October 27, 2020

Randy Thompson: Religious Virtuosity — The Spiritual Life on Automatic Pilot 

Mickey Mouse - Take a bow!  by melmike-threadless

Mickey Mouse – Take a bow! by melmike-threadless (link below)

Growing up is, among other possibilities, a process of learning how to do things. We learn to walk and talk, to tie our shoes, and to tell the difference between the men’s room and the ladies’ room. Much of what happens later in life builds on such foundational skills. For example, we learn to drive and fly airplanes because we first learned to walk and tie our shoelaces.  Learning to ask questions is rooted in learning to talk, and so on.

Among the things we learn to do is religion, which is arguably something innate in human beings, although in a rather confused and vague form.  Like learning to talk or write, we learn to “do” religion by learning to do religious things, such as pray, sing, and think (and talk) about what we believe.  These religious activities all become learned behaviors which become part of our life and which most of us don’t think much about.  These behaviors are important, but they can have a dark side.

Recently I’ve been thinking about how easy it is for Christian people to mistake such learned behaviors for communion with God. I’ve been struck by how easy it is for us to practice these behaviors in such a way that we end up as performers, playing a religious role for God’s benefit. And it doesn’t end there, either. We can easily slip over into playing a role for the respect and admiration of others. Worse, we end up so impressed with how skilled we are in these learned behaviors that we confuse our behavior with knowing God. Instead of talking with God, we end up talking at God.  Our praying becomes a recitation, rather like a grade school student reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to her teacher to fulfill a class assignment.  We start out trying to do good for God’s sake and end up doing good in order to look good or feel good.  Usually without knowing it, we find ourselves using our learned behaviors to play a role, where we end up performing for a human audience and even for ourselves, thereby maintaining a public persona for the admiration of others and a self-image that we can live with, and even admire.

Unfortunately, in doing so, we can lose sight of God’s love for us and we lose our capacity to receive that love.  God, along with his creatures, becomes an audience for which we perform. When we think we hear the audience applauding us, we’re happy. When we don’t, we feel worthless and inadequate.  In worst case scenarios, our identity, who we really are, decays into the learned behaviors which earn us the applause we seek.

Jesus speaks to this state of affairs when he talks about the “hypocrites” who put on a good show when they pray, “standing in the synagogue or on a street corners” to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5, NIV).  These are folks who learned how to do something religious but forgot who they’re talking to, and settled for an audience.

Learned behaviors can look very impressive, at least at a glance, but the more you look at the persona these behaviors create, the more you sense that there’s something missing, and what’s missing is the person playing  the role. When the person is missing, so is the capacity for authentic relationships, particularly with God.  One ends up performing a role in a play of one’s own devising, sometimes with a hope that someday the role will give birth to a real person, like the wooden puppet  Pinocchio becoming a real boy.  Unfortunately, this fairy tale typically does not happen in real life.  As much as we would like to become the person we pretend to be, we remain a wooden puppet pretending to be a real boy.

Recently, all  this was brought home to me in a prayer group. This group is a genuine and supportive one, a place where it is safe to share life’s difficulties and anxieties. Occasionally, we have visitors who can’t participate regularly due to their work schedules. A few months ago, one of these visitors joined us one morning for prayer, and when he prayed, something struck me as odd. I’ve learned, over the years, to pay attention to things that strike me as odd, so I did here.

When this fellow started to pray, it was as though he turned on some sort of mental switch and became a different person. A normal guy in conversation, he became much less normal while talking to God, or I should say, talking at God. While praying, he spoke in an energetic singsong, staccato voice, with words flying out of his mouth as though it was a machinegun aimed at the heavens.  He seemed to disappear as a person and become something else, as though God would not listen to him unless he could muster up a suitable amount of psychic energy to get His attention. As a performance piece, it was Pentecostal virtuosity. But, it felt to me like it was a learned behavior rather than a heart-to-heart conversation between persons.

I must quickly acknowledge that I do not know this gentleman’s heart, nor am I making judgments about it or his relationship with God. Heaven knows, most anyone could find any number of oddities and hypocrisies in me. I know full well that God listens to all of us way more attentively than we deserve. It is a mark of God’s grace that He can put up with a lot of craziness in His children. Indeed, it is a mark of God’s grace that we can converse with Him at all. At the least, prayer is where God listens to us when we don’t know what we’re talking about, with the aim of helping us make sense. (I, for one, am a work in progress in this regard.)

