Political ads. Music blaring. Advertisements. Phones dinging and ringing with texts, tweets, and emails, and notifications from a hundred different apps.
How do we cut the noise?
The Psalms encourage us to meet God in silence: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
But stillness and silence are in short supply these days, This is important because the noise, the wordiness, the verbosity and constant buzz of our world directly impact our ability to live in peace with God, each other, and ourselves. St. Philotheos of Sinai reflected many centuries ago:
“Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together. What is more disastrous than this ‘uncontrollable evil’ (Jas. 3:8)? The tongue has to be restrained, checked by force and muzzled, so to speak, and made to serve only what is needful. Who can describe all the damage that the tongue does to the soul?” (“Forty Texts on Watchfulness,” Philokalia: Volume III London: Faber & Faber], 17)
On the recommendation of my friend Isaac Hopper, I recently read a great little book for creatives called Manage Your Day-To-Day. One of the chapters dealt with silence, and encouraged creative people (and I would think it beneficial for anyone) to intentionally cultivate silence each day. The benefits in mental and emotional health, creativity, engagement, and clarity – if this chapter is to be believed – are manifold.
We live in an over-connected world, with messages constantly bombarding us. The urgent always demands to be addressed immediately, which puts the critical and the important off to the side. But without silence, we cannot differentiate between them and hear the voice of our own priorities and values.
What if you took 10 minutes to just unplug each morning before the day’s demands come at you? That might be prayer, or meditation, or thinking through the day. Or, perhaps, you could cut five minutes from lunch and just find a quiet corner in which to reset? Increasingly, if we are ever going to experience silence, we will have to intentionally seek it out.
Silence truly is golden, but we spend most of our days courting the din of tin.
But silence is a gift that is free; you don’t have to buy it or earn it, you only have to unplug.
How does your day-to-day routine benefit from silence? Do you find silence difficult or uncomfortable? How can we cultivate more silence in our lives and our childrens’ lives? Leave a comment below!
“How can you handle all that arguing??” Friends regularly remark to me how much they dislike getting into religious discussions on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like. They say this in shock that I seem to enjoy it. I suppose we all have different personalities, some of which are amenable to getting in the gutter and slogging it out and some of which are not. For my own part, I am not sure which is better; I only know that I am not good at seeing foolishness and not naming it as such.
There are many inherent dangers in the world of internet Christianity. Ivan Pils, an Orthodox layperson, recently laid out some of these from a specifically Eastern perspective in a great piece for First Things. His comments, though, certainly apply outside of Orthodox Christianity (so you might, as you read this, replace “Orthodox” with whatever your chief adjective is for your genus of Christianity – evangelical, progressive, Baptist, Emergent, Methodist, Missional, etc.):
“It is unhealthy to have more co-religionist friends online than in your own parish. I have seen this happen to some converts who first encountered Orthodoxy online—an increasingly common phenomenon—and therefore naturally built their new identities around people and ideas from the Internet. The parish, characterized by creative chaos, is by definition a place to practice humility, patience, and brotherly love, and to be challenged by how others live the Christian life, not to have one’s biases reinforced.
By contrast, the online inquirer is comfortably anonymous, and can freely consume a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. And there is a lot of junk out there: Anonymous blogs make the Orthodox case for every outré cause, from monarchism to Marxism. Faceless vigilantes harbor dark vendettas against bishops. And respectable-sounding forums provide a place for lonely sticklers to pursue uncharitable acts of Pharisaism against everyone from Roman Catholics (ultramontane Latinizers) to Muslims (bloodthirsty Turks) to the wrong kind of Orthodox (new-calendar ecumenists, or heartless liturgy-fetishists). One can easily find a sympathetic corner of the Internet and stay there, without having to face uncomfortable alternatives to one’s preferred vision of Orthodoxy. This is dark and monstrous.” (emphasis added)
So much truth here. If you find more community online than in your local parish, beware. The local church does not exist to confirm all of our biases, and to seek this out in fear or loathing of anyone who might challenge our pet theological fancies is unhealthy socially, psychologically, and spiritually. Maturity does not come to those who seek safe refuge from all possible challenges to our assumptions and deeply held biases.
