I continue to marvel at the odd positions in which my particular vocation places me. I am a geek who has a deep love of history and technology, and yet I am also a pastor who has a deep concern for the way we people practice our humanity. This often places me in a rather confusing position.
First, I find myself pointing out to people that, since the Industrial Revolution, societal change and social disconnection has been the one true constant – so we should stop harping about phones and video games causing the breakdown of community. In fact, these tools can be used to create connections which form community.
On the other hand, I am also a pastor. Not only that, I am a Christian, who knows the deep benefits of being wholly present in the moment – a posture which opens us up more deeply to both our neighbor and the voice of God. This call to be “wholly present,” and the gadgets and gizmos we surround ourselves with can be an obstacle to that call.
It may not seem so, but the two aspects of my person are not mutually exclusive. The Christian tradition, emerging from our close cousin Judaism, has always understood it can be a healthy thing to step away from things which are good for a period of time. This thought emerges from the ancient Israelite practice 1 of the Sabbath, when one day out of seven was set aside for rest.
So, as Christianity emerged from it’s Jewish roots, this idea continued to coalesce in the light of what Jesus had done and taught. The practice of fasting, also connected to our Jewish cousins, affirmed this notion of the spiritual benefits of stepping aside from good things for a time. If for no other reason than to take on a posture of listening for God.
In fact, last night, this is what I taught our younger youth group. I posed the question to them, “How much of your day would you say you spend in silence?” They immediately thought of all the time they spend in school, where talking is discouraged, and said, “A lot!”
We worked from there. I asked them if not talking was the same thing as silence? They said no. Then I ran down the litany of devices we Americans tend to possess, and asked, “How much of your waking day do you spend without one of these things in your focus?” They began to squirm, but finally said, “Almost none?”
To this I said, “That’s probably right. And don’t worry, I’m the same way. But it is good to set them down and spend some time in real silence. It can help us become more aware of our surroundings, and it helps us to listen for God. Sometimes, I think, maybe God is trying to get our attention and we’re too focused on Mario Kart to hear.”
And then I taught them the “palms up, palms down” centering prayer from the Quaker tradition. The kids were encouraged to name things which were distracting them, or stressing them out, or preventing them from really being present where we were. In silence they were to name those things, one after another, and when they did, they would flip their palms down – signifying their desire to let them go so they could really be present.
Surprisingly, the boys seemed to feel more comfortable with this process 2, but even those who stopped before I brought everyone back together pointed out, “I feel different.”
These tools we have, and the communications it enables, can be good. They can also help bring people together. But setting them aside so we can listen can be every bit as powerful.