That said, I think it is important to know the difference between talking with God in a meeting of persons and talking at God in a learned behavior. In other words, it is important to know the difference between being in a love relationship with God and playing a role in some sort of performance for God’s benefit and that of others. Since we are who we are in God’s sight, and not what we pretend to be, the mumbled, inarticulate prayer of confession or intercession is more authentic than a display of religious virtuosity.

Picture22This propensity to flip a mental switch and become someone else is not just something you find in prayer meetings, though. It is a malady very commonly found among clergy. Many years ago, we had a friend who was a Baptist minister. He was a perfectly normal person and someone we enjoyed spending time with.  However, the first time we attended his church we were in for quite a surprise, for our friend the normal person didn’t show up at the service. Instead of our friend, his persona, Rev. Clergy Pastor, showed up.  The change was jarring.  The friendly, normal guy we knew became  a religious professional, speaking in a pious, feel-good,  sing-song with all the right inflections, suggesting empathy without actually offering it. (Think of Rev. Clergy Pastor  as being a less depressed version of Homer Simpson’s pastor, Rev. Lovejoy.)

Of course, Baptists and Pentecostals don’t have a monopoly on religious virtuosity. I’ve bumped into mainline clergy who have learned to play an ecclesiastical role that is both unctuous and clammy, channeling “Mother Church” with a glazed-eyed compassionate smile  and a whiff of other-worldliness.

It is relatively easy to see the spiritual or ecclesiastical roles others’ play and fail to notice that we too can slip into similar roles, going for long stretches in our relationship with God where we dutifully do what we think will make God happy and keep Him off our backs at the same time. We can pray, worship, preach sermons, chair committees and read our Bibles (including the study notes) while on spiritual automatic pilot. The religious activities go on with the self not showing up to participate.

We have every reason to believe that God is present always, but we also should humbly acknowledge that we ourselves often are not.  And when we are not present to God as persons, we aren’t present to God at all. We’re merely doing religious things that look good.  We all have spiritual seasons like this, of course.  The danger is getting used to such seasons so that we become numbly self-satisfied with our performance, especially when others compliment us or encourage us in such behavior

Mistaking learned behaviors for knowing God can become a sort of soul suicide, where we become a series of behaviors without anything linking them all together . Recently we met someone and shared several meals with him. He was a pastor. Speaking with him, or should I say listening to him, was exhausting. After several meals together, we were left with no sense at all of who he was. His conversation was a monologue,  consisting entirely of ministry anecdotes rattled off in an almost stream of consciousness style.   He had his ministry role and he played it. He knew what to do, and did it. And yet, there was no sense at all of the actor playing the role, and no sense of the one doing all the doing.

An extreme case, perhaps.  But how many believers have you met who seem to be little more than a recorded message of what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished?  How many  folks have you met who’ve mastered a vocabulary and say all the right things, but seem not to be in touch with what they’re saying?

And finally, dear reader, what about you and me?  We all at times recognize the spiritual truth about ourselves of which the King in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” describes:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

I for one certainly know what it is like to be a collection of learned behaviors and to acquire a vocabulary of words without thoughts.

Many years ago, having just completed an elaborate negotiation to bring a prominent scholar to speak for the organization of which I was the head, I sat back in my chair, pleased with myself at having pulled off this negotiation.  But then, unbidden,  came an insight I wasn’t prepared for, and which I was too naive and dumb to understand.  I suddenly realized that I was a series of activities and there was nothing holding any of them together.  An odd insight, I thought at the time, and then I went off to do something else.  A year later, I started to fall apart. My life had become the sad and even grim cliché about the lights being on and there being no one at home.  All my successful behaviors turned into uncontrolled stress and raging anxiety.

By God’s grace, friends provided a week at a retreat center out in the country. For a week, I did nothing but sleep, walk, read the Bible, and pray. Slowly, I started becoming a person again. ly, God cultivated in my wreckage a person with whom He could carry on a relationship, someone who could recognize His love and respond to it.  There would be other lessons later, some of them painful, and I would have still more to learn about how deep-seated the urge to perform is,  but this one was the prerequisite for the many lessons that were to follow.

