Why is it that everything that is good... becomes bad, after a while? Why is it that, sometime, a product, idea or movement that begins as a novelty, offering an innovative and exciting new way to do things, becomes the enemy, after a time? Why is the line between what’s good for us and what’s bad for us so... slippery? In the world of nutrition, think of the roller coaster, for example, that dietary fat has been on for a while: good fats, bad fats. Yes, butter. No, butter. Coconut oil in coffee. Avocado toast. Deep fried Twinkies. Which is it? Is good fat going to save us? Are deep fried county fair treats going to kill us? (Well, actually, on that last one, yes.) What I am on about, today, is the shifting cultural tide on the use of smart phones- the mini-computers that we carry around with us that give us access to everyone we know and all of the information that we need, whenever we want it, at the tapping of a touchpad. I read an article this week that described the effect of the smartphone on (1) our ability to relate, one-to-another as social beings; (2) on the expectation that we have, now, of instant-gratification and our growing inability to sit in the place of not-knowing; and (3) the shortening of our attention spans. These are just three of the detrimental effects of regular smart phone use. I have experienced all three: 1. I notice that when I am in a public place waiting in line, like the post-office or the grocery store, my tendency is to pull out my cell phone and catch up on my email. I used to spend that time just observing others, sometimes talking with others in line or (best of all) making eye contact with the toddler, if I was lucky enough to have one in the line in front of or behind me. I used to have a spiritual practice in which I would study the folks in line with me and try to see them as Christ in our midst. Now, I see how many emails have piled up in the time that I’ve been doing my grocery shopping. Mostly, I just look to catch up, but sometimes, I’ll even type a quick response (often with plenty of typos and autocorrect errors) and... because of this multitasking, I might not even recall, later, the details of that e-exchange. 2. My husband and I spend a lot of our weekend time on the road. Pennsylvania is a big place and my Sunday visitations often find us in the car for a few hours at a time early on Sunday morning, or even, heading out on Saturday afternoon, to hole up in a hotel not too far from the next morning’s visitation site. As we drive, we talk- about all sorts of things under the sun. Because we are new to Pennsylvania, we see new things all the time: watercourses, land masses, Amish buggies, coal mines, unharvested corn still standing in fields way past what we thought was harvest- time, giant metal silos, trail markers, museums, factories, etc. Rather than note these new things and wonder about them, together, one of us will say, “I wonder what that is all about...” and the other of us dives onto our phone (usually me) to gather the wisdom of our friend Siri and her cousin Wikipedia, which reveals all, leaving no doubt in our mind, that there is an answer for everything. We’ve learned a lot on these drives, but sometimes I am called back to that central question that we use in Godly Play, in which the storyteller says, “I wonder...” and the children engage their imaginations and their hearts in discovering God’s truth for themselves. Sometimes, wondering and imagining is a good thing and the textbook answer is less helpful, particularly, from a spiritual perspective. Do we really need to know the answer to everything? 3. How long can you sit still? I’ve never been very good at sitting still, but with a smart phone, I’ve noticed my attention span is decreasing due to cultural shifts in the way that information is offered to us: tweets with limited characters, instagram pictures that deliver one-image ideas, news flashes and notifications that run across my screen like a ticker tape, giving me just the surface story of what’s really going on. It’s tempting to think that we get complete information in these tiny bites and to allow ourselves to be satisfied. But there’s always more, and we are losing the cognitive ability to sit and dig deeper, to find the complete, whole, round truth. I’ve been trying to re-train my brain by reading books. Remember them? Hard copy, hold-in-your-hand books. Reading whole books again is a good practice that has stretched out my shrinking attention span. Now, we know that nothing is all bad. Or good, usually. The best answer is usually in the middle. The Benedictine ideal of balance. The Anglican ethos of both/and. I won’t give up my smart phone. It is too valuable a resource for me. But I might try to leave it in my pocket more often- to engage the toddler in some peek-a-boo in the long grocery line. I might allow myself to spend more time down the rabbit hole of imagination instead of allowing wonder to drive me to an instant answer and, yes, I’m going to keep lugging books around with me. Who doesn’t love the heft of a weighty tome and the world of ideas in between the front and back covers? Here’s a link to the article that got me going: https://theamericanscholar.org/saving-the-self-in-the-age-of-the-selfie/#
Once upon a time, my husband and I went to a dinner party at the home of a new friend.
