching, check box exercise that I have been a good religious person today, but rather a prayer that is a meditative cogitation before God that examines motives and desires and serves as a regular spiritual SOTU (State of the Union) – this was not happening. That’s what I needed.

And so I’ve re-carved out the regular time in my day when I settle down for an inventory of sorts, an examen, a special prayer that discerned the presence of God throughout my day and also held up my own wants, needs, and desires to the scrutiny of the divine. It’s different from the 11 to midnight prayers I used to do which rattled off a checklist of Adoration Confession Thanksgiving Supplication, which was fine as it was, but I needed something more. And because for the longest time I couldn’t find it it seemed like I had been in a long desert stretch. Discovering the Examen has been like an oasis. It has no obligation to be long, no sense of multiplying words upon words. Wordiness is not helpful here. And yet the time is easily filled with discerning and prayerful cogitation that is not wandering, rambling, droning – meaningless (Matt 6:7 ““And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the pagans do”). At the same time it is concise. A good examen can be completed in 5 minutes and so I am not beholden to the clock as in my old performance-ridden days. Thank God I am free from that. My prayers now are both long and short – but anyway concise and effective and that’s because I now have a new purpose – not to multiply words before God – but to be grateful for my day, to discern his movements, and figure out what I must do to align in action.

The writing of C.S. Lewis comes to mind here:

“Only words, words; to be led out in battle against other words… I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer… why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?” – Till We Have Faces

So for the sake of myself and my community, I’ve taken it upon myself after some study to write our own examen (with accompanying mp3) adapting elements from the Ignatian Examen as well as the end-of-day inventory of Alcoholics Anonymous (10th / 11th Step prayers). It reads like this:

Woven Prayer of Examen

God, I am grateful for today. *

As I review my day, what should I take notice of? *

Please shed your light and show me what I really need. *

Where was I resentful, selfish, dishonest, or afraid? Do I owe an apology? *

Have I kept something to myself which should be discussed with another person at once? *

Was I kind and loving towards all or was I thinking of myself most of the time? *

Forgive me for my harms and show me what corrective measures I should be taking. *

This I do, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Hope it’s helpful as it is presently helping me.

I now end my day after every and any activity, even if it is late-evening movie-watching, to end with an examen. 11 to midnight is sectioned-off once again. I feel no compulsion to fill the whole hour. Sometimes it happens, other times I am done early. If the examen was effective I am fine with that. I now also begin my day first thing in the morning with a short examen of sorts to get my mind in the right spiritual place so I can establish a conscious contact with God throughout the rest of the day. Get this – I do this even before I check my email on my phone!!! – tremendous lol. It’s also lessened some of the screen-related hypertension I’ve had. So unhealthy.

I am not listing these as a showing of pride but foolishness. Of course our prayer acts are to be kept “secret” as Jesus teaches in Matt 6. But for me it is foolishness because a) it is for your glory and benefit, and, b) to show that sometimes even ministers need to get onto better medicines for our own follies and character defects.

Confessions of a Recovering Prayer Fanatic


Prayer. The hardest thing in the world.

Fifteen years ago, I was a prayer fanatic. Having grown up in a holiness tradition in a Korean church, I was all about the early rising, the long hours logged in prayer, the moaning and the groaning and the angst, the knobby knees, the undecipherable words that only my spirit deep within knew.

And then overnight, kaput.

I no longer had the words. And the more I spoke in prayer, the more I seemed to dig myself deeper into the late-stage onset of undiagnosed depression I had. I found I could no longer speak. And the more I tried, actually the darker and heavier and more deeply depressed I felt. Prayer felt oppressive. And this, after years and years of regular – daily – prayer spent on my knees for about an hour, sometimes two.

Fifteen years later I stumble upon this gem of a quote by C.S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces that so adequately summarizes the experience I had:

“Only words, words; to be led out in battle against other words…

I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer…

why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?”

I now know that prayer is not about my words.

I now know that uncritical prayer can mask deeper needs.

I now know that misguided prayer can smokescreen deeper brokennesses.

I now know that prayer is not about an intense hour, but a day-long abiding.

I now know that it is not heroic to bleed out words, but better to conserve them.

It is better to use few words well than many repetitively. Word inflation = meaning deflation. Jesus warned us about thinking we would be heard for our many words (Matt 6:7) and therefore told us not to use “meaningless repetition” as the pagans do. “batta/logeo” is the word there, denoting a word (logos / logeo) babbled about meaninglessly (battabattabattabattabatta). It is believed to be an onomatopoetic reference. I know I have done my share of battabattabattabattabatta’ing. And for that season perhaps it served its purpose. But today I have great difficulty bringing myself to doing that again.