Jesus warned us not to stand on street corners and pray loudly for the applause of passers-by, and he warned us not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do” (Matthew 6:5-8, ESV).  Yet, we have tended to apply his words to folks we don’t approve of. It rarely occurs to us that these words are intended for us–me!–and  that we ourselves are always in danger of becoming Jesus’ hypocrites and Gentiles.  Are my prayers intended to be overheard by those around me? Is my brain engaged when I’m talking with God, or am I heaping up pious phrases that are the spiritual equivalents of helium balloons?

If we’re a performer, “the show must go on!” But, if we’re human beings and disciples of Christ, then the “show” must stop. No amount of performing or acting gains us the applause of heaven. “Well done, good and faithful servant” is reserved for persons, not performers.

• • •

Header Art: melmike-threadless on DeviantArt


  1. “Few words, from the heart.”

    Luther said that…or something close to that.

    God knows what we need, even before we ask. And gives to us what we need even when we don’t ask. Gives to the pagan and unregenerate in the same manner.

    But He wants us to talk to Him. So…we pray. (sometimes I want to talk to Him…sometimes I just want to yell at Him)

  2. After a brief sojourn in an alternative Christian group I was introduced, for the first time, to a “regular” church. At first I was puzzled about the way the preacher spoke from the platform, the way he said certain words, words normal people just don’t use. His cadence was funny, sing-songy, not natural.

    But then I also noticed that when people prayed they became different people. With their eyes closed they began to almost chant while their bodies often jerked or spasmed.

    And then there was the language. NO ONE I’d ever known spoke in such a manner! It made me, a long haired, bearded young man of 23, VERY uncomfortable. But the longer I stayed, the more “usual” this all became. Of course this was in a Pentecostal church, and after a while I began aping the same behaviors, I learned the lingo, and I began to assign certain behaviors with the “Holy Spirit” (I am not speaking of giftings here, just behaviors).

    What I wasn’t self aware enough to realize was that I, myself, had come into that church with my OWN behaviors and practices that I had learned in the cult group. I can now imagine how uncomfortable I probably made other people who had not yet made my acquaintance.

    The thing is, we ALL have a certain manner about us when we associate with ANY group of believers in a formal setting. The REAL task is to be AWARE of it and to not mistake it for spirituality, something that we can put on like a suit of clothes that makes us feel acceptable in our group. We need to be like Jesus on the cross, naked to the world, and each other. No artifice, no play-acting. But this is hard stuff. People might not like us. We might not fit in. We may not get the opportunities to mingle. But, so what?

    Great post! And well said…

  3. Christiane says

    ” Like learning to talk or write, we learn to “do” religion by learning to do religious things, such as pray, sing, and think (and talk) about what we believe. These religious activities all become learned behaviors which become part of our life and which most of us don’t think much about. ”

    I think that C.S. Lewis wrote some of his books as an ‘anti-dote’ to this very thing. I get that from his quote, this:
    ““I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
    ? C.S. Lewis

    so we have his gift of the Narnia Chronicles and, yes, these books and the corresponding films have got many a Christian past those ‘watchful dragons’ and encountering the powerful persona of Aslan for the first time. I once read a Southern Baptist blog wherein the minister who wrote it described viewing the scene of Aslan coming back to life after the sacrifice, and the minister was blown away by the powerful scene . . . quite remarkable experience that he shared.

  4. doubting thomas says

    I hate being called upon to pray in public. As a member of my church’s praise team I join a with all those leading a service in a prayer just before worship starts. Sometimes I’m asked to end the time of free prayer. I am almost unable to really communicate with God in that moment, but I can string together some appropriate words that even can make people congratulate me on a good prayer when I get real bad. Mark Twain said, ” You can’t pray a lie.” But I sure try to.

    • I hear ya, and I feel the same way often when praying over meals for instance. My wife and I will often pray before a meal together, which I’m extremely grateful for. However, I also appreciate that it isn’t innately a duty that we must fulfill (which for many I know, it is). If you would sincerely like to stop and give thanks first, awesome, praise God! But don’t force it just for the sake of fulfilling some obligation. After we’ve begun eating with family before in the past, a relative would say “woops, we forgot to pray!” And suddenly we would all stop mid-eating to pray. I’m all for praying aloud before a meal, since it’s a good opportunity (and it’s what Jesus did), but at times it can feel like such an unnatural and coerced ritual…

  5. On the one hand, this resonates. In my case, learned behavior was theology.

    On the other hand, what other choice is there? ” I think it is important to know the difference between talking with God in a meeting of persons and talking at God in a learned behavior.” It’s hard to talk WITH someone when the other Person in the conversation does not audibly speak. And please, no Charismatic comebacks. I am not, and never will be, Charismatic.