We were excited that we'd been invited- our host was someone new to our church and we really liked him. He was a bachelor, living in a quaint cottage (an old carriage house, I remember) on the edge of town and, from the handful of interactions we'd had with him, he seemed really smart and really fun. We looked forward to the party with great anticipation.
On the evening of the party, we all arrived with various dishes in hand. The cottage was just perfect- cozy with deep couches, a small fireplace in the corner, exposed beams and brick, a long dining table laid with a simple linen cloth the color of cream, broad floorboards and intriguing pieces of art- abstract paintings and a few pieces of sculpture- placed here and there. The conversation was easy, the combination of guests just perfect, and the different offerings of victuals that had been brought along smelled delicious. I don't remember what I brought to share, but I know that it needed a serving spoon.
The host motioned to the single drawer in the tiny kitchen.
"You can find a spoon in there, " he said, and nodded by lifting his chin in the direction of the drawer.
I crossed the room and opened the drawer.
It looked just the like picture, above.
One jumbled, jangled, mess of silverware.
I dug through and found a serving spoon.
So what. Hardly a mic drop, right?
The party was lovely, we stayed until all hours of the night, singing and talking and eating and having fun. We made new friends.
But ten years hence, I can still see that jumbled drawer of silverware in my head.
If you've ever been to my house, you know that housekeeping is not my gift.
I married someone, thank God, who enjoys cleaning and who learned from his mom how to do domestic chores with great proficiency.
After more than three decades of married life, we have a good system worked out where I cook and he cleans. I straighten things up (pens and pencils in the mug on the counter, magazines in the basket on the coffee table, shoes paired and lined up near the door, sofa pillows plumped and set upright, against the back of the sofa,) and he does the deep cleaning- floor washing, vacuuming, hands-and-knees with a spray bottle on the bathroom floor. We get it done. But most important for me is that there is a certain order to things. Now- my own silverware defies obsessively neat nesting, but the pieces mostly cooperate and lie in their appropriate column of the red Rubbermaid divider that keeps order in the drawer.
Some of us crave order and organization. We function best when the little details are ironed out, order is evident and there is some symmetry to the bits and pieces of our lives.
Others of us prefer an unharnessed environment and are more productive and creative when freed from the strictures of organization.
As a leader, I feel compelled to offer both to those whom I serve.
In a couple of days, we will be meeting as the newly expanded Council of Trustees in our diocese.
Changes to our canons at our fall convention increased the size of this group by three members and gave vote to another seven members who, previously, had not had the privilege of voting and, consequently, were not in the habit of attending each meeting. There has been some small amount of concern that this group, in its larger size, might be difficult to manage or at risk of being unproductive. I look forward to helping this group understand the organization of its body, offering new guidelines for participation, creating clean lines of accountability and inviting a process of orientation so that each person has a grasp of their place and role. We need this body to function well- for the sake of our diocese and for the sake of the mission of God.
I also hope to leave room in the structure of our organization to allow for creativity, the breath of God's Holy Spirit, for laughter and joyfulness and for building relationships. Following the theme of our diocese for this year, "Know Your Story, Live it Boldly," we will be spending time reflecting God's Holy Word and connecting stories from our own lives to the stories of salvation. We will be generous in the time needed to build relationships, listening to each other and making space for the spark of new life and growth in God.
I wonder, then, how it is with you?
This season of Advent can be a time of ordering our lives in new ways; for some, it is a letting down or letting go of habits, patterns or structures. (I practice contemplative prayer in this season which is so different than the regular pattern of the Daily Office that I normally read in its ordered form) and for others, it is a time to take on new patterns, rules or gentle guidelines to lead us to a more holy life.
Some of us practice Advent devotions that call for a different deed each day, some participate by reading a new spiritual book, others are intentional about keeping a journal or lighting a candle, night by night, to mark the days in an ordered fashion as we wait, hoping for the coming of Christ.
Which is it for you? And what does your soul need.... this year? In this moment?
Encouragement, from here, to do something different... to try on a new practice. Heck, go and dump out your silverware into the bottom of the drawer... and dare to live in a new way, as, together, we wait in the advent of our Lord.