A good test for spiritual health is this: am I regularly in contact with people who challenge my worldview?
Pils is dead-on that “there is a lot of junk out there.” Indeed, it seems that the key to being a significant voice in the online Christian conversation is to be at least half-crazy and barely Christian. All the more reason to pause if you find yourself loving your online ecclesial family more than the flesh-and-blood Body of Christ. You’ve traded a gnostic personal playground for the Christian life that God intended for you: a life in real community, with all its attendant blessings and challenges, conflicts and potlucks and pettiness and hugs.
In my last post, I noted Michael Eric Dyson’s critique of Cornel West: the true prophet is tethered to a true spiritual community. Absent that filial and communal bond, Christian thought, speech, and action is likely to degenerate into a sad parody of church. And this, to me, explains rather elegantly so much of the garbage online that passes for Christian discourse. It can’t be an accident that the most outlandish malarky comes from those with few or zero ties to the local church: ex-preachers, blogging hobbyists with an ax to grind, seminary students, campus ministers, agnostics masquerading as Christians, and former church staff members.
There is no shortage of those with a grievance against the local church (some days I am one of them); but beware of critique against the church from those who are not invested in it. Words come cheaply when they are never tested by the gritty reality of other flesh-and-blood persons, and instead only see light among the self-chosen sycophants with whom it is so easy to surround oneself in the online world that we too easily mistake for reality.
In the image above, a pack of wolves surrounds a bison. The pack mentality is strong among Christians online, and the instinct to hunt, run to ground, and destroy is easily spotted. If you don’t believe me, get into a conversation with a TULIP-loving Calvinist or one of Rachel Held Evans’ minions (in reality, two sides of the same coin) – the pack will come out very quickly.
Even among Christians dedicated to caritas, the internet can be a place where our most base instincts are allowed to roam free. As with many things, social media is a useful servant but a very poor master. Let us resist the wide path, the easy substitution of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ for an online facsimile of like-minded people who all hate the same things. This is a fool’s bargain when compared to the complex, messy beauty of the community God gave us at Pentecost.
Have you ever met a new parent or grandparent? They are almost always chomping at the bit to show you pictures. And it’s not just proud moms and granddads. All of us share, promote, and defend that which we value, worship, and love. The ability to “+1,” “like,” share, or RT a post, status, or article is only the newest way we do this. What we share is what we love. St. Augustine notes:
“In the theatre – that den of wickedness – someone who loves an actor and revels in his skill as if it were a great good, or even the supreme one, also loves all those who share his love, not on their account, but on account of the one they equally love. The more passionate he is in his love, the more he tries by whatever methods he can to make his hero loved by a greater number of people, and the more he desires to point him out to a greater number of people. If he sees someone unenthusiastic he rouses him with his praises as much as he can. If he finds anyone antagonistic, he violently hate that person’s hatred of his hero and goes all out to remove it by whatever methods he can.”
What a perfect description of how social media works. Whether what you love is a celebrity (as in Augustine’s example of a famous actor), an idea, or a product, the odds are you find ways to share this. The Christian word for this is evangelism.
Often, it seems that Christians are willing to share everything but the love we have for God. We put Apple stickers on our car, post about which team(s) we have winning the NCAA tournament, pin to our favorite crafts on Pinterest, or tell our neighbors about the great new fish recipe we just attempted. But talk about God? That’s only something those “crazy Christians” do.
Augustine would suggest this is precisely backwards:
“So what should we do in sharing the love of God, whose full enjoyment constitutes the happy life? It is God from whom all those who love him derive both their existence and their love; it is God who frees us from any fear that he can fail to satisfy anyone to whom he becomes known; it is God who wants himself to be loved, not in order to gain any reward for himself but to give to those who love him an eternal reward – namely himself, the object of their love.” (On Christian Teaching, Book One, p. 22)
Unlike Justin Bieber or a mobile phone company, the love of God is pure and self-less. God does not want us to buy anything, but only desires to give. God has no need of our love, but loves us enough to continually seek us out – the Hound of Heaven, as Francis Thompson named Him – purely out of a desire to give of Godself, the one pure, unchangeable, and fulfilling object of our love. If we really believe that God is the most true, good, and beautiful object of our love, how could we not share the Love to which all over loves point?