    • turnsalso says

      I have the same experience… it’s led me to roll my eyes (mostly metaphorically) when someone talks about what God told them this morning. The most I’ve had, I could describe as a kind of flying feeling in certain circumstances, but that could just as easily be ordinary excitement, and that leads me ever backward to the naive search for proof, or at least something reasonable, to hang my hat on, and that tends to prevent one from making many friends in communities where mountaintop ecstasies (at least one) are the expected norm.

    • OldProphet says

      And, I am not, or will ever be, Liturgical!

      • But OP, you are liturgical! If you worship together with a group of other Christians, following a pattern of gestures and words on a more or less regular basis, you must be liturgical. You are Old Prophet, not Old Spontaneous Me (see Walt Whitman).

      • What’s more liturgical than praying in tongues…

  6. turnsalso says

    “How many folks have you met who’ve mastered a vocabulary and say all the right things, but seem not to be in touch with what they’re saying?”

    Well, I’ve known one for more than two decades, and I see him every day… every time I look in the mirror.

  7. This happened to me. I realized a few years ago that my prayers were mere recitations of a list, so I quit praying and I don’t really do it anymore at all. I trust the omniscient deity we worship to understand what I need better than I can communicate. I’m not saying that it is a good strategy that I have, but it is how it has worked out in my case.

    • I cuss and swear and am brutally honest and talk to Him when I need to. I no longer agonize and wring my head and emotions to death in order to feel better about myself for having said the right things or prayed long enough.

      I’ve done enough of that in the past 30 years to last a lifetime.

      It’s time for the Almighty to step up to the plate for once. Actually show he gives a damn and loves me and knows me.


      • And before the helpful comments come, no, I’m not angry at God. I just doubt the God of fundys and evangelicals exist. So, I have to change. And I’ll find the real God through Jesus.

      • If I am upset with my wife, should I be brutally honest and cuss her out since that’s how I feel in my heart? Love > Honesty. Love is always honest, but honesty is not always love.

        • Hell, honesty is not always honest; sometimes honesty is really a deeply veiled way to manipulate.

        • “Love is always honest, but honesty is not always love.”

          Neither is love always sweet and affirming. Job was a man after God’s own heart, but that didn’t stop him from making his frustrations known in very stark and shocking language…

          • True…and not saying one way or the other for sure, but perhaps that was in fact a character flaw though? David was also a man after God’s own heart, yet that didn’t mean that everything he did was always consistent with that.

        • turnsalso says

          So really, you can’t be completely honest with God about your feelings after all? You have to keep up the facade so as not to offend his sanctity with your base feelings?

          Didn’t Christ do away with all that nonsense?

          • I think there’s a difference though between being honest by not understanding, disagreeing with, being disappointed in, and/or crying out to God vs. belittling/denigrating God. I think there needs to be at least *some* level of respect.

    • I’ve been all over the map with prayer. Mostly, I just don’t get it.

      That said, I recently had a conversation with God in which He told me, “Pray because it makes things BETTER, not because you’re looking for it to be exactly how you think would be BEST.”

      In other words, I pray now so that situations might be made better, not in order to them to be magically fixed.

      • Does prayer make things better that wouldn’t have been made better anyway?

        • Right now, the only way I can wrap my head around “Why pray” is “To make things better that otherwise might not have been.” That includes, by the way, my relationship with God and how I see God…that is, to make those better, too. So in answer, Yes, prayer makes things better that wouldn’t have been made better anyway.

          • I’d have to agree that my own relationship to God may be made better by my prayer; and that’s important. But I find the idea that a lot of other things depend on my prayers immobilizing.

      • I like to think that my prayers can no more make things better than they can make them worse, and that when I pray, I’m merely being allowed to participate the gracious work of God that would go ahead with or without me or my prayers.

      • Rick Ro & Robert F~ If I did not believe my efforts to grow spiritually and make the world a better place made a difference, my whole life would collapse. What would be the point otherwise? And it isn’t like everything depends on me, because it doesn’t. The universe would go on humming merrily along if I gave up and joined the dark side, but at the same time I believe that little things like feeding the birds lifts up the far side of the universe in positive ways.