I have learned to pray instead with very few words, but great amounts of silent reflection, and a very actively engaged mind. Not a racing mind, mind you – and there is a difference – but an actively engaged mind. Even when I am not saying anything. It becomes prayer for me when I am deep in contemplation that is worshipful.

Today I still pray, but with different starting motivations. It is not longer to rack up words to get into a spiritual hall of fame. It is not to build a rep. It is to expose my soul. It is to open it up to correction. It is to understand God’s universe and His ways, and to align myself with Him where throughout the day I may have gotten misaligned. And selfish. Or resentful.

Prayer is less about unholy becoming more holy.

It is more about sick taking my medicine getting better.

Constantly having to set ego aside. Take an inventory, do an evening examen. Was I wrong when I shot back at my wife that way? Was that lustful thought worth entertaining? And where am I hungry, anxious, lonely, or tired? Why am I snapping at my children these days? Prayer, prayer, prayer.

Prayer is not a talisman or a charm to get what we want; rather it is about knowing the mind of God even before we ask.

And that’s why we are so often told: “Ask Me again” – because are we sure that’s what we really want?”

And further, what do we really want beneath what we want?

This stream of consciousness are some reflections I am having as I prepare to teach for the next 11 weeks on the subject. I don’t feel adequate. Haven’t mastered it. But I have fought to attain it and can only share in the struggle.

Prayer. The hardest thing in the world.


What Exactly Is Christian Fasting All About?

"The Blind Man's Meal" by Pablo Picasso

“The Blind Man’s Meal” by Pablo Picasso

I was recently asked about fasting: What exactly is it? Why do religious people do it? What purpose does it serve? I do not claim to be an expert; but I do practice the discipline once a week. So I might be able to give a few ideas but claim no authority; thus I’m opening this up in a blog post to allow an open format discussion on the topic.

As I see it, we typically fast for several reasons:

  1. to get something
  2. to do penance for something
  3. to discipline ourselves for something

And I don’t think these bad things.

In fact I think these are the starting points for all fasting. I know when I started to fast it was for my church to grow. But as I did it more and more I began to find my motives getting purified; I found I had to make my demands less petulant and demand-y (reminding myself fasting is not a hunger-strike) and more and more of my submitting to His will; in fact the further along I got in the practice I found I prayed less for what I wanted and more “yet Thy will not mine be done.” I began to say “yet give us what we need, not what we want” – and I’ve strangely found this to be precisely granted. Miraculously even. So I am committed to fasting – because it works – yet often not in the way I expect it to. But it definitely has the (side) effects of:

  1. subduing my appetites for lesser things
  2. making me more content with lesser things
  3. raising my appetite for spiritual things
  4. making me more submissive / receiving / open to God’s plans

On a theological note I see fasting as learning to be content with all of the fruits of the Garden (of Eden). And yet why is it that we are so often drawn to that one forbidden fruit? It’s nuts-o! We have all the fruits of the garden! It’s all ours! Yet because we are discontent, restless, and irritable, we pursue that which is not ours. Fasting subdues this inordinate hunger and makes us content with the lavish generosity God has already given us. In that sense one of the best ways to conclude a period of fasting is to close with the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread…” and I am also reminded of a line from the Serenity Prayer: “that we may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy forever in the next.” Fasting puts hungers into perspective. We want life to be euphoric, delicious, decadent, succulent, rich, deliriously happy. That is seeking supreme happiness in this life. But that’s not supreme happiness. It’s cavities, cancers, and cravings. True happiness is satisfaction. Contentment. Fasting raises reasonable happiness in this life. Makes us satisfied with our humble, daily bread.

I still ask for what I want / need in fasting, however.

But in the end I find myself – to preserve my own integrity – having to say, “Yet not my will but thine be done.” I know too well that I don’t know too well what I need.

God does. And the more I fast, the more I get that.


When Prayer Is Like Pounding On A Silent Door

I’ve been preaching a series through Mark this season at my church. Truthfully it’s been a difficult process – not in the work behind crafting and preparing for it, which I enjoy – but in the eery way the Journey of the disciples has been too similar to that of my church to be coincidental. It’s almost prophetic. I’m talking about the ups and downs of it all, the flagging understanding, the desertions which dishearten, the opposition of opponents voiced amidst stalwart supporters (“where else shall we go?”). The joys and the small victories (“we healed many!” of 6:13) and yet the setbacks of unbelief (“he could do no miracle there”).