We share what we love. Whether the thing loved is a cause, a shoe brand, a song, or the Three-Yet-One God through Whom all things were made.
In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community. There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston. Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son. And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends. Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.
Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances. Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)
I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage. But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone. Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel. We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them. Willimon goes on to say,
The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus. The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people. The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)
I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths. But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself. If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love. How does that apply to Christian discipleship?
You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride. He never intended that to be an option.
[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]
“God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear?”
It’s been a rough couple of weeks in the UMC, at least if you believe social media (which, as is rarely admitted, is a highly privileged, Western-centered conversation). The Council of Bishops met at Lake Junaluska, and much speculation was rampant about how they would respond to Bishop Talbert’s open violation of both the clergy covenant and the official requests of his colleagues. This week, the church trial of a pastor who performed a wedding for gay son has continued that heightened anxiety. Even an event designed to help young adults hear the call to ministry became a battleground of the culture war that has infected our denomination and many others. Everyone seems to be convinced of their faction’s absolute moral authority, whether it is thinly veiled Tea Party theology of the IRD, or the tolerance as the sum-total of the gospel that one finds in the Reconciling camp. Many of us are stuck in the middle, disliking both options for a myriad of reasons. Everyone seems to be weighing in with thunderous words from Olympus, either celebrating or lamenting. To me, it all just feels wrong: the trials, the need for them, the reaction to them, and the lack of attention given to things we could actually move the needle on if we focused our attention and resources (like the Philippines). I don’t know what the alternative is, but I did find a good description for where I think we are in one of Reinhold Niebuhr’s short essays:
“Politics always aims at some kind of a harmony or balance of interest, and such a harmony cannot be regarded as directly related to the final harmony of love of the Kingdom of God. All men are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity. This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm. The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.” –Reinhold Niebuhr, from “Christian Faith and Political Controversy,” in Love and Justice, (Louisville: WJK 1992), 59.
We need a better way, a third way, a truly Christian way. We need to stop relying on the way the world gets things done – bomb-throwing, trials, activism, platitudes as a replacement for genuine argument, and media stunts – and try something truly Christian: holy conferencing (which, by this author’s assessment, can’t happen in the social media space), sincere prayer, and a hermeneutics of charity. We need to at least attempt to get inside our opponents’ heads and hearts, stop presuming the worst, and cross the picket lines. We idolize our own positions so much that even basic communication becomes impossible. This isn’t working.
We all need to lay our idols down, come out of our ideological fortresses, get with Jesus (who did not identify, no matter what Reza Aslan says, with any of the factions of his day), and start over.
Let us close with an honest and yet hopeful word, maybe even a prayer, from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock”:
In spite of all the dishonour, the broken standards, the broken lives, The broken faith in one place or another, There was something left that was more than the tales Of old men on winter evenings…
Well, more or less. In the Philokalia, St. Diadochos reflects thus on the danger of talking too much:
When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates itsremembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy. Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. (“On Spiritual Knowledge,” in the Philokalia Volume 1, 276)
If indeed “ideas of value shun verbosity,” then is it possible to gain much through blogging? I think the 5th century Bishop has a point. Granted, it can be taken too far – scholarship of every kind is built on a kind of “verbosity.” We wouldn’t have PHDs without forests of trees being destroyed to put ink on pages.
I suppose these matters are on my mind because I’m preaching tomorrow on humility, based on the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. It strikes me that blogging doesn’t seem like a very humble activity – a way for those unsuccessful in traditional media to put their thoughts out there for the world to see. Most social media is built on this desire. Is there such a thing as “humble blogging”? Is it possible, in the verbosity that is the blogosphere, to find ideas of value?
My own thought, at least today: I’m not sure that anything I’ve written is worth the time, either in my writing of it or your reading of it, when compared to the Scriptures or to the writings of the Church Fathers or the greats like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Barth. For that matter, I don’t know if I’ve read any blogs good enough to justify spending the time there versus any of the above. What say you?