        Prayer doesn’t have to specify answers or results since we may not know what is best. To pray a blessing for a situation directs the energy and leaves it up to God and angels how best to work it out for the highest good of all concerned. Prayer doesn’t have to be words. You can send out blessing like the sun sends out rays of heat and light for the just and the unjust.

        It is important to help those in need who cross our path, but I am convinced that growing in spirit such as is done as with Brother Lawrence helps the world in ways that social programs cannot touch. It’s not like God can’t get things done without our help, it’s that the whole point to our being here in this sometimes hell hole is to learn how to deal with it effectively in God’s Way, not ours. Then when we graduate we might be of real use in the total scheme of things. No effort now is wasted if we learn and grow, but sometimes you just have to wait until the wind is blowing to raise your sail.

        • You can send out blessing like the sun. How true. Love that!

          • In his epiphany on the streets of downtown Louisville, Thomas Merton discovered that we are all shining like the sun in any case, whether we know it or not, whether we will it or not.

        • I’ve seen too many prayers go unanswered to not feel a little bit of “what’s the point,” which is why God and I had a little talk and I now view it as “prayers make things better.” So I’m kinda with you now, Charles; they make a difference, seen or not. Which is the only reason I now pray when I see absolutely no change – zero, zilch, nil, nada.

  8. “The Practice of the Presence of God.” Even if I had never read the book by Brother Lawrence, the title alone would be a lifelong challenge. You hit the nail on the head, Randy. How can I be present to God, how can I be really me and not a construct of myself, and how can I shut up and peel off all masks? Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be one of those problems that time helps with — in fact, time makes it worse. Who will deliver me from this body of death?

    • “The Practice of the Presence of God.”

      No. And what follows is not directed at you, Damaris…

      But no. That phrase is bs and a trigger. God, if he’s God, is everywhere. There is no way to practice the presence. You can’t enter into it. You can’t soak in it. You can’t achieve it through a worship set. You can’t gather 2-3 and expect it.

      You can’t escape it. You can’t run from it. You can’t hide from it.

      You can practice mindfulness of the presence of God, but you can never, not once, practice the presence of God. Pure mystical horse manure. The only way to “practice” the presence of god is to be like Jesus.

      I remember Brother Lawrence. He goes into the same pile as watchman nee, mike bickle, smith wigglesworth, bosworth, benny hinn, art katz and the rest.


      • I disagree, Stuart. I do agree that God is everywhere. The practice of the presence of God is the lifelong discipline of paying attention. I especially like Brother Lawrence because he isn’t terribly mystical and spent his life in a kitchen, as I often do. He’s as far from Benny Hinn as it’s possible to be.

        • “God lives among the pots and pans.”

          St. Teresa of Avila

          • That’s my point entirely, Robert.

          • But StuartB, that’s exactly what Brother Lawrence was about.

          • Wait: you mean that you don’t believe God is among the pots and pans. Excuse me for being dense.

            I wonder, though, if he’s not there, where the hell is he, or where do you think he is?

          • I believe God is amongst the pots and pans. I don’t believe you can sit in a corner and somehow spiritually supernaturally “enter into his presence”, etc. I’ve been around a lot of really kooky charismatic teaching, so that phrase has particular meanings and is relatively tarnished. And those types loved some bro lawrence, so I lump him in with the rest of the mystics who go beyond common sense.

            Being more like Jesus is practicing His presence. But what it is not is if you have to sit there and hum and read scriptures and babble until you achieve transcendental nirvana ie “enter the throne room”.

            I regret posting my comment. I don’t regret the content of it. But I see I need to be more clear with my words and make sure we all are using common definitions.

      • Stuart–there is a difference between disagreeing with someone’s opinion, and outright calling someone’s position wrong and bs, I’d be careful in distinguishing the two unless you are omniscient or absolutely 100% certain on the subject, especially when many thoughtful people here tend to disagree.

      • Perhaps a trigger for you, Stuart; I’m not sure why. As Damaris noted , the book is about paying attention, and learning to not be distracted away from attending to God. Great book, and I would not put Bro Lawrence in with any of the names you metioned.