It is too much drama for one pastor to behold in a season.

When I stumbled on the above words by Parker Palmer, voiced by Pete Scazzero, about how we persistently try to push through our requests to heaven, I had in back of mind the passage I was working on for Sunday: 9:29 “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer (and fasting).” Aint that the truth. You can’t push thru something if the door is locked. And sometimes that is an indication that you just have to try a different methodology.

After all you’ve heard the adage; “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So maybe persistence is not the key but approaching the same thing differently.

I think that’s what the prayer and fasting is about.

Not so much more pleading, persisting, cajoling; that would be just more pounding upon a silent door. But I am of the view that actually praying while performing their exorcisms was something they did not do to begin with, and it was actually novel for the disciples; that what was required was not so much more persistence but a different approach; and if indeed Jesus is talking about prayer AND fasting, then what He’s talking about is certainly not an instantaneous transaction. To expect it to be so is childish.

It’s a process.

So as I reflect on my church’s Journey through Mark I am increasingly aware of my own need to be more process-oriented (as opposed to outcome-oriented); to be less future-minded and more here-and-now; to not neglect the relationships in front of me in favor of one more newcomer; because the work of creating culture and discipling the future of the new city is one that will take – in the words of Eugene Peterson – “a long obedience in the same direction.”

(When) The Hamster Wheel Is (Not) Heaven

As a minister, people oft-assume I deal with strictly ethereal matters, things “other-worldly” and “spiritual”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and more theologically errant. I think of the time I engaged in the “spiritual practice” of spending the night with heroine junkies and going in the morning to deliver a death notification of one of them. I think of the “otherworldly” matter of lobbying on Capitol Hill for immigration reform in my best purple bipartisan tie. I think of the “ethereal” quality of working through a church budget, trying to stay faithful to the realities of a church’s needs in juxtaposition with the values of the Kingdom of God.

Ministry is not spiritual, only. It can be unapologetically earthly. In fact, it should be. And one of the most “earthly” areas is that of working not with other ministers and “spiritual” people, but with people who are of-this-earth, some of whom work closer to the earth than others, with the dirt in their fingernails to prove it. Others are further up from the ground, laboring in the lofties, stationed up in the sky-rises on high, but are nonetheless very concerned with “earthly” matters. They all come to me. With pressing questions about this earthly thing called “vocation”. Nothing could be more spiritual.

How is my Mon-Fri, 9 – 5 significant? It doesn’t feel so.

Is it just about “making money” for the kingdom? Is that all it is?

Ministers are “called” – but what about the rest of us?

I’ve hit a rut in my career – and I don’t know what to do now with my life.

How do I make sense of this mid-life career crisis I’m in?

As a person with a vocation too, a career, I am not immune to such explorations – and at times perturbations – myself. I am conscious when I am working out of a deep joy, a sense of purpose, and indeed, a calling. But I am also aware – like many of you in the “marketplace” – when something feels off; misaligned; and the pleasure of work becomes more of a driving grind. I know what it is like to try to convince myself that the hamster wheel is heaven, when lurking in the back of my mind is the suspicion that maybe it is not getting anywhere. When we persist in the delusion, we wind up on the therapist’s couch. You wind up in my office.

I am learning something, just as I am often teaching something. It is that SERENITY is the code word to unlock many secrets; Serenity to accept that which you cannot change, because in your vocational wanderlust it may not be advisable to throw your stability into the wind – especially if you have a family – so that you can pursue your lifelong dream of becoming a comic book artist, or a stuntman, or the next-big-thing-that-lives-in-Brooklyn, or a professional blog-writer.

But sometimes Serenity is NOT the thing to be asking for.

Sometimes it is the COURAGE to change the things we must (and indeed, the WISDOM to know the difference). Enter in the good pastor, listener, counselor, life coach, or A.O.T.A. Because if wisdom is in the abundance of counselors, and they, the insightful few, can corroborate what you are feeling, then maybe you should indeed pursue that career in comic book artistry, or stuntman-ing, or moving to Brooklyn, or writing this blog, or whatever-the-hell-else crazy endeavor you have on your mind.

Only let us not be driven – or paralyzed – by fear.

Let faith be the motivator, not fear. Faith has the strangest way of making us do the things we fear most, and conversely, fear motivates some of the most faithless actions. Faith may embolden you to step off that spinning hamster wheel. But faith may also have you stay on it just a little bit longer, and to ask for Serenity in the midst of running it.