      • To compare Brother Lawrence, a true teacher of the Christian contemplative way, with Benny Hinn and Watchman Nee (I don’t recognize the other names) is a disservice. Brother Lawrence taught that we don’t need to be great mystics, or have spectacular experiences, to follow the contemplative path; rather, if we attend to the ordinary things and people in our lives, we are attending to God. What could be more un-Benny Hinn-like?

      • You can be in the same room as your wife and not be present to her only to realize when she says something a second time and you say, “what” and then she repeats it the third time. Being present to God is not just floating in the space, it is attending. You say practicing mindfulness of the presence but it is beyond mind. It is not an intellectual endevour just as love making is not predicated on intellect. Sure, your mind is there but it is a whole body prayer that minimizes mind. Benny Hinn is the antithesis of anything like that.

      • Randy Thompson says

        I have to throw in my two cents here regarding Brother Lawrence and “Practicing the Presence of God.”

        Having gorged myself to sickness on Watchman Nee many years ago, I can’t emphasize strongly enough how different and sane Brother Lawrence (a 17th Century Catholic monk) is. My Watchman Nee experience years ago served to inoculate me against the Evangelical and Pentecostal version of the magical mystery tour.

        • The two got lumped together during my time on the bus. If everyone is insisting Lawrence is different, ok, but I often saw (and read) them together on the same bookshelf.

          • You will also see Thomas a Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ” on bookshelves next to a lot of crap,too; but he’s not crap.

  9. This is a fascinating discussion of things I’ve felt in my own life. Sometimes the liturgy is deeply meaningful. Other times, though it’s done just the same, it’s learned behavior and not genuine at all. It all depends on what you bring to it, and on actually meaning the things you say.

    And then my life imploded, and I couldn’t do it any more. “Reality bites hard,” as my wife put it, before she left.

    But the liturgy was still there, and I held on to everything I still had, very very tightly. God does not speak when he’s strangled, I think. Learning to hold on loosely, to listen more than I talk, even if all I hear is my own breathing. Maybe he’s here. Sometimes I think so.

  10. A few thoughts:
    Firstly I would agree with Damaris, to paraphrase if I may, that there is very little to ‘say’ in prayer. Hearing is more than saying. But then what to hear? Not much. Hearing just turns into ‘being with’. Practicing being present in a conscious communion that is not predicated on verbiage (the vast expanse of of the universe sits in virtual silence while we’re out here yakin’ away).That to me is a lifelong discipline and challenge. Secondly I would say that public prayer has to, by its very nature, be different than private prayer just as private conversation with intimates is different than conversation with casual aquaintances so we need not beat ourselves up so much for form but must always be genuine. If form overwhelms sincere communication then yes, it is basically empty blather that sounds religious and suits the group but is meaningless to God and man. Finally I would say that prayer is one of the best barometers of spiritual health for me. When I start feeling like I miss the Lord, like missing a distant friend or my wife away on a trip, then I know that prayer has slipped into formality and I need to become present again.

  11. I read this hearing the Evangelical language it is written in but transposing the thought to liturgical experience. I think what is common to both is the sometime singsong clerical cadence, sonorous, serious, special, set apart, holy, religious. Sets my teeth on edge. Let us pray. What I appreciate about liturgy is that it openly recognizes that a drama is being performed, and you are one of the actors. You are handed your script when you walk in. The performance depends, more or less, on how well you perform your part, how mindful you are, not only in the parts where you vocalize, but in the parts where you listen, receive, as well.

    It is not easy being mindful. It is not easy Practicing the Presence of God, even in short bursts, tho it seems intended to be our normal state of mind or soul, praying without ceasing, which can’t possibly mean mouthing words constantly. Multiple services are like doing a matinee play or concert, followed by the evening performance, which is identical, but can only be effective if done as if the first time. Mindfulness, in the Now, Communion of the saints in Spirit.

    I pay special attention to this is I am a frequent lector, reading both Scripture and Prayers, both containing real meaning that needs Communication. Some of this involves skills that can be learned or improved, acting skills, public speaking skills, projection, enunciation, emphasis, tonality, rhythm. But mastery of this does not give mastery of mindfulness. If what we were looking for was perfection of delivery, we could seek out the best, record videos, and play them. Not exactly Communion of the saints Here and Now. Communion: at One with, in Unity, I AM. Much easier said than done. Worth going for every time.

  12. I don’t worry too much about being “me” (whoever that is) in prayer. When I try too much to be “me,” I inevitably end up pretending to be somebody. God knows who I am (and if I’m anybody), God will sort it out. And I’ve come to accept that, to a certain degree, I’m always pretending to be someone I’m not, perhaps most especially when I think I’m being authentic. I try not to worry about it much.

    To echo several comments here, there just doesn’t seem to be much to say in prayer. Oh, I make my petitions and intercessions, but they quickly wind down as I watch my universe of endless concerns unwinding on the screen of my mind. I don’t think God is much interested in my personal praises and glorification of him; too phony and sycophantic. I go along with the liturgical glorification of God in the liturgy and prayer book, and leave it at that. For the rest, there is waiting and attending the naked moment before me, the only real place and time God is present; this is usually difficult, but it seems and feels real to me: this is the work to be done, and in the work is the grace.

  13. Just one more thought about God speaking to us in prayer as in, “The Lord told me this morning…”
    Does God speak to people? Quite obviously He does. Does He speak to everyone, every day all the time? Quite obviously He doesn’t. I think we get this idea from making false assumptions when we read scripture. We see Peter on the rooftop and Moses on the mountain and the myriad other stories of God speaking directly with a person and we make the leap to thinking that He spoke to these individuals like that every day. No. Those are stories in scripture because they are noteworthy of what God chooses to do in certain places and certain times with certain people as He chooses. They all spent the bulk of their lives just as we do. Some heard because they were receptive (Mary) and some heard despite themselves (Paul) so there is no formula and no predicting but people do hear from God, just not everybody all the time and on demand.

  14. Cholmondley says

    I’m going to offer a minority opinion here.

    I find that the fleshly exercise of my religion provides a sort of lowest-possible-virtue, a basement beneath which I cannot fall. compared to the religion of the Gospels, it is a bare and niggardly thing indeed, and it won’t save me. However, if hypocrisy is, as it is claimed, the tribute that vice pays to virtue, I have to admit that I would prefer to live among parsimonious hypocrites than among “authentic” people who give free rein to their darker natures.

    • Randy Thompson says


      All we can do is show up to the God who is always there. The Good News is, God is still there, attentive, even when we are showing up badly. Better to show up distracted than not at all, and better to show up out of sheer habit than not to show up at all.

    • if hypocrisy is, as it is claimed, the tribute that vice pays to virtue, I have to admit that I would prefer to live among parsimonious hypocrites than among “authentic” people who give free rein to their darker natures.

      The problem is, Jesus tended to do the exact opposite – hung out with people who gave free reign to their darker natures, and gave the parsimonious hypocrites hell. And (perhaps not?) surprisingly, the sinners loved Him, and the hypocrites hated Him.

      If my life doesn’t match that pattern, I’m more inclined to believe the fault lies with me, not Him.

      • Cholmondley says

        At some point, the “sinners” lost their love for Him, and Good Friday was the result.

        I agree with you that a whore, a hit-man or an inveterate wife-beater is easier to draw to repentance than an embalmed hypocrite. I was talking about the general tone of society in which we have to live. The preferential attitude of Jesus for His darkfriends doesn’t always square with my preferences for my daughters’ marital candidates.

    • I think it is better for our darker sides to be in the open so they can be dealt with rather than hidden beneath a facade of respectability.

  15. This is really helpful stuff–thanks. But there’s one thing I’m trying to understand (for which I suggest a couple of responses). The question struck me as I read this: “He had his ministry role and he played it. He knew what to do, and did it. And yet, there was no sense at all of the actor playing the role, and no sense of the one doing all the doing.” If our man knows what to do and does it, how can he fail to be the kind of person he actively is? Suppose I’m a barber. If I’m engaged in the activities associated with barbering–cutting hair, sweeping the floor, conversing with my customers–then it would seem that I *am* a barber. How can my barbering activities become divorced from who I am? How can my prayerful (etc.) activities fail to inform my identity?

    Maybe the problem is that the mere-performance activities you describe fail to be identity-constituting. I can act *like* a barber without acting *as* a barber. If I regard my day’s work barbering merely as a means to pay the bills, where what I regard as my *real* life is what I do in the evening (virtuoso ukulele playing), then I’m investing my identity in the ukulelist activities, not the barbering activities. I *am* a ukulelist, but I’m not a barber–‘I only play one on TV’, as it were. Likewise, if I treat prayer as something separate from the activities I regard as identity-constituting for me, I fail to be a praying person; I’m just somebody who prays.

    Or maybe the problem is rather that I fail to act toward the right aim. Suppose we’re on a baseball team. Yet when we ‘play’, all we really do is a pre-determined set of baseball activities. We run through the batting order, we run the bases, sometimes one of us strikes out, all according to the original, agreed-upon plan. What’s missing? The game itself–we’re not actually playing baseball. Our baseball-like activities fail to be unified by the common purpose they ought to have–the complex activity of actually playing a baseball game. Likewise, if prayer (etc.) fails to be a part of the bigger activity of which it ought to be a part (say, the complex activity a happy human life), then in praying one is not living at all.

    Or maybe we have both problems. Maybe in failing to be oriented toward the right aim, the merely learned praying behaviors (etc.) fail to be integrated into our bigger lives and therefore fail to be identity-constituting activities (and wind up as mere performances, as a secret agent might don priestly vestments as a disguise).

    Any thoughts on this would be great! Thanks again for the post, and thanks in advance (to anyone) for your thoughts.

    • Absolutely! Apropo. Like a person of the cloth, we are people of prayer. It is not just an activity, it is who we are.

  16. I guess I don’t understand. I talk to God my Father. I tell him things he already knows. I try to tell Him I can’t do certain things he already knows I can’t do but yet I want to. I tell Him the things I don’t want to do I do. I ask Him if He can help me with that if I am honest with Him. I tell Him that there is this part of me holding on to things I don’t want and I need Him to let me see so I don’t feel separated from Him. Thing is I know some of it is cheap and easy and yet I’ll give in. I don’t want to give in and I need Him to help me.

    I can’t love people the way He does. Animals are so easy for me to love. I extend such grace to them. I need His help all the time. I get angry to easy and don’t want it. I am starting to think practicing presence is loving and not getting angry so easily by just being with Him and letting Him in where I didn’t before. Worth a try I think.

    I talk to Jesus too and to Holy Spirit and I keep trying. Do I get answers, honestly I do sometimes. I can’t put into words and I know what some believe and I’m not here to call anyone wrong. Mostly I am so grateful for the way He works with me. I mostly talk to Father and Jesus seems to be the one answering all my prayers and Holy Spirit seems to come through me at times. Maybe I am simple minded. I want to be real so usually I only pray what is in my heart even if it is just thank you or have mercy or we love You and in the corporate I have done just that many times it was all I had.

    I seem to be in contact all the time even through what I wouldn’t want to be in contact with Him in. Boy do I say I am sorry a lot and please forgive me and right after that I need your help. When I pray for others it is for blessing and for His help and may they know Him in their day. I have to do this a lot more especially for the ones who push all the right buttons. Oh and by the way you could all pray for me for the stuff I just spilled I could use it for real and may God bless you all with His love cause I just felt it and it is overwhelming at times…..Peace

  17. I think the main watch words here are authenticity & mindfulness.

    We all go through periods when we are on “autopilot” with our faith & we are going “through the motions”. However we continue on in faith that there is a purpose to our actions even without feeling it. For example praying, biblestudy, repeating the liturgy. can all become behavioural. As long as we continue in “mindfulness” that there is a purpose to all this, our mind will engage again with our faith. It is when one loses faith in the purpose, in God, then it becomes an act of hypocrisy. You’re no longer doing it because you believe but because it is the “done thing”, it is expected of you. This is the time to step back & change tack, re-affirm the “heart of things” and then get back to it.

    For example, when Jesus was tempted, He could have jumped off the cliff or changed stones into bread, it was expected of Him. However He stuck to His wilderness for our sake.


  18. The “pastoral persona” is a danger for all pastors, and one too many of us fall into without ever realizing it. Slowly we cease being real persons and become “pastor…” It affects not only how we pray and preach, but eventually how we relate to people in every setting.

    The gospel becomes a program, God becomes an object and ministry becomes a profession. When we realize this about ourselves the only way out is to cry out to God to deliver us from religion and bring us back to the relationship we had with him when we first became believers where we knew the immeasurable joy of forgiveness and a personal relationship with the living God. We continually need a renewing of that joy and relationship with Him in order to be real people others can relate to and in whom they can see Jesus. I don’t want people to see me as “pastor Dick,” I want them to see Jesus in me, that and nothing more.
    It’s all about His kingdom